Monday, October 13, 2008

LIGHT from Ed Softky

at right: the view from Ed's balcony in Dharamsala, India, 2004

Who can encompass the dreadful shock of sudden death? This is not the memorial page for Ed Softky, and you can read this for the black story of his passing and of his many tributes. This is about Light.

For those of you who knew Ed only through his Buddhist work, let me introduce myself as an old friend, singing and dancing buddy, and housemate of Ed's since, oh, maybe 1990? I don't recall. With Liz Lewis and Alan Field, we sang together in the quartet Lingua Franca, "Music as the Common Tongue." Here is the group's demo album, a truly limited release that maybe we should reprint in Ed's memory.

I was to see Ed this weekend (Columbus Day), for one of our joyously serious sessions of "PhilosoTea" and a visit to his new home in Brattleboro. As I was packing, I got a phone call from a mutual friend. "I've just heard someone say Ed was killed in a car accident. I know you'd know. Is it true?"

I didn't know, but I had a terrible feeling. I hadn't been able to reach Ed all day to plan where we should meet. I called his brother Bill in California. His voice on the phone told me the awful truth, but I had to ask. "Bill. I've heard something so terrible. Tell me it isn't true." "I can't tell you that." And the world went dark. I couldn't breathe.

While Ed's physical presence still lingers so powerfully in our hearts and minds, I wanted to offer one more chance to hear his rich, sustaining voice in song. Please listen to Light.


"Light" is Ed's translation of a Buddhist prayer, set to an American Sacred Harp melody. Ed loved the Sacred Harp, which held a high place in his passion for harmony, in song and in living. This was the first time Ed had answered the call to translate Dharma in music, part and parcel of his passion for bringing the voice of dharma to the West.

As a computer geek trained in science, Ed came to natural language later in his journey. We joked that he found it easier to translate Tibetan into Perl than into English. I was privileged to offer him a home base during the three years that he studied Tibetan in Dharamsala: a deeply intentional transition that transformed his outer life. His intention was so powerful that Ed's mere presence enlightened my cat Yoda into a Buddhist, so that he will no longer kill mice. Yoda now meditates serenely on mice and mouseness in the messy room that Ed once filled with prayer flags, incense, and inner space.

During our long sessions of PhilosoTea, we devoted hours to reflections on language, music, spirituality, patterns and structure, and the ineffable that defies translation. We had both discovered that translation demands more than grammar and syntax: it requires not only deep immersion in cultural context, but the ability to find your way back to the surface of your own culture. Then it demand of you the skill in your native language to tell of where you have been.

"Light" became a meditation for us, over many months of conversation punctuated by absence. Ed brought his work to me, humbly seeking my teaching as a writer and musician, and I in turn sought teaching from him in compassion, and some comprehension of dharma. Ed would unpack each Tibetan word like a flower opening, newly aware of his own limits as an English speaker. I would grope for English words that fit the shape of the tune, and Ed would discard them as lacking the right connotation, or seize upon one with fierce joy and demand that I unpack its English meaning in my turn. We would deconstruct the Tibetan rhyme scheme and meter, seeking not just a parallel phrasing, but to extract and articulate the differences that defied translation. Ed's vision was not simply to translate Tibetan into English, but to shape and express their vastly different sensibilities by holding the gulf of space between them, words and music holding that space like two empty hands apart. Once we had a phrase, Ed would turn it over and over for months like a string of prayer beads, bringing a new verse back from India to begin again.

He was endlessly fascinated, not only by words, but by the rhythm and shape they give to tunes. In teaching me to sing "Light," he insisted that I learn the Tibetan not just word for word, but vowel by vowel, consonant by consonant, with intonation and breath in deep mindfulness, striving for the most literal and uttermost consonance with his inner understanding of the prayer. In singing, I would feel I was stumbling in the dark, and then suddenly our voices would lock in a moment of harmony and Ed would cry, YES! With what joy and radiance he showed me how the foursquare solid form of the Sacred Harp was transformed by the Tibetan phrasing into a lilting, dancing shape entirely unWestern, and yet composed of the same literal notes. He was incredibly, eagerly, joyfully demanding, and it became an extraordinary experience in songmaking.

With anyone else, even I might have gotten bored with poring over two verses for three years. But Light was Ed's calling in so many ways, and he envisioned this piece as the beginning of a series of sacred hymns for Western Buddhists. Typically of Ed, he never felt it was finished enough to publish, though he had given me a harmony and hoped to record it with me, and perhaps with others.

Music may be the voice of soul and of spirit, but it is also sadly true that the human voice is the most mortal of instruments. Ed's death is as shocking as if someone ran over a Stradivarius in the street. More so, because a violin takes its life from the fiddler. With utter commitment of his intensely physical being, Ed made of himself an instrument of Light.

In the first numbing shock of grief, the silencing of that voice stopped all music in my soul.

But then, silence has always been one of Ed's greatest gifts. Only in silence can we truly listen, and truly hear. Ed taught me to hear light.

I trust that Peter and Mary Alice Amidon, Mary Cay Brass, and others will share with me the solemn joy of spreading this small flame of Light that Ed has left for us. I look forward to singing it with you.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Sea Slugs in Marzipan
Originally uploaded by noelegance
Gastropod Gastronomy: The Edible Nudibranch
Photos and video of our latest team exploit in performance-art food. Now this is Extreme Sushi.

Red Herring Morris gives team biologist Phill Nimeskern a thank-you gift for chairing the Ale. Phill, who has eaten a sea slug for science, repeats the experiment in marzipan and song. The nudibranchs were inspired by this month's cover story of the June 2008 National Geographic. Go look 'em up!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Old Sea Dog
Sunday was our first MIT Chantey and Maritime Sing of the season in our dog-friendly summer venue at the Wood Sailing Pavilion. Mina the Dog snoozed in her MIT burgee, dreaming of sea chanteys from the Revels Book of Chanteys and Sea Songs. Much to the entertainment of some visitors from the Revels Pub Sing, Mina woke when we sang the Dutch chantey Los Mina Loos, and "sang along" happily whenever her name came round in the chorus!

Photo: Harriet Fell-Brown

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society at the Edmund Fowle House, Watertown

The Edmund Fowle House is the second oldest surviving house in Watertown. During the Revolutionary war, it was the seat of the new Massachusetts government while the British occupied Boston. The Watertown Historical Society has completed a major restoration, and the house is now open to the public and available for functions. We had a wonderful time playing Revolutionary-era tunes and songs in their lovely parlor.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Second Annual Merrymount Mayday

This year's Kettle of Fish Morris Ale was a great success, especially the final stand at Merrymount on Maypole Hill. We danced the morris, wove the Maypole, led the audience in Sellenger's Round and the Padstow Day Song and Hal an Tow, and applauded Dr. Jack Dempsey's dramatic reading of the Poem that Morton composed and nailed to his Maypole, which was 80 feet high and crowned with buckshorns. We had a goodly number of the good people of Quincy, who are pleased to see the Maypole return to Maypole Hill.

Advance publicity was excellent this year, with feature articles in Wicked Local Quincy, the Patriot Ledger and the Boston Globe. Today's Patriot Ledger carried a great article with a full photo spread.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Newtowne Mayday on the Charles 2008

Mayday 2008
Originally uploaded by Stew Stryker
Stew Stryker has posted a great slideshow of May morning 2008.

Hal an tow, jolly rumbalow
We were up long before the Maypole!

Well, WE were there at 5, and anyone there at that hour doesn't need a songbook, so we sang until the Maypole arrived. The weather was cool but dry, the Lowell House receiving line warm and welcoming, and the crowd pretty good for a workday. We processed along the usual route, despite Harvard Square construction, and concluded with a fine Maypole dance by a group of local school kids whose teacher had brought them to see us as a field trip. Merry May!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A review of "Puritan Days," a.k.a. "Lee-li-Nau," an opera by Earl Marble and Richard Stahl. Folio Magazine, January 1884

The existence of this opera about Merrymount is more interesting than its somewhat alarming excerpts given in Folio. One imagines Gilbert and Sullivan as performed by F Troop (!). However, put this in context as an American response to the height of the G&S craze following H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), which was "received in America with “enthusiasm bordering upon insanity” (Kate Field, Scribner’s Monthly, xviii, 754). Lee-li-Nau was staged the same year as Princess Ida, two years after the Savoy opera house was built expressly for G&S. Small wonder American composers were searching for New World themes to capitalize on "Pinafore-mania." Thomas Morton must have seemed ideal material for 1880s fans of Buffalo Bill's Wild West and of Indian Princesses of the Victorian stage like author and actress Pauline Johnson.

I have searched to no avail for a libretto or sheet music. "Leelinau" itself does not have a citation in online catalogs of the Smithsonian (SIRIS), the Library of Congress American Memory Collection, the Boston Public Library, or the Minuteman Library Network. Harvard HOLLIS does have the libretto for a similar opera that
Richard Stahl published in 1883: The Salem witch : an American comic opera in three acts (also available a the BPL).

"Lee-li-nau" is the name of a new American opera, which is the joint work of Earl Marble as the librettist, and Richard Stahl as the composer of the musical score, and which was mentioned, before its completion, under the title of " Puritan Days." A less stern and severe title was deemed necessary, and so the name of the Indian princess who figures largely in the story was seized upon. It is not strictly a comic opera, its aim being somewhat higher, and its action at times dignified and dramatic, though there is a great deal of fun developed in the action of the story, the plot being hazy and somewhat unsubstantial, the story really being one of sentiment tinged with the romantic features of Puritan and Indian characteristics as discovered by looking back two hundred and fifty years, and scanning life as it then existed in the Plymouth colony. It would be absurd to speak of it in a historical sense, though Miles Standish, Governor Bradford, and Thomas Morton, figure in the story, and on different occasions the exact language that these historical characters used is made available under similar conditions. The scene of the second act is laid at Merrymount (now the residence of Hon. John Quincy Adams), where Morton, referred to in the Plymouth annals as "the Lord of Misrule," held high carnival one luckless Mayday, where he gathered his clans, both whites and Indians, and raised a May-pole, and danced about it till he danced himself into jail, through his arrest by doughty Miles Standish, which furnishes a dramatic ending to the act. The first and third acts are laid in Plymouth, and the opera ends by the sending-back of Morton to England as a prisoner in the Mayflower, which swings away from her moorings as the curtain fails. Of course this is not history, though the Plymouth authorities did what they could to make it such. The dignified sentiment of the opera is furnished by two Pilgrim lovers, idyllic in every respect; and there are other phases of love-making, — between a young Plymouth subject and an Indian princess (baritone and contralto), and between two young people, recent arrivals in the colony, who refuse to work one Christmas Day, and, as a punishment, are forbidden by the Governor to play on that day, he ordering them to " keepe within doors," which incident will be remembered by the careful reader of colonial history. This couple, as well as the idyllic lovers, are tenor and soprano. Thomas Morton is bass ; and another strong bass character is an Indian medicine-man or jossakeed, who is a character in his way. All the " horse-play," which is given place to only in small quantities, falls to the lot of this Indian. The author has endeavored to make an opera of sentiment and humor, with what degree of success of course remains to be seen. There is a chorus of Indian girls, whose business is very original, and whose music is expected to become very popular. Several of the numbers in waltz time are said to be very catchy.

The following is a tenor song sung when an Indian attack is expected :
— The Indian foe is here !
As the twilight settles down,
From the forest deep he will skulk and creep
To destroy the hapless town.
Be firm as the foe comes on,
Defying the savage crew !
With our trust on high, we will live and die
Like men with their God in view.
Strike home when war-whoops roar!
Strike home at the painted foe !
While to God we pray that the coming fray
Will the Pilgrim valor show.
Fur God is our watchword here
In this wilderness alone,
As we work and pray for a fairer day,
With never a sigh or groan.

And the following stanza is from a song by the Indian princess :
Cometh Lee-li-nau, the princess,
Dancing Fawn,
Daughter of a forest chieftain.
Since the dawn
She has journeyed here to Plymouth,
By the sea,
That the pale-face from the far-land
She might see.

"Lee-li-nau" will have its first production at the Baltimore Academy of Music, Nov. 10, by the Wilbur Opera Company, by which it is now in active rehearsal. — Boston Evening Transcript.

[page 156]
FOLIO "PURITAN DAYS." The story of " Puritan Days," the new opera by Earl Marble and Richard Stahl, opens soon after the settlement of Plymouth, and begins with a Puritans' chorus, after which Miles Standish, Governor Bradford and others express their Indignation that a new arrival of y»ung people from England had refused to work on Christmas Day, the Puritans declaring such obstinacy to be no better than popery, and Governor Bradford singing: —

When I was a lad in England old,
I studied over many a way,
In summer heat and winter's cold.
To make my work seem only play.
I looked all over the universe,
And pondered on the things that I saw,
Abd soon concluded that sport was a curse
To be put down by the arm of the Law.
Sport has an animosity
For work, and the velocity
With which it works atrocity
Is such a dreadful thing!
It favors all rascality,
And harbors criminality,
Hence Puritan fatality
Will have no ting-a-ling.

Subsequently two of the young rebels sing a duet as follows : —

The country it is big enough
For freedom all around,
And we have danced the jig enough
To be no longer bound.
Oh, it is very curious
That freedom is a thing
That seems to be so spurious
When some one else is king.
The Pharisee is ever here,
The hypocriti also,
And always will be, never fear,
Oh, never fear, heigh ho

These are second tenor and second soprano characters, the first soprano and tenor being dignified and lovers, of course, while a baritone and contralto (the latter an Indian princess) are lovers, and, with the others, are married by Indian rites in the last act.

Very old prints have been secured by Mr. Marble of the Indian dance in vogue in such cases, known as the Dance of the Uirdí ;irid Blossoms, of which he hopes to have a brilliant finale made when the opera is produced. It may not be out of place to state that Mr. Marble has taken the name of Doty for this baritone from the Edward Doty who came over in the Mayflower, and who scandalized the Plymouth community by marrying an Indian maid, and from whom Mr. Marble claims descent.

A chorus of Indian girls is one of the novelties of the opera, affording color and action in no small degree, giving a distinct flavor to the second act, which occurs at Merry Mount, which was such an eyesore to Plymouth, and where Thomas Morton (basso) and his followers make merry on the succeeding May Day, and get arrested during the festivities by gruff Miles Standish. An Indian Medicine Man, the Indian princess referred to, and Morton and his reckless followers crowd the second act full of fun and melody. Mr. Marble has retained a portion of the words of one of Morton's bacchanalian songs for one of the numbers, and regrets that the crude old melody, that is spoken of but not preserved in the annals of the old colony, cannot be also utilized The last act is devoted almost wholly to sentiment and wholesale matrimony, though fun occasionally manifests itself.

The composer of the music, Richard Stahl, is a young man, but he has written two operas that have had successful runs in Germany, besides many detached works of a less ambitious character that have enjoyed popularity. He is brimming over with talent, and his music is strikingly original. The score of "Puritan Days" exhibits great versatility and discernment. There are several choruses in it of superior merit; an exquisite solo for the soprano; some catchy humorous movements — in fact, all the variety that is essential to a work of this sort. He has exercised admirable discrimination in making the music characteristic of the subject matter, so that it is an American opera in more than one respect. To do justice to Mr. Stahl's production in the limits of a brief newspaper article is quite impossible. We can only say that "Puritan Days" seems to possess all the elements that go to make up a successful comic opera, and Messrs. Marble and Stahl should have no difficulty in finding a manager suitable to present it properly to the public. — The New-York Mirror.

The following is the story of " Lee-li-nau," the new American light opera, written by Earl Marble, and composed by Richard Stahl, which was to have been given in Baltimore early in November, but which, owing to insufficient rehearsals, has been delayed in its presentation, and will have its first production at the People's Theatre in New York, December 1, by the well-known Wilbur Opera Company.

The story opens at Plymouth, one Christmas Day early in the settlement of the Colony, by the refusal of a number of newly arrived immigrants to work on Christmas Day, which aroused ihe ire of Governor Bradford, whose anger was increased when a short time afterward he found the }oung people engaged in play, though their consciences would not permit them to labor. The reader of Colonial history will remember how the Governor met this question, telling them if it was against their conscience to work it way against his conscience that they should play while others worked. Various degrees of rebellion are displayed, and singing and Dancing are indulged in; an Indian medicine man appears, frightening the children ; and after a while a messenger announces the approach of a large body of Indians, when preparations are made to rewst them, which preparations are stopped by the arrival of the Indian princess Lee-li-nau, bearing a flag of truce, and expressing friendship and a desire for acquaintance. John Doty, a young Puritan of independent tendencies, become enamored of her at once.

The second act takes place at Merrymount on the succeeding Mayday. Here have gathered Thomas Morton (termed in Puritan annals "the Lord of Misrule") and his adventurous followers, who proceed to have a rollicking good time, in imitation of the old English custom, though without the restraints of civilization. Here come, by invitation, Lee-li-nau and her troop of Indian girls, and of course young Doty, and on various pretexts the Pilgrim lovers from Plymouth, those who rebelled against labor on the preceding Christmas, and the Indian medicine man, who gets drunk on Morton's whiskey in the most approved fashion, and is reckless alike in the manner in which he creates both fun and consternation. The Maypole meantime hae been erected, and the revels about it are at their height, when Miles Standish enters, and arrests Morton, which closes the act.

The third act occurs at Plymouth early in the June following, on a day set for the return to England of the Mayflower, on which it has been determined to send Morton as a prisoner. He is broken in spirit, talks and sings in a doleful way, and goes aboard the vessel in handcuffs, with a dejected air. Love scenes and songs are seen and heard between the Pilgrim lovers, who have walked through the various scenes in a dignified, stately, conscientious way, and abo between two of the young people numbered among the rebels in the first act, but now become quite docile in the Pilgrim harness. The marriage ceremony, it will be observed, is performed by Governor Bradford, one of the tenets of the early Pilgrims being an aversion to having the marriage rite solemnized by any religious ceremony. Here also come Doty and Lee-li-nau, who are supposed to be married in a mystic fashion by the Indian medicine man.

The action of the opera closes with the dance of the birds and blossoms by the Indian girls, when, as the curtain descends, the Mayflower is seen moving out into the waters of Plymouth Harbor, while the strains of the closing chorus ring out merrily on the sweet June air. Susie Kirwin is expected to make a great hit in the title-role, which affords her one of the finest opportunities she has ever had; and Ed. Chapman, as the Indian medicine man, keeps the company in constant laughter by his funny business at rehearsals.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Indian Princess of the Victorian Stage
The stage career of Emily Pauline Johnson, or Tehakionwake, illustrates that at least some prominent native women participated actively in the "Indian Princess" image presented in Lee-Li-Nau, and made good money at it. In the 1890s, Tehakionwake toured Europe in buckskins and beads, entirely intentionally. For the second act, she'd come out in a ball gown and recite Shakespeare, as befitted her multicultural heritage.

"Throughout the 1880s Johnson established herself as a Canadian writer and cultivated an audience amongst those who read her poetry [which] signaled her membership amongst Canada’s important authors (Strong-Boag and Gerson 2000, p. 101). In her early literary works, Johnson drew lightly from her Mohawk heritage, and instead lyricized Canadian life, landscapes, and love in a post-Romantic mode reflective of the literary interests she shared with her mother (Strong-Boag and Gerson 2000, p. 101).

In 1892, Johnson recited her poem “A Cry from an Indian Wife,” a work based on the battle of Cut Knife Creek during the Riel Rebellion, at a Canadian Authors Evening arranged by the Young Men’s Liberal Club. The success of this performance initiated Johnson’s 15 year stage career and encouraged perceptions of her as a girl (although she was 31 at the time of this performance), a beauty, and an exotic Aboriginal elocutionist (Strong-Boag and Gerson 2000, p. 102).

After her first recital season, Johnson decided to emphasize the Native aspects of her literature and performance by assembling and donning a feminine Native costume (Strong-Boag and Gerson 2000, p. 9-10). Johnson’s decision to develop this stage persona, and the popularity it inspired, indicates that the audiences she encountered in Canada, England, and the United States — like the large crowds who attended shows such as Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show and ethnological Aboriginal exhibits in the 1890s — were educated to recognize representations of Native peoples on stage and were entertained by such productions (Strong-Boag and Gerson 2000, p. 111)."

During my traveling years reenacting the living history of the fur trade, I became fascinated with Pauline Johnson, visited many of her landscapes from Ontario to British Columbia, and set two of her poems to music: Songs My Paddle Sings and Toast to Vancouver. Her work places Tehakionwake among North America's greatest poets of any ethnicity, and she embraced her heritage within the cultural context of her era.

Today's readers encountering the romanticized stage version of the "Indian Princess" may well wince at reading that "A chorus of Indian girls is one of the novelties of the opera, affording color and action in no small degree" to Lee-Li-Nau. These stereotypes may well be painful to modern readers. But Pauline Johnson was a successful author on stage as well as in print, and a chorus of English, Italian, or Japanese girls afforded similar novelty, color and action to Gilbert and Sullivan in equal degree.

1837 Engravings of Maypoles and May-Day Celebrations

The Every-day Book and Table Book, or Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, from 1837, has a wonderful series of engravings illustrating a wide variety of Maypoles from England, Scotland, and France. It's remarkable to see the variation from the familiar plain pole with ribbon streamers.

The Northampton May Garland with its Empire-waisted May dolly is well suitable for our own New England Mayday in Northampton and Amherst in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. In the early days of Banbury Cross Morris in Boston, I held a workshop on May Eve with the children's team to make a similar May dolly, which has become a tradition for the team on May morning on the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge.


Kerchiefs flying, smart in their Scotch bonnets and tartan, the May-dew dancers at Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh cavort in drunken Scots abandon around a Scandinavian-style Maypole with a horizontal wreath adorned with branching boughs at head-height. Their bagpiper's "strathspeys and reels put life and metal in their heels." Several of our party climbed Arthur's Seat in February on our 2005 trip to Edinburgh, and it's delightful to imagine May morning on that wild and magical mountain on the outskirts of the city.

The most unusual maypole is "the Last Chimney-Sweeper, made of a "Scandiscope." This jointed whalebone machine used by chimney-sweeps who worked it up and down the chimney joint by joint as an alternative to sending a "climbing boy" up into the filthy flue. By 1826, the sweeps' guild gave their apprentices a dinner on May Eve to stop the practice of collecting money in the streets "by the worst class of persons, or for the sinister purposes of their employers." Leaping around their mechanical master with his carven face and wild brush of hair, the sweeps' antics remind me of the devil-may-care border team of the western Massachusetts hill towns, Green River Tap and Die.

The Necton Guild Maypole almost mimics a Christmas tree, with its concentric rings of wreaths from top to bottom. Its fenced mound with a ring of performing dancers is the centerpiece of a Mayfair attended by peasants and gentry alike. It's easy to imagine this pennanted Maypole at King Richard's Faire on the South Shore, or at the Minnesota Renaissance Faire.

A vertical twist on the Scandinavian Maypole is this well-dressed Country Maypole with its ring of dancers. Apparently a permanent pole installed in the village well, it is garlanded with pairs of wreaths opposed like leaves on the lower half only. Perhaps this village did not have a ladder!

These French villagers are making a Herculean effort to celebrate Mayday by planting a living tree, upper branches intact and garlanded with ribbons, which they clearly hope will grow in its new location. "Let us profit, children of these lovely days, by this verdant visitor. We feel an intense joy in it, and it must soon stay the course." Guns and drums are at the ready to make a joyful din once the tree stands erect and free of its ropes and props.

It's marvelous to see these variations on a tradition that's still vibrant in Old and New England two centuries later. Perhaps some teams may be inspired to revive one of these unusual Maypoles!

The every-day book and table-book; or, Everlasting calendar of popular amusements By William Hone:
The Lord of Misrule (Alfred Noyes)

All on a fresh May morning, I took my love to church,
To see if Parson Primrose were safely on his perch.
He scarce had got to thirdly, or squire begun to snore,
When, like a sun-lit sea-wave,
A green and crimson sea-wave,
A frolic of madcap, May-folk came whooping through the door: -

Come up, come in with streamers!
Come in with boughs of May!
Come up and thump the sexton,
And carry the clerk away.

Now skip like rams, ye mountains,
Ye little hills, like sheep!
Come up and wake the people
That parson puts to sleep.

They tickled their nut-brown tabors. Their garlands flew in showers,
And lasses and lads came after them, with feet like dancing flowers.
Their queen had torn her green gown, and bared a shoulder as white,
O, white as the may that crowned her,
White all the minstrels round her
Tilted back their crimson hats and sang for sheer delight:

Come up, come in with streamers!
Come in with boughs of May!
Now by the gold upon your toe
You walked the primrose way.
Come up, with white and crimson!
O, shake your bells and sing;
Let the porch bend, the pillars bow, before our Lord, the spring!

The dusty velvet hassocks were dabbled with fragrant dew.
The font grew white with hawthorn. It frothed in every pew.
Three petals clung to the sexton’s beard as he mopped and mowed at the clerk,
And “Take that sexton away,” they cried;
“Did Nebuchadnezzar eat may?” they cried.
“Nay, that was a prize from Betty,” they cried, “for kissing her in the dark.”

Come up, come in with streamers!
Come in with boughs of May!
Who knows but old Methuselah
May hobble the green wood way?
If Betty could kiss the sexton,
If Kitty could kiss the clerk,
Who knows how Parson Primrose
Might blossom in the dark?

The congregation sputtered. The squire grew purple and all,
And every little chorister bestrode his carven stall.
The parson flapped like a magpie, but none could hear his prayers;
For Tom Fool flourished his tabor,
Flourished his nut-brown tabor,
Bashed the head of the sexton, and stormed the pulpit stairs.

High in the old oak pulpit
This Lord of all misrule -
I think it was Will Summers
That once was Shakespeare’s fool –
Held up his hand for silence,
And all the church grew still:
“And are you snoring yet,” he said,
“Or have you slept your fill?”

Your God still walks in Eden, between the ancient trees,
Where Youth and Love go wading through pools of primroses.
And this is the sign we bring you, before the darkness fall,
That Spring is risen, is risen again,
That Life is risen, is risen again,
That Love is risen, is risen again, and Love is Lord of all.”

“At Paske began our morrice
And, ere Pentecost, our May;
Because, albeit your words are true,
You know not what you say.
You chatter in church like jackdaws,
Words that would wake the dead,
Were there one breath of life in you,
One drop of blood,” he said.

“He died and went down to Hell! You know not what you mean.
Our rafters were of green fir. Also our beds were green.
But out of the mouth of a fool, a fool, before the darkness fall,
We tell you He is risen again,
The Lord of Life is risen again,
The boughs put forth their tender buds, and Love is Lord of all!”

He bowed his head. He stood so still,
They bowed their heads as well.
And softly from the organ-loft
The song began to swell.
Come up with blood red streamers,
The reeds began the strain.
The vox humana pealed on high,
The Spring is risen again!

The vox angelica replied – The shadows flee away!
Our house-beams were of cedar. Come in with boughs of May!
The diapason deepened it – Before the darkness fall,
We tell you He is risen again!
Our God hath burst his prison again!
Christ is risen, is risen again; and Love is Lord of all.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Miles Standish [1584 - 1656] by Rosemary and Stephen Vincent Benet

Miles Standish was a little man, a soldier from his youth,
He said he'd fought the Spaniards and I think he told the truth,
For he could fire a musketoon and he could build a fort
And the Pilgrims all admired him, though he wasn't quite their sort.

Tom Morton was a merry man and liked a merry frolic,
He said, "These long-nosed Pilgrims give an honest heart the colic!"
He built a place called Merry Mount to serve his merry ends
And danced around a Maypole with a lot of rowdy friends.

The Pilgrims were indignant, for they didn't like his game,
They said his merry Maypole was an idol and a shame,
They vowed that it was scandalous to dance to such a tune,
So they ordered out Miles Standish, with his fav'rite musketoon.

"Ho,ho!" laughed Morton, merrily, "'Tis only Captain Shrimp!"
"Hew down yon idol!" Standish roared and made him feel quite limp
For they hewed the pretty Maypole down, in spite of all his cries,
And chopped it into kindling wood before his very eyes.

They sent him back to England and they told him to stay there.
--They didn't like those gentlemen with perfume in their hair.
--They didn't like wild gentlemen with mischief in their port.
But they always liked Miles Standish, though he wasn't quite their sort.

He lived with them and fought for them and drove their foes away,
A bold Cock-robin of a man whom nothing could dismay,
And, when he died, they mourned him from the bottom of their hearts.
For it isn't where your inches stop. It's where your courage starts.

Benet, Rosemary and Stephen Vincent. A Book of Americans. NY: Holt, 1961.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Bass1.JPGIntroducing Mr. Paddy Washtub

cello1.jpgWhen you play in a band with a pogocello, who can resist a washtub bass? The photo at left is Gloucester Hornpipe and Clog Society founder David Rosen with the inimitable pogocello. On the right is the newest member of the band, a handmade washtub bass from Athens, Georgia: bought on eBay and shipped to Boston on Greyhound.

Who buys a string bass on eBay? Well, not intentionally. I was browsing to find out whether anyone should spend the several hundred dollar estimate I'd heard for repairing the cracked upright bass of our late friend Dave Stryker. Not that I really wanted Dave's bass, which is a full-size monster larger than my car. But we wondered what it was worth, for donating to a school or selling to some local musician as-is. So, go to eBay and plug in "upright bass" and "< $500."

You don't find much in that price range. But what is THIS? A washtub crossed with a banjo? I read on. "Handmade washtub bass. Full 3/4 size fingerboard of black walnut, maple face. Piezo pickup. Impervious to heat and cold. Fits in the front seat of a Prius. Local delivery to Athens area only."

I was enthralled. I visited the page for days, telling myself not to be ridiculous. But--I am a Fool, after all. And truly, the idea of bringing this unique item to our eclectic and eccentric band was irresistible. So, the crazy lady from Boston wrote to Athens and asked, "How much to ship?"

Mr. Pat Lyons of Georgia's Magpie Paddy ("Traditional Irish Music for the Deep South") was bemused, but eager to help once he realized I was serious (and prepared to pay a shipping cost close to his asking price for the bass itself). By way of explanation, I sent him our website photo, complete with pogocello. According to Pat, his wife looked over his shoulder at us on the screen and exclaimed, "They look like people we already know!" Indeed. I knew that from looking at this bass. It just had to be. This wasn't a sale. It was a North-South cultural exchange, Irish band to Irish band.

And so, the deal was struck, the auction bid, the instrument crated, and a cross-the-Mason-Dixon-Line bus ticket bought for what has to be one of the larger packages to go Greyhound. (I had visions all week of Georgia Paddy riding North in a bus seat with a backwards feed cap on his peghead, staring out the window and wondering what the Yankee Irish gal from Boston was going to ask him to play...)

Once arrived, Mr. Paddy Washtub's evident personality, humor, and dignity earned him his name the moment he emerged from his crate. And yes, he sounds like a "real" string bass, with a remarkably clear, warm, accurate tone both acoustic and amplified. The band is amused and mostly delighted, and we're finding all sorts of use for him once we get used to his taking up the space of a seventh member onstage.

And no, I don't--or didn't--actually PLAY bass. But for such a splendid creation, I had to learn. After all, it's just the bottom four of the guitar, which I do (or did) play, so I'm gettin' along. Bandmate Jonathan Gilbert also plays, and has outfitted Mr. Paddy's fingerboard for me with a set of sailors' stripes, Suzuki-fashion, for those of us who still need to fret. And fortunately, open strings lend themselves well to our band motto: "Play D Until Something Happens." So I plunk along happily on the downbeat, alarming our guitarist (who's used to being the bottom of the band) and apparently entertaining the audience no end.

Paddy's been the talk of the town at our "St. Patrick's Month" concerts, finding his niche from Murphy's & Ryan's Polkae and Drowsy Maggie to the Flop-Eared Mule and the Jamaica Plain Rag. He was a huge hit on St. Patrick's Day at Honey Fitz Pub in Malden, where he got the chance to be played by a REAL bass player from our friends The Kellsmen. And this summer, he may get a boat ride out to Georges Island to play for sea chanteys at our annual Fourth of July with Boston Harborfest. Meanwhile, I plan to teach Mr. Paddy some work songs and gospel at a few hallway jams at NEFFA--and I do mean JAMS, if I know what a bass can do.

Just goes to show: eBay can change your life! You just never know what you can do until you try.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Morris and Maypole Return to Merrymount

The Inhabitants of Pasonagessit (having translated the name Ma-reMount [MerryMount]; ... did devise amongst themselves to have it performed in a solemne manner with Revels, & merriment after the old English custome: prepared to sett up a Maypole upon the festivall day of Philip and Jacob .... And because they would have it in a complete forme, they had prepared a song fitting to the time and present occasion. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose ; and there erected it with the help of Salvages, that came thether of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed one, somewhat neare unto the top of it : where it stood as a faire sea marke for directions; how to finde out the way to mine Hoste of Ma-reMount.

May 2008 marks the 381st anniversary of the first and most celebrated Maypole in North America at Merrymount, in Quincy, MA. English trader, attorney, and adventurer Thomas Morton brought his West Country customs from Devon in 1624, and raised a Maypole in 1627 to revel with the Massachusetts and other Native peoples at the Merrymount settlement.

The Plimoth Puritans disapproved. Myles Standish arrested Morton in 1628 for trading in guns and liquor. Morton was exiled without trial on the Isles of Shoals, shipped back to England, tried, and then freed to return to his "New Canaan." Pilgrim John Endicott chopped down the Maypole and the Puritans of Boston burned Merrymount. Morton settled in Maine and died there in 1647, after having been instrumental in revoking the Pilgrims' Massachusetts Bay Colony charter. Sadly, it came too late for his Maypole.

In celebration of Morton's life and times, morris dancers will raise a Maypole on the site in Quincy, MA (map) and dance around the Maypole as we did in 2007. Quincy native Chris Pahud leads us in the title song from his CD Morton's Return, composed by Jim Ryan who also sang and danced with us that day. Check out Chris's MySpace page for his arrangement of Morton's Songe.

There was likewise a merry song made, which (to make their Revells more fashionable) was sung with a chorus, every man bearing his part; which they performed in a dance, hand in hand about the Maypole, whiles one of the Company sung, and filled out the good liquor like gammedes and Jupiter.

Drinke and be merry, merry, merry boyes,
Let all your delight be in Hymens joyes,
Lo to Hymen now the day is come,
About the merry Maypole take a Roome.

Make greene garlands, bring bottles out;
And fill sweet Nectar, freely about,
Uncover thy head, and feare no harm,
For here's good liquor to keepe it warme.

(For group participation, the morris dancers sing The Songe to our familiar traditional tune of Staines Morris, sung each May morning on the banks of the Charles River from 1974 to this coming Mayday.)

The Merrymount Maypole festivities are part of the 2008 Kettle of Fish Morris Ale, organized by Red Herring Morris of Belmont, MA. This year we will have a special guest, Morton scholar Jack Dempsey, who has produced both a critical biography of Morton and a new edition of the colonist's New English Canaan. Dr. Dempsey, who teaches at Bentley College, has also written a movie script about Morton's 1627 Revells, entitled Merrymount: A True Adventure Comedy. Jack will be leading an informal discussion on Morton's life and times on Maypole Hill while we await the morris dancers' return.

I look forward to researching and photographing traditional and revival West Country Maypole sites and customs from Morton's home ground of Devon and Plymouth on my August 1-15 trip to Sidmouth Folk Week this summer. I'll be the guest of Mike Gibson and the Middle Bar Singers for their session at the Anchor Inn, continuing on to South Devon and Cornwall the following week.

For more information about Thomas Morton and Merrymount, check out my collection of links tagged Merrymount. Or enjoy this video of Staines Morris and other dawn festivities at the 2003 Newtowne Mayday on the Charles.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I went to the Bennington (VT) Museum to meet with Lisette's soon-to-be publisher and the museum archivists. There was a present waiting for me: a photo from the Museum's "Highlights of the Collection" catalogue. To wit:

"Figure 51. PA-TUS-SE-NON (SHOT BAG), 1810
Lizette Harmon, Cree Indian, 1790-1862
Porcupine quills, red floss, beads, leather
H: 11 in. W: 7 in
Gift of Mrs. Nelson Bradley Carter

"…This shot bag was made by Lizette for her husband and was decorated with naturally-dyed porcupine quills. Although shot bags do survive, few can be found with leather in such fine condition, with such vibrant colors still evident, or with such strong documentation and history.""

Just imagine. After ten years roleplaying this obscure Métis woman, to see a color photograph of something she made with her own hands. And such an artifact. I'm thunderstruck. I must see the actual thing itself asap, and *of course* I'm burning to try to copy it as it's gorgeous. Now I have to find someone who can teach quillwork.

We also discovered where she died—Sault au Recollet, now a suburb in North Montreal—and where she is buried–Lot G.11 at the Mount Royal Cemetery. From 1821 to 1843, she lived literally an hour and a half up the road from me, in Coventry, Vermont, founded by the Harmons and funded by Daniel's NWC earnings. She lived to the age of 70, having her first child at age 14 and her 14th at age 47. We've got the Harmon family genealogy waiting to be worked on, and best of all, I have her marriage date at your fort!

"Daniel Williams Harmon, b. in Bennington, February 19, 1788; m. Lizette (or Elisabeth) Laval (or Duval), in Fort William, Canada, August, 1819." (source: John Spargo, "Two Bennington-born Explorers and Makers of Modern Canada," 1950) Note: the other "Bennington-born Explorer is Simmon Fraser, as in River and University. He took Daniel's place as the leader of the Mandan Expedition of 1806.

Finding Lisette's Grave

Finding Lisette's Grave

Yesterday we found Lisette’s grave. Helen Meredith had wanted to help me look from the beginning, and having a Montreal native along really smoothed the way. I had written to Mount Royal Cemetery before and gotten a location number, G-11, which as it turned out wasn’t much help. We went in to the office and asked for Elizabeth Harmon d. 1862 and Abby Maria Harmon d. 1904, and the woman at the desk went in the back and came back in five minutes with a Xerox of two index cards. Yes, she was there, all right, and so were Mary and Calvin and their son Andy and a few others as well. Calvin Ladd had purchased the plot, but didn’t appear to be buried there. She gave us a plot map of that section of the cemetery, marking it on the main map. So off we went to G-1, Lot number 11.

Helen had done this before with her friend Jill’s relatives, so she knew how hard it was going to be. And we walked all around the edges of the section, which joins G-2 with just a dotted line between them. We parked at the top of a long grassy strip and hunted for about 45 minutes with no success. I was sure by now that either the family had died too poor for a stone or that there was a flat marker that had been grassed over. Poor Lisette, buried in an unmarked grave.

I went back to the car to check the order people had been buried. The first was a little girl, aged 4, in 1854. Was this why Calvin had bought the plot? She would probably only have a tiny marker. Next was Mary, Calvin’s beloved wife, in September of 1861. Surely she would have a gravestone? He was a well-to-do blacksmith, and had had enough money and connections to petition the courts on Lisette’s behalf in the 1840s. Had he come down in the world in twenty years? Hardly, because his son was listed in the 1870s as buried here, “brought from New York.” If they had had money to transport a body, surely there would be a marker. And the last one in 1904, Abby Maria, her daughter a suicide by drowning? We could hardly expect much of a marker for her, even though I knew she’d been brought here from Hull for burial. Someone must have cared, but how much? We weren’t finding them. I lined up the north arrows on the two maps for about the fourth time and tried to see where we could be going wrong. Helen was by now convinced we were in the wrong section and was methodically quartering the neighboring areas.

“Let’s go back to the office before they close and get the names of the other plots around her,” I said. “At least that way we can narrow it down.” So back we tooled to the office, where she obligingly gave us the family names of every plot surrounding the Harmons/Ladds. This time we took a different route, and were certain we had found G-1. I determined to walk all the way around the section, looking for any name we’d now got. Helen worked across the road, finding some Hollands (one of the names we’d got) but not any other neighbors. Probably not the right Hollands, we agreed, and moved on.

The edges of the G-1 section were clearly mapped out, and it didn’t match the line of the road on the main map. Could the roads have changed? I found myself at the top of the grassy ride we’d parked at earlier. Was this a “road” on the map? It certainly fit the shape of the section better than the asphalt one. I decided to walk down its edge to hunt for names. Here was the convex, then the concave curve: and right where it was supposed to be was a large, sarcophagus-style monument sporting a turbaned wasp’s nest and the name Holland. There were Hollands to the right of the Harmon plot, all right. I looked to the left.

And glory be, there she was. “Yeeeeee-HOUP!” My whoop of triumph would have done justice to a canoe arrival, but probably shocked the cemetery. I was standing in front of a polished red granite marker “in memorial to Daniel Williams Harmon, died at Sault-au-Recollet, Que, ##, 1843, to his wife, Elizabeth Laval, ##, and to their daughter Abby Maria, d. ## 1904.”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions ... By Thomas Kibble Hervey:
The Wren boys in Ireland who are also called Droleens go from house to house for the purpose of levying contributions carrying one or more of these birds in the midst of a bush of holly gaily decorated with colored ribands which birds they have like the Manx mummers employed their morning in killing The following is their song of which they deliver themselves in most monotonous music The wren the wren the king of all birds St Stephen" The tpit got up like a naked man And swore he d fight with the dripping pan The pan got up and cocked his tail And swore he d send them all to jail

Christmas Mummers Kit

The Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions ... By Thomas Kibble Hervey:

"The costume accoutrements mummers appear to be pretty generally of the same kind and for the most part to resemble those of morris dancers They are thus correctly described by Mr Sandys St George and the other tragic performers wear white trowsers and waistcoats showing their shirt sleeves and are much decorated with ribbons and handkerchiefs each carrying a drawn sword in his hand if they can be procured otherwise a cudgel They wear high caps of pasteboard covered with fancy paper adorned with beads small pieces of looking glass bugles &c several long strips of pith generally hanging down from the top with shreds of different colored cloth strung on them the whole having a fanciful and smart effect The Turk sometimes has a turban Father Christmas is personified as a grotesque old man"

Definition of Mummers


note on v the mummers were called wqflailers In Wolfey"

An Unusual Wassail Ingredient: Roasted Crabs

The Family Oracle of Health: Economy, Medicine, and Good Living : "THE CHRISTMAS WASSAIL BOWL BY A FELLOW OF THE ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY The oldest of our British writers Gildas Nennius and Alcuin contain allusions to this glorious relique of antiquity and our own darling Shakespeare or as Mr Henry Neale most originally designates him the sweet swan of Avon shows his intimate acquaintance with the Saxon Chronicle Matthew of Westminster Geoffery of Monmouth and William of Malms bury by alluding to this ancient Christmas enjoyment in the song When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl Then nightly sings the staring owl Te whit te whoo Twelfth Night "

Recipe for Wassail with Eggs

The Cook and Housewife's Manual: Containing the Most Approved Modern ... By Christian Isobel Johnstone:

"a down as for Trifle a nice fresh cake or use macca roons or other small biscuit into a china punch bowl or deep glass dish Over this pour some sweet rich wine as Malmsey Madeira if wanted very rich but "raisin wine will do Sweeten this and pour a well seasoned rich custard over it Strew nutmeg and grated sugar over it and stick it over with sliced blanched almonds Obs This is in fact just a rich eating posset A very good wassail bowl may be made of mild ale well spiced and sweetened and a plain rice custard with few eggs "

Origins of the Expression "To Drink to the Pin"

Publications By English Historical Society:

4 Ipse clavos argénteos tel áureos jusserit rosis affici co geret Hence the phrase to drink to the pin The custom of drinking to the pin is however supposed to have been introduced into England by the Danes who fixed a pin inside of the wassail bowl and to drink exactly to the pin was a feat only to be acquired by long practice Malmesbury elsewhere observes that it was King Eadgar who to restrain excessive drink


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Colonel Pickering's March to Lexington, 1775

Here's an obscure local tune for Paul Revere and the 19th of April in '75. When I lived in Arlington at the turn of the millennium, I could get up at dawn and walk a block to wait for Paul Revere and his horse to gallop down Massachusetts Avenue en route to Lexington.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Music of the Waters: Sailors' Chanties, 1888

The Music of the Waters: A Collection of the Sailors' Chanties, Or Working ... By Laura Alexandrine Smith:

This relatively rare and out-of-print collection has a larger and more diverse array of the non-English chanteys and maritime songs than those found in Hugill, Colcord, or Doerflinger. Many of the songs have notated tunes, making the collection especially useful to singers.


Primary Source Texts: Google Books for Singers

Primary Source Texts: Google Books for Singers

Want a first edition of the Child ballads (1860) or Ritson's Ancient Songs and Ballads (1829)? A facsimile edition of The Universal Songster, or Museum of Mirth (1834) or D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719)? How about a collection of full-text books on American naval song from 1800 to 1820? They're yours, in print, for the cost of the paper and your time. Download them to your own machine as PDF and have at it. Or leave them online: simply add them to your library and search them with a few clicks. All that's missing is that lovely musty smell of leather bindings.

Google Book Search is a feast for the desktop scholar. Visit the site to see all their amazing features--this isn't a how-to piece per se. Take away the news that it has never been easier to do your own primary source research. Find out for yourself where a song came from; where and how it was first collected and printed; what the collector said about its time and place; and see for yourself the original illustrations, from blackletter ballads to lithograph engravings.

If a book is in the public domain, otherwise out of copyright, or the author has given permission, you can read and download the entire book, in facsimile, as PDF. This covers a HUGE amount of material of interest to singers and collectors. In particular, the collection abounds with 18th and 19th century editions of books on music, folklore, theatre, dance, history, travel, and literature. It's a gold mine for singers in the folk tradition, historic reenactors, and others of our ilk.

My own library now holds the results of keyword searches for, among others: ballad; song, English; song, American; song, Scots; morris dance; Fool; wassail; naval history; and more to come. You can visit my ever-expanding library here:

noelegance's library

Try searching my library for any of these keywords, and enjoy what you find. Or create your own library, do your own searches, and then when you find a book you like, just click Add to My Library and it's saved for your perusal.

If you're looking for the words to a song and you've found it in a book, open the Google Book and choose View as Plain Text. Because these were scanned and OCR'd, the raw text can be pretty raw, but editing and cleaning it up is still faster if you need electronic text. If you just want hard copy, download the PDF and print just the page(s) you need, then delete the file. It will still be online the next time you need it, and doesn't eat up your hard drive with gigabytes of books.

It's a snap to clip images or text into a scrapbook with Google Notebook, or post them directly to your blog if you use Blogger. See below for some of my trasures brought to light as I dig down into the 350+ books I've collected so far. Just click to follow each link straight to the original online edition!

The Golden Whales of California and Other Rhymes in the American Language ... By Vachel Lindsay

The Golden Whales of California and Other Rhymes in the American Language ... By Vachel Lindsay:
A chantey just waiting for a tune!

The Columbian Naval Melody: A Collection of Songs and Odes, Composed on the ... By Henry B Anthony:

An 1813 collection of American naval ballads, hymns, and songs covering the era from the American Revolution through the War of 1812.
Bentley's Miscellany By Charles Dickens, William Harrison Ainsworth, Albert Smith:

Three of my passions here conjoined: whiskey, May, and song. Ah, the wonder of the keyword search.

SONG BY THE WHISKEY DRINKER MAY MORNING Он the May morn of yore was a blithe one I ween When they danced round the pole on the old village green When the maids gather d dew at the break of the day And they wove a bright wreath for the Queen of the May Though the good times are past and the world has grown cold Still the dew and the flowers are as sweet as of old Still the sky laughs with love and the earth with good cheer And the birds sing their merriest song of the year Wake up Marion wake come away come away Tis the morn that we love tis the morn of the May Our steeds but thy coming fair loiterer wait Hark the neigh of Black Gipsey below at the gate Her bridle I ve wreathed with the freshest of green And I Ve cull d thee a rose love that s fit for a queen The hedge rows are sweet and the meadows are

OH the May-morn of yore was a blithe one, I ween,
When they danced round the pole on the old village green ;
When the maids gather'd dew at the break of the day,
And they wore a bright wreath for the Queen of the May.
Though the good times are past, and the world has grown cold,
Still the dew and the flowers are as sweet as of old ;
Still the sky laughs with love, and the earth with good cheer,
And the birds sing their merriest song of the year.
Wake up, Marion, wake — come away, come away !
Tis the morn that we love, — 'tis the morn of the May !
Our steeds but thy coming, fair loiterer, wait ;
Hark the neigh of Black Gipsey below at the gate !
Her bridle I've wreathed with the freshest of green,
And I 've cull'd thee a rose, love, that 's fit for a queen.
The hedge-rows are sweet, and the meadows are fair ;
But the breeze of the Downs is more racy and rare :
O'er their soft turf careering, together we 'll go,
As the sea-birds skim light o'er the waters below.
Wake up, Marion, wake — come away, come away !
Tis the morn that we love — 'tis the morn of the May !

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Back to the Source: Online Links to Morris Musicians of the Past

Red Herring Morris has recently engaged in a typical fall discussion around morris musicians and their role on the team. Foreman and head musician Jeff Bigler has reminded us of two core "rules" (remember, they're more like guidelines) for the new musician. To wit:

1. Musicians should dance (health permitting) or observe for a few weeks before playing in. 2. Musicians shouldn't play in on a tune until they're off book.

Rule #1 is to ensure that new musicians have some idea of how the music fits with the dance.

Rule #2 is to ensure that new musicians know the tunes well enough that they can pay attention to ensemble, both with the other musicians and with the dancers.

I responded to the team, and then reflected that this was a common enough discussion that it might be of interest to other morris folk as well. Here's my post to the Red Herring list:


JB's Rule 1 and Rule 2 get it in a nutshell. What he said. Hasn't changed in thirty years, that I can recall. ;-)

I'd add two more rules, if I may, under the heading of "get a feel for the tradition." Meaning, learn the rules so you can break them intentionally and intelligently ;-). Listen to the old guys (and the old gals too).

Rule 3: Read about morris music.

Rule 4: Listen to morris music.


I attach links to a pair of "ancient" 1977 articles from Volume 1, Number 1 of the American Morris News (AMN) by Russell Wortley on "Music and the Morris".

I remember this piece as being most influential when I was learning the morris in 1979, and later in the 1980s with Ha'Penny, where Jan Elliott's playing so well articulated Wortley's ideas. I particularly love this quote:

" is vital that all stylistic frills, all the decoration and twiddly bits, should be made to subserve and not hinder the basic rhythm. At the same time, it is equally important that this elemental pulse shall not be wooden and unyielding but responsive to the dancers, strong but subtly pliable."

And DO read what he has to say on the subject of the musician and the Fool! :-D

I find Russell's writing still very relevant and thought-provoking (not to mention the entertainment value of reading that "Marlboro Ale doubles in size!") It's worthy of note, in fact, that

a) the very first issues of the AMN devoted so much space to playing music, and

b) the author considered "respect for traditional practice" to be part of an article entitled "Music and the Morris."

I would hope that new and current dancers consider subscribing to, or at least browsing the online editions of, both the AMN ( and the Morris Dance Discussion List (MDDL) (

MDDL is free, AMN is free online, and both offer RSS feeds. Both have LOTS of sound and fury, some of it most illuminating and/or instructive, on the subject of playing for the morris.


"We'll drink to John o' Gaunt, me boys, we'll drink to Jinky Wells

We'll drink to William Kimber, who was buried in his bells..."

Want to listen to the source musicians of the morris revival? Rare recordings of Bampton fiddler Jinky Wells and Headington concertina master William "Merry" Kimber have been released on CD by Topic Records and can be ordered online or downloaded:

RIG-A-JIG-JIG: DANCE MUSIC OF THE SOUTH OF ENGLAND Volume 9 of The Voice Of The People. A Series Of Anthologies of Traditional Music edited by Reg Hall


DOWNLOAD this, and the other albums in the VOTP series, from for a per-item fee.

This is a GREAT series of English trad, and I have a number of the albums on LP. It's rather wonderful, and revealing, that on the cut where Jinky Wells plays Flowers of Edinburgh and Bobbing Around (Bobby and Joan), you can hear him singing/humming the tune as he plays--clear indication that he knows this tune in his bones, and was almost certainly dancing it in his head as he played it (Wells was the Bampton Fool and Squire).

Both Wells and Kimber are classic examples of the "elemental pulse" inherent in the morris, and it's so great to be able to hear them "live".

I would also recommend another Topic CD, Hidden English, with more William Kimber, the Coppers, and other source singers of English trad.

Hard core box players, and musicians borrowing from this style, may also love the EFDSS CD, Absolutely Classic: The Music of William Kimber (

"First things first: William Kimber was a superb dance musician. His music is crisp, precise, controlled, dignified, unmistakable, and unerringly rhythmic. ... Listen to this music. Words can add nothing." ---Roger Digby

So please. If you're going to PLAY morris music: LISTEN to morris music. Steep yourself in the old stuff. Get a feel for it. Get a little recorder and collect tunes you like at Ales. Get other musicians to play with you, outside of practice, so YOU can practice. And LISTEN. There's never been a better time to hear the old music--for free/cheap on the Net!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Planning a Set: Hook, Line, and Sinker

prepared for fellow NEFFA workshop participants, NEFFA News, Spring 2000 by L.E. Noel

October is the deadline for NEFFA applications, and I've had several requests to republish this piece from the NEFFA News. Thanks for your interest!So, you have a festival gig. You know your venue, audience, time, location, and set length. You have your performers, and you know what they can do. You have a workshop title, which is probably a theme of some sort. You probably also have a list--a long list--of material you'd like to present, from which you need to select, arrange, and rehearse a set in not-enough time. How do you get from here to there, where THERE is the applause at the end of a dynamite set?

There are lots of ways to organize a set list. The easy way is to go round robin, but we know how to do that. How do you develop a theme? Here's how I work with material that has a lot of content and narrative flow: entertain first, educate second . Start with the basic rule of 1-2-3.

Rule #1: One-Two-Three

  1. If you get ONE song, choose your most upbeat attention-grabber: hook, line, and sinker all in one. It should be SHORT (under 3 minutes), simple, and require NO introduction. Hop up on stage. Sing. Hop down. Say nothing. Just sing. Everyone will say, Who Was That Masked Musician? Your song will tell them who you are. (Then the organizer will call out, "And that was the Masked Musician, folks! Give her a hand!")

  2. If you get TWO songs, pick the upbeat one and another one with an easy but rock-em-sock-em chorus. Put the one with a chorus SECOND. Hop up on stage and sing. Introduce yourself and the next song for no more than 30 seconds, including teaching the chorus. Sing. You're done. Everyone will say, "Boy, that Masked Musician sure can sing." (Because you got them to sing.)

  3. If you get THREE songs, you can have a slow one. Put it in between Song One (your attention-grabber) and Song Two (your audience involver). This is your solo, your reflective moment, the story you are telling. Your three-song set goes:
  • One, Here I Am. (The Hook)
  • Two, Here's My Story. (The Line)
  • Three, Let's Tell It Together. (The Sinker)
Three songs is a fifteen-minute set, because just getting up and down off the stage takes time, and one does talk between songs even if one doesn't mean to. Also, it's incredibly polite to run under time (I think I did it once...) Focus on entertainment. Deliver your educational message, if you must, in Song Two, which should also be entertaining.

To plan a longer set, fill in from the middle using the 5-minutes-per-song rule. 25 to 40 minutes allows you to develop your basic festival workshop set from thematic material with a lot of content and narrative flow. But where do the extra songs go? One BEFORE and the rest AFTER the first song. Why? Read on.

Rule #2: Before and After

So, let's take a 40-minute set at NEFFA. 40 divided by 5 means 8 songs. Three we know already: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Using the before-and-after rule, your new songs are #1 and #3-6. The ending doesn't change, the middle gets to be four songs that tell a story (in some order), and the beginning gets a one-song throwaway before your bang-up opener, which is now Song Two. Why? Because people will be trickling in, you will be clunking around with the mike setup, and your engineer will be doing an on-the-fly sound check. Pick something good, but not your best: save that for second and for last. Choose the simplest song that you do well, one you'd be willing to sing to an empty hall, and stick to the Masked Musician approach: don't talk until after you sing. But DO sing, because they won't trickle in until you do.

In a longer set, you can have an introduction. Put it before your second song: remember, this is really your Song One, the hook. Introduce yourself before and your theme after the second song, so that the hook sets the line. Then pay out the line: tell your story, in four songs (numbers 3-6). Songs 3-6 form a mini-set, which should also follow the 1-2-3 rule in a low-key kind of way, developing whatever narrative line you want to throw out.

Song Six is about where the set starts to drag. If you have been telling your story well, you are really into it now, and performers tend to talk a LOT between songs Five and Six. Develop your theme with a few reflective songs: slots Three, Four and Five are the place to put soloists or small groups, as well as ballads and long songs without choruses. Then pick up the pace with an upbeat Song Six with some kind of a chorus. The audience has been listening happily to you for half an hour now, and it's time to let them know the end is coming (so they will wish it weren't).

You HAVE been checking the time, haven't you? Oops. You're over. (Everybody always is.) If you need to cut to the chase, cut Song Five and/or Six. This is why Seven and Eight remain your original Song Two and Three: deliver the message, THANK the organizers and make any announcements (like where to buy your product) and then head straight for the finish line with that good all-sing closer, your original Song Two of Two or Three of Three. And of course, audiences LOVE it when you reprise your opener as a grand finale.

The Set List

So, let's review the 8-song set. This will get you through 40 minutes at NEFFA slicker 'n a smelt. This type of nested structure will also let you plan anything from 15 to 50 minutes on the fly. Each song has a purpose:

  1. The Sound Check
    Introduce the group and hand out words if you must (better they should look at you than at the paper in their laps; I prefer to give handouts at the end)
  2. The Hook
    Introduce yourself and your group; present the theme in one sentence, then sing
  3. The Line, or Story Part I (another throwaway; keep intros brief)
  4. The Line, Story Part II (another hook; choruses are good)
  5. The Line, Story Part III (another throwaway; cut to #6 OR #7 if you need time)
    Tell how the last three songs fit together, and then teach
  6. The Chorus (a wake-em-up and/or a wrapup to your story)
  7. The Message
    Introduce group members, thank the organizers, announce who's on next in this slot and where you're performing next, hand out any flyers, say where your product is on sale, thank the sound crew, and do all this in under 3 minutes!
  8. The Sinker, or the Grand Finale (all sing, with the audience)
  9. And of course, if you cut something and finished early, you have it for an ENCORE!

The Amateur is the Audience

Of course there are lots of other ways to plan a set. For one thing, you may need to put certain songs together because they are in the same (or conflicting) keys, or need certain tunings or musicians, or whatever. But this outline, or ANY set list outline, will prevent most of the more embarrassing moments of amateur performance. Remember, being an amateur means you LOVE what you do. Help your audience to love it--and you--as well, by refraining from the following common faux pas (that's French for no-no's) of set list planning:
  • Endless intros before the first song (like sitting in a plane on the runway)
  • Endless explanations of the song you just sang (like sitting in a plane at the gate)
  • Er-um, ah, what shall we sing next? (unless you are taking requests)
  • No, no, after YOU! (If you are next in line, SING. If no one else is, count to three, make eye contact with the designated Mouth, and sing anyway. You will be forgiven for toe-stepping faster than for dead air.)
  • Oh, wait a minute--no no, start over. (This is the difference between performance and rehearsal. Please do not ask the audience to indulge you more than necessary.)
  • We just have ONE more song, and it's our BEST song... (When your time is up, you are DONE. A good workshop leader WILL cut you off so that the next group can start on time. Plan accordingly, and finish early if you can. You can always have an encore.)

Hook, Line and Sinker

Plan your set like a plane trip that spends more time in the air than on the ground. Plan it like a vacation that spends more time out of the car than driving. Plan it with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and give your audience a map. Remember, they're along for the ride. And do plan your set like a fishing trip: you want to bring home the whole audience, having fallen for you and your music hook, line, and sinker.

Who was that Masked Musician?

Lynn Noel ( rarely practices what she preaches onstage, but she does observe the rule of 1-2-3 religiously and has been known to perform en masque.