The Sketch of a Woman and Children represents Bridget O’Donnel.
Her story is briefly this:– ‘. . .we were put out last November; we owed some rent. I was at this time lying in fever. . . they commenced knocking down the house, and had half of it knocked down when two neighbours, women, Nell Spellesley and Kate How, carried me out. . . I was carried into a cabin, and lay there for eight days, when I had the creature (the child) born dead. I lay for three weeks after that. The whole of my family got the fever, and one boy thirteen years old died with want and with hunger while we were lying sick.
by Illustrated London News, December 22, 1849

by Marty McCormack

On what is going to be looked upon as a historical St. Patrick’s Day, I think there is a great lesson to be learned from the past. Irish past, to be exact, and in this case, many possible parallels can be drawn between what happened starting in 1845 and what is going on in 2020.  

In 1845, a blight of the potato crop, Phytophthora infestans, made its way from Mexico throughout North America.  The blight was not something that killed people outright, but rather the tuber of the plant, causing leaves to wither and the potato to literally rot in the ground.  Like the virus we are now facing, it did spread globally and eventually to Europe to the one country that would feel its worst impact: Ireland. 

The potato called the “Irish Lumper” was a big potato, and because of it being easy to grow, abundant and nutritious, the Irish race grew in stature and number as well.  Each man, woman and child ate potatoes. A grown man could easily devour ten pounds a day. Each small plot of land was made available to this godsend for the second class citizens of Ireland.  I say “second class,” as they were a conquered and subjected peasant people. 

Ireland was part of Britain, at that time the most powerful nation on Earth and ruled by a government that ignored the initial warnings that scientists gave.  As one third to about half of the crop was wiped out, hunger set in. Despite these warnings, the government dithered. Upon hearing these warnings, the British Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Heytesbury, suggested people “not to be alarmed,” that these warnings were premature, that scientists were inquiring into all those matters.  With time lost, the blight proliferated and the Irish people began to starve. 

The British government did little to help the Irish.  As the situation grew dire, a new prime minister, Lord Russell, and with his Lieutenant of Irish relief, Lord Trevelyan, took power.  They were Whigs, a very conservative government party with a “government that governs best” philosophy, in today’s parlance called “laissez-faire economics.”  Whigs also harbored a deep-seated dislike of the Irish, whom they considered at best a mongrel race. And Trevelyan, who was supposed to be helping the Irish said the famine was “the judgment of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people,” and as God had sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, “that calamity must not be too much mitigated.”

What resulted were years of calamity, with the darkest year 1847.  Unlike our current crisis, with reports of some people hoarding, any other food source that was not the potato in Ireland was exported to Britain itself. Part of this was in part because the British government believed that the government was better served to have non-government agencies step in and handle the crises.  That way the vast majority of taxpaying (non-Irish) subjects would not feel the pinch of taxation for relief efforts. So, business as usual. The landlords, who were Anglo-Irish that were part of the British aristocracy, continued to charge the Irish for “rent” on their lands.  And they continued to export the very food the Irish themselves raised, but were not allowed to eat. This is why Irish refer to the Potato Famine by its proper name An Gorta Mor, or The Great Hunger.  

The result was that a million people in Ireland died of starvation or starvation-related disease.  Many left never to see Ireland or their families again. On our townland of Bolinree were the remains of eight homes.  Whole villages were either wiped out or displaced. The resulting turmoil led to revolution throughout Europe. It could be argued that the foment did not truly play itself out until the end of World War Two. 

So here we are today.  Saint Patrick’s Day. And as horrible as it is to be faced with the uncertainty of Covid-19 and that there is currently no treatment for it, I can only imagine the horror of dying the slow, painful death of starvation.  And also to witness your family dying, while just outside your door, if you were allowed to own a door. Casks of Irish butter, and Irish cattle being brought to port for the Empire. People were too starving to remove bodies of their loved ones, who lay in close proximity.  Like the Italians of today, the system was overwhelmed in gross negligence and underwhelmed in a lack of conscience. 

While the story of the Great Hunger is something that calls for at least a volume of books to address all the details of “what went wrong,” it is notable to see some glimmers of what went right.  

Americans of the time rallied to help fight the famine.  Abraham Lincoln, then a senator in Illinois, gave $10 (about $370) to help alleviate the suffering.  The Choctaw nation, a decade and a half after their own suffering in the Trail of Tears, raised $170 (over $5000) to help the Irish.  According to Wikipedia, Senator Henry Clay in 1847 said, “No imagination can conceive—no tongue express—no brush paint—the horrors of the scenes which are daily exhibited in Ireland.” Clay reminded Americans that charity was the greatest act of humanity. In total, 118 vessels sailed from the US to Ireland with relief goods valued to the amount of $545,145. That could be a lot of food in the 1840s.   It was a shining moment of solidarity prior to the Civil War. And ultimately Ireland rewarded America with her people and planted a Celtic stake in this country that even today transcends the Irish themselves. 

So, Saint Patrick’s Day, with its green beer, boisterous costumes, and high stepping dancers is totally out of place this year.  In one way it is a blessing to have all of that hooplah stripped away to what has been the dark kernel of truth about the holiday.  Underlying it is something that even we of Irish heritage loathe to recall. Better to have the party and the dyed green river. 

But today, we need to recall it.  

We as a people have survived much worse.  We, like other peoples who have suffered intolerance, injustice, and natural and artificial calamity, did survive.  

We embraced this new world, married others of different lands, embraced different faiths, championed different causes, fought wars to redress wrongs in the world and transformed the world into something much bigger than it could have ever been had the An Gorta Mor not taken place. 

As we face an uncertain future, struggle to make sense of what is fact and what is fiction, and find ourselves downright frightened for us and our children, we need to remember that our forebears did the same, too.  And with the same courage, the same benevolence for others, and faith, we will see through this great crisis. And we will make something even more beautiful because of it. 

You’d think that people would’ve had enough of silly love songs

But I look around me, and I see it isn’t so

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs

And what’s wrong with that?

I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

–Paul McCartney

Valentine’s Day may be a few days gone, but love songs have no season. In Switchback, we have written love songs over the years: Give You Love, End Over End, Rock Your Heart, One Heart, My Baby, Whistlepot, Looking At Love, Stellar Jay’s Wing and many more.  

But as McCartney sings, there are love songs and there are “silly” love songs.  What exactly becomes silly about love?  

I was happy to see during the Super Bowl that one advertiser actually went through the definitions of love that I am about to offer now.  According to the Greeks, there are four sorts of love: Eros, Storge, Philia, and Agape.

Eros is the sort of love that most songwriters write about.  One could argue that this is where the Silly Love Song has its home. Eros is the physical love between two people.  And it is easy to see how this very-awkward-at-first type of love is easily made all the more awkward in song. Switchback pokes a bit of fun at this type of love when we wrote “her love hit me like a twister in a trailer park.”  Sort of that physical “wow” that some of us vaguely remember.  

Storge is love of family, love of friends.  In songwriting, this is seldom made into a Silly Love Song.  However, there are some wonderful exceptions. In this category for songs, I would say from the musical Gigi is the great “I Remember It Well.”   Here, two old lovers turned friends reminisce quite inaccurately about how they were when young. It is a beautiful example of Storge love.  For Switchback, an example of a Storge song would be “Simple Benediction.” We don’t mention love by name, but refer to the familial love, encouraging us to “join our hands together, for we never know the next time we will look in each other’s eyes.”  

Philia. Perhaps after Eros, this is the most written about love.  Love of belonging and sentiment. Think of “God Bless America” or Lee Greenwood singing “I’m proud to be an American.” Very few Silly Love Songs when it comes to these, even though after Eros songs these can be the most maudlin and syrupy.  Perhaps one that comes to mind is the well written “I Got Friends in Low Places” performed by Garth Brooks. Does Switchback write Philia sort of songs? Not many in my opinion. Again, the idea is to stir loving sentiment on a general level.  So the closest I think we get is perhaps, “Bolinree” which asks, “Why did we ever have to cross the sea?” That sort of longing, sentimental tune is perfect in Irish music.  

Agape can be described as spiritual love. Unconditional love.  Seldom silly, this is the sort of love that in the Abrahamic religions refers to the love of God.  This love of God is emulated in a person’s relationship to another person. You might not feel Storge for someone, but you choose to practice Agape.  This is the love that helps little old ladies across the street, fetching the neighbor’s damn cat out of the tree for the 15th time sort of love. Agape is also the powerful love of people who lay down lives for others.  Perhaps our best Agape work in Switchback can be summed up in the song “Falling Water River,”: “Private William Henry made it on the evening news/ by the morning he’s forgotten by the likes of me and you.” Private William Henry, it is assumed, is practicing Agape love, laying his life down in service, striving to reach that All-love, that most people refer to as God. 

So then, what exactly are Silly Love Songs?  In McCartney’s case, he was referring to the Eros songs that he loved writing or as he describes them “soppy” songs.  He says that as people grow older and have kids, they become more tolerant of the “soppy” songs, so perhaps here he feels that even though they are “soppy,” the Storge side of us will forgive the Eros “why don’t we do it in road” sort of song because we will feel nostalgic.  Let’s face it. Not many middle-aged people choose to do it in the middle of the road, unless it refers to picking up after their dog.

When it comes to writing songs about love, I personally am very aware that my song should become a song that transcends my own viewpoint and can be assimilated easily into other’s lives.  I think Brian and I try to keep the Eros to metaphors. For example, “She’s the hearth of my heart, the rise of my soul, Baby’s got lovin’” or “My baby, when she gives me a kiss, makes the water in my kettle hiss.”  Fun with words like that can easily be described as silly. But I think we choose not to fill the world with just Eros, but the other elements of love as well.

Perhaps the most important thing about songs is that at some point, they do touch on one of these four elements of love.  The need for love, the quest for love is essential to our existence. 

I give McCartney a lot of credit for writing Silly Love Songs.  While some of his songs miss the mark in my opinion, most hit true, like Eros’ arrow.  A good, catchy love song is something we all eventually find ourselves humming. Those are hard to come by, unlike depressing sad, broken heart songs, which I believe are easier to write.  So, c’mon, let’s just fill the world with love songs, even the silly ones. What’s wrong with that?

Switchback and friends from the Hey Hey with Sleepy at his last show at FitzGerald’s, Berwyn IL. Left to right, Becky Dill, Mike Weilbacher, Marty, Sleepy, Brian, Tim Gall and Sue Gall.

Dear Friends of Switchback, 

He was a mountain of a man, the sort of person you naturally had to look up to.  And, he was the real deal when it came to music. Sleepy LaBeef was one of the last of his kind, a genuine honky tonk, club circuit cowboy.  With a deep resonating voice, he would hold court over a room, his band barely keeping up with the frenetic pace of his changing setlist. To watch Sleepy La Beef play was like watching a show that was something out of the tube amped past. The sort of show that was to music what Evel Knievel was to car driving, you stood there thinking “Is he gonna make it?” and somehow Sleepy would jump over 27 songs with his band in close pursuit. 

For Brian and myself, we had the good fortune one night to arrive at FitzGerald’s and see Sleepy play.  Good fortune on a lot of fronts, for not only did we meet Sleepy, but we met his loyal fans and supporters from the Hey Hey Club in Columbus, Ohio.  Those friends became our friends and it could be argued that Sleepy was the superglue.  

That night became the sort of magical moment that musicians live for.  Sleepy, as it turned out, was having some trouble with his bass player.  What exactly that trouble was anybody’s guess, but the bass player wasn’t around.   A film crew was on hand to capture his show at FitzGerald’s for a documentary on his life.   Never one to pass up a musician to join him on stage, Sleepy right away made me his bass player for the evening and Brian his back up guitarist.  That was all well and good, except that the only bass guitar on hand was a five string bass, which was something I never touched until that very moment.  And, the other issue was that we had no idea what the songs were, what the keys would be and what order anything was going to happen. The film crew looked at the band, looked at Sleepy and sure enough, we started in.  Probably one of the most intense, sweat-filled moments of my life. To be filmed and recorded on something you never played doing something you never did with someone you really respected. Sort of like having a Wallenda hand you a pole and say, “hey, try this, the crowd is gonna eat you up!”  

It was pure Sleepy.  I remember coming down shakily from the stage, hoping that there was something in the recordings that resembled bass playing.  Sleepy was nonplussed, in fact, thrilled that the Switchback boys, as he called us, were up on stage with him.  

I thought that meeting with Sleepy was a rule musician experience.  But it paled in comparison to a double concert with Sleepy at the Hey Hey and then on to FitzGerald’s for the American Music Festival.  Sleepy’s band had changed to an ensemble that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. I met Jerry, who played drums and was the band manager. And Jimmy, who played the bass.  Their set was an amazing non-stop delivery of the history of rock n’ roll in no chronological order. If Sleepy did stop, then someone would yell out a song and Sleepy would chuckle, and launch right into it.  The band would surge along, always with about two measures of them trying to find out what Sleepy was playing and what key it could possibly be in. Jimmy had his eye on some lady friend and that even made the whole evening better, as that distraction caused palpable tension between him, Jerry the band manager and Sleepy.  The show ended and after much celebrating, I finally found a place to sleep on the kitchen floor in Sue Gall’s apartment across the street. It was fine to sleep there as Jerry was asleep and Jimmy was nowhere to be found. So the number of people stepping over my body was limited to Brian.

About 4:30 in the morning, Jerry stepped over me.  

“Mahty?” Jerry said in that light southern drawl.

“Mahty? You awake?” he asked. 

I wasn’t until then. 

“Yeah?” I replied with the sound of a guy who had been sleeping on a kitchen floor. 

“Mahty, you seen Jimmy?” asked Jerry. 

I thought about it and knew that I hadn’t been stepped over by Jimmy.

“No,” I said.  “He hasn’t come in.”

“Oh no,” said Jerry. “I’m afraid he’s been a drinkin’ and a whorin’ the whole night.  If he ain’t ready to go by 6:30 a.m., Sleepy is going to be mad. I’m the manager. I gotta make sure he gets in or else I will have to call Sleepy.”

Sleepy, giving Jerry the manager role, allowed himself at least the perception that everything would allow him some undisturbed sleep at his hotel.  A teetotaler, Sleepy didn’t care too much for the partying aspect and with his deep evangelical roots, he was certainly not going to be prowling around.  

The drama quickly ramped up as the time ticked by.  No word from Jimmy. Jerry getting more anxious, eyeing the clock on the Hey Hey wall and sipping on coffee.  We were going to get on the road by 6:30 a.m. and drive the five hours in caravan to Chicago. No Jimmy.  

“If Jimmy don’t come, y’all will have to play with us,” said Jerry to Brian and myself.  “I hate to call him, but I am gonna have to call Sleepy about Jimmy.” Sure enough, 6:30 a.m. on the dot, Jerry nervously called Sleepy, unleashing a tsunami of rancor on the other end of the line.  And at 6:31 a.m., Jimmy threw open the door to the Hey Hey and rushed in crying “I’m in Love!”

Probably the best advice Sleepy gave us was about just accepting the music business for its pitfalls, unlevel playing field and sacrifice.  Playing music and lifting people up was what Sleepy was all about. I remember him telling us a story about his driving to a town square in New England and setting up for a concert in the park.  Like a lot of these sort of shows, the person setting up the show is usually not there when the band arrives. The band has the equipment, gets set up on the town gazebo, looks at the clock and figures that they should probably get playing.  By that time, the noise of the setup gets a small audience and pretty soon that crowd grows. That all happened for Sleepy and his band. Pretty soon a big crowd formed. And then the mayor showed up and shook Sleepy’s hand. Turned out that he and his band had set up in the wrong town.  Now, if that happened to me, I would pop a Xanax and be on my cell phone while Brian ran around tearing things down. But Sleepy, seeing the crowd and having a good time decided to just have the concert where he set up. It was probably one of the best free concerts ever given.  

Another bit of that zen philosophy came one time at the Hey Hey.  Brian and I were getting ready for a set during the afternoon. Sleepy came in and he sat for a bit and heard us play.  We stopped playing and sat with him and talked. Brian pulled out some CDs to give Sleepy and we asked him what he charged for CDs.   

“Should we try to charge a competitive price?” I asked.  “Is $15 too much?”

“Weeell” said Sleepy in that deep voice.  “I charge $20 a CD. I’m not gonna sit there handing back five dollar bills and people always have a $20.”   It was one of those no nonsense admonitions: don’t complicate things. 

We last saw Sleepy at FitzGerald’s.  He came into town some months ago, along with his family.  A band of local well-known musicians backed him. I watched them grin and sweat through every twist and turn.  Every song that never ended, but had a new song grafted right on to the last few measures. I was very glad I wasn’t up there and yet very sad, too.  Our family from the Hey Hey were there and we celebrated along with Sleepy his life. It wasn’t mentioned as such. But it was a great Irish wake for our Arkansas traveller.  We had a chance to stand for some pictures and shoot the breeze about music. About being a road musician, an independent musician.  

Just over this break came the news.  Sleepy, at 84, had played up to the end. I am sure he died with his boots on.  That’s pretty much what you expect from the last of the club circuit cowboys.  

“Get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin.

“Six dance-hall maidens to bear up my pall.

“Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin.

“Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.”