Also check out MY OTHER BLOG at Yorkscene
TOFU HAM, OF COURSE!
Like 186,365,787 other people, I blog…
Also check out MY OTHER BLOG at Yorkscene
TOFU HAM, OF COURSE!
Like 186,365,787 other people, I blog…
What’s small, mighty, and almost extinct? Sadly, the answer is right in our Canadian backyard.
Those of you who know me and my music know that I’ve already written a song about the rare Canadian Horse, or cheval canadien — the only horse breed to have developed in Canada. I used to own one, and in fact there’s a big section of my website devoted to this breed — see http://marielynnhammond.com/LegacyCanadians/1098841.htm
While there are only about 6,000 Canadian horses alive today, that breed is practically thriving compared to Canada’s only known pony breed, the Newfoundland Pony, which is in many ways the pony equivalent to the Canadian: smart, strong, sensible, versatile, and well adapted to its rugged climate. Experts estimate that fewer than 400 exist, with perhaps only 250 of those able to breed. To help promote the breed, I’ve written a song about it, which is now available on my CD HoofBeats. I’m working on a little video for YouTube, but for now, here are the lyrics:
MY NEWFOUNDLAND PONY AND ME
(lyrics, M-L Hammond; Music, M-L Hammond/Tom Leighton, ©2011)
Note: This song is set in early 70s, not long after the Newfoundland government passed a law declaring that the ponies, which had roamed and grazed free until then, had to be fenced in. Many Newfoundlanders could not afford the costs of fencing and feeding their animals. This, coupled with increasing mechanization of farming and other work, meant that the ponies were sold off by the thousands, mostly to be slaughtered for meat. But a small group of devoted breeders are working to bring the pony back from the brink of extinction.
Diddle-ee dye-di dum, diddle-ee dye-di day
we were born on the Rock, of hardy stock, and the Rock is where we’ll stay
oh, together we’re grand, my Newfoundland pony and me
Vs 1 My pony he’s descended from more breeds than I can tell
like the Highland, Welsh, and Exmoor, and the Dartmoor and the Fell
that came here with the settlers for to work this rugged place
and now their blood has joined to form a new and sturdy race
Vs 2 My Prince he stands about 13 hands, he’s a handsome brackety* grey
and when I hitch him to the plough he’ll pull and pull all day
He’s hauled logs from out of the woods and kelp on the beaches too
His heart’s as big as Conception Bay, there’s nothing he won’t do!
Vs 3 He’ll pick his way on a rocky ledge and never slip or fail
and when I’ve had a drop or two, he’ll keep me on the trail
He’ll take my boy to school at eight and come back on his own,
and then we send him out at three and he brings the laddie home!
BRIDGE: Our ponies used to roam at large and graze along the way
but now the law says fence them in and pay for feed and hay
So folks are buying tractors now while the ponies disappear
But I swear by the moon and the snows in June, old Prince he’s staying here!
Diddle-ee dye-di dum, diddle-ee dye-di day
we were born on the Rock, of hardy stock, and the Rock is where we’ll stay
with the cliffs and trees and the foggy seas, diddle-ee dye-di dee
oh, together we’re grand, my Newfoundland pony and me (2)
* brackety: Newfoundland dialect for spotted, dappled
Most of you know by now that I’m a dismal failure at the holiday greetings thing. I’m a dismal failure, in fact, at the whole holiday thing in general. I’m sorry for all the cards I haven’t sent, the gatherings I didn’t get to, the Christmas dinners I’ve politely turned down.
After years of feeling guilty about this, I figure it’s time to explain a little, though be forewarned: this gets personal, and dark. If you’re one of those for whom the holiday season is three weeks of pure joy and love and spiritual uplift, then maybe save reading this for, say, late January.
Wreck the halls
When I was a kid Christmases must have been fine, though I remember almost nothing of them, probably because by the time I was ten we’d lived in half a dozen places – not long enough for clear memories to accrue to or become associated with a particular home or church or town.
By the following Christmas, though, when I was eleven, I was finally old enough to understand that my family had a problem.
My father was an alcoholic, not the goofy, happy kind, but the other kind. By then my mother was drinking too, I think in a blind, desperate response to his drinking. When she drank, however, she wasn’t scary like he was; she was mostly just sad. From then on, Christmases in our home were a mix of hoping-against-hope that this year would be different, and then dread and deep hurt and bitter disappointment because they never were.
The midnight drear
After I left home, I decided to recreate Christmas with new-found friends, and I recall some pleasant gatherings. But with every passing year I had to admit that, deep down, the holiday season depressed the hell out of me.
For one thing, I’d lost my Christian faith and didn’t miss it, so it was hard to celebrate, as my feminist self put it, the birth of yet another male god. The rampant consumerism didn’t help either. Neither were turkey dinners a draw for a vegetarian like me. And years of psychotherapy were apparently not enough to erase the ghosts of Christmases past. Behind every Christmas carol, every Christmas treat, every Christmas tree, lurked the shadows of painful family memories.
My parents had divorced when I was twenty-three, and both lived thousands of miles away, so thankfully I wasn’t expected to go home for the holidays. For me, the best Christmases soon became the non-Christmases: when my two sisters weren’t living in Toronto and I was free from obligations. I loved doing the “Jewish Christmas” thing with my Jewish friends: dinner at a Chinese restaurant followed by a big, escapist, Hollywood movie.
A child is born
But when my sister Denise moved back here, with her four-year-old daughter, Lacey, I had a new reason to try to share my niece’s innocent joy in Santa and presents and decorating the tree. It sort of worked — for a while. When Lacey was fourteen, Denise got cancer. She died seventeen months later. But Lacey loves Christmas, as does my other sister, Jacq (who’s succeeded far better than I at ignoring the past), so for their sakes I soldiered on, pretending as best I could every Christmas, despite feeling utterly hollowed out by grief over the loss of Denise.
As Lacey got older, though, she began to see through me. She knows the truth now, but insists I go through the motions anyway. And because I love her and because I promised my sister as she lay dying that I would always be there for her child, I do.
Lacey now has a two-year-old daughter of her own, and being grandma-by-default, I know when they move back to Toronto next year that I’ll be called upon to pretend even more convincingly for the sake of little Elsie. I will do my best. But I’ll secretly be relieved each January when the whole holiday thing is over, when the last red-and-green ornament has been put away and the last piece of gift wrap has been recycled.
Five gold rings
Speaking of recycling, there’s something I will confess – perhaps the one redeeming feature of my rather dark tale. The only thing about this time of year that resonates for me is winter solstice, because if I do have any spiritual bent at all, then I’m a pantheist. I believe in our poor little planet and all its life forms, except perhaps us humans, because we’re reprehensibly wiping out other life forms at an alarming rate and destroying lakes and forests and oceans and, well, just about everything.
Darn, this is getting dark again. But after all, that’s what winter solstice is about – the longest night of the year. Which is why we counter with light: candles, lanterns, crackling fires, little tin stars. And twinkling lights of all colours, wound around branches and the edges of windows and rooftops.
So I’m coming out as a lover of those lights. Of all things sparkly, of tinsel and shimmer and dazzle and gleam. Even things that border on tacky, like glitter and sequins and rhinestones in shades of amethyst, sapphire, aquamarine. They make me happy, though I can’t explain why. It’s my little Christmas secret.
I think humans may well be going through the longest night of our existence as a species, but sadly it’s of our own making. We need a gargantuan shift to change things. We need far fewer people on this planet and a far smaller appetite for those other shiny things, iPads and huge televisions and cars. For meat. For oil. For guns. For the shiny useless stuff like gold and diamonds that we tear violently out of the earth, destroying vegetation and animal life and ancient communities as we go.
Star of night
We are but one small planet in a universe of billions of other planets and stars. Maybe we just don’t matter. But it seems wrong not to try to turn the tide. What about my grandniece and all those other babies that we humans continue to blithely produce at unsustainable rates? What kind of world will they inherit if we don’t?
And yet all I can offer in the face of our giant global fail is my little ecological garden that needs no pesticides and almost no water, that tries to encourage the shrinking bee population with its native blossoms, and that grows tomatoes, lettuce, and herbs to feed me. My recycling and my wearing of sweaters that are twenty years old. My near-vegan diet. My guilt the odd time when I drive my car to Toronto instead of taking public transit. And all the petitions I sign and letters I write that fall on the deaf ears of our current despotic and destructive government about environmental concerns. (Canada just withdrew from the Kyoto Accord. How dark is that?)
But every year at this time I also hang two tinsel garlands over two windows and I set out three little glittery, tree-shaped ornaments, to gently rage against the dying of the light. A garland each for Lacey and Elsie. A tree each for me and my two sisters. These little bits of sparkle cheer me and give me a disproportionate amount of pleasure. They won’t stop the darkness. They won’t save the earth. But if we must go down, if we must heat up the planet till it burns to a cinder, then I’ll go down in flames – and sequins.
(This first appeared, with slight changes, on my Yorkscene.ca blog 9 Feb 2011)
Yes, I’m doing research for a song. Because not all songs are about the writer’s navel-gazing feelings, or about love, that bottomless pit of inspiration (and too often cliché) for songwriters.
I love writing songs on unusual topics and songs that tell stories. If they tell a Canadian story, even better. So I’m now writing one about the Sharon Temple (www.sharontemple.ca), a unique heritage site in the north of York Region, where I’ve lived since 2006.
The temple, completed in 1832, was built by a fascinating sect called the Children of Peace. You could say they were the first hippies: they valued peace, social justice and equality; they lived together cooperatively in one village; they held feasts where everyone shared food; they wore colourful clothing when they marched in processions; and music and song were a big part of their worship. (Not much sex or drugs, though, from what I can tell, though there were rumours about their leader having a special relationship with a female member of the sect — and it wasn’t his wife.)
When I visited the temple last summer I thought maybe there was a song there – after all, I’d already written one about the Thomas Foster Memorial near Uxbridge, another striking building with a poignant tale behind it.
So I began by reading a book about the sect written by the curator of the temple, John McIntyre, whom I also happen to know. Then I wondered: would I simply recount the basic facts, how Pennsylvanian David Willson came to Upper Canada looking for land, joined a Quaker meeting, and then had visions that led him to break away from the Quakers to found the Children of Peace and build the temple? That was too straightforward.
One photograph I’d seen at Sharon haunted me: the abandoned temple, paint peeled away, windows broken, with cows grazing obliviously around it. I kept wondering what it must have felt like to see the temple in that sorry state while recalling its glory days. So I invented a very old woman, the last surviving member of the sect, to be the narrator of my song. I sent my first-draft lyrics to John. He told me that the last member had indeed been a woman, Emily McArthur (1837-1924); she’d been part of the sect for decades and had in fact seen the temple looking as it had in the photograph!
I knew then I’d found my way into the song. Here are the first two verses (note the village of Sharon was originally named Hope by the Children of Peace):
my name is Emily McArthur
I am old but I remember
when our meeting flourished, one in spirit and in mind
and we named our village Hope
and thus we lived in Hope and prospered
but now I am alone, I am the last one of my kind
Now the temple stands deserted,
peeling paint and broken windows
and the wind blows through the thistles growing wild beside the door
and cattle graze around it
their great brown eyes unheeding
that the Children of Peace are no more
I recently broke my wrist engaging in that traditional Canadian winter pastime, slipping on a sidewalk that didn’t look slippery.
I won’t bore you with details of the ensuing saga related to two hospitals and the casts they’ve put on me and then had to modify because of the pain the last one was causing (hmm, I seem to have in fact just bored you with some details, my apologies), but suffice to say I’ve spent far too much time in the past three weeks sitting around emergency departments and fracture clinics, contemplating just how I’ll be getting through the three upcoming gigs I had, given that due to the way the cast sits on my arm, not to mention the fact I can barely hold a dishcloth in the bad hand, let alone a guitar pick, I CANNOT PLAY GUITAR!
So I began to get an idea for a silly song while sitting in Emerg three days ago deep in contemplation of my situation. By popular demand, here are the lyrics, set to a corny, self-pitying (but not quite maudlin) country-waltz tune, which I laboriously — since I don’t actually play piano — picked out on a cheap Casio keyboard:
IN THE LAND OF ONE HAND © M.L. Hammond 2012
I live by myself in the land of one hand
and unless you have been there you won’t understand
all the things you can’t do when one hand is broke
Like putting on pantyhose – ha! what a joke
in the land of one hand all the beds are unmade
teeth are unflossed and guitars are unplayed
clothes are un-ironed and veggies aren’t peeled
and things packed in plastic are eternally sealed
(seriously, try opening a bag of e.g. pretzels with one hand!)
and I only eat stuff that comes out of a box
because tin cans and jars might as well be Fort Knox
and for holding things down I use elbows and knees
you should see what I do to give toothpaste a squeeze!
But here is the upside: I’ve got an excuse
for letting my vacuum fall into disuse
I’ve never liked housework, so isn’t it grand
that we don’t do much cleaning in the land of one hand
Instead I twiddle my thumb
and I spend hours napping
and that sound that you hear
it’s my one good hand clapping
In the land of one hand, things take twice as long
and get done half as well – for example, this song
so I’ve cancelled today and tomorrow’s unplanned
and for once in my life I’ve got time on my hand!
It’s true. You can even be MY record producer, or at least an honorary one. All it takes is some money. But before you label me a total mercenary, read on…
You may have noticed these days the indie record/music scene is almost as big as the non-indie scene – if not in terms of dollars, then certainly in terms of the number of artists. In fact, there are undoubtedly more independents than acts signed to major labels. Everyone with three chords and a laptop is a musician nowadays. Democracy comes to the music biz!
The Internet played a large part in this, of course. Suddenly everyone was illegally sharing music and no one was buying. So labels would only sign sure moneymakers, forcing artists to make albums independently – i.e., paying to do it themselves. And becoming even poorer in the process. Sometimes they’d make the money back and even turn a tidy profit, but often they’d end up working at Timmie’s to pay the studio bills.
But the indie scene has actually been around a heck of a lot longer than the Internet. I like to say, jokingly, or semi-jokingly, that at one time it used to be called the folk scene.
That’s where my musical roots are. My old band Stringband has been called a pioneer of the indie record scene. What that means is we just couldn’t get any label to sign us all those eons ago. Most of the majors in Canada then were US subsidiaries, aiming at the big US market, and they all told us we were too folky and too Canadian. So we started our own label.
A generous fan funded our first album, done on the cheap, but we wanted a bigger budget for the second. So we borrowed an idea that was floating around: we asked fans to send us $5 up front (yeah, I’m talking the good old days; the horseless carriage had barely been invented), and we’d use the funds to make the album and then mail them a copy.
It worked! We briefly considered running off to Mexico with all those five-dollar bills – it was February – but in the end recorded our next two albums that way. A few other folk acts were doing the same thing, then more followed suit, and that model has since become commonplace in the indie scene.
Now they call it crowdsourcing; we just called it asking fans to help. In fact, for our third album, I got the bright idea to title it Thanks to the Following, and we printed all the supporters’ names in tiny font starting on the front cover and almost completely covering the back.
If you decide to go this route, there are websites that can help you, such as http://www.kickstarter.com/, http://www.gofundme.com/ and others. Or you can do what I and many musicians do: contact your mailing list, and tell the fans you’re making a new CD.
Create multiple levels of support – e.g., see my fundraising pitch – and offer various perks. For example, my “entry” level is $20 to pre-order one CD; my top two levels include, among other goodies, an honorary producer credit on any song of the patron’s choice.
So “honorary producer” may not be quite like twiddling the controls at the recording console (more likely a computer these days) or telling the drummer to go easy on the high hat, but several devoted fans have chosen to support me this way, and I know many other artists with “angels” who have happily contributed to their recording projects. As the wise woman said, “You won’t know if you don’t ask.”
And – oh yeah — dear fans awaiting the new CDs, please be patient. I’m crowdsourcing as fast as I can!
Sometimes, as a musician, your music life spills over into other areas of your life – and vice versa. Lately, for me, that’s happening in a big way: my music and my passion for horses are trotting along together in tandem.
And no, I haven’t run off to join the Mounties and their Musical Ride. But for the last year I’ve been writing some horse-themed songs – enough, in fact, that along with five I’ve already recorded, I’ll soon be able to release an all-horse song CD.
A special barn concert
Not only that, on Saturday September 17, I’ll be playing my very first-ever BARN concert. That’s right, I’ll be playing some of those horse songs, and others, at a fundraising event at the stable where I ride in Whitchurch-Stouffville. (A while back in my Yorkscene blog I wrote about house concerts – concerts that take place in someone’s home. Well, this is a spin on that concept!)
The stable is a special place, called Horses of Course, which accommodates riders with a range of disabilities as well as able-bodied riders. One of them, Krystianna L., was a plucky little girl diagnosed with neuroblastoma when she was very small. Krystianna spent huge amounts of time at Sick Kids’ Hospital, but whenever she was well enough, she’d take riding lessons at Horses of Course. Her favourite horse was a little chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Meg.
Sadly, Krystianna died in 2009 at the age of 13 – but not before the folks at the barn put Meg on a trailer and took her to Sick Kids so Krystianna could see her one more time just days before she died.
Canter for a Cure
So this Saturday her friends and family are organizing a day called Krystianna’s Canter for a Cure, full of horsey demonstrations, and activities to raise money for neuroblastoma research, and also for a bursary for young riders with disabilities who need financial help with riding lessons. And that’s why I’ll be singing my horse songs there. If you’re a horse lover AND a music lover, then this is the event for you. Not to mention you’ll be supporting two worthy causes.
It’s a benefit!
And that’s something we musicians do a lot of: I don’t know a single musician who hasn’t played benefits and fundraisers, and we’re always happy to do it, because we rarely have much money in our pockets to donate, but we can usually find the time to sing for a great cause. In fact I’ve played so many I’ve even written a tongue-in-cheek song called “Not Another Benefit.”
But as well as singing about chestnut mares, naughty ponies, and other equines, I’ll be more than happy to play that song this Saturday with the sound of horses nickering around me.
(Originally posted June 11, 2011 at Yorkscene.com)
Some people live beyond their means. I write beyond my means. What I’m saying is that I write songs that are sometimes too complicated for me to easily perform.
I recently went into the studio with a really accomplished pianist, Marilyn Lerner. She was my first-ever piano player, just a kid fresh out of music school, but who’d been taking piano lessons since she was tiny. She moved on into jazz and improvisational music and new music, but her playing is always full of heart and emotion. (Listen at http://www.marilynlerner.com)
But me, well, I’m not a schooled musician. I had three years of violin as a kid, which I begged for, because my parents were both tone deaf and music wasn’t a big deal in our home. And that was it for my formal musical education.
In my early 20s, having learned some chords on guitar, I ended up in a folky band called Stringband (http://is.gd/YKqX0M). A few years later I took a summer course at the Royal Conservatory for grades 1 & 2 theory – I figured it might improve my songwriting. But in the band we mostly worked things out by ear, and all that theory ended up out the window. So a few years later I took some piano lessons. I wrote some pretty cool songs on the piano, but I couldn’t really play the thing because I’m about as coordinated as a jellyfish.
Now for me, it’s all about the lyrics, and I often write complex songs with irregular structures and throw in extra bars and odd chords — whatever the words and story dictate. But then when it comes time to perform them, well, I can’t count beats worth a damn, especially while I’m singing.
So recording with someone like Marilyn who can sight read and who’s got a chart (written out by my producer, definitely not by this musical illiterate!), while I have only a lyric sheet with little chicken tracks in pen on it, the tracks representing the number of beats between lines or places where the words are actually a pickup, or need to be stressed – well, it can get embarrassing when I screw up. Which I did fairly often the night we recorded together, in part because the song is also very new, so it’s not burned into my brain yet.
So that’s what I mean by writing beyond my means. The only thing that saves me is that Marilyn and other schooled musicians I’ve worked with really like those complicated, quirky songs of mine, and seem to find the patience to deal with my musical ignorance.
And for that, like others who live beyond their means, I owe them a huge debt!