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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recently did this recording of a song about Ned Kelly written by Australian singer Trevor Lucas in the 1970s. The song was performed by Fotheringay in the UK (played here without Trevor, who passed in 1989) and later picked up back in Australia by Redgum.
I had heard this song some 25 years ago at a local musical production about Ned Kelly in Queensland. I’m not sure who wrote the musical, or if it was associated with Redgum or Trevor Lucas, but this song featured in it.
Like any folk hero, the stories that sprung up about the bushranger Edward Kelly during his criminal career and soon after his hanging in Melbourne in November 1880 were not always factual. The idea and image of Ned Kelly has continued to be used by various parts of society for all manner of reasons.
I’m writing this blog post because someone commented on my video upload with this:
“The song is well done, but the words are based on a load of mythological nonsense, that does not reveal the true nature of Ned Kelly.”
And then again on someone else’s comment:
“But the words are based on fictitious rubbish.”
I thought it would be instructional to go through the lyrics of the Trevor Lucas songs and have a look for this ‘fictitious rubbish and mythological nonsense’.
I won’t bother with the chorus, as it doesn’t really say anything disputable. But will go through the verses.
Eighteen-hundred and seventy-eight, Was the year I remember so well. They put my father in an early grave And slung my mother in gaol. Now I don’t know what’s right or wrong But they hung Christ on nails. Six kids at home and two on the breast: They wouldn’t even give her bail.
So was Ned Kelly’s mother made a widow by the police and trying to raise six children and refused bail? The fact that Ned was one of 7 children is not in dispute, and the story of his father John ‘Red’ Kelly being deported from Ireland for stealing pigs is also not up for debate. This excerpt:
“the officer in charge of that district . . . should endeavor, whenever they committed any paltry crime, to bring them to justice and send them to Pentridge even on a paltry sentence, the object being to take prestige away from them, which was as good an effect as being sent to prison with very heavy sentences, because the prestige those men get up there from what is termed their flashness helped them to keep together, and that is a very good way of taking the flashness out of them.”
of direction from the Assistant Chief Commissioner to Police in the area that the Kellys settled in makes it very clear that the effort to keep them and those like them in poverty was carefully thought out. The impact on Ned, his brothers, sisters, father and mother was very real. To be of a convict background, and Irish, in the Australia of the 1870s meant that a peaceful life, surviving off the fruit of honest labour, was near impossible.
Update: Thanks to Sam’s post below, here is a link to an instance of Ellen Kelly being given bail from May 1878. Of course, this doesn’t prove that she was not refused bail on another occasion, given her frequent run-ins with the police.
You know I wrote a letter ’bout Stringy Bark Creek
So they would understand
That I might be a bushranger
But I’m not a murdering man.
I didn’t want to shoot Kennedy
Or that copper Lonigan.
He alone could have saved his life
By throwing down his gun.
There is no debate here, the Jerilderie Letter is real, copies exist and it has been analysed in detail. You can read the full text of the letter here. A brief excerpt below, which confirms that in at least Ned’s own mind, he saw his life played out as part of the ongoing English oppression of the Irish people.
What would England do if America declared war and hoisted a green flag as it is all Irishmen that has got command army forts of her batterys, even her very life guards and beef tasters are Irish. Would they not slew round and fight her with their own arms for the sake of the color they dare not wear for years and to reinstate it and rise old Erin’s isle once more from the pressure and tyrannism of the English yoke, and which has kept in poverty and starvation and caused them to wear the enemy’s coat. What else can England expect, is there not big fat necked unicorns enough paid to torment and drive me to do things which I don’t wish to do without the public assisting them.
You know they took Ned Kelly
And they hung him in the Melbourne Gaol.
He fought so very bravely
Dressed in iron mail.
But no man single-handed
Can hope to break the bars.
It’s a thousand like Ned Kelly
Who’ll hoist the flag of stars.
Or course Ned Kelly was hung at Old Melbourne Jail on 11 November 1880. Saying that he had ‘iron mail’ is a poetic license stretch as his armour was plate metal, most likely ‘bush forged’ from stolen plough mould boards.
Whether Ned Kelly was brave, or fought bravely, is a matter of opinion. It is clear from history that Ned’s life was a result of English power and money seeking to ensure that the children of Irish convicts could never prosper in the country.
I am no historical scholar, or expert on Ned Kelly, but I have read many of the stories, plays and song that appeared in Australian newspapers in the 140 years since his death, and feel I can say with some confidence that the accusation that this particular ballad is ‘fictitious rubbish’ is absolutely false. I am happy to look at any evidence presented to the contrary.
This year I recorded an album of Harry Potter inspired Sea Shanties, Muggles Ahoy!. This blog post will describe the process and equipment involved in creating an album like this.
One of the Harry Potter shanty re-writes that I did ended up on the great album of Hogwarts Shanties called Hut on the Wrock. Bess, from Wizrocklopedia asked if I would write a ‘how to’ guide for others who are starting out on the home/bedroom-studio journey.
Music produced in the commercial world will often rely on studio equipment that costs well over $100k. Even just a single condenser microphone can set you back US$9k (AKG C12VR), then you need sound proofing, mixing desks, rack-mounted equalizers, compressors, monitors and effects systems. Not to mention the time of a producer and sound engineer. Advances in digital technology and the drop in price mean that home recordings of high quality are now achievable within the sub-$500 price range.
This post will be divided into two parts, firstly the technical equipment and software that I use. Secondly, and equally importantly, I will talk about the songwriting, shanties and performance side of things.
What you Need
Rather than repeat what is already out there, Paul Davids recently uploaded this brilliant video covering all the technical parts you need for a home studio. The only part missing is a camera, which you don’t need for making an album, but you do need for uploading your content to YouTube in a way that will engage your audience.
Like Paul, my set of equipment has evolved over the years, with expansions/replacement occurring when I had a need, something broke, or I had some spare money to invest. The equipment I used on the album, what it is for, and a rough estimate of the current cost in US$ is listed below.
Microphone: If you want your recording to sound decent, then you need a good microphone, the microphone in an iPhone or Laptop is not going to reproduce the sound you make in an accurate way. When I say decent, I am talking about the ability of the microphone to capture the sound accurately across the audio spectrum. Spectrum meaning from the lowest Bass notes you make (E2, 82.41Hz) up to the the highest pitch Soprano squeals (C6 1kHz). If you aren’t familiar with vocal range and Hertz, Wikipedia is a great resource. If you want to get into recording and mixing audio, there are critical concepts to understand.
The graph above shows how the microphone that I use responds to sounds across the audio spectrum. Have a look at this site to see the responses for an iPhone. The important thing is that when the mic introduces noise and cannot pick up parts of the signal, you get a recording that sounds ‘thin’ or like you are speaking into a can. While some of these problems can be slightly improved using software effects, the effects cannot recover sounds components that never got recorded.
A Condenser mic, like the NT1-A requires a pre-amp, which basically means that the mic needs some power to operate, unlike a Dynamic mic, which uses a moving coil of wire over a magnet to generate the electrical signal.
Audio Interface: While your computer probably has an ‘audio in’ port, it is not going to be able to capture the recording in high enough resolution or with enough accuracy to create a song that sounds good. Back in the 60s, audio was recorded and processed in analogue format, but audio production on your computer will be digital. Meaning the wavy lines of air pressure change that make up sound need to be converted to a digital format of ‘ones’ and ‘zeros’. The digital format will have a resolution in volume/level (usually measured in bits, e.g. 16bits = 65536 levels of volume) and in time (usually measured in Hertz, indicating how often in time the signal is sampled, e.g. 44.1kHz is how often CD audio is sampled, meaning signals of up to 22kHz can be captured). The audio interface is what takes the analogue signal from your microphone and ingests it into your computer (often at the same time as playing back previously recorded tracks so you can add new layers of sound).
This interface is useful for me because I can also plug a guitar in and record both the guitar signal and the microphone at the same time (or have two mics plugged in). The Focurite also provides ‘Phantom Power‘ to the condenser microphone.
An important aspect of the audio interface is latency, i.e. how long does it take from when the audio is captured, to when it can be played back through your headphones. It is very disconcerting to try and listen to yourself while recording if there is a perceptible gap in time between when you speak and hear the sound. This is another reason why your laptop/computer built-in audio system is not appropriate for recording. The Scarlet 2i2 has a latency around 3ms (depending on sample settings), humans won’t pick up the latency unless it is more than 10ms.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
The DAW is what takes the places of many racks of equipment and the mixing desk in a traditional studio. It is software that allows you to apply effects to audio tracks that you record and also play back the recording while you add new layers/tracks. Most of my Harry Potter album was purely vocals, so I won’t get into the complexity of digital instruments or recording physical instruments.
Of course, you could use very simple free software like Audacity to record your audio, however, you won’t hear the effects in real time, or be able to ‘mix’ the audio with immediate visual feedback.
I use Studio One because it came with a MIDI keyboard that I purchased from ALDI, I upgrade the cheap version to the Artist license. For the recording that I do, this has everything I need. There are many extra plugins and instruments that can be purchased and the more expensive editions have more features. It can take a while to invest the time to make sense of all the options and interfaces that make up a DAW, but YouTube and most vendors provide tutorials.
You also need a way to listen to what you create, I have a cheap set of computer speakers but also a more expensive set of headphones (Audio Technica ATH-MH45), the thing to remember is that people listening to your work may have a $10k High-Fi system, or they might be using $3 headphones on their android tablet. The best you can do is make it sound good to you across a few different mediums that you have access to.
I also haven’t spoken about the computer. Any modern laptop/computer will be able to process your audio and there are plenty of DAW alternatives for Mac and Linux. It is just important to make sure that your USB Interface is compatible with your Operating System.
The other obvious thing I have omitted is a space to record. My ‘studio’ is just a corner of my bedroom, fortunately I live in a quiet enough street that background noise is not too much of a problem and the rug on the wall limits the natural echo.
Song Creation Process
I should caveat, that I have been singing folk songs and sea shanties for over 30 years. I have also been playing many musical instruments and singing in choirs or performing as a solo singer for most of that time. It is unreasonable to expect to have great musical intuition if you have never sung before in your life, so be prepared to make some terrible creations before you start making something you like the sound of.
I grew up listening to Weird Al Yankovic and was in awe of his ability to take a pop song and create new lyrics on a totally different theme. Now having written my own songs for many years I am constantly shuffling words in my head to make a rhyme, or else shuffling the grammar in a sentence to fit a syllable count. So the process of taking an existing sea shanty, like Rolling Down to Old Maui or Sam’s Gone Away and thinking about what words could be replaced is a process that naturally goes on in my head.
It helps of course to know the song your are trying to write a parody for reasonably well before you try and do a re-write. All the songs on Muggles Ahoy are parody versions of genuine sea songs, all shanties (work songs) except for Dobby’s Farewell. The shanties have a unique cadence and repeated refrain. The rhythm related to specific tasks on the ship, whether raising the anchor, pumping the bilge or shortening sail. The purpose being to make sure everyone pulled, heaved, lifted or pushed together. It also broke the monotony of the work, which could go on for hours, as the shanty-man would often mix the lyrics up, the dirtier the better.
The shanties also owe a lot to land based work, whether agricultural or on the canals. In fact many songs that we call ‘sea shanties’ still have leftover parts from their land-based origins, for example, Roll the Woodpile Down.
Once the words to a parody are written, it is simply a matter of recording the main vocal and then overlaying a few harmonies or additional voices on the melody. Historians still debate about whether sailors actually sang harmonies, but my feeling is that harmony naturally emerges from thousands of hours of singing the same boring melody. Sailors also didn’t live in a bubble, they would have heard harmonies in musical theater and in the many cultures around the globe that they spent time with.
I learnt some basic harmony singing from the shanty group Forty Degrees South (formerly The Roaring Forties). They did a singing workshop in our town about 15 years ago. Once you can confidently follow the melody, it is then possible to sing a 3rd or 5th (a major chord is made up of a root note, then the notes at positions 3 and 5 in a scale, for example in the C Major scale the notes C E G make up a C Major chord). These 3rd and 5th notes will always sound ‘good’ against the melody. Things can get much more complicated with drone notes, 7ths, and many other musical theory things that I won’t go into. For me it is a process of trying a few takes that sound horrible until I get the harmony sound that I am after. As each layer is added, it gets easier to include more variations, just as it is easier for a crowd of people singing to ’round out’ the edges.
When recording the tracks I usually add some Compression to get a bit more loudness, an Equalizer to boost the base and high treble range and some Reverb to simulate a more ‘echoey’ room. With a DAW you can overlay twenty or more voices to get the sound you are going for. These effects, which would have been done by $20k analogue equipment, are now done in software within the DAW.
For songs with a few different voices, I use the Pan feature to position the singers across a stage from left to write, which adds some interest/presence for a listener (assuming they have a stereo listening device). It is also important not to let the accompanying voices drown out the main melody, a DAW lets you visually watch the levels as the song plays through and manually lower/raise the level of each voice.
There are many tutorials on YouTube describing how to use these features of any DAW. For me, as an Electrical Engineer and with some sound/video production experience I found I was able to teach myself relatively easily on 3-4 different DAWS.
The final step is to export a *.wav file from your DAW and upload it to whatever your distribution platform is. I have not gone into the process of Mastering here, which is another whole art. The main goal is to make sure that if a listener plays your album from start to finish, they don’t hear sharp differences in volume or ‘atmosphere’.
I use Bandcamp for my less serious albums and Distrokid to publish my ‘proper’ folk albums to sites like iTunes, Spotify etc. It is worthwhile thinking about what the right platform for you is. The major streaming platforms offer more coverage/exposure, but I have found people much more willing to fork out $5 for an album on Bandcamp.
Do your own research into how much each service costs and what percentage of the sale goes to you. I initially made the mistake of distributing my albums through ReverbNation, which was costing me over US$50 per album each year just to keep them published. An amount of money I was never going to recoup in sales/stream revenue.
Most importantly, don’t expect to make a living from your music. Not everyone is going to be Billy Eilish, your first goal should be to enjoy yourself and share your creations. Making music is good for the soul!
For I long time I have had an aspiration to make stringed instruments, but the tools and time required to carve the headstock and neck from solid timber, or steam, set and glue the body in complicated curves has always put me off. Not to mention cutting and setting of frets or the chemistry and mechanics of fixing a bridge to a sound board.
So I was very excited when I was doing some research for my recording of the terrifying Icelandic song Móðir Mín í Kví Kví and I came across this version played by Sheila Wright (Norse Singer) on an Anglo-Saxon Lyre.
After watching a few youtube videos and reading a detailed description of making a replica of the Sutton Hoo Lyre on this site, I figured it would be possible to give it a go. You can hear Paul Butler playing one of his replica instruments here.
My goal was to make the lyre out of what I had already lying around in my shed. With the idea that I might be able to make these to sell, they need to be made without needing to spend $40-50 on prefabricated parts. The cost on ebay to buy 6 zither/harp tuning pins and a tuning handle is already close to US$30.
Rather than try and find a thick piece of wood to carve the whole shape out of (seems wasteful), I chose to cut and glue five smaller pieces of pre-cut pine to make the frame. Because I was trying to use some left-over cheap MDF flooring as the soundboard, I was limited in the size of soundboard by the width of this wood.
I had bought some second hand chairs which have since fallen apart, but were made of what is possibly Rosewood. The grain is very dense and I had a tough time getting through it with a saw. I made the tail-piece, tail-pin, headstock and tuning pegs out of this wood.
Turning the tuning pegs on the lathe was easier that I expected, however, the wood that I had was too narrow to make a large enough size grip on the peg to turn it without a tool of some sort. I suspect that pegs big enough to turn with your hands easily would be too large to space closely enough together. They could possibly be staggered, to allow space for a larger peg.
The cavity for the soundboard and backboard was routed into the edge of the pine frame. A piece of cord was used to connect the tail piece to the tail pin and I used the same thick gauge of fishing line for all of the strings. The bridge was roughly made out of a piece of pine.
I finished the whole instrument in two days, with the first day being just an hour or so cutting and gluing the frame. After leaving the strings for a few days to stretch, I recorded this video.
Some key lessons for the future:
The soundboard needs to be made of much thinner material, the MDF is too thick and doesn’t resonate.
Wooden tuning pegs need to have a smaller pin radius and larger head if they are going to be tuneable by hand. This is both because of the mechanical advantage required to turn the peg, and also the fact that a larger pin size makes it very difficult to get the pitch right.
The prototype was not made to be beautiful, or as a faithful replica of period lyres. The experiment was to see if a functioning instrument could be made from spare wood in the garage with existing tools.
I am surprised to see that this type of instrument goes for AUS$300-$500 on etsy. The comparative complexity in construction and manufacturing of parts with respect to a steel string guitar, student violin or bouzouki doesn’t seem to match the asking price. I suspect that the niche market is allowing the higher price.
One of the key things that interested me about the process of making this instrument is that the tools required to build it would have been within reach of many people during the time frame that this instrument was in use among Nordic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon people (5-13th Centuries).
I have been working my way through The Secret Rose and Other Stories, which is a compilation of several short stories and essays by William Butler Yeats. As a ballad collector and writer I was very pleased to find many songs within the text.
The full stories of Red Hanrahan are part of the book and are available here. It was the first in this series of stories about a semi-fictional Irish bard that prompted me to write this song.
Incidental to this post, I have been writing a song (almost) every week as part of the Positive Songs Project. It is great motivation as a songwriter and also an opportunity to hear the work that others are doing while we are unable to play live in-person events.
Red Hanrahan is a fictional character but based on the life of Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (Owen Roe O’Sullivan) who lived in the 1700s. It is not clear how much is Yeats creation and how much of Hanrahan was Owen’s own alter-ego.
In one of the stories, Yeats attributes one of my favourite Irish songs, Casadh an tSúgáin (Twisting the Rope) to O’Sullivan. A song that I spent some considerable time trying to learn to sing like Michael O’Domhnaill does.
In the first Red Hanrahan story, Yeats tells how Hanrahan was at a barn being used as a pub when he received word that he could marry his true love if he quickly returned to the house of her recently deceased mother. It is Samhain eve and instead of leaving Hanrahan is convinced to play cards with a strange old man and ends up following a magic rabbit out into the night.
Hanrahan ends up in the heart of Slieve (mount) Echtge with a fairy queen/goddess, the mountains namesake (the mountains are also known as Slieve Aughty). Four old women carry the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Hanrahan is deemed unworthy, possibly for refusing the advances of Echthge. There seems to be little written about this goddess Echthge, other than that her name means ‘awful one’ and she eats her children. Elsewhere Echthge is referred to as the daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand.
It is fitting that Echthge is Nuada’s daughter as he is the owner of the Sword of Light (Claíomh Solais), one of the four treasures.
In the story, Hanrahan returns to the world but his lover is long dead as many years have passed. This incident haunts him throughout the rest of his life.
Yeats (or O’Sullivan) cleverly foreshadowed the appearance of the four treasures by having the old man mutter ‘Spades and Diamonds, Courage and Power; Clubs and Hearts, Knowledge and Pleasure.’ before the card game.
It was the linking of the Playing Card suits that I found most interesting in this story. I love it when we are casually reminded of the pagan origins of the everyday items that people take for granted.
A student of Wicca or Ceremonial Magic (as Yeats was) would immediately recognise the link between the four items and the four elements, Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and the four cardinal points.
The four treasures, brought by the Tuatha Dé Danann from their islands in the north (maybe Atlantis) were the Cauldron of the Dagda, the Sword of Light, the Stone of Destiny and the Spear of Lugh.
The connection between the Cauldron of the Dagda (and Morrigan), the Wiccan Chalice and the Tarot Suit of Cups is clear. The association of the suit for hearts and the cauldron with pleasure makes a lot more sense when you watch this video of how Vikings cooked with a cauldron. In the Bronze Age, the ability to eat and the association of the cauldron with food and the dream of an eternally full cauldron makes a lot of sense for people on a subsistence diet. The Cornucopia is also an interesting counterpart to this cauldron.
The Sword of Light previously mentioned is linked to the suite of Clubs and the Athame (ritual knife) in Wicca. Interesting that in Wicca the knife is associated with fire, but with air for some ceremonial magicians. In the story, the club (sword) is associated with knowledge, possibly with the idea of cutting through illusion. Interesting that the word for fire brand and sword are interchangeable in several languages, originating from Old Norse, brandr.
The Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) has a clear association with power, as it was used to confirm the kings of Ireland until 500 AD. The association with the suit of diamonds is less clear until you realise the diamonds are stones. The pentacles or coins suit in the Tarot looks exactly like the pentacle used to symbolise earth for Wiccans. In the Waite-Smith tarot, the magician is shown with each of the four magical tools and the pentacle suit symbol on the altar.
The final item, the Spear of Lugh, is easily associated with the suit of spades, which look like a Bronze Age spearhead. I am fascinated by the similarities between Lugh’s spear and the arrow carried by Yondu from Guardians of the Galaxy. Lugh’s spear can be directed to hit its target and return on its own. One of the stories suggests that Lugh demanded it from a king of Persia. We know that the Bronze Age was a time when some areas of the world were developing advanced metal working techniques. Some Viking swords came from Afghanistan and the quality of high carbon steel blades and spear heads would have seemed like magic to warriors with bronze weapons. In Wicca and Ceremonial magic the spear has been replaced by a wand or a feather, and is associated with the element of Air. The spear is associated with courage in Hanrahan’s story, which aligns with the idea that the holder of the spear will always succeed in battle. The story of lightening coming from the spear and its ability to return gives it a strong connection to Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. In the Tarot, the suit is various called wands or staves. The spear is said to be made of Yew, which is poisonous and associated with death (something that Harry Potter got right).
The four treasures associated with Ireland also have a parallel in the mythology of King Arthur and the Holy Grail. The four elements of the grail mythology are the Cup of Christ, the Spear of Loginus, the sword Excalibur (or another sword) and a dish (possibly mistranslated). Britain, not to be outdone, has thirteen items.
Ned Kelly was executed at Melbourne gaol on 11 November 1880.
While I don’t consider myself and Australian songwriter (I was born in New Zealand, and am more drawn to the songs of Ireland and Scotland), it was a little odd for me to have recorded and uploaded 700 songs, mostly folk, to YouTube without ever a mention of this Australian folk hero.
Hero only to a small portion of the population, and likely a hero to different parts of that population and for different reasons over the 140 years since his death.
I’m not a Ned Kelly historian, and there are been plenty of recreations and retellings of his life and exploits in film and in song. Most recently The True History of the Kelly Gang aired on Stan earlier this year. It can be called a ‘true history’ in the same way that Trainspotting was a ‘true history’ of drug use and crime in Scotland.
The reason for this post is my recent recording of the ballad Ye Sons of Australia, prompted by the suggestion of Ewan Lawrie from the Canberra Shanty Club. I was intrigued by the fact that you can’t find this song anywhere on Spotify or iTunes and the author is listed as anon. It was recorded by Martyn Wyndham-Read and Danny Spooner in the 60s/70s but very much out of print now. Jason and Chloe Roweth recorded this as ‘Kate Kelly’ on their 2003 album, As Good as New. Some of the very helpful Australian folk community have assisted me in trying to track down the author, but to no avail.
I found this very interesting, for a song with such a famous character as its subject.
John Meredith captured a snippet of the song being sung by Gladys Scrivener around 1953-1961, available at the National Library here. John Meredith went on to publish the song in his book, Songs of the Kelly Country, published in 1955. Gladys was credited with passing on a number of songs to the Bush Music Club in Sydney during the 1950s and says that many of the songs were learnt from her grandfather. This Mudcat thread indicates that Gladys’ Grandfather was J M Power, of West Maitland who learned them while working in Northern New South Wales. No further details of his life are available, but if he was collecting songs as a young man, it would have been around the time of Ned Kelly.
One fascinating aspect of this particular ballad is that it focuses strongly on the exploits of Ned’s sister, Kate Kelly. It seems clear that it was more likely to be Ned’s other sister, Maggie, who was responsible for acts of daring in support of the Kelly Gang. Maggie had especially good reason to be bitter after her husband was falsely imprisoned after the Fitzpatrick incident and never returned to her or his children.
George Washington Lambert painted The Kelly Gang – Coming Home for Christmas in 1908. George was just seven when the siege at Glenrowan occurred, so the event must have been in the public consciousness in 1908 enough for him to warrant doing this painting.
The feelings that inspired the painting match well with the style and tone of the ballad, suggesting that it could have been in circulation then. Kate painted as a rescuing hero, defying the police and trying to help her brothers to freedom during the siege of Glenrowan is an odd way to represent the fate of violent outlaws.
This article in The Bulletin in 1953 by Douglas Stewart highlights the extreme difficultly that song collectors were having linking songs to authors at the time. This is confusing when the likes of Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson were having their work published far and wide. This article from the West Australian in 1904 describes a play called the Outlaw Kelly, which seems to incorporate Kate riding bravely on her horse. Maybe this was the inspiration for George Lambert and the author of the ballad?
Another play by E. C. Martin, Ostracized, was reviewed in August 1881, less than a year after the Glenrowan siege.
It is possible that the class warfare between the English and Scottish Protestant power holders and the Irish Catholic ex-convicts and working people meant that authors of songs like this chose to remain anonymous for their own safety.
In 1880, Ned represented a violent response to corrupt police and laws designed to make it difficult for people on the fringes to make a living. The memory of the Castle Hill Rebellion in 1804 and the Eureka Rebellion of 1854 were likely to still be strong in the minds of these people. Much as the singing of Irish rebel songs could lead to death or imprisonment in Ireland, singing the praises of Ned Kelly in the 1880s probably came with the same risks. As stated, I am not a Ned Kelly historians, there are many papers that can be read on that subject.
I would love to hear from anyone who knows something more about the history of authorship of this ballad. I am reasonably sure that the attribution to J. K. Moir here is an erroneous reading of the Douglas Stewart article I quote above.
Update: After publication of this article, Chris David Woodland provided a copy of the song as it was in circulation in the 1960s.
Update 2: Thanks to Sandra from the Bush Music Club for sending me a link to the second page and better quality images from the song as it appears in Bushwacker Broadsides.
It would have been just after 9:30pm, some two hours into the concert, which had been ticking along at a good pace, thanks to Margaret Walter’s highly efficient direction. The air conditioning, which probably does a good job cooling the Sydney Gaelic Club when Pat and Brian are downing a Guinness on a lazy Saturday, was being pushed to its limits with around 100 people crammed into the venue.
Miguel Heatwole had just finished a song about ‘better times’ (edit: that he wrote and won the Alistair Hulett Social Justice prize with in 2017, lyrics and link in Miguel’s comment below), possibly an old-time style parody about the living standard of working people, accompanied by some toe tapping ragtime style guitar.
After this, Miguel got up on a makeshift soapbox and sang an acapella version of Revolution as sung by Dick Gaughan on his 1997 album A Different Kind of Lovesong. The lyrics to this song were written as a poem by Joseph Bovshover, in Yiddish and published in 1919. Joseph had died in America in 1915 after fleeing oppression under the Tzar in 1891, but his poetry became tied to the Russian Revolution and other global movements for workers’ rights and fair distribution of wealth.
I start at Miguel’s performance, because for me it summed up the feeling of the evening. So many great performers contributed to this memorial event for Alistair Hulett, in Sydney, some 17 thousand kilometres away from Alistair’s native Scotland and ten years after his passing in January 2010.
The evening was opened and closed by the Sydney Solidarity Choir. I have to say, that some of my previous experiences with socialist choirs has been somewhat like Mao’s suits, dull and mostly sung on the same note. This choir was a pleasant surprise, with complex multi-voice rhythm and harmonies which were a delight to listen to, plus the rare sight of a Baroque Guitar (no, not a broke guitar).
Steph Miller, who I had a brief chat with after my set, sang a heartfelt interpretation of Suicide Town. This was one of the first songs by Alistair that I heard, sung to me around a campfire by Judy Pinder some 10 or more years ago. Judy then lent me a copy of Cold Grey Light of Dawn which solidified my admiration for the song writing, artistry and commitment to humanity that Alistair is remembered for. Steph was part of Alistair’s punk band, Roaring Jack.
I should caveat the next part by saying that I’m not a Communist or a Socialist. In my teenage extrication from Pentecostal Christianity I read widely, including Marx and Engels. But I also read Mein Kampf, Crowley’s Book of the Law, Gurdjieff and many others. I came to the conclusion that any system which replaces the power held in the hands of a few rotten people, with a few other rotten people, is doomed to fail. Success lies in a revolution inside each human heart, to overthrow greed and envy and bigotry with compassion, tolerance and truth. This is a hard road and, in my view, cannot be travelled by waving pitchforks or throwing Molotov cocktails (or super gluing yourself to the street). I sympathise with the urgent desire to see things change, but in the words of John Lennon, “if you are talking about destruction, you can count me out”.
Emma Norton and Daniel Kenny played a beautiful pair of songs. I do not wish to offend anyone, but the cognitive dissonance triggered by a couple that would look right at home at a Baptist gospel singalong espousing Marxist values and sing about Red militancy was surprising to say the least. I guess the younger generation of Communists have forgone the Che t-shirt, and camouflage pants.
A highlight of the night for me was getting to follow Margaret and Bob Fagan. It was their performance of Factory Lad at the 2008 National Folk Festival by Margaret and Bob that set me on the journey which would culminate in the Factory Lad album. Bob did a brilliant acapella version of By Ibrox Park, from Alistair’s In Sleepy Scotland. Sadly there is no rendition of this song on YouTube, which I hope to remedy soon.
I was honoured to join such a great line-up of performers, and to sing to an audience which so appreciated Alistair and his legacy. I sang Time is Running Out, which was the last song that Alistair wrote. While it was likely written in response to his illness, the words present a stark warning for the current state of our environment and our society.
I don’t often make the four hour journey each way to Sydney to play music, but in this case it was well worth the drive to be part of this moving celebration of Alistair’s life. And also encouraging to see that ten years on, his ideals and words are still valued by so many.
Many thanks to Margaret Walters for organizing and running the event, to Sandra Nixon for running the door and also to Chris Maltby for being an impromptu stage hand.
On my YouTube channel I usually do some sort of Christmas challenge. This year I endeavored to find twelve Christmas related songs and sing them to the melody of another Christmas related song.
I had a lot of fun doing this, and it is interesting to see which songs can be adjusted to fit others. In some cases a line needed re-phrasing and there is always a bit of leeway with the placement and length of syllables.
As I have several books of Christmas songs from ten years of busking in the main street of our town each Christmas, the process involved picking one song and then trying the words out on all the other melodies I had. In most cases the song just doesn’t fit because there are too many lines or too many syllables in each phrase to sing without sounding ridiculous.
You can listen to all twelve songs (plus one posted by a fellow YouTube musician, Michael Hermiston) at the playlist link below.
A lot of folk song, due to its origin, speaks about poverty. Some songs that immediately come to mind are Poverty Knock, A Begging I will Go, Four Pence a Day and some that have been recycled several decades apart like Four Loom Weaver (from the Poor Cotton Weaver). No accident that these are all songs I found in Colin Dryden’s repertoire during my recent research work on his career. Colin was clearly a man with a social conscience.
Where I grew to be a Man, by Dorothy Hewett is a good Australian example, often sung under the title Weevils in the Flour. Many of the songs and poems recited by Max Cullen and Warren Fahey in their brilliant adaptation of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson’s work, Dead Men Talking, deal directly with poverty and its consequences, sometimes from personal experience of the author, and other times as a compassionate observer.
Songs (and poems) like this have been sung by those with lived experience to draw attention to their plight, to seek solace in a shared expression of their circumstance or simply to ensure that their misery is not lost to history. I don’t think there can be any argument against the value of this, except maybe from those who are the cause of their poverty or profit from them remaining in that state.
There is another side to songs about poverty. I remember listening to the Paul Young version of Love of the Common People on the radio when I was in school. I doubt anyone performing or in the audience of this recording would recognize a ‘common’ person in the street or have any personal lived experience of living on starvation wages or dealing with the prejudice, violence and disenfranchisement which so often comes hand in hand with poverty.
I can believe that John Hurley, one of the writers of the song back in the 1960s, probably did have enough experience, if not personal, then at least from direct contact with people living in poverty. John’s family put this video together of family photos over John’s own recording. You would have to grow up quickly as a child performer in Pittsburgh bar-rooms in the 1950s.
Here is where the sticky line of morality arises. Just like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes singing about hard drugs, womanizing and the challenges of life from their white middle-class bedrooms at the age of twelve can hardly be convincing, what does it mean when wealthy, or ludicrously wealthy, people sing about being terribly poor?
There are some famous musicians and singers that have made tangible efforts, often at personal risk or expense to make the world a better place. Joan Baez immediately comes to mind with her efforts to end the Vietnam War and establishment of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. A cynic would equate this to the study of non-wet water, but at least there was a genuine and tangible action taken seeking a change.
What about those who sing songs about poverty purely to make a few dollars from a bit of virtue signalling and convenient alignment with a topical social issue? An episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s series Who is America? captures this so beautifully when he gets a Bachelor in Paradise contestant to agree to be photo-shopped into a picture showing her helping African people suffering from Ebola.
Maybe when Elvis sang In the Ghetto, his intent was to trigger social change and not just about needing a top 10 hit after a four year drought. The detail here on Elvis’ charity efforts seems light-on for someone with the lifestyle Elvis was leading. The discussion here during the recording is also enlightening.
And why does it sell? It certainly isn’t people living below the poverty line forking out $20 to buy an album or $200 for a ticket to hear songs about being poor. To use one of the things I hate, made-up academic terms, Poverty Fetishism is what I think is at play here; people who like the idea of being poor, or are thrilled by imagining themselves in a romanticised vision of poverty for a few minutes before purchasing their next Latte or Louis Vuitton handbag.
Love of the Common People was one of the songs in our choir concert this season, which is what got me thinking about this topic. I’ve done a cover here based on the version done by one of my favourite bands, Indigo Girls. I don’t think you can get much more earnest or authentic than the Indigo Girls when it comes to singing about social issues. I know that when they sing this song, it is to share the story of those who are poor with those who might not be so poor, with respect and out of a shared humanity. I hope this is what comes across in my own music.