February 26, 2011

Way Hay And Up She Rises: The 5 Best Celtic Songs About Sailing And The Sea

Over the centuries, hundreds of Celtic songs have emerged that focus on the joys and heartaches of sailing and living life out on the open ocean. As with my post, The 6 Best Celtic Songs About Boston, I decided not to rank these Celtic songs numerically.  Instead, I've organized them according to theme and lyrical content. Please let me know of any other great Celtic seafaring songs in the comments section below.

Drunken Sailor  The Drinking Song

Drunken Sailor is a capstan sea chantey. Sailors would traditionally stomp their feet in time with the song as they pushed the levers of a ship's capstan round and round, weighing anchor or hauling heavy sails in the process. All of the verses of Drunken Sailor are a response to the question, "What do you do -- or what shall we do -- with a drunken sailor?" Examples can include, "put him in bed with the captain's daughter," "put him in a longboat until he's sober," and everyone's favorite, "shave his belly with a rusty razor." It is theorized that the melody of Drunken Sailor evolved from the Gaelic-language song, Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile. 

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: BBC: Sea Shanties, The Mudcat Cafe: Oro Se Do Bheatha Bhaile
The Irish Rover  Hyperbole On The High Seas

The Clancy Brothers (Pat, Liam and Tom) and Tommy Makem collectively copyrighted their adaptation and arrangement of The Irish Rover in 1962. However, despite what you may have heard, they did not compose the song: the lyrics have traditional origins and the melody likely stems from a 19th-century Irish tune. The Irish Rover follows a rag-tag crew -- including "Johnny McGuirk who was scared stiff of work," and "Slugger O'Toole who was drunk as a rule," -- as they sail for New York aboard the cargo ship, The Irish Rover. Sickness and stormy seas eventually claim the lives of all on-board, with the exception of the song's narrator. Some of the ship's mythical cargo included "five million hogs, six million dogs," and "Seven million barrels of porter."

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: The Mudcat Cafe: Irish Rover, The Session: Irish Rover

Back Home In Derry  The Voyager's Lament

In comparison to The Irish Rover,  Back Home In Derry has a tone that is much more somber. Instead of following a crew that is sailing joyously to New York, the song follows a group of prisoners being transported, amongst miserable conditions, to an Australian penal colony. The IRA activist and hunger-striker Bobby Sands penned the words to Back Home In Derry -- in a poem called "The Voyage" -- while in prison just prior to his death in 1981. Christy Moore added a chorus to the lyrics and borrowed the melody of Gordon Lightfoot's song, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, to form the finalized version of Back Home In Derry we know today.
Chords & Lyrics 
Further Reading: The Mudcate Cafe: Edmund Fitzgerald / Back Home In Derry, 3 Pints Gone: Back Home In Derry

Barrett's Privateers  A Canadian Maritimes Masterpiece

Canadian folk musician Stan Rogers wrote Barrett's Privateers in 1976 because his musician buddies would never give him the chance to sing lead in the sea chanteys they performed. Like The Irish Rover, Barrett's Privateers is sung from the view point of a sole survivor of a mythical, ill-fated ship, which in this case is The Antelope. Like Drunken Sailor, the song features call and response. Refrains include "how I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!," and "God damn them all!" Unfortunately, while all of the songs on this list can be considered yarns, Barrett's Privateers has one particularly glaring, historical inaccuracy: the town of Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia -- a focal point of the song -- was not known as Sherbrooke until the 19th century. The song takes place in the 18th century.

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: The Mudcat Cafe: Barrett's Privateers

The Downeaster "Alexa"  The Fishing Song

Alright, I know what you're thinking: Billy Joel is not a Celtic musician. And since Billy Joel wrote The Downeaster "Alexa," there's no way that The Downeaster "Alexa" is a Celtic song. Well you may be right, and of course, I may be crazy, but I implore you to listen to Phil Beer's version of the song (above) and reconsider your position. The song has something distinctively Celtic about it. Like The Irish Rover, the song features no clear-cut chorus, but is a sea of verses punctuated by the occasional refrain of the ship's name, which in this case is the Alexa. To dispel any confusion, downeaster is not part of the ship's name, but refers to the type of ship: a down east workboat. Such boats have hybrid planing and v-shaped hull deigns.

Chords & Lyrics
Further Reading: Ohio State University: Downeaster Alexa: A Fishery Story

Lyrical Time-line:
  • 1778: The Antelope sets sail from Nova Scotia in search of "American gold"
  • 1803: Unnamed ship departs from Derry, Ireland "for Australia bound"
  • 1806: The Irish Rover sets sail from the "coal quay of Cork", Ireland for New York

Runners Up:
  • Farewell to Nova Scotia (traditional)
  • The Craic Was 90 In The Isle of Man (Barney Rush)
  • The Mermaid (traditional)
  • Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore (traditional)
  • Thousands Are Sailing (Phil Chevron of the Pogues) 

February 17, 2011

Picking Up My R's: The End of a Boston Accent?

I didn't know I had an accent until I was 18-years-old.

Montreal, Quebec, my freshman year away at school, there I am at orientation, drinking Boréale beer on a field in the sun, talking with fellow "froshies." But why is everybody asking me to repeat things? I was the Bostonian parakeet. Say this. Repeat that. While familiar with the phrase "park the car in the Harvard yard," (and the addendum "to see number four, Bobby Orr and Larry Bird") I was not familiar with people asking me to recite the stupid phrase all the time. Folks from Toronto with confused looks on their faces, asking if I'm from Australia or South Africa. Nope, not from there sorry... from south of here but not that far south.

Eventually it sunk in that when I was ordering a beer, the bartender was hearing "beah." A Harp lager was a Hahp lahga. Park was pahk, car was cah, Harvard was Hahvid and yard was yahd. Eventually it sunk in that I had a Boston accent.

Origins  Why do you talk like that?

Boston Globe reporter John Powers sums up the history of the Boston accent beautifully in his book, The Boston Dictionary: "The Bawstin accent is merely the King's English (from East Anglia, actually), marinated in conned beef and cabbidge for a few centuries and doused with clam sauce from the Nawth End. It's based on the broad A and the dropped R, but most Americans (who say Basstun and Bahstin) can't mimic it to save their lives."

Essentially, speakers of "Boston English" drop their R's because that's what the English inhabitants of Boston did for centuries. However, the influx of Irish immigrants (who notoriously enjoyed corned beef and cabbage) and Italian immigrants (who notoriously moved to Boston's North End) during the mid and late 19th century undoubtedly influenced local pronunciation and lexicon, which is why John F. Kennedy sounded like John F. Kennedy and not like British royalty.

Clarification  But wait, ahn't you from Woobin?

Yes, I am from Woburn, Massachusetts, which is a city approximately 10 miles northwest of Boston. In 1640, Captain Edward Johnson and six other English residents of Charlestown settled modern-day Woburn with their families. For the next 200 years, the agriculturally-driven community would witness modest growth while remaining a bastion of English Protestantism. But starting in the 1840s and 1850s, Irish immigrants, particularly those from Co. Donegal, stormed Woburn while fleeing the potato famine. As a result, population, industry and Catholicism all began to boom. A second, post-famine wave of Irish arrived in Woburn during the 1880s and 1890s (my great-great grandfather, Michael Devaney, who immigrated in 1892, was among them).

As Woburn received a few helpings of Italian immigrants, it essentially became a microcosm of the city of Boston and -- as a result of accents blending together -- Woburnites developed an accent that is,  to most ears, indistinguishable from the Boston accent. However, I am sure there are subtle differences between the way a person from Woburn speaks and the way a person from, for example, Charlestown, Dorchester or Southie speaks. If you are familiar with any of these differences, please mention them in the comments section below.

Efficiency  How do you talk so fast?

Have you ever talked to a person from Boston and wondered how they could fit so many words into such a short span of speaking time? How is it that in 30 seconds you've already learned about cousin Jimmy's football game, Uncle Terry's battle with gout and a potential -- but unconfirmed -- shark attack off of Cape Cod, while you've also received a recipe for clam chowder (the good stuff, not that tomatoey-goo known as New York chowder).

Not Chowdah.

The answer: efficiency. When I drop an R I'm saving time by not rounding-out the consonant, allowing me to connect words more easily. It is similar to speaking in French, which is a vowel-heavy language. Dropping the consonants allows liaisons to form more easily, which is why a French phrase can sound like one, long rambling word. Similarly, with a Boston accent you can connect words, which speeds up speaking time.

As an example, try reading this sentence aloud: "Instead of going to that bar by the harbor we went to the barber." Notice how rounding those R's takes some effort. Now try saying it like this: "Instead-a-goin' to that bah-by-the-hahbah, we went to the bahbah.

Research  You wuh paht of a linguistics study?

During my first year at school up in Montreal, a friend asked me to do a reading for a linguistics study. The study's goal was to show how an accent, specifically my accent, could influence a person's perception of a speaker's intelligence, physical features and attitude.

The theatah.
So, I read a paragraph from a book -- as naturally as possible -- while my friend recorded my voice. The paragraph was loaded with "R" words: at some point in the short narrative a girl Mary got in her cah and drove to the theatah to see a play. My friend then had a person with no discernible accent and a similarly-pitched voice read the same paragraph for a recording. When my friend played the two recordings to study participants, the participants had to rank me and the other guy according to three criteria: how intelligent they thought we were, how attractive they thought we were and how friendly they thought we were.

The result: I am dumber, uglier and unfriendlier -- in most opinions -- than someone who does not have an accent.

In my defense, the linguistics study was a bit tainted, as the majority of participants who listened to the recordings did not have accents similar to mine and some were not even familiar with the Boston accent. This foreignness may account for at least some of the negative associations. Of course, the results of the intelligence aspect of the study may also be tied to the fact that poorer communities in the Boston area, including Woburn, tend to produce more accented speakers in comparison to wealthier communities. As a result, stereotypes proliferate that accented-speakers in the Boston area are dumber -- and consequently poorer -- than non-accented speakers.

On the opposite side of the coin, stereotypes proliferate that non-accented speakers from the Boston area are a bunch of jerk-faces. But of course, stereotyping is not an exact science.

Final Thoughts  What will the feutcha hold?

When I came home to Boston for my 5-year high school reunion, I was accused of sounding like a Canadian, or in some estimations, "like a weeuhdoh (weirdo)." While not entirely gone, my accent has certainly faded, a result of multiple years of living amongst non-Bostonians, no doubt. To be sure, I never intentionally tried to pick up my R's, but subconsciously I must have been absorbing the pronunciation patterns of the English-speakers around me. My brain, in an attempt to help me "fit in" with these speakers, began a process of eliminating my accent, or so it would seem.

But what will the fate of my accent be? When I'm back in Boston,  talking with family and friends, will my R's dive back down below, allowing my accent to resurface? Or will I continue to talk like a weeuhdoh?

Only time will tell.

Further Reading:

February 10, 2011

From Celtic to Country: 3 Ways the Irish and Scottish Influenced "America's Music"

During the 19th-century, song-smiths in southern Appalachia, who had absorbed African rhythms from local slave populations, began fusing these rhythms with elements of Celtic folk music, thus forming the basis of the country music genre.

The influence of Celtic folk music in the South began before the start of the American Revolution. As early as 1717, waves of Scots-Irish immigrants were pouring into North America. By 1790, 3 million of these immigrants called America home. The Scots-Irish -- also known as Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots -- were Presbyterian Scots who had previously settled in Ulster as a result of Britain's plan for a Protestant plantation in Ireland.

Separate waves of Scottish immigration to North America occurred starting in 1725 as a result of the Highland Clearances, while Irish Catholics would not arrive on the scene in great numbers until 1847: a result of the Potato Famine. Despite their ideological differences, these Scottish and Irish immigrants shared a Celtic musical tradition, which employed many of the same techniques for playing, composing and arranging music. These techniques had a profound influence on that "country sound" we are familiar with today.

1. Sound Strategies

A. Vocal Harmony Hoe-Down

When two or more singers sing in harmony, or harmonize, the notes they sing are different, while the resulting sound they produce is unified and -- typically -- pleasing to the ears. Of course, the Irish and Scottish didn't invent the concept of harmony, but they did have a tradition of using it in group sing-a-long settings. Gaelic-speakers in the Old World were distilling and drinking moonshine -- and crooning harmoniously, the perfect accompaniment for a bit of Poitín -- well before Appalachian "hillbillies" began carrying on the tradition in the New World.

Like their Celtic musician forefathers,  country musicians often employ vocal harmonies in the choruses -- or repeated portions -- of songs. This strategy helps stress the importance and increase the forcefulness of the choruses while also separating them sound-wise from the verses. Check out the use of vocal harmonies in the choruses of Okie from Muskogee by Merle Haggard and compare it to the use of harmonies in the choruses of the Celtic song, Mairi's Wedding, as performed by The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem.

B. Enter The Drone

If you find that some country or Celtic songs have hypnotic qualities to them, mesmerizing you as you listen, this phenomenon could be the result of a drone. A drone is a note or chord that sounds continuously throughout most -- if not all -- of a song, providing an underlying, trance-like accompaniment for the song's melody. Musicians can create drones vocally or with virtually any pitch-controlled instrument. Country musicians, such as  fiddlers and slide-guitarists, adopted droning from Scottish and Irish settlers, who were accustomed to producing drones with fiddles as well as bagpipes.

Listen for the drone in Fiddlin' John Carson's song, He Rambled, and compare it to the drone in the Scottish march, The Campbells Are Coming.

On a side note, I am curious to read the book,  Drone On!: The High History of Celtic Music, by Winnie Czulinski, but would prefer to get it on my Kindle. I implore you to go to Amazon.com (click the link above) and request that the publisher produce a Kindle version!

 2. Lyrical Content   

A. The Sob Story

Listen to a country music radio station long enough and you will hear a sob story: a song about a father abandoning his son (see Walk A Little Straighter Daddy by Billy Currington), a song about a woman abandoning her man (see When I Call Your Name by Vince Gill) or -- worst of all -- a song about a boyfriend dumping his girlfriend and then letting his new girlfriend drive his pick-up truck, something he never let the old girlfriend do (see Picture To Burn by Taylor Swift). The nerve of that guy, really, what a jerk.

Singing sorrowfully about the heartbreaks we suffer in life may not have been a distinctively Irish or Scottish creation, but Irish and Scottish immigrants certainly brought a tradition of sob stories with them when they showed up on the shores of Amerikay. Subject matter included longing for love (see Black Is The Color), losing children (see The Wife of Usher's Well) and leaving behind a troubled home only to encounter new troubles abroad (see By The Hush).

B. The Drinking Song

Before Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet sang It's Five O'Clock Somewhere, before Tracy Byrd sang Ten Rounds With José Cuervo and before Brad Paisley sang the utilitarianly-titled Alcohol, Celtic musicians were singing drinking songs that put forth similar, contradictory messages: alcohol is evil (see Whiskey, You're The Devil), but drinking it can be comforting and -- overall -- a quite joyous experience (see Beer, Beer Beer). Homer Simpson summed up the lyrical style of Celtic/country drinking songs beautifully when he toasted, "Here's to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems."

3. Instrumentation

A. The Fantastic Mr. Fiddle

The use of the fiddle in country music predates the use of the guitar. To clarify, a fiddle is -- physically -- the same instrument as a violin. The difference is perception: most classical violinists get offended when you call them fiddlers, as they consider fiddling to be an informal, inferior type of playing... what a bunch of jerks.

Scottish and Irish immigrants brought fiddles with them to North America and successive generations in the South morphed their Celtic jigs and reels into tunes of their own. Many of the founding fathers of country music, such as Fiddlin' John Carson, mentioned above, and Eck Robertson, were solo fiddlers. Apart from bringing fiddles and fiddle music to the American South, the Scottish and Irish brought highly energetic and interactive dancing styles to accompany fiddling, which formed the basis for country square dancing.

B. The Curious Case of Benjamin Banjo

The banjo does not have Celtic origins.

African slaves brought the tradition of building banjos with them when they were transported to the New World; a tradition that required stretching strings across animal-skin drums.

However, when musically-inclined inhabitants of the Appalachians got their hands on banjos, they used them to play the fiddle tunes that they had learned from the Scottish and Irish.

The plot thickens: in the 19th century, banjos crossed the Atlantic -- for a second time -- and musicians in Ireland and Scotland began incorporating the African/American instruments into traditional Celtic music. The Dubliners are a great example of a Celtic folk band that adopted the banjo.

Further Reading:
Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Music: Country Music
Ceolas: Celtic Music Instruments
Middle Tennessee State University: Scots-Irish (.pdf)
Thanks For The Music: The Fiddle in Country Music
BluegrassBanjo.org: History of the Banjo
Causeway Music: Scots-Irish Music
ScotchIrish.net: Who Are The Scotch Irish?

February 4, 2011

Why Henry David Thoreau Would Have Hated Social Media

A statue of Thoreau...uploading photos of geese to Facebook with an iPhone?
I was lucky enough to grow up just a short drive from Walden Pond -- Thoreau's old stomping grounds -- where I would go to cross country ski in the winter or to try to catch fish in the summer. "Try" because the pond has zero fish to offer anglers (or at least to offer me). I'm convinced Thoreau caught them all during his well-documented stay in the woods surrounding Walden Pond, which lasted from July 1845 to September 1847. During this stay, when he wasn't observing animals, chopping wood or ruining the pond for future generations of New England fishermen, Thoreau thought lengthily on the topics of society and politics. His magnum opus, Walden, also known as Life in the Woods, laid out many of these thoughts in incredibly stylized language, which is rich in metaphor, allegory, hyperbole and enchantingly long and and descriptive sentences.

And while many scholars and activists have utilized Thoreau's philosophies for advancing or legitimizing social and political movements, like passive resistance or libertarianism,  suggesting -- in so many words -- that "this is what Thoreau would have wanted,"  I've decided to take the opposite approach. This post will show why Thoreau would have hated or disapproved of a particular movement, specifically the popularization of social networks and other forms of social media. Of course, there is no way of knowing for sure what aspects of the modern world Thoreau would have liked or disliked. As Professor Ann Woodlief poignantly notes, "His work is so rich, and so full of the complex contradictions that he explored, that his readers keep reshaping his image to fit their own needs."

Don't you hate when people do that?

Nature Vs. Twitter

Henry David Thoreau would not have followed you on Twitter. His views on life implored him to march to the beat of his own drummer, not to follow drummers around, waiting for them to share their thoughts with him and potentially hundreds or thousands of other followers. Thoreau's objective in those Walden woods was to discover the truth about the complexities of life and the world through inward reflection and the observation of nature: a feat that required him to block out all of the other versions of "truth" that society propagated.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's mentor  (and landlord) wrote of Thoreau; "He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted...he chose, wisely, no doubt, for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature." It seems clear that the guy didn't like being a part of social groups, nor does it seem likely -- considering his philosophical views -- that he would have entertained the prospect of publicly declaring himself a follower of a particular person, band or business. Thoreau was a follower of nature.

By the way, feel free to follow me on Twitter: @TheBardOfBoston.

Transcendental Upgrade: Henry David 2.0?

To make social media accessible to Thoreau we'd either have to A.) raise him from the dead, B.) transport him -- alive -- from the past to the future or C.) travel back in time and bring him our modern technology. Assuming that one of these highly likely scenarios unfolded and Thoreau gained access to a computer, smart phone or other Internet-ready device -- and knew how to use it -- would he have used it? Would he have made the upgrade from Henry David Thoreau to Henry David 2.0? He sure upgraded his facial hair a lot, but that is neither here nor there (although I did put it down here for a fun visual).

Beard-less Thoreau
Bottom-bearded Thoreau
Grizzly-bearded Thoreau
Based on Thoreau's writings, it does not seem likely that he would have used the advanced devices that allow us to access social media. Such devices are, after all,  mere conveniences....right?  Just like Thoreau could survive without a shaving blade, you could, theoretically, survive without the Internet. You could still breath and eat and seek shelter in a cave, if necessary.

Thoreau wrote, "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Modern conveniences, in Thoreau's eyes, are drains on our humanity, as they keep us from associating with -- and finding meaning in -- the natural world. Think about it: anytime you peer into the online world, you look away from the natural world surrounding you. When you gain knowledge from the blogosphere, Twittersphere or the social media sphere in general, you miss opportunities to learn from yourself and from nature.

 Too Much Media / Too Many Members

"I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude,
two for friendship, three for society." - Thoreau

Imagine Thoreau, sitting at his computer, pouring over hundreds of blog posts in his RSS feed, chatting with or reading about hundreds of friends on Facebook, hitting that Stumble! button on his StumbleUpon toolbar hundreds and hundreds of times...  I cannot imagine such scenarios. Assuming that Thoreau ignored his contempt for technology and gave social media a try, he likely would have found the sheer numbers associated with social media unfathomable. After all, Thoreau is the guy who wrote, "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail."

While social networks, like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn make it easy to keep tabs on hoards of people; and social news, social bookmarking and social measuring sites, like Digg, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon and Technorati make it easy to monitor endless pages of content; at what point does online socializing and media-seeking become too much? I think Thoreau would have seen an inherent information-overload in social media, which would have been at odds with his simplistic lifestyle. Also, it is doubtful that he would have enjoyed socializing with an online congregation of people. While Thoreau was sociable, he preferred one-on-one social interactions, which allowed him to give his full attention to the person he was socializing with.

On The Subject of Jibber-Jabbery

Wikipedia's dictionary wiki, Wiktionary, defines jibber jabber as "excessive or meaningless talk." To use it in a sentence: Much of the crap you read on a Facebook news feed is mindless jibber jabber. Or, to quote Mr. T, "Cut out the jibber jabber, don't be babbling like a fool."

Of course, the social media sphere has lots of valuable information to offer, but at the same time, it is loaded with jibber jabber. If you have ever read a Tweet that said something along the lines of "OMG! My new boots are sooo awesome," or "I just drank 37 beers," you have experienced social media jibber jabber. Apart from Thoreau's views on materialism and alcohol consumption, I think he would have hated such posts because they do not contribute anything to culture or society. When people write just because they want to be heard, it is an empty gesture, as they are not drawing from their life experiences and knowledge to provide others with value or meaning. Thoreau touched on this sentiment when he wrote, "How vain is it to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."

 How Social Media Could Have Helped Thoreau

When Thoreau finished writing Walden, no one wanted to buy it. There was no buzz. Instead of touring North America and beyond, signing copies of his book and promoting his philosophies, Thoreau stayed in Concord and supported himself by working as a surveyor, giving a few local lectures and making pencils (which was the family business). With the help of social media, Thoreau could have -- in his lifetime -- turned Walden into what David Meerman Scott refers to as a "world wide rave."

One social medial tool that Thoreau could have used for exposing Walden to a global audience is a blog. With a blog, Thoreau could have provided background information on the book and his philosophies-at large, while also allowing fans -- and foes -- to discuss and debate topics via the blog's comments section. Thoreau himself could have also contributed to the conversation. Using social networks, Thoreau could have provided friends or followers with tidbits of knowledge, while also providing links to his blog. By indexing his online content in social media libraries like StumbleUpon, Thoreau could have helped make sure his philosophies reached targeted audiences, such as people interested in naturalism or transcendentalism.

Further Reading:
The Literature Network: Henry David Thoreau
Virginia Commonwealth University: Henry David Thoreau
The Benefits and Downfalls of Social Media Websites
Home Business Opportunities Blog
David Meerman Scott: World Wide Rave