Planxty: ‘As I Roved Out’

One of the most beautiful traditional Irish songs ever, performed by legendary Irish folk group ‘Planxty‘ on their reunion tour of 2004. That’s Andy Irvine singing the lead vocal. In my humble opinion, it doesn’t get much better than this!


First Things First

Good post from Gretchen Rubin over at The Happiness Project blog this morning. Here’s an excerpt from close to the end:

Efficiency experts often talk about the “urgent” and the “important.” All too often, what’s important gets pushed aside while we deal with what’s urgent — but in the end, what’s important is what’s important. First things first is another way to remind myself of my real priorities.

Read the rest here.

The Authorized Version, new year’s resolutions, and me

In my post about new year’s resolutions I mentioned that I plan to read the Bible from cover to cover this year (something I haven’t done for about fifteen years). and I also mentioned that the version I planned to use was the New English Bible. But I’ve since had cause to revise that decision.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the Authorized Version (known as the King James Version in much of the world). I’ve never read much from the AV; that’s partly because there are so many other excellent translations, but I suspect there’s another reason. My early years as a Christian coincided with the publication of several modern translations (the NEB, the Living Bible, the New International Version etc.) which were lauded by some and hated by others who insisted that ‘the King James was good enough for St. Paul so it’s good enough for me’ – or, as a song by Sydney Carter put it, ‘I love the dear old Bible with “Jehovah” and “begat” – it’s not that I believe in it or anything like that!’ My father (who was hugely influential in my early years as a Christian) was definitely a proponent of modern translations, and so I unconsciously imbibed something of a disdain for the AV.

I’m still a great believer in modern translations; our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew has advanced by leaps and bounds since 1611, and the English language has changed dramatically since then too. The revisers of 1611 (and it’s important to remember that they were revisers, not original translators – they were taking earlier versions like Tyndale and Coverdale and the Bishops’ Bible and improving them) were intent on improving translations that were less than a century old; they would probably be horrified to discover that 400 years later some people still think their translation is the last word in biblical accuracy!

But nonetheless, the AV is surely one of the greatest works of English literature ever produced, and its language echoes down the centuries in books and poetry and plays and music and in phrases that we all use without thinking about it (‘drop in the bucket’, ‘fly in the ointment’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘a multitude of sins’, ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, ‘all things must pass’ etc.). Surely, if one claims to be a reader (as I do), and if one were to compile a ‘bucket list’ of great books to be read before you die, The AV must figure on the list.

And, truth be told, Tudor and Stuart English doesn’t scare me much any more. I’ve learned to enjoy the works of Shakespeare and Milton and the Book of Common Prayer; I love reading those books out loud and savouring the striking phrases that just seem to taste good in the mouth! Cranmerian phrases like ‘We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts’ are very pleasing to me and I get a lot of enjoyment out of reading them.

So – I’ve revised my resolution and have decided that is the AV that I am going to read through this year. So far I’m half way through Genesis and I’m really enjoying it. And I’ve discovered that my enjoyment of it is multiplied if I can read it out loud to myself; hearing the sound of the words is way better than just reading them silently in my head. It helps to slow me down, too, so that I notice things I wouldn’t if I was reading silently.

I may reconsider some of my other resolutions too. This is because I’m currently reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and am very impressed with the thoughtful and methodical way she went about bettering her life. My resolutions seem kind of haphazard compared to hers, and I also need to think some more about how to actually achieve them (her ‘Resolutions Chart’ seems like a good idea). More on this later. Meanwhile, the hour to resume work hath returned. Blessings be on thy day, gentle reader.

Nic Jones: William Glenn

This song is taken from one of the early Nic Jones recordings. They are sadly unavailable due to a record company dispute, but if you can find them anywhere they are wonderful examples of traditional folk music at its best. This one is from the album ‘From the Devil to a Stranger’.

Note: for more information about Nic see the biography on his official website here.

Why do I love traditional folk music so much? Part 1: A bit of personal history

On February 12th Dana Wylie and I are going to be presenting a workshop on ‘Discovering the World of Traditional Folk Music‘ at Expressionz Café here in Edmonton. One of the things we’re going to talk about is why each of us is so taken with these old folk songs; what’s so special to us about traditional folk music? I’m going to share a few thoughts here as a way of getting my creative juices flowing.

Although I was born in England and grew up in a very musical family, I did not take very much notice of traditional folk music. Of course, it was hard to ignore it completely (we learned songs like ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher‘ in school), but I wasn’t very interested in it. My Mum and Dad liked classical music and church music both traditional and contemporary, along with such light popular stuff as Val Doonican and Flanders and Swann. In my teens I discovered ‘Top of the Pops’, and a close friend introduced me to Simon and Garfunkel, the later Beatles recordings, Wings, Yes, and the whole world of the more creative side of rock music. I always had a preference for stuff that was played on acoustic guitars, though (especially after I started to play myself), particularly intricate fingerstyle playing. Thus, after I moved to Canada in my late teens I discovered the music of Bruce Cockburn, and for two decades or more he was my guitar guru.

I had a few interesting encounters with traditional music along the way. One day in high school my music teacher, Peter Dale, played us a song from Pentangle’sBasket of Light‘ album: it was the ‘Lyke-Wake Dirge‘. He identified for us that it was an old traditional song, and there followed in class a discussion about people who were doing contemporary versions of traditional music, the most well-known band of course being Steeleye Span. I borrowed a few Steeleye albums but wasn’t much taken with them, but I became a lifetime ‘Pentangle’ fan and especially the superb guitar-playing of John Renbourn. At about the same time I read about the Irish band ‘Planxty‘ and listened to a couple of their recordings, but couldn’t make much of them (I didn’t really ‘get’ the form of traditional songs). And also, of course, I knew ‘Scarborough Fair‘ through Simon and Garfunkel.

Fast forward twenty-five years. At the Edmonton Folk Festival in 2002 we were sitting at a side-stage listening to a concert by former Planxty member Andy Irvine and it suddenly hit me how he had learned most of his songs. He kept introducing songs with phrases like, ‘We learned this song at such-and-such a pub in County Such-and-Such in Ireland from the great singer So-and-So’. Gradually it dawned on me that Andy had learned some of his best music, not from records and CDs and radio songs of singer-songwriters, as I had done, but from a living voice handing down songs from the past by word of mouth.

Later in the same festival we were listening to the younger Irish band Danu singing and playing on the main stage. At one point during their set they invited Andy Irvine to join them on the stage for a couple of songs, and they introduced him by paying tribute to him as a mentor who had taught them a number of their songs. It suddenly came to me that this added a third generation to the traditional process Andy had described earlier (i.e. older singers, passing songs on to Planxty and Andy, who then passed them on to Danu), and suddenly I grasped the idea of a living tradition, with each generation adapting the music and leaving their own imprint on it. And finally I understood what traditional music was all about, and at once I found it incredibly moving. To me it seemed the finest thing in the world to take your place in that process and pass on these old songs to a new generation.

At about the same time I discovered the music of Martin Simpson and Kate Rusby, and this added two or three other elements for me: the English (as opposed to Irish) tradition (both of them), superb guitar-playing, which I had always appreciated anyway (Simpson), and wonderful, evocative singing (Rusby). From then on I was captivated. The first traditional songs I learned to play myself were ‘The Recruited Collier’ (copying Rusby) and ‘Dives and Lazarus’ (copying Simpson). In those days I was very shy about introducing my own adaptations, although I knew full well that all the singers I was listening to had done that themselves. From Kate Rusby I discovered the genius of Nic Jones; from Simpson I was led back to Martin Carthy (who I had known about a little before), and after that there was no stopping. I explored older artists (Carthy, Jones, Renbourn, Jacqui McShee, Shirley Collins, Maddy Prior, Peter Bellamy, and the old singers like Pop Maynard, Walter Pardon, Bert Lloyd and others) and newer performers who were doing exciting and innovative things with the tradition (Jon Boden and Bellowhead, Eliza Carthy, Faustus, Bella Hardy etc.). I also discovered some of the more important song collections and Internet resources, and eventually began working up versions of songs directly from them rather than from recordings.

When I began performing live at open stages in Edmonton in the Fall of 2005 I played almost entirely traditional songs, and many who heard me assumed I’d been playing them all my life, but in fact it was not so; I was a very recent convert, and had all the enthusiasm of the recent convert as well! In my next post in this series I’ll talk about what it is I find so attractive in traditional music.