Blog Post · Filk

Ohio Valley Filk Festival – 2023

I have been avoiding writing about my experience as the Interfilk guest at the Ohio Valley Filk Festival two weeks ago. I’m a little afraid that cataloguing and naming the things that happened might rob them of some of the magical glow that they currently surround me with. However, for posterity, it needs to be done.

My journey with Filk (loosely the music of Science Fiction and Fantasy fans) started in 2017 when a friend (Alex) in Yass (the Australian town I live in), suggested that I check out Banned from Argo by Leslie Fish. Finding this song interesting, I quickly did this terrible cover, accompanied by some green-screen shenanigans with my kids.

As I was already a singer/songwriter in the folk tradition, and a fan of Sea Shanties, Pagan Music, Arthurian style ballads, Lord of the Rings, and Workers/Social Justice songs, I quickly found much to love about the Filk community. When COVID hit in 2019, and many of the conventions in the US went to an online format, I was able to do some solo concerts for NOVFF (2020), Filk Ontario (2021), Balticon (2022), and join the 24-hour filk-sing hosted by Filk Bytes and also the Festival of the Living Rooms (which is still going on virtually, and I got to meet Blind Lemming Chifon!). This meant that by 2022 I had spent close to a full month’s worth of hours on Zoom sessions and concerts with the incredible people in the Filk community.

So in April 2022 when Dr Kathleen Sloan (President of Interfilk and also 2023 Pegasus song contest joint winner for Best Adapted Song, Meat) asked me if I would be available to come to OVFF in 2023, it was an unbelievable surprise. As far as I can tell, I am the first Australian Interfilk guest at OVFF, and only the second Australian Interfilk guest ever (the first was Dave Luckett for ConChord in 2000).

After more than 12 months of disbelief and planning (thanks to Shirley from Travel Leaders for wrangling the flights), on 24 October I boarded the first of three flights to get me to Columbus Ohio.

Tuesday

After 30 hours of airports and flights, I arrived in Columbus to meet Kathleen for the first time. Fortunately I was the only person coming off the 11pm Dallas flight with a ukulele, so identification was not a problem. Kathleen drove me to DoubleTree hotel and very kindly helped me take the giant box delivered by Amazon to my room. This was the first of many kindnesses that Kathleen showed during my stay and I am very grateful for how well I was looked after by everyone at OVFF.

Wednesday

I knew that I wanted to contribute something unique to the Interfilk Auction, after all, they had generously brought me all the way from Australia. A few weeks prior to departure I had hatched a hare-brained scheme to paint a guitar; to go with the Australian animal puppets I had bought some months earlier. I couldn’t risk flying with a guitar, so I had ordered one on Amazon to be delivered to the Double Tree, and brought with me the materials needed to do the painting. By Wednesday afternoon the guitar was painted and sealed and, even more surprisingly, was actually tune-able and wasn’t the worst sounding guitar I have ever played.

Thursday

Before departing, I had heard the terrible news that Bill Laubenheimer had passed away suddenly in July. Bill was a regular on Zoom filks with his partner Carole, and there were so many of his songs that I had enjoyed listening to, specifically the Sunken Land of R’lyeh (to Stan Rogers Mary Ellen Carter), Ragnarök (to Camelot) and the ‘death by PowerPoint’ song. The first people I spoke with in the hotel lobby on Thursday afternoon were Carole, Marc Grossman and his partner Katherine. Marc has been the wrangler on more Zoom filks than I can count, and frequently interjects after a song with fascinating anecdotes from his life. Being a little overwhelmed by the crowd of people coming into the hotel that I knew (but didn’t know) it was lovely to join Marc, Carole and Katherine for dinner at Sushiko across the road from the Double Tree.

As a father with two out of five children on the Autism spectrum, I am reasonably well attuned to picking up anxiety levels in neuro-divergent folk. It amazed me over the weekend how many people were clearly on the edge of their tolerance level, but still felt safe enough to engage through the caring and welcoming energy created by this community. Welcoming enough to sing or recite something to a crowd, which is no trivial thing.

After dinner I joined the Frisky Puppy filk circle and got to share songs with so many giants of filk. As a late comer to the community, I would discover incredible songs stepped in Filk lore, like Lullaby for a Weary World, and over the weekend I found myself sitting next to these giants of filk in the circle. I did not connect the dots until later in the weekend that Miles Vorkosigan (who can filk anything with supernatural speed) was in the circle and sang a fabulous Jessica Jones song.

Friday

 

On Friday morning, Robert Beckwith (visiting from the UK) and myself helped assemble the famous backdrop to the main OVFF stage under the watchful eye of Robin Nakkula and Kat Sharp. I don’t recall much else of Friday except for the Pegasus awards concert, where I had the honour of performing Lawrence Dean’s song Following our Dreams. Lawrence’s song went on to win the Best Filk Song award at the Saturday banquet. All of the performances were fabulous, but the ones I remember most are Peter Alway (after listening to him sing his brilliant songs from a car on so many Zoom circles) and Summer Russell, who launched this wonderful album, Courage, Dear Heart, at OVFF and whose voice and songwriting I have greatly admired since first hearing it. I also enjoyed hearing Sunnie Larson play violin on almost every song in the concert! There were filk circles after the concert, but I don’t recall what I played and heard or when I went to sleep.

Pegasus Concert – photo by Sue Alexander

Saturday

I started Saturday with the Phil Ochs themed workshop that I ran on improvised harmony singing. Thankyou to the folks who joined and sung and contributed to the discussion. I even managed to slip in a Sea Shanty! I spent some of the morning sitting next to Kathy Mar in the dealers room selling the albums and songbook that I had (sincere thanks to those who purchased them). It was wonderful to hear Kathy explaining the background and intent of the album she released at OVFF, Bridge. Finding the things that we can connect over, rather than the things that divide us, really sums up my experience of the filk community.

Interfilk Concert – photo by Sue Alexander

The afternoon was filled with concerts, including my own. I was disappointed not to get more time to speak with Lauren Oxford (the Toastmaster), as her songwriting and collaboration with the Starlight Darlins overlapped with my strong interest in Appalachian folk. I had so many brief chats with people that I could have enjoyed talking with for 3 or 4 hours.

I’m generally not much of a dinner table conversationalist, but Kathleen invited me to the Interfilk table with Judith Hayman, Robert Beckwith, Douglas Davidson (who sung a brilliant song about chemistry in one of the circles) and others whose names I have not remembered. Lauren Oxford’s acceptance speech for her Pegasus award was so heartfelt and moving and summed up what it means to be part of the filk family.

I got to sing my entry for the song contest, and then got to witness the incredible spectacle which is the Interfilk auction. I was very honoured to have my song win the contest and then also get inducted into the Pretty Pretty Princesses. Knowing I have brought some happiness to the world is a thing I will treasure (along with the very cool tiara).

Summer’s Bardic Inspiration Themed Filk was full by the time the auction finished, but I had an excellent time in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) filk circle run by Mary Bertke and Bill & Brenda Sutton.

Sunday

Deborah Van Heyningen and her parrot Basil are famous in the zoom filk circles, so it was wonderful to catch the tail end of her concert in the main hall, and also wonderful to meet Basil up close in the Con Suite (snack room).

Deborah & Basil

While judging the Iron Filker competition did give me minor flashbacks to running recruitment interviews for public service positions, I was joined by two very competent judges and we quickly came to an agreement. I loved the songs I had heard from Beth Kinderman in the circles over the weekend so was very pleased that she won with ‘Fire & Air’. The formal part of the festival ended with several album launch concerts, and a ‘Closing Jam’ which I unfortunately hadn’t brought my ukulele down for.

Closing Jam

Ever since hearing Bob Kanefsky’s parody of Hearthfire by Ada Palmer, I have been looking forward to seeing the famous Mongolian Barbeque that inspired the song. It definitely lived up to expectations and I understand the song so much better now. While it didn’t win the Pegasus for Best Adapted Song, there is always a future year.

Grillfire!

An absolute highlight of the Dead Dog filk on Sunday night was when Deirdre Murphy (Wyld Dandelyon) set out an array of percussion instruments and asked the circle to make an ocean soundscape. I got to play with a rainstick, which I have wanted to do ever since hearing Malcolm Guite’s recitation of the Seamus Heaney poem here.

The Song Goes On

Monday held some sadness as people I had met so fleetingly started to leave the hotel. I know that the online connections will continue and grow stronger, but there is a special kind of magic created when occupying physical space together, and especially when singing together in that place. I wrote this poem on the Tuesday:

Leaving DoubleTree

There's magic here at DoubleTree,
Where fen are forged as family,
And fast embrace is warm and free,
In hallowed halls at DoubleTree.

From far across this land and more,
by plane and wagon filkers pour,
To magic's fleeting star they draw,
and bide a while at DoubleTree.

Strong hands of steadfast volunteers,
Work hours long at grinding gears,
Supporting all sweet tears and cheers,
That ring through castle DoubleTree.

I leave with full but heavy heart,
From magic's healing glow to part,
But on the journey which I start,
will ring the gold harmonic art,
that sang to me at DoubleTree.

 

There are so many people that I met and haven’t mentioned, and so many people that worked to keep the festival running both over the weekend and in the many months before. So many hugs were given and received that I still carry the warmth of.

Thanks Cecilia Eng for driving us to the Mongolian Restaurant, to Daniel Gunderson for giving me a hug from Talis, to Heather Preston for your fabulous song in the Saturday open filk, to the person who sung ‘I Ain’t a Martian Anymore’ and the person who sung Henry Lawson’s ‘Outside Track’, and to Watson Ladd for singing a ‘Waltzing Matilda’ Filk, to Merlin the dog for the pats, to Shirley Frantz for keeping the unicorns alive, to Mary for showing me around German Village, to Les Davis for taking me to breakfast and driving me to the airport, to the guy at the High Street Taco Bell who pretended to charge me $10 to use the toilet, to Jen and Eric Distad for your brilliant songs and letting my music stand be on stage with you, to Sunnie Larson for singing ‘Weary World’ so beautifully, to Gabrielle Gold for your fabulous cat song, to Doug Cottril, Steve MacDonald and the OVFF team for running the event and to so many others..

Thankyou for welcoming me into this magical family. Thankyou especially to Kathleen and the Interfilk organization for making my travel possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Ossian’s Cave Mystery

Anne Murray Keith

This month I have been digging through the Bodleian Library archive of Broadside ballads. While looking for songs with a Halloween theme, I found this one called Oscar’s Ghost.

This ballad only appears once in the archive, on a sheet of several Scottish songs. The lyrics that appear on the sheet are:

 

OSCAR'S GHOST A favourite Scottish song.

O see that form that faintly gleams!
Tis  Oscar come to cheer my dreams;
On wings of wind he flies away,
O stay my lovely Oscar, stay!

Wake Ossian, last of Fingal’s line,
And mix thy sighs and tears with mine. 
Awake the Harp to doleful lays, 
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The Shell is ceas'd in Oscar's hall.
Since gloomy Cairbar wrought thy fall:
The roe on Morven lightly bounds,
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.


The broadsheet gives no author or context to the song.

A google search for parts of the lyrics led to the 1843, slightly pretentiously titled, book, ‘The Book of Scottish Song’ by Alexander Whitelaw. In this book the song is attributed to Anne Murray Keith. And the lyrics are given as:

 

O, SEE that form that faintly gleams! 
'Tis Oscar come to cheer my dreams! 
On wings of wind he files away;
O stay, my lovely Oscar, stay !

Wake, Ossian, last of Fingal's line. 
And mix thy tears and sighs with mine;
Awake the harp to doleful lays.
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall. 
Since gloomy Kerbar wrought his fall; 
The roe on Morven lightly bounds, 
Nor hears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

 

The only difference from the broadside is the spelling of ‘Kerbar’ and some minor grammatical changes. The description of the song links Anne Keith to Sir Walter Scott and says that she lived from 1736 until 1818.

William Gilpin, a priest, published a tourist guide which included a visit to Dunkeld in Scotland that took place in 1776 (published in 1789). Gilpin describes a visit to Ossian’s cave (which he calls a Hermitage), where he found the following inscription:

 

Oh! see the form, which faintly gleams:
Tis Oscar, come to cheer my dreams, 
On wreaths of mist it glides away:
Oh! Stay, my lovely Oscar, stay.

Awake the harp to doleful lays,
And soothe my soul with Oscar's praise. 
Wake, Oscian, last of Fingal's line;
And mix thy sighs, and tears with mine.

The shell is ceased in Oscar's hall,
Since gloomy Cairbar saw thee fall.
The roe o'er Morven playful bounds,
Nor fears the cry of Oscar's hounds.

Thy four grey stones the hunter spies, 
Peace to the hero's ghost he cries.

 

These are the lyrics I used for my recording.

Modern tourist guides to Ossians Cave indicate that the existence of the inscription is known, but that it is no longer there. The addition of a final half-stanza and (to my mind) more poetic language in the inscription may suggest that the version in the 1843 was an attempt to recall something heard or read before and the inscription is the original.

The song is undoubtedly about the Poems of Ossian, by James Macpherson. With the characters of Oscar, Ossian and Fingal all parts of what is now mostly accepted as a work of re-imagined Celtic mythology. The entry at the top of this page clearly inspires the final half-stanza about grey stones and hunters:

If fall I must in the field, raise high my grave, Vinvela. Grey stones, and heaped-up earth,
shall mark me to future times. When the hunter shall sit by the mound, and produce his food at noon,
“Some warrior rests here,” he will say ; and my fame shall live in his praise. Remember me, Vinvela, when low on earth I lie.

– (Fingal, James Macpherson, 1762)

The controversy around Fingal and James Macpherson is a whole different subject, but it appears that he presented the 1762 publication as a work of scholarly translation from Gaelic, rather than a work of pure invention.

There is a tantalizing inference here (no longer online, but cached by Google) in a summary of the Keith ancestry, that Anne had converted much more of Ossian into verse.

Sir Walter Scott told me that Miss Anne Keith amused herself in the latter years of her life by translating Macpherson’s "Ossian" into verse.’ 
She was the authoress also of a song entitled ‘Oscar’s Ghost,’ inserted in Johnson’s ‘Scots’ Musical Museum.’

Anne would have been 40 by 1776 and would have been able to read Fingal when she was 26. Had she began composing poems inspired by Ossian and at some point and graffitied one of them during a pilgrimage to Ossian’s Cave?

The Keith family record also suggests that Walter Scott based his story ‘The Highland Window’ on stories he had been told by Anne and that she was the model for Bethune Baliol.

One of the interesting aspects of these multiple versions is that the spellings of Cairbrie are so different.  Macpherson was clearly using known Gaelic historical/mythical figures, but ‘Kerbar’ suggests an attempt to write an unfamiliar word phonetically and ‘Cairbar’ suggests someone who has read Cairbre in Fingal, but forgotten how to spell it.

Here is a portrait of Anne, etched by Samuel Freeman based on a miniature by Anne Mee.

There is a good chance that other poems and songs by Anne, based on Ossian exist somewhere.

Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Hunting the Wren

I had heard the ‘Milder to Molder’ version of the The Cutty Wren within folk circles, but not taken much notice of it. According to MainlyNorfolk, the 1940 version by the Topic Singers was the first of the folk revival recordings. The many that followed (Steeleye Span, Martin Carthy, Bert Lloyd) all used largely the same lyrics.

For my own recording, I found this 1857 source in the Cambrian Journal, which seems very close to the Topic Singers version except for some notable differences:

  • It is Milder to Melder (as opposed to Molder)
  • There is a duplication of the first line which ends with ‘the younger to the elder’
  • The verses about portioning out the spoils is not included

The Cambrian version also includes a score, with a melody which isn’t quite the same as the revival version.

After posting my version, someone made a comment criticising Bert Lloyd’s assertion that the song had been used during the Peasants’ Revolt against Richard II in the 1300s, and also generally criticising any assertion of pre-Christian origins of the ‘Hunting the Wren’ custom across Ireland, England and parts of Europe. Here Bert even brings witches into the picture.

This led to more research and the discovery of this digitized copy of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book with a publication date around 1744. The song in this book is called Robbin to Bobbin and is structurally quite different but with the same theme. Here is my recording of these lyrics.

The song has a modern history of being used in protest movements and commentary on class warfare. The play Chips with Everything, 1962 by Arnold Wesker, makes fascinating use of the song as a taunt to Royal Air Force officers by enlisted men, to remind them of the risks associated with high station. Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick appear performing this song in one of the TV adaptations (1969). Apparently, this version was aired in serial form, but there is also a full length film from 1975.

Linking the Wren Hunting custom to ritual sacrifice of a king around the winter solstice is probably the fault of Robert Fraser in the Golden Bough. Fraser discusses instances of this wren hunting custom in France, Scotland, England and other parts of Europe. The stories are strange, because on the one hand the Wren is considered sacred, and to harm it or its home during the year a cause for serious bad luck:

                “Malisons, malisons, mair than ten, That harry the Ladye of Heaven’s hen!” (Fraser)

Interestingly, in the 1744 version of the lyrics, the wren is a woman, and in Scotland the wren is called the ‘Lady of Heaven’s Hen’. However, in the 1857 lyrics the wren is a male, and often referred to as the ‘King of Birds’. The idea of killing a divine animal as a mechanism to threaten or get the attention of a god is common throughout Frasers work.

There are several stories which explain how the wren came to be both king and reviled.

Eagle and the Wren

In Plutarch’s Moralia, from around the first century, he refers to Aesop’s story of the wren who wins the contest of who can fly the highest by riding on the back of the eagle. Interestingly, Plutarch uses this proverb in the context of encouraging junior leaders not to get ahead of themselves but to realise that they rise on the achievements of others (and should be humble).

Woodcut from Tommy Thumb's Nursery Rhymes
Woodcut from Tommy Thumb’s Book

St. Stephen’s Day

St. Stephen’s Day is notionally held to commemorate the stoning of the first Christian Martyr in 36 AD and is held all over Europe. In Ireland the day is called ‘Wren Day’ and coincides with the hunting of the wren, but as far as I can find, there is nothing to connect St Stephen’s story with the killing of a wren.

Robin and the Wren

In some traditions, the Jenny Wren is the wife of Robin Redbreast, which aligns with the wren being female in the 1744 lyrics.

Viking Betrayal, Druids and Cromwell

The statement is made without reference in pages like  this that the wren was responsible for making a noise and betraying Irish soldiers to Norsemen. There is also the suggestion that the Gaelic name for wren, dreoilín, is related to draoi ean (Druid Bird), and somehow connects with Druids. In some instances the accusation of making a noise is linked back to St Stephen, but he was never in hiding before being stoned to death. This blog post at The Wild Geese repeats many of these stories, blaming the wren for disclosing someone’s location both in a 750 CE Viking raid and also during Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1641. I have been unable to find any scholarly references to these stories.

Clíodhna the Seductress

This is a theory I find very interesting. Clíodhna is an Irish goddess and queen of the Banshees. Part of her mythology is that she has three brightly coloured birds that eat otherworldly apples. This page provides a detailed history of Clíodhna, but most importantly that she can transform into a wren, and that she has a habit of seducing and drowning men by the sea. One of the stories from the Isle of Man is that the goddess was cursed to turn into a bird at Christmas and is hunted as revenge for killing sailors. This story, however, is fairly localized in Ireland would struggle to explain the widespread Wren Hunting across the rest of Europe.

My general conclusion here is that no one really knows what  led to such a cruel practice around Christmas, and I am very happy that people no longer harm these beautiful birds. Why people did it, seems to remain a mystery.

The Wren
Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Where are the Watermelons from anyway?

My son came home from school last week singing Down by the Bay, and we made a recording here.

I cannot recall hearing this song while growing up in the 1980s in Australia, but apparently most kids in North America know it thanks to Raffi Cavoukian (his version here).

Sometimes in interview Raffi has mentioned World War I origins for the song, which is supported by the 1968 publication, Sally Go Round the Sun, where the song is credited to Songs and Slang of the British Soldier by John Brophy and Eric Partridge in 1930.

The absence of the song (to my hearing at least) in Australia is unusual, as much of the repertoire of Australian children’s entertainers, like the Wiggles, came from the UK and the US.

Sadly there was no copy of the 1930 text online, so I had to wait until going to the library today to further research its origins. I found the 1930 text, but it had several titles, including The Long Trail (which is online, a 1965 re-print).

The Long Trail – Song Page
The Long Trail – Title Page

One of the reasons I wasn’t having luck with the search is because the song in this book is titled Down by the Sea, and the singer talks about their wife, rather than their mother.

Searching for the 1930 words led me to More Tommy’s Tunes, which is a 1918 sequel to Tommy’s Tunes, published by Frederick Thomas Nettleingham (2nd Lieutenant Royal Flying Corp) in 1917.

The version in this book is titled Way down yonder in the Cornfields and begins with the line “OLD Mother Riley’s got a farm”, but has the familiar call and response structure with the sea and the watermelons.

More Tommy’s Tunes – 1918
More Tommy’s Tunes – Song

No doubt this book was widely printed during the war, but it was special to be able to hold a tattered copy in my hands and think about how much improvised song would have been used by the men and women going through the horrors of Word War I to keep their spirits up.

Unfortunately this is where the trail goes cold. It would seem most likely that this version has it’s origin in pre-war American song, either music-hall or from an African-American song, but I cannot find any reference to this.

I know that there is some association with watermelons and racism, however, none of the versions of this song that I have found indicate that racism is present in this song.

 

Blog Post · My Own Music

Return to Tipperary

In the absence of comprehensive liner notes for this album, I’m compiling some commentary on each of the tracks in this post. The album results from my attendance at the ‘Return to Tipperary’ weekend at St Clements Retreat in Galong, New South Wales in November 2022. I provided some music during the event and the collected songs here relate in some way to the talks given, discussions I had over the weekend and subsequent research about the connection between Ireland, Australia and the Catholic Church. One of the attendees from the event, Michelle Rainger, put together this report.

There are a few songs that I performed over the weekend that are not on the album due to copyright challenges, including ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, ‘Raglan Road’, and ‘John O’ Dreams’. I have found that most folk writers are happy to approve published covers, but once they pass on and the large rights agencies get involved, the money they ask for a single song is more than I’ll ever recover from album sales.

1. Shores of Botany Bay

This song wasn’t performed over the weekend, but tells the emigration story of an Irishman to Australia. The author is unknown, though Duke Tritton did claim to add an additional verse. There are some indications that the destination was originally ‘Amerikay’. More detail about the song’s history here.

2. A Long Way to Tipperary

I had not really listened to this song’s lyrics before trying to do a recording for this album. I had put it in the general basket of twee condescending English songs about Irish people. On a more detailed listen, the lyrics are quite racist. For the album I have re-written the lyrics and put the song to a new minor key melody.

3. Battle of the Dardanelles

One of the great things about conferences attended by people passionate about the topic is the conversations held during the breaks and over meal times. One of the attendees mentioned to me that a song had been known in her family and sung by her father, but that no members knew the full lyrics. With a bit of selective searching on Trove, I was able to track down the song as published in 1915 and solve the family mystery for her. The song is also known as The Dying Solider and Banks of the Murray.

4. The Answer’s Ireland

Having attended the online memorial for John Dengate for the past three years, I was very happy to hear that past events of this type at St Clements (under the title ‘Shamrock in the Bush’) had John Dengate in attendance as bard. I sang this song on the last day of the conference and am very appreciative of Dale Dengate’s approval to put my recording of this song by John on the album.

5. The Gallway Shawl

This was one of the first Irish ‘standards’ that I committed to memory and it is frequently part of my sets at folk festivals. Sadly the author of this fine ballad is unknown.

6. Ned Ryan’s Castle

Ned Ryan is the whole reason for the existence of the St Clements Retreat in Galong (established by the Redemptorists in 1918) and also the reason that a conference on Irish history is so suitably held there. Ned was a convict, deported in 1816 for his part in a minor act of vandalism against the English in Clonoulty. After serving his time as a convict, he established himself and a large family in Galong. On the passing of his last descendent, John Nagle Ryan, the land (and his castle) was bequeathed to the Catholic Church.

7. Antiphon for Psalm 89

This Antiphon (short introduction to a Psalm) originated in Bangor, County Down, Ireland around 700 A.D. I thought my simple setting was suitable to include on the album given the strong Irish Catholic thread that is woven through the history of the Irish in Australia.

8. Ned Kelly’s Armour

One of the most fascinating presentations given over the weekend was Dr. Richard Reid’s discussion of his role in curating the ‘Not Just Ned’ exhibition at the Australian National Gallery in 2011. Getting several suits of Kelly armour in one place was no easy exercise! I wrote this song in response to repeated attacks on me and others by a handful of zealots who wish to paint a ‘black and white’ view of the history of Irish persecution in Australia.

9. On Carden’s Wild Domain

Having both His Excellency Tim Mawe, Ambassador of Ireland to Australia, and his wife Patricia McCarthy with us over the whole weekend was a fantastic surprise. During his stirring speech at the conference dinner on Saturday night, Tim recited this poem by Reverend Timothy Corcoran. He also generously reminded me which poem it was several months later when I asked him via Twitter because I had forgotten. The poem had come from an effort by the Irish government in the 1930s to collect songs and stories from school children. The broader story of John Rutter ‘Woodcock’ Carden’s abduction of Eleanor Arbuthnot in 1854 could warrant a whole album on its own.

10. The Kelly Gang

I discovered this song in Trove while researching the other Ned Kelly song on the album. It only appears in print because the author of the 1898 article is attacking the quality of Australian ‘bush poets’. I guess that backfired for him.

11. The Vow of Tipperary

I found this song by Thomas Osborne Davis while looking for the origins of the well known song Silevenamon. Rather than re-record the very well known Tipperary song, I went for this one by Davis, which seemed to have been lost to history.

12. The Second Coming

I had recorded this poem by William Butler Yeats some months before this album was envisaged, but as I was doing an album focused on Ireland, I had to include something from my favourite Irish poet. I had discussed the ideas in this poem in a previous post.

13. The Parting Glass

While the origins of this parting song appear to be Scottish, it has been well and truly adopted by the Irish. It was also popular (and out of copyright) long before Ed Sheeran sang it.

In conclusion, I want to express my thanks to all of the attendees and organizers of the event at Galong. Especially to Cheryl Mongan and Dr. Richard Reid for inviting me to provide music for the event.

Blog Post

Godfred Ollobik the Viking?

While doing some research before making a recording of Kate Rusby’s version of Daughter of Megan, I stumbled upon this very strange story published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine in 1854.

The story is titled “The Secret of Stoke Manor” and starts out claiming to tell the history of the Willoughby family of Stoke. The first chapter (starting on page 728) in the story tells of a young Welsh girl, Gwen Gryffyd, being kidnapped by a Viking on the day of her planned wedding to an old Saxon Earl.

I was so taken with the prose and the story that I made a full recording of the text here.

The implication in the story is that Gwen is THE ‘Daughter of Megan’ or ‘Merch Megan’ in Welsh and quite possibly is the one that the Air of the same name was written for. Kate Rusby does not sing her song to the tune of the Air, and it isn’t even clear if the 1812 lyrics have anything to do with the tune (other than suggesting they could be sung to it). The lyrics that Kate sings are more of a simple case of unrequited love, rather than an epic tale of Viking kidnapping.

So the questions I have as a ballad researcher are as follows:

  • Who wrote this story published in 1854?
  • Is the story based in fact?

A True Story?

I’ll start with the easier question, as the text of the story is full of names of places and people which should be relatively easy to find. Megan Gryffyd and her husband Rees ap Gryffyd appear on Ancestry.com but I’m not keen to pay for access.

Earl Wulfstan

Early in the story, Earl Wulfstan of Thorpe Combe gets mentioned as the old man to whom Gwen is to be wed (at some great financial advantage to her father). The only recorded Wulfstan of this time is a bishop who died in 1095, Wulfstan II. Worcester is not so significantly far away from Wales that maybe the Earl was confused with a Bishop? But this already smells of someone looking for names to put in a story that fit in the right historical timeframe. Thorpe Combe does not seem to be a place.

Rees (or Rhys) ap Gryffyd

Rees is Gwen’s father and is a somewhat blustering but diminished figure in this story, making me wonder if the author is female. There are many Welsh people called Gryffyd as it means strength in Welsh. Gruffyd ap LLwelyn was king of Wales from 1055 to 1063 so Rees could certainly have been his son, however, there is no other source linking him to Vikings.

Ollobrik the Viking

I can find no reference to an Ollobrik, or any reference to a Viking taking an oath not to remove his helmet. Maybe that is where the inspiration for the Mandalorian TV series came from? There are some parallels to the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ story here. The text makes the bold claim that Ollobrik was recorded in William the Conqueror’s Doomsday Book as Ollobius de Merlitor. I guess people couldn’t easily do text searches of the Doomsday Book back in 1854.

As mentioned earlier, there are some Ancestry.com reference to these people, including a link to this Magnus, King of Norway. However, the other details do not line up with the name Ollobrik. I suspect that the only source for the Ancestry entry is this story.

Having given up on finding corroborating evidence of the named people in the story, I had a look for some of the place names. Coel-Heffyd is mentioned frequently, but does not appear to be real Welsh at all. Merlitor is not to be found and neither is St Colva’s. The Llanwillin, possibly meant to be a river, is also not to be found. My only conclusion here is that all the place names are made up using words that look a bit Welsh.

Author

For this question, a bit of a look at Blackwood’s Edinburgh is worthwhile. According to Wikipedia the magazine ran from 1817 until 1980. The magazine was no stranger to controversy, apparently causing a duel between John Scott and Jonathan Christie in 1821. While Percy Shelley and Samuel Coleridge both wrote for the magazine, they had sadly passed well before 1854. Advocate for women’s rights, John Neal, did write for the magazine and was still alive in 1854, but does not seem to have form writing Viking stories.

Both John Lockhart and John Wilson wrote for the magazine but died in 1854. This could explain why no further articles of Willoughby family history are published, but neither man has a connection to Wales that I can find. This leaves a check through other known writers for Blackwood’s who were alive at the right time and had at least some form in the style, or a connection to Wales.

  • George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
  • Mary Margaret Busk
  • Margaret Oliphant (wrote 120 books!)
  • Elizabeth Clementine Stedman
  • Charles Neaves

Without further clues, this is where my trail on possible authorship runs cold.

Conclusion

Based on my short investigation, I suspect this is a piece of Scandinavian inspired fiction with no basis in history, other than setting the story within some well known landmarks (like the Oath of Sarum) and the invasion of William the Conqueror ( my great-great-etc illegitimate grandfather).

Please let me know if you have any other details about this story.

Update

Some further searching has revealed the author of “The Secret of Stoke Manor” (of which the Ollobik/Gwen story is a part) to be George Cupples of Edinburgh. Though he did not give his name to the Blackwoods publication, this Journal from Oxford includes a note listing George as the author, and blames procrastination for the non-completion of the story.

Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

Halloween on the Ukulele

This Halloween I decided to have a go at recording 30 ukulele songs on the themes of Halloween. Around half of the songs ended up being written by filkers and the other half a mix of my own songs and parodies and some classic Halloween material.

You can listen to the full playlist of songs here. My son Rowan and I also did a live stream on midnight of 30 October (Australian time) including some of the songs.

Somewhere in history, before commercial Halloween became a night of cheap costumes and free candy, the festival carried some useful messages for humanity. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis of the various pagan origins and Christianised/Commercial descendants of the festival; however, some summarised ideas follow.

Remembering Our Ancestors

As I was setting up the backdrop for our live stream, I realised that I have no photos of my grandparents on display in the house. This is partially due to the problematic relationship with my parents, however, each of these four people contributed to my genetics and also to the person I am, through their words and actions and the lives they led.

Reginald and Veronica

It was only much later in life that I looked into the Danish heritage of my maternal grandfather, Reginald, and his time in the Australian Army. My memory of him on the occasions that I would stay with him and his wife Veronica during the holidays was him getting up at 6am and meticulously hand rolling the 10 cigarettes he would smoke during the day at work, the smell of tobacco still gives me a sense of calmness.

Reginald was always gentle and kind with me but lived with a weight of family history. His wife Veronica was the one who would make an effort to take me to movies and musical theatre, to teach me to sculpt and paint and gave me a desire to find a preciousness in art that was available to those who cannot afford ‘genuine’ precious things. Sadly it was Veronica who passed away from throat cancer long before Reginald. Veronica and her sister Betty came from abject poverty, children of a deserting English merchant Navy man who abandoned the family when they were young.

Stella and Mick

I was only with my paternal grandparents at a very young age, as after we left New Zealand when I was four they would only visit every few years. My grandfather, Mick, was the grandson of an Irish linen maker from Maghera who was exiled to New Zealand because of his relationship with the young tutor to his younger brothers. I knew none of this connection to Ireland until an uncle, Bruce Clark, sent me a copy of the history of the family business. It was through researching the historical newspapers of New Zealand that I discovered that Mick was a regular entertainer at social events in Whangarei before the war. My lasting memory of him was his obsession with watermelon, frequently smuggling seeds from Australia back to New Zealand in pill canisters.

My grandmother, Stella, who we were always told was ‘Italian’ when I was growing up, actually came from the Croatian Island of Bra? and was part of a significant immigration of Croatians to New Zealand, mostly coming in search of a fortune digging for Kauri Gum. It is probably Stella’s staunch Catholicism that meant I was allowed to be born, rather than terminated as an underage, unwanted, pregnancy.

Whether or not you believe in an after-life or the ability of those who are gone to tangibly engage with the world, they certainly live in our heads. They live as examples, as voices, as feelings. Halloween can be a time to acknowledge where we came from and the things of those who have gone that we choose (or cannot help choosing) to carry with us.

Clearing out the Dead

One of the songs that I did was by Lee Gold, a summary of the Wild Hunt led by Odin and recounted in Norse mythology. This idea that the gods ride the earth to capture the souls who have died during the year and carry them to their doom is a repeated motif across Europe. This theme is also reflected in Damh the Bard’s Samhain Eve song. There can be a connection here to the Scots/Irish tradition of setting carved heads with lanterns outside the house so that the hunt would not accidentally take the souls of those within.

Guisers and Gifts

Several of the songs I recorded relate to people either play acting, or actually being something other than they appear. Talis Kimberley’s Velvet and Mike Whitaker’s Cry of the Wolf both deal with shape shifting, as does Beauty and the Beast in a slightly different way. As humans we have an innate knowledge of the otherness that lives within us. In some ways it is liberating to pretend to be that other, in other ways it can be terrifying.

Across Europe, the tradition of children dressing up and going door to door asking for food or money and threating consequence if the gifts are not sufficient is prevalent. It lives on in the plastic commercial incarnation of ‘trick or treating’. For much of history, the time after harvest led to winter, and a knowledge that cold and hunger would likely take several people in a community, it makes sense that gifts would be given in the hope of survival.

In Conclusion

For quite a few years I have done a Christmas song challenge, and I love the hope of a returning sun that lives within the Yule tradition, but it was exciting to tackle a different festival this year. Unfortunately the trick or treaters in town are going to have a difficult time tomorrow with a 99% chance of rain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Post · Folk Music

Folk by the Sea

Kiama
Kiama

There is no shortage of male singer/songwriters in the folk scene in Australia, so I was very honoured to be invited to play at Folk by the Sea in beautiful Kiama this year. The festival last ran in 2019, so just like our Irish and Celtic festival here in Yass, it had been three years since musicians have had the chance to get together and share honest, meaningful music with each other and a live audience.

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

I shared the stages with some true giants of the folk scene, people such as Judy Small, who I unfortunately did not get to see in concert due to scheduling, but did get to hear her parody song at Russell Hannah’s parody concert, and Enda Kenny, whose song-writing and delivery are superb. He was introduced as the ‘finest Irish songwriter living outside Ireland’, which I think is a little unfair, ‘finest living Irish songwriter’ would be more accurate. Russell forgot Enda at the parody concert, but Enda did do a marvellous parody in his main concert based on ‘My Way’, but about the Evergiven.

The reason I was invited to perform at the festival was Rod Cork, who passed in February this year. I did not know Rod personally at all, but he listened to a set that I played in Yass at the Turning Wave Festival in 2017. Rod came up to me afterwards and gave me his card and suggested that I apply to perform at Folk by the Sea.

I did apply in 2018, and again in 2019 but was not invited to perform both times. Rod explained the competitive nature of artistic selection boards for festivals and suggested I continue to apply. I don’t have visibility of the inner-workings of the festival artistic board, but do wonder if my selection was a parting consideration for Rod. In any case, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to perform in 2022, and very thankful to people like Rod who encourage people starting out on their folk journey.

Redfern Shanty Club
Redfern Shanty Club

It was fabulous to get the chance to perform my album of Cicely Fox Smith poems in the Anglican Church by the sea (built in 1843). After joining the shanty session run by the Redfern Shanty Club earlier in the day, it was wonderful to take these fine poems out for a run again in an appropriate setting. The acoustics of the church meant that amplification was entirely un-necessary, and the beautiful wooden ceiling is built like an inverted boat.

Dixie Chooks
Dixie Chooks

The Dixie Chooks were on immediately after me in the church, so I got to hear this fine duo for the second time in a week (as they also opened the Yass Irish and Celtic Festival last weekend). Sometimes as a fellow performer there is an inclination to stay around out of politeness to listen to other performers, but in the case of Wendy and Moira it is an absolute pleasure to hear to their harmonies and mastery of several stringed things.

 

 

Jane Brownlee and Samuel De Santi
Jane Brownlee and Samuel De Santi
Kiama
Kiama
Blog Post · Folk Music

The Craic is Back in Yass!

I have greatly missed the sound of forty musicians on bodhrans, fiddles, concertinas, flutes, guitars, mandolins, pipes, harmonicas and banjos belting out hour after hour of Irish tunes. It was fabulous to hear that sound in our small town of Yass again after a three-year absence due to the plague.

As a songwriter, I also love the chance to hear what others from across the country have been writing or adding to their repertoire. While the factory floor of Twitter, Instagram, Zoom, YouTube and Facebook have provided an alternative for artists during these times of isolation, they do not come close to the experience of being in the same room with an audience and other performers.

Dixie Chooks
Dixie Chooks at the Lovat Chapel

Friday night opened at the Lovat Chapel (formerly St. Augustine’s) with the ‘just in time’ Dixie Chooks, having hit petrol trouble at Gundagai. Although I’ve had the chance to hear Wendy and Moira several times before, the superb guitar skills, soaring harmonies and guaranteed humor always make it worthwhile to catch them again.

Songbrother
Songbrother at the Lovat Chapel

As an avid listener of Triantan for many years I was excited to hear the new incarnation of 2/3rds of them (Anthony Woolcott and Miguel Heatwole), with Sophie Moore. Fabulous vocal harmonies and an eclectic mix of material, including Baterz’ Giant Squids, a song from Tolkien and some 80s punk ballads. The addition of Sophie Moore’s beautiful soprano makes for some enchanting listening. However, the group may need to find a new name as ‘Songbrother’ probably doesn’t fit anymore!

Miguel asked me to record the concert for them, the video is available here.

Memorial for Annie Waterhouse
Memorial for Annie Waterhouse

The rest of the Friday evening was a somber occasion, with a memorial concert for Annie Waterhouse, who passed unexpectedly only months before the festival. Annie was a major supporter of the festival and a key member of the committee, her loss was deeply felt. I sang this re-write of the famous poem by George Washington Johnson for Annie at the concert.

Sadly I missed the end of the Friday night Shanty Session run by the Canberra Shanty Club at the Clubhouse Hotel but did catch the song about an exploding pig by Luke Robinson at Trader & Co. before calling it a night.

While there were a few performers that I missed due to scheduling, I was able to hear the angelic voice of Shona Williams at 10 in the morning on Saturday, in a newly flooded (broken dishwasher) Yazzbar. Shona is a joy to listen to as an unaccompanied singer.

Shona Williams
Shona Williams at Yazzbar (10am)

After hearing Shona I was back to the Lovat Chapel to launch my second album of songs about Yass, Peace in the Valley. It was also an opportunity to sing my song about the Sisters of Mercy that came to Yass in 1875 and were responsible for building the Chapel and running the Mt Carmel school. I had been scheduled to sing it there in 2021, to commemorate the last sisters leaving Yass, but the event was covid-delayed.

It is worth a special mention for Keith and Liz Lovell, who run the Lovat Chapel venue as volunteers. Having a great MC can make the experience much fuller for both performer and audience and Liz does a wonderful job (promoted to National Folk Festival MC this year!).

Nerida Cuddy
Nerida Cuddy at Yazzbar

Having missed Nerida Cuddy at previous festivals, it was wonderful to finally hear her in person, with such wholesome and evocative songwriting and a fine voice. One of Nerida’s songs, Virtual Folk Club, closely tracks my own strange experience in 2020/2021 with international Zoom-based concerts and music clubs.

One of the best surprises of the weekend was ducking into Trader &Co. at 8pm on Saturday for some dinner (delicious beef in Guinness). The schedule had ‘Open Mic’, but instead Mad Kelpie Playdate did an impromptu concert of fabulous pipe tunes. A brief snippet up on my Facebook page here. After the set they were joined by others for a session, which Paddy Conner told me went until 1am.

Lugh Damen
Lugh Damen at the Memorial Hall

Sunday afternoon finished up with a local showcase where I got to share the stage again with Lugh Damen and his very fine sounding 150 year old lute, our Irish guest artist, Stephen Murray and honorary locals Phil Lester and Shona Williams.

Christina Green
Christina Green at the Australian Hotel

Other highlights over the weekend included fine songs from Christina Green. I had greatly enjoyed the Irish chant that she sang for Annie’s Memorial Concert, so was happy to be able to catch her set at the Australian Hotel on Saturday night. Despite some competition with the rowdy sports-ball watchers in the bar, Christina shared some fabulous songs. Hearing David Game and Jenny Gall sing and play as a duo was also a pleasure, having previously played with them in the local Céilí band.

Jennifer and David
Jennifer and David at the Australian Hotel

As at any festival, there were many other great acts that I missed this year. Jose Garcia of Tidal Moon did an excellent job getting the best sound out of the Lovat Chapel, but I was sad to only catch him and Tidal Moon singing at partial sounds checks.

Janno Scanes, as festival director and president of the committee did a super-human job putting the festival together this year. The hurdles have not been minor, and it is a significant achievement that the festival went ahead despite weather, sickness, bureaucracy, and great loss. Melita Simmonds also managed to be simultaneously in 4 venues capturing the festival, you can see her fine work on the festival Instagram and Facebook pages.

Stephen Murray
Stephen Murray at the Memorial Hall

Hopefully at the 2023 festival, the plague will be a bad memory, and we will welcome back performers from across the globe, to the finest festival, in the finest little town on earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blog Post

Open Letter to Julia Donaldson

Since 2018 I have been setting the lyrics of children’s books by Julia Donaldson to music and publishing them on my un-monetized YouTube Channel. This started out because I noticed the link between Phil Ochs fabulous setting of Alfred Noyes poem ‘The Highway Man‘ and Julia Donaldson’s book, The Highway Rat.

This type of transformative use of material is usually covered by Fair Use or Fair Dealing copyright laws, depending on the country the copyright is held in.

These videos became very popular, with the Highway Rat video having over 38,000 views when it was removed by Julia’s Publishers (Scholastic and MacMillan).

The first video to be removed, on 11 January 2022, was a song version of Superworm. When I approached the company (Web Capio) that had issued the copyright strike, they directed me to Scholastic, who not only confirmed their intent to remove the video, but stated that I had to take down all of my song adaptations of Julia’s work.

It was not until I took down the videos that I started to get messages from distressed parents whose young children were watching these videos daily. As a parent to children on the Autism spectrum, I know how critical a song can be in managing the anxiety of kids (and parents) who live with this condition.

The whole situation left me feeling terrible. I know that authors should, and have a right to, make money from their work. However, in this instance, the works created by me were transformative and were not monetized on YouTube. The Publishers had the option to claim Content ID and generate revenue from the work, but instead went down the path of copyright strikes, putting all of the content on my channel at risk.

I have written the letter below in the hope that Julia Donaldson will eventually see it and maybe re-consider her direction to Publishers around fan-created material that is not being used commercially.

(pdf version of letter attached, Dear Julia Donaldson)

(and sung version here)

29 July 2022

To: Julia Donaldson

c/o
Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH
Gaensheidestraße 26
70184 Stuttgart
Germany

Dear Julia,

I’m writing this letter to you,
In the hope there is something that you can do,
To stop your publishers from hunting me down,
To cancel the songs that I freely passed around,

I know that the Gruffalo belongs to you,
And the mouse and the snail and super worm to,
Yes the witch and her broom, and the man made of stick,
Are all from your musings, it’s not a fight that I pick.

I never sought profit from the songs that I wrote,
Just a melody stream on which your words could float,
As I know there are children with needs quite unique,
Who respond better to singing, than to things we speak.

Your publishers just like that selfish old rat,
Seek to pillage the highway, and make the world flat,
Filled only by things that they made and control,
Robbing the world of its magic and soul.

Thankyou for listening to the words of a snail,
For I know the world’s so hard to turn, like a whale,
But creations of fans, make the world full and fine,
And the benefits come back to authors in time.

Yours Sincerely,

Daniel Kelly
Yass, New South Wales,
Australia
ozfolklounge 'at' gmail.com