Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.
FEB. 12, 2019 (SPRINGFIELD, Ill.) - OK, Here’s the deal. It’s my birthday so I am jettisoning a few parameters and just writing about my favorite Switchback song: “The Galway Shawl.”
Did Switchback write that song? Well, no, but I am celebrating a full year of writing these monthly missives. And did I mention it’s my birthday? For the record, so to speak, this traditional song was collected by Irish folklorist Sam Henry in the 1930s and has been recorded by many including the Dubliners. Switchback offers the tune on both their Bolinree CD as well as their four-disc Twentieth Anniversary Collection.
Sometimes what sears a song into your insides is some single image. Here it’s that Galway shawl and the beautiful woman it frames. Somewhere else it may be two cats in the yard or Mr. Bojangles dancing a lick, but here near Orenmore in County Galway it is “a colleen, she was fair and handsome.”
This is not a song about romance, though romantic it is. It’s a song about paths crossing by chance, what few moments live in that crossing and the inevitable going separate ways. At the end the smitten Martin McCormack opines, “All I can think of now is that Galway shawl.”
In the famous film about Charles Foster Cane, Citizen Kane, his elderly friend Mr. Bernstein recalls a day: “I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since then that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
Are these men voicing regret? Perhaps, but the larger sense is that a modicum of regret was a price worth paying for the memory. Most of us have our share of those, right?
In the song about the shawl, Brian FitzGerald’s simply strummed guitar offers prominent accompaniment soon joined by Liz Carroll’s fiddle and later a larger band. They all flow under a story of natural beauty where the chorus reminds us, “She wore no jewels, no costly diamonds, no paint nor powder, no none at all.” And to highlight and border that visage, “. . . ’round her shoulders hung a Galway shawl.”
Also, in the end it is the unnamed woman who, even through a few tears, exercises power. As the man is heading out to Donegal, he tell us “she cried and kissed me, and then she left me.” Hence all he can think of is that Galway shawl.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
I just finished having the largest meal of crow in my life. As of writing this, I have finally managed to get the pin feathers of that dark and unappetizing creature from between my back molars. I look at what remains on the plate and have to admit that I deserved every bite of the meal: beak, claws and all.
What happened is the collision between my Irish temper and the 21st century. The vehicle involved being that modern contraption known as the cell phone. It is not my friend, I am beginning to realize, but rather, some sort of impish devil at best or just a deliberate device to self-inflict humiliation and pain by shooting oneself in the foot.
I was frustrated with getting things settled for our tour to Ireland and Iceland. We were down in Arizona, playing concerts, with potential folks to jump on board, but no information to give.
Our tour coordinator, Jeanne, is a good, decent, hard-working person. She joined us on the last tour to Ireland and I still think we have a good relationship. But that wasn’t going to have any bearing on my anger when, finally, it looked like everything was in order to go forward with the tour. I double checked on the time for our folks leaving Iceland; I just had a sense and it proved right that it would have been a 3 a.m. wake-up for a day of traveling from Reykjavik to Dublin to Chicago. I'm pretty sure it would have gone over horribly with those travelers.
I decided to vent this frustration to our business manager, Sue, who for about 20 years now has been able to talk me off the ledge. I ranted to her about how I felt our agent couldn’t really be thinking of that flight for our merry band. Except, I didn’t really say it quite that civilly.
I didn’t go full Irish, with the various adaptations of the F-bomb or uttering of “feckin’ eejit”, that makes Irish ranting almost an art form, but I came close. Again, for me, it was the situation more than anything. I ranted about that, ranted about a lack of ticket sales for our show in Woodstock and ranted a bit about Brian because that is always therapeutic to do. Without another thought, I fired the email back to Sue.
Except it didn’t go to Sue.
I was headed out with friend Norm for a rare day of relaxation and a chance to allow my mind to go numb in the mountains of the Tonto State forest outside of Payson, when the cow cookies hit the fan.
"ATTENTION MR. MARTIN McCORMACK," the caption of the email read.
Suffice it to say, Jeanne’s boss, alerted and enraged, wrote a wonderful email dressing me down. I read it at first with a sense of “What is this?” Slowly it dawned on me that my Irish rant went to the wrong email address. And to make matters worse, Norm and I just got past the last cell tower and into the land of NO SERVICE.
I read it to Norm.
“Wow, he told you,” he said. “That has to be one of the best reprimands anybody ever gave anyone.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I am impressed and I’m the one getting flayed.”
“Well, what can you do? You went on a rant and sent it to the wrong person.”
“Boy, do I feel like an ass,” I said feebly.
“Yeah,” said Norm. “You are an ass.”
Nothing feels so stupid as to read your own rant being quoted back at you by someone thoroughly angry with your rant. And so, now with my buddy Norm offering his condolences, I attempted to make amends once we got back into cell service. I called Jeanne and told her that I was very sorry for being on a rant, being an ass and that next time I would dig a hole and yell into it. For her part, she was very professional and understanding. Her boss, seeing that I was apologizing for my rude behavior was also understanding.
I could only imagine the joy of that email of mine, going round the office, to spouses, to friends perhaps. “There but for the grace of God,” perhaps one would say. Or “Man, good work on putting stuck up musician boy in his place.” That sort of thing. And I of course deserved it. I deserved it for not learning from my hero Abraham Lincoln.
People don’t know it, but Lincoln had a temper as well as a great knack for sarcasm. And he was also under stress way more than most humans, dealing with a little thing called the Civil War. Sort of makes everyone else’s worries look wimpy, including a musician like myself ranting about the wake-up time in Iceland.
I suspect he perfected it after what would have been a 19th-century “wrong-address” incident. That was an editorial he wrote in the Sangamon Journal, excoriating a fellow politician by the name of James Shield. The state of Illinois went bankrupt (yes, Illinois, we did it before, we can do it again!) and Lincoln, then a rising political star and lawyer, chastised Shields for supporting the notion that people could just pay in gold and silver instead of paper money. Pretty silly notion, sort of the “let them eat cake” mentality.
Thank God such foolish thinking isn’t around today.
Lincoln didn’t use his real name, but that didn’t stop Shields finding out by strong-arming the editor into revealing who was behind the nom de plume. According to American Battlefield Trust, Shields wrote Lincoln, “I have become the object of slander, vituperation and personal abuse. Only a full retraction may prevent consequences which no one will regret more than myself.”
Unlike yours truly, quickly trying to make amends, Lincoln basically gave Shields the Victorian version of a poop-emoji in response. Shields, now doubly humiliated, decided that only a duel could solve his besmirched honor. Missouri allowed dueling (and maybe we need to bring it back with our politicians today?) and so Bloody Island, right outside St. Louis, was chosen as the spot. Lincoln, having been the one challenged, was given the choice of weapon to duel. He chose heavy, long cavalry swords.
"I didn't want the d—-d fellow to kill me, which I think he would have done if we had selected pistols," said Lincoln. Being over six feet tall, Lincoln had the reach and height advantage. Shields stood about as tall as me -- 5’9”.
Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and the day of duel: the seconds stepped in and along with the bystanders made Lincoln and Shields end the farce. Today, it would have been livestreamed on Facebook by someone and I am sure the two would have gone swinging away at each other. It would have had 10 million views, been retweeted and re-edited to make Lincoln look like a homicidal maniac, shown on the news and would have been dissected by sixteen op-ed pieces written in support of and against the dueling duo. And even a couple more impassioned pieces would crop up, saying how Bloody Island is a bird sanctuary and should be left alone for the rare dooga bird. Ah, 19th century, how much we miss thee.
Lincoln learned his lesson. This served him in later years when as president, he would witness true blunders made by his generals, resulting in thousands of deaths and very nearly the destruction of the United States.
An Irish temper would not have served him. Rather, he developed a policy of writing a letter, and ranting. Then setting aside the sealed letter with the words “never signed, nor sent” scrawled across it. For him, that little space, that hole in the ground was enough to help his stress and keep him from truly hurting others' feelings.
When Gen. George Meade, having won Gettysburg, had Robert E. Lee’s forces trapped by a flooded Rappahannock River, he could have ended the Civil War two years early just by pressing that advantage. But Meade chose to wait. By doing so, he allowed Lee to build bridges and get his army back to the south.
Lincoln, apoplectic and nearly insane with rage, wrote the following “scathing” letter:
Washington, July 14, 1863.
Major General Meade
I have just seen your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine-- I am very -- very -- grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you-- But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it-- I had been oppressed nearly ever since the battles at Gettysburg, by what appeared to be evidences that your self, and Gen. Couch, and Gen. Smith, were not seeking a collision with the enemy, but were trying to get him across the river without another battle. What these evidences were, if you please, I hope to tell you at some time, when we shall both feel better. The case, summarily stated is this. You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours-- He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him. And Couch and Smith! The latter left Carlisle in time, upon all ordinary calculation, to have aided you in the last battle at Gettysburg; but he did not arrive-- More At the end of more than ten days, I believe twelve, under constant urging, he reached Hagerstown from Carlisle, which is not an inch over fifty-five miles, if so much. And Couch's movement was very little different--
Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape-- He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war-- As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more then two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it--
I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself-- As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.
[ Endorsed on Envelope by Lincoln: To Gen. Meade, never sent, or signed.]
At this point in his life, Lincoln had mastered not only how to channel his emotions, but mastered the use of the technology of the day. Still, General Meade had heard that Lincoln was angry about his dawdling, but no bother, it was not directly from him. And Lincoln never showed his hand to General Meade. Instead, he vented, but vented his anger to a letter never intended to be sent.
For myself, I apologize again to Jeanne, our tour coordinator. I did indeed, by my own doing, hurt her feelings. I pretty much think she could best me in a duel, too. And perhaps like Old Abe, I should sit down, take the time to channel my feelings properly and put that email in the “never signed nor sent” file and give the angel of my better nature a chance to flap her wings.
American Roots & Celtic Soul