Tag Archives: Robert Burns

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

“O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!” — R Burns

I don’t write about politics. It’s a rule of mine – make some people mad and other people smug, for what purpose? BobDewardrawing

Jack and I just got back from his annual tour taking Americans to Scotland, my first return in a few years. When we lived there, I used my bi-annual trips to the States as yardsticks, measuring how things were progressing for me and for my country. Living in Scotland as an American back in the 2000s could be tricky. US-ers weren’t popular.

This year, taking nine guests across familiar territory, it was almost unfamiliar. Edinburgh’s High Street has become Myrtle Beach. The smaller towns and hidden gems we led the group through are still hidden and lovely, but the people in them went out of their way to speak to us, to ask where we were from, tell us of their relatives Stateside, wonder how we were enjoying the holiday. Warmth, not patronage. (Well, except in Edinburgh, but that’s expected in a tourism Mecca.)

The “puir wee souls, how ya gettin on there” attitude continued across the Southwest of Scotland, the edge of the Highlands, and even Ulster in N. Ireland. I said as much to Colin, the long-time family friend who is our driver, as we sat in the hotel bar one night.

He gave an eye-averted smile. “The Trump Effect, we calls it,” he said.

A lengthy conversation ensued I won’t bore you with, but the jist was that America had shifted in the minds of most Scots, from “country voted most likely to drag Britain into a war” to a thoughtful consideration that we had outed our true values with the result that your basic poor sod on the street was screwed.

Money. America was always a corporate raider in the minds of Scots, its embodiment less Lady Liberty than a sharp-eyed man in a tailored suit, legal brief in one pocket, gun in the other. A country that talked about Democracy and played shell games with cash.

Now we had voted, in the minds of others, for a guy we thought would make us rich again. But not two-chickens-in-every-pot rich, just get-us-out-of-this-grindinng-poverty rich. Honestly, I never put Scots down for having a lot of good insights into America, their views being largely shaped by Channel 5 TV. If you watch enough reruns of Dallas and The Wolf of Wall Street… but Scots were now explaining to me how sad it was that America’s middle class was shrinking, its wealth consolidating.

Brigitta, the hotel hostess, paused to listen to our conversation. Brigitta had become a hospitality diva in our eyes because of her sweet efficiency, non-stop motion, and natural kindness. A native of Poland who had married her Scottish chef husband twenty years before, she often spiked her English with metaphors to make her meanings clear.

“America, its roots are showing.”

We looked at her, inviting more. She set down the water pitchers in her never-still hands and gestured to the part in her hair.

“Women, you know, we hide the grey, we color, here. Sometimes you don’t have enough money, you don’t do it again, it grows, so. Then roots show you are not who you show you are.”

“America is such. Says one thing, is another. Wants money. But poor people, no blame, of course want money. NEED money. Desperate makes you hope rich man helps. Is mistake, thinking rich man get them money. No. Money from, not for. Why they think rich man wants help anyone get money?” She clicked her tongue, picked up her pitchers, and disappeared.

Colin, Jack, and I stared at one another.

Finally I said, “That is what I have been trying to get to grips with for some time now. It’s that Burns poem come to life, to see ourselves as others see us.”

Colin turned and gestured for the bartender. “Then you’re gonna need another drink, lassie,” he said.

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, blue funks, Downton Abbey, folklore and ethnography, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch

The Best Laid Plans – – –

– sometimes go very well indeed

We had our annual Burns Supper on Friday evening, celebrating the life and works of Scotland’s national poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns. Everyone agreed it was one of the best we’d held over the 10 years we’ve been doing it. Well attended, excellent speakers, wonderful food and smoothly flowing throughout.

shuttle pipes

Randy Stanley – our resident piper

memory

Alex Long delivered ‘The Immortal Memory’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lassies

Sandy Huguenin proposed the Toast to the Lassies and Chef Kelley Pearson responded.

songs

Wendy and I sang some Burns songs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

haggis

Chef Kelley excelled with Cock-a-Leekie soup, haggis, tatties n’ neeps and shepherds pie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

dessert

The ‘piece de resistance’ – Scottish cheesecake on a shortbread base topped with cranachan and a raspberry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s to next year – y’all come – – –

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

♪ Old Friends ♪…. (RIP, Jean Redpath)

jean redpathAs I get older more old friends depart this life and this week was no exception. A special one took the trip a few days ago.

Fellow Fifer (as in Fife, Scotland) Jean Redpath and I crossed paths many times over the years as she blazed a trail for singers of genuine Scots ballads and songs here in the States. Her voice and her ‘Coinyach’ were wonderful. She died this week, in hospice care.

When I first started getting interested in Scots ballads and folksongs, Jean was just a little bit older than me. She was a member of the Edinburgh University Folksong Society, led by the famous and influential Hamish Henderson, so had access to the archives of the School of Scottish Studies and had already begun to make recordings that were an inspiration to me.

I eventually began singing in partnership with Barbara Dickson and I tended to be the researcher of potential material. Jean was always a regular ‘go-to’ and we ‘stole’ quite a lot of her stuff. :]

After she moved to the US, she would regularly return to Scotland to tour the folk clubs and festivals, and I always made a point of going to see her. On one of these  nights she said that one of the things she’d kind of forgotten was how polite Scotsmen were. While staying at her mother’s house in Fife she had gotten what she described as a ‘heavy breathing’ phone call. But the gent on the other end of the line started by saying “would you mind if – – -“. So Jean’s great sense of humor also permeated her performances and that taught me a lesson as well.

Many years later, just around the time I was touring the States quite a bit, I found myself sharing the stage with Jean at East Tennessee State University. During the afternoon we appeared live on the local radio station to help promote the concert. I had almost forgotten about that program until it re-surfaced recently; I was stunned when I heard her rendition of Robert Burns’ song ‘O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast’ – absolutely beautiful and a real challenge!

Shortly after that she again toured in Scotland and I was fortunate to interview her for my own radio show Scene Around. We did the interview in her late mother’s beautiful house down near the harbor in Elie, Fife–the same place where the polite heavy breather had phoned.

For someone so well known through regular appearances on Prairie Home Companion and other great venues, I found her completely charming and down to earth, never over the years turning the least bit ‘prima donna-ish’.

My abiding memory of her, though, is of her performing one of Robert Burns’ most explicitly raunchy songs–it’s so bad, I can’t even write the title here–to a typical audience of elderly ladies at that concert at ETSU, and getting away with it through her sheer personality.

Or maybe they just didn’t understand any of the words, given her lovely Fife accent.

Rest in Peace, Jean. You inspired successive generations, and you will be missed.

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DOG HOUSE

Jack’s guest blog this week offers praise where it is long overdue: to the staff dogs of the Little Bookstore.

...inter-staff relationship maintenance...

…inter-staff relationship maintenance…

We blog often about our menagerie of cats, but rarely write about our dogs. When we moved from Scotland to ‘The Snake Pit’ (as Wendy describes it in The Little Bookstore) we brought our cat Valkyttie and dog Rabbie with us.

Sadly, we lost Rabbie just as we were moving to Big Stone Gap – he got out of the yard at The Snake Pit (we hope not with help) and we never found him, though we tried everything. Towards the end of the search we got a phone call from a guy who thought he’d found him, which is how we were adopted by Bert. Bert is a ¾ size version of Rabbie.

About eight months before we lost Rabbie, Wendy had found a black Lab pup wandering the roads, and that’s how Zora became part of the family. As Senior Executive Dog, Zora taught Bert everything he knows. But of course, Zora was trained by Rabbie, who taught her everything from food-specific begging eyebrow movements to a stock vocabulary of menacing growls. It’s quite odd to see Bert exhibiting Rabbie tendencies he learned from Zora!

image004I always describe Zora as an earth mother with Eeyore tendencies. One hundred percent placid and never excited, she will happily yield the right of way to the smallest kitten, and in fact cuddles some of the orphans who foster here. She has a dog bed beside ours and when we retire of a night and she plods round our bed end, if she sees little Nike already curled up there in the plush, she will turn and head back to the less comfortable fireplace rug. Sometimes in the night we hear Zora emitting a low growl akin to a purr, which signals Owen is home from his rounds and bunking down with her. She all but tucks him in under her tail.

All our animals have bookstore duties and Zora is our human resource manager. Bert is the polar opposite, and takes his job as security manager VERY seriously. At the slightest incursion to bookstore territory (which he considers anywhere within his hearing) he will emit strident warnings and race out to the yard to launch guided missiles at the garbage men, the airplane flying overhead, the leaf that had the audacity to fall into the yard. Zora generally raises herself onto one elbow and yawns.

Those are our dogs, God bless ‘em. They put up with a lot from the cats around here, and never let it get them down. I suppose it was seeing Zora looking at the Portuguese version of Wendy’s book, which arrived yesterday. It features Valkyttie on the spine and flyleaf. Valkyttie is also slightly less obviously on the US and Korean editions – which doesn’t help at all. Zora never says much, but it was clear that she felt the wee bit hurt at receiving no recognition, so we thought a blog wouldn’t go wrong. The dogs are an integral part of our bookstore, after all; they just don’t have as good an agent as the cats.

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https://wendywelchbigstonegap.wordpress.com/

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, blue funks, bookstore management, folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA

We’re not THAT weird…. are we?

O wad some Power the giftie gie us Tae see oursels as ithers see us!–Robert Burns

Sitting in church behind a well-heeled woman, Burns noted lice in her coiffure. History doesn’t tell us how the woman felt about this immortalization–or if she recognized herself–but Jack and I are going through a similar struggle.  In preparation for our two-week Istanbul hiatus, we are writing a shop guide for Mark and Sally Smith, who are coming from Memphis to shopsit.

Mark says their friends alternate between “Oh, can I join you?” and staging interventions.

Wait until their friends hear about the shop guide. We find ourselves typing bald statements like “When Valkyttie gets angry she pees down the bathroom heat vent.”

Will they even read the rest, the tried-and-tested wisdom of our cleaning guru Heather, herself the owner of an angry kitty, plotting kitty, grrr, grrr, grrr? “Put a paper towel on the duster stick by the vent, swish-n-soak, then spray shaft with Heather’s magic elixir. Make sure it’s off first.” Or will they run in terror from a bookshop whose CEO is a pissing-mad eighteen-year-old Scottish cat clever enough to maximize effects?

Given corporate culture today, peeing down a shaft is not that bad, but having no boss is part of Mark and Sally’s fun. The place is yours: do as you will! The shop guide is assistance, not direction.

Jack and I wonder how they’ll react to the section “COLORFUL LOCAL CHARACTERS,” depicting (among others) the bald man with the spider tattoo wrapping his head. Fixated on Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series, Spider Guy keeps saying “BEE-serk-ER,” like a French surname, despite Jack’s efforts. Six foot six, hands like banana bunches, Spider Guy picks up foster kittens and coos to them as he wanders the shop, kitty curled purring against his chest.

We have several local characters who talk without listening; we see them coming, adjust our conversation-o-meters to “stunned” and let it roll. Throw in a “yep, I can get that for you” and make them feel like royalty. All part of the job. I think of it as a computer adventure game set in real life.

But then there’s the back scratcher hanging in the kitchen. Without it, you can’t turn on the light. One night Bert got it in his mouth and Jack and I chased him through the shop, screaming, “Drop it! Don’t chew!”

Dog chases, there’s a thing. The guide tells how to recapture Bert and Zora should they slip out. [Equipment: two leashes, raisin-less breakfast bars, and a car key, kept in a Ziploc pouch at the back door.] It’s the kind of thing one doesn’t think twice about until explaining to someone else….

Really, Mark and Sally, you’re going to have a grand time. Honest!

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, bookstore management, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized

Satur-ruptus

The past week has been incredibly busy with work away from the shop. I’ve been organizing a conference and running around trying to figure out how to channel a whole lot of powerful people with opposing agendas into a productive dialogue while not ticking anyone off, and between one thing and another, let’s just say I was REALLY looking forward to getting my head down Saturday and puttering amongst the bookshelves.

Books may have personalities and after-the-shop-closes lives, but they tend to enjoy revealing truth rather than obfuscating it. A leisurely Saturday morning coffee, followed by stacking and straightening and stocking and shelving, and for dessert, some serious contemplation of how to divide Finance, Gender Studies and the –ologies into Self-help/Career and Everything Else…ah, bliss.

When I got home and told Jack of my heart’s desire, a funny look crossed his face. “Well, you’ll have plenty of fodder to work with,” he said. “We got in a few donations while you were away.”

books in shopbooks on porchTo paraphrase Scotland’s national bard, the best-laid plans of mice and board directors and bookslingers gang aft agley (go skittering sideways). Put another way, be careful what you wish for. Inner peace,  here I come.

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Definitely Worth the Trip!

Jack Beck guest blogs today on the Hylton in the Highlands weekend we participated in at George Mason University, and the memories it brought back.

Long before our little bookstore (or even The Little Bookstore) was a gleam in anyone’s eye, Wendy and I each pursued careers as itinerant folkies – festivals, concerts, summer-schools etc. The bookstore is a welcome anchor to our lives, but we still enjoy occasional requests like the one from Katie, events coordinator at Hyltons Performing Arts Center, inviting us to take part in a Scottish weekend at George Mason University.

Back when we did such events full-time, I developed a sixth sense for what was coming based on how things kicked off, so when our six-hour drive turned into ten through freezing rain and a blizzard, I was prepared for anything.

“Anything” has, in the past, included trying to sing while background muzak continued to blare over speakers, having no way to sell our merchandise, being billed as “Jeff Beck” (you never saw so many disappointed people) and even never being given a copy of the schedule because “no one knows where they are.” Wendy once toured with noted performer Sheila Stewart, and after being assured their evening concert should be “very informal,” they walked into the hall in blue jeans to find the audience in ball gowns and tuxedos.

The moment we arrived in the gorgeous Hyltons Center, with its copper rib walls and soaring ceilings (and its backstage hospitality room rife with excellent food) we repented our doom-and-gloom memories. Rarely have we experienced such well organized, welcoming and downright professional folk, from the aforementioned Katie (Events Organizer) to Rick (Executive Director) to Matt, Chris, and Kevin (the sound guys) and other staff.

The workshop we did Saturday on Scots-Appalachian story and song connections.

The workshop we did Saturday on Scots-Appalachian story and song connections.

Only when we returned from our day of rest at the magnificent hotel (complete with Wendy’s favorite appendage, a pool) to the sold-out Sunday evening Burns Supper for 200 did we experience a moment of “Ah yes, we just knew this was too good to be true.”

Silk, velvet and cashmere everywhere, guests sparkling and smiling from every corner—oh dear. I have experienced formal Burns Suppers and usually feel very out of place at these four-fork “dos” (and agree with our table companion Bonnie Rideout’s comment that Robert Burns would have as well).

Slated to deliver The Immortal Memory (me) and the Response from the Lassies (Wendy), we were piped to our table with the notables. In addition to Ms. Rideout, this included Rick the ED; Representative of the Scottish Government in N. America Robin Naysmith; and two officers of the British Regimental Army overseeing the pipe bands.

Expecting stuffed shirts, we were instead regaled by ice-breaking jokes about tartan trousers leading to genuine conversation on the prettiest places in America, and the sharing of addresses and websites for the best U.S. Scotch pies and homemade haggis. At one point an army officer leaned in and said, with some trepidation, “D’ya think they’d mind me getting seconds at the buffet?”

So you never know what an event is going to be like, and life continues to be an adventure. Sometimes it all goes wrong—and sometimes, it is just perfect.

But – we still have to drive home and there’s talk of freezing rain – – –

Bonnie Rideout in her fiddling workshop on Saturday.

Bonnie Rideout in her fiddling workshop on Saturday.

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Filed under folklore and ethnography, humor, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA