Part of travel is the direct experience of being present, walking streets, hiking hills, tasting food, hearing conversations, seeing the quality of light, seeing the quality of life…being present in your own character, in your own time.
Part of travel is also walking in the footsteps of those who’ve gone before, thinking of how those characters lived, how they experienced the place.
That sort of reflection and thought and research enhances travel. It offers ways to add to the character of being present, to the fun of preparation, and to the joy of reflection on past journeys. too.
One way to explore the lives lived in other places and times is through stories told in music.
The western part of the United States is Kerry Grombacher ’s place. On his album Range of the Buffalo you will explore the character of landscape as well as meet people and ideas from that area.
Grombacher has driven the road, explored the byways, and experienced the towns along Highway 281. Highway 281 is a US highway which runs from the Rio Grande Valley near the Mexican border in Texas to up near the Canadian border in North Dakota. In Grombacher’s song he leads listeners on a journey through landscape, time, emotion, history, and memory. He offers eloquent evocations of change in a town with a “main street wide enough to turn a wagon around” and passing images drawn from Navajo stories. Highway 281 is more than a travelogue, however, as the singer muses on the quests for change and glory “that Coronado set in motion. that cannot be undone.”
Other songs to listen out for: Snow is General, set in Montana; Harvey Girl, a story form Western history wrapped in a love song which is a duet with Aspen Black; Ghosts of War, a story of character and change set in the west in the days after the Civil War. All the songs are worth exploration, and listen out for Grombacher’s playing as well as his lyrics, there’s much character and storytelling to be found there, as well
Maria Dunn who is based in Alberta, in Canada, has the gift of illuminating life, landscape, and history through details of character as well.
Her album Joyful Banner Blazing draws listeners in to meet indigenous workers in construction from decades ago, a traveler heading west across Canada, a connection of mother and son through time, war, and distance, and the work of a lively community activist, among others.
The title song, Joyful Banner Blazing, captures and celebrates memories of that activist, Sister Cecily Dunn. She was a nun who worked in London and Liverpool in England and Paisley in Scotland, to encourage and uplift young people and families.
Heart in Hand comes from a story of a bitter strike in Edmondton in the 1980s. Drawing on a true story, Dunn explores both the history and the sense of community around that event. Dunn’s work often comes from such stories of working folk in her home base of Edmonton; Waltzing with the Angels is another such song, based on the lives and true stories of indigenous iron workers who built Edmonton’s first high rise in the 1960s. Dunn drew on oral histories from the workers to create her lyrics.
There are many such gems on Joyful Banner Blazing. Dunn has a thoughtful storyteller’s style and a graceful voice which illuminates her ideas, whether she is telling of the character of working folk or offering more personal thoughts. For that listen out especially for Ontario Song and Declan’s Song.
Govan is a a neighbourhood in Glasgow, in Scotland. Over the years it has seen shifts and changes as many neghbourhoods do. These changes, and the resilience Govan folk have shown through them are are things which inform the character of the music on Songs of Govan Old, from Norrie MacIver and The Glasgow Barons.
The Glasgow Barons are Govan’s own orchestra, founded in 2017 by Paul MacAlindin to revitalise area venues through performances and to make music drawing on Govan’s diverse communities. Norrie MacIver, known as lead singer of the group Skipinnish, was invited to work with The Barons on a project drawing on the history of the area.
MacIver and The Barons lead a journey through stories of the strong shipbuilding history of the area, the distinct life and culture of Gaelic speakers in Govan, experiences of war, of social activism, and of community connection. Whether you’ve been to Govan or not, you will come away with a sense of the place and its people, and perhaps, a desire to visit.
Govan is bound up with the river. As MacIver sings in the words of Govan poet and boilermaker Bass Kennedy
‘Tis Scotia’s own river and nothing can ever
Our Scottish hearts sever from loving the Clyde
An original song in Gaelic from MacIver, Cha Tig an Latha, follows the same idea, celebrating the shipbuilders and those who sailed on the ships they built. Mary, a MacIver original in English, tells of the work of activist Mary Barbour and her lasting example with verses that tell of her work and character and lines in its chorus which say “The future of ol Govan lies in its past.” There is also a song of Lady Elder, who gave a park and a library to the people of Govan, as well as others well and lesser know whose stories are told in the area. “To write new material based on true accounts of life in Govan and get to know key figures from Govan’s past was a real privilege.” Norrie MacIver says.
The western United States from Texas to Nebraska to Montana, aspects of Canada from Alberta to Ontario, the Govan neighbourhood of Glasgow in Scotland: these have in common well told stories in music, songs which illuminate past and present, character and landscape. Whether you travel these places by geography or through imagination, let the creative stories of character told by these musicians be among your guides.
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