Burns, my heart…

AlisaRosePathSparklyIn my last installment I talked about my introduction to and the beginning of my love for Irish and Celtic music, through the accidental discovery of a little Santa Cruz based band called “Isle of Light” and the musician who would later become my friend, David Brewer. A moment I still consider a miracle, that would be followed up with other miraculous coincidences. (Find it here, if you missed it!)

But, there was a space of years in between that discovery and when I would finally find my way in even being able to find and share Irish and Celtic music with others who loved it. Upon introducing the album to me and falling in love, my mother and I didn’t know where to begin. Irish, or even Folk music in general wasn’t part of our sphere of knowledge or known access. I wasn’t even sure what to call what I would later know as folk music, at the time. This was before the internet made things so wonderfully easy that you could just Google “Irish music” and be spewed back an unimaginable amount of information on it. It was more out of simple ignorance and having no clue where to begin that the enthusiasm was pushed aside, than any lack of desire to discover it further.

Then, in my Senior year of high school another brilliant and seemingly random happenstance would push me back onto the path of discovery and beautifully entwined coincidences. A new, young teacher came to instruct our Senior class about what she stubbornly and rightly chose to call, British Literature, because she wanted to include writing from Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well (of course, the Republic of Ireland is no longer part of that empire, h’up o’ that!). She wanted to give us a wider breadth of beauty to learn from besides the limited standard. She was enthusiastic, creative and utterly passionate about literature. Tiffany Colonna, who is now a brilliant voice actress, introduced me to a love of many things and ultimately became one of my best friends following my graduation from high school. But, one of the greatest gifts she gave me was the discovery of Robert Burns via the Old Blind Dogs.

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Statue of Robert Burns in The Mall at  Central Park

Robert Burns, the nationalist poet of Scotland celebrated like a war hero, the musician and early Alan Lomax, the believer in equality and hater of empirical power, stole my heart and fanned the flames of what would become the activist in me. Even today his birthday is celebrated in Scotland with there fervor and festivity of an independence day, a celebration of Scottish heritage, the kind of celebration you’ll never see in the name of any other poet. Even better, the discovery of his work and character was through the roaring rendition of the song “Is There For Honest Poverty” as arranged by the Old Blind Dogs; a song that, to this day, invokes a roaring cry in me for the power in it. On that day Mrs. Colonna, as we deferentially called her, introduced us all to this song I spent my entire lunch hour in her classroom playing it over and over again on her computer. That summer I would go out and buy the album they had just released, “Four on the Floor“. It didn’t leave the CD player of my Jeep the entire summer into October when I finally bought another CD of theirs.

Now, this is a secret I’ve only told a few people in the world. But, while I love Irish music deeply and have committed so much of my life to the work and study of it, I have always loved Scottish music just a wee bit more. I have no concrete explanation for this. Maybe it’s because I discovered it through David Brewer’s piping and the Old Blind Dog’s before I came into Irish music. Maybe its that small thread of Scottish ancestry in me. I honestly can’t say. But I can tell a Scottish fiddler from an Irish fiddler by the melting and ache in my heart. The moment I hear the cry of the pipes, no matter how far away, I stop and feel compelled to find it. I even remember when I was thirteen reading a piece of historical fiction written from the perspective of Mary Queen of Scots and falling so in love with the descriptions of the land and culture I told my mother, I wished I was Scottish. My heart nearly burst when she told me I was, on my fathers side. Maybe it’s heresy to work in Irish music as an Irish singer and love Scottish music more. But I cannot help myself and without it, I simply wouldn’t be where I am.

Alisa and Jonny
Meeting Jonny Hardie in Grass Valley, a prince of a guy. 

I attempted to see the Old Blind Dogs in my first semester of college at the Sebastopol Celtic World Music Festival, but missed them in the timing. I wandered around the festival and watched other groups, and nearly screamed when the Dogs themselves walked by me. I was like a Belieber seeing Justin walk by, but with less crying and drooling. The following summer I finally caught up to them in Grass Valley at the WorldFest… I saw them every time they played at that festival and didn’t care that the set was the same every time…  After their last show at that festival, their fiddler, Jonny Hardie walked up to me and said, “You’re the only one who’s been to every one of our shows this weekend.” I laughed nervously… O my God, how embarrassing. But instead of making me feel like an idiot, he invited me to have a drink with the band. I nearly cried. But of course at the hip age of nineteen, I kept my facade of cool.


The Old Blind Dogs at the Grass Valley World Fest 

The lads were kind and curious, asking me what I did and what other music I liked. They bought me a drink and their piper at the time flirted with me heavily, inviting me to a “wee party” back at the historic National Hotel where they were housed. They told me they’d be in Sebastopol again in September. And I, of course, said I would be there without a second thought. They were going to a little town called Santa Cruz the next day, a place I knew I had heard of for some reason… and thinking back now I remember them mentioning a nice lad, a great piper, who was going to join them named David Brewer. At this point, I had forgotten who he was and that I once had an album of his and was so head-in-the-clouds, I couldn’t have remembered even if I had tried. But eventually, it would be through the Old Blind Dogs that a small prayer would come full circle.

I left floating… I simply couldn’t believe that individuals I admired so much would be so kind and personable and actually interested in the lives of those who supported them. This was the aspect of folk music I had not yet learned was more commonplace than not. And I was falling, still, headlong in love with it all. And, I am incredibly excited The Old Blind Dogs will be back in the US this spring after years of their absence.

I later wrote a song about the encounter, dedicated to the flirting piper, the lyrics to which were commissioned by David Brewer at a time we hoped to combine my writing powers and his tune skills. And, it turned out their was a songwriter in me, resulting in one of the first demos I ever made. I hope you enjoy! Stay up to date in this series by following my blog…


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