Wednesday, April 13, 2011

the sign o'er the door says haste ye back

There is so much to say about a year in Scotland; much of it has already been said to those who matter most - that is, the people who shared the year with me in some way, shape or form. Which may well include you if you've kept up with this blog all year long!

But I do enjoy a feel-good ending, and it came to me that I don't have one on this blog, which should really be wrapped up now that I'm home in America, driving my little car to Stop & Shop, cursing the price of a gallon, overwhelmed by the varieties of shaving cream, missing galaxy chocolate and proper good scones and malted milk biscuits, and lemsip, and my hot water bottle, missing my art studio and my walks up (morning) and then down (evening) the Royal Mile, my Macallan and my Highland Park, my half pints of ale and the accents and all the funny words, and being able to say "cheers" when you aren't sure what else to say. Missing my adopted family of Scotland Rotarians who took me in like a daughter, providing meals and tours and dancing and all the banter and good 'craic' a girl could ever want. Aching to have a catch-up with my dear, dear friends, maybe with a big castle hovering over us through the cafe window. Generally longing for that feeling that comes with a life abroad ... where each day is humorous, humbling, fascinating and even if it's terrible out, and you are in a bad mood over this, that or the other, at very least you can be consoled by a place that is stunningly, wondrously beautiful.

So here I am, now, trying to figure out the next adventure.
Exactly four months ago, on December 13th 2010, I wrote this ramble on the train ride to down London to catch my flight to America, stopping only to take sobbing breaks in the bathroom. So, I'll make this my happy/sad ending to "Adventures as a Goodwill Ambassador", as it was literally the last thing I wrote while in Scotland.

ED: The night before the train, I had a final farewell in my favorite pub, surrounded by a sea of friends.
One dear friend Martin sang me the centuries old, utterly scottish ballad about bonnie prince charlie, covered most famously by Ewan McColl, which is driven by the lyric "... will ye no come back again? Many a heart twould break in twa...should ye no come back again..." This was naturally was the moment when I lost any ounce of composure that I had walked in with. This was also the moment I knew I needed to write something about the musical family that welcomed me so genuinely in Edinburgh.


It is Saturday night, and by instinctive force you head over to the oak. As if there weren’t plenty of other pubs in the city to chose from. As if you weren’t just in the night before.

It’s packed but you’ve come to expect nothing less. People go in and no one comes out but we all fit, as if some strange nexus or vortex of space. There’s a wall of people between you and the bar, but it doesn’t matter because someone puts a glass in your hand before you need to wiggle through.

There is a silent (…sometimes not silent) understanding that the bench hugging the corner of the pub is reserved for musicians. You used to be intimidated by the bench. For half a year you sat in the stools opposite, looking on, a keen observer.

But now you know better and grab a seat facing the crowd. When you put on your first harmony, and hear how it works together with the other voice, or the other two, maybe three or four even - stress goes to the back of your mind, you become relaxed and your mind clear and focused.

From your spot on the bench, you join in with vocals and a wee bit of mandolin on songs that you know, songs that you love. Songs that you have practiced, songs you’ve never sang before but have heard somewhere, and some that you are hearing for the first time. In the past, you would have sat the unknown ones out, but now you know better. You know that there isn’t any better way to learn.

You are bashful but the applause is sincere. In the past, you never thought they would listen. You never thought you could sing over a noisy crowd. You never thought you had any lyrics memorized. You never thought you would be brave enough to sing at an Edinburgh folk pub, in a country that has produced so many enduring songs and musicians of legend. You never thought you had a voice that could at very least make people stop and listen for a minute.

Now I know better.


And so, I give my thanks:

To those who play:

You who come up with melodies waiting in line at the grocery store, taking inspiration from nothing.

You who take the banalities or the complications or the struggles of life and, like alchemists, convert them into enduring songs.

You who write lyrics that I’ve had in my head but never have been able to articulate.

You who jot down lyrics and chord patterns on scraps of paper to try out later.

You who transform songs just by singing them in your own way. Inventing versions of new and old standards, making them your own with incremental key changes, unusual meters, a tinge of country or blues or maybe with words changed or forgotten along the way.

You who play in alternate tunings that ring out and out and out

You who can pick up an instrument and understand it in no time.

You who sing your own songs, bravely revealing your personal truths and secrets even when they are disguised by wit and sarcasm.

You who create your own arrangements and compositions and tunes, weaving simple notes into something complex.

You who bring songs alive from the depths of history, or just from the depths of Glasgow or Leith or Peterheid. Or from the archives of another decade.

You who bring songs alive from other countries,

You who tell me stories of the songs of your childhood

You who sing in the same language that you dream in.

You who sang me to sleep.

You who sing songs that remind me of being a kid, being free, being in love.

You who play depressing songs about sinking ships and one night stands and cheating hearts and still manage to make the people smile and connect to the lyrics.

You who play fiddle so vigorously that it might start on fire. So loud that you can hear the pitches through the walls when you step out for air.

You who stomp your feet so that even when you step down to the bathroom you can’t avoid being a part of the music.

You who keep the beat.

You who manage to play on a piano that is a semi tone flat (or sharp?)

You who play through the crowds despite the noise, singing to the people who are listening even if that means just a few.

You who sing songs with a melody that makes my heart feel heavy.

You who manage to connect to a boozy crowd with an ancient sea shanty or sappy love ballad

You groups of tunesters who wind melodies together cohesively … without saying much beyond a few syllables to each other during the run.

You, the person who encouraged me and pulled me toward music since the day we met, working on songs together to create our own version of a Rawlings-Welch duo.

You who gave me the experience of recording on an album, and letting me sing a song that you hold so dear to your heart.

You who give me a forgiving smile when I mess up the words that we practiced so many times before

You with voices so subtle and lilting that I need to close my eyes and just listen when you sing.

To those who teach:

To those of you have suggested vocalists who I might find compatible.

To anyone who jotted down an album title on a coaster, told me about the origin of a song, told to me about inspirations or their path to becoming a musician or the way they come up with a tune.

To those of you who know far more about American music than I do and as such taught me things about my own country when I was 3000 miles from home.

To those of you who taught me how to busk in the rain (hot chocolate is key).

To anyone who shouted out a chord or key change when I looked lost (often).

To you who tell me when a string is out of tune, or that I was turning the wrong peg!

To you who pointed out the specific part of my belly where the loudest notes would come from.

To those who taught me about Richard & Linda, Sandy Denny, Blue Murder, Nic Jones, the depths of the Old Crow Medicine Show catalogue, Stan Rogers, Harry Chapin, Kirsty McColl, the Watersons, Del Amitri, Bert Jansch, John Martyn, Johnny Flynn, Pentangle, the Albion Band, Little Feat, the Seekers, Gram Parsons & Emmy, James & Carly, Kate Rusby. Songs that I will forever associate with living in Edinburgh.

To you who first showed me to the 70s footage of Paul Brady singing Arthur McBride

To the people who taught me songs that have no known origin, keeping them alive evermore.

To the bartenders who always greeted me with a smile and joke and perfect pour.

And the bartenders who say ‘thank you lass’.

And the bartenders who shout at people to shut up and listen.

And the bartenders who are not really bartenders but friends.

To those who invited me to a Martin Carthy concert because “he’s really important.”

To the person who told me that the only way to learn to sing was the go to the top of a mountain and sing out as if you were serenading a mountain across the valley.

To my girls, my bar stool confidantes.

To those who got the next round.

To the person who taught me to walk tall and smile in all the right places.

To the person who taught me that the way to memorize lyrics is not by staring at them written on a page.

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you, to those who have listened. To those who bore witness to my slow and ongoing transformation into a musician, encouraged me with love and laughs, wisdom and whisky. To those who have been around to help me find my own voice. It has been an unforgettable year.

Cheers to you all. Better lo'ed ye cannae be.


LWF 2010

This post dedicated to the music makers of Edinburgh
(generally found sitting around the Royal Oak, Carter's Bar, Bill & Sue's kitchen or backyard, the Greenmantle, Ale House, Sandy Bell's, Steamie, Captains, or busking up the road!)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

cloud book (2011)

photo collage in accordion book, 7 in x 7 feet