Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Strange Islands

The story of the adventures of the Irish abbot St. Brendan or Brenainn was a popular one in the middle ages, with a substantial number of manuscripts surviving. The most familiar version, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, was written in Latin and may date to the eighth century, that is, roughly two centuries after Brendan is thought to have died. A translation is found in the Penguin Classics volume entitled The Age of Bede (where it's arguably an odd fit); another, by John J. O'Meara, is available from Colin Smythe Ltd under the title of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Journey to the Promised Land.

Brendan's travels, like those of Odysseus, involve visits to several wondrous islands, including in his case one that is inhabited entirely by psalm-singing birds and another that turns out to be an enormous sea-creature named Jasconius (from Old Irish íasc, fish). He and his fellow monks come upon what seems to be an iceberg as well as something that sounds very much like a volcano, and these and other passages have led some observers to surmise that Brendan or other early Irish travelers may have visited the North Atlantic and even North America. The notion isn't entirely far-fetched, as Irish monks — the papar — traveled as far as Iceland at a very early date. On the other hand, Brendan's adventures seem to have mythological parallels in pre-Christian Ireland and elsewhere.

But there's another Brendan tradition, one that is preserved in the Irish language in a manuscript known as the Book of Lismore. This version, the Betha Brenainn, seems to be harder to find outside of scholarly works like Whitley Stokes's Lives of Saints from the Book of Lismore and Denis O'Donoghue's Brendaniana: St. Brendan the Voyager in Story and Legend, both of which date to the 1890s. The Irish-language version may be less satisfying to the modern reader than the Latin one, but it has its own charm (at least in translation). Here, for example, is Stokes's rendering of a dazzling passage — not unworthy of Homer — that describes the outset of Brendan's voyage:
So Brenainn, son of Finnlug, sailed then over the wave-voice of the strong-maned sea, and over the storm of the green-sided waves, and over the mouths of the marvellous, awful, bitter ocean, where they saw the multitude of the furious red-mouthed monsters, with abundance of great sea-whales. And they found beautiful, marvellous islands, and yet they tarried not therein.
The writer's sheer delight in language receives its richest expression in a lengthy enumeration of the sights of Hell, which are shown to Brendan in consideration of his special sanctity. Stokes again:
It goes on from there, itemizing "cats scratching; hounds rending; dogs hunting; demons yelling; stinking lakes..." and, finally, "tortures vast, various." No torment is left uncatalogued, no linguistic resource left unused. If no one has thought of doing so, it would be fun to see an edition bringing together translations of the Latin Navigatio and the Irish version in one accessible volume.

Below is the first installment of a three-part reading of the O'Meara translation of the Navagatio by the Dean of Canterbury, the Very Reverend Dr. Robert Willis.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975

I was predisposed to like Richard Thompson's new memoir (published by Algonquin Books in the US and Faber in the UK) because I've been a fan of his music since at least the 1980s, but I also awaited it with some trepidation, because even as intelligent and literate a musician and songwriter as Thompson is could easily fall flat when picking up the tools of a very different form of expression. The tragic death by suicide halfway through the project of Thompson's collaborator, the writer Scott Timberg, raised concerns about whether the final product would be patched together by too many hands and lack a unified voice. Not to worry, though. However the process of writing and editing the book was managed, the end-result is seamless and satisfying, and Thompson's vision comes throughly richly and recognizably as his own.

If introduction is necessary, Thompson, born in London in 1949, was one of the founders of the seminal folk-rock combo Fairport Convention, with whom he played lead guitar, occasionally sang, and eventually took on an important role as a songwriter. Thompson left the group, more or less amicably, in 1971, and subsequently made one eccentric solo masterpiece, Henry the Human Fly, as well as a series of landmark albums with his then-wife Linda in the 1970s, before going on to a long and productive solo career. Many people regard him as both one of the most accomplished songwriters of the last 50 years and one of the finest guitarists, both acoustic and electric. (And yet he'll never be a household name.)

Beeswing (a title taken from one of his best songs) covers only the beginnings of his career, and he says he has little interest in writing a sequel, but those few years were eventful both artistically and in terms of human drama. It's a litle astonishing to reflect that after the Fairport years (including still highly listenable records like Unhalfbricking and Liege & Lief) and the first solo album, Richard and Linda recorded the astonishing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight when he was all of twenty-four.

It was a creative period but one haunted by tragedy. Fairport's teenage drummer, Martin Lamble, and Thompson's girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn were both killed when the band's touring van was involved in a horrific accident. Another bandmember, Sandy Denny, a fine songwriter and a singer of fathomless emotional depth, died in 1978, and her death serves in effect as the closing chapter of both the period and the book.

Much has happened since then — children, divorces, records, decades of touring — and Thompson, still very active musically, is old enough to look back objectively but sympathetically at his younger self, to own up to mistakes, mourn old friends, and reflect without bitterness or a sense of things left undone. The book leaves much unsaid — creative genius, in the end, can't really be explained — but it makes a fine companion to his legacy as a songwriter and performer.

Below is a track recorded during the Liege & Lief sessions (though not included on the original LP). The wisp of a song was written by Roger McGuinn of the Byrds (an early influence on the band); Dylan also reportedly had a hand in its composition. It's basically a dialogue between Denny's incomparable singing and Thompson's relentlessly questing guitar.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021


The great blue herons at the local pond I frequent tend to be skittish, flying off as soon as they see me coming down the path, but for whatever reason this one felt like showing off. I walked up to the shore as quietly as I could and finally settled down on a rock just across from the dead branch where it was perching. It gave me a casual glance or two but then settled back into its routine of alternatingly preening and peering into the water. It seemed to be trying out poses and hairstyles, and I have to admit that its full feathered regalia was impressive.
There was a second heron on the other side of the pond that was a bit more standoffish. It also seemed to be a bit smaller and more submissive. Eventually it settled on a branch of its own, but the first heron quickly joined it and chased it off. Maybe it was jealous of those flashy white chest feathers.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Words & Music

An interesting sign of something, though I'm not sure what: all of a sudden a large number of the musicians I listen to regularly or occasionally have either come out with a book or have one in the pipe. The one I've been anticipating for some time is Richard Thompson's memoir, which is being published shortly, but just in the last week I've learned that Rickie Lee Jones is also releasing a memoir in April, and that Robin Hitchcock is publishing a hardcover volume of lyrics in July.

Just looking back four years and including only performers represented in my modest CD collection, I came up with the following short list:
  • Loudon Wainwright III, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things (2017)
  • Amy Rigby, Girl to City: A Memoir (2019) (reviewed briefly in this space here)
  • Peter Case, Somebody Told the Truth: Selected Lyrics and Stories (2020)
  • Peter Blegvad, Imagine, Observe, Remember (2020)
  • Rickie Lee Jones, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour (April 6, 2021)
  • Richard Thompson, Beeswing: Losing My Way & Finding My Voice, 1967-1975 (April 13, 2021)
  • Mary Gauthier, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting (July 2021)
  • Robyn Hitchcock, Somewhere Apart: Selected Lyrics 1977-1997 (July 2021)
  • Roy Gullane (of the Tannahill Weavers), untitled memoir (tentatively 2021)
Some of the above are self-published (or appear to be), but Rigby's memoir was admirably written and professionally produced, and the Hitchcock, which will include some of his drawings as well, looks nicely packaged. Others are being issued and supported by major US publishers. The Blegvad, available from Uniformbooks in the UK, is a bit of a ringer here, as it has no particular connection to his music.

Most or all of these performers, some of whom have worked with each other in the past, have had to drastically reduce their touring schedules due to the pandemic, which may have given them the incentive and leisure time to shift their attention to the written word, but several of the volumes listed appear to have been at least contemplated before last year. A more likely explanation is that all of these artists have reached a point in their careers that a bit of retrospective seems to be in order, and no doubt any extra bit of revenue is welcome as well.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Notebook: Stephens at Palenque

From 1839 to 1841 the American traveler John Lloyd Stephens and the British artist Frederick Catherwood traveled throughout Mexico and Central America exploring and meticulously describing Mayan antiquities, which were then barely known to the English-speaking world (and even to many living in the region). Here Stephens relates his thoughts as they leave the site in Mexico known by the Spanish name of Palenque.
There was no necessity for assigning to the ruined city an immense extent, or an antiquity coeval with that of the Egyptians or of any other ancient and known people. What we had before our eyes was grand, curious, and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations; reached their golden age, and perished, entirely unknown. The links which connected them with the human family were severed and lost, and these were the only memorials of their footsteps upon earth. We lived in the ruined palace of their kings; we went up to their desolate temples and fallen altars; and wherever we moved we saw the evidences of their taste, their skill in arts, their wealth and power. In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect, with its terraces and pyramids, its sculptured and painted ornaments, grand, lofty, and imposing, and overlooking an immense inhabited plain; we called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes of feathers, ascending the terraces of the palace and the steps leading to the temples; and often we imagined a scene of unique and gorgeous beauty and magnificence, realizing the creations of Oriental poets, the very spot which fancy would have selected for the "Happy Valley" of Rasselas. In the romance of the world's history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it. Apart from everything else, it was a mourning witness to the world's mutations.
Unlike many early observers who attributed the ruins to a civilization originating in the Old World, Stephens ultimately concluded, correctly, that the builders were the ancestors of the same Maya people who still inhabited the region. I visited several of the sites, including Palenque, in 1980, by which time conditions for travelers, distinctly rough in 1840, were vastly improved. The fine Dover editions of the four volumes of Stephens's travels are still in print.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

La Gileppe

These images by C. Renard are from a novel by the Belgian entomologist Ernest Candèze, which relates the adventures of a group of insects who lose their home when a dam is built. According to the historian David Blackbourn, who describes the book in The Conquest of Nature, "with its cast of anthropomorphized insect characters, the book gently satirized human pretensions from the perspective of the victims."
The entire contents of La Gileppe can be perused online at

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Airwaves (The Midnight Broadcast)

If you've ever twiddled the radio dial late at night when the ionosphere was in one of its capricious moods and the receiver was pulling in haunted signals from who knows where, signals that faded out as mysteriously as they appeared, you'll get this record right away. Peter Case is well-known as a songwriter, but on The Midnight Broadcast the only Case composition ("Just Hanging On") is one he has recorded before (though with a very different arrangement). There are two Dylan tunes (or strictly speaking one Dylan tune and one Danko-Dylan tune) and the rest of the songs mostly belong to the churning alchemical matrix of "folk music," attributed or otherwise, including old blues songs, a raucous cowboy number, a couple of nautical tunes, a lament by a New Zealand gold-miner, and a version of "Stewball," the ode to a champion racehorse that has been morphing from one form to another since the 1780s. Alternating with and sometimes overlaying the music are miscellaneous synthesizer drones, whistles, and loops, interspersed with scraps of DJ patter (voiced by Ross Johnson) that might be described as Joycean cornball. The whole aural collage was put together in the Old Whaling Church on Martha's Vineyard with the participation of longtime Case collaborators Ron Franklin (who produced) and Bert Deivert, among others. The apt cover photo above is by David Emsinger.

Case's usual instrument when he performs is acoustic guitar, but on The Midnight Broadcast he often sits at the piano, even picking out an instrumental version of the pop-jazz standard "Dinah." But there's gorgeous guitar work on St. Louis Jimmy Oden's "Going Down Slow," Memphis Minnie's "Bumble Bee," and elsewhere. Some of these songs have been in Case's repertoire for decades, but here they sound fresh. There's a richness and depth to this record that speak to long years of experience as a performer but also to a willingness to mix it up, to discover unexpected musical textures, and to make the old new.

The Midnight Broadcast is available on CD from Bandaloop Records. An LP is forthcoming.