Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Songs of freedom

So I posted last night about sitting by the fire in the evening listening to the Clancy brothers singing, nothing changed in fifty years. And this morning I was thinking about the influences that come into our lives and the difference they make.

Unlike the Dubliners, the Clancy brothers are not so well known on the British folk scene, because they rose to fame in America. Apparently Liam and Paddy Clancy emigrated on a ship carrying them, the crew and four hundred war brides!! Tommy Makem and Bobby Clancy later came out to join them, and they knocked around being Irish and trying to make life work until the American folk music world fell in love with their songs.

And I was thinking about Julie B and her daughters, who call themselves Irish girls. That gives its name to Sharon's yarn website and her photography website too. I suppose they must be descendants of some of those settlers who came on ships from Ireland.

It's interesting, isn't it, this identity thing? Who we are and where we came from. I wondered what would happen if we got the chance for a reset and could all go back to the place of our DNA. Where would we go? I'd be back in Yorkshire, and very happy to be there. But my father's name was Stephenson, and he came from the East Riding of Yorkshire — Scarborough. There's discussion now about the origins of that name. It may be the anglicisation of Skarthaburg, from the fortress settlement of the raider Skarthi. But this has been questioned by people sceptical of the whole story of Viking settlement there, who say the name comes from the Old English meaning "hill with a fort". Whose fort, though, if not Skarthi's? 

Anyway, my grandparents thought differently. They took me up onto the hills above the sea where the land slopes down to the cliffs, and showed me how it's formed into ridges with deep clefts between. And the Old Norse word Skar meant cleft, and my grandfather said that's where the name Scarborough came from. "Scarborough" means "the place with clefts in the hill".

Stephenson is a name of Norse origin. When I was a child, we had a book about Norway, with loads of colour photos showing the people and places of that country. Looking at the pictures of the fishermen was interesting because you could have put my father down among them and he would have fitted right in. And he loved Norway, and spent a lot of time there.

So maybe my deeper roots are Norwegian not just Yorkshire, and if you resettled us all I should be sent back there. I think I'd like it.

And then my thought wandered on to the influence of music in our lives, and the difference those Clancy brothers and their songs made to me.  

My father travelled the world, and used to bring home with him vinyl discs of the music of places he'd been to. And at some point he brought home this EP of the Clancy brothers' songs. An EP, for those born more recently (!) was like single but a bit longer. Stood for "Extended Play", so it had 2 songs on each side, not just one, but was only the size of the discs with a single song each side. The big discs with whole albums on were called LPs (Long Players).

I loved listening to the music, which we played on a record player my father made from a converted bathroom stool with an old polo shirt of his transformed into a speaker cover and a kit for playing records built therein. 

One of my favourites was that Clancy brothers record, and on that my mother's favourite was the song about Roddy McCorley, an Irish nationalist from County Antrim hanged by the British on the Bridge of Toome for his participation in the 1798 rebellion. They dismembered his body and buried it under the gallows.

I grew up during the time of the troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1960s — divided towns and British military presence and IRA freedom fighters and bombs in London and all of that. It was quite a big thing, and still is. A friend of mine still hates Jeremy Corbyn because Corbyn went to a commemoration for IRA fighters who had been killed, and because he was willing to be in dialogue with Sinn Fein.

Now, my parents were (and my mother who is still alive remains so) the most politically conservative people you could imagine. True blue all the way. They weren't very interested in policies as such, their vote was Conservative; end of.

But it was my parents who introduced me to the Clancy brothers talking and singing about Roddy McCorley, his courage and anti-establishment defiance — 
"There is never a one of all your dead more bravely fell in fray, than he who marches to his fate on the Bridge of Toome today; 
true to the last, true to the last he treads the upward way, 
as young Roddy McCorley goes to die 
on the Bridge of Toome today."  

That difference of perspective, and the understanding that there are two points of view about British rule, and the realisation that the country of my birth is only intermittently and partially benign, and acts with ruthless brutality and self-interest a lot of the time, started from listening to that song. It went deep into my soul as a child and had a profound effect on me — formed my thinking and my attitudes. So my intensely Conservative parents all unwittingly grew their own little socialist. There's power in music, and folk songs have carried the politics of the people and been the voice of the voiceless since forever.


Julie B. said...

I see a wild Norsewoman in you... with the ocean wind in your hair, watching the Viking ships approach after their long time away. ;}

Pen Wilcock said...

With a sensible wooly hat on. And gloves. Clutching a hot water bottle.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of an identity reset. Coming on the heels of your post about reality programs I think it would be interesting (to say the least) to have a program where people are given the opportunity to go back to their roots and live for a period of time in a DNA point of place and see how they would make out. As a Canadian of both English and Ukrainian ancestry (with some Welsh and Romanian thrown in for good measure) it would be a slice!

Pen Wilcock said...

Ooh yes — that would make good telly, wouldn't it!

Elin said...

I love Irish music and I play tin whistle (not great at it but it brings me joy at least) and I listened to Roddy McCorley this morning. I dream of some day going to Ireland to some of the many music events where you can take courses and perhaps get better at playing my whistle. In the mean time I am glad the internet is here since I can listen to different videos to learn new techniques and songs and I am also in a tin whistle group on facebook which has taught me a lot and also inspired me in different ways. Some day I might buy myself a Swedish six holed flute too (they are much more expensive as they are made out of wood handmade and also somewhat harder to play).

When I was in Yorkshire I realized that a lot of place names were more or less Scandinavian and I could easily see parallels to Swedish place names in how they were constructed, like which words were used and you can find the same type of names in Sweden. There was a feeling of being "at home" and away at the same time somehow.

Scarborough is a lovely place too that I would like to go back to at some point. I was there maybe 12-13 years ago during a couple very warm August days and the views were breathtaking and it was nice to dip your toes in the VERY cold water. I stayed in a B&B with somewhat Fawlty Towers feel and while the owner was somewhat strange he was not as rude as Basil, quite nice actually, but definitely strange. I loved those days and I not likely to forget them but it would be lovely to go there with my husband sometime and perhaps the kids too.

Pen Wilcock said...

I grew up inland, and the familiar background sounds to my world were wood pigeons and later sheep. When I stayed with my grandparents at Scarborough, the consistent background sound of the herring gulls was very noticeable to me — I wasn't used to it. But as an adult I've lived on the coast, and all my days have a herring gull choral accompaniment.

What you describe about feeling at home in Scarborough, I and my daughters experience when we encounter Scandinavian people. We don't travel because we haven't the funds to do so, but we relate very happily to Scandinavian and Icelandic TV dramas and to the Scandinavians who've drifted into England. We also find a big difference between southern and northern people in England. Our family lives in the southernmost part of England but our roots are entirely northern. We relate much more comfortably with northern people than with southerners. The speech patterns and emphases are different, and northerners often come across as abrupt and aggressive, but also (oddly) as friendly. Actually we're neither friendly nor aggressive, we just speak differently, both in vocabularies and speech stress. My children grew up entirely in the south, but their father and I both came from Yorkshire families and our culture and speech is very northern — persisting into the family we raised. We're also insular, wary and clannish, which characteristics are rooted (I think) in cold weather. Northern people live in small houses with thick walls and stay inside them, by the fire, telling stories This influences the kind of society they develop. Southern people eat picnics outside and have open air concerts and more extensive gatherings.
The man I'm married to now is a southerner, and he constantly suffers from the need of my family members and me to be left alone and not speak to anybody! What feels like peace to us is experienced as rejection by him. He has to be very humble and patient to live with us.