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Thom Moore: Hendecady

The Carminist Manifesto -- The Babe Inside - April 10, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 10: The Babe

THE BABE INSIDE

1.

When a child says, "I love you,"

and her eyes light up the way they do,

here's the reason you're so pleased

you go all sweet and blue:

the baby saw the babe inside of you;

the baby saw the babe inside of you.

 

2.

Running wild is always new

as you hide the babe away from view:

grown-up seasons pull and tease you,

hard and so untrue, but small things

see the small things showing through:

the baby saw the babe inside of you.

 

3.

When the child says "I love you,"

and your eyes fill up the way they do,

here's the reason you're so pleased

you go all sweet and blue:

the baby saw the babe inside of you;

the baby saw the babe inside of you.

 

When I first started writing songs I was already a graduate student in Slavic languages at UCLA.  This was after my four years' service in the US Navy, so the instance in question would have been in 1969 or thereabouts.

I had made friends with a Slavic department dropout by the name of Mike Janusz, who specialized in the vocal music of the cultures in the Soviet Union and neighboring Slavic or imperialised countries.  One of the songs he taught me, after hours, was the Georgian song that was reputed to be Josef Stalin's favorite, called Suliko.  It's a very pleasant song, and could even be a lullaby, so far as I know, but its rocking rhythm is just a tad too energetic, I would think, to put a baby to sleep. It is essentially the same tune as The Babe, but more sprightly, and somehow innocent.  At the time, the tune struck me as so fetching that it occurred to me it might make a decent country song, at least – since it's not complex or dramatic enough for a pop song of any kind.  So I filed it away in my mind and just did what I normally do with folk melodies of that kind that I've decided to do something with: any time I remembered it, I would play with the tune at different speeds and keys, that sort of thing, hoping for some inspiration.

           Years later, still having done nothing with the tune, Jennifer Warnes, whom I know via a mutual friend, asked me to write a song for her, something in the spirit of the song she'd written with Leonard Cohen, The Song of Bernadette, whose story had touched her deeply as a Catholic child.  Somewhere in her mind she felt the imminence of a song on the subject of the child hidden away in the adult, but couldn't get anything herself.  So I tried Suliko as a basis for such a thing, and it just fell out in one piece, a very good feeling when you write a song.

           Jennifer was either unimpressed at the time – it was around 1982 – or perhaps never got around to listening to it, and I never heard back from her, even though we ran into each other from time to time at our mutual friend's house.  I couldn't bring myself to mention it, for some reason ... maybe thinking the worst, as usual, of my own efforts.  But then on December 31st, 1988, we were both at the annual New Year's party at our mutual friend's, and when it came my turn to do something, I sang The Babe Inside.  Nothing to report here, either, except that a couple of days later Jennifer left a message on my phone asking me if I had written anything lately, and if I had, would I send her copies – including, by the way, the song that I'd done that night.  So I rang her up, and, instead of just expressing my delight and intention to get the songs to her as soon as possible, I actually reminded her of the fact that I'd written it at her request those many years ago.  I never heard from her again, of course.

           The version that's on the Gorgeous & Bright album was recorded along with the other songs in 1994.  Most of the rest of the CD had been written while I was in Russia in the period 1989-1993, but it and The Navigator still remained unrecorded of my 80's songs.  So they finally found a recording. And Jennifer Warnes was and is a great singer – and songwriter, by the way.

The Carminist Manifesto -- Soldier On - April 9, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 9: Soldier On

SOLDIER ON

1.

Thomas Edward,

ever going bedward,

to listen to his bones:

a shack on a back street,

Imperial dirt street,

served him as a home.

His children and his Rose

could see his purpose grow.

 

Nineteen-thirteen,

everybody's certain

he won't make a dime.

"Never mind that,

mind the cow, and

feed the kids on time."

He knows he's got to fly

to make his smuggler's ride.

 

"Rose, tell them I'm gone

down to Mexicali.

Should not take me long,

and when I'm gone,

soldier on."

 

2.

Fancy notions,

head commotions,

from reading in his books:

fifteen years

he'd telegraphed

the routes of railroad goods;

but notions crossed his mind:

"The fortune's there to find."

 

California,

my daddy was born there:

the Valley was his home.

His father knew

that Asiatics

worked their hands to bone,

and they paid good money down

for crossing past a border town.

 

"Rose, tell them I'm gone

down to Mexicali.

Should not take me long,

and when I'm gone,

soldier on."

 

3.

Laws and borders,

people giving orders,

never changed his mind:

Mexico had a revolution, but

"What the hell," he sighed.

He left them in the night,

and he never came back into sight..

 

My daddy watched her,

he couldn't fetch water,

he could not understand.

She burned his books,

and on the night sand

cried and cried his name:

"Oh, Thomas, you're to blame …

how can I stand this pain?"

 

"Rose, tell them I'm gone

down to Mexicali.

Should not take me long,

and when I'm gone,

soldier on."

There's a man by the name of Tommy Grennan who lives in Sligo.  He has always loved music, loved wood, loved working with his hands.  For some reason, when he finally took the plunge and crafted his very first instrument in 1973, it was a sort of bouzouki: long neck, flat back, four pairs of strings.  When he finished it, he lent it to me to try out.  I'm not sure why, since I was as impecunious then as any other time, maybe more so: this was soon after the band Pumpkinhead had got going. I did have a mandolin at the time, without being quite sure how to play it.  Maybe this was the connection.  At any rate, once it was in my hands, I started playing with it, and gradually a riff developed, that for some reason suggested the sort of pathos in the song above, nominally about my grandfather's disappearance in Mexico in 1913.  But the song just flooded out, much more easily than usual for me, and there it was, the first song in my Grandfather cycle.  It wasn't recorded until Midnight Well put it on their eponymous album in 1977.  At that time, I'd just had the fingers on my right hand nearly severed, and couldn't play guitar on any of the tracks, which was really a very good thing – what we call sloppy luck in my family – but I despaired of ever finding a guitarist who could properly play the basic guitar part of the piece, so I ripped the cast off my right hand, put on a thumbpick, and got on with it.

The other grandfatherly fictions in the cycle were The Mighty Turk, nominally about the grandfather of Terry Paul, who was from Missalonghi in Greece – it was full of Kazantzakis-inspired images of bloody war. (Or "Cousin Zakis" as Dermot Stokes of the Hot Press put it); Rum Goin' Tell On You, about Rick Epping's maternal grandfather, a horse-trader in Arkansas; Low Northern Moon, about Kathy Donahey's maternal grandfather, another Greek, who found himself in Alaska prospecting for gold at the age of 17; and Nine-Coign Hula, a piece about the Reuben Ranzo-ish Azorean great-grandfather of the part-Hawaiian songwriter Rick Cunha. The Mighty Turk and Low Northern Moon both made it to the Midnight Well album, but the other two are fated never to be heard (unless a certain N. Ryan releases Rum Goin' Tell On You, an out-take of the Midnight Well sessions, whose 24-track master is rumoured to be in his hands).

Why grandfathers, you might ask?  It seems to me that any contemplation of life or curiosity about its purpose leads without fail to a consideration of the people who have gone before us.  I've never had strong familial feelings (astrologers would blame the lack of water in my birth chart), but I've always been fascinated by people as individuals, none more than my paternal grandmother, a woman of phenomenal will and a generous disregard for what anyone else thought of her. Her husband, Thomas Edward Moore, had the same background as her (Protestant Irish famine-refugee parents) but pretensions to being more than just the usual untermensch, even though he had a large family and a steady job, as a telegrapher with the Southern Pacific Railroad in southern California.

He was, in fact, fascinated by the prospect of earning more, or more easily, or more precipitately, or whatever, by facilitating the smuggling of illegal Asian immigrants across the Mexican border ... at any time a fraught exercise, but rendered probably even more so by the fact that there was a bloody civil war in Mexico in 1913.

In any case, he failed to return after leaving for his first trip ... and family rumour supplied the bulk of the details in the song.  My own father professed to know nothing about any of this; but he was already chuffed at being addressed in one of my first songs, Here Comes a Man, on the Pumpkinhead album (LUN-001, 1975).

But probably the best sense I have of this song is the oft-stated sentiment (always by men who are fans or followers of my music) that this is their favourite song on the Midnight Well album.

The Carminist Manifesto -- Cavan Girl - April 8, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 8: Mammon

 

      Cavan_Girl.jpg

CAVAN GIRL

 

As I walk the road from Killeshandra,

weary, I sit down:

for it's twelve long miles around the lake

to get to Cavan town.

Though Oughter and the road I go

once seemed beyond compare,

now I curse the time it takes to reach

my Cavan girl so fair.

 

Now autumn shades are on the leaves,

the trees will soon be bare:

each red-gold leaf around me seems

the colour of her hair.

My gaze retreats, to find my feet,

and once again I sigh,

for the broken pools of sky remind

the colour of her eyes.

 

At the Cavan cross each Sunday morning,

there she can be found;

and she seems to have the eye

of every boy in Cavan town.

If my luck will hold, I'll have the golden

summer of her smile,

and, to break the hearts of Cavan men,

she'll talk to me awhile.

 

So Sunday evening finds me, homeward,

Killeshandra bound,

to work the week till I return and

court in Cavan town:

when asked if she would be my wife,

at least she'd not said no;

so next Sunday morning, rouse myself,

and back to her I'll go.

 

Sent: 07 January 2002 08:03
To: Johnny Gillen
Subject: Re: Happy happy

Well, thanks anyway.  At least it gave me an excuse to e-mail you.

Bertie was at the Radisson last Thursday night and gave me a big wink and a thumbs-up when I glanced up at him after doing Cavan Girl. 

Does this mean I can count on him for my citizenship?  Maybe he just thought I was cute.

 

Thanks for your interest, Jean, Larry.  Since you sent this to me via the harp & thistle site, you probably saw my biography.  This song is unusual, as a song of mine, in that it is a first-person piece that has absolutely no relation to my experience.

All I can say is that when the opportunity came to write a song set in Cavan, I put together the hometowns of the only people I knew from that county, Michael and Rita Waters of Coolera, Sligo (owners of a public house in the country near where I lived for many years) who lived respectively in the two towns mentioned – I thought at the time – but Rita is actually from Belturbet.  So far as I know, his courtship of Rita didn't include hoofing it the whole 12 miles to Cavan or Belturbet and back on a Sunday. Nor, so far as I know, did he have serious competition amongst the town lads.

The overweening tone of the song -- to the effect that a man's duty, once he knows the identity of the woman of his heart, must be pursued no matter what the cost – is very much a reflection of my personal philosophy, gained to a huge extent from my interest in the works and ideas of the half-Irish poet and writer Robert Graves, whose notions have been my cynosure since 1969.

 

Subject: Greetings

Mr. Moore,

I hope you will forgive this intrusion but I have a bone to pick with you concerning your song "Cavan Girl", but let me fill in some blanks before I reach the crux of the matter.

        Firstly, I am an immigrant Irishman,  a citizen of Canada, a friend of Larry and Jean Martin of Ottawa - folks who have been in electronic contact with you in the past, an admirer of a youngish fellow who possesses a decent voice – with the improbable name of Michael Kelly, wouldn't you know – and who recorded your song a while ago.

        I was greatly struck by it and much mystified that I could recall no knowledge of it in annals of Irish folk music. After much travail, its provenance was revealed to me with help from the Martins. Till that point I figured it was a poem of Thomas Moore's set to music by a rambling bard who vented it at ceilidhs.

        Now, to the heel of the hunt.... The first line of your song has this tumescent Irish swain heading off to Cavan Town to spend time with his lady-love, he grows weary enroute and needs to rest up, for God's sake! Now as luck would have it, Michael Kelly’s version has the swain growing tired on the trip back TO Killeshandra  - an unconscious (he hadn't really noticed) and much more probable revision by young Mick who incidentally lived for while in Killishandra as a spalpeen (child) would you believe?

        To the crux of the matter - what were you thinking when you penned that  first line? The reputation of romantic Irish heroes is at stake (if indeed there are any left over there since I jumped ship)

*No offenc(s)e intended.

Best regards.

George Simpson

* I hear you are a Yank - somewhere along the line, but I certainly don't hold that against you. At the risk of losing my goodwill you would be well advised to with-hold any comments on your relationship with G W! 

P S Is your given name pronounced "Tom"? 

 

Yep.  Short for Thomas.

Born on Santa Catalina Island...but grew up in Ethiopia and Lebanon.  Moved to Ireland 1971.  Irish citizen. Russian translator/interpreter and serious English poet.  My Russian wife has embroidered (somewhat whimsically) two snatches of my verse onto ornamental pillows for our sitting room: "The me that mocked you / spoke to send you on your way. / You circle back to me, / life a-hinge" and "Gloomy old cat, jolly wide fiddle, / flash cow, and maidenly moon; / nippety dog, laughing and little, / bright dish and beautiful spoon."  Curiously enough, both relate to the Cavan song, albeit circuitously.  This is food for thought -- since you seem to be given to idle speculation.

The reputation of romantic Irish heroes is at stake

Surely you must be joking, Mr Simpson.  The definition of an "Irish Queer" is "someone who prefers women to whiskey." And when was the last time you walked twelve miles anywhere?  Even when I'm in shape, my best efforts are around 10 miles: it takes most of a day, and I sit down lots.  You figure it: at a decent walking clip of, say, 4 mph, it's going to take THREE HOURS to get your arse from Killeshandra to Cavan. And if you're tumescent while this is going on, something is going to be mightily sore by the end of it. But, more than anything else, the young fellow is not exactly mentally balanced: he's not so much healthy as he is in thrall to a woman who cares not a fig, gives not a shite, either for him or his travails.  She refuses to say "No" to his importunity not because of indecision on her part but because of the absurdity of the question. He is a foil, a butt, an extra.  The tragedy is that this fool imagines himself a tragic Knight Palely Loitering, a dutiful hero who will endure any punishment for his love.  The Robert-Gravesian sting is that, since he is attempting, repeating, and enduring this modest feat every week in pursuit of love, he actually is heroic. In a modest way. Like most of us.

 

From the end of 1989 I was back visiting Ireland again on a regular basis, following Mary Black's success with Carolina Rua and my going to work for the US government in Russia.  One of the people giving me support (although unbeknownst to me, stuck in California) over the ten years after I had left Ireland for the States was the presenter of the original 2FM folk-music programme, Pat Butler.  He was (is?) a kind supporter of the notion of Thom Moore as a songwriter worthy of comment: his programme theme-tune was the instrumental break on Pumpkinhead's Crackbone Tune, a song about my early childhood in Ethiopia. Another friend had actually recorded for me a special broadcast that he'd done in my honour, which consisted of a wholly complimentary but somewhat garbled history of my career in Ireland, ending with my "disappointment" at the absence of a promotional budget from Mulligan Records and departure from Ireland following the lack of commercial success of the Midnight Well album, Mulligan LUN-011.  The reality was somewhat different, of course, but I wasn't willing to take a benefactor like Pat to task for any inaccuracies. 

I was, however, back in Ireland on the night of his very last programme.  He very kindly included an interview with me in his schedule; I was in Cork at the time and didn't see him face to face, but did a live link-up at the RTE studio in Cork.  As I recall, the interview included an exchange that went something like this:

    Pat:            "Thom, were you disappointed when your fans turned against you after Cavan Girl?"

    Thom:        "Huh?"

My incomprehension was due to a lack of awareness of any such controversy.  Judging by what Pat Butler was saying to me, my composition of the song Cavan Girl and its success in winning Category B (any ould song about Cavan) at the 2nd Cavan International Song Contest in February 1979 had irredeemably besmirched my artistic credentials.

Curiously enough – fast-forwarding again, this time to the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest fiasco – at the protest meeting co-chaired by songwriter Johnny Lappin and journalist Jackie Hayden, I mentioned at one point that I had actually written my entry with Brian Kennedy's range, tone, and diction in mind, whereupon Jackie Hayden's face took on a shocked expression and he said, "You didn't really write the song for the contest, did you?" When I cheerfully asserted that I had, he averted his face, in an apparent access of disgust and contempt. The song was The Wedding Singer, about Hussein al-Ali, the popular Iraqi singer blown to bits in an American raid on a wedding party in the desert west of Ramadi in May, 2004.  If it had managed to get any exposure at all, even just the once on the Late Late, I would have been deeply gratified, personally and artistically.

So dance, dance, you people, come dance the night away:

the wedding singer's not here to stay.

Come dance, all you children, come dance, girls and boys:

the wedding singer is raising joy.

But, as I indicated to Pat Butler at the time (rewinding to his last-show interview in 1989), I had actually no commercial thoughts in mind when I wrote Cavan Girl: I had already written two songs specifically about Sligo (Still Believing and The Scholar) and had no qualms whatever about naming places – I had mentioned by name the American states of Minnesota, Alaska, and California in the songs on the Midnight Well album. I think Pat's problem, like Jackie Hayden's, lay in the apparently crass nature of song contests, at least from non-songwriter's point of view.  My own feeling is that artists need patronage, and failing rich sponsors or popular success, the song contest will do fine for what little remuneration there might be for time painstakingly spent.  If you can win.  Maybe that's the rub: if "artistic" songwriters fail to win song contests, their manifestly cast-before-swine pearls are devalued – the swine won't eat them. That is a severely knotty conceit, now, proving the actual situation to be not only intractable but illogical, as well. "Who will buy my genuine swine-rejected pearls?" Truth to tell, some of my favourite songs have failed to win or even place in song contests – even when entered in them.  Which ones? “Go figure,” as they say in Brooklyn, New York, USA ... 

The Carminist Manifesto -- Little Miss Kelly - April 7, 2013

THE CARMENIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 7: Kelly Girls

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LITTLE MISS KELLY

 

Boys, I know well, you all want to go walking

with little Miss Kelly — so let me tell you,

you're in for a pound if you're in for a penny,

'cause little Miss Kelly's from miles out of town.

 

I like her face, and I like when she talks to me—

diamonds and pearls from a slip of a girl!—

she gets up with a smile and gets on with her wiles;

ah, little Miss Kelly! She's got to tell you, now . . .

 

Sound as a bell, up a strand or a mountain,

with little Miss Kelly to take your hand;

a coin in the fountain that's brighter than any,

our little Miss Kelly stands out from the crowd.

 

I like her face, and I like when she winks at me—

wheels of the world in a slip of a girl!—

ah, the look in her eyes is a clue to surprises;

little Miss Kelly!  I want to tell you now . . .

 

Pull on your wellies, we're bound to go walking

with little Miss Kelly, around and 'round;

a boy with a chance is just one among many,

'cause little Miss Kelly can bring on the clowns.

 

I like her face, and I like when she laughs at me—

minds all awhirl for a slip of a girl,

all her suitors are sighing that she'd be worth dying for!

Little Miss Kelly! What can I tell you now . . . ?

 

So pull on your wellies, it's time to go walking

with little Miss Kelly, hill up and dell down:

boy, with your chance, you're just one among many

that little Miss Kelly might likely turn down.

 

I like her face, and I like when she laughs to see—

minds all awhirl for a slip of a girl!—

all her suitors go sighing that she'd be worth dying for,

little Miss Kelly! What can I tell you now . . . ?

 

Des Kelly was a member of the great Capitol showband of 50s and 60s Ireland, along with his brother John.  After the end of the showband era, Des made a fist of staying in the music business by becoming the manager of musical acts including (among several bands) the first incarnation of Planxty (Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, and Liam Og O'Flynn) and Pumpkinhead, my first band. Pumpkinhead was a group of Americans, Sligo-based because that was where I had fetched up in 1972 after moving to Ireland in 1971 as a cultural refugee, as I put it then and now.  Lots of interesting things happened under his tutelage, but he retired suddenly in 1975 after a debilitating motor accident, and I saw him rarely after that, since he'd moved back to his native Galway.

        Fast-forward a few years: I was living in North Hollywood, in Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley, and I got a call from Des sometime in 1987 to say hello.  He was doing a sort of mini-tour of Irish pubs in the U.S. with his nephew Eugene, and was then appearing at a pub in Burbank, not far from where I lived.  This was my first meeting with Eugene Kelly, who was at the time a guitar hero to the young people of Galway; and since I originally composed this article, Eugene has died, far from home and family, in far New York, apparently in his sleep; but certainly mourned far and wide as one of the most talented, generous, and loving human beings ever to walk the planet.

        Another fast-forward, and I was given a slot on a music programme on TG4 in 1996, after my return from Russia, and Eugene was the music director at the studio in Spiddal.  He was also involved in recording and music production, and after the death of my musical benefactor Alan Connaughton, Eugene became the person I relied on for any recording of demos of my own.  On several occasions he graciously let me stay at his house while I was in Galway working with him.  His wife Cyndi and his three daughters, Tara, Lauren, and Geena, always did their best to accommodate my strange presence, and in the process I was rather taken by them and decided to write a song reflecting the daughters' various characters in a sort of amalgam, in a song that would continue an established habit of mine of writing songs about children, a string that began with The Scholar, in 1978, written in an exculpatory mood after putting my own daughter in boarding school in Sligo – the Ursulines, actually, where I had the pious hope that she would take up the harp like her predecessors there, Maire ni Bhraonain and Mary O'Hara.

           The first (and only, so far) person to record Little Miss Kelly was Andrew Murray, the wonderful folkie baritone, who was doing an album at Gavin Ralston's studio in 2005 and was introduced to the song via a demo of mine. 

The Carminist Manifesto -- Keep This Thought - April 6, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 6: Loony Tunes III

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KEEP THIS THOUGHT

1.

Keep this thought, awake at night,

wind across the willows:

You'll catch no sleep in silver light,

the moon across your pillow.

No sleep—stormy night,

branches rattle, wind blows:

scud cloud, silver light,

and the moon outside your window.

 

Silver comes to fill your eyes:

keep this thought or, otherwise,

no stopping when you wake and rise,

and float up through your window.

Float you must, but don't give in—

the senses in your cheek and chin will

tell you where and tell you when

to find your homely pillow.

 

2.

Sleep and toss, late at night,

clouds press up in billows;

you'll be weeping silver like

a moon upon your pillow.

So steep: don't you mind,

climb that cliff by moonglow.

"Eyes up," the wind is whining,

"watch for where the tunes go."

 

 

Melody will fill your mind:

keep this thought or, otherwise,

no stopping when you wake and rise,

and float up through your window.

Float you must, but don't give in—

the senses in your cheek and chin will

tell you where and tell you when

to find your homely pillow.

 

3.

Irene says good night,

and she goes to seek her pillow.

Three things within her sight:

the moon and panes and willow.

Last thing to cross her mind

just before her eyes close:

this song for stormy nights,

and the moon outside her window:

 

"If silver comes to fill my eyes,

I'll keep this thought, or otherwise no

stopping when I wake and rise

and float up through my window.

Float I must, but won't give in—

the senses in my cheek and chin will

tell me where and tell me when

to find my homely pillow."

 

The commonplace of the moon and the female being conjoined in some metaphysical way is useful, most particularly, for generating new images and conceits to sing the human condition.

In 1998 I wrote a song called Little Miss Kelly, where I think I was investigating some of the differing power in the characters of young girls, in this particular case the three young daughters of yet another brilliant Irish musician of my acquaintance, Galway’s beloved and sadly recently departed Eugene Kelly, a multi-instrumentalist and record producer of rare skill and perception. I had spent a couple of nights exploring musical ideas of mine and dossing at his house in the countryside outside Galway town, where I made the acquaintance of the beautiful women of his family – his wife, Cyndi, and their three daughters, Geena, Lauren, and Tara. The three girls couldn’t be more different from one another, but they all shared a slightly-unnerving quality of being utterly at ease with themselves, able to be curious about things outside their world without surrendering any of their own natures, from the talkative youngest, Geena, to the serene eldest, Tara.  I think the only direct compliment I passed was probably when I told the middle girl, Lauren, that I liked her face … I can’t remember what the occasion was, but it was simply the only occasion I had to pass a compliment to one of them: when I got around to writing this song, I came up with something for each of them. So Little Miss Kelly was done as a sort of composite compliment.

Anyway … a bit later in time I was staying with some terribly nice people in Ramelton, Co. Donegal, an American-born lady, Mary Haggan, and her children, among whom was a striking then-ten-year-old by the name of Irene.  There was something about her of the Kelly girls, bursting with promise and impatience to get on with life, and I resolved, typically, that what she needed was a song written for her and her place in life: when I finished it, I sent her a copy.  As usual, I liked the song so much that I kept it, and kept at it, at one point even changing the line ‘Irene says goodnight’ (probably at least partly out of trepidation that someone might think me feeble-minded to put those words together) to ‘girl-child says goodnight’ … which is good, and certainly more generally apposite … but chicken.  When I redo the song, I hope to get Irene back into it …

The Carminist Manifesto -- Do Carlow Boys Come Home? - April 5, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 5: Carlovia, or Mammon II

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DO CARLOW BOYS COME HOME?

1.

He ran away,

the boundless world so much to blame:

there came a day

when nothing home could make him stay.

 

He left behind

a steady girl from Palatine,      

who brings to mind

the Barrow track in summertime.

 

In this bold world, young folk climb:

they laugh at what's behind.

Goodbye, Carlow, there they go:

boys and girls who leave the fold.

 

All roads lead to Rome, they say:

do Carlow boys come home?

 

2.

He's on his own:

Italian scene with Carlow-grown boy,

young and keen

on wine and song and everything.

 

How strange to find

a hill in Rome called Palatine,

whose name reminds

Killeshin views in Carlow times.

 

Make those brand-new bonds that do

for boys and girls beyond.

Back in Carlow's far green land,

a steady girl might understand.

 

All roads lead to Rome, they say:

do Carlow boys come home?

 

3.

The sun pours down:

the light alone fills up your eyes.

A challenge posed:

the sights and sounds are not your own.

 

Choose your ground:

the Barrow in a winter coat

of red-toned brown,

or flood-of-sun Italian town?

 

Most of all, when counting comes,

your heart's not made of stone:

Ciao, San Pietro, goodbye Rome—

the boy from Carlow's going home.

 

All roads lead to Rome, they say:

do Carlow boys come home?


One of the funniest things that ever happened to me, in both the strange and the humorous senses, was when a prominent Irish songwriter approached me in April of 1979 when Paul McGuinness and I were negotiating the release of Cavan Girl as a 45 rpm single with Release Records.  Their office was on Lombard Street, and afterwards I found myself in the pub on the Pearse Street corner, with said Prominence pressing his fierce bushy eyebrows close to my face.  He introduced himself and then told me, in one string of bitter words, the following tale: "I lived in the States for a while.  I was working as a carpenter in the New York area, and one day we were working on James Taylor's house.  A couple of my mates told him I was a songwriter, too, and he invited me to sing a couple of them.  And when I did, he said 'Why don't you go back to your own country and write your songs there?'

Since I was planning, on Paul McGuinness's advice, to do that very thing as soon as I could – a decision I've regretted practically every moment since – I could only laugh at the scene, whatever menace was meant by it. I'd never experienced professional jealousy before that moment – an indication possibly that this was the first time I'd done anything to be jealous of.

Then in 2004 some Carlovians were struck by the dearth of songs about their native county (well, aside from Follow Me Up) and resolved to remedy this deficit by advertising a large sum of money to be won in a contest for a song that would bring Carlow to the general mind. 

I myself enlisted the help of a old friend from that county, Peadar Murray, and together we came up with something that we felt would fill the bill.  When we got a letter informing us that our entry had not, in fact, made the final twelve that would compete in public for the grand prize, we were a bit nonplussed, since as musicians and songwriters of some experience it seemed obvious to us that it was unlikely that there would be as many as twelve superior songs to ours in the one contest. 

Because of the time and energy we had invested in the project, and the simple fact that we're fond of the song, we decided to send a copy of the demo recording to Ronan Collins, with a request that he give an ear to the other entries when they were exposed and judge himself whether they were more worthy than ours.  Ronan, god bless him, didn't wait for the contest to have its final, since he thought the song was worthy of being heard on his programme, at the very least.  The response was immediate and heartening: people began ringing in to request it and to ask where they can get a copy of it.  As Ronan keeps pointing out, though, it's an "unreleased" recording, available nowhere except as home-made copies from Peadar or me. A footnote would be that, because of Ronan Collins’s frequent airing of the demo, most people in Carlow think that this song actually won the contest.

Another footnote to this sad tale was the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, which led to a number of people from Carlow finding their way to Rome for his obsequies.  Presumably they all made their way home. Oh, and a few years ago a very nice lady – the equine veterinarian-extraordinaire Meta Osborne, whose mother is from Carlow – had just returned from Italy with her mother and sister and was driving home when she first heard this song.  She thought it was a wonderful coincidence. Me, too.

The Carminist Manifesto -- Sligo Down to Spain - April 4, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 4: Bright Spots  

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SLIGO DOWN TO SPAIN

 

Drain your cup and smile your smile:

tell him goodbye for a while.

Then turn away from holy Knocknarea,

and weather that's all surprise:    

'Bright spots with lashing winds and rain,

from Sligo right down to Spain.'

 

Here's a tale of love and woe:

a woman meets a man who shows

he's the right one—father, son, and lonely host,

that's all that she needs to know.

'Bright spots with lashing winds and rain,

from Sligo right down to Spain.'

 

Right man, wrong time,

love sublime.

Winds in Sligo blow,

blow you 'cross that line.

 

One last time, walk where you will:

up the river to Lough Gill.

Just hold your lies: undo those ties

and part while the day is still.

'Bright spots with lashing winds and rain,

from Sligo right down to Spain.'

 

Go back home, go far away,

where sun and strangers fill the days:

sunshine to burn away your shame,

and strangers to shape your clay.

'Bright spots with lashing winds and rain,

from Sligo right down to Spain.'

 

Where you go and what you say

will never, never be the same:

no love song can ever hold a flame

to the radio's cold refrain:

'Bright spots with lashing winds and rain,

from Sligo right down to Spain.'

 

The Sligo entrepreneur Aidan Mannion has loomed large and important on several occasions in my musical life. He and his business partner, Kevin Flannery, first approached me when I reappeared in Sligo on a visit in the closing months of 1989, just before I took up a job as an interpreter for the U.S. government in Russia, to do a rock-bottom-budget solo album, which would be my first recording since Midnight Well in 1977.  I initially said no, but on my return from my first stint in Votkinsk, I found the offer more attractive, as I had written two songs in the meantime, Sonya and Amy in Grey and Prayer for Love, that I really wanted to have in recorded form.  So, with the last-minute help of bass player Garvan Gallagher (both on bass and as producer) we whipped out a one-day recording at the Sun demo studio in Templebar in February of 1990.  There was so much technically wrong with it (not least the fact that I'm playing guitar) that I can't bear to listen to it anymore, but it was at the very least a shot in the arm for me to have someone, anyone, putting up money for a recording.

A year or two later, Aidan expressed to me the notion that there were, in his view, no good songs about the Great Famine, that watershed moment in the Irish history of which he is a devoted amateur.  He offered me a sum of money to write a song about the Famine, since I seemed, in his eyes, to have a talent for the expression of historical tragedy in song.  With some trepidation I agreed to the task, but it was at least two years before I actually got around to writing The Hill Above the Strand, a work that seemed to meet his requirements.  When I went to IMRO to notify them of its composition, I ran into Brendan Graham, the Cathaoirleach at the time.  I proudly told him of the fact that I had written a Famine song, more or less because of the lack of such songs, and he indignantly answered that, not only was I wrong about that lack, but he'd just written two, himself.

Then, in 2004, nine years after I had returned from Russia and taken up Irish residence and citizenship, Aidan rang me up and asked if I could attempt a song that would do for Sligo what my Cavan Girl had done for Cavan.  I thought the request a trifle strange, given that he was aware of the songs I had already written about Sligo – Still Believing, The Scholar, Believe Me Sligo, and Turn the Corner – but any commission is a pleasant exercise, at the very least, never mind one for Sligo.

One of the many things to stick in my mind from my first sojourn in Sligo in the 1970s was the voice of the late Maurice O'Doherty, whose wonderful Donegal baritone was commonly heard reading the news and weather at lunchtime over RTE radio.  He must have said other things about the weather in Ireland, but the only thing I could ever recall, probably due to the frequency with which he said it, was "Bright spots, with lashing winds and rain out of the northwest."  It wasn't exactly news up there in the northwest with the lashing winds and rain, but the phrase did seem to hint at a metaphor for an unsuccessful relationship, something that could eventually be useful in a song.  The final product earned Aidan's eventual approval, even though the song has yet to find the huge audience that Cavan Girl did.  I trust it will, eventually, since it's a great crowd-pleaser at live gigs.

Aidan might have had a different analog in mind (commercial success, maybe) when he requested a Cavan Girl-ish song about Sligo, but, for me, this has all the elements that make Cavan Girl compelling as a song: movement through local scenery and conditions in pursuit of intemperate love, bittersweet, etc. The setting, lyrics, and music are more consciously modern than the Cavan Girl paradigm, but that should only increase its universality, given the many tourists, foreigners, and other blow-ins in the last few decades who've found themselves in Sligo, acting out some part in a doomed love story.  

The Carminist Manifesto -- Alana in the Lane - April 3, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 3: Alana's Hand

 

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ALANA IN THE LANE

 

Alana goes her way,

down Ballybrooney Lane,

and back again.

She walks me slowly now,

always the same thing:

my mind is on the day,

and Alana in the lane.

 

To the Manor House we go:

a field of cows up there

all stop and stare.

They scare this tiny thing

who clings so close to me –

all hides and horns and eyes!

– but Alana doesn't cry.

 

The future's full of questions now,

all of them with rain.

The farmer and his famous cows,

and Ballybrooney Lane.

 

No need to cast around:

a grown-up holds her hand,

she's safe and sound.

To make her feel at ease

I laugh out loud, so proud

to be the great big man

with Alana by the hand.

 

Then somehow comes the day

that nothing in the world

can drive away.

And all that's left to do,

as much for me as you,

is to hold the mem'ry plain

of Alana in the lane.

 

The future's full of questions now,

all of them with rain.

The farmer and his famous cows,

and Ballybrooney Lane.


Five Irishmen have been instrumental in my keeping any sort of faith in myself as an artist.  The first is the bassist Garvan Gallagher, diminutive of stature, large of heart, whom we included in various Midnight Well projects back in the 70s, and who returned my esteem, notably by keeping an archive of recordings of that period, and by gaining the ear of the people in the Mary Black entourage – in whose band he was the bassist from the 80's through the 90’s – who could be interested in songs of mine.  He also discovered that the second figure in this list, the late Alan Connaughton, was starting a record company with a view towards exploiting the talents of industry outsiders such as myself, much like the rationale behind Mulligan Records back in the 70s, though on less grand a scale, and he found out as well that Alan had a high opinion of me, something translatable into an actual recording.  Or a "real" recording, as I characterised it: "a recording on which I do not play guitar" (i.e., because someone else is paying for the services of a real guitarist).

           Alan not only proceeded to back the project that resulted in his STARC Records release of Gorgeous and Bright in 1994, he also involved himself in my plans for the period of my return to Ireland from Russia in 1995, which turned out to be an awkward time due to the collapse of any "market" that I might have figured in up till then: I took to referring to it as the Old Folkie market, for want of a better term.  My plans included finding a female singer to exploit any new material, along the lines of Mary Black's and Maura O'Connell's successes in the 80s with songs of mine.  The schemes were varied and ambitious, including a stage musical with some very original twists, but they all came to naught with the sudden death of Alan Connaughton in 1997, since he was the guarantor of any exploratory or demonstration recordings in support.  There was literally no one else in his position as head of a record company in Ireland who had the same opinion of me or my work. So his untimely demise (he was only in his late forties) meant that I was suddenly bereft not only of that generous man as a good friend, like hundreds of other bereaved people, but as the repository of most of my hopes as well.

Then appeared Paul Lee, who provided new venues (the Cobblestone, Mother Redcap's) for the old folkies (and new ones, for that matter) whose market had so thoroughly disappeared in the mid-90s.  He was outspoken to me about my virtues as a songwriter and performer.  Few other people certainly were, in this fallow period. And people who did express support for me tended not to have anything to do with the music business.  Comforting, in a way, though not terribly helpful.  But Paul was dogged in his support, not only for me but for all of the artists he felt were being slighted by the new trends in music and venues, that depended on ever-larger numbers of young people indulging their appetites for noise, dancing, and sex, and had nothing to do with the perceptibly Irish nature of a musical culture that was based on the live performance of poetic songs for a discerning audience.  Something of a losing battle.

So when Paul Lee asks artists who perform at gigs organised by him to help out with a benefit concert, the normal response, from myself as from most, is to volunteer the time for his project.  And one such benefit concert was organised by Paul in mid-2003 to raise funds for the treatment of a little girl suffering from cancer, Alana Quinn, the youngest child of old friends of his, then and now resident in Killala, in Mayo.  During the concert I was approached by Gavin Ralston, a young man with considerable talent as a guitarist and as a recording engineer, who invited me to try out his new studio.  I was in the doldrums at that particular moment, without anything new that I wanted to record, exploratorily or otherwise. I hadn't, in fact, written a song since the year 2000.  Soon after, though, I completed first one and then another new song that seemed to me to be up to my best standard, and, needing to hear them back in some recorded context, I asked Gavin to demo them for me.  He agreed, and I have been committed to him and his recording studio ever since, to my considerable benefit, if not his. Gavin is, of course, the fourth person in this catalogue of people to whom I owe a considerable debt for their encouragement and belief in me.

In July of 2005 I got an e-mail from Paul Lee, in which he asked me to set to music, if possible, a poem that he had written to read at the funeral service for Alana Quinn, who had finally succumbed to her illness.

 

Alana

 

I remember you now

forever the same

walking me slowly

down Ballybrooney Lane.

 

We turned left then

to the old Manor House

and in a field of harmless cows

you feared for your life

and clung to me for protection.

 

How calmly I reassured you,

a gentle laugh as we walked away,

and you were safe,

for another day.

 

And I was happy

and it made me proud

that you felt safe

having me around.

 

But then one day

the threat was real

and there was nothing I could do

only try to understand

the terrible sorrow

your family would feel

 

They remember you too

on Ballybrooney Lane

but with a million other memories

Your little years gave

 

PS. I was walking away from the church and a man

I had never met came up to me and said, do you know

you have made my cows famous. He was the farmer and

knew by the directions in the poem it was his field.

 

 

I wrote the song fairly soon after, changing his poem drastically to suit the music I had in mind as much as my own lyric sense but, I hoped, preserving the sentiment of the various occasions he was marking.  I had no chance to record it at the time, though, since the next session I had with Gavin wasn't to be until the end of February 2006, by which time I had come down with a nasty lung infection and was unable to sing for several weeks. So it wasn't until I was once again with Gavin (needs must wait for him to be not on the road, and free from other recording commitments) in July of 2006 that the song actually got recorded.  Gavin was moved enough by it to perform a wonderful guitar backing on the demonstration recording.  It was when I mentioned how it all seemed to fall together so nicely that Paul Lee made a comment about Alana's spirit being strangely prominent in any number of synchronicities, and I remembered that the occasion of my meeting Gavin in the first place was her earlier benefit, in 2003.

 

*         *         *         *         *

 

The most current contact for helping people and children in Alana’s predicament is the website/contact for the Crumlin Childrens Hospital (or more properly ‘Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin’: The Children's Medical & Research Foundation.

The Carminist Manifesto -- Carolina Rua - April 2, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 2: Trichomania

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                          Carolina Rua (The Crooked Road)

 

Stories never end till you come to conclusions:

Carolina Rua has a hand in my confusion.

She waits for me to choose which quarter to bend in,

to Susie-Make-Me-Blue or the redhead I'm attending.

 

Now, Carolina Rua has my heart, and all I want to do's

go down the windy road where my Carolina goes;

down the crooked road where Carolina goes to school

mo Charolina Rua, do you love me?  Tell me true, tell me…

 

I was standing on three queens, I thought the game was over;

then, from the blue, Carolina's at my shoulder.

 

Laughter in her eyes, and a smile that touches all the boys,

on down the windy road, where my Carolina goes.

Down the crooked road where Carolina goes to school

mo Charolina Rua, do you love me?  Tell me true, tell me.

 

The late Vladimir Markov was my Russian poetry professor in graduate school at UCLA back towards the middle of the last century.  He was resigned to being more or less unchallenged—unquestioned, even—in his classes.  Whenever a student made the effort to come up with a question worth the asking, his delight was boundless.  His head would come up out of its melancholy and he would say something as perfectly astute as it was outrageous. After my being struck by a line of Lermontov's (kak chuzhets na pire chuzom—"like a stranger at someone else's feast"), I inquired of him whether this was an original of Lermontov's, or a cliché of Russian literature.  "Neither," he beamed. "Lermontov stole it from another poet! The best poets are the biggest thieves!"

My world was turned upside down … well, actually, right-side up.  I had always been perplexed at how Bob Dylan could get away with robbing the melodies and snatches of lines of his third album from the early recordings of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem … surely professional ethics were being traduced here, right?  Wrong.  Bob Dylan was just going about being Bob Dylan, great poet, big thief. Besides, as we all found out this century from his autobiographical Chronicles, Dylan was good friends with the Clancys, particularly Liam, at this time.

A lot of people do what Dylan did, which is to take an existing melody of some sort and refashion it to their own purposes.  Most songwriters who are under the impression that, by avoiding the conscious borrowing of existing material, they are somehow pristine and sinless are simply unaware of what their subconscious is doing for them, usually in little unimpeachable dribs and drabs, sometimes in huge embarassing swatches.

Because so many of my song melodies derive from the endlessly wonderful canon of Irish traditional dance tunes (as opposed to Irish songs), I do sometimes feel it necessary to show that, while I can be as big a thief as Bob Dylan, I'm not someone who denies it: I usually try to incorporate the tune's name into my song, particularly if the borrowing is at all obvious.  This song—and its name—is a case in point.  The tune is a particularly wonderful one that I'd heard in Ireland back in the 1970s. I hadn't learned its name, though, so when it had passed through the circles of fire in my brain, coming out nearly whole but now with a sort of Cubanish swing to it, and was beginning to call for its own lyric, I asked a friend of mine what the tune was called by the people who played it.  In fact, she mixed it up with another very similar tune called The Crooked Road, which is the name she gave me.  That struck me as a phrase perfectly within my compass, and I set to work.  It was only after the song had made the rounds and been recorded by Mary Black for inclusion on her New Frontiers album that I got the bad news: this was a reel from the Michael Colman canon, where it was called The Duke of Leinster's Wife. The day was saved by Cathal Goan, then a busy RTE archivist, who told me that the issue had actually been settled, not exactly in my favour, but getting me off the hook, so to speak: the unfortunate uxoriate title had come about only because Colman always played it in a set after the reel called The Duke of Leinster, and since he couldn't recall the actual name of it, the wag doing his New York liner notes decided to keep it in the family. Its real title, Cathal assured me, was "The Lady's Pantalettes'".

A somewhat sadder coda occurred a couple of years back, in 2003, when the red-haired young lady who is the ostensible subject of the song got in touch with me electronically to take me to task for literally terrifying her as a young U. S. Army reservist on active duty for training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California (where there are lots of crooked and wind-y little roads).  Her kittenish flirtation with me resulted in a certain intensity of interest on my part, resulting in the song. Nothing untoward, unseemly, or irrevocable took place, but the notion that middle-aged men could be more than just avuncular seemed to startle her. She was even more upset, she informed me electronically, that Mary Black had seen fit to perform the song: "She shouldn't sing that — if only people knew!"

A curious side-effect of striving to be a productive artist is the perverse satisfaction engendered by active dislike of one of your works on the part of an otherwise partisan listener.  The Mary Black version of Carolina Rua was radio-friendly in the extreme, given its bouncy treatment; but when it was first heard by a Irishwoman who was in Australia at the time, a young woman who had been literally raised on the Thom Moore songs of the Midnight Well album from 1977, she instantly knew two things: (1) it had been written by me, and (2) she really, really, didn't like it. At the very least, that meant to me that she was paying close attention, which is all that anyone hoping to be an artist wants, since that's the real meaning of the word "appreciate". On the other hand, her animosity could have been due to the inappropriateness of the lyric when performed by a woman, as in the original Carolina's sentiment.

The Carminist Manifesto -- The Mayfly and the Stone - April 1, 2013

THE CARMINIST MANIFESTO, volume II, Chapter 1: Hatter-mad

 

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              The Mayfly and the Stone

 

No, never fear,

the trout's the king of leaping

when the rain is near:

Lough Arrow's what I'm thinking of.

 

The corn-crake speaks,

the vixen in the night-time

screaming: "Come, who seek —

it's worse than I've been dreaming of."

 

Not where the talkers go:

The Mayfly and the stone

are all the world enough

for life to rise and fall.

And when it's rising,

fish will bite, and flesh will ripen;

when it falls, it's the end of us,

the end of all.

 

Midsummer night,

the lake alive and breathing

in the northern light:

Lough Arrow in a mist of love.

 

When manhood breaks,

a woman's bound to be there

somewhere; man will ache —

the curse that comes on reaching love.

 

Not where the talkers go…etc.

 

The boat so slim,

two people on their knees will

fill the space within:

Lough Arrow with the moon above.

 

Do what you should,

a lifetime's there before you

with this girl who would —

the earth below and stars above.

 

Not where the talkers go…etc.

 

 

Let's start with something I'm fond of.  Might as well.  This is something like my one-hundredth song.  Famous songwriters always have thousands in their files.  I've always been terminally slow at the work: I've managed to average (2012-1969 = 43; 107 / 43) = ~ 2.49 songs per year, since I started writing songs successfully.  Successful in the sense of something that felt finished, felt like like a real song, performable, that sort of thing. Until the unfortunate year 2000, when I failed to write even one song for nearly three years. Scary time.

 

The astute appreciator will divine the ghost of a wonderful Irish jig somewhere in this tune, along with chords and lyrics linked in their own fashion as well.  I was thinking of revealing its name, but that obviates a lot of the charm of this compositional technique, somehow.

 

Sligo.  Somehow my life keeps coming back to Sligo, a county in the northwest of Ireland probably best known for its association with the poet William Butler Yeats, the premier poet of the English language in the 20th century.  His pre-eminence is not really arguable on any level, even though there is a wide range of critics who would eagerly deny him that distinction on some political, ethnological, aesthetic, technical, religious, or economic ground. Well, fuck the begrudgers, as the Irish say: even if that includes my own poetic paragon, Robert Graves.  Yeats's greatness, while not as profound or historic as, say, Shakespeare's, is manifest as much in the quantity of his output as in its quality.  And even though his later years were spent far from Sligo and its almost Castanedan vibrancy, there's no doubt in my mind that the stones, heights, clefts and colours of the place raised the hair on the back of his neck to good effect in his early days. I still shiver to recall the blasphemy of The Second Coming: "…And what rough beast, / Its hour come round at last, / Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born."

 

I lived continuously in Sligo from early February 1972 until a drear late-December day in 1976.  In that time I grew accustomed, familiarised if you like, to the prevalence and abundance of some kind of fey energy that raddles the place.  This has nothing to do with leprechauns or any of the cutesy stuff so dear to Americans and those who live off them.  What I'm attempting to describe is a palpable madness, a buzz, a vibe, that facilitates visions and experiences so vivid and peculiar that they provoke a "cognitive dissonance," an unreasonable sense that, if what you are experiencing is actually true, really happening, then the world is a far stranger place than science or religion has ever led you to believe.  And that you are, in one very specific sense, mad as a hatter: you've been vouchsafed experiences that you can barely even describe, let alone talk about in polite society.

 

For anyone used to driving the old N4 to Sligo from Dublin (or from anywhere to the south and east of Sligo town) the Mayfly of the song should be immediately resonant.  There is a village at the foot of the Curlew Mountains, coming down from Roscommon on your way northwestwardly from Boyle: Ballinafad, on the shore of Lough Arrow, one of the many spectacular lakes in that neck of the woods.  In the old days, your head would have been reeling from your first glimpse of the surreally beautiful folded landscape as the road suddenly opened out onto Sligo.  The mountain-shaving of the last glacial period has resulted in almost organic-looking growths, humps and stubby spires and snaky ranges that make you feel like you're suddenly on another planet. Or did, before the new M4 motorway bypassed that particular stretch of road.  The new road also bypasses Ballinafad, the first Sligo town on that road, whose principal public house used to be The Mayfly, surely named after the interests of the anglers whose pleasure is so great in this situation.  The Stone?  Well, my memory is full of stones, weighty or otherwise significant, in this landscape. As an extreme opposite of the ephemeral, fleshy thing known as the mayfly, it seems to work well enough in the song, both visually and cognitively.  I've always thought anglers to be silent types, too.

Hendecady -- Why not? - January 15, 2010

I've been bragging for years about my theory of hendecady, or how to save the world by switching from a seven-day week to an eleven-day week (don't worry,there's the same number of free days, they're just not every five days). So, without further ado, I'd like to start the serial publishing of my magnum opus righ chere, righ now. Mazeltov! Mabruk!

Thom Moore


HEBDOMADY
The Menorah, the Days of the Week, and the Ills of Society


Many years ago, as a 14-year-old student of French, I drew the fairly obvious conclusion that English and French between them held a curious piece of information, something that my attention had never been drawn to before either by adults, teachers, or anything that I had read: that the days of the week were all named for astronomical objects. Since this is something that has to cross the mind of anyone exposed to at least one Germanic and one Romance language, I won't waste any time on that subject, except to say that it is probably most profitable to compare English and Italian, since 'venerdi' won't suggest marketing and 'giovedi' won't suggest game-playing, as the French words 'vendredi' and 'jeudi' might. One of the additional facts I learned along with this was the definition of the word 'esoteric': it doesn't refer necessarily to things abstruse or concealed from the masses, it merely means something that people can happily ignore, for whatever reason. I never once encountered anyone in authority who could enlighten me in the slightest. Years later, when I was reading an otherwise unremarkable biography of Captain James Cook, I was drawn to the depiction of the adolescent mariner's habit of using astronomical symbols (or 'glyphs', as they should be referred to, reserving the word 'symbol' for the broader meaning of something standing in for a host of related meanings in particular contexts) for the days of the week in his log book, a habit noted with approval by his superior officers but not amplified on by the author.

Figure 1: {see the Photo Gallery for this and all other figures) the classical or Platonic or Ptolemaic system of planetary spheres

It might be germane at this point to stop and get a little more thoroughly acquainted with these seven planets, or gods, or principles, or symbols, or whatever you would like to think of them as. To do this in the proper spirit, you are all going to have to shed whatever residual prejudices you might have against what might be deemed astrology and consider these symbols in their purely classical sense, symbols containing within them not only (1) primary scientific meaning as observable astronomical objects and phenomena and (2) religious meaning to whole millennia of peoples and civilisations, as the sky gods, but oodles of secondary meaning as well, as principles of things like activity, emotion, and sensibility.

Looking at figure one (which represents, by the way, the classical, or Platonic, or Ptolemaic, spheres in their perceived order), the first glyph you see above the flat disk of the earth is the easily-recognisable crescent glyph of the moon. The moon has an exclusively feminine character as a symbol almost everywhere on earth. The coincidence of its apparent size and plane of motion with the sun's is one of the major synchronicities of existence, one that probably gave rise to the faculty of abstract thought itself. It has enormous power to this day as a major symbol of witchcraft, along with other symbolic values, such as its representing motherhood in all forms from the physical to the abstract, the more modern psychological qualities of the unconscious, instinctive feelings and behaviour, and emotions and emotionality. As a god with a name, this would of course be Diana, in Latin. This symbol was used by the young James Cook to signify Monday in his personal log book.

Mercury (a small circle with a cross at the bottom and horns or possibly a crescent moon on top of it) comes next in the spheres, moving upwards away from the sublunary world, and he is in many ways one of the least-talked about of these Classical sky gods, not being associated with the gangbuster themes of sex, violence, or obscene wealth, but his icon survives everywhere, from the logo for Western Union to the statue outside the International Congress building in Moscow. Mercury's symbolic significance is as the god not only of communications and commerce, but thievery as well as more modern psychological things like thought and mentation. As an iconic principle of the kind to be considered here, it is also a sexually ambivalent symbol for undifferentiated youth (hence its use as the medical symbol for a natal hermaphrodite), and even absolute Incipience. This symbol was Wednesday for James Cook.

Venus (a circle with a downward hanging cross) equates to a force that attracts, an energy analogous to the physical principle of gravity and its inexorable pull. This calling force tends to make unity out of diversity (i.e., one beast with two backs). Negative attributes are never mentioned in astrological or other discussions of Venus-as-principle, but a reflective person would have to admit that this is the principle behind the summons of predators to crying infant creatures in the wild, or flying insects to their more noisome repasts. When it is a symbol among other symbols, it tends to mean an objectified thing, and arguably this is exactly what is meant by a sex object or object of desire; but for James Cook it was just Friday, or sometimes the brightest object in the sky after the sun and moon.

The sun (represented in astronomy and astrology by a glyph made up of a circle with a central dot) is fourth out of the seven, smack dab in the middle. The fact that it was not the most important planet to the Sumerians says a lot about their powers of observation and abstraction. The sun became by their extension the god Apollo to Hellenic and Roman civilizations – the god of clarity, reason, and consciousness itself, not just the obvious source of light and heat. It can be argued at length (and will be before this is over) that this is the underlying identity of any god worshipped on a Sunday, and that the gods of the other days of the week would similarly inform any holy days of obligation.

Mars (a circle with an upward-pointing arrow, as if to say "sun-up") is admittedly a lot more in mind in modern times than Jupiter, since he is so clearly identified with everything from war to unarmed combat to music that you can march to, and since his symbol is used as well to signify the male gender of creatures that have two sexes. But the truth of Martial symbolism can be argued to be the principle of selfhood, of asserting independence from the containing matrix, of refusing to take consensus direction or any restriction on individual desire. It also can be said to share with the sun some of the symbolism of energy itself, in this case as some kind of enabling force. It was Cook's Tuesday symbol.

Jupiter (an inverted, rotated version of the Saturn glyph) can be viewed as a non-survivor into modern folklore, known only to people educated in Graeco-Roman mythology, who is widely disparaged at the present time as the superseded randy buffoon-king in a discredited theology, the Olympian state religion of Rome. His function to the Sumerians and Babylonians was as the god of thunder and rain in a place where both are entirely welcome, the god of increase and good auspice. His iconic status as the "son" of Saturn, whom Jupiter replaced as Father God in Graeco-Roman myth after emasculating him with the same sickle that Saturn had used on his own father, Uranus, can be considered a simple iconotropic lie used to justify his supersession of Saturn's authority in the various Olympic-style religions, where a lot of (non-celestial) local gods and goddesses had to be rationalized into one coherent state religion for political reasons, with a virile and heroic paterfamilias in place of a dour and aged one. I personally am amused and curious about Jupiter/Zeus's metamorphosis in modern times in animated cartoons and cartoonish film-series into an ever-increasingly gray-bearded figure, a clear recrudescence of Saturn as "Father God." But the Jupiter that we are dealing with is simply a symbol of life at ease, riches and generosity, growth and increase, expansiveness and good humour, and James Cook's Thursday.

Last of all but the most important, Saturn (a billhook or grain-sickle with a crosspiece on the haft), at the top of the stack, is the most confusingly varied in his surviving images. Durability being one of the qualities of Saturn as a principle, it is not surprising that he turns up towards the end of the year (his saturnalia festival) either as jolly Santa Claus or as (the respectively and successively more forbidding) Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, or Father Time in the New Year's cartoons, scythe over his bony shoulder. His symbolic qualities all have to do with his function as a terminator and general nay-sayer: all hardness, all discipline, all fixedness, all limitation, all bad luck, all rules, all structure, all collective endeavour with its restrictions on individuality, the very essence of Reality itself, are aspects of his symbolism. His most enduring survival is of course as God the Father, Yahweh, the Old Testament creator of the universe. It can be asserted that the week itself is an artifact that was created to glorify and venerate this god, and continues to do so, long after most people on Earth have lost any conscious connection between him and his week. James Cook, long before he became a captain or famous, used this symbol in his log for Saturday.

Anyway, many years after my not-very-original insight into the identity of the days of the week with the seven pagan celestial gods, it spontaneously occurred to me to wonder why these seven astronomical symbols are ordered in the week the way they are. Idle speculation, indeed. Then I encountered something truly curious. In several pre-1974 editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the problem is neatly resolved in an article by an unnamed classicist. Since that year, though, the relevant articles have been written by "experts" without any apparent understanding of it. It is no longer possible now for any curious person to find out what the week is about except from an out-of-date edition (up to and including the 14th) of the Britannica.

This pre-1974 article explained how Sumerian knowledge and beliefs were based on inductive reasoning after untold years of observation and correlation of the cycles of the sky with the cycles of the seasons and mundane events: the seven moving celestial objects – the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn – moving against the background of the fixed stars, their different cycles more or less obvious and meaningful in their various ways.

The heavenly spheres: The Sumerians and their successors (everyone from Europe to India, until Copernicus) believed the earth to be surrounded by a succession of heavenly spheres, each containing one of the "planets" (the original Greek meaning of which — "wanderer [through the skies]" — included the sun and moon) and arranged in a particular order above and around us. The nearest and most concerned with everyday life was the sphere of the moon, containing the earth and its denizens — the 'sublunary' world. The moon was perceived to be the god most directly concerned with human existence, joined as it is to things like tides and various aspects of femininity. Enclosing it, and therefore controlling it and us as well, was the sphere of Mercury. Around that was the sphere of Venus, and around that was the sphere of the sun. Outside that came the spheres respectively of Mars and Jupiter, and then, last and most important from the point of view of rulership, the sphere of the Time Lord himself, the patriarch god, Saturn. Beyond his sphere was "Seventh Heaven", the timeless realm of the fixed stars and constellations, where life was presumed to be free from the caprice and machinations of the planetary gods.

The author of the Britannica article professed, as a Classics scholar, not to understand why they were ordered in this fashion. Any astronomer, astrologer, stargazer, or navigator could have told him: this ordering of the spheres has to do with the apparent relative speed of the bodies around the zodiac, from Saturn, the slowest, with an average period of 29 and a half years to complete the circuit of the sky, to the moon, the fastest, with an average period of 29 and a half days. This absolute correlation of the two extreme planets with the two kinds of sun-cycle must have been one of the most electrifying discoveries of all time, regardless of however inexact the periods are to modern science.

Where the week comes from: 7 and 12, the holy numbers. The reason for the number seven's appearance in folklore and occult philosophy as a lucky or mystical number presumably lies in its being the prime celestial number, the first mathematical sum that you get when you observe the sky. The second such number is the number twelve, which is the number of lunar cycles in an average year (sun-cycle). This number was apparently used by analogy to break up the day (also a sun-cycle) into manageable pieces, for whatever reason.

The week, according the to Britannica article, was invented by the Sumerians, who came up first with this division of the solar cycle of the "day" into twelve pieces by analogy with the solar cycle of the year and its twelve-piece sectioning by the lunar cycles; they also decided to do the same to the roughly equivalent period of the sun's absence (the "night"). They dedicated the "first" day of their reckoning and its first hour to the most important god, Saturn, and then gave succeeding hours of that first-ever day to the rest of the planetary gods in decreasing order of importance. Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon are repeatedly divided in turn into the 24 hours of the day (or rather into the 12 hours of the day and the 12 hours of the night), so that the 1st, 8th, 15th, and 22nd hours "belong" to Saturn (along with the day that the first hour begins) finishing the cycle with hour 23 belonging to Jupiter again, hour 24 belonging to Mars again, and the following first hour of the next day belonging to the Sun. When this pattern is repeated in order (=meaning that the second time you begin the sequence, you start with the sun, then the moon at the end of that sequence, etc.), the days of the week follow each other ad infinitum. The most ancient existing religious system that we know a good deal about — and which springs directly from Abraham, who came from Sumerian city of Ur of the Chaldees! — is Judaism, for whose practitioners the most holy moment of the most holy hour of the most holy day of the week is the moment of sunset on Friday — the first hour of Saturday, even in our system until recently. I would remind you all that the 'eve' of something didn't used to mean 'the day before' but 'the evening of' — which is why some people insist on their right to open their presents after sundown on Christmas Eve.

The week derived this way, the 'astral' week, as it's called, affects everything in the modern world having to do with day-to-day existence (the sum total of which happens to be our ancient religious, work, and recreation patterns—all tied to the week, and the ubiquitous 12-hour clock with its inexorable semaphore). All other civilizations in the Old World have at some time adopted the seven-day week and its astronomical baggage: not just our linearly Sumerian-derived Western civilization, but also the great Asian civilizations of India and China and all their satellite cultures as well.

Needless to say, I was delighted to be thus enlightened, and dismayed when I found that this information isn't readily available to anyone curious about it. I was particularly dismayed by the mind-set of the authors of the post-1974 Micropaedia articles on the week, none of whom have any apparent notion of its derivation, but who are fully capable of going on at length about the psychological necessity for humans to have regular relaxation.

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