Monday, August 14, 2017

"hippies with banjos in the meetings"

(a PS to this post from yesterday).

If the old man who railed against me around 1988 or so for daring to play a guitar had any understanding of his own traditions, he would have known that over the years his predecessors played stringed instruments in gospel meetings. Here’s a photo of the famous Scottish evangelist Jock Troup at Pickie Pool in Bangor, playing a banjo-mandolin. (from this September 2013 post).

Forget your own history and you end up in all sorts of contradictory places...

Jock Troup Screengrab 1

'Don't Let the Politics Make You Crazy' / 'Without knowledge of history we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness'

Although Dave Rubin is American, there is much in his video above that we in politics-obsessed Northern Ireland can learn from. Politics is important, but it is not of ultimate importance. Let's consider our own position, of Unionism v Nationalism. Earlier this year there was, according to some media outlets, a near-collapse of the Unionist political psyche in the Assembly Election in March when Sinn Fein came within less than 1200 votes of being the largest party. There were then months of panic and fear until the snap General Election in June which saw a huge subsequent upsurge in DUP votes, gaining their highest vote ever, over 50,000 ahead of Sinn Fein, and unprecedented influence within the UK Government. That electoral pendulum might well continue to swing back and forth. Who knows?

The lesson is that if a community's sense of its identity is solely political the community is therefore vulnerable – at the mercy of the wrong election result, or of a back-room deal made between politicians, or who is the First Minister, the Prime Minister or the President. As discussed on a Radio Ulster panel last week on a hypothetical future ‘United Ireland’, one respected commentator said that Unionism would be forever finished – “… give them a few stickers to put on their bicycles, but everything is gone, their constitutional identity is gone, their personal identity is gone, their political identity is gone … there is no way Unionists can ever get back into the United Kingdom again … all that is gone’.

Deep breath. Let’s rethink this pessimistic worldview. As the Sunday School chorus goes, ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand...'

A cultural identity however is a much deeper and nuanced thing, and can withstand all sorts of setbacks and challenges. In previous generations, Ulster-Scots people who chose to emigrate took with them a clear *cultural* sense of who they were. Even though their *political* nationality and the flag they lived under would change due to emigration, or to their changed circumstances meaning that they were compelled to forge a revolution, their *cultural* identity remained clear.

The 1700s USA records have multiple references of Ulster people who had a clear understanding of the Reformation, Presbyterian history and the Covenanters, the Williamite Revolution, the Siege of Derry, their own exodus across the Atlantic and the 1798 rebellion. These themes were handed down for many generations, at firesides by people like Andrew Jackson’s mother Elizabeth (pictured below in an old book I have on the shelf). I’ll not repeat them all now, but if you’re in any doubt about that claim just trawl back through years of posts here to see acres of evidence for that.

Ulster-Scots history predates the Union, has mostly supported the Union but not entirely, has been compelled to rebel against the British Government in various ways throughout the centuries, and it might potentially outlast the Union. It is cross-border, it traverses seas and oceans. And flags. Whether Brexit is ‘hard' or ‘soft', whether it works out or is a disaster, if it happens at all or is smothered in fudge. Whether Scotland leaves the United Kingdom or remains.

Politics is ‘downstream’ from culture. Culture is more powerful, more international, more enduring, more open to others, and in many ways can be much more unifying.

“… Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and perhaps the Reformation’s most effective spokesman, was a revolutionary educational reformer, father of one of the movement’s many lasting legacies. Without knowledge of history, he wrote, we are condemned to perpetual childhood, endless darkness, collective blindness. There are none so blind as those who will not look at history, and it is time to open our eyes to the past, in order to face the future …”

– from this recent article in The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/11/reformation-2017-christopher-kissane-history

2017 06 13 17 54 27

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rodney McElrea, 1938-2017

Rodney McElrea

There are so many people that I wish I had met. One of these, Rodney McElrea, died just a few weeks ago, his funeral at Omagh Gospel Hall in County Tyrone. For the time being at least I’ll not be able to meet him. There are some excellent articles about him on Richard Hawkins' Bluegrass Ireland Blog (see here and also here), and a 2012 PhD thesis about his life as a collector, by Eve Olney (see here). Rodney’s name is inscribed across the ocean, on the gravestone of Charlie Poole. 

Rodney had been a member of the Hall in Omagh since 1966; for those of you who know, many Brethren Halls have no music at all, and some only at the evening service, and so this makes it even more interesting that music was such a major part of his life.

In my own experience, I can recall being challenged by an older man - via a sermon - at the Hall I grew up in when he discovered I was learning to play the guitar. Our family did the Gospel Hall on a Sunday morning (my father’s influence) and a Mission Hall in the evening (my mother’s influence) - and the Sunday School at each - four meetings every Sunday! The mission hall was where my own musical inspiration came from. My ‘crime’ was that I had been spotted playing the guitar at Frances Street Gospel Hall youth fellowship in Newtownards one Sunday night, and the following Sunday morning back in Portavogie the man launched a sermonette about “hippies with banjos in the meetings”. I kid you not. Words like that don’t get forgotten! I moved on a few years afterwards.

Here’s another post on Bluegrass Ireland which refers to my friend Andy Gordon, one of those people who has been a regular encouragement to me over the years, and who was a close friend of Rodney's). I managed to find Andy the music for the hymn which was sung at Rodney’s funeral, from the Redemption Songs hymn book, which is posted below.

As well as this hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Amazing Grace were sung. The night before Rodney died, Andy and I met up at a coffee shop in Bangor to marvel at a lovely old Gibson mandolin, and I got glared at by another customer for daring to play it a bit. I’m hoping that it makes an appearance at one of our ‘open house’ music evenings later in the year.

Music is really important. So is being intentional with your time, to meet with new people and spend time with folk you know.  

"Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs” - Psalm 150v4
 

IMG 9224

PS - tonight at Carrowdore Mission Hall we finished the meeting with the Philip Bliss hymn Almost Persuaded. Written in 1871, it is one of many from the 1800s and early 1900s which were recorded by early country musicians. Bliss died trying to save his wife from a burning train wreck in 1876. Here is the Louvin Brothers' 1950s version

Friday, August 11, 2017

"the simplest hymn would give him the keenest pleasure and a psalm could move him to tears of joy"

St augustine of hippo sandro botticelli detail featured w740x493

I’m grateful to a friend for sending this article to me, both because it’s about music and the tensions around its use in religious contexts, but also because it majors on Augustine of Hippo. He lived in today’s Algeria, and was one of the most influential early Christians, someone that Martin Luther and also Bangor’s own Robert Blair looked back to.

Increasingly it can be seen that the Reformation wasn’t about installing a new system, it was restoring the original factory default settings. 

Augustine’s famous book City of God is being cited again today by some Reformed theologians, as it was written at a time when the familiar world order (the Roman Empire) was falling apart, and there was a need to recalibrate exactly what Christianity meant while all around it crumbled. History just repeats itself. Keep calm and carry on...

- full article here, on HistoryToday.com

Sunday, August 06, 2017

... on the other hand, progress is essential - Fordson Tractors Ards Peninsula advert, 1921

Here’s a 1921 advert for Fordson tractors, showing that horses were to become a thing of the past and a new Fordson would prove it. Why not book a demonstration on the Ards Peninsula? Even a young woman would be happy to operate it, neatly turned out in her Sunday clothes!  Other Fordson ads of the time claimed it could replace 4 horses, for a cost of £260 new.

Women worked the land just as hard as men did. In his 2016 book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, (on Amazon here) Sebastian Junger points out that the agri economy is/was the most gender-equal of any economic system. Everybody is/was being killed by hard work.

Fordson 1921

When did ordinary become 'artisan'?

Old kettles crop

I often feel like I grew up at a kind of social tipping point, overlapping two almost unbridgeable eras. It is easy to see that in terms of the ‘digital revolution’. About half way into my Art College years in Belfast, from 1990–1994, the new-fangled Apple Macintosh computer arrived. There was a room with about 20 ‘Classics’ in it, and - shock horror - an LCII with a colour screen. It was, suddenly, mind-bogglingly advanced. I had started my degree course learning the time-honoured disciplines of rub-down Letraset sheets, life-drawing classes and actual darkroom photography -  and finished it with full colour printouts, scanners, Photoshop image manipulation and the warped typography of Letrastudio software. What we gained in convenience was lost in craft. And those old crafts today cost a lot more to buy. (but of course, new skills come along)

Now if you want a photo of a warm sunset, take any old photo and just add a filter effect to it. Hey presto, instant warmth. Not warm enough? Easy, just alter the colour balances. Back in the day, that would have needed you to understand light, seasons, sunrise times, weather, and try to work with nature to capture its phenomena - at just the right millisecond-accurate moment of shutter opening and the workings of a mechanical camera and the varieties of physical film you could choose. 

Something similar has happened with food. I grew up on a wee farm with food merely as fuel or flavour, not as ‘expression’. Food has now taken on a social significance and aesthetic that I suspect would have been unimaginable not that long ago.

They say that in Ulster even city dwellers are only one or two generations away from the land. Our parents and grandparents would be astonished to find people today paying high prices for food which was once self-produced almost every day. Spuds from the garden, bread from the oven, eggs from the hens, bacon or beef or fish bartered with the neighbours, berries from the plants or hedges, coffee and tea from the corner shop as a swap for something you’d made or grown. Herring stored in big salted clay crocks all winter long. Salted ling hung in the stone shed at the foot of the garden. A pig you’d reared yourself, which had been killed and scalded in boiling water and then hung in that same stone shed.

The population move from working the land to ‘professional’ jobs in towns, and then mass-production and importation of food during the second half of the 20th century has once again, gained in convenience but lost in craft. And those food crafts now cost a lot more to buy - at modern-day Farmers’ Markets, which had been ordinary weekly events in every small town for centuries, up until say the 1960s. I go sea-angling for leisure, my grandfather’s generation did it for survival.

These changes have also brought with them an affluent snobbery. I like sourdough bread because it’s tough and chewy and tastes ‘real’, like the bread my mother and aunts used to make - and not like fluffy mass-produced ‘big brand’ rectangular pan loaves. However, a sourdough loaf in a bakery can cost 3 - 5 times more than a pan loaf. I remember when a ‘baguette’ was simply just a ‘crusty loaf’. I remember my mother making massive trays of jam & sponge which she’d knock out in 10 minutes and then cut up into squares. Now something similar to one of those squares might cost you £2.50 each in a coffee shop.

My granny Thompson flat refused to use tea bags. She was a strictly loose-leaf tea woman, served in her wee working kitchen and stewed all day in an enamel pot on the Doric stove. Today, some loose-leaf teas are luxuries, and sometimes expensive ones. Check this out - a new ‘Scots Breakfast’ tea in a chic new Glasgow tea bar. Or this one in Birmingham from Laura Ashley

The vocabulary that has grown up around these expensive choices is also socially exclusive. Here’s a really interesting article on a similar theme, by David Brooks in the New York Times. If you talk to people in the health service, they will cite lifestyle as one reason it is hard to get senior medics to move out of greater Belfast. And in some cases the same has been observed for ministers - a phenomenon the Church of England has experienced too.

Traditional food has a nostalgia for me, it takes me back 40 years to how life once was for everybody. But then it was ordinary, not artisan. It was completely democratic, of the people, and not elitist. I object to the chic guff that often surrounds it now. Today, to find what was once ordinary you need to either:
a) find people who haven’t lost those skills and traditions, or
b) be willing to pay relatively high prices to buy the closest modern equivalent.

Or else,
c) learn those things for yourself, and pass them on. 

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Rev John Wilson portrait, Boston and Charlestown (1588–1667)

This is the minister who came to Ulster along with John Winthrop Jr in 1635. Rev John Wilson’s 1846 biography is online here. He pinged back and forth across the Atlantic, during the era when the Anglican, and Head of the Church of England, Charles I, was persecuting non-conforming Protestants and Presbyterians. Even though Wilson was ‘officially’ minister of congregations at Boston and Charlestown, he also preached in Ipswich/Agawam in the early 1630s - the exact area that Eagle Wing was bound for. So it makes perfect sense that he would come to Antrim to meet with Blair, Livingstone and McLellan.

From page 55 of the biography it seems that Winthrop and Wilson had been on a return voyage from America in Autumn 1634, bound for Barnstaple in Devon, when they were almost shipwrecked off the coast of Galway, but they managed to land. They then headed to Dublin. Wilson sailed for England but was driven back to Kinsale in yet another storm which sank a few other ships.

“... Being thus forced to make some stay in Ireland, both he and the governor’s worthy son exerted themselves strenuously to promote the interests of religion in New England, wherever they came … their travels extended into Scotland and the north of England; and wherever they went, they gave much satisfaction to Christian people about the prospects of New England, and stirred up many to make it their future home ...

The biography says that Winthrop and Wilson then sailed for New England around 10 August 1635, arriving in Boston on 3 October 1635. These dates vary a little from the Ulster accounts, but the overall narrative is exactly the same.

 

Csm webandcontentvol39 p36

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

John Winthrop Jr statue, New London, Connecticut

This is the guy that the ‘Eagle Wing’ ministers were corresponding with, and who visited them here in Ulster at least twice. It was installed in 1905.

John WInthrop Jr

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Sweet Portaferry

In his seminal 1901 volume, Ballads of Down, George Francis Savage-Armstrong included his version of ‘Sweet Portaferry’.

As thy Castle's grey walls in the low sun are gleaming,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, and the evening draws near,
And I drift on the tide to the ocean down-streaming,
And leave to the night-wind thy woodlands dear,
All, all the splendours of years gone over.
The glad bright life of thy halls of rest,
Like the spell of weird music when fairy-wings hover.
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, sink in on my breast !

Dear home of my sires by the blue waves of Cuan,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry of the ivy-clad towers.
Where in childhood I ranged every dell the ferns grew in,
And gathered in handfuls bluebell-flowers.
Farewell ! I leave thee, afar to wander,
Alone, alone, over land and sea ;
But wherever I roam, O, my heart will grow tender,
Sweet, sweet Portaferry, in dreaming of thee!

It is set to the tune of the same name which was part of Edward Bunting's famous collection The Ancient Music of Ireland, first published in 1796 – and therefore contemporary with the earliest Ulster-Scots 'Rhyming Weavers’. Their work also contains songs and airs but which have never been viewed from that perspective. Perhaps there is a project there for somebody to assemble a similar collection.

There are other, better-known, lyrics for 'Sweet Portaferry’. I am not sure which version came first, but I first heard them on a cassette given to me by the late George Holmes, which he had helped to produce, entitled 'Songs of the Ards', probably some time in the 1980s.

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