Tag Archives: music

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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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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The Beat Goes On – –

Once again Jack scrapes in under the wire –
Back when I was on the teaching staff at Swannanoa Gathering Celtic Week outside Asheville NC, one of the students who always attended my classes was Stefni. She sang in a choir in Pittsburgh that specialized in Eastern European music and she made their costumes. The last year I taught there Stefni didn’t show up and I wondered why. A few months later I received an email from her husband explaining she had died of a rare lung disease. That was very sad, but then he told us she had left her music and book library to us in her will! We were astonished and drove up there a few months later.
Sorting through her stuff was difficult and we came to an agreement to sell anything we didn’t want and split the proceeds. But that still left us with lots of stuff that never got put anywhere easily accessible.
Following our recent house move I’ve been sorting through the LPs and CDs from her collection that had never been properly stashed and I’ve been discovering amazing things. Mostly very rare English, Scottish and Irish recordings in excellent condition. It’s clear from the stickers on them that she was an avid collector and appreciated what she was finding.
So my upcoming radio shows will feature much from Stefni’s collection and keep her very clearly in my mind.
There’s no room here to list all the stuff, but it ranges from everything Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger ever recorded to very obscure albums by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band.
Of course the books included full first editions of Child’s ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, Bronson’s ‘Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads’, and Sharp’s ‘English Folk-songs from the Southern Appalachians’.
I hope dear Stefni Agin is looking down approvingly at the continuing life of her amazing collection as I try to do justice to it.

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Tae see Oorsels as Ithers see Us, Y’all!

Will wonders never cease? Jack posts on time – – –

My good friend Dirk is the expert technical guru who records my radio shows at his excellent home recording studio. But his real expertise is in making videos and although officially retired, he continues to do that for his previous employer as an external contractor.

In the process of working on the radio programs he became fascinated by the background information on the music that I provide and that got him sucked into an idea.

So a few months ago he announced that he wanted to make a video documentary about my life with a core focus on me as an immigrant who chose to become an American. Running alongside that will be my professional career(s) and my musical life.

Scotland_American_flag

He started the project by videoing a series of interviews with me and that was quite intimidating! Almost from the start I decided to treat this like one of these personality tests where you answer questions without thinking too hard. The questions were mostly short and open, and my answers were usually lengthy. However, because I didn’t have any pre-warning of what the questions would be, I did occasionally have to ponder a bit.

The next stage is for Dirk to video interviews with Wendy and some of my friends, both here in the US and in Scotland.

Luckily he was recently in Scotland visiting his son Trevor who is studying at St Andrews University in my home county of Fife, so he could interview folk there. Equally luckily our musical buddy Alan Reid was passing through this way recently and Dirk was able to ambush him too.

The next stage is continuing to interview folk including a central figure to the story – Wayne Bean who first got me to the US back in the 1980s and then to WETSfm where the story continues.

I think I’ve learned a lot about myself during all this and have a clearer understanding of what brought me here. Despite all the practical and principled explanations I usually give (all perfectly true) I think underneath it all I was just ready for a completely new life!

But is that really possible?

I have been organizing small group tours of Scotland annually for the last twelve years. The first couple of times I had a definite sense of ‘going home’. However around year three I suddenly realized that boarding the plane to come back at the end I really was ‘going home’.

I think I have finally arrived at the point where I feel equally Scottish and American – not an American Scot or a Scottish American, but a US Citizen who will always be Scottish.

I’m waiting to see the finished documentary with both anticipation and trepidation – – –

 

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Always Look on the Bright Side – – –

Jack scrapes in under the wire as he does – occasionally – – –
I’m involved in a couple of interesting projects right now – one is a video documentary of my life by my friend Dirk who engineers my weekly radio show ‘Celtic Clanjamphry’. The other is helping an older friend with his attempt to chronicle the early days of the Scottish folk revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Being of a certain age, now myself, there’s a good deal of poignancy as well as pleasure in recalling many happy memories of other friends, some of whom are no longer with us.
One of those is the wonderful singer Gordeanna McCulloch who was laid to rest just this morning in her beloved Glasgow.
gordeanna

Gordeanna with Wendy at our wedding. She let us use the pic for a story and song cassette.

She was one of the guests at our wedding twenty years ago in Auchtermuchty, and sang during the ceremony as part of the group ‘Palaver’. Another member of that group was Maureen Jelks who also sadly died recently. Others who were there and are no longer with us include John Watt and Duncan Williamson. When I first got interested in folk songs, John was my guide and mentor, while Duncan, a wonderful traveller storyteller and singer, became a close friend to us towards the end of his life. Also present then but now included in the ‘departed list’ are Mike Ward, who was a member of my old group ‘Heritage’ and Davy Lockhart, fiddle player with the group from the very beginning.
Despite this sad list, there are good reasons not to be gloomy, as many are still around and keeping in contact through the wonders of the internet. Another member of ‘Palaver’ was Aileen Carr, who kindly lent her gorgeous old house for our wedding and reception, and Davy’s wife Jean who handled the catering, my Best Man George Haig who still continues to amaze with his expertise on the autoharp, Colin who took many of the photographs (including the one of Wendy and Gordeanna, and drives the bus on my annual group tour of Scotland). And let us not forget the incredible Donna Marie, “Haint Mistress” of Abingdon, Virginia, who was Wendy’s Maid of Honor and had a grand adventure.
So, despite being well past the allotted ‘three score and ten’ (sounds like a song – and it is!) I continue to make new friends and take part in new adventures. That might explain why I remain in good health myself – much to Wendy’s relieved surprise!
Here’s to old friends and new, to memories and to new adventures –
Here’s tae us, wha’s like us – – – damn few, an’ there’s some o them deid.

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A River runs through it – –

As we continue with our house move, Jack writes – –

Every now and then a strange and magical figure enters your life. Such was the case when River came down here from New York State to live with her brother Mark Cooperstein and his wife Elizabeth a couple of years ago.

river

River wasn’t her birth name, of course. She adopted the name River Lightwomoon many years ago, and if I tell you that she also lived in Woodstock then I think you probably begin to get the picture.

She was the archetypal hippy and also a wonderful musician, specializing in percussion, and any adjacent surface was a drum for her.

She told me the amazing story of how she was already beginning to play drums and went to a club where the world-famous Jack DeJohnette was appearing. At some point one of his drum sticks ended up at her foot and she returned it to him. She met him some time later and asked about lessons, but they were going to be far too expensive her. However he remembered her and the returned stick, they got chatting and he found out she was expert at tax forms. So, in return for handling his tax stuff she got her lessons!

I was intrigued by the complex rhythms she’d set up whenever she drummed and she explained that she had worked with a mainly female group that played South American influenced original music. A short bit of on-line research and there she was listed on a number of albums!

When our good friend and wonderful singer Barbara Dickson came here to perform, she was completely entranced by River and they shared many a musical moment. But more than that – Barbara also experienced what I had – a very rare and special connection!

RIP River – you will definitely be remembered.

 

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