The bow rides the fiddle with the speed of an incoming tide echoing the sounds of the ocean. The ocean and its shoreline speaks to me of my brother. Music and sea-sounds briefly bring him back to me, causing ripples in my grief; allowing clearer thoughts to penetrate the fog. There is music that I asscociate with him in his life and there are distinct musical pieces providing a score to my saying ‘Goodbye’.
John’s eclectic album collection was my first music library. Although back in the day (some day in the late 1970s), we were forbidden from entering his room and playing those venerated records in case we scratched them. But play them I did! Carefully holding the vinyl velour at the sides and sometimes just thumbing through the album covers. Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Rory Gallagher, Dylan, Scullion, Ry Cooder, Pink Floyd,Planxty, Arlo Guthrie and The Horslips to recall just a few. Along with the Beatle albums that Mam had bought and some Top of the Pops LPs & Makem & Clancy records: these were the main soundtrack to the first decade and half of my life.
I was more than happy with this music, so enthralled by the magnificent talent encompassed in John’s collection that I never really got into collecting records myself in my teenage years, bar a few. John continued to build his collection over the years after he left home. I can still see myself sitting on the floor of his flat above a pub in Castlebar when I fell in love with one of my all time favourite songs Tom Wait’s ‘Martha’ at the age of 14. He offered up ‘Closing Time’ to me with all its due cermony (which was akin at the time to the presenation of a musical holy grail). I had the lyrics learned off by heart by the time my short holiday stay was over. It remains one of the most beautiful love songs I have ever heard. I have of course, as my disposable income improved over the years bought records and CDs of my own, often replicating some of the record stash that was homed on the floor in the backroom bedroom but also finding my own musical must-haves but never with quite the same dedication as John.
I am a music lover. It moves me the same way beautiful prose does, somewhere in the core of my being. My favourite songs are stories exquisitly told, casting emotions out with each note and harmony; blurring the lines of life with lyrical poetry. Bringing me to places and bringing places to me, cocooning me there and then sometimes just setting me adrift. My approach to music appreciation is the same as my approach to books, art and wine: one can’t be wrong, they are one of life’s few personal liberties. The choice is yours.
Music makers have been part of our family for generations. Fiddle, fife, flute, guitar, uilleann pipes, accordian, drums, ukulele, Jews harp or Geegaw players and singers have unfurled on our family tree for generations. making connections that are timeless and span entire life histories.
From the sing-songs to the story telling, much of my party piece repetoire relies heavily on songs my brother sang and encouraged me to learn. His undeniable influence on my answering of a ‘noble call’ is pretty well documented in my memory bank. A lot of them funny and ranging from slightly risque to downright bawdy. I think a kick might have been got, to hear them coming out of his then, young little sister’s mouth. In truth they have served me well. I grew into them. I’ve collected some of my own over the years, not all of them bawdy either and forgotten the lyrics of as many as I remember.
There is something lovely about life’s connections. Music connects. The two fiddles pictured above span three generations, the unstrung fiddle hasn’t been played in well over thirty years, its last owner being my Dad’s first cousin, Mary Quinn. Its provenace before that has been lost. It lived and was played here in the old house called the Gullet down the lane from where I now live.
Played in a small house with a half door and deeply splayed, small windows with brightly painted internal wooden shutters, nestled at the foot of the Comeragh Mountains. Played beside an open hearth with a wheel bellows which I used to pretend was a spinning wheel as I hummed and sang Irish poet John Francis Waller’s “The Spinning Wheel” ballad. As a child obvious connections can work best! An open hearth, where tea as dark as porter would be brewed on the crank over the open fire. A dwelling adorned with foxglove and fern and old cottage roses. Played while the hammer struck the anvil in the adjacent forge. Played at the crossroads. Played under paraffin lit lamps that dispelled the gloom and the smoke from the hearth and pipes. Its notes adding sweetness to the smell of woodbines. Played on high days and low days for family & friends known and unknown to me. I have never heard it being played but have heard tales of its playing.
I know not if it was played by and passed on to Mary by other older Quinns but it is now in the safe and kind hands of my nephew Darragh. A gifted musician and player of the other fiddle pictured above; who will, I hope, bring it on his travels and make music with it once more. It’s been silent for his entire lifetime and has long awaited an adventure and an incoming tide.
There is no doubt, that music at its best speaks to our souls or the substance of our being. It has been one of my most stalwart and compassionate companions as my life sketchily redesigns itself around John’s absence.
Three short months after John died, a friend of mine from my NIHE/DCU days, also sadly died. My first conversation with this chap from Leitrim, Richie Flynn, was about music. He bounced into the seat beside me thirty three years ago, for the first lecture in a course whose title I cannot remember, with a confident vibrant energy that is fair to say, imbued me with no small amount of envy. That energy and passion was applied with skill and fierceness to many facets of Richie’s life and led to many a robust discussion over the years but was tempered by his big good kind heart. Richie’s passion for music was wired in his DNA and leaked out of every pore. Richie used it as one of his litmus tests of people I think.
My knowledge had broadenned slightly from my previous year spent in UCC, thanks in no small part to a lovely chap called Arthur from Wicklow and I just about passed that test I think, as we talked about the merits of ” The Grateful Dead” Kevin Rowland & Dexy’s Midnight Runners among others. It was the same boy who charmed my Mam, with his chat and banter, a couple of years later and by giving a exemplary rendition of “Leitrim is a very funny place Sir” as a horde of us descended on her and our small, telephonless, corporation house, unannounced after a 21st party in Waterford. She never forgot him, or Richie her. As was his want Richie, made a lasting impression, both asking after the welfare of the other, over the years .
I credit Richie with my discovery of two fantastic music blogs. Thom Hickeys’s The Immortal Jutebox http://wp.me/p4pE0N-fr and The Black Sentinel incorporating Voices of the Glen. I am slowly working my way through back posts from both blogs, which are beautifully and eloquently crafted. Each blog is storytelling at its best. Casting me on a musical tide of reminiscence while broadening my horizons. Thom’s blog brings me back in an instant to my younger self, rifling my way through John’s records. It reminds me of the music of a lifetime. It reminds me of John. John would have approved of the inherent love and knowledge of some of his favourite artists. The Black Sentinel makes me wish that I had taken my head out of books a bit more in the late 80s and 90s, hung around with Richie a bit more and delved head first into the wonderful Irish music scene of the day. I wish I had, had more confidence to explore that glorious musical soundscape and not be so imtimated by own perceived lack of knowledge.
Sadly both John and Richie’s record collections have had their final cataloguing. They have become the finite distillations of a lifetime of music loving but without a doubt both their melodies will linger on. I don’t need music to bring them to my mind but sometimes it just tethers a longed for connection in the moment.
I think it might be time to go and buy a record or two. Maybe something old and something new. Until I do, here’s an already loved one.