Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

Monday Book – My Song is my Weapon

My Song is my Weapon – Robbie Lieberman (1995)

Reviewed by Jack Beck

Once upon a time (actually about eighteen years ago) Wendy and I were booked to perform at the Orkney Folk Festival off the north coast of Scotland. The festival took place in various venues in Stromness and we were accommodated in a lovely old hotel overlooking the harbor. Not surprisingly the hotel bar was a favorite gathering place late at night after the official concerts and ceilidhs were finished.

stromness-hotel

One night we found ourselves chatting to a young American lassie who said she had published a book we might find interesting! I immediately bought a copy and have now read it for maybe the fifth time –

As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was developing my left of center political views as well as a strong interest in folk songs. So I was well aware of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the Almanac Singers, the connections to Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.

What I didn’t know was what had preceded this in the US and where all these people had in their turn served their apprenticeship, both politically and musically.

my song is

Lieberman’s book was a revelation to me in many ways –

First of all I had no idea how large and popular the US Communist Party was in the 1930s and how well accepted that generally was. Then again, I knew nothing about the ‘popular front’ and was fascinated to see how that had helped generate the ‘folk revival’ of the 1950s and 1960s.

There was much that was familiar too – the ‘redscare’, McCarthyism, the blacklist and so on.

I have to admit that on first reading I found the book pretty dense and hard going. However each time I’ve re-read it I’ve found it not just easier but more enlightening. Each time I find more gems I’d missed before!

I can thoroughly recommend this to anyone with an interest in 1930s US politics, the roots and routes of the 1950s folk revival or all three!

 

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Should Auld Acquaintance – – –

Jack is in Scotland and Wendy is – – somewhere – – so Jack sent this by carrier pigeon.

Back more than twenty five years ago I helped my folksinger friend Ed Miller with his then new music tour of Scotland. Ed lives in Austin, Texas and started bringing over thirty five fans, touring them around Scotland and having them joined each day by a local musician with particular knowledge of the local history and culture. I performed that function when they were in Fife each year. That finished when Wendy and I moved to the US, but it gave me the idea for my annual small group tours.

On Ed’s tours he always worked with a tour guide called Charlie Hunter, who dressed in his kilt, herded his charges off and on the coach in a timely manner.

Imagine my surprise when my tour was in Melrose on the second day of our tour and I saw a familiar kilted figure standing beside a large coach parked next to our minivan.

ed charlie

As we exchanged greetings Ed appeared as well!

Thinking that this was a ‘one off’ coincidence we bade them farewell and continued on our way. A few days later we pulled into the parking lot behind the ‘Green Welly’ at Tyndrum and who should be there as well – – -! Much joking and then another farewell. We set off for Glencoe and, as usual pulled into the visitors’ center. An hour later so did Ed and Charlie in their now familiar coach! Once again it was farewell and we headed for Oban and the ferry to Mull.

ed

The following day we headed down through beautiful Mull to the Iona ferry and I waited with our minivan while the rest of our group went across on the foot ferry. I eventually wandered up the line of parked coaches and saw a now very familiar one! It turned that they would be staying in the hotel next to ours in Oban that night, so the following morning we once again bade them farewell – only to meet them again at the Green Welly! With them for a couple of days was another old friend – Margaret Bennett!

margaret B

Our next stop was at Killin at the start of Loch Tay on our way to see Europe’s oldest living tree at Fortingall. As I guarded our minivan at Killin a very familiar coach pulled up – – –

iona

The Iona ferry on a beautiful day!

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The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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Unner ablow the Grund

Jack gets comfortably under the wire for a change –

So, here I am working in the front yard regularly as we get into spring and summer and I keep seeing this odd circular grey cover of some kind in the ground. It looks like it might be over a valve or a meter for water or gas or maybe something electrical.

pot1

I look at it from time to time and puzzle over it. It has four small holes that might be for screws holding it down. But they’d be full of dirt so not much chance of unscrewing it. Maybe I could get a lever under the edge to see if it would come up? But what if it really is containing something important that I might break?

It sits right next to one of our inherited ‘Narnia’ style lampposts and I wondered if there was some kind of connection. But the power cable to the lamppost, which had run along the side of a now departed fence, completely bypassed the mysterious cover.

I continued to step gingerly round it over the weeks, puzzling and debating.

As I dug a trench to bury the lamppost cable I kept pondering but couldn’t confidently come to any conclusion.

Examining the object I was able to decipher a manufacturer’s name – time for Dr Google! All I could find was that they were best known for making garden pots, planters and hanging baskets. Now it was time to post pictures on Facebook to see if anyone else could help. The suggestions ranged from a pot stand to a cover for a water quality analyzer!

Still nervous I decided to see if I could gently raise it enough to see if there was anything underneath. Grabbing my trusty spade I set to! Yes – it did extend quite a few inches down into the ground. I was able to finally get a grip under the edge and lever it up and out. What emerged was a shallow dish that what I think must be a water receptacle in which to sit a planter. Why it had been turned upside down and pressed down into the ground I have no idea. There was nothing except the ground under it!

pot2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My takeaway from this?

Google and Facebook sure make life complicated at times –

But congratulations to our friend Annie Jane for getting it right!

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Fire, Fire,Burn – – –

Jack makes it across the line again –

Fires

Wendy and I decided we needed a fire pit in our back yard. So I surveyed the area and decided where it should be. The only trouble was that a pile of brush gathered by our predecessor was already there. So off to confer with Dr Google about the easiest way to build a fire pit and what do about that brush.

It turned out that there was a state-wide ordinance in place that between February and April you can’t burn garden stuff before 4 pm or after midnight. We were still in April at this point!

I wandered out again around 5 pm and looked at that pile of brush while aware of the lighter in my pocket. Could I? Should I? I wondered afterwards if that’s how arsonists feel. Are they overcome with the desire to just see flames? Something outside of me took over and I set the brush afire!

As I watched it my first thoughts were whether the neighbors would complain or even phone the police.

fire

But then I was transported back to another place – my childhood.

I remembered sitting in front of our coal fireplace gazing into the flames and being sucked into another world, while listening to favorite programs on the radio – Dick Barton, Special Agent; The Goon Show; Around the Horne – – –

My Dad was an expert painter and decorator and specialized in faux wood-graining and marbling. He made his own crayons from simple ingredients and dried  them beside the fireplace. Along with the smell of them drying came back the memory of the fish ‘n chip van outside sounding it’s horn and the smell of lard over that other open charcoal fire – – –

Do we have an old memory of the fire ceremonies that heralded the approach of spring and the new harvest? Is that why fire fascinates us so much?

I wonder!

 

 

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The Monday Book: Life without Parole – by Victor Hassine

Jack’s guest post is actually the Monday book so could be on time or not –

life without parole

I have been a regular monthly visitor to our local Federal Penitentiary for nearly five years. Each time I visit with two inmates for around an hour with each and we talk about all sorts of things.

But the hardest thing is to get any idea of their everyday lives before and after the visit!

I got some idea from ‘Orange is the New Black’ by Piper Kerman, but that was from a woman’s perspective. However Wendy gave me Hassine’s book and that really opened my eyes. His experiences were in a state prison but I’m sure they would have been much the same in ‘the pen’.

‘Life Without Parole’ is a series of essays or interviews by an inmate sentenced to life in 1981 who was an educated and thoughtful man. He documents his experiences over time, his conversations with fellow prisoners and his observations on the culture of prison life.

Hassine makes no attempt to excuse his crime or to suggest he doesn’t deserve his punishment. He simply relates his life behind bars.

This book spares nothing and describes a desperate and harrowing world that I have had the tiniest glimpse of. Hassine doesn’t try to excuse either himself or any of his prison community, yet draws us in and shows us a parallel world that ‘there but for the Grace of God’ any one of us could only too easily be part of!

His analysis of the various problems with the prison system is scholarly and erudite and makes for gripping reading. Each chapter features an introduction written by eminent criminologist Robert Johnson, and the book is divided into three sections: Prison Life, which introduces readers to the day-to-day aspects of Hassine’s life in prison; Interviews, which presents a series of candid interviews with Hassine’s fellow inmates; and Op Ed, in which Hassine addresses some of the most significant problems within the current prison system.

The author was an Egyptian born immigrant to the US and a law school graduate. He died in prison in 2008 under unclear circumstances although it seems likely he took his own life following an unsuccessful appeal.

I can thoroughly recommend this book, which is now in its fifth edition, to anyone interested in prison life.

 

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Not ‘The Scottish Play’ – – –

Jack easily makes it for a change – – –

Easterhouse is a suburb of Glasgow, Scotland built in the 1960s to house folk from old tenements in the middle of the city. Unfortunately it quickly became a kind of ghetto because the designers didn’t include any amenities – no shops, pubs, cafes or any social gathering places. It was just a windswept series of high-rise apartment blocks that could only be accessed by scary elevators and it equally quickly became notorious for gang warfare and drug use!

This was the setting for one of the most bizarre gigs that my old folk-band ‘Heritage’ ever played. A lovely group of enthusiasts decided to recruit local folk to form a theater group that would perform ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at midnight on that very night.

Easterhouse had a very unlikely potential venue for this event. It had a park (Auchinlea Park) set on a slope with the ruins of a medieval castle at the top and big old trees down the slope leading to a loch. The idea was to construct stages in the trees and the main one down the bottom. Somehow the organizers got funding to put it all together, but they then needed music – – –

auchinlea (2)

We were in the highest tree in front of the buildings and the play was performed on the grass beside the loch.

This was where we came in. We were contacted because a much better known group had pulled out and suggested us as an alternative (something that happened to us from time to time!). So a couple of nice women came over to Dunfermline and ‘auditioned’ us while we played lots of instrumental sets. They homed in on various tunes that involved fairies (you do know the ‘Dream’ story?). In the end they chose ‘The Fairy Reel’, ‘The King of the Fairies’, ‘The Fairies’ Hornpipe’ and a set of French polkas!

Having been hired and given our orders and a script, we discovered we would be the ‘Mechanicals’ (do you really know the story?). We would be in costume, be on the highest tree stage close to the castle ruins and be connected into a sound system. We would be required to play the fairy tunes when Titania and/or the kids dressed in fairy costumes made their appearance. Also, whenever the Mechanicals appeared in the script the lights illuminated our perch in the trees and we launched into the polkas.

We arrived to find there had been a power outage – resolved with minutes to spare. The performance began and was both well attended and entrancing. Lots of kids dressed as fairies hit their marks perfectly and danced to our various fairy tunes.

What we didn’t know was that directly under our tree was the route from the nearest pub back to the apartment blocks, and coincidentally under our tree was the favorite resting place to consume the ‘carry out’ to bolster the courage needed by the transients to face their wives (the Tam o Shanter sub-plot).

We came to a significant ‘Mechanicals’ point and launched into our Occitan polkas! We finished and from under our tree during the following silence came an insistent and repeated call – “see us anither tune on the banjo Jimmy”!

What non-Glaswegians should know is that any stringed instrument there is referred to as a banjo (just ask harper Billy Jackson), while any random male person is addressed as ‘Jimmy’.

We tried to hunker down and ignore the pleas from below and also knew that we would be required shortly to play another set of fairy tunes – – -. However, after an interval our friends finished their libations, decided they were seeing and hearing alcohol induced fantasies and headed home to face the realities.

The play was brilliant but the really funny part is that those polkas were led by that most Scottish of instruments – the banjo!

 

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