Sunday, June 22, 2008

One Night In Belmullet

Ten years or so ago on a visit to Silver Platters (my local CD store -- I'm well-known there), the manager of the store waved a CD at me and said that I had to hear it. He handed me Handful of Earth, by the Scotch folk singer Dick Gaughan; I shrugged and took home what became one of my favorite albums, a disk I still listen to regularly. I listened with pleasure as Gaughan wrapped his burr around traditional Scottish ballads, songs written by Robert Burns, and his own songs of liberation and solidarity. Gaughan sang with commitment and passion, evoking myriad feelings with a generous emotional palette.

So, when the indispensable Mayo News noted that Gaughan would be performing last Friday at Aras Inis Gluaire (The Erris Arts Centre) in Belmullet, it presented a perfect opportunity to visit that beautiful and remote place (see yesterday's entry). We joined about 40-50 others in an intimate setting as Gaughan performed two sets of originals, trad songs, and covers like "The Games People Play" and "Waist Deep In The Big Muddy", a song as sadly pertinent today as it was when Pete Seeger wrote it back in the Sixties. He sang what he called his favorite song (Burns' lovely "Westlin Winds"). He displayed dazzling guitar technique during a couple of instrumental interludes of jigs and reels, his fingers dashing around the fret like a line of step dancers. Gaughan closed the show with a request from me called "Both Sides The Tweed," an old Scottish song that he rewrote. Although it concerns a particular incident in Scotch-English history, today it resonates as a warm embrace of the value and humanity of mutual respect across cultural divides.

But for both of us, the highlight of the evening came with a song whose name we didn't catch and whose words we couldn't understand. Gaughan introduced it by explaining that he grew up in a multilingual home speaking Irish, English, and two versions of Scots. He then related the subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to eradicate Scots by treating it and its speakers as inferior. This led to a beautiful Scotch-language ballad that moved Premium T. to tears and left the rest of us silent. The power of song is indeed a magical and sacred thing.

I'm pretty sure that we were the only Americans in attendance. As we walked into the gloaming of an Irish solstice evening at 11 p.m., I pondered the uniqueness of the experience: Out of a nation of 300 million people, we were the only two to hear these particular versions of these particular songs on this particular night. We felt blessed...

There's no transferable decent video of Gaughan performing "Both Sides The Tweed," but you can go here to see him sing it with Emmylou Harris. I've reproduced the lyrics below. In the meantime, here's a video of him performing "Wild Mountain Thyme" with Emmylou, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and what looks like Rufus Wainwright:

Both Sides The Tweed
What's the spring breathing jasmine and rose?
What's the summer with all its gay train
Or the splendour of autumn to those
Who've bartered their freedom for gain?

Let the love of our land's sacred rights
To the love of our people succeed
Let friendship and honour unite
And flourish on both sides the Tweed.

No sweetness the senses can cheer
Which corruption and bribery bind
No brightness that gloom can e'er clear
For honour's the sum of the mind

Let virtue distinguish the brave
Place riches in lowest degree
Think them poorest who can be a slave
Them richest who dare to be free

Read Dick Gaughan's notes on "Both Sides The Tweed" here.

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