Thursday, January 15, 2009

Blue is a River

This song struck me with its ethereal. haunting beauty, and its depth of emotion.

Lyrics by Thomas Dolby...


Like the heather on the hillside as they drove us from the Highlands

Like the iceflow from the Arctic where we landed in Newfoundland

There... Read More’s a colour to my sorrow, there’s a name for all this sadness

Like the ocean in between us, I am blue

Blue is a river, blue remembered

Blue water running clear

Blue like a planet to a spaceman

Blue river of my tears

So I came here to the city

Where the dream burns like a furnace

And I dazzled in these dark streets like a diamond in a coal face

Then the cold wind from the islands

Blew a storm cloud across the new moon

Like the gunsmoke above the houses in my home.

Blue is a river, blue remembered

Blue water running clear

Blue like a planet to a spaceman

Blue river of my tears

Blue river of my tears

© Thomas Dolby 2002

Here is what he wrote about the song on his blog:

There’s a new video clip up on the TED site of a song I performed there a few years ago with the wonderful Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster. Someone on my Forum spotted it (topic = “Thomas at TED; new stuff!”) and posted the URL,

….but they said I was singing a traditional song. Not correct! It was actually an original song I wrote specially for the occasion. It’s got a nice story behind it:

I was very taken with Natalie when I saw her performing solo in 2002. Between her lovely jigs and reels she told how her great uncle (I believe) had brought the traditional music with him when he arrived in Nova Scotia from Scotland, and how it had been passed down at barn dances and in the warmth of neighbours’ kitchens! Natalie grew up with a fiddle and bow in her hands, and it’s as if she was born to play it. But as well as the uptempo, knees-up stuff, there was a more plaintive, lamentful side to her playing that took me by surprise. There’s no more powerful music on the planet than that made by people made to leave their homelands.

Next time I was at the public library I did some research. I was interested to learn more about how Natalie’s ancestors came to be on those boats to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the first place. I found an edition of Encylopedia Brittanica, dated about 1905, and obviously written by Oxford scholars in their ivy-covered towers. I found a section under ‘Scotland’ entitled ‘The Highland Clearances.’ It went something like this: “During the potato famines of the late Eighteenth to mid-Nineteenth centuries, fearing for the livelihoods of their tentants, many English landowners offered free passage to the New World aboard specially commissioned ships.”

How very compassionate of them! This is what we teach our children. The reality was completely different. In truth the English landlords, with their inherited Scottish land yielding little produce or rent, saw more value in converting their estates to profitable sheep farms or—worse yet—to grouse hunting and trout fishing getaways for the pleasure of their rich Victorian friends from the South. So the landlords forced their tenants to vacate the Highlands and abandon their homes, with little or no compensation. Villages were burned along with the surrounding trees, to prevent rebuilding. Some were forced to move to barren coastal crofts where their only choice was to gather kelp on the beach. In the most extreme cases, for example on the Hebridean island of Barra in 1851, tenants were forced at gunpoint on to freighters bound for settlements in Australia, Canada, or Nova Scotia, where they were dumped and left to fend for themselves. And the Christian Church supported the landlords, because it had failed to convert the islanders from their heathen behaviour and said the Clearances were just retribution for their sins, drunkenness and evil ways.

Anyway. The anger I felt reading Brittanica led me to compose a song. I have no idea where my own Robertson ancestors stood in all this, but I decided to write it from the point of view of a Highlander. as soon as I had a rough version I sent it to Natalie, and asked if she would return to TED the following Ferbruary to perform it with me. To my great delight she agreed. You can check out the video here.

No comments: