Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

The Monday Book: SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky

The Monday Book falls on a Tuesday this week due to Celtic Festivals and kitten spays.

suiteIrene Nemirovsky was a Ukranian-born Jewish woman who lived in Paris and enjoyed a successful writing  career. She planned five short novels to be part of a book titled Suite Francaise, but she had only written two and drafted the third when she was rounded up, deported, and murdered.

What’s amazing about the first novel “Storm in June” is how accurately it describes something ongoing. Nemirovsky never got the luxury of time to contemplate what she saw, so her characterizations of the upper class family, the pompous writer, the sweet middle-class couple, and the nasty antiques dealer fleeing (or trying to flee) Paris sprang almost fully formed as she watched it unfold in front of her. I wonder who (or how many) of her colleagues she skewered in the darkly hysterical portrait of the famous author and his mistress as they flee, first in pomp and style, then with whatever diminishing wits they can gather about them.

Then there’s “Dolce,” from which a film is/has been made. It’s more of an expected war story: women whose husbands are prisoners in Germany house German officers as occupiers; add community sentiment and stir. It’s fairly predictable. But “Storm in June” is amazing in its details of what human hearts turn into when combined with fear, breakdown of social order, and a few sudden chances to change everything. Nemirovsky saw through a lot of veneers.

The manuscripts were finally published in this century, when her daughter opened the suitcase and read them, realized they were novels rather than journals, and sent them to Denoel, a large publishing house. “Storm in June” is pretty much genius, making you laugh and sob at the same time.

How many people did we lose in that storm, who would have made us laugh or cry today?


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Filed under book reviews, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, out of things to read, publishing, reading, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

Should Auld Acquaintance – –

 Jack standing in for Wendy with some reflections on the last few weeks.

The blog has been a bit quiet over the last few days as both Wendy and I have been dealing with a host of distractions including – cats, a Celtic festival, a medical conference, a Barbara Dickson concert and her father unexpectedly requiring open-heart surgery.

Her Dad is through the surgery and back home now, being his usual curmudgeonly self, which is a sure sign of rapid recovery. But Wendy is spending this week with them and providing support to her Mom.

Meanwhile I’m trying to catch up with the backlog of stuff that’s built up. Bills to pay, emails to answer and a blog post to write – –

We had my old singing partner Barbara and her husband Oliver staying with us for the last two weeks and that culminated in them joining us at Hungry Mother State Park where Wendy’s annual ‘Head for the Hills’ medical conference was taking place. Also joining us were our chef Kelley, her wife Sam and their two youngest kids, Asher and James. Barbara did a concert at the gorgeous Lincoln Theater in nearby Marion on Friday night when she excelled herself, got a standing ovation and a well deserved encore from an audience that mostly had never heard her before.

However the stand-out moments for me were seeing Oliver become the kindly uncle to Asher and James as he showed them how to throw horseshoes, swam with them in the lake and took them out in canoes as their joint birthday treat. Then there was the late evening bonfire on the area between our cabin and the lake when we all sat round and harmonized songs, told jokes and reminisced about the previous couple of weeks.

When Barbara and Oliver first visited with us two years ago they were the ones going through some family trauma and we were pleased to offer the opportunity to relax and get away from that. This time round it was us dealing with lots of stuff and they were the ones who rolled up their sleeves and waded in – shopping, cleaning and generally picking up the slack. We’re already missing the ritual of Oliver’s breakfast porridge.

So we are delighted to count them as part of the extended family of the bookstore and the cafe!

On the final evening before they left we were not completely surprised they were looking at houses for sale in Big Stone Gap – – – –


Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

Stop the World – –

 Jack’s Wednesday guest post finally gets back to Wednesday – –

My goodness, this has been a real roller-coaster!

I mean the last few weeks when we’ve been juggling our annual festival, my radio show, the upcoming concert at the beautiful Lincoln Theater in Marion VA, and Wendy’s annual ‘Head for the Hills’ medical conference, plus her dad’s recent heart scare.

Having our good friend Barbara staying with us has not added to the stress however. She and her husband Oliver have ‘mucked in’ in the most amazing and helpful ways. Strictly speaking they are working here, fulfilling singing engagements. They might even have been treating it as a vacation, or staying in our guest room as simply part of the ‘deal’.

But, no! They make porridge for everyone each morning, they cleaned the cafe kitchen when successive festival events reduced it to a shambles, Barbara helped Wendy clean the ‘cat haven’ and Oliver put out festival yard-signs and gathered them in again, and they both ran to the store for emergency supplies whenever they were needed. After their first visit two years ago they opined that they had felt a real part of the community here and they said last night that this visit had only confirmed that.

Yesterday was Barbara’s birthday and tonight we will celebrate that when our cafe owner, chef Kelley will prepare a family meal. I know that Barbara and Oliver feel part of our extended family now and we all know that this is just one of many visits.

Of course there are many people here, now, who also consider themselves part of the bookstore family and who also see Barbara and Oliver as part of their circle of friends – including Josh, who moved to the town recently, wandered in and immediately volunteered and joined up along with his friend Dawn – that’s something that makes Wendy and me very happy indeed.

Finally – last night was one of these occasions when old friends sit around a table and discuss the happenings of the day. For us, of course, that inevitably centered on Wendy’s forward plans following a recent job interview. It’s a sure sign for me that Barbara and Oliver are confident of their membership of this family that they could offer thoughtful and sincere insights.


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Music Hath Charms – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

We just had a weekend away and enjoyed a great time with musical friends in Williamsburg VA. We went to join the farewell party for Mick and Neva Mikula who are headed permanently to Florida. Mick is an ex-member of a great Celtic rock band called Coyote Run who split up a couple of years ago and the company was composed of other ex-members and associates of the band.

At the last minute I discovered that there was to be a wedding on Sunday and I was invited to contribute to the musical accompaniment. To my astonishment I encountered a fine fiddle player who launched into Niel Gow’s ‘Farewell to Whisky’, which confirmed for me that behind the kilts and leather gear favored by ‘Coyote Run’ lay an unusually deep (for that particular musical scene) appreciation and understanding of real traditional Celtic music.

We first encountered the Coyotes a number of years ago at the Sycamore Shoals festival in Elizabethton TN, where Wendy and I had started to MC the main stage. We found that we shared a mutual quirky sense of humor and over the succeeding years our paths continued to cross. In their final year we were able to book them as headliners at Big Stone Celtic. I was always impressed by their combination of musicianship, stagecraft, visual effects and sheer exuberance. By comparison with the other regular and much shallower bands on the circuit they clearly had listened to the ‘right stuff’ and that was reflected in their repertoire.


Over the weekend, in conversation with the fiddle player (Paul Anderson) and Mick and the others I was astonished to find how much overlap there was in the singers and musicians we all admired.

However, there was another amusing occurrence before we headed home. Wendy went on a shopping spree with the others as I recuperated from a very late night and found a bookstore – Mermaid Books. She happened to be wearing one of our bookstore tee-shirts and the owner asked her if she’d ever visited Tales of the Lonesome Pine. She said that she had. He said that there was a great book about it that he really enjoyed, to which Wendy said “I’m the author”. Cue much hilarity and exchanging of bookstore stories!

A final big thank you to our hosts, who I suspect didn’t originally intend to have so many house-guests just as they were about to box up their possessions ahead of their departure. They treated us and the other ‘lodgers’ like royalty and we were fed delectable Indian and Middle-Eastern delicacies, not to mention haggis for breakfast.

it’s a hard life over here – – –

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Tell me Story – –

 Jack’s Wednesday guest blog on Thursday –

One of my favorite bloggers is Andrew Tickell (Lallans Peat Worrier), who’s normal subject is the oddity of Scotland and the rest of the UK having completely separate and different legal systems. His posts are always interesting and frequently hilariously funny.

But a few days ago he wrote a guest column for The National – a Scottish daily newspaper, that was completely different. It was a tribute to his Great Grandfather who had been a family doctor on the West coast of Scotland and who had been diligent in making sure that little trace of his great humanity and service to his community would be recognized after his death (even insisting on being buried in an unmarked grave).

I was very moved by Andrew’s tribute and also by his plea for family stories to be guarded and passed on.

When Wendy and I first met she was working as a community storyteller in Kingsport TN with folk living in a housing project using the power of stories to help them deal with a range of personal issues. After we married she continued  with this use of storytelling, both in Scotland and England, and with groups as diverse as single mothers, school-kids, relatives of terminally ill children, refugees and asylum-seekers.

During that time I became more familiar with storytelling as a specific tool and also as a popular entertainment. That’s where I begin to have difficulties, though – –

My first experience of story as a ‘cousin’ of songs and music was in a domestic setting. The home of the famous ‘Stewarts of Blair’ was the place and the family were famous as tradition-bearers and much recorded by folklorists. Despite their popularity at festivals and concerts they were always at their best in small intimate settings. Much later I would accompany Wendy to storytelling festivals, in Ireland, England, Scotland and the US. The biggest, of course, is the famous one in Jonesborough TN, with lots of marquees and thousands of attendees.

What I take from this?

I definitely do believe that family stories should be preserved and passed on. I also believe that there’s a real skill in telling stories and that they can serve a powerful educational purpose. As entertainment on a big stage? Maybe not so much.

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Filed under folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized

What do you do?

 Jack’s weekly post –


In a previous post I spoke about my visit to the Buffalo Bill museum in Cody, Wyoming a few weeks ago.

I felt I needed to put that into much more of a personal context, so here goes –

As I said previously my Grandad went to see the Wild West Show in Dunfermline in 1904, which was part of the last European tour by Buffalo Bill’s show and was augmented by additional subcontracted acts such as Zulu warriors as well as Cossack and Japanese horsemen.

I had always been intrigued by the notion of the cobbled streets of my historic old hometown being clattered by Native Americans and the Deadwood Stage, not to mention Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley!


Buffalo Bill Cody himself!

But back in the early 2000s I was roped into collaborating on a CD featuring my friend and folk music mentor, the late John Watt. John was a wonderful and very individual songwriter and most of his songs were written from a very ‘Fife’ point of view. The CD was titled ‘Heroes’ and one of these accorded this honor was Buffalo Bill. I discovered that John’s father had also witnessed that 1904 performance in my (and his) hometown.

We talked about this shared family history and it turned out that John had written a number of songs about that occasion, and two of them were to be on the album. One was a quirky and very funny one called ‘The day that Billy Cody played the auld grey toon*’ while the other was much more thoughtful – ‘The Wild West Show’.

The ‘Wild West Show’ describes the mix of acts, but also points out that the massacre of Wounded Knee had happened just a few years earlier and suggests that the answer to the ‘Indian Problem’ was to turn them into cheap entertainment, playing a parody of themselves in front of European heads of state.

John very rarely wrote ‘message’ songs, but this one, with a great tune and a very sing-able chorus has been covered by many other performers and is one my own favorites.

Shortly after we left Cody we deliberately drove to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre where we met a number of descendents of the survivors staffing tables by the side of the road. They weren’t selling trinkets or souvenirs; nor were they asking for money; they were just there to tell their story.

I felt very guilty that many of the Scots that were ‘cleared’ from the highlands and survived the coffin ships to reach America, then proceeded to ‘clear’ the indigenous folk they found there in turn.

The irony is that because this was the last tour, some of the Indians decided to stay on in Glasgow. A ‘ghost shirt’ they had brought with them ended up in a local museum and was finally returned to the US five years ago – quite a circular tale!

“The red man rides for the white man’s fee,
Better than a grave at Wounded Knee,
I better he never thought he’d see,
The spires of the auld grey toon*.

“Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill, my daddy saw you comin’ down the hill.

A big success for soldier blue, with the last brave dead in the snow,

What do you do with the Cheyenne and the Sioux?

You put them in a wild west show”


*The auld grey toon is an affectionate nickname for Dunfermline.

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Filed under folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Scotland, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

East, West – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

When I realized that Wendy had the bit between her teeth and was well down the road to organizing an extended road trip starting just a week after I got back from Scotland, I admit that my heart sank just a little.

What I hadn’t appreciated was that it had all started back in February with a comment from me: “I have always wanted to see the Mount Rushmore National Monument”. So Wendy set out to pull together a trip that would include that, as well as other sites I had mentioned in passing, such as the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody. She added in places she knew I had to see along the way, including the South Dakota Badlands and the Black Hills.


The truth is that I shouldn’t have had any misgivings!

This has really been the trip of a lifetime and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. From the delights of downtown Sioux Falls, to the birthplace of Carl Sandburg, the home(s) of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the amazing Badlands (even more so in an evening violent thunderstorm), Mount Rushmore and the natural sculptures and wildlife of the Black Hills. The equally unforgettable Minuteman missile site – – –

Perhaps most memorable has been the wildlife – the delightfully domestic prairie dogs, ponderous bears, athletic deer and regally oblivious bison!

Wounded Knee 041

I had already experienced much of the eastern states and some of the west coast, but the mid-west is new to me.

East, west, hame’s best? Sometimes east and west can give hame a run for its money!

PS – I forgot to mention that my grandad saw Buffalo Bill’s wild west show, complete with the Deadwood stage, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull etc. back in my hometown of Dunfermline in 1903!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, small town USA, Wendy Welch