Dear friends of Switchback,
Brian and I have been doing a lot of driving over the past month. Driving long stints of 18 hours, from Tarpon Springs, Florida to Chicago. Or a mere 13 hours from Oakley, Kansas to Chicago.
A good dose of that driving takes place at night. There are pros and cons to driving at night. For musicians like us, night time can be the best time to get from point A to point B. There is almost a magical quality that transforms the road from daylight driving into the mysterious realm of darkness. The daytime commuters are long gone, leaving the people who need to journey in the dark: truckers and musicians.
One of my favorite night drives is heading along I-70 to or from western Kansas or Colorado this time of year. The high plains in springtime is alive with smoke and fire. The vast stretches that make up the Flint Hills get burned. It is a necessary ritual for people who live on the prairie, inherited from the native people who controlled their hunting grounds with fire.
It is a misconception to think of the Plains Indians as just a hunter-gatherer society. In many ways, they were stockmen, and they provided for their stock by burning the old grasses and invasive trees to make sure the bison, elk, antelope and deer could have rich pasture. The native people had a term for prairie fire: the red buffalo. Indeed, it can look like a herd of bison, crawling across the brown grassland, leaving a churned trail of black in its wake.
So, in the dark of the night, driving along the highway, it is especially exciting and eerie to see the fields aflame. Off in the distance, the red hue creeps along the prairie edge highlighting in its glow the billowing smoke. The fire of course is attended by humans, but in that part of the world, there are few human obstructions to limit its advance. Buildings are few and far apart and fences are no obstacle to its advance. The fire may be tended by people, but the fire is calling the shots. The smell of charred plants fills the nostrils, even as we zip along at 80 miles an hour. It is a different smell from burning wood, almost too thick of a smell to enjoy. Brian and I look out of the windows of the van as we are witness to an ancient ritual of renewal in sight and smell.
It is at times like these, that I wish I could have lived in the era of the great painter George Catlin. Catlin, was a self-taught portrait artist, who left a career as a lawyer out East and made his way onto the midwestern prairies. Here, before the great swell of settlement began, he painted his way across what would be the Midwest. His paintings were sometimes criticized for being too simple. And like all artists, Catlin lived a remarkable, but painful life. But he captured the vastness of the land and was able to paint portraits of the chiefs and everyday people of this land in an honest, and endearing fashion. Luckily, his works are preserved today in the Smithsonian; but not before he died, unsure of whether or not they would be preserved. Such is the lot it seems of an artist.
So it is here, out on the vast open that is central and western Kansas that a person can appreciate what Catlin saw. Remarking on prairie fires, Catlin said:
These scenes at night become indescribably beautiful, when their flames are seen at many miles' distance, creeping over the sides and tops of the bluffs, appearing to be sparkling and brilliant chains of liquid fire (the hills being lost to the view), hanging suspended in graceful festoons from the skies.
Riding along the modern highway, it is possible to catch a glimpse of what must have been a wonderful, amazing wild world. Catlin was one of the lucky few who witnessed this world with his own eyes. And yes, the burning fire does look as if it is somehow suspended from the sky. It must have been something to be out there with such a view, watching something silently make its way across the nighttime. How quickly that world was forever changed.
Here in the spring, out on the prairie, for a few minutes, I can ride along with George Catlin, oblivious to the tires on the pavement, or the occasional billboard and feel what he witnessed. And in that moment, time can be suspended and I can simply be free.
It was years ago, 1979 to be exact, when I would take out the album at night. The next day was to be an invitational cross country meet. Our team, the Marian Central Hurricanes (why we were the Hurricanes in the Midwest, I never quite understood) was a high ranked team. We had one of the top runners in the state, the great Daryl May who led our pack. I was a toward the back of the pack, a pusher in cross-country parlance. In other words, I pushed our runners to get toward the front of a race by merely trying to outrace them.
I wasn’t the slowest runner, but I wasn’t the fastest either. But I could worm my way toward the front of a race if I just could keep a steady gait. That was why I would take out the album, the Chieftain’s #9, Boil the Breakfast Early. I would listen to the title track over and over to get myself ready for the race. There was something about it that just reacted with my Irish DNA, that sound of the bodhran and the fast pace of the pipes that made my legs do what they should do.
Walkmen were not yet invented, so I had to play that melody in my mind. Which I did; as soon as the gun went off, I would race with the Chieftains. As the years went by, little did I know that I would someday be performing with the Chieftains. And so, last Saturday, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, I had the honor of playing with my heroes.
Years before, Brian and I had met Matt Malloy, the flautist for the band and had become friends, playing at his pub in Westport, Co. Mayo and sharing the stage with him there. But here, in Tyler Texas of all places, I had the chance to be with the full band. And it was a great sensation, sort of like meeting old friends.
I always think how important it is to touch souls with our music. The Chieftains touched my soul. And it certainly made a knobby kneed kid run as fast as he could. And my hope is that my music has inspired like they inspired me.
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.
Dear friends of Switchback,
There are days when I find myself at home asking out loud, “Who is this little human that lives with us and where did she come from?” Áine turned five years old on Monday. For me that is something both amazing and sad to behold. The sad part is obvious, in that it means that I too, am five years older. It also means that gone for good is that little baby girl, toddler and ultra portable kid. Now, there is this little human. With little human observations.
For example, her enjoyment of the Hamilton official soundtrack. Áine listened to it just two times and started singing the songs around the house. Annie gave her the blow-by-blow as the album played and employed a history lesson using American currency. At night Áine's prayer became, “God Bless Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, those three other men, and the Schuyler sisters.” And then after a brief thought, “And please bless a little bit King George and the soldiers, even though they were kind of mean.”
As her compassion to King George and the redcoats show, she remains very sensitive to the plight of other people, consoling her fellow classmates at school. During the Nativity play last month, Aine was cast as Mary. When her best friend (who was dressed as an angel) started crying because she didn’t see her parents, Aine shifted the baby Jesus under one arm, then pointed out to the crowd and said, “Look! Don’t cry, they’re right over there!”
Annie's mother gave Annie and myself a crystal Waterford “make up bell” some years back. For those who never have an argument in their relationship, this is a bell you ring to break up an argument and encourage the parties “make up.” Áine discovered the meaning of this bell and now, even discussions about filling the bird feeder are interrupted by the tinkling sound of a bell, rung by a smiling girl. I have found myself much more careful in how I approach topics with Annie, as I always see Áine reaching for the bell.
Thankfully, she still enjoys playing at parks. She has travelled to numerous parks around the north side of Chicago and into Evanston. The fact that she comes alone doesn’t normally faze her, for there are always new friends to be made. “Hi friends,” she says, “will you play with me?” She is blind to any differences in people that us older folks are unfortunately far too aware of. To her, a kid is nothing more or less than a potential friend. Usually she is able to take on the older kids and keep up running and playing tag. Her own joy in connecting with people is infectious and allows her Papa the opportunity to connect with the other kids' parents. Many a wonderful conversation with a stranger has been started by Áine wishing to play with their kid. She has made me more open to saying hello to people and putting the feeling of joy into practice.
The world does creep in and already she has picked up that girls and boys are different. She is aware that other girls talk about looks and clothes. It’s hard to run interference on it and allow her to not start down that path already. The joy is that she is still a kid.
She does have a crush, on a little boy in her class named Max. She considers him cute. “I’m going to marry Max,” she once said. I froze. For now, she is still Papa’s girl, thankfully.
And, she surprised me when she announced she wants to be a singer. Already Áine has composed several songs and shows an interest in instruments. Where she goes with this is up to her.
It is hard to wave goodbye to the toddler, the baby girl and start making room for the young girl, with young girl ideas. Already there are times when I will glance at her and see the future young woman. In the meantime I thank God for each day I can hold her, carry her upstairs at night and still have that great feeling of a little daughter, peaceful and sleepy with her Papa.
Dear Switchback friends,
I am writing this from my hotel room at the Grand Majestic Hotel in Prague, Czech Republic. Last week we traveled to Ireland with 60 friends from coast to coast, north to south of the USA (plus one from Japan).
With the exception of a few, everyone had seen us play. And of those who did, they remembered the moment they decided that their relationship with our band should be something more than just being a fan.
Joining us on this tour was perhaps a subconscious effort to seal the friendship. And, certainly for Brian and myself, making real friends who support our music has always been paramount, and a conscious effort. These folks become part of our “Waygood Family.” As Sue Arnold, our business manager put it best, “Good friends make good family.”
Which brings me to Thanksgiving, the holiday that we are celebrating in the United States next week. In some ways, people either love or dread this holiday because of the idea of family.
Some people look no further than their DNA to determine who is family and who is not. Here in Prague, we tourists discovered one ironic display of blood (perhaps bloody?) family at Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. According to local legend, the beloved Duke Wenceslas was slaughtered by his younger, power-hungry, probably jealous, brother. Posthumously, Wenceslas was not only declared a saint but also king... so I guess that made everything OK. (Pictured above is Wenceslas with his grandmother, St. Ludmila, who was also assassinated. By whom? Wenceslas' mother!)
Sometimes blood family takes for granted that family are also friends. But when one looks at true friendship, there is a commitment to service unbound by blood obligation. Obviously this can take many forms, but at heart this is a surrendering of one’s own interest for the other.
I think of my own friends and the simple displays of love and self-sacrifice we have shared through the years. The only time I have lost a friend was when that friend decided that his own interest superseded mine.
The original idea behind the holiday of Thanksgiving was to give thanks for the many blessings we have received. As blessings go, true friendship is very rare. And only true friends can become family. However, it is very rare for blood family to become true friends.
That doesn’t mean that somehow every friendship is equal or that every friend rises to “family” status. What does exist is the potential to surrender to that notion.
If we believe the Thanksgiving story, the Native Americans extended their own generosity so that the English could survive. Their donations of corn, squash and turkey suggested, “We could have friendship.”
What went wrong was that at some point the colonists’ own personal interest superseded that of their newfound friends. It’s a good illustration of the complexities of family and friendship. Good friendship has to be practiced in order to create good family.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful especially for the fans who become friends, and later, family. Here’s to many more shows, tours and meals shared between us in this WayGood World of ours!
American Roots & Celtic Soul