Blog Post · Folk Music

That Man in the Gold Lamé Suit (Book Review)

I grew up with Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian albums playing in the house and was vaguely aware of his protest songs. It wasn’t until I embraced folk music as an adult that someone introduced me to Phil Ochs. I was at a winter solstice campfire sing when, after I did some Ewan MacColl and Dubliners songs, local folk singer, Judy Pinder, suggested I look up Phil Ochs.

Since then I’ve recorded 37 covers of Phil’s songs (to Dylan’s 34), and recently released a proper album of covers. Phil wrote sharp, insightful, songs, targeting injustice wherever he saw it. He pulled no punches and didn’t hide behind the vague general references and metaphor in Bob’s protest songs.

I knew that Phil’s story was a sad one, and that he killed himself at a young age, struggling with alcohol abuse and depression. I had also read several online and published biographies, including the Michael Schumacher one. But the recent biography by Jim Bowers, That Man in the Gold Lamé Suit: Phil Ochs’s Search for Self, took a different approach to look at Phil.

What follows here is a review of Jim’s book, that I finished reading today. Firstly, the writing is accessible and flows at a good pace, I found myself consistently engaged throughout the whole book, so much so that a few of the chapters prompted some recordings before I had even finished reading the book. This Woody Guthrie song and this imagined conversation between Dylan and Ochs.

Phil’s is not a happy story, but one of insecurity, failed ambition, anger, confusion and ultimately a choice to end his own life. But it is also a story of some of the best topical songwriting of the generation, and some nation-changing activism, and of a person who at his core was kind, altruistic and honest.

Even though some of the activism didn’t bear fruit in Phil’s lifetime, many of the words he spoke then are still applicable to today’s politics. I re-wrote some of the lines from ‘Knock at the Door’ to speak to the crushing of protesters in Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party in 2019.

In terms of structure, Jim has used a psychological theory as the basis for seeking to understand Phil. It took me a while to understand the language of ‘self objects’. I didn’t read the Wikipedia primer on this theory before finishing the book, but I probably should have.

From what I understood, the theory puts a framework around the way that children go from having no distinction between self and not-self, to then starting to understand the distinction and begin to generate internal models or copies of external entities to then drive their decision making, and their feelings.  The movie Inside Out from Disney is probably a good primer to this way of thinking about how human internal processes of emotion work.

Just like when watching Inside Out, Jim’s book caused me to re-look at my own childhood and my own psychological state in several confronting ways. When humans find themselves in situations where their internal models consistently don’t behave the same way as the real external objects, it can lead to anxiety, fear, anger and a feeling of dissociation from reality.

Much of what drove Phil’s behaviour is attributed to a mother in a disappointing marriage who was disengaged and difficult to please. Phil also had a father who was damaged from his wartime experience and unable to model the foundational behaviours that grow kids into balanced, resilient, adults. Jim follows Phil’s career as a journey of attempting to be the American hero that a childhood of ‘cinema as parenting proxy’ had generated in him.

I won’t recount the journey here, you should read Jim’s book, as it is a convincing analysis, pieced together through interviews with Phil and those that knew him and analysis of Phil’s lyrics and career choices.

Phil died the year I was born, but I did not realise that he had toured Australia just 4 years earlier.  Phil played the Clancy Auditorium on 10th June 1972, advertised here. Canberra, with Ron Cobb on 8th July. He also played Melbourne, but I couldn’t find a record of where and when. This site has a more complete list of dates and locations and a summary of the performance.

Canberra Show Advertisement – 1973
Sydney Advertisement – 1973

One of the saddest chapters for me was the vision Phil had for his ‘Greatest Hits’ album. A leap from the solo guitarist protest singer to a socialist version of Elvis Presley, gold suit, swagger and rock band. I was very happy that the Phil Ochs album I picked up in Columbus Ohio last year was this one. It was a really good album, but was rejected by his ‘loyal’ fans because it was such a change, and not picked up by the mainstream because he was a leftists folk singer.

I am very happy that Jim has written this book. I can’t say that reading it was enjoyable, it isn’t, for anyone that loves Phil and his work, it is tough going. But it is really valuable to add to the depth of understanding of Phil’s inner world, and what was at the core of his work. Jim’s book scratches beneath the simplistic view that Phil had mental health problems and killed himself, the story is far more nuanced than that, and Phil deserves to be listened to.

Personally, I still wonder about the involvement of the CIA in Phil’s demise. The ‘John Train’ psychotic break of 1975 maps too well to the published MK-ULTRA experiments and the now unsealed knowledge of what was being done to track and control American political activists in the 1960s and 70s. That would have been a whole different book, that maybe Jim Glover will write in the future. I know many dismiss this as Q-Anon hoax, but this is an interesting interview with Jim Glover.

To end as I started, Bob Dylan is still making music and I enjoy many of his songs. I just wish that Phil had made it, and they could be trading barbs in song and stage banter well into their 90s.




Ballad Analysis · Blog Post

Murrumbateman Mystery Poet

Photo of Ross Memorial at Goulburn

Murrumbateman is a small village about 20 minutes away from where I live on the road south to Canberra. While I have published three albums of material about the history of the Yass Valley, I haven’t set any of those songs in Murrumbateman.

In an attempt to correct this, I went looking for stories about Murrumbateman in the National Library of Australia’s Trove collection. I found this poem and set it to music.

The poem was published in both the Goulburn Herald / County of Argyle Advertiser on 27 September 1856. However, the poet is un-named and is simply titled “Murrumbateman”.  The full poem is included below:


Yes, Nature once again has laid
Her wintry robes aside,
And once again she is array’d
In Spring’s most winning pride;
She seems no longer old and grey,
But youthful, blooming, fresh, and gay,
As if ’twere only yesterday
This lovely world was made.

See! countless multitudes of flowers
Adorn the verdant hills,
And, big with life-promoting showers,
Behold a thousand rills!
Feel! every breeze is loaded with
Perfume’s delicious, scented breath,
And hark! what music sweet from ‘neath
The rich, green forest thrills.

Blythe, snow-white lambs are scattered o’er
Each valley and each plain;
And all are now preparing for
The shearer’s busy reign:
The master makes his shed all right,
And views his press with vast delight;
The shearer whets his shears so bright,
Till both blades shine again.

The shepherd, too, with anxious care
Attends his fleecing flock,
So that they may in order fair
Yield up their annual coat;
And with well-founded expectation,
The publican makes calculation,
That half of all that’s earned this season
Will be his easy lot.

Oh! how I wish, dear Spring, that thou
Could’st stay with us for ever,
For then all things would smile as now,
And gloom return, oh! never;
But ardent Summer soon, alas!
Will snatch thee to his fierce embrace,
When every youthful charm and grace
Will sicken, fade, and wither.


So who is this mystery poet? There are several other poems labelled with this curious ‘Murrumbateman’ label, The Sabbath Day in 1855, Solitude, He is Gone, Australia the Bright! and this poem (Spring) in 1856. Nothing then until a final poem in 1858 called A Dream, where the poet reveals themselves to be from Scotland.

The poem He is Gone likely relates to the death of William Henry Simpson on the 10th of July 1856 in Yass. According to this article on 12 July, William was kicking a fire-ball related to the peace proclamation fireworks (Crimean War) and fell down a bank near the ‘new’ Yass bridge. At the time it seems it was thought he would recover, but his death notice was published on 19 July. In the paper of the 12th, there is also a notice saying that the Scots’ Kirk will not meet on Sunday as the Rev. Mr. Ross  needs to go to Yass to attend to his brother-in-law Mr. Simpson.

Reverends in the Yass Valley have a habit of also being poets (see John O’Brien of Around the Boree Log fame), so it is conceivable that Mr Ross is our nameless author. The full name of Reverend William Ross is given in this January 1856 marriage notice.

A brief summary of the life of Reverend Ross is given in his obituary here from 23 January 1869. It  indicates that William was born in Ross-shire, Scotland in 1815 and may have been an officer in the Royal Navy. Sadly no mention of  a penchant for Poetry.

This source confirms that William Ross was a Freemason and provides some imagery of his grave. The home where William’s wife continued to live after his death, and ran a boarding school is here. This history covers William’s involvement with the building of St Ann’s church in Paterson from 1838-1846.

So William’s connection to the subject of the He is Gone poem is strong evidence that either he, or his wife could well be the author of these poems, but sadly nothing conclusive. Hopefully someone in the region will be able to provide confirmation.

Possibly a red-herring, but this history of the Presbyterians in New South Wales from 1905 suggests there was another Rev. William Ross from South Australia, who was active in Wentworth and returned to Scotland and died in 1899. This Ross is linked to the poet, Dr George Macdonald. This Ross is probably not the one associated with Yass/Goulburn.






Ballad Analysis · Blog Post · Folk Music

Who was the hero of Glenlogie?

Sketch of Glenbucket (author unknown)

After hearing Alistair Hulett sing Glenlogie as part of a 1984 concert in Sydney, I made a recording myself. The MainlyNorfolk page for the ballad references the collected singing by John Strachan of Fyvie in 1951 as the earliest version from the living tradition. John was recorded by Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson in Aberdeenshire.

Ewan MacColl makes mention that there was a recording as early as 1768. For my recording I used the words from the 1904 English and Scottish popular ballads, derived from Francis Child’s work. I suspect this book is where MacColl got his information as the introduction to the ballad mentions the 1768 version from the Percy papers, but suggests that it has been modified.

I have used the ‘A’ version for my recording, however, Verse 4 is missing the start to each line, so I have taken a few verses from the ‘B’ version to try and make the story coherent.

Is it based on a true story?

What most interests me for the purpose of this blog post is the suggestion that the ballad might be based on a true story. After my recording I did quick search for John Gordons who married a Jane/Jean around the time this ballad was first recorded.

I found that John Gordon (1599-1634), 1st Viscount of Kenmure, married a Jane Campbell around 1626. Unfortunately a birth date for Jane is not given, so it is hard to verify the ’15 years old’ claim in the ballad. In some versions Jean/Jane is a Gordon, but in most she is not.

Stacking up the evidence

Going back to Francis Child, this ballad appears in Volume 4, from 1860. This versions names Glenlogie and Drumlie as the alternate fiancé for Jean. It doesn’t say which hall/town Glenlogie has come to.

In Peter Buchan’s 1828 Ancient Ballads and songs of the North of Scotland the title is given as ‘Jean o’ Bethelnie’s Love for Sir G. Gordon’. In this version Bethelnie is mentioned as the place where Jean lives. Bethelnie is not clearly located on Google maps, but seems to be near Oldmeldrum in Aberdeenshire. The group of men rides through Banchory fair (also in Aberdeenshire). In this version Glenlogie is a Gordon named Sir George. The alternate spouse is Dumfedline. There is a verse in this version which strongly reminds me of Child #239 (Lord Saltoun and Auchanachie), which is also about a Jeannie.

Ye’ll show me the chamber. Where Jeannie does lay.

In fact, there are so many similarities in the version that I recorded (e.g. mother and father calling Jeannie a whore), that I suspect maybe a singer (or broadside hack) has mashed these two ballads together at some point.

Buchan gives notes on the Sir George Gordon ballad, saying that the story relates to 1562 when Queen Mary spent time in the North of Scotland with her entourage, which was when Jean (daughter of Baron Meldrum) saw George. The notes also put Jean’s age at the time of marriage as 15. Unfortunately none of the Earl of Huntly Gordons seem to have married a Jean/Jane within the relevant time period for this Queen Mary story to be corroborated. A review of several recent and contemporary biographies of Mary Queen of Scots turned up no references to Meldrum or a Jane Meldrum (or Melville).

Across the variants that Child includes, sometimes Jeanie is ‘Jean Melville, 16 or 17’, sometimes Glenlogie is ‘Earl Ogie’ .

The goings on of the peerage of Scotland are very well documented, as shown in John Spalding’s 1792 volume covering 1624 until 1645. Down to each daughter married and the dowry (toucher) paid; for example:

Upon Wednesday the 28th of November (1632) in the afternoon, the lord of Strathbrane, otherwise called the master of Abercorn, was married with lady Jean Gordon, the marquis’ youngest daughter, within the kirk of Belly, by an Irish minister brought with him of purpose ; they were honourably entertained within the Bog, and within few days departed home. (John Spalding, 1792)

If there was a real ‘Jean’ who married a George/John Gordon, then there would likely be  a record, along with the story if the circumstances were scandalous.

Robert Chambers’ 1829, The Scottish Ballads includes Glenlogie, but while it has much to say about other ballads with an historical connection, it is completely silent on this one. Alexander Whitelaw, in 1875, includes two distinct variants in The Book of Scottish Ballads, dated 1824.

In the more recently published The Glenbuchat Ballads by David Buchan and James Moreira in 2007, it is stated that Alexander Keith links the hero of Glenlogie to a Glenbuchat Gordon.

John Gordon of Glenbucket (1673-1750) is candidate for the ballad, having married a Jean and being famous enough in the Jacobite wars to warrant having a ballad written about him. Being from Aberdeenshire puts him closer to Bethelnie than the Kenmure Gordons.

In another blow to any hopes of confirming an historical basis for this ballad, Rev. John Grant Mitchie gives a comprehensive history of Logie-Coldstone in 1896. There are several John and George Gordon’s and many songs and ballads referenced, but no sign of a Jean or Glenlogie.


The sad conclusion here, pending any further sources, is that this ballad probably does not relate to real events, but does use places and names that would be familiar to the intended audience.

This begs the question, what was the ballad written for and by who? This is not answerable on the evidence that we have, but the ballad is possibly from two times of upheaval in the United Kingdom, the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1567, and the Jacobite (followers of James II of England and VII of Scotland) uprising in 1689.

Could it have been English propaganda after the failure of Bonnie Prince Charlie to reclaim the Scottish throne with his flight to France in 1746? Attacks on the Scottish approach to marriage were a part of the material used in England to discredit them (and drum up support for campaigns against them).

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.


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.


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.


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.



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


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.


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.


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 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 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.


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.


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.


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.