Music (in abc notation) and stories


Friday, March 26, 2010

First Light

I was getting ready to leave at what I consider an early hour of the morning, although even at five o'clock there are a few intrepid souls already at work. Making my way into the Place du Saint-Sernin I found myself drawn by the haunting beauty of a girl singing where the walls of the Place produce an acoustic almost like a concert-hall. The words, “O quam mirabilis est” — “Oh what a miracle this is!”
She sang like a lark, apparently just enjoying the quiet morning air, and I loitered just inside the square to listen, waiting until her song wwas finished before crossing to greet her. I suppose I should not have been surprised to learn that she was the oldest daughter of Herr Grüneberg; that her family had lived in Bad Sobernheim for five generations becoming one of the wealthiest farming families. In the hope of learning more I invited Traudi and her father to share breakfast with me in the tavern and over the meal, I learned more about the hazards of den Weg des heiligen Jakobus.
The first hazard as you climb into the Pyrenean mountains, so Sigismund tells me, is the packs of wolves in the high forests which prey on lone pilgrims, and it was because of these that the h?pital at Roncesvalles was established. And it wasn't so long ago, that the souls of pilgrims were at risk from the pernicious teachings of the Cathar heretics who sought refuge in the mountains.
On the east of Lorca is the bitter river the local people call the Salado. There are wicked men who wait beside the river for unsuspecting pilgrims and encourage them to water their horses there. When the horses fall dead, these rogues skin them before their carcases have even cooled!
Once you pass over the mountains into Spain, do not eat their beef, pork, shad, eel or tench for they will almost certainly make you sick. (Spanish tummy? I wondered that such a thing has been known for such a long time) The Porma and the Sil are good rivers of sweet water, flowing through verdant and pleasant lands. A few miles from Santiago our party halted and we bathed in the waters of the Mi?o, a river surely blessed by God, stripping off even our underclothes.
Sigismund was so keen to tell me of the adventures they had been through, and the things they had learned along the road that our meal was done before ever I had a chance to ask Traudi about the song she was singing earlier. Before the poor girl had a chance to utter a word Sigismund told me with a note of pride in his voice that she had learned the song as a pupil, one of the few females admitted to the school run by the Benedictines at Disibodenberg.


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Friday, March 19, 2010

Those boots were made for walking

Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,1
and bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth2
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye3
That slepen al the nyght with open eye,—
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages,—
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;4
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.


  1. April has quenched the drought of March
  2. Gentle breezes have replaced the howling gales of the equinox
  3. The Dawn Chorus has resumed rehearsals
  4. Wanderlust takes hold once more
As you might guess from the checklist, my first, very ambitious thought was to make the pilgrimage, at least part of the way, for myself, to Santiago de Compostela. But the suggestion was vetoed very firmly citing the risk of exposure as a reason. Any physical risks I might take are part and parcel of the lives of the people around me, but the danger of being exposed as someone with ‘supernatural’ connections for the duration of quite a long pilgrimage would place my life in danger unjustifiably. I may not be able to make the pilgrimage immediately, but I intend to find some way to overcome any potential obstacles in due course somehow.
For the folks who live in the era, I can hardly blame them for wanting to go on vacation once the weather starts to improve: three months of cold, damp, and preserved food has certainly done it for me in the past. In my case though, I am looking further afield than Caunterbury; I figured if I can establish myself at Toulouse, long-since established as a popular rendezvous for pilgrim groups crossing Europe, there should be some good pickings for a seller of pilgrim memorabilia. Yes, even in the 13th century, there is a flourishing trade in souvenirs. And if you're rich enough, and have the right connections, you might even be able to buy one of St.James’ actual fingerbones (current estimates suggest that he had between thirty-five and forty fingers on each hand!)
As a first stage, before heading towards Toulouse I made the acquaintance of some of the craftsmen of L'Isle Jourdain, where I obtained a workable stock of rosary beads, small carved wooden figurines and some carved bone icons. Thus prepared I made my way to the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne in Toulouse to set up my stall. Describing my adventure in such bald terms belies the competitive nature of the vendors already there, and I was obliged to display my stock at the furthest edges of the market.
Identifying the pilgrims returning is simplified in many cases by the scallop shells which they wear fastened to their hats or breasts, although in a few cases, they are equally identifiable by the evidence of miracles which they proudly display to anyone who shows the slightest curiosity: I obtained the following song from an older man who was keen to show me his well-worn crutch, explaining that for many years he had been lame as the result of an accident, but now, not only could he walk, but as he eagerly demonstrated, he could dance once more!

Herr Grüneberg, as he identifies himself to me, knows many of these pilgrim songs which have even been set down in written form by King Alfonso X, ‘The Wise’ of Spain.
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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Shave and a haircut, two bits

One of the reasons I love what I do is the unmitigated delight of being surprised by music; whether it's a workman whistling a tune I've never heard before, a party celebrating a wedding, or grieving family mourning a bereavement, every now and then, the music just bursts out in a spontaneous expression of our humanity no matter where, or when, in the world we live.
Throwing in my lot with Jacob Smollett and his granddaughter Amelia, on their way down to Wilmington delivering farm produce to Bencher's chandler has been enjoyable, but not particularly profitable. Old Mr.Smollett has admitted to knowing several songs which he has no intention of teaching young Amelia and Amelia has taught me a couple of interesting, but generally unremarkable schoolyard songs.
While Jacob fine-tuned the details of his deal with Captain Bencher, Amelia and I watched the longshoremen shouldering and carrying barrels, bales, and crates up the gangplanks to the Caroline. For a while, Amelia was held spellbound by the noise and smoke of a steam-powered derrick working further down the quay but the quay is a working environment, with heavy loads, strong men, and powerful machinery at work, and I was able to deter her from trying to get a closer look.
Lunch break for the longshoremen doesn't happen at 12 noon sharp; these men work until the ship is loaded or unloaded, one or two men taking a break at a time, as needed under the watchful eye of the bo'sun. By three o'clock the Caroline's cargo had all been loaded and the ship was only waiting on the harbour pilot and the tide.
With an hour or so before they would be needed again, a small group of stevedores had settled themselves on a stack of woolen bales and formed an impromptu choir. What surprised me was that these men (three negroes and two white men) were improvising what I would have termed barbershop harmony and their performance was in no way blemished by the occasional discord:
The youngest member of the group had a question about rhythm:
“Perfesser, yes'day you tole me you can write music down, on paper, same as writin' on paper? kin you show me how?”
“Well now, young Amos, let's take a real simple example – ‘shave an' a haircut; two bits’, I would write that like this:”
And taking a pencil and a scrap of paper from his pocket he jotted down the following sample:
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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Danny Boy - just squeezing in, in time for TOMORROW!
If you don't know the words to this song, perhaps you should steer clear of the Shamrock Bar this week! Or if you have a musical bone in your body, get a free copy of the song.

What has Ireland done for you?

  • Well, there's the Coffey still, used in making Whiskey (but nobody has invented a Whiskey still for making Coffee yet. Bad luck.)

  • Francis Rynd invented the hollow needle used in hypodermic syringes. I leave it to you to decide if that was a good thing or not

  • Earnest Walton, working with John Cockcroft, helped to split the atom for the first time, at which point I refer my reader to historic footage of The First Irish Moon Shot

A mouse in her room woke Miss Dowd,
She was frightened, it must be allowed.
Soon a happy thought hit her
To scare off the critter:
She sat up in bed and meowed

Friday, March 5, 2010

... and New York

Has anyone told you, you look like a penguin? Seriously, you look very dashing. Are you ready to hit the street? I think I could fall in love with the Chrysler Royal that you hired for our runabout! I was thinking that drinks before the show wouldn't be an option and of course, we wouldn't want to risk getting on the wrong side of the law, but I had a word with the desk clerk earlier and he hinted in the broadest terms that Fifth Avenue is a very hospitable area for folks like us from out of town.
When I was checking the paper earlier, I saw that Jerome Kern's Show Boat is playing at the Ziegfeld Theater, and if they don't have any seats there, Merry-Go-Round is playing at the Sam Harris Theater.

At this point, I need several aspirin and a shot of java to facilitate the proper recollection of the events of last evening. Show Boat was wonderful. I love live theater and now my head is full of songs like “After The Ball”, “Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man” and “Ole Man River” (although I would have liked to see Paul Robeson in the role, I have to say that Jules Bledsoe was very good). And I apologize sincerely for complaining (I remember that part very clearly) about not taking the breezer; after ankling into “Jumpin’” Jack Jones’ Jazz Joint we both would have been a danger to traffic. Are you sure we weren't a danger to the cab that took us home? Did I do anything frightfully embarrassing? I really don't remember.
What I do remember was the hopped-up kids in the place. And I don't mean just the babies, I'm sure I saw flappers, dappers, and Methuselah himself putting away the coffin-varnish. I couldn't have imagined such a mix; from dewdroppers to face-stretchers. If they weren't getting a wiggle on they were sinking the juice like it was going out of style! And maybe it's the product of my gin-soaked imagination, but I remember the band being hot stuff, they were rocking the dive with their jive! Was it my imagination again, or did they have a negro up there tooting that horn? It's details like that that make me realize how far we have come even if we still have a long way to go.


Get hip to the jive with a little help.
And stay out of the way of the ladies of the Manhattan Women's Christian Temperance Union!
And when you visit the watering-hole, make sure you know where the other back door is. Better leave your soda in a hurry than wait all night in the cooler to talk to the beak in the morning.
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Friday, February 26, 2010

Down and out in London...

...the poor always ye have with you; ...
John 12: 8.
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong ?
Eleanor Rigby (by Paul McCartney)
Don't get me wrong. Things have improved a lot over the years, but wherever you go, these lost souls are still wandering. Most of us will never know them, never want to know them, but a very few see beyond the unshaven chin, the unkempt hair and the outmoded clothes. And are ready to offer a warm meal and a few minutes of companionship even if it means missing an appointment.
Doing the right thing means being sensitive without showing it; the veteran who can't hold down a job, lost his family, doesn't want to talk about anything but will accept a few dollars for helping with yard work.
The bag-lady, pushing her world around town in a shopping-cart, accepts the offer of a warm meal.
When the Vagrancy Act was passed in 1834 concern had been expressed about soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars with no home, or job to return to, and of course it wasn't long before civic authorities began to see the possibility of applying the terms of the Act to the professional beggars, prostitutes and other undesirable persons in their towns and villages. Of course, not all the individuals living on the streets and by their wits can be justly tarred with the same brush. Some of them inhabit their own incomprehensible world, not dangerous to themselves or others, the municipal asylums are unable to help them so that homeless people like Bert, often known to the local constabulary by a friendly appelation, like Burlington Bertie find themselves being shuffled from district to district. Burlington, at the time when the song was popular (and even at the time of writing) is one of the more respectable suburbs of London, favored by the well-to-do and aristocratic families who maintain a residence in the city in addition to their country estates.
Of course, when the case of a vagrant comes before the court, the individual concerned must be represented by a competent barrister; someone like Mr.David Hunter, or Mr.Reginald Smythe, Justice Lord Rosebery presiding.

I'm Bert, p'raps you've heard of me
Bert, you've had word of me,
Jogging along, hearty and strong
Living on plates of fresh air
I dress up in fashion
And when I am feeling depressed
I shave from my cuff all the whiskers and fluff
Stick my hat on and toddle up West

I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And saunter along like a toff
I walk down the Strand with my gloves on my hand
Then I walk down again with them off
I'm all airs and graces, correct easy paces
Without food so long I've forgot where my face is
I'm Bert, Bert, I haven't a shirt
But my people are well off you know.
Nearly everyone knows me from Smith to Lord Rosebr'y,
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow.

I stroll with Lord Hurlington,
Roll in The Burlington
Call for Champagne, walk out again
Come back and borrow the ink
I live most expensive
Like Tom Lipton I'm in the swim
He's got so much 'oof', he sleeps on the roof
And I live in the room over him.

I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And saunter along Temple Bar
As round there I skip
I keep shouting 'Pip Pip!'
And the darn'd fools think I'm in my car
At Rothchilds I swank it
My body I plank it
On his front door step with 'The Mail' for a blanket
I'm Bert, Bert, and Rothchild was hurt
He said ' You can't sleep there' I said 'Oh'
He said 'I'm Rothchild sonny!' I said 'That's damn'd funny,
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow'

I smile condescendingly
While they're extending me
Cheer upon cheer when I appear
Captain with my polo team
So strict are my people
They're William the Conqueror's strain
If they ever knew I'd been talking to you
Why they'd never look at me again

I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And reach Kempton Park around three
I stand by the rail, when a horse is for sale
And you ought to see Wooton watch me
I lean on some awning while Lord Derby's yawning
Then he bids two thousand and I bid Good Morning
I'm Bert, Bert, I'd buy one, a cert
But where would I keep it you know
I can't let my man see me in bed with a gee-gee
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow!

My pose, Tho' ironical
Shows that my monocle
Holds up my face, keeps it in place,
Stops it from slipping away.
Cigars, I smoke thousands,
I usually deal in The Strand
But you've got to take care when you're getting them there
Or some idiot might stand on your hand.

I'm Burlington Bertie, I rise at ten thirty
And Buckingham Palace I view.
I stand in the yard while they're changing the guard
And the queen shouts across Toodle oo!
The Prince of Wales' brother along with some other
Slaps me on the back and says Come and see Mother
But I'm Bert, Bert, and Royalty's hurt,
When they ask me to dine I say no.
I've just had a banana with Lady Diana
I'm Burlington Bertie from Bow.


The Theatre of the British Legal System, Part 1, Part 2
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Terra firma once more

When I disembarked, Christopher, the black giant was playing a merry jig for those of his shipmates that were staying aboard during their off-hours:
Whatever the reason for the pings earlier, I've been spared long enough (just a day or so) to complete my voyage to Panjim, and the difference from Munambam could hardly be more pronounced: from a tiny fishing village to a huge, bustling port city. Where the accents of Munambam were almost exclusively Hindi, walking through the bazaar here my ear detects English, Spanish / Portuguese, Hindi, something that I think might be African, and even Arabian.
And the cosmopolitan character of the city is emphasized by the odd mix of Christian churches, and Hindu shrines which populate the whitewashed stucco streets. Though, I am told, most of the shrines are a fairly recent development: when the Holy Inquisition sent their missionaries to ensure the eternal welfare of the Hindi natives in the sixteenth century, many of the faithful risked torture to smuggle their idols to a safe haven about fifteen miles away in the town of Ponda.

I suppose I should really have followed tradition and offered a prayer of thanks for safe conduct in the cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, but I was more concerned with finding someone to continue my education on the subject of traditional Indian music. Guitars seem to be ubiquitous, but as evening drew on I managed to find a duetting pair adding their music to the lilt of the breeze across the marshes on the edge of the city. In all probability I will never know for certain whether they were father and son as I supposed, the elder improvising hypnotic arabesques on a sarangi, and the younger playing the melody of an evening raag on a bamboo flute.


Maps of the region, in PDF (not much help to a timetraveller!)
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