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  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    July 2008


Wonderful Deathless Ditties

Music, food and friends across England and Ireland.

By Jeanie McLerie and Ken Keppeler

Editor's note: We're happy to once again share a "rolling postcard" from the popular Silver City "chilegumbo" musical duo, Bayou Seco, on tour in Europe.

We are off again on another amazing adventure, fueled by accordions, fiddles and Southwestern music. We left Albuquerque on April 6, arriving in Paris the next afternoon, five hours late due to mechanical problems — so we missed the several inches of snow that fell in Paris that morning. It remained unseasonably cold for the first three weeks. In England, where we were for the first five and a half weeks, there had been snow on the Dales in Yorkshire. and freezing temperatures many nights.

Bayou Seco with Irish music legend Paddy Jones (center).

The Renault Kangoo we're leasing is fancier than ones we've had before, and it's turquoise. The headlight shape makes it look like a Roswell alien. Petrol prices are up a lot. The cost of the diesel we buy this time is at least 25 percent more than last year — 1.39 Euro or 1.29 per liter (about $10 a gallon). Luckily, we get at least 42 miles to the gallon.

Along with some festivals and a few pubs and folk clubs, we're once again playing mostly Rural Touring Scheme concerts sponsored by local arts councils in small communities in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Worcestershire. Most of the concerts — four or five a week — are in village halls or schools, and a few churches. No sound systems needed. We love this kind of concert. The audience is unfamiliar with our style of music, but by the end of the evening, we have won them over to a new type of music. They really seem to enjoy the stories about where the music came from (of course all very rooted in European styles) and about the people we've learned from.

At night we stay with the many friends we have in England, and in the occasional B&B. Days off are spent practicing, reading, sightseeing and resting. We visited a very stately Elizabethan home called Burghley House near Peterborough, which has been featured in several movies including Pride and Prejudice, The Da Vinci Code and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. The house has lots of innovative fountains, such as a wall of water you have to walk through to leave the garden (it magically stops when you're one foot away), a mirror maze, a sand clock, misty grottoes, obelisks and a fantastic sun dial.

April 23 is the birth and death day of Shakespeare, and also St. George's Day, for England's patron saint. In 1348, Edward III, who was actually French, declared St. George, who was actually Turkish and had never set foot in England, as a fit patron. Yes, there are stories here that go back 2,000 years about a dragon slayer. Ireland has St. Patrick, Wales has St. David, Scotland has St. Andrew, but it is only recently that St. George's Day has become more popular in England.

We were lucky to be in Whittlesey (of Straw Bear fame) for St. George's Day. Several Morris dance sides and two rapper sword teams danced in the evening in the market square next to the Butter Cross, and in several pub gardens. This is when you really feel tradition and history going back over the ages. One of the sword teams was made up of boys ages 11 to 14. They deftly danced over and under the swords, and finally wound up with eight swords crossed into a woven star. The music for the dancing is usually by a melodeon player, but one of the Morris sides had a fiddler, two drummers and a bass.

The pub served two ales created by different breweries especially for this day: Dragon's Tale ("Raise a glass to St. George and slay your thirst") and St. George and the Dragon. No, the latter wasn't red, but it was good and strong at 4.5 percent alcohol; the two barrels went fast. A nice spread of "cheese and pickle" was laid out for all around 9:30 p.m., including baguettes, excellent Stilton, a very sharp Cheddar, pat, pickled onions and beets, onion marmalade and "Branston pickle" (vegetables, sugar and vinegar cooked down to a tangy, tasty, jammy consistency). It went well with the ale and, considering the cold and damp evening, was much appreciated.

One thing we are really noticing this time in Europe is the attention to "green" issues and recycling. Stores refuse to give plastic bags, selling used ones for 10 pence and canvas bags at a very low price. Many towns have curbside recycling, and large bins for collecting stand in the center of all the towns. The fields are filled with the rank rapeseed in full bloom. It is grown these days mostly for biofuel rather than canola oil, as in the past. The EU supports the crop, whose garish neon yellow covers the rolling hills. When rapeseed pollen is in full swing, it creates havoc for allergy sufferers; some folks leave the country during this season. On a rainy day, the yellow does give the eye a happy feeling, a sort of sunshine substitute. Even more wind turbines seem to dot the hillsides, doing their lovely slow-motion cartwheel dance.

At the end of the English tour we went to Ireland, for the first time. It is a wild and wonderful place steeped with history and full of music and folklore. We wondered why we'd waited so long to come here. We crossed the Irish Sea from Pembroke in Wales, to Rosslare south of Wexford. We first went to Sherkin Island in the southwest part of County Cork, to visit Norman King, an old friend of Ken's from the mid 1970s, when both were playing music in Germany. Only a 10-minute boat ride, the island seems far removed from the world. Population is 112; there are several pubs and B&Bs, and a small school. The beaches are gorgeous, the wind and weather can be extremely fierce, and the people are sturdy and friendly. We had a great time with Norman and his friends, at a rollicking session at the Jolly Roger pub. On the boat back to the mainland, we sold five CDs to some Swiss tourists just because we yodeled for them.

We then drove up to Killarney, past Bantry Bay and through the Macgillycuddy's Mountains (Mt. Carrauntoohil stands at 3,405 feet), past lakes and waterfalls, and arrived in County Kerry in the late afternoon to stay with friends. Ah, Irish hospitality! Tea on arrival, then whisky (no "e" in that word here), a lovely dinner of salmon, spuds and several salads, and then another night of music. Our hosts love American music as well as Irish, so we had a memorable time in their living room, warmed by a little fire in the hod, looking out over to the Atlantic as it flows into Tralee Bay on the north side of the Dingle peninsula.

The next night we had a gig at Kate Browne's Pub. I wished I had a piece of our own Mimbres Valley potter Kate Brown's work to give to Jimmy Brown, the affable owner. We played for a few hours, then asked some of the local musicians to get up and play a few tunes. One fiddler, Sean Abeyta, was born in Los Angeles, but raised on the island of Innishboffin. His dad, part Navajo, was from Pueblo, Colo., and his mother was Irish. Sean looks like he is from our part of the world, but he fiddles and speaks with that beautiful Irish lilt.

We found out the reason that "th" is seldom heard in Ireland: This sound doesn't exist in the Gaellic language, and "da" is substituted for it. So "thirty-three" becomes "tirty-tree." Very soft and pretty to the ears. "Ye" substitutes for "you" and "lads" for "guys," so we often are asked, "How ye lads keepin'?"

We went to another session the next night, again at Kate Browne's, and took a long musical journey down the "Trip to Durrow," "Fly in the Porter," "Crab in the Skillet" to "The Munster Buttermilk," "The Little Pig Lamenting the Empty Trough" and back around up to "Thank God We're Surrounded by Water." The Irish fiddle tunes have such unusual and descriptive titles. I came across this poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy on a postcard, which seems to sum up the whole scene:



"We are the music-makers and we are the dreamers of dreams,

Wandering by lone sea-breakers, and sitting by desolate streams;

World-losers and world-foresakers, on whom the pale moon gleams:

Yet we are the movers and shakers of the world for ever, it seems.

"With wonderful deathless ditties, we build up the world's great cities,

And out of a fabulous story, we fashion an empire's glory:

One man with a dream, at pleasure, shall go forth and conquer a crown;

And three with a new song's measure, can trample an empire down."



After three days we moved down the road to other friends of Rus Bradburd, the Las Cruces writer who lived in Tralee for two years coaching the Tralee Tigers basketball team, while writing the wonderful book called Paddy on the Hardwood. We played another gig in Castleisland at a pub called the Kingdom Place about 15 kilometers away. Local hero Paddy Jones joined us for some fine tunes, and while it wasn't a quiet listening crowd, it was a lot of fun to play for everyone. Some Americans we had met on our first night in Ireland came to see us. The Irish especially liked our Hank Williams numbers — country music is big here.

Our second hosts live in a huge rambling old Georgian house right on the Tralee Bay. One could get lost in all those rooms! We had fun playing tunes in the kitchen, and cooking; one night we made a Cajun gumbo. We found Polish sausage in a small Polish store in Tralee. It was perfect for the gumbo. For dessert, our host Dierdre made a chocolate and Guinness cake. If you Google "Rich Stout Cake" for the recipe you will find it comes from the Green and Black's cookbook. We had tasted this in England at a cafe, and were mightily impressed. Actually, she used Beamish Stout, which is sweeter than Guinness or Murphy's. It is an amazing combination of tastes.

Another "seisiun" that night in Tralee was small and intimate, only 10 musicians crammed into a little room, knee to knee, powered by the ever-present pints of foamy black stout and occasional whisky and water — all supplied by the pub, which also sent a cab to pick us up and send us back to the house at the end of the evening. Fortunately, we are here in the time of No Smoking in the Pubs. We don't think we could have survived a music session in a pub with all that smoke of the old days. Now the streets in front of the pubs are filled with smokers, and at the end of the night the pub crew must sweep up mountains of butts. The smokers say they smoke much less this way, and they don't seem to mind being displaced to the streets.

The next day we went to visit Paddy Jones himself in his mountain cabin, very spare and neat and clean. He heats it with a handmade stove he welded together, which can burn coal, peat, wood and even motor oil. We had the most wonderful midday meal: Irish soda brown bread, smoked salmon from his daughter's fish shop, pure Irish butter and of course a pot of tea. Simple and sublime.

We then wended our way north to Feakle in County Clare near Ennis to find the Wednesday session at Pepper's Pub. This is the hometown of the great fiddler, Vincent Griffin, whom we met that night. I had heard him play in Mendocino, Calif., in 1975, and I surely thought I saw him levitate right off the stage floor in the middle of one of his lightning-fast reels. He is a dairy farmer, and at age 80-plus he'd been working with silage all afternoon and was too tired to play. But there are always other musicians willing and ready, and so we listened, and shared a little of our musical part of the world as well.

The next day we landed south of Sligo for the last bit of our two weeks in Ireland, with old friends Rick and Joan Epping. Rick is an amazing musician — harmonica and concertina (at the same time!). We played a gig together at the Merry Monk Pub in Ballina — west of Sligo, at the mouth of the Moy River and the Killala Bay — along with his guitar/fiddling buddy Samie O'Dowd, who has played with Dervish and many other groups. The four of us played for four hours, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., without a break, swapping tunes and songs and supporting each other or just listening.

The next day we did some sightseeing in this area, including the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, which dates to 2900 to 3400 BC. The extensive site consists of 30 passage tombs — circles of large boulders with a roofed chamber at the center. The weather had been truly amazing for the past 10 days, and this day was no exception: hot and sunny and blue skies dotted with lovely fluffy clouds. Our new CD, "Sunnysidem" seems to be a magic charm with the weather and is selling well.

A barbeque on our last night in Sligo at Cathy Jordan's (the fine singer who came to Silver City in November 2006 with Dervish) was a very musical affair with songs from everyone there, including her two young nieces and some of their friends. The evening was warm and dry, but the chiminea fire kept away the chill. Rick told us the party lasted until dawn, but we left around 1.

The next day we wended our way back to the Southeast by way of Limerick to Cappamore, just west of Cashel (home of the great blue cheese), and one last cracking good session at the Bridge Pub. The many late nights of music were now over, and we tumbled into bed exhausted at 6 p.m. on our last night before catching the ferry back to Wales. Alas, two weeks in Ireland disappeared into a dream like the fog along the coast. But we will be back.

The next three days were spent driving, starting with 600 kilometers across England to Canterbury, where we spent the night with "The Happy Trails" folks who will visit Silver City in September for the Pickamania Festival, Sept. 13-14. Then we caught the boat to Calais and drove another 700 kilometers to La Baule near St. Nazaire. I was thrilled to see the salt flats where the famous Guerande "fleur de sel" salt is harvested. We met a German friend for an evening supper of crpes and stories, and we played a bit of music in the morning at the march. Finally, on the third day, we made it all the way down to Villandrault, south of Bordeaux.

We spent the weekend immersed in the beautiful fiddle music of the region of Les Landes, the Pyrenes and le Lot — rondeaux, scottisches, bourres and more. There was a Rassemblement de Violons in a little town near Cahors with about 25 fiddlers of all ages playing together. Beautiful! And the dancing was spectacular. Local folks danced the local dances with great style and finesse. We shared a few of our tunes, and they seemed to really enjoy our New Mexico polkas and Cajun two-steps, as a change of pace.

For the next month and a half, we will be in both France and Germany visiting friends and playing gigs, as well as returning to England and Wales for another week of festivals in July. It's a nice way to spend the summer. Traveling with our own little pillows and a lightweight down blanket is our secret to sleeping well in so many different situations and staying sane.

We'll be back home to play at "Music in the Parks" in Young Park in Las Cruces on Aug. 10, and the Silver City Pickamania on Sept 13. See you then!

Ken Keppeler and Jeanie McLerie are Bayou Seco, www.bayouseco.com

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