Category Archives: folklore and ethnography

Old World, New World, My World

It’s often only when you’re pulled away at short notice, with many loose ends left dangling, that you realize how many real friends you have. When my sister’s funeral summoned me to Scotland, I was worried that even with Internet availability and my trusty laptop, there were chores that folk at home just wouldn’t know needed to be dealt with, things the bookstore required that wouldn’t get done.

With the evidence of over a hundred messages of condolence and many more FaceBook ‘likes’, and with a high proportion from around here, I should have known better. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

Of course Wendy bore the brunt of it and cheerfully juggled duties while also dealing with a writing deadline and the current exceptional stress of her day job at GMEC–not to mention grabbing the opportunity to ‘launder’ a fourteen count kitten rescue through the store while I was away. I could also depend on the usual emergency cover by the heroic James, Kelley, Kody, Elizabeth and Mark and my exceptional ‘soul-mates’ Tony and Anne.

This core group of people that are a kind of loyal bookstore family (Wendy is family, of course, but you catch my drift) each rallied round and in whatever way they could. This reduced my panic to a bearable level and let me concentrate on family and friends at a time that, although predicated on sadness, also involved a lot of reconnecting with family and friends.

My final evening in Scotland before returning home was an invite for dinner with one of my oldest friends. My former singing partner Barbara had asked me to her and her husband Oliver’s new apartment in Edinburgh along with another couple of friends and her son Archie, who did the catering. Despite having just moved in and with only half the rooms habitable, we all sat down to a relaxed and memorable meal, punctuated with lots of memories of the folk and jazz scenes in Dunfermline, where we had all grown up. In the middle of the evening Barbara began to describe her visit to Big Stone Gap two years ago with her husband Oliver when she headlined our Celtic festival. She spoke of Kelley and Sam and their kids, describing Kelley as “a kind of female rugby character, someone you felt you should not mess with but who has a kind heart.” She depicted life in the bookstore (“kittens everywhere, all adorable”) and reminisced on their visit to Carter Fold (“the dancing, such a community”) I realized that I’m exceptionally lucky. Because I have another extended family back in Scotland, some of whom have visited here and made the connection. I consider myself doubly blessed!

My dearest wish would have been for ‘Big Sis’ Margaret to come over, visit with us and become part of that bigger family, just like my niece Vicki and her daughter Elle.

I had been plotting, but it wasn’t to be – – – Time waits for nothing. Enjoy your family, biological and chosen, while you have them. They are a blessing.

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, shopsitting, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

And I would walk – – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest blog post –

It’s Wendy’s birthday at the end of the week and back around the time of my birthday in February she asked me for a very specific present. Not a fancy expensive thing, but just a song. Not any old song, though, and not a traditional song which would have fitted with my usual repertoire.

The song she asked me to learn and then perform publicly at a gig coming up April 30 was ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers!

The Proclaimers are brothers Craig and Charlie Reid, who grew up in Auchtermuchty in my home county of Fife in Scotland, which is also the town where Wendy and I married 18 years ago.

I really wasn’t sure that I could do justice to the song, particularly after watching various excellent performances on YouTube. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I spent weeks going around singing it to myself until I learned the words. But a funny thing began to happen. It may be because the Reids sing in a broad Fife accent very similar to mine or maybe it’s because the sentiments of the song are quintessentially Scottish, but I found myself falling for the song. Of course the idea of demonstrating love by being prepared to travel a long distance – five hundred or even a thousand miles – is a very common motif in folk-songs and that may have chimed with me too.

The opportunity to perform the song had also been a long time in preparation. Almost two years ago our good friend Mark Merz, who leads the excellent Celtic band ‘Night Crossing,’ had proposed a ‘Celtic Clanjamphry’ concert at the historic Lincoln Theater in Marion VA. At the time we weren’t able to pull it off, but with the appointment of a new director for the theater the idea was again raised and the sainted Kristin Untiedt worked enthusiastically with Mark to realize his dream.

Also appearing would be our old friends ‘Sigean’ and another local band ‘Fire in the Kitchen’. The idea was to present a live concert version of my radio show and record the whole event for future broadcasting. So a lot to plan and a lot to potentially go wrong! Sigean were happy to give backing me in the song a go, but our only actual rehearsal opportunity was a brief 15 minutes between the sound check and the start of the concert, back in the Green Room.

Soon the theater began to fill up and the concert began. The first half featured ‘Fire in the Kitchen’ and ‘Night Crossing’ who both played wonderfully. The second half would start with Wendy and me followed by Sigean with ‘500 Miles’ as our last item to make for an easy stage transition.

We announced it was Wendy’s birthday present, and then as I began to sing the first few words, the audience reaction was amazing – an enthusiastic shout went up, and everyone sang along. I hadn’t realized just how popular or well known the song was. There’s a special feeling you just occasionally experience when performing – when everything clicks and the audience is right with you. It was such fun.

I may just have to keep ‘500 Miles’ in my repertoire now! Wendy says I have to sing it to her every year on her birthday. That could happen. We’re going to Asheville this weekend with friends, and I see a rendition on their trolley bar that pedals through the streets, the patrons singing lustily. Or perhaps drunkenly.

If you’d like to see the live performance from the Lincoln, click here.

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

The State we’re (not quite) in.

Jack’s guest blog post is a little late this week –

In the middle of all the hoo-ha in NC just now with big music stars cancelling appearances in protest against the so-called religious freedom legislation, I noticed an appeal by Malaprops bookstore. An author scheduled to do a signing had cancelled and they argued that he should have come and shown solidarity with a business that opposed the new law.

I suppose because it is one of our favorite bookstores (and Wendy has done a signing there herself) it made me pay a bit more attention to the question.

Of course this has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with blind prejudice.

It’s ironic that many of the early European settlers braved a dangerous journey across the Atlantic in small sailing ships in order to escape prejudice. Over time, of course, it would be their descendants who would revert to putting up the shutters against Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Hispanics etc., etc. You don’t have to dig too far into that list to see religious overtones either.

The worst example, and its legacy is still with us, is color prejudice – something so deeply rooted that I fear it will take many generations to completely die out.

A further irony is that one of the things that makes the United States distinctive in the world is its culture – the art, music, dance and storytelling traditions that mix and blend threads from all the individual cultures of the incomers along with the Native Americans who were already here.

It’s the artists who are in the vanguard of this latest battle and I salute their integrity in the face of this degrading, politically populist and downright rabble-rousing move. Wendy and I love Asheville and visit the city frequently to enjoy its cafes, shops and very European atmosphere. It’s very hard to believe what’s going on in the state as you wander through its downtown mingling with the street musicians, mime artists, dog walkers et al.

And, what of Malaprops’ cancelled signing? For what it’s worth I think that got more attention than a few words on the day would have.

 

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Filed under bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

To Caffeine or not to Caffeine? That is the question.

bean memeSo most of you know I turned in the manuscript to Fall or Fly, my journalism-storytelling book about foster care in the Coalfields, and then got sick. For a week I was down, during which I basically didn’t eat or drink much.

Two weeks later, down I went again with something viral. With the end result that no coffee has been in my body for almost a month. Nor iced tea, nor hot tea, nor other caffeinated beverages.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been monitoring how that changes anything – do I sleep better (possibly, jury is still out) feel better (the same) see any other advantages (I get out of bed ready to go as opposed to needing 30 minutes with the mug) or disadvantages (there really isn’t anything to order at a hotel for breakfast except expensive “juices” that don’t taste like real juice).

So, those of you who have kicked the habit, or who haven’t, any words of wisdom? Booksellers who don’t drink coffee are not unheard of. Booksellers who don’t drink coffee OR hot tea (Earl Gray, hot) are a bit more unusual. What will I drink at the salons? What about when out with girlfriend booksellers? Or just girlfriend posse members? There’s a whole social aspect to coffee, as there is with cigarettes. Will I miss the rituals? Will I miss the camaraderie?

Send thoughts. Send chocolate (I do still partake of that caffeine source). And thanks!

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Filed under between books, Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

Moind me Harp

It’s the morning after the night before – some footage of what we were up to:

In which Jack demonstrates how not to dance!

Here’s our intrepid band ‘Sigean’ and our long suffering dance leader Cynthia West.

Nine years ago we started our annual St Pat’s community ceilidh dance here in the bookstore, but it soon outgrew the available space. Up stepped our good friends at the next door Presbyterian Church who kindly offered their fellowship hall, so that’s where it’s been ever since. Sigean have provided the music at every one of them and Cynthia West and her country dancers have kept a straight face as we did our best to follow their dance instruction.

Slainte Mhath – –

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Kiss me – I’m Irish (kinda!)

In his weekly guest post Jack reflects on his Irish connections

Since I have a fairly distinctive Scots accent it’s not unusual for folk to come into the shop and ask if I’m Irish – go figger. begorrah and jings !

But, actually, I don’t particularly mind as the Celts tend to hang together and I have cousins who were born and live in Ireland so that’s OK. Of course it’s also the time of year when we are approaching St Patrick’s Day so everything is turning green and even Big Stone Gap will have its annual St Pat’s ceilidh dance this Friday. That’s something Wendy and I are involved in organizing since it actually started out in the bookstore. As the space available to dance got smaller we eventually moved a block up the street to a local Church hall and, with the help of our good friends in the Celtic band ‘Sigean’ as well as dance leader Cynthia a goodly crowd have a great time.

However, this year the Irish season gets extended a bit as it’s the Centenary of the 1916 ‘Easter Rising’ – the failed rebellion against British rule which resulted in the shooting by firing squad of the seven leaders but also led eventually to Ireland’s independence.

Even here there is a Scottish connection, as one of the seven executed was James Connolly who was born in Edinburgh. Poor James was badly wounded in the battle, which centered on the General Post Office in Dublin. Not expected to live anyway, he was nevertheless tied to a chair and shot for treason.

Of course it’s hardly surprising that there should be interest in things Irish in this part of the US. We’re very close here to where Danial Boone’s wilderness trail branched off westward from the great wagon trail which brought the ‘Scotch-Irish’ settlers down from Philadelphia. Some continued further South, some headed West into Kentucky, but a great many just stayed hereabouts. They brought their thrawn Presbyterian attitudes with them and being a thrawn Presbyterian myself I find that I fit in real well here!

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If you’re within traveling distance our ceilidh dance starts at 7 pm and is in the Big Stone Gap Presbyterian Church hall just one block up from the bookstore. You aren’t required to dance – you can just come and enjoy the music.

 

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

You’ll tak the high road – –

Jack’s weekly guest post – –

A question I’m frequently asked since I moved permanently to the US is whether I miss my native Scotland. The strange thing is that I have probably seen more of my homeland since emigrating than I did before leaving. That may seem odd, but it’s because I’ve been running an annual small group tour for the last eight or nine years at the end of June. When I have the great pleasure of showing enthusiastic visitors around then I tend to discover places I just never got around to getting to when I lived there. I also make a point of going a few days before the tour starts to give me the chance to catch up with old pals.

Of course if this was a hundred years ago I would probably not get to go back at all and I think that would be very hard.

Something else that makes an enormous difference is modern technology; the world has become a much smaller place with the advent of computers and the internet. I’m in almost daily contact with friends and family back there, followed the nail-biting news of the referendum on independence and continue to soak up the ongoing political aftermath.

Another constant reminder of where I come from is the repertoire of songs and stories I’ve gathered over many years and whenever I sing anywhere I feel myself transported back to Scotland. It’s very rare on these occasions not to have lots of questions from folk afterwards and that’s always a good opportunity to point out the aspects of Scotland that folk over here tend to forget – the inventors, scientists and philosophers. It’s not all castles, tartan, bagpipes, golf and whisky (although there’s certainly that too).

One of the dangers that I’m aware of (from observing others that went before) is the temptation to become a caricature ‘Jock’ and adopt a false persona, although I suspect that’s less likely here in Appalachia if only because they’ve had to thole a few professional hillbillies themselves, so I try to be careful.

But I’m looking forward to heading back in June again; to drive past Loch Lomond and through Glencoe on the way to Skye and out to Lewis before heading back to drive round the north coast and over to Orkney. Then to Inverness and via Culloden to Aberdeen, my native county of Fife and finally to Edinburgh. Yes, there will be castles, tartan, bagpipes, golf and whisky – probably haggis as well!

Digital Camera

This not my car!

 

slàinte mhath y’all – – –

 

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Filed under bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized