12-16-12 The Ballad Sellers

The Ballad Seller, Jack B. Yeats 1871 – 1957 

A push-over for the emotionally scarred, Bach’s weeping, crying, sobbing, sighing, I often wonder if the world’s oldest profession is not a reaction to the plaintive melodies of those appealingly shuttered souls. W.H. Auden alluded to it in his masterpiece,  The Sea and The Mirror, when he wrote, “Hot Ferdinand will never know The flame with which Antonio Burns in the dark alone.”

It was with great delight I stumbled from poet to painter to ballad singer, pulled along by Gibbons Ruark’s John Clare’s Finches. In his poem, Gib wrote of the “daft poet” who peered out of a madhouse much of his life, a condition though not always a location for many of our shuttered souls. John Clare, 1793-1864, influenced, in addition to Gib, such diverse poets as Auden, Roethke and Patrick Kavanaugh.

Clare’s influence, in his dedication to the folk tradition, spilled over into Ireland’s exploding music scene of the 1960′s and 1970′s, the Chieftains, the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners. The Dubliners with iconic singer Luke Kelly introduced both worker and folk songs from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland to audiences from Berlin to Ballynhaunis. Luke, a kid from the council houses, went to England to work, found the interweaving of folk music and socialist thought in small enclaves of musicians and political activists. Back in Dublin, Luke became a part of the Ronnie Drew and Barney McKenna band which bears the name of Dubliners because he was reading Joyce’s Dubliners at the time the group was looking for a name.

Luke Kelly’s last public performance included The Night Visiting Song. John Clare is credited with an early mention of the family of songs which range from the joyful Scottish, I’m a Rover, to the Irish Traveler Bill Cassidy’s bawdy “Willie O.” A change in key, a word here and there, makes tough-going for music historians, and great fun for the likes of me.

Luke’s Night Visiting Song, minor key, tells of a rider from across the water and a night with his love.

I must away now, I can no longer tarry,

This morning’s tempest, I have to cross.

I must be guided, without a stumble,

Into the arms I love the most.

Luke Kelly died in 1984.  He was 44.

 

One response so far

  1. Lovely winding tribute to the “peasant poet,” and thanks for the nod to “John Clare’s Finches” as instigator. We sorely need attention to the music in the wake of the horror of Connecticut. To give the last word to the poet Heaney, in his liner notes for an album of folk songs by his friend David Hammond:

    “[T]o raise a song as if it were a clenched fist is to underestimate the revolutionary power of song itself, its power to move and pleasure and affect the depths of personality where attitudes begin. Song, like the Sermon on the Mount, is a matter of revelation and celebration.”

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