United Kingdom

Portmeadow Kisses

 

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Portmeadow, Oxford, England

The smell of her skin in Oxford showers

Her hands combing my hair at night

The taste of whisky while I look in her eyes

Her sideways smile, so fresh and silly,

Tea in the morning, singing songs at night

Serious, studious, loving, and sweet

The idea of her forest by the sea

Portmeadow kisses, indescribable blisses

Lips of fire so fierce and free

 

Categories: Exploration, History, Literature, Love, Nature, Poetry, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

At the Twelve Pins

Twelve Pins Pub, Islington

Taxis and tourists, ice cream girl

waiting to cross with flowers in hand, crying,

while Daddy chases daughter in pink cap exploring, learning

Islington’s ways; working class guys and foreigners

walk with Irishmen, Arabs, and Africans; the quiet American

smoking his pipe at a table on the pub sidewalk –

first a Guinness then a Strongbow while he watches and waits – for what?

The Ginger Beauty? The Ice Cream Girl?  He exchanges

knowing looks with the daddy, baby daughter imprisoned

again in her pram; buses of red roaring down

Seven Sisters Road where Blackstock turns

downhill.  Just sit and watch and London

passes for the price of a pint or two at the Twelve Pins.

Categories: England, Exploration, Food & Drink, Poetry, Pubs, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Historic Preservation, Community Identity, & the Gospel of Progress in Britain and America

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Washington Square Park in New York City

This excellent article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation came to my attention today: https://savingplaces.org/stories/a-tale-of-two-planners-jane-jacobs-and-robert-moses#.VyMoSjArKCg.  It describes the 1960’s struggle to save Greenwich Village and other parts of lower Manhattan from the threat brought about by a developer’s plan to build a massive elevated highway that would have destroyed Washington Square Park, as well as parts of Little Italy and SoHo.  Having attending NYU as an undergraduate, and having spent a lot of time in and around that park playing chess, eating lunch, spending time with other students, chatting to little old ladies, and listening many times in silent admiration to a talented homeless blues singer named Jimmy play the guitar and sing, I cannot imagine my time there without it.

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Looking up 5th Avenue through the Washington Arch

 

We clearly need more people like the amazing Jane Jacobs, the preservationist detailed in the article above. Having consulted and worked with architectural historians, developers, and planners on a number of archaeological and historical projects over the last couple decades, I can say that these kind of struggles have only intensified since the Jacobs v. Moses era. Savannah, Georgia is another wonderful example of how 7 determined ladies fought and saved it from being turned into just “another soulless city” (http://www.myhsf.org/about-us/the-story-of-preservation-in-savannah/). Thanks to them and their successors, Savannah is now one of the most beautiful historic cities in the U.S.

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Savannah, Georgia street scene

But it’s an unending battle to retain community and identity and hold off those with the money and the power, who are usually championed by the local Chamber of Commerce zombies and their monosyllabic grunts of “Jobs, Roads, Development!”  Since the 1950’s thousands of unique structures have been demolished across America so that developers could “pave paradise and [sometimes literally] put up a parking lot.”  And usually the long-term heritage and unique needs of the community (think centuries) are scoffed at in favor of the short-term benefits (think years or at best a couple decades) of the latest schemers, who are usually benefiting financially in the process somehow.

Unfortunately our European cousins are not exempt from the myth of “progress” either, though they generally have more respect for their surviving architectural heritage than Americans do for theirs. One major exception is beautiful Oxford, England, which has so many incredible examples of truly historic buildings.  It even has its own wonderful story of victory over the demolishers of tradition and history in the fight to preserve the quaint area called Jericho.  Unfortunately, Oxford also has a tremendous amount of the ugliest architecture anywhere.  Just walk the grounds of St. Johns College, for example, to see numerous dorms with giant glass windows looking out over 500 year old buildings.  There is even one that looks a bit like a bee hive.  And the Oxford County Council continually overrules the concerns of citizens and local preservationists, since the university almost always gets whatever it wants, from ugly buildings being plopped down onto beautiful college quads to disastrous student housing ideas that were never properly reviewed for environmental or visual impacts to historic green spaces (for more on Oxford’s complete lack of concern in preserving its unique architectural identity, take a look at this blog: https://timmyatt.com/tag/oxford-architecture/).

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St. Cross College, Rear Quad, Oxford, 2013 – notice Pusey House, a 100 year old chapel and focus of the Anglican Church’s Oxford Movement, behind students

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St. Cross College, Plans for New Building, 2016 – notice dramatic visual impact to Pusey House

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St. Cross College, New Building under construction next to 100-year old Pusey House, 2016

Although I do not see the point of monarchy (bloody Americans and 1776 and all that), and I doubt I have anything remotely in common with him, I do think Prince Charles was very brave and spot on when he addressed post-World War II London architecture by asking: “When did we lose our sense of vision?  How could those in control become so out of step with so many Londoners who felt powerless to resist the destruction of their city…?”  (for a short video clip of his excellent critique of modern big box architecture, click this link – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/9502425.stm).

But for the best quote on British architecture over the last 70 years we must return to Matthew Arnold’s “sweet city with her dreaming spires” – Oxford – and put ourselves into the minds of those with the power and determination to say yea or nay:

“You know, we’ve been putting up handsome buildings since 1264; let’s have an ugly one for a change.’  Then the planning authorities had to say, “Well, why not?  Plenty worse in Basildon”….Then…the whole of the city -students, dons, shopkeepers, office workers, members of the Oxford Preservation Trust – had to acquiesce and not kick up a fuss. Multiply this by, say, 200 or 300 and 400 and you have modern Oxford.  And you tell me that it is one of the most beautiful, well-preserved cities in the world?  I’m afraid not.  It is a beautiful city that has been treated with gross indifference and lamentable incompetence for far too long, and every living person in Oxford should feel a little bit ashamed.”

Bill BrysonNotes from a Small Island, 1995

Categories: Architecture, Churches, England, Historic Preservation, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Girl I Left Behind: A New Variant on an Old Song

Cover of Sam Henry's Songs of the People, 2010 UGA Press edition

 

Listening to British folk singer Andy Irvine today, I was stuck by a song I had never heard before: “The Girl I Left Behind.”  This is neither the same song nor even the same tune as the famous fiddle tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which is in every bluegrass band’s repertoire.   The song I was enjoying struck me, however, as having a very familiar tune itself, and with a little research I discovered that it is essentially the same music as “I’m a Good Old Rebel,” “Lily of the West,” and “Lakes of Ponchartrain.”  I am not certain when this song dates to, but I do feel that it could easily have an Irish origin and might be as old as the late 18th or early 19th century.  Perhaps someone can comment on that.  At any rate, the tale told in Irvine’s version of the song struck a chord in me (literally and figuratively! – here is a link to his wonderful version –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5MQilZw1LZ8), and inspired me to try my own hand on a new variant.  Below are the results of today’s glorious obsession!

[Incidentally, Irvine wrote this in his liner notes accompanying the album Way Out Yonder (2000), on which his version of the song first appeared: “I’ve known the first part of this song since I was quite young.  I heard it on a Library of Congress Album sung by Mrs Pearl Borusky, who recorded it in Ohio.  I later heard the great Seamus Ennis sing it at a party in Peggy Jordan’s in Dublin.  I found this full version late one Summer’s night in Sam Henry’s Collection “Songs of the people”–How had I never seen it before ?”]

The Girl I Left Behind (2015)

There was a gentleman farmer at Everton Grange he dwelled

He had one only daughter in love with her I fell

She was so tall and brilliant, so funny and so fair

No other girl in England with her I could compare.

We rambled and we courted for two years near about

She showed me Merry Old England, its meadows, fields, and routes

Through Oxfordshire and Hampshire, Old London, and sweet France

The farmer’s daughter smiled on me, and made my heart to dance.

Then news from home it reached me and Lord it beat me down

And I knew that I must leave her and return to my own town

Over the hills and far away from England I must go

But to leave the farmer’s daughter it filled my heart with woe.

I asked if it made any difference if I crossed over the main

She said her heart was ever mine, that we would meet again,

That we would meet on foreign shores, this greatly eased my mind

So we kissed and then we parted and I left my girl behind.

Straightway I flew from Londontown unto Americay

My mother she was so relieved to see me on that day

My father and my sons rejoiced when I came down the line

But the girl I left behind me was always on my mind.

We wrote each other when we could but things were not the same

She moved off to another place far from our haunts and hame

A new life beckoned and off she flew, the sun upon her shined,

But I was far away without the girl I left behind.

My business settled at home I flew to see my bonnie bird

But her heart was cold and hurting when my words of love she heard

She said she didn’t love me now and a new love I should find

As my tears fell down away she walked – the girl I left behind.

Since then across wide oceans I’ve traveled o’er the earth

I’ve roamed and rambled this wide world over to soothe my aching heart

But my tears still fall like the storms of Thor and she’s always on my mind

I’ll always love the farmer’s daughter – the girl I left behind.

Now, compare these lyrics written today with the traditional lyrics sung by Andy Irvine:

There was a rich old farmer lived in the country nigh
He had one only daughter on her I cast my eye
She was so tall and slender so delicate and so fair
No other girl in the neighbourhood with her I could compare.I asked if it made any difference if I crossed over the main
She says it makes no difference if you’ll come back again
She promised she’d be true to me until death’s parting time
So we kissed shook hands and parted and I left my girl behind.

Straightway I sailed from old Ireland to Glasgow I did go
Where the work and money was plentiful and the whiskey it did flow
Where the work and money was plentiful and the girls all treated me kind
But the girl I left behind me was always on my mind.

One day as I went walking down by the public square
The mail boat had arrived and the postman met me there
He handed me a letter which gave me to understand
That the girl I left behind me was married to another man.

I stopped and gazed around me my heart was filled with fear
O oftentimes she promised me that she would prove sincere
On the Sunday of our parting ‘twas on the Book she swore
That she would wed no other man and she vowed it o’er and o’er.

I advanced a few steps forward full knowing these words to be true
My mind being bent on rambling I didn’t know what to do
My mind being bent on rambling this wide world to see o’er
I left my dear old parents perhaps to see no more.

Straightway I sailed to old New York strange faces for to see
Where Handsome Peggy Walker she fell in love with me
My pocket being empty I thought it was full time
For to stop with her and think no more on the girl I left behind.

One day as I sat musing she says my boy don’t grieve
For I have money in plenty to support both you and me
Your pocket will be laden hard labour you can give o’er
If you’ll agree to marry me and rambling go no more.

Well if should agree to marry you I would be much to blame
Your friends and your relations would look on me with shame
And I mean to see my parents before that they resign
And to bid farewell and a last adieu to the girl I left behind.

Well if all that you reveal be true our friendship’s at an end
Since first you came to this country I’ve always proved your friend
You had my money at your command when fortune seemed to frown
And my boy’s cause I still maintained when others ran you down.

At this my heart it did relent for what she said was true
And I promised for to marry her, oh what else could I do ?
Now Peggy’s mistress of my heart she loving and she’s kind
But the perjured vows I’ll ne’er forget of the girl I left behind.

“But let’s remember, there are four parts to our definition of a folk song: anonymity is important – nobody knows who wrote it; age; travel; change.  When you have these four elements, when you can test a song by these four criteria, I think you can tell whether a song is a folk song or not.”

Frank M. WarnerFolk Songs of the Eastern Seaboard: from a Collector’s Notebook, 1963

Categories: England, Folk Music, Ireland, Love, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Musical Influences & Traditions, and Writing Modern Folk Songs

I’ve long had a fascination with British folk song and balladry.  The English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish musical traditions are endlessly fascinating to me, being full of history, rebellion, warfare, love, hate, joy, and sadness.  Some of my favorites in this field include Silly Wizard, Alex Beaton, the Corries, the Chieftains, Tommy Makem & the Clancy Brothers, Ronnie Drew & the Dubliners, and the Jolly Beggarmen.

What’s more, many of these songs have had an enduring influence on the American South’s balladry and folk song traditions from Virginia all the way to Florida and Texas, as explained by American folklorist Francis James Child in the 19th century and by English ethnomusicologist Cecil J. Sharp in the early 20th century.

North Carolina Historical Marker on Cecil Sharp

North Carolina Historical Marker about Cecil Sharp

Nowhere has this influence been stronger than in Appalachia, which still has strong musical roots in the Scots-Irish emigrations from the borders of Scotland & England as filtered through the Ulster Scot musical ear. I learned a great deal about these connections, and how difficult they can be to document, from wonderful speakers like John Moulden and Peter Gilmore when I attended the Ulster-American Heritage Symposiums held in South Carolina in 2002 and in Tennessee in 2006.

With these connections and interests in mind, you might understand how ecstatic I once felt to attend a concert by the blind musician Doc Watson, who truly embodied so many of the deepest influences of American roots music. A few of my other favorite American traditional musicians, or musicians working in a traditional framework, include Emmylou Harris, Joe Penland, Allison Kraus, the Kruger Brothers, and Gillian Welch.

Doc Watson

Doc Watson

I was also fortunate enough to attend a conference called “Making Connections: The Celtic Roots of Southern Music at Emory University in Atlanta in 2012, which was organized by Yeats scholar Dr. James Flannery, who also appreciates these British and Irish musical connections to America (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9h_om3JQsIg).

Most recently, having spent the last few years living in Great Britain, I’ve been very fortunate to have had a dear friend who has introduced me to so many contemporary English and British folk singers and groups I never in a million years would have heard of at home.  Just a few of these include Show of Hands, Fisherman’s Friends, The Unthanks, Seth Lakeman, Sunas, Chumbawamba, and Frank Turner.

So as a songwriter myself, and in an attempt to acknowledge this great musical debt, I proffer the following song, with words of my own composition set to the tune of “Down by the Sally Gardens” by William Butler Yeats.  Yeats himself set his own words to the music of “Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure,” so I guess we are both indebted to the unknown composer of that lovely air.  The version of  “Down by the Sally Gardens” that I had in mind whilst writing it was the gorgeous flute and harp setting by Cormac de Barra and Karen Leitner heard here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlo-YmaN7NE).

 

The New Forest Rose

She swings over Everton Grange

And lights up Lymington shore,

The English girl I sing of,

The lady I adore

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

She skips over Portmeadow pasture

And splashes Wolvercote Common ground,

The English girl I sing of,

The belle of Town and Gown

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

She cavorts round Kenilworth Castle

And frolicks on Stonehenge’s plain

The English girl I sing of

And hope to see again

And Britain’s crowns all bow down to

And Oxford’s geniuses know

The English girl I sing of

The beauteous New Forest Rose

“Ballads…contain a refrain; they utilize a detached and impersonal narrator; they frequently have no dramatic nor cathartic climax; and they often employ a device called incremental repetition, which is nothing more than a method of carrying the story along with slight variations in the text, but with a repeated pattern.

June Skinner SawyersThe Celtic Roots of Southern Music, 1994

Categories: England, Music, Folk Music, Balladry, Scots-Irish, Appalachia, American South, United Kingdom | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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