Thursday, August 23, 2012

'Nuff Said

". . .I notice that one day is bright blue, another brown and foggy, another cold, clear and silvery, and my mood varies accordingly. On the bright blue day my spirits go slightly down; there seems something pitiless about perfect weather. On the clear cool day, my spirits are normal. In the fog, my spirits go up; it feels like the end of the world, or better still, a detective story." 
-G.K. Chesterton
"Old Forms and Ceremonies," The Illustrated London News, September 26, 1908

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Busy Season

My copy of Bayard Taylor's Eldorado is, at long last, getting some perusal, if not yet a thorough reading. The book is certainly a credit to the journalistic skill of its author, a reporter sent from the New York Tribune to chronicle the events of the California Gold Rush. The news may be old now, but it makes good reading still.

Based even on so cursory a reading as mine, it would be difficult to pretend that the passage which begins below is the most momentous, the most historically important, or even the most interesting, that the book has to offer. It is, however, amusing, poignant, rather astonishing, and anyone who has ever dabbled in customer service might, in a dark and exaggeratory mood,  persuade himself that it has certain familiar aspects. If you click the text below, it should land you at the beginning of the story, which runs to the top of page 213.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Public Service Announcement

Tomorrow (very early, in California, 9:00AM in Glasgow) the BBC will be streaming the World Pipe Band Championships. Catch some of it!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Another Good One

Here's another favourite from Le Vent du Nord, this time from their latest: Tromper Le Temps. I seem to have an instinctive fondness for This Sort of Song; I had listened to it a good half-dozen times and held it as my favourite of the album before I had a fair idea of what the words meant. If you click on the title, it will bring up the lyrics and the translation.(Yes, it's another of the sad ones--but with more feet, this time.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Walk In the Park

Sunday afternoon I went out to the Sacramento State University Arboretum for the first time. While it  isn't a big garden, it's extremely well kept, and labeled as well as any field guide. It was mostly too shady at the time, to admit of good photography (the more shade the better, said I; it was a hot weekend), and I didn't manage to use the flash to its full advantage for the shooting of snails in incense cedars:
  But I did manage to not get this harvestman in my hair when I was wrapped up in taking the shot above, so I would consider it a successful afternoon.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Behind the Times

A few months ago, I made a very brief mention of Jerry Holland's "Reel for Carl." I liked that tune rather a lot. I think I only like it better now. My prevailing problem has been finding at least a reel worthy of pairing with it. The ones I  thought most suited in structure tended to be the least suited in key. Or, at least, that had been my problem until I was stopped at a red light, half-listening to a Silly Wizard album that had been living in the car CD player for a rather indefinite length of time and The Tune fairly fell into my lap. It came from a spectacular set to begin with, but when the accordion came driving in, with such a combination of vigour and precision, all I could think was that I must have That Tune, and nothing would do but that I must have it in a set with "Reel for Carl". The reel in question turned out to be one of Phil Cunningham (himself)'s, something called "Wing Commander Donald MacKenzie."*

I set myself to learning it and found that it was everything I would have hoped under the circumstances (i.e. it was wide awake and it didn't sound amiss coming out of C#m). Quite a find, I congratulated myself--and who would have thought to combine two such magnificent reels? Assuredly I was the first! (Never mind that both pieces have been around for at least 20 years.) I'll admit I thought quite gleefully about posting that discovery on this very blog, and in that interest, I went looking for a decent online presentation of "Wing Commander Donald MacKenzie." The first thing I discovered was that a band from Australia called Squeebz had beat me to combining the two reels. The second thing I discovered was that they had added insult to injury by prefacing the set with my favourite Cape Breton strathspey "Alex Dan MacIsaac," a stroke of genius which had not even hinted at striking me. And thirdly, they had done it in an altogether splendid fashion. Have a listen:

*If you'd like to hear the Silly Wizard set that "Wing Commander Donald MacKenzie" was recorded in (and everyone should), it polishes off track 8 on Kiss the Tears Away (the Amazon clip doesn't go far enough to hit the tune in question, but that gives you an idea of where to find it). Gordon Duncan had to modify the second part a bit to get it on the pipes, but it's still the same ol' tune, first track on Just for Gordon. (Just when you thought it couldn't get any quicker, and just when you thought it didn't need any variations. . .)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Definition of Understatement

Lately I've been reading a biography of the 19th century botanist David Douglas. The chapter I just finished had him landed in various dire circumstances while searching for specimens of the Sugar Pine. From Douglas' own journal comes this catalogue of unpleasantnesses which one (especially one traveling by horseback) might encounter in an Oregon November:

All hungry and no means of cooking a little of our stock; traveled thirty three miles, drenched and bleached with rain or sleet, chilled with a piercing north wind; and then to finish the day experienced the cooling, comfortless consolation for lying down wet without supper or fire. On such occasions I am very liable to become fretful.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Enveloped In Melancholy

    I do hate to be discounted as a conspiracy theorist, but there are certain things I have noticed of late that must be mentioned. I have noticed, for instance, a definite decline in the world of literature. The Golden Age of the poets and singers is gone, and we are left a spectre of the art that, for all its claims to glory of a particularly dazzling caliber, leaves us to stumble in the dark, hemmed in by a roar of unintelligible and unconnected words. I think, then, that it is incumbent on any one of us--even on me--to shed what light I may on the subject. The current state of literature exhibits a strong correlation with the current state of--
   But please let me digress a moment. If you ever had a high school English reader, you met, no doubt, with Tennyson's sombre, melodic lines: "Sunset and evening star,/And one clear call for me. . ." The poem was composed in 1889, on the back of an envelope.
   Nearer to our own times, you will recall John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s "High Flight," and its clear-cut exuberance over of the "long delirious burning blue." That, too, was written on the back of an envelope.
   That it is often claimed that the Gettysburg Address was not written on the back of an envelope can, I darkly suspect, be attributed to those forces towards whom I hinted in my first paragraph, that is, to return to my main theme, to those who seek, for some undisclosed motive of their own, to destroy letters (I mean literature) by destroying the envelope.
    But, you say, you have a stack of envelopes which arrived just this afternoon and, repulsive and repetitive as their general contents may be, you have there proof that the envelope is an institution far from destroyed. Look again at today's mail, where it reposes in the Accounts Payable file. Envelopes, you say? Perhaps in appearance, perhaps in some horrible parody of envelopehood, they present themselves as the genuine article. But if you will look closer, you will see that they have no souls.
   Pick up that one from the electric company. You recognise your name on the front (I hope) and observe the veritable billboard of a return address plastered over the remaining front. Now, if you dare, turn the envelope over. Do you see that? Can you fathom it? The heart stops at such an act of savage vandalism. The Modern Age has come to mean, evidently, that the backs of envelopes are, henceforward, to come pre-printed. Very thoroughly pre-printed. Just like that.
   If Tennyson had lived in our degenerate age, his poem might have started well. He might have slipped a few words into a semblance of a blank spot ("Tirra lirra!" would about cover it). But I suspect, if he had tried to write an entire poem on an electric company envelope, we would either be sadly lacking in high school English books, or they would be sadly burdened with poems such as,"Sunset and evening star,/And GO PAPER FREE!" Go paper free? You might as well, for all the help the electric company gives you in composing anything worthwhile in the way of literature--or even anything legible in the way of a shopping list.
    The true culprit behind this cultural outrage is impossible to unmask, for the electric company is far from alone in its depredations. My insurance company sent me something only slightly less printed-upon which defaces the back of the envelope with a suggestion for paying bills in a timely manner. That mightn't have taken up overmuch room by itself, but there was, appended along its edge, a rather charming and cryptic picture of two hands cradling a pot of cosmos. (Though I burn with indignation, as ever, for the denial of the poets' right, I cannot help but be slightly intrigued by the implication that my insurance company accepts pots of cosmos as payment, as long as they are sent in a timely manner.) As unidentifiable as the true foe may be, I believe the phone company is in it deeper than the others: they not only ruin the back of the envelope, they ruin it with a threat: "We're here for you."
     Since that is the case, I think I had better hurry off to some other where.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Look, Ma, No Pipes!

G.S. McLennan's "The Little Cascade," was purportedly inspired by a faucet with an incessant drip--a case, I should think, of art being a good deal preferable to nature. It's a magificent tune on the pipes-- and rather staggering on the harp, as you can see.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Here's a rather obscure "On This Day" for you: June 1, 1919 marked the beginning of the last voyage of the Casco, a schooner, as the article below mentions, rather well-known as one in which Stevenson had spent some time in the South Seas. If the popular phrase might be applied to a vessel, "She died as she had lived". (Popular Mechanics, January 1920)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Something Else Worth A Thousand Words

I've heard a wee bit more of Le Vent du Nord of late than has previously been my priviledge, and while I've never heard a track of theirs that I didn't like, I thought this song stood out among their best.
Mind,  I haven't the slightest as to what they're saying, yet I don't particularly feel the loss of verbal cues, given the musical ones. If you're missing a word or two, you can join me in being at the mercy of their wonderfully informative official band website; come to find out, the words convey every bit as fond and as sad a sentiment as the tune suggests.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Good Time

The videos of the CD release party for Natalie MacMaster's latest are just plain delightful; if your musical side needs a bit of inspiration--look no further.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

If You Go Around Naming Everything Like That, You're Bound to Run Out of Inspiration Sometime

Bullfinch's Mythology says that Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote of King Arthur: "Over his shoulders he throws his shield called Priwen. . .Girt with Caliburn, a most excellent sword, and fabricated in the isle of Avalon, he graces his right hand with the lance named Ron."

Friday, March 16, 2012


I knew it was Archibald Menzies' birthday yesterday, but I ran out of time to say so. I didn't know, however, that among the plants named after this scientific explorer of the west coast is a type of kelp. There's a little article (and pictures) on that here, at a thoroughly fascinating blog that concentrates on the natural history of a single location on the California coast. The variety shown in this blog coupled with the bizarre antics of the peacock spider that I mentioned last post are enough to confirm in anyone (well, me, anyway) a likely incurable case of natural history; so much amazement can be found in such a small area, be it a single beach or a single bush.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Not So Creepy

If you are 100% sure you don't want to look at jumping spiders, then don't look at this:
Catalyst: Peacock Spider - ABC TV Science
If you are only 99.9% sure. . .take a peek. It's incredible (and by "incredible," I mean that my first reaction was: "Somebody just made all that up!")

Monday, January 16, 2012

As the World's Terns. . .

Nothing big for today, only that I ran across a mention of the Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus). Here's a story for you: they very nearly live their whole lives aloft, only coming down to mate and raise their young. Even the prosaic explanation that they are not particularly waterproof, and would get dangerously soaked if they spent too much time on the ocean that they spend their lives over does little to dim the brilliant truth--they literally spend years in the air. Talk about slipping the surly bonds of earth! And they're pretty, on top of it.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Cherokee Shuffle

I heard "Cherokee Shuffle" at a jam last weekend: I guess it's fairly standard in the old timey/bluegrass repertoire, but it was quite new to me, except for the bits that resembled Stan Rogers' "The Wreck of the Athens Queen." As one of the fellows who introduced it to me explained, it is rather unusual in that the first part consists of a standard eight bars--or sixteen, if you will, since, conventionally, the eight bars repeat--but the second part is ten bars (twenty, with repeats). So I'm in the middle of learning my first "crooked" tune. There are no end of versions on YouTube; here's one of my faves so far:

Rather along the same lines, on the same occasion, I was told about this very useful website: The Old-Time Jam. It has backing tracks, and a fair amount of demo tracks, too, for most the of the standard tunes in the Old-Time repertoire, so when you can't get to a jam, you can, at least, have a virtual one.