It’s been quite a few days since our last installment putting me a little behind in my anticipated timeline… but, happily, I’ve been busy working at the kind of things I had never even imagined I would be. Tonight I have the incredible honor of singing with Mick Moloney and Athena Tergis, in my families hometown, Sacramento, California, at the Crocker Art Museum. Five generations of my family have lived in this city and now I get to share one of the most exciting and meaningful experiences, thus far, in my life in this ancestral place.
And this event is truly entwined with the whole entire story of how I came into this little, beautiful world of Irish music that has come to mean so much to me, making it one of the highlights in a long line of miracles.
In the last installment of exploring my journey into and through Irish and Celtic Folk musics, I shared the moment when a prayer began to come full circle… and invoked a thousand more along with it that have led me to where I am now. Find the last installment here if you missed it or want so revisit.
Following meeting David Brewer, the piper whose sounds first introduced me to Celtic music all by incident, I began a dive into this little world and was determined, this time, to not be thwarted. Fortunately, by this time the internet had caught up a bit, and I could search for groups that appealed to me. I would use my employment at Barnes and Noble as an excuse to familiarize myself with the genre by shuffling through the stacks, purchasing compilations celebrating the best of Irish and Scottish music.
I would spend hours listening and picking out what groups and artists were good because they were skilled and what appealed to me for my own interests. Knowing the difference seemed compellingly important to me at the time and I realize now would ultimately help me understand the difference between tradition and innovation; a concept that would also become a research project for my undergraduate degree.
As I read obsessively and became more familiar with the breadth of Irish and Celtic music culture, I learned of a cultural phenomenon called the session or siesíun. I had never encountered anything like this, especially in my community. But, apparently, hiding under the surface of many cities and townships is the lively and tight-knit family of musicians committed to Irish traditional music.
Somewhat akin to a jazz session in which a group of musicians play around a standard like, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Le Vie en Rose”, Irish sessions stay more strictly to a structure of the traditional tunes with their own set of social morés, unwritten rules and unspoken expectations; a whole undercurrent of an undercurrent I had no idea how to traverse or begin to understand… a topic on which thousands of pages have been written by leading experts on Irish music, many of which are still unsure of the entire thing themselves, no matter how native to it they are.
I heard a rumor of a session in the neighboring town, almost as if it were a secret meeting, held at a bar called Latitudes on Sunday afternoons. Confirmed quite not secretly on the internet, I spent several weeks agonizing over whether or not I should go… what if I don’t belong? Is it okay if I just watch? Do I have to drink? Can I get in if I’m not twenty-one? What do I wear?!?… I had very little idea of what to expect and even less of an idea of how to approach it.
It was also at this time that I was making an effort to really learn these songs that I was falling in love with. And, among those first few was the slow and lyrical ballad performed by my now favorite Irish singer and band, Karan Casey with Solas, “I Wonder What’s Keeping my True Love Tonight”.
After weeks of waffling, and even driving out to the bar once and turning around (O, the curse over the social recluse, the anxiety of the curious yet shy…) my mother promised to go with me, if I promised to just go, for goodness sake. We arrived, and in the back of the downstairs bar, tucked into a cozy corner was a small gathering of musicians didling away together on their instruments. A concertina, three fiddles, a lap steel guitar, an acoustic guitar, a bodhrán… all plucking and strumming and bowing away in their own small world together. My mother and I perched at the bar and listened but … O god, how I so wanted to be in the thick of it. I was truly wide-eyed, filled with the pang of love and desire… for the music, for the community, for the joy in it. I burned with it as the musicians burned through the tunes.
Eventually, my mother would leave to be about her evening and I would stay still listening. The barkeep struck up a conversation with me, along with the couple sitting next to me. Small talk ensued. Where are you from? What do you do? And eventually, they got me to say something I hadn’t said since I had hung up on my opera instructor on our last ever phone-call…
“I’m a singer” … I’m a what?!?!
“Do you sing Irish songs?”
“I do.” …I do?!?
I hadn’t had a drop to drink and my head swam as if I’d drunk the bar, overwhelmed by my boldness and surprised by my own assertion. They insisted I should sing a song. And, completely by incident, I learned my first lesson in the passive Irish invitation exchange,
“Ah no, sure I couldn’t”
“Go on, go on! You will, you will!”
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt”
“Sure, they’d be happy to have you!”
“Well, only if i’tis’nt any trouble.”
The power of being raised to understand deference when you are not the present expert or native served me well without even being aware of it. And, as the couple had to say their good-bye for the night, they tapped a fiddler on the shoulder, pointed in my direction and said, “She’s a singer.” And I was invited to sing my first song at an Irish session, the first time I would sing any folk song in public, ever.
The truth was, I hadn’t been entirely unprepared. I had even printed lyrics to a song and worked on them on the way to the bar and had them tucked in my back pocket. “Be ready. Be ready to meet the opportunity by staying ahead of where you want to be” have been my mothers words for much of my life. But, I still could not believe the claim I was making and the invitation being offered me. In all the heady excitement and terror of owning who we are, comes forth the crown of success, the realization of our power, when everything seems to align and the Universe or God or luck or whatever it is says, “Yes” responding to our own “yes” that falls out of our lips with surprising certainty.
I stood up, walked from the bar and remember leaning shyly, almost coquettishly, against a pillar and singing my song.
I wonder what’s keeping my true love tonight,
I wonder what’s keeping her out of my sight,
It is little she knows of the pain that I endure,
or she would not stay from me this night, I am sure.
The bar fell hush, completely, listening. My heart fell quiet. My mind fell quiet. And there was only one story in this world that ever was, ever would be and ever will be. And it was the story of that song. I wove I trance as I had not known I could, over myself. Moving through the verses, calling forth their colors and moods.
Green grass it grows bonny as the water runs clear,
I am weary, I am lonesome, for the love of my dear,
You’re my first and false true love and ’tis lately I knew,
That the fonder that I loved you, the falser you grew.
And there was a momentary silence as I inhaled a breath followed by no more song. The silence that only comes after music or in snowfall. And the polite grunt and applause of Irish approval pulled down the stories shroud. Was the spell only on me or the whole room? I did not care. I had come home to what I needed to do. I needed to tell stories, I needed song, and I needed to give them to others. But it was a realization that only sat in my heart yet and not in my conscious mind and would surface more apparently slowly over time, like a flower that seems to appear overnight, but has worked under the surface many long nights.
I received many compliments that night and invitations to other sessions and group gatherings. For some reason, I would never have the time or impetus to weave myself into that particular community at the time. But it has and will remain a life-changing moment, without which I would not be where I am right now… preparing to meet up with two musicians I have admired so much, for so many years and now have the incredibly honor of working with academically, professionally and musically.
For those in the Sacramento area that have not already been notified by myself or my parents (I basically grew up in an after-school-special community) please join us tonight at 7:30pm, doors open at 7pm, at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento for gorgeous tunes and songs from two of Irish and Scottish musics most masterful and talented players, Mick Moloney and Athena Tergis.