All the articles here are copyright-protected.
[published in a private newsletter in September, 2013]
My work as a therapeutic musician brings me into contact with a range of people I do not usually meet in my social life. There have been fascinating conversations over the years about King David, the Psalms attributed to him, the spiritual properties of music and the harp in particular… a whole slew of topics I find myself discussing, quite off the cuff.
Sometimes, however, a connection is made that just knocks me over. One afternoon recently, I was playing quiet music to a variety of patients in the oncology ward of Shaare Zedek Hospital. Some people wanted cheerful, rhythmic music to mark the upcoming Jewish New Year [Rosh Hashanah]; others preferred meandering medieval tunes that are so old, they don’t really belong to any one ethnic group any more.
Working my way slowly down the corridor, from room to room, I never know whom I shall be greeting. Sometimes it is somebody I have been playing for over a long period of time (months or even years); sometimes it turns out to be somebody I know personally from the outside world. And sometimes it is somebody who gives me a big surprise.
The fourth room I played in on this particular occasion was occupied by a woman who was sitting up on her hospital bed, swinging her legs a little. She lit up when I began to play some Hassidic tunes. [The Hassidic community, divided into many independent sub-groups, is a ‘charismatic’ branch of ultra-Orthodox Judaism with roots in 18th-century Eastern Europe.] After a few melodies for Shabbat, I played one that is a firm favourite with many of my Jewish patients: Keli Ata, a setting of Psalm 118:28 – You are my God and I will praise You, my God, and I will exalt You.
The melody I played was composed by Rabbi Schneur Zalman (1745-1812). He is revered – as he was in his lifetime – as a mystic, philosopher and spiritual guide, an authority on halacha [Jewish religious law], a talmudist, a prolific writer, and a composer.
In the midst of all of this work, he founded the Chabad movement in Liadi, then in tzarist Russia. His followers called him Der Alter Rebbe (the Old Rabbi), among many titles and names. He had clearly been a child prodigy, having completed at age eight a commentary on the Torah based on the works of three great scholars of an earlier era. He is also said to have composed ten outstanding melodies, and Keli Ata is one of these. Often, when I play this in the hospital, even non-religious people begin to sing along. It’s one of the great Jewish classics.
Imagine my wonder, then, when I finished playing this lovely tune for the woman sitting quietly on that hospital bed. She beckoned me closer and asked if I knew what I had been playing. I mentioned the psalm and the popular title of its respected composer. “Yes,” she confirmed. “And I am one of his descendants.”
She was so filled up with this melody that she did not want me to play anything further at that time. It was enough for her, as she clearly was moved to think back to her remarkable ancestor. And I? I was speechless.
Harping for horses
[published in a private newsletter in June, 2012]
I have been playing therapeutic harp music for over eight years, having acquired certification through a distance course in the United States. I have given lectures about this kind of work and have written several articles on some of its aspects for the Harp Therapy Journal in the USA. There is always more to discover and learn, however, and nobody can cover it all. Each course (mostly in the USA) offers a different angle or focus, but ultimately it is in the field that one learns the most.
Over the years, when I have rehearsed at home or in some other private setting, I have noticed the reaction of pets to my singing and playing. Our late lovely tabby, Rebecca, used to snuggle into the soft lining of my harp bag or guitar case, or curl right up against my side and stay there for as long as I was making music. One time, at a cousin’s house, his dogs all came running in from the garden when they heard the music, and settled themselves at my feet. There is no doubt that it affected them.
Then, in 2010, I read an article that really fired my imagination: a woman in the USA had begun playing therapeutic harp music for horses and found it very beneficial to them. There are several stables and ranches around Israel, and I found myself wondering whether the locals (the four-legged kind) might also respond to the quiet reverberations of this kind of music.
My association with horses has been tenuous. I have always liked and admired them, but I was never one of those girls who became obsessed about them. To my delight, I learned that one of my great-grandfathers (my paternal grandfather’s father, I believe) served in the Russian Imperial Guard in the 19th century. The story in the family goes that the army was desperate for tall men. They must have been desperate to take a Jew at that time, but he was apparently very tall indeed. Sadly, I know nothing further about his story, but it is abundantly clear that he had two characteristics I myself never inherited: his height and his ability to ride a horse.
My own experiences with these beautiful creatures have been few, far between and — with one exception — rather uncomfortable. The exception occurred two years ago, soon after I had read that article about using music for horses. A local stable advertised a reduced rate for an evaluation lesson. I leaped at the chance. (My leap at the horse’s back was slightly less graceful, I have to admit.) It was a charming experience, and the horse accepted me very kindly. I would love to take further lessons, but this will have to wait until I win the national lottery.
Nonetheless, the memory of this one positive experience with a horse has remained with me. Imagine my joy, then, when I met someone at a party some weeks ago, and we got talking about our respective interests and professions. She has adored horses all her life; and when she and her husband moved here from Australia three years ago, they bought a house in a rural village and brought in three horses. They hire the animals out for lessons, and are interested in using them for therapy. I told her about my therapeutic work and about the article I had read. Would she be interested in a little experiment? It didn’t take much to convince her. I sent her the article the next day, she wrote back almost immediately, and a date was set.
First stop: the private house and ranch. There, in a sandy, fenced-off yard, stood three creatures who towered over me: a chestnut (glowing copper in the Middle Eastern sun), an Arab/appaloosa mix (with that fine Arab head and delicate dark gray speckles on a paler gray background), and a ‘painted’ (looking as if a modern artist had splashed tan and black on a white canvas). My hostess planted a sun umbrella in the middle of the yard, to protect both me and my prima donna harp, gave me a chair, and I settled in, unsure of what to expect.
The horses were curious about the odd structure standing in the middle of their usually bare yard, and came to taste the awning a little. Then they began to notice the music. I cannot say that anything dramatic happened, but it was clear that they were listening. Wherever they were — whether in the yard itself or back in their stalls — their delicate ears were firmly cocked in the direction of the sounds coming from my harp. Experimenting with the atmosphere, I played medieval and traditional tunes, improvisations in regular Western keys, and then some in medieval modes; and sometimes I simply let the wind play through the strings — an ethereal sound that no human hand can reproduce.
Within a few minutes, my hostess could see how still and relaxed the three horses had become. To experiment further, she got me to take a break after 30 minutes of straight playing. We watched the horses, and they began moving around much more. When I began playing again, some of them came and stood behind me, looking over my shoulder at my wondrous music-maker. This is the closest I have ever been to a horse when not attempting to mount or dismount, and I have to admit that I found it slightly daunting. I simply had to trust them not to trample me. I am here to tell the tale.
A little later, we went on to a large ranch down the road, where they keep some 25 horses. This time, I sat under a permanent awning that continued down one wall: the acoustics were wonderful, despite the strong wind that day. Many of the horses could get quite close, just beyond the railings. Some of them were clearly fascinated and stayed almost rooted to the spot for minutes on end, never turning their heads away. Some of the new mothers became so relaxed that the ranch staff thought they were practically asleep, and two of the foals simply lay down on the packed earth.
The staff were all delighted, and quizzed me about my therapeutic work and the ideas behind it. Pun unintended, it struck a chord with them all. The experiment was pronounced a success. I hope they act on my suggestion and hang a small harp up near the animals — to sing in the wind.
Little Bundles of Hope
During my eight years of playing therapeutic harp in both private and public surroundings, I have always tried to find time to play in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) at the Shaarei Zedek Medical Center. It has not always been possible: some days, the cancer units are simply overflowing; but it is with a delicate combination of joy and anticipation that I make my way towards the penultimate floor of the hospital, scrub my hands thoroughly, and tiptoe into the main room of the NICU.
There, I see truly tiny babies in incubators that are hooked up to noisy machines — each of them beeping somewhere around a B note — and adults in various coloured garments (pink for the volunteers, yellow or blue for family members, white for the staff), hovering and doing their best for each little person.
Babies have always appealed to me but, since becoming a grandmother to a very healthy little boy, the poignancy of the NICU has become particularly strong for me. I see each premature baby as a bundle of hope, some of whom are so tiny, I believe they might fit into the palm of my hand.
Because of all the machinery — and hospital rules, of course — I cannot approach too closely; but I stand or sit just inside the doorway, and let the music spread all over the room. If I had to work there all day long, I suspect the constant drip-drip-drip of the beeping machines would drive me crazy, so I try to alleviate any tension that the staff and visiting families may be feeling, spending hours with that amount of repetitive noise.
I set my harp levers for the G major scale and begin. I start with a long medley of Irish and Scots tunes in that key — more slowly than I would play in concert, but lively enough to add a gentle but positive beat that gradually embraces those mad beeps around the major third tone of G major. After a few minutes, the beeps slip into the background: they are loud enough for a staff member to hear, should they need to attend quickly to a baby, but playing in this key makes their insistence a little less aggressive, making them a part of the music. The staff and families relax a bit. This is Good.
After a while, I begin to improvise, keeping to G major and sometimes slipping into D major as well, if the mood takes me. Research into the therapeutic effect of live harp music on both premature babies has shown that they respond most clearly to the positive vibrations of the major scales and a regular beat just a touch closer to their own heartbeat than I would play for a recumbent adult patient. Studies over the past 30-odd years have shown that the babies absorb oxygen more efficiently with live harp music playing in the background. Recorded music can also have a positive effect, and I imagine that other quiet stringed instruments (such as guitar or lute) would also be beneficial. I feel very lucky to have a harp in my hands, and people always appear delighted when I wheel it into the unit.
In the other room, there are babies who have made it through the most dangerous phase, and are staying on in the NICU for a few days more, just to be sure that they are healthy and strong enough to go home at last. This is a much quieter room — much less of that pesky beeping. The families are calmer, too, and the hope of a happy return home is often much nearer to coming true, though some babies remain there for several months.
There have been people who have begun to hum along quietly to their baby, accompanying my playing. Others, whom I have met in the elevator returning to the lower floors, have told me that their child is now a few years old and coming along very well. In some cases, I have seen the little survivors for myself. In every instance, everyone in the elevator gets very emotional: what a joy! I am not allowed to ask for the names of the families or the individual babies in the NICU, and, as a result, I can never know which are the lucky ones who survive to go home to their loving families. It is clear that a certain percentage does not survive, but when I meet a former NICU patient, I am always overwhelmed with relief.
It is invariably hard to pack up and leave at the end of a session, but there is always another opportunity to look forward to.
Something to Celebrate
[published in the Harp Therapy Journal, Spring 2011]
Since 2004, I have been playing therapeutic harp in Israel, playing sometimes for troubled adults and for premature babies, but predominantly serving the community of adults suffering from various forms of cancer.
Over time, I have found myself playing for particular patients who — sadly — are regulars in the ward or the Oncology Day Centre. Some patients introduce themselves and then want to know about me in return. Others become very friendly but I never learn their names. I will play for some for months on end and then will not see them again, or they may only return after a long hiatus. It is impossible to know whether they have recovered completely, are in remission or have passed away, and this situation leaves me somehow holding my breath.
One gentleman I played for, for three years or so, is the husband of a former employer. He always greeted me very warmly, and told me plainly how much he appreciated the music. And then, suddenly, he was no longer at the hospital. I was worried. Having a personal connection with his wife, I considered calling her, but was afraid it would turn out to be inappropriate. Imagine my relief, then, when I saw him recently at a local supermarket, looking much healthier. When I expressed my concern, he told me that the new medications have worked wonders and that he’s well on the road to recovery; he no longer needs to attend regular sessions at the hospital.
It hit me then how seldom my colleagues and I witness such ‘happy endings’, however temporary they may turn out to be. We become fond of the patients, protective of them, and as concerned as the other staff, but there is an accompanying feeling of helplessness when we are unable to enquire about them.
Another ‘happy ending’ was shown me a few months ago. The elevator moving down from the top floors of the hospital was full, and — as often happens — there were the usual jokes about elevator music, and how I should just travel up and down all day, playing for everyone who gets in. A young woman was standing against the back wall, holding the hand of a little boy aged about four. He looked a bit delicate, but his speech was perfectly clear and appropriate for his (estimated) age. His mother asked me whether I had been playing in the NICU and, when I confirmed it, said to me, “You played for my son when he was a premie, four years ago. I have never forgotten your music and what it did for us while we struggled to bring him to health.” Needless to say, we both cried. What a joy!
I suppose it was predictable that I would become emotionally involved with patients. How good it is to be able to celebrate a positive outcome when it happens.
Some Reflections on Healing Music in Jerusalem
[An earlier version was published in the Harp Therapy Journal, Spring 2009.]
Since my first ‘session’ in the hospital nearly five years ago, I have always been struck by the response of many listeners, who immediately make the connection between King David and the harp. Some recall the Biblical episode in which the young shepherd plays soothing music for the depressed King Saul; others mention the Psalms. On one occasion, my playing prompted a patient to search in his personal copy of the Psalms for a particular reference to harps. He consulted several other religiously-observant Jews in the waiting-room, and they all seemed to enjoy the distraction of some intellectual activity. His response to the instrument, and his excitement and passion, caused general amusement and delight.
There are many situations in which I have wondered “Would this happen elsewhere?”. The religious mix here necessitates a sensitive approach. For a start, I dress in a way that will not offend the sensibilities of ultra-Orthodox Jewish patients and their families, ensuring that shoulders-to-knees are pretty well-covered, though I do not pretend to be religiously observant myself. If my mode of dress disturbs the patients, the music will not have the effect that I aiming for.
Because of the fraught socio-political situation here in Israel, so stickily intertwined with issues of faith and ethnicity, I also consider my therapeutic repertoire carefully. Some specifically Jewish tunes – e.g., settings of Psalms and prayers for healing — are for everyone. I definitely do not play Israeli songs with nationalist connotations – not for anyone. However, folk tunes, improvisations on modes and Middle Eastern scales, and medieval and Renaissance melodies, all provide me with plenty of material.
Another consideration is the tradition of kol isha (Hebrew for ‘a woman’s voice’). In some Orthodox Jewish communities it is considered inappropriate for a man to hear a woman’s voice in song. In private rooms, where I can shut the door, I have sometimes sung for patients and their visitors at their request. One ultra-Orthodox Jew asked me to play for his wife, who soon asked me to sing in Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews that is still widely spoken in their community. She loved the lullaby I sang. She proceeded to ask me personal questions, telling me that this was the first time she had ever spoken with a secular Jew. She felt that we had connected. We were both deeply moved.
Although I am predominantly a singer, I generally do not sing in the public areas of the hospital. It interests me, however, to realize just how flexible some religious traditions can be. A devout Jewish man once asked me to sing in a public area of the Oncology Day Centre. In fact, it was the eve of Tisha b’Av, a somber day of mourning and fasting for religious Jews, when listening to music is forbidden. Present there, as usual, was a mix of men and women, secular and religiously-observant Jews, and people of other faiths. When I expressed concern about both Tisha B’Av and kol isha, he said, “Ah, but this is not entertainment; this is for healing.” I wanted to hug him (forbidden, of course). In medical or therapeutic situations, strict customs may be set aside deliberately, in recognition of other needs. I sang for thirty minutes and then, to my joy, everyone began talking to each other. The music had helped to break down barriers. Afterwards, I simply floated home.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The informality in Israeli society (where you are addressed by your first name 99 percent of the time) spills over into medical settings. People may speak as loudly there as they do in the street, and they are sometimes interested in your business as well as their own. All this makes for an atmosphere that differs strongly from the hushed, more sedate settings which my studies had prepared me for; however, although there are times when I long for more quiet around the wards, I have become accustomed to much of it.
This casualness hits you in different ways. On one occasion, the head nurse at the nurses’ station began singing along with the medley of Jewish melodies that I was playing. Smiling, one of the patients came out of her room and also joined in. Gradually, other patients and visitors gathered around: the music brought joy and comfort to all who were listening.
In a small country like Israel and an intimate city like Jerusalem, finding unexpected personal connections is not uncommon. I have sometimes found myself playing for friends or the families of friends. A nurse on one of my regular ‘stops’ eventually discovered that we have family in common. It caused considerable hilarity on the ward, and one of the volunteers asked if she could please be in my family, too, because she loves the music so much.
I was once asked to play for a man with stomach cancer. After chatting for a few moments, he and his wife discovered that they knew some of my cousins. Even the director of the unit, it turned out, was an old friend of theirs, and he joined us in a long discussion about the informality in Israeli hospitals. When he needed to drain the patient’s stomach, he asked me to stay. I began to build a simple, spare pattern on the harp, playing for nearly an hour (keeping my eyes firmly averted from the procedure). Some days later, my lawyer called: he had just attended the patient’s funeral, and wanted to tell me that my playing and how much it had meant to the patient had been specifically mentioned.
Another day, a young woman — clearly due to give birth at any moment — asked if I would play for her husband in the Urology Department, where he was recovering from surgery. The patients gathered around as I began to play rhythmic-but-gentle Irish and Renaissance music, and the baby, quiet until that moment, began to dance in its mother’s belly. This became the focus of everyone’s attention. When I first entered the ward, I could sense the unhappiness and pain that the patients were feeling, and could see it in their faces; the baby’s response to the music brought joy instead, and I left them all smiling. I was smiling, too.
Harpers in Hospital Wards
[published in a private newsletter in May 2006]
I continue to train as a therapeutic harper in the course offered by American harper Laurie Riley. Over the past two years, I have been playing at the Sha’are Zedek Hospital up the road, and in recent months in its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Recent research in the USA has shown that premature babies absorb oxygen more efficiently when a harp is played to them — not recorded music (though that does have a positive, if weaker effect), but a live harp. The vibration of string on wood seems to have a deep influence on these tiny creatures struggling to survive. So it is deeply moving and exciting for me to play for the babies, their worried parents and grand-parents, and the tense staff. My appearance in the ward is greeted with joy and relief.
A favourite moment was when an ultra-Orthodox [extremely devout Jewish] father began to sing along softly with my harp, as his wife gently fed their child. Another mother, stroking her baby’s skin as I played, encouraged her to listen to the music.
I find myself improvising in a slow 6/8 rhythm to the machines beeping around the room. I always play in the key of G, which is musically compatible with the B-note that the machines emit. In this way, the beeping becomes a part of the music and is immediately far less irritating. On some occasions, the improvisation will last for a full 15 minutes, before I move on to another piece.
On several occasions now, ultra-Orthodox men have spoken to me about the instrument, the music, or asked for a particular tune. Normally, they would never speak to me, as it is clear from my clothes that I am not of their community. Perhaps they allow themselves this measure of direct communication, seeing me as part of the staff or because I am doing what they consider to be a mitzva [a religiously-sanctioned good deed]. I am happy that the music is breaking down traditional barriers.
I play, too, for people who are at the very end of their lives. It is impossible for me not to be moved by the distress of the family at their side. One woman, hovering over her fading husband, grasped my hands and searched my face, asking if the harp music would help him. I could only say that it would do him no harm, and that it is thought to help both spirit and body. She told me that he was already quite deaf, but I said that several people with experience in this work note that the ears are one of the last organs to fail: there was a good chance that her husband would still hear the music, even if only subliminally; and his body would certainly receive the vibrations from the instrument, even though we would not be able to see it. She accepted this and allowed me to stand in the corner of the room, playing quietly for some thirty minutes. After twenty, I noticed that the patient’s body was relaxing more, and so was his wife’s.
The staff who have encountered my colleagues and me have come to believe implicitly in the power of the music we play. When I have been away, some of the nurses tell me later that they have missed the music and need a regular ‘dose’ of it. Others are mildly annoyed when one of the patients refuses my offer of music. I have to tell them that this is absolutely the patient’s right; in fact, it may be the only thing they can refuse when they are in a helpless situation in a hospital. Other patients simply have not experienced this music, and may not realise how beneficial it can be. Increasingly, however, people are excited about the presence of the harp in the hospital, and anticipate our visits with pleasure.
[My colleagues and I] are now halfway through our course, and our enthusiasm isn’t waning. On the contrary, we are deeply encouraged by the positive response we are meeting everywhere we go. Long may it continue.
[published in FolkNotes (Israel), July 2005]
The concert hall at YMCA in Jerusalem rang with the sweet sound of Scots Gaelic this past Shabbat — not at all the usual fare offered by the increasingly exclusive Israel Festival. And what a treat it was: just pure, unadulterated traditional singing — strictly a cappella, thank-you.
The artist in question was Ishbel MacAskill, from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Her mission in life is to help keep her native language and culture alive, and the Gaels couldn’t have a more charming ambassador. From her introductory words in Scots Gaelic (which sounds like a soft breeze combing the sea), and her first ones in English, from her first broad smile, she had us in the palm of her hand.
The following hour was a journey through the various sides of her music — work songs (particularly waulking songs), dance tunes (including several examples of ‘mouth music’), lullabies and love songs. She aptly described Scots song as covering “the three D’s: death, drowning and getting dumped”. A slight exaggeration for effect, of course, but it’s not far wrong: but then, I firmly believe that the best songs are always the sad ones. She kept trying, she said, to find us some cheerful songs, but apologised that she could only come up with “doleful, very doleful and very, very doleful”. It didn’t feel like it. Her voice is soft and quite deep in places — she’s a mezzo rather than a soprano — and is so expressive that I, for one, didn’t feel at all depressed by all the sad stories she was singing to us. Far from it: it was spiritually and emotionally uplifting.
It was moving to hear her gentle comments about the traumatic history of the Gaels in Scotland — especially in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite risings, ending to all intents and purposes in 1746. What followed would be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ today, and the results can still be felt — the precariousness of the language and old culture, the social discrimination over the years (with children in earlier generations being beaten by their school-masters for daring to speak their native tongue), the expulsion of people from their land and homes to make way for — far more lucrative — sheep. All of this she touched on in her explanations of the songs, yet never bludgeoned us with it. Her few words were well-chosen, and I got the impression that the newcomers to Scots song and history got the message soft and clear.
Although the place was not packed, the audience was so attentive that I’m sure she must have been happy with the response she got. Most of the time, you could have heard a pin drop. Remember, she was singing full-frontal a cappella; not a style that non-folkies would necessarily be familiar — or comfortable — with. It is wonderful that this increasingly-rare art-form was so completely acceptable, enjoyable, and appreciated by the entire audience. I hope that the organisers will feel sufficiently encouraged to bring Ishbel back again in the future. Do yourselves a big favour and don’t miss her next time*.
*Sadly, Ishbel died in 2011. RIP.
Playing therapeutic harp music
[published in a private newsletter in May 2005]
In September 2002, I helped found Nevel: The Jerusalem Harp Network with two other harp enthusiasts. Our circle has grown, both in numbers and scope. Apart from our musical agenda (workshops, concerts, etc.), we aim to use harps to reach out to underprivileged and at-risk youngsters, and — most immediately — to play for the sick and needy in hospitals and private homes. Our belief in the therapeutic properties of harp music has moved several of our members to begin studying to become certified therapeutic harpers, adapting one of the existing American courses to our local situation.
We have already received two harps from generous donors. The first of these sits permanently at Sha’are Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, waiting for whichever of us visits next. My first one-on-one experience, a ‘field work’ requirement for the course, was playing recently for a Jewish woman, a former American, hospitalised in an oncology ward. This situation is always nerve-wracking for the musician: you can never be sure how someone is going to receive your music. We want to serve their needs by creating a serene, comforting atmosphere: this is neither entertainment nor an opportunity to show off.
Entering the room, I introduced myself by my first name alone. I asked the patient if she would like some music, and when she agreed, I urged her to stop me if it bothered her at any point. That point never came. I instinctively lowered my voice to a murmur when addressing her, and my harp-playing began at the same level. However, after a few minutes, she asked me to play a little more loudly. When her family began to gather, they indicated that they would like me to remain. Slow tunes are best suited to this situation, when the patient is lying on their back, possibly drifting in and out of sleep. I played several of my regular Celtic repertoire, but slowed each one down almost beyond recognition. Instinctively, you find yourself sticking more or less to the basic tune with the simplest of arrangements. Improvisation on a musical pattern or scale is even better. You play very rubato (without a set rhythm), letting notes linger through the room — the Aeolian harp effect. It is deeply relaxing and soothing — not just for the patient, but also for visitors and staff.
After 50 minutes, I rose to take my leave, not wanting to overdo it. I mentioned to her that I also sing, and that I would do so on my next visit if she would like that. One of her sons immediately requested that I sing something in Hebrew before I leave. I was a little stumped: my usual Jewish repertoire on the harp is in Ladino (Judeo-Espagnol). Note to myself: I need to quickly learn to play some Hebrew and Yiddish tunes on the harp for such situations. After a minute’s careful deliberation, I thought of the evergreen Erev shel shoshanim (Evening of Roses) and sang a verse and chorus for the whole room, to their evident delight. I was quite exhausted after the session, but happy that I was able to do what I had set out to do.
Because of the different ethnic and religious sensitivies of patients here — Jewish or non-Jewish, Israeli or Palestinian, devout or not, men or women — we have had to think out our repertoire with particular care. This work is physically draining, but when a session goes well, when the patient and everyone else around them is soothed by the magic of the harp, the player feels deeply thankful for having been able to help in this small way.
Is Ladino Dead?
[published in a private newsletter in January, 2005; edited 2013]
‘Jewish Spanish’ is 15th-century Castiliano laced with Hebrew and (to a lesser extent), Greek, Turkish, Italian, Frenc and even the occasional word from Arabic or Parsi. A love thing it is, rich and melodious, full of passion and humour. Experts have been telling us for years that Ladino is dead and, sure enough, this ‘fact’ was recently repeated at a conference at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. It is true that, since World War II, with its devastation of Jewish communities throughout Europe and as far as North Africa, the number of native speakers of this little-known language has dwindled, though pockets of them are still to be found around the Mediterranean and in Western Europe and the Americas. In each one, it is the women who have upheld the time-honoured task of retaining old songs, stories, sayings… and curses.
The past decade or so has seen an upsurge in interest – among my generation and the one before it — and little groups have formed to either learn the language from scratch, or reinforce what was spoken in the family home when they were children. I was a member of just such a group when I studied Ladino with my mentor, poet-folklorist-storyteller Matilda Koén-Sarano. My intention was to develop enough of a basis to help me understand what I sing. Each year there a few new recruits are added to these courses; would there were more.
In several places around the world, newsletters have appeared, which go some way toward replacing the newspapers that were published regularly before WWII, and there is even an Internet discussion group. In addition, the number of commercial performances and recordings of Ladino songs (although, all too often, the same 25 favourites) has multiplied dramatically in the past 15 years. Not all are as respectful of the language and tradition as they purport to be, but they are at least introducing the repertoire to people who were ignorant of it until now. There are song clubs in various places, and (in Israel, at least) special cultural events which are enthusiastically attended.
Two years ago  the Festiladino was instituted in Israel, a contest whose sole purpose is to encourage the writing of new songs only in Ladino. The organisers were afraid that they would receive barely ten entries. They couldn’t have been more mistaken: they received over thirty, and for the second competition there were forty-seven. Of even greater interest is the compilation of a few Ladino dictionaries. The latest (Ladino-Hebrew) was the work of Matilda herself and promises to be far more inclusive and far-reaching than any other.
In addition to songs and dictionaries, there are myriad poems and even the occasional novel being written in Ladino. I myself have exchanged (brief) letters in that language with friends who could just as easily have written to me in English or some other, more common language; but there really is a joy in helping ‘keep the ball in the air’.
Numerous conferences are held each year on Sephardic culture, and often on the subject of “Is Ladino dying or is it already dead?’ Ironically enough, these heated discussions are often held in the language itself.
Ladino will never become the lingua franca of the entire Jewish people (any more than Yiddish will), but its influence — and that of Sephardic culture in general — cannot be denied in Israel, where Sephardim or people of partly-Sephardic descent constitute a large proportion of the Jewish population. The doomsayers are far too gloomy: if people still speak, sing, write and argue in a language, how much more ‘alive’ do you need it to be?
Jill reports on her work with young people, February 2004
[published in a private newsletter, March 2004]
“How old are you? 65?” “How many kids do you have?” “Do you speak all the languages in the whole wide world?” I’ve always wanted to work with children, using my music to open up the world to them, as my father opened it up for me when I was very small. I began thinking about a musical program for elementary schools years ago, but never went further than trying out a couple of ideas with Tal and Lisa’s classes over the years. The children all responded well, but I wasn’t sure whether that was just because most of them knew me as one of the class ‘mums’.
Then, on my second American tour in 2002, a dear friend found me some school engagements in his town in Pennsylvania. Four concerts in two days: five schools, several hundred children. The die was cast: there was no turning back now. It was a wonderful experience from the first, and I was determined to reach more children on my third tour, in February 2004. In the end, I sang for more children than for adults: children from ages 3 to 18… around 1,000 of them! And what a beautiful lot they were: I just wanted to take some of them home with me.
With the elementary schools, I generally repeated the Train Ride Round the World program that had premiered so auspiciously in 2002; when it came to the really little ones, of course, I had to tweak it and be flexible. At one point, while waiting for the first concert of the morning to start, I found myself tuning up in the playground. It wasn’t long before some of the three-year-olds had gathered around me, asking me about the guitar, and helping me to play songs (i.e. I played the chords and they gently strummed — at one point, five of them at a time). After my final session in that particular school, one little boy winsomely asked me to read him a story. I would have loved to; in fact, I would have liked to stay all day. Other children blew me kisses as they filed back to class, or came over to give me a hug. As I crouched there, tying shoe-laces, an enterprising child in one school yelled “Quick! Get her autograph! Maybe she’ll be famous one day!” (I had a good laugh about that one.)
I was delighted by the children’s response to not only the different kinds of music, but also the various languages they were hearing for the first time. They generally sat starry-eyed, but joined in with alacrity whenever asked. I had them doing sign language to an Israeli song, and then singing in Polish (yes!), French and Welsh. They also played percussive sounds with hands and feet for the Scots Gaelic and Apache songs, and then joined in with that old favourite since I was two, The Lollipop Tree and the cumulative song The Rattling Bog. They were all astounded that I could sing the latter so quickly.
However, my favourite response came, each time, when I sang them a lullaby in Manx Gaelic: time and again, from ages 5-11, many of the kids just keeled over each other like a bunch of puppies, and either rested or went completely to sleep. The teachers’ faces were a treat!
Question-time turned out to be fun, too. Sometimes they just wanted to share important matters with me, but some kids asked such things as “What’s different about living in Israel?” (Answer: People talk loudly, using their hands a lot.) “What do you like doing in Israel?” (Answer: Eating!) “Did you see where they filmed The Lord of the Rings“, and “Do you have hairy feet?” (I explained — poker-faced — that I always shave them before I embark on a tour.)
One child, aged 8-9 years old, had all the adults gasping at his perspicacity. I had shown them on the map where my father was born (Poland) and he immediately raised his hand and asked whether he had “been in the Holocaust”. We were prodigiously impressed by the speed of the connection he made.
Another boy, responding to my Maori medley at the beginning of the concert, began moving his arms and body in time to the music. I saw a teacher hurry over and try to stop him, which saddened me because his response was so instinctive. I asked him whether he’d ever been to New Zealand or to Hawaii, and when he said no, I complimented his instinct in understanding the way the Maori dancers/singers move when they sing their lovely songs. He looked pleased and proud, while the teacher looked a little sheepish. Oh dear. Still, there was lots of laughter, so I hope it was a learning experience for everyone.
When it came to the high schools, I had to plan other programs entirely. For one class, the choral society, I spoke about the development of my musical career and song-writing. For the others, I put together a more sophisticated version of my first program, deliberately introducing subjects that are currently under discussion the world over (e.g. integration into the larger society vs. keeping and appreciating one’s own special culture/language etc. in the home; endangered cultures and languages, social action).
Again, the students were very receptive, and enjoyed trying out a hypnotic Zulu work chant at the end. Some of them decided on the spot to do some kind of folk music project for their final school assignment. I couldn’t have been more delighted. Others crowded around me at the end of this particular program to ask me about different tunings for my instruments. I could tell that they were longing to get home to their guitars and try out these new ideas. For myself, it was hard to leave them all behind.
I plan to work with more youngsters wherever and whenever I can on future tours.
A Mighty Wind
[published in Folk Notes (Israel) in February 2004]
A new film has hit the cinemas: A Mighty Wind is blowing our way! Directed and written by Christopher Guest (in collaboration with Eugene Levy), this is a send-up (they are calling it a ‘mockumentary’) of the folk scene in the United States before Bob Dylan got everyone all shook up. The main targets are combos that suspiciously echo The Kingston Trio (The Folksmen), The New Christy Minstrels (The New Main Street Singers), and Ian and Sylvia (Mitch and Mickey). In the film the former promoter of these groups, one Irving Steinbloom, has died, and his son — apparently unaware of the less-than-pretty sides of his late father’s behaviour — decides to bring his favourite acts together for a memorial concert.
The jokes flow thick and fast for people familiar with this early period in the folk revival, when singer-songwriters were taking off for the first time, and before really serious research into traditional music became more ‘respectable’. The film pokes fun at the hokey — at the commercialism of some of the early performers who, Guest seems to claim, simply jumped on the bandwagon without really respecting the musical traditions of the people in whose archives they fossicked.
It’s fun to watch and listen to, but the satire is balanced by some poignancy, too — particularly with reference to the story of ‘Mitch and Mickey’. Mitch has suffered a nervous breakdown, and his fumbling attempts to fit in with the attempts of his former mentor’s family to harness him to his troubled past are truly touching. You just want to weep for the guy.
What Guest and Levy seem to miss, however (or maybe they just don’t know about it) is the camaraderie that can develop when a bunch of musicians get together to sing a rousing song together. A Mighty Wind is, of course, a reference to the Dylan classic Blowin’ in the Wind. Watching and listening to the performance of this ‘fake song’, however, I was reminded of all the times that Kibbutz Galuyot gathered together on stage in the past to sing Love Is — the heady rush and feeling of joy that it brought. This has been repeated time and again at private gatherings, with people singing All My Trials or The Water is Wide (to name two particular evergreen favourites of some of the local folkies), and most recently at the 2003 New Year’s Eve benefit for Ray Scudero, when all the musicians assembled for the final ensemble number, Ray’s beloved Horizon Dawn. Laughter, sneering, or criticism aside, these are special moments which people who have experienced them remember for years afterwards, regardless of the nagging question of ‘authenticity’. Any acknowledgement of something genuine that can arise out of such meetings is entirely missed in this film. What a pity.
Derek Bell, 1935-2002
[published in Folk Notes (Israel) in December 2002]
Derek Bell, harper extraordinaire with the great Irish ensemble The Chieftains, died suddenly in October. He was thought to be recovering from surgery. Occurring just days before his 67th birthday, his untimely death has been a blow not only to his wife and fellow Chieftains, but also to his myriad admirers the world over.
He was a deeply talented musician, playing a range of instruments to envy: just listen to his mischievously titled Derek Bell Plays With Himself! He took up the harp at a late stage — an inspiration to all of us would-be harpers — then joined The Chieftains for several decades of joyous music-making.
His conservative appearance belied the impish humour and warmth of his character. I was privileged to chat with him a little, back in 1992, and was nearly pulverised by the bear hug he gave me. When I expressed a wish that The Chieftains would play in Israel, he said: “Just send us the airfare!”
If you have not listened to his recordings before now, I recommend you do so before long. We are lucky that Mr Bell has left us all such a beautiful legacy. RIP.
Derek Bell’s albums (apart from his recordings with The Chieftains) include: Derek Bell Plays With Himself; Ancient Music for the Irish Harp; A Celtic Evening With Derek Bell; The Mystic Harp (2 volumes); Carolan’s Receipt; and Celtic Seasons of Enchantment (with Will Millar). All of these are available at amazon.com and other mail-order catalogues.
Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Songs of Pete Seeger
Appleseed Recordings 1024 (double cd set)
[This is basically the review published in Folk Notes (Israel) in April 1999.]
I have always had a soft spot for Pete Seeger’s voice and songs, so when I read about this tribute set by some of the top folk artists today, I jumped at the chance to buy a copy. It was worth every cent.
All the songs featured are either totally original songs penned by Pete (sometimes with co-writers), or songs to which he has added verses and made them his own. There are several less well-known items among them.
How can you go wrong with the haunting voice of Dolores Keane singing the title track? Or the Boss himself – Bruce Spingsteen – singing We Shall Overcome (it’s a powerful combination: it made me love the song again)! Judy Collins’ singing of Oh Had I a Golden Thread is luminous; the sensitive John Gorka rendition of that evergreen favourite The Water is Wide is very pretty too. Bruce Cockburn’s Turn, Turn, Turn can never replace The Byrds’ recording for me, but it is always interesting to hear a different rendition. I particularly enjoy Odetta’s One Grain of Sand.
The recordings are all well done, and deliver a broad variety of styles. What I particularly like is the unexpected mix of people from the different folk generations, moving out into country and rock, and even across the Pond to the British Isles. This is no pedestrian collection: the constant changing of musical outlooks (outhears?) keeps you on your toes, keeps you waiting to hear what the next track is going to be like.
Buy it yourselves: sit back with a glass of something tasty in your hand, close your eyes, and just enjoy… I promise not to snap up all the copies around.
Janis Ian & Joan Baez
[This is basically the review published in Folk Notes (Israel) in March 1998.]
Back in mid-November, I took off to Scotland for a brief research trip. This was going to be my first real visit to Glasgow, and I was particularly excited to discover that, the night right after my arrival, there would be a special concert featuring Janis Ian and Dar Williams. This was too great an opportunity to miss, so I called up the box office — long distance — and booked a ticket. Handy things, those little pieces of plastic!
To cut a long story short, it took me an awfully long time to find the venue. It was a dimly numbered little dive on Sauchiehall Street — the longest street in the entire city. I paced up and down, the soles on my high-heeled boots seeming thinner by the pico-second… At last! There was the queue, curling right around the side of the building.
When I finally got in, a dram of single malt in hand, I found to my dismay (and that of my feet!) that there were about three tables up in the gallery for groups of people and no other seating arrangements whatsoever. My inward groan indicated immediately that I am already one of the oldies. I decided to be cheeky (i.e. go completely against my entire New Zealand upbringing) and plonked myself down on one of the stairs, hard against a wall so that people could still slink past me…
On with the show. There were two openers, both called Martin. One was a Welsh fellow with a good voice, good guitar and some good songs… Then came the bad news: they were building something next door, and Dar Williams had been so overcome by all the dust that she had had a mild asthma attack. She would not be performing at all. We were assured she was okay, but that was it.
Our disappointment was soon forgotten, however, because Janis Ian more than made up for the change of plans. I only knew her songs from the early 1970s — sensitive, perceptive, often quite bitter — and had lost sight (or hearing) of her, but there she was, twenty-something years later, with a show to envy.
She was alone on the stage for a good 1.5 hours, and there was no perceptible drop in energy or drive at any point. She knows what she is doing. She even handled the photographers with real grace, asking not to be photographed in mid-song, but promising to pose between numbers to give the photographers a chance. Everyone obliged; everyone was happy.
Ms Ian is as articulate as ever, both in and outside of her music, and her nicely-placed, wry sense of humour was evident throughout the performance. She plays with an intensity that is exhilarating. Apart from bowing to nostalgia and playing songs like Jesse — it is still moving — the other songs were too new to my ears for me to remember their titles. Suffice it to say that I was prodigiously impressed, and that, from now on, I plan to track down every album she has ever recorded.
As a complete contrast, a few nights later, Joan Baez was slated to appear at the Royal Concert Hall, which holds about 2,000 seats. I have known her singing since her earliest recordings in the 1960s and have always thought her voice very melodious. Figuring that I may never have another opportunity, I took myself off to hear her.
The place was packed with quite a mixture of age groups: there were quite a few around my own age, and just as many again who were obviously much younger and probably knew not Joan. An impressive number of backup musicians lined the stage… and on the lady came, petite, hair now almost uniformly gray, smiling, relaxed and assured.
There followed an evening of mainly new material, most of it from her [then] latest release. It was all superbly accompanied by the various instrumentalists, and sung very sweetly by Ms Baez. While her top range — which has always been her trademark — seems to have faded with the years, the lower register has become richer and is good to listen to.
With contemporary material, especially the thought-provoking kind, the lyrics are of paramount importance: it is here that Ms Baez let the audience down. Her enunciation was too unclear in most places for many of the lyrics to be caught, leaving us for most of the concert with nothing but pleasant melodies. A pity.
What I particularly loved about the concert, however, was the atmosphere. At one point, Ms Baez was trying to get her guitar to stay in tune — again — and one of the locals called out: “Haven’t you got it right YET, Joanie?” She laughed, and began a good-natured bantering match with him that continued throughout the evening. I know some musicians who do not approve of “that sort of thing… after all, it’s not a folk club.” Nonsense! It was great fun, and the star of the evening evidently felt no difference between ‘them and me’, and more power to her for that. It made the whole event like a big family gathering, and in no way detracted from her professional delivery of her material. It just meant that she is not a music machine. That impressed me more than the music.
I have to say that, while all the songs were very pleasant, there was no musical or emotional highlight: no song, phrase or note that made me catch my breath in wonder and think, “Wow! That was beautiful!” I have a feeling that I may have missed Joan Baez at the very height of her musical power, but I am glad to have had a chance, at long last, to catch her live.
Women Singers, ‘Celtic’ Mode
[This is basically the article that appeared in two parts in Folk Notes (Israel) in November & December 1997.]
Over the years, I have found it interesting to listen to other women singers whose repertoires cross my own in some way.
In earliest childhood, I loved to listen to Mary O’Hara, whose harp playing to this day is among the finest I have ever heard. She had a large hand in reviving traditional Irish song in the 1950s and early 1960s, before retiring to a convent after her first husband’s tragically young death. I was deeply moved to catch on television her return to the musical world in 1980.
In the late 1960s-early 1970s, my touchstones were the clear-voiced singing of Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, June Tabor (smokier), and Anne Briggs (pure and unadulterated, mainly a cappella — she was also responsible for introducing the Greek bouzouki into British Isles music). They were right up there in the forefront of the traditional musical revival in the British Isles in those years, along with singer-actress Isla Cameron and Peggy Seeger. Although Ms Seeger was also immersed in her American tradition (yes, she is sister to Pete and Mike, and daughter to composers Ruth and Charles), by marrying into the folk elite of Britain (Ewan MacColl), she helped to bring British medieval and Renaissance ballads back to life.
In Ireland, Triona ni Dhomhnaill rose to renown with The Bothy Band and later conglomerations; I caught her sister, Mairead, in concert in Ireland a few years ago, another good voice.
Up in Scotland, from our parents’ generation, Flora MacNeill from Barra, Jeanie Robertson and daughter Lizzie Higgins, and Belle Stewart kept the traditional musical flag flying with their subtle, intense singing — most of it a cappella. I find listening to them all not only a pleasure, but an education. However, their voices have none of the prettiness that the commercial world expects, and their albums tend to be collectors’ items rather than financial ‘successes’.
By the 1980s, a whole spate of young singers had begun to emerge, many of whom are still singing today. The Irish group De Danaan has been the springboard for several fine singers: most notably my all-time Irish favourite (female) Dolores Keane. She has now gone over to regular pop music, but if you listen to her first few albums, mainly of traditional material, the reedy quality of her voice will haunt you forever. She was born and raised into one of those musical families that Ireland is justly famous for; her late aunts, Rita and Sarah, were internationally renowned for their fine unison singing; her younger brother, Sean, is now well-known also, with an attractive voice.
Mary Black also came out of De Danaan — a totally different voice from Ms Keane, with none of the latter’s darkness of colour. Ms Black’s voice is sweet and poignant, without being cloying. She, too, has gone on to contemporary material, but her first few albums, which tended more toward the traditional, feature many tracks that will probably prove to be classics. There are two Black Family albums available: sister Frances has earned herself a name in her own right in the past decade, and their three brothers prove once again the apparent rule of Irish musicality by the family-full.
Maura O’Connell’s transition to more countrified contemporary music is, to my ear, much more successful than that of her De Danaan predecessors. She has dramatic strength and sweetness, and an apparently unerring musical sense. She is well worth listening to in any mode.
The family group Clannad emerged in the 1980s. Their lead singer, Maire ni Brennan, and her sister Enya, began what seems to be the reigning trend in the more commercially-successful women singers today: a sweet, true, melodic voice but with limited emotional range. The sound is pretty, but when you listen to a live recording of both ladies, you realise how much the studio effects have augmented their voices.
Others in this category, though with a little more strength, are Karen Matheson of Capercaillie, Wendy Stewart of Ceolbeg, Rhona MacKay, Sylvia Barnes (all Scots), and the singer of that mighty Irish group, Altan, Maired ni Mhaonaigh. On the other side of the Atlantic, Canadian Loreena McKennit fits neatly into this category too. You will never hear a bad note from any of these ladies.
Scotland’s Christine Primrose, Ishbel MacAskill, Jean Redpath and Sheena Wellington have that same sweetness, but more emotional range. Irish Cara Dillon, formerly of Oige, fits into this group too — each with an achingly pretty voice and an eloquent style, just this short of dramatic colour. Like Ms Primrose and Ms MacAskill, Mairi Mac Innes sings mainly in Scots Gaelic, but with pristine clarity — a rare quality among traditional singers. She mixes traditional and contemporary songs with considerable artistry.
Queen of the Scots for me, however, is Catherine-Ann McPhee, another native Gaelic speaker, from the Isle of Barra. Like Dolores Keane, she has darker colours in her voice, and rings the emotional changes from song to song. I find her, and Niamh Parsons (Irish), more exciting than many of the other fine singers mentioned earlier. Ms Parsons splits her repertoire between traditional and contemporary (bordering on rock), but my favourite tracks are all on the traditional side. I would not be surprised if Ms Keane were an early influence. There definitely seems to be a continuation of spirit there.
In the United States, Connie Dover is one of the more interesting ‘Celtic’ women singers — not only for the broader range and high quality of her repertoire, and her ability to write good tunes, but also because she tends to sing expressively.
There are others whom I have not yet heard — we are so lucky that there is no lack of lovely voices to listen to — but I must admit that those whose singing I like best are the ones who are not afraid to let a bit of feeling show. When all is said and done, however, there is an abundance of beauty to be heard in the recordings of all these talented women. Feast your ears… their music can be found in folk music mail order catalogues near you.
[The following is the introduction that Jill originally* wrote for the highly successful compilation album The Celtic Lullaby. Her version of the Irish lullaby Deirin De features on the album. For ordering information, see the websites listed in Links, elsewhere on this site. * i.e. unedited by the producers of the album.]
The Celtic Lullaby
“The Celts have no lullabies: they are too warlike.” This ridiculous statement has been attributed to A.P. Graves, the 19th-century English poet, who collected Irish, Welsh and Manx folk melodies but — to our loss — ignored the lyrics that accompanied them. He seems to have been unaware that, in the Celtic cultures, the suantrai (sleep music) was considered one of the three main musical categories. If he had bothered to look, he would have found that lullabies abound in the Celtic countries.
Take the lyrics. ‘Translations’ into English are often mere shadows, missing the subtlety, softness and sensuousness of the Celtic languages. Be particularly wary of translations that rhyme: they often completely misrepresent the original. Where a translation is suspect, we non-native speakers are at the mercy of the translator who would be a poet. How ironic that the verses that Graves put to many traditional Celtic melodies are a prime example of these problems.
Where the translation is literal, however, take the time to read it while listening to the singing; then listen again, noting the assonance and alliteration in the original lyrics: that is the Celtic rhyme, and no small part of the magic of Celtic lullabies. The lulling nonsense words mesmerise the listener, too. That, of course, is the whole idea.
As in other traditions, many Celtic lullabies tell of maternal love, Mother Nature and angels. Si Hei Lwli describes a peaceful, end-of-day scene. So does Deirín Dé, which literally enchants with the repetition of the title phrase, a device also used effectively in Seoithin agus Seoithin.
Not all is sweetness and light in these lilting songs, however: there are other tales to tell. Cuach an Tàilleir is a light-hearted look at men’s work. The task of the weary mother, on the other hand, who must work to calm her baby, is not always so simple. Griogal Cridhe tells of a husband’s/father’s death, and in some variants of this song the lyrics get truly grisly.
The non-native speaker’s first and lasting response is necessarily to the music itself. Lullaby melodies lend themselves to varied treatment, from a cappella to four-part harmony, from lush instrumentals to spare, powerful ensemble playing. Some, like the haunting Arrane Saveenagh, have very sophisticated harmonies, while the melodic simplicity of Suo Gân saves the lyrics from becoming cloying. The beauty of Si Hei Lwli is achieved with a mere four notes.
The ancient Celts may have been warlike, but here is the other side of their character: tender, dreamy, and most of all, poetic. The melodies wrap perfectly around the lyrics: ethereal, often disarmingly simple. They linger in your memory long after the music has ended.
[Jill wrote the following articles for Folk Notes (Israel).]
Heel For Heel and Toe For Toe
Once a month my older daughter and I dust off our soft shoes and gird our loins for an evening at the Scottish Hospice in Jerusalem. No, we don’t paint walls or clean windows: we dance — usually until we drop.
Many of the steps, formations and sequences that are familiar to Americans in square dancing come, in fact, from Scottish country dancing. Most of the steps are simple, being fast or slow variations on a theme. However, this dance tradition is as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one. Heaven help you if you lose your concentration!
Some of the dances are easy when you try them out slowly; but then the instructor turns on the music and you are whirled around at such a furious pace, it can knock the wind out of your sails, to say nothing of the instructions clean out of your brain, as you desperately struggle to maintain the correct formation and some dignity (in that order). If you are lucky enough to dance with a true-born Scot, you are likely to come out of the tailspin a little more quickly; if you are supposed to be the experienced one helping the even greener novices, PRAY. Other variables include how much rest you had on Saturday, whether you ate a good supper, and whether you are right- or left-handed. Believe it or not, the last point really can make a difference: it colours the way you approach your partner and which hand you instinctively offer first.
The only real problem is the recorded music that is used (rather than live musicians, for obvious reasons). When I learned jigs and reels at primary school in New Zealand, we used rather sedate recordings of drawing-room arrangements. But that was a generation ago. Many recordings today are performances by commercial groups whose audiences expect to stamp their feet at every beat. This is great at a concert, but sheer hell when you are trying to dance to it.
Quite apart from the pleasure of dancing, and dancing steps that were combined a good two hundred years ago at that, the social aspect of Scottish country dancing is one of its strongest draw-cards. There are the regulars, and then there are hospice guests and stray tourists. I have made some charming friends through these energetic evenings, because you cannot keep much of a distance when you are treading gaily on each other’s toes and bumping into people.
The two main sounds at these evenings are the music and the laughter. There is no more room for solemnity here than there is for prima donnas. It is definitely hard teamwork and a challenge, and we all come out of it feeling very proud of ourselves for doing something (a) outside of our daily routine and (b) healthy. More than that, however, it is simply tremendous fun.
The Folk Process I
Sometimes people ask me why I sing folk music rather than some other style. Of course, I tell them how much I love the beautiful melodies and lyrics, and the style of a cappella singing. There is more to it than that, though. One of the things that strikes me about these old songs is the fact that I learn so much about life from them.
Take a good look at a songbook. Reading it from cover to cover, you will find that you have learned a lot of history, geography and psychology, and sometimes some anthropology and religion as well. Not a bad education while you’re having fun.
Sometimes the history lessons become a little mixed up: Mary Hamilton is a strong example, where two different stories were confused. Queen Eleanor’s Confession and The Death of Queen Jane both tell stories about historical personalities, but the actual plots are fictitious. The inaccuracies of these ballads, however, do nothing to dampen their powerful effect.
It is also possible to sing a whole cycle of songs about particular personalities, and it is fascinating to see how the songs may distort facts. Napoleon was a favourite subject and many fine songs have survived. Most of the Irish songs depict him as a hero. There is one, however — Those Warlike Lads of Russia — that offers a different opinion. I have also heard a very curious song that has old Boney ending his days in the New World!
Bonnie Prince Charlie, too, was touted in song from the mid-18th century onwards, although it turns out he was rather less of the romantic figure than the vast majority of Jacobite songs would have us believe. I wonder how he would have been depicted if he had actually won his father’s crown back. Perhaps we should be grateful that he lost the final battle — there is more poignancy and power in the Jacobite songs for our being aware of the dichotomy between the leader the Highlanders wanted and chose to remember, and the one they got.
One song relating to an historical character is of particular interest to me. Lord Franklin was one of the three or four songs written in the 19th century lamenting the loss of a well-respected man and his entire crew. During the 1840s they set off, looking for the northwest passage to the Indies, but disappeared. The fourth verse says: “The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell…”; but in the 1980s, a logbook was found and human remains discovered in the vicinity where his ship was lost. There is evidence that the crew died of lead poisoning from the tinned food, and that some, in their ensuing madness, turned cannibal. I am glad that charming fact was discovered after the song was written.
The Folk Process II
People have not changed much over the years. That is why old folk songs and the great ballads, some of which may go back to the Middle Ages, still ring true. The stories are just as engrossing and entertaining or moving today, in this world of electronic wizardry, as they were centuries ago. Of course we are all a bit cynical at the turn of the millennium, but a good yarn is a good yarn.
What person does not mind a bit of distraction from the stark reality of everyday life, listening to the troubles of ‘true lovers’ who kill each other in song at the slightest provocation, or siblings who drown each other with gay abandon, and then get dragged off to Hell in the last verse.
The list is long and slightly nauseating: incest, murder, rape… You name it. Was it just that they had gruesome imaginations back in ‘the good old days’, or can we take it that some of the stories, at least, are based on actual events? Perhaps horrible events which were not exactly common but were not unknown, were exaggerated for effect by the very art of ballad singing.
It is sometimes troubling, however, to find reactions to criminal events missing — the mother of the murdered girl Lizzie Wan (big brother is the culprit) seems more concerned about the future whereabouts of her renegade son than the fact that her daughter has been a victim first of incest (and, presumably, rape too) and now of murder. There are other examples. Maybe the normal reaction to such events was taken for granted and not considered of much dramatic power in the ballads.
This ‘artistic’ censorship can lead, however, to an emotional or psychological imbalance in the songs. Lady Maisry is allowed to die because she has had the child of an Englishman (and not a Scot) — and by the very omission of her parents’ reaction to her death, we guess that it is all right with them. On the face of it, quite extraordinary; but then, such reactions in similar circumstances are not unknown in our lifetime either.
In fact, if you sift through all the cruelty carefully enough, it is possible to find songs about ‘normal’ relationships: some happy love songs (including the odd one extolling the joys of married life), songs of contentment, and even a few ballads where the potential victim gets the upper hand (Sovay, Eppie Morrie, Blow Away the Morning Dew, The Broomfield Wager, Bold Roguey). It is just as well, I can tell you; otherwise, ballad singers could find themselves accused of performing a ‘Folky Horror Show’.