Saturday, December 18, 2010

Singing songs of the hills and dales

(Youtube embed from Ed Arnold or "Breakdubber", playing The Mist Covered Mountains of Home on the small pipes.)

Aimee was away this morning doing the weekly shopping, so I hooked up my computer to the speakers and listened to some BBC Radio shows while cleaning up around here, and plastering the bathroom. You can now get pretty much every show there is on all the various BBC Radio stations streamed online, a boon for ex-pats. One of these days we'll be able to get BBC iPlayer too, possibly for paying the license fee.

The day that happens, I'll be glad to drop our current satellite service, with four hundred channels of absolutely nothing worth watching, and send my money to the Beeb. British folks at home who complain about the license fee? It's a bargain. In this country you need to pay hundreds for cable or satellite service, to just get a handful of shows you might like, out of thousands you don't.

So I like the BBC Radio. But Aimee thinks it's silly.

She was out, so today, I listened to a new show out of BBC Radio Scotland, hosted by Barbara Dickson, called Scotland on Song. A nice accompaniment to scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees.

(It needed it very badly, having been neglected since our last vacation. And I wore my carpenters knee pads, because my knees are still sore from my spills the other week.)

The show made me quite homesick for the north country of England, where I come from, as well as the Highlands of Scotland where I lived for a few years while in the RAF and just after demob.

Once upon a time, I was a British traditional music singer. This was nothing fancy, nor was it the more "stagey" performance art of a kind done here in America by folk musicians. It was just what you did. We all were singers, in the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Service. It's hard for Americans to imagine this subculture, military folksingers, of all things, but we were, and good at it too. We spent long hours driving all over the country in our Land Rover and Bedford truck convoys, and more long hours in quiet rural pubs, and so we sang songs in male voice harmony to entertain ourselves.

The tradition was inherited from the rural and coastal people the service mixed with in the villages, as well as from the British rambler's fraternity, and it was all jumbled in with the folk music revival of the 1960s and 1970s. By the time I became part of this tradition in the RAF, it was forty years old already, but the songs in some cases were much older and would have been sung in those very same ancient pubs by fishermen, farmers, drovers and even soldiers in times past.

My family sang songs too, when I was a kid, to while away the time on driving vacations to Scotland. Mostly we sang Scottish traditionals and old favorites like Loch Lomond, that my father probably learned from my grandfather.

There were many popular lines of songs for the RAF MR Teams. Climbing and rambling songs were old standards: The Climber's Clementine and Ewan McColl's The Manchester Rambler, which I always loved, my grandfather having been part of the Kinder Trespass. We also sang several Ewan McColl songs, including Shoals of Herring. Other favorites included Scottish music of Jacobite or nationalist vein, including the entirety of the Corries' work (Peggy Gordon, The Rose of Alladale, and a dozen or two bloodthirsty rebel rants), and a good deal of the Dubliners' too. (Black Velvet Band, The Leaving of Liverpool, etc.)

Paradoxically, we didn't draw the line at Irish nationalist songs like We're off to Dublin in the Green, although they were never favorites, nor the proto-feminist Maids When You're Young Never Wed an Old Man, another odd choice but very popular.

That one, I sing a verse or two of to Aimee whenever she flaunts her more youthful age at me!

Some of the really traditional pieces we sang were Burns songs, or collected by Burns, and we could all recite several of these, as well as some poetry, if only the Ode to a Haggis or Scots Wha Hae.

One song I will never forget and haunts me still, because it is so beautiful was Show me Airigh, from the Poolewe area of the northern Highlands, which sounds traditional but is actually quite young, written by a local gamekeeper from those parts in the nineteen-fifties or sixties, and then given to the teams, probably the Kinloss Team, at some piss-up or ceilidh or another. I first heard it while drinking cheap whisky in a bothy in Easter Ross, a suitable location.

Funny thing is, I learned this hunter's song long before I ever came to America and learned to hunt deer. But, a lilting song, it needs a soft, lilting west coast accent, with the soft 's" sound, to sound right.

Give to me a rifle and set me on the trail
High hills before me, the early sunshine pale
Rising o`er the maiden and reflecting on Firemore
High on the hillside the royal rivals roar.


Show me Airigh `n Eilean, below me Loch Maree,
Leave me to my solitude and let me wander free
To climb the rocky mountains and search the glen below
For a fine ten pointer or a royal `o`.

Take me where the falcon and the wild eagle soar
One mile north from the bothy at Carnmore.
On lofty Beinn a Chaisgein I will stalk the royal stag
And thrill to the call of the wild grey lag.

Over heather moorland a wandering I will go
Slioch in the distance beneath a vale of snow
Forever standing guard over bonny Loch Maree
Home of the wild deer so beautiful and free.

Take me where I faintly see the distant Isle of Lewis
Show me all this world and there`s one place I would choose
To represent the beauty of my homeland fair
The Loch Maree islands from the heights of Ardlair.

When the light is fading and the day is wearing through
You`ll find me heading west to the village of Poolewe
Farewell to bonny Kernsary my wandering footsteps guide
Through the pale woods of Inveran by the riverside.

Another Scottish song that still has the power to make me weep is The Mist Covered Mountains. The tune is above, in the YouTube embed at the top of this post.

The words, well suited for any homesick northern British person, are below:

Oh ro soon shall I see them;
Oh he ro see them oh see them.
Oh ro soon shall I see them the
mist covered mountains of home.

There shall I visit the place of my birth
And they'll give me a welcome the warmest on earth
All so loving and kind full of music and mirth,
In the sweet sounding language of home.

There shall I gaze on the mountains again,
On the fields and the woods and the burns and the glens,
Away 'mong the corries beyond human ken
In the haunts of the deer I will roam

Hail to the mountains with summits of blue,
To the glens with their meadows of sunshine and dew.
To the women and men ever constant and true,
Ever ready to welcome one home.

I miss this music. But my time for it may come again. With retirement one day not so very far off, and possibly enough money to spend more time in Britain, I think I shall want to sing again. I will certainly want to hike those hills again.

All I ask out of life at this point, is that I get some more time to spend in these northern and highland places before I go. I'm fifty years old next year, and getting fat and grizzled and gray around the edges and very curmudgeon-ish, and although I love my wife and this small farm, sometimes I just want to take a walk through the dusk of the British countryside to a pub and sing some songs and drink some beer. Americans left all those traditions behind long ago, and even those folks who are musicians here are very, well, professional at it.

The idea that just a bunch of ordinary folks in a pub, a rugby team or a rescue team or a choir or folk club, or just some people, would just sing for the love of it, well, that doesn't happen here.

Our dog Haggis might like that, too. He'd be allowed in a British pub, and folks would fuss over him. He's not allowed anywhere here except for walks and the vets!

And you never know, it might grow on Aimee. Perhaps not the singing, but the walking and pubs and green countryside.

A few years ago I took her to Martindale, one of the quietest spots in the north, and a favorite place of mine for scenery and Norse history. She loved it, and I think began to see what it's all about.

It's hard to imagine staying in Britain, though. We both love the fact that we own this place, these few precious acres, which would be expensive in Britain, probably out of our reach.

But the other thing is, this Maine land grows stuff. It's productive. We have meat and fleece and yarn, vegetables and fruits in abundance, but above all, we have fuel just for the taking.

The reason Englishmen came to New England in the first place was for the fish and the forest trees. The reason this Englishman will stay is because here he can own his own part of the forest, and use the trees to keep him warm in his old age, as well as grow food, and hunt deer.

We're too practical to leave all that behind for the Highlands and what Sir Frank Fraser Darling called their "wet desert."

But I still miss the music.

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