My Dad could sing. I always knew he could, from faint recollections as a child, but he never sang as I progressed through my teenage years. He wasn’t the one to “give us a song” in get-togethers or parties. He should have been, for he was good. Instead it was others who recited poems or warbled unsteadily and oft times wobbled unsteadily in accompaniment.
My Dad loved folk music. Specifically Irish folk music and for that I owe him a never-to-be-repaid debt of gratitude. Although friends I made in later years may not necessarily have shared that particular feeling. Their take on my induction into the rhythms and lyrics of my homeland was often less grateful. ‘Diddly-dee’ music was what they would have called the tunes coming from my tape deck, record player, music system and nowadays, my Sonos speakers. Their faces screwed up, their comments disparaging and their pleas to “turn it off” made quickly and repeated often. I suppose it wasn’t their fault they didn’t get it.
But the ‘didly-dee’ tunes are far from being crass and twangy. Rather, it is the music of a people, story tellers, dancers, the social history passed down and immortalised in ancient ballads. Added to from generation to generation and set to tunes that yes, I shall begrudgingly admit, may have a touch of the aforementioned ‘dee-dee’ but are still worthy of note.
As to why many of my friends never understood the finer points, well, I suppose I can’t blame them. They didn’t have the childhood I had, with this music surrounding me from before I could walk or talk. Literally.
I know this because as well as loving folk music my Dad also bought (from somewhere for some amount) a big reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was used infrequently after the initial novelty had worn off, but after my Dad passed away in 2007, we recovered the tapes from inside the recorder’s suitcase-sized lid (yes it was that big) and my sister arranged for them to be transferred to CD. We got 4 CDs worth of long ago and far away scraps of voices that capture brief snippets of fleeting moments. Given the nature of the tape reels the recordings are jumbled, out of sequence, stretched, warped and occasionally, pristine.
Listening through them I found someone, whom I presume was the seller of the device, giving my Dad instructions on how to use it. Then there’s various songs from the top 100, dated to the 18th of September 1965. It’s being recorded from what I guess is a pirate radio station as there is a radio advert for a chocolate bar wedged in between the various songs by Manfred Mann, the Animals and the Beach-Nuts. Around that time is the first recording of my eldest sister singing in a timid, but sweet, voice. She’s probably four at the time, our cousin and my middle sister are being “sssh’d” by my Mum in the background, whilst she sings the Seeker’s ‘A World of Our Own’. Seems Australian music was also big in our house. Funny that.
A year or two later, on a Sunday, according to family lore, my Dad was trying to record a couple of albums whilst my Mum and sisters were out. The songs of The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem and The Dubliners are being given a strange accompaniment that inhabits the edges of these old recordings and causes a bit of confusion, until you figure out it is the gurgling and occasional soft murmuring of a less than 1-year old baby. My first and if I’m honest, most melodic, recording effort.
It all went downhill from there. I have the later evidence to back my claims. I’m about three and my Dad is trying to get me to sing into the mic, “Sing into it son, it’s not a shaver,” paints a picture of what I had been doing with the square, plug in microphone. In my defence, it was shaped loosely like an old electric razor. Then the less than dulcet tones of me, headlong rushing through folk songs I had listened to since the cradle. Getting most, if not all the words in, but with a peculiar pronunciation on a few. Apparently ‘kitten’ was as close as I could render ‘kitchen’ and a ‘plaid shawl’ became a ‘prayed haul’. As I listened to the old tapes and cringed at my efforts there were two small snippets of my Dad trying to encourage me by example. His voice, as I remembered it from long, long ago. The voice that had sung me to sleep and been my comfort. The voice that had helped me sing along to the folk music that I loved then and still do.
I look back now, bypassing the fractious years that most boys have with their fathers, skating over those times when the appreciation often falls foul of youthful thick-headedness, teenage angst and early-twenties ego. Back to a simpler and gentler time. To a world where all music was melodic and my Dad sang me the songs and lullabies of the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. Those brief snippets of recordings, my sisters and I, a word or two from Mum in the background and a few lines from my Dad are enough to recapture years worth of memory. Tinted and mellowed by distance and time perhaps, but that’s what reminiscing should be. A soft and comforting shawl.
I have manged to extract a very short clip of me “murdering” part of a song as a three-year old and my Dad picking up where I thankfully left off. To listen you’ll need your volume turned up for the quality is less than ideal. Play soundcloud recording.
Whilst listening to 4 x CDs of a long time ago
The Clancy Brothers. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives Michael Ochs Archives/Michael Ochs Archives