Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Water is Wide

It’s been a week of Scotland in the morning, Scotland in the evening, and Scotland the whole day through.   My e-mails and my desire to know more about what was happening kept me very busy there for a while.

One thing led to another, and I found myself studying Gaelic and getting familiar with Scottish geography like never before.  My sister now wants to fly to Scotland and dig around in the family roots and we’re both playing with the fact that we have people who carry the same names (first and last, even) as we do in Dumfries and Galloway, where my grandfather lived until he got on a ship and emigrated to America at age 20 and never looked back.

I blogged about my childhood among Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and about listening to bagpipes an hour a day for the month I spent in the hospital.  Bagpipes.  Most people no doubt think that bagpipes are to music what sunburn is to vacation.  But like many other things that hit you the wrong way when you first encounter them, bagpipes can grow on you.  If you’ve ever marched in a funeral for a cop or a policeman, you’ll know what I mean.  Bagpipes in the distance have something surprisingly romantic about them, and under the right circumstances they can bring out some powerful emotions.

Listen to this version of that beautiful melody, The Water is Wide, for example.  First time I heard this YouTube of “Celtic woman,” doing it, I was really turned off.  “Celtic woman” as a generic makes me think of “Amazon woman” or maybe “Brunnhilde channels Wotan” or some such.  And she does some strangely coy seductive stuff with her hips and her eyes which strikes me as all out of whack with the words.  (Time passes and love grows cold, for Pete’s sake!)  I was about to turn it off when the bagpipes came in out of nowhere and changed everything.  Countered the silly wiggling hips and aggressive jollity and brought in the melancholy of the moors, or something.  Double chocolate icing on tasteless cake.   I don’t know.  Whatever it was, it turned things around totally for me. Don’t know if you’ll have the same experience. Let me know.  Will not take offense, whatever you say.  I realize bagpipes are a stretch.

This song, by the way, is one of my all time favorites.  I came of age with the haunting voice of Mary Travers when Peter, Paul and Mary sang it.  It has never left me, and remains one of those pieces of music I think of when I want an example of how music speaks directly to the emotions. They start at the second verse, so it carries the title, “There is a Ship, and she sails the sea,” but it’s the same song.

But probably more than Peter, Paul and Mary, this song belongs to Pete Seeger.  And Bob Dylan.  And Joan Baez.  And the list goes on and on.  And this begs the question, is it the melody itself, its wonderful hymn-like simplicity, that provides a perfect backdrop for vocal or instrumental invention, or is it the memory of the spirit that was alive in the 1960s, when we first learned the world was full of shit, that sex was not dirty, and nobody had to work in advertising, and if we all put flowers in our hair the world would surely get better.  Those sentiments are now gone with the wind, but who among us over the age of fifty or sixty could help but be carried away by this music from a time when we had something to hope for.  Here’s Pete Seeger doing it with a chorus of mixed voices.  

There’s a French version by Renaud, who calls it “La Ballade Nord-Irlandaise, (“Free Ulster!”) which shows you you can play it on an accordion and not ruin it.

And one of my favorite singers, Yukari Ito,  has a Japanese version of it.  Just pretend I didn’t tell you the really dumb title of the Japanese version is “A little boat for two” and listen to her really pretty voice. And yes, it does help me appreciate her to know she’s in her late 60s.

It was her version that got me started on this little romp.  That’s an American folk song, I said to myself.  It took me a minute to place it with Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, but I then realized I didn’t know where it came from, actually.  Sure feels like a Shenandoah kind of song, I thought, but I wasn’t sure.   Renaud seems to think it was Irish.  Others claim it was Scottish.  I even found somebody insisting it was Galician.

About ready to settle on “someplace Celtic” I went to Wikipedia, that source of all truth and a good chunk of beauty, and read “’The Water Is Wide’ (also called "O Waly, Waly") is a folk song of English origin, based on lyrics that partly date to the 1600s.”  It’s fitting that they add “citation needed.”  Some things are meant to remain obscure.  Have a listen to a tarted up Waly Waly sung by Peter Pears  with none other than his life partner, Benjamin Britten, giving it an eccentric harmonization at the piano. 

Bagpipes.  Celtic emotions.  On a folk song of English origin.

One more reason, methinks, it won’t hurt if the folks in the United Kingdom continue to live together and stress a shared history and a common culture.

P.S.  And let me add a P.S. here as a non-Brit who is proud as hell this week to be of Scottish/Canadian/British heritage.  Everywhere you turn people still go to war with their closest neighbors and their cousins.  The Serbs and the Croats, the Muslims and the Jews, the Sunni and the Shiites are by no means alone in this folly.  But Scotland just had a referendum where practically half the country spoke out in favor of pulling out of a union with England.  The vote divided not merely parts of the nation but brothers and sisters and husbands and wives.  Yet the vote went off without a hitch.  In a smooth, perfectly civilly conducted referendum people went to the polls and had their say. And when the results were counted, everybody went back to business.  Except for some of the inevitable thuggish intimidation here and there, nobody rioted and nobody died.  Tell me that is not an amazing fact of life these days. 

That victory of democracy should be shouted from the rooftops.

That’s something to be proud of.

picture credits: sheet music for The Water is Wide (traditional Irish (sic!)) for bagpipes

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