Saturday, 22 August 2009

Cumbrians lobby for Celtic Nationhood via the internet

It's known as the Celtic fringe; the six regions on the fringe of Europe which have maintained enough of their ancient Celtic languages and culture to be recognizable today. They are split into two groups; the Gaelic (Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Mann) and the Brythonic (Wales, Brittany and Cornwall), some also include the Celtic diaspora that remain in areas of Canada, Australia and Argentina. There is a Celtic League (est. in 1961) and a Celtic Congress (since 1917) which exist to promote and preserve Celtic culture through publications, festivals, sports and government lobbying. The main criteria the two groups have set for membership is the existence of a Celtic language still in use today which separates these regions from ancient Celtic and Gaulish regions in France, England, Switzerland and Spain which long ago lost any trace of Celtic language other than some music, place names and ancient monuments. There is also another group that could be included, the famed Irish Travellers who speak their own language, Shelta, a combination of Irish Gaelic, English, Latin and enough of their own words to make it next to impossible for outsiders to understand. However the Shelta are notoriously secretive and aloof and have preferred to remain apart.

Recently there has been an attempt to add another group to the Fringe. Cumbria, a rural region on the borders of Western Scotland and England was formerly a independent Kingdom also known as Strathclyde in the early middle ages which spoke a Brythonic language separate from Gaelic or English. Surrounded and under pressure from their more numerous neighbors as well as the raiding vikings Cumbria was absorbed by the Scots by the end of the eleventh century and would later be annexed by England. It can be assumed that the Cumbrian language survived for sometime afterwards especially in rural areas but most historians agree that the Cumbrian tongue had disappeared by the 1300's leaving few written traces behind.

Cumbria however retained much of it's separateness through the seventeenth century as a remote and lawless area known for it's Border Reivers and Highwaymen. Even today it's still an isolated sparsely populated rural area with only one proper city, Carlisle, and a highly homogeneous population with little immigration. By the 1900's and the revival of Celtic culture and a romantic Pan-Celtic movement a few scholars were poking around Cumbria looking for remaining evidence of the pre-English, pre-viking era. They found Celtic place and family names, grave stones and artifacts, and a few traces of Brythonic words still in use, especially in the counting numbers used by sheppards and women doing their knitting and washing which were similar to Welsh or Cornish but different enough to point to a another source. Visitors from other parts of England have long noted (and mocked) the existence of numerous "Welsh" words which along with a thick accent made the locals virtually unintelligible. There is a funny scene in the 2006 movie "Hot Fuzz" in which the London police require an interpreter when questioning the crusty old farmers who speak in subtitles.

More recently a new generation of enthusiasts led by researcher Anthony Ap Anthony O Rheged have insisted that after searching through a number of historical documents and records enough evidence exists of a separate language and culture as well as a past political independence to qualify Cumbria as a separate Celtic Nation, which they refer to as Cwmbria and they have set to work reconstructing and promoting a workable Cumbrian Language. In the past such efforts would have carried out by a few poets and scholars writing densely reasoned articles and obscure poems for little-read journals, holding quaint festivals, and teaching language courses. Today's Cumbric Revival Network has used all of these tools with a magazine and a publishing house which has one title to it's credit ("The Dragon's voice") with more planned but has also added a distinctly modern tool, social networking websites. Beside making use of the usual Myspace, Facebook and Twitter sites, this summer Rheged started up the Cumbric Revival Network, a Myspace or Facebook style social networking site for the purpose of promoting his vision of a Cumbric nationhood connected to the recognized nations of the Celtic Fringe, especially the Brythonic ones. The site ( ) functions as other social networking sites does, with profile pages, friend requests, blogs, photo albums and so forth. As a new movement the group is thus far quite small and a long way off from receiving the kind of recognition that is given to the Cornish or Manx but they are off to an enthusiastic and inovative start.

Even without the use of unorthodox tactics the whole concept of a separate Cumbrian language is controversial. Many linguists insist that there is simply not enough evidence to reconstruct a long dead language. Welsh historians in particular insist that Cumbrian was never a real language at all, but rather a dialect of Welsh. Cumbrians retort that that Cumbian had a separate existence from Welsh for several centuries, long enough to have evolved separately as Cornish did, especially when one factors in the influences from Saxon, Gaelic and Norse neighbours that would have been added over the years. As for the claim that one can not revive a dead language Cumbrians point to the example of a some of their Celtic kin. Cornish was a dead language which was resurrected by a small but dedicated group of enthusiasts in the late Victorian era and is now fully recognized by the governments of Britain and Europe and taught in Cornish schools.

However the Cornish deny that the language was truely dead at all. The Cornish language had been in steady decline for centuries with the last aged speaker, one Dolly Penreath dying in 1777, with her last words; "Me ne vidn kewsel Sowsnek!", or "I will not speak English!". However during the nineteenth century's Celtic revival researchers found a half dozen more elderly Cornish speakers the last of whom died in 1906 by which time the work of scholars was well underway. A similar case can be made for Manx which had been reduced to a single native speaker who died in 1974, again by that time much research and even recordings had been done. Since then language activists saw to it that proper dictionaries were created along with newspapers and journals and eventually language courses in schools.

The task faced by Rheged and his allies is much more uphill, there are few surviving documents with less than one hundred separate words and these are quite old and have the idiosyncratic spellings of the medieval era. Therefore there is no real way of figuring out pronouncements and accents since there have clearly not been any actual speakers around since before the industrial era notwithstanding some vague stories of isolated Cumbraic speakers in the misty hills into the Victorian era which are dismissed by most historians as unlikely. Rheged is working on a dictionary and maps with old place names, exactly the kind of scholarly base that will be needed for serious acceptance.

It's worth noting that the Cornish and Manx revivals were spearheaded by a tiny number of scholars and took many years of work before fruition, and the appetite for Celtic cultural identity is always strong. Even the English are no longer hostile to such cultural and language movements seeing them as adding to their own sense of a greater British culture that predates Saxon and Norman England, the English have always been aware of their status as latecomers to the Isles and since Victorian times have sought to add Celtic culture to their own. Besides it's good for tourism. The always practical English appreciate that sort sort of thing.

At any rate the Cumbrian revival is off to an interesting start, if successful other attempts to revive long lost languages in the internet age will no doubt follow. In Scotland itself the is Norn, the Orcadian Norse language of The Northern Islands which died out in the nineteen hundreds, or there is the little known Manx English. The possibilities of reviving some of the lost aboriginal languages of the North America also come to mind, there is in fact the case of Bungee, the Gaelic/English language of the Scotch/Metis in Manitoba which has only a few surviving speakers left.

In the meantime no word on when the hackers promoting crappy bands and "check out my hot sexxy pics" will appear as they have on Myspace and Twitter, but when they do the site will have truly arrived.
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Tuesday, 18 August 2009

RIPs to more Rock n Roll heros

Les Paul was not only one of the first electric guitar heroes, he also made all subsequent guitar heroes possible. He invented or perfected a number of inventions including the iconic Les Paul Guitar, as well as pioneering such modern recording practices as multi-tracking, overdubbing, phase delay effects, echo effects, and feedback, in some cases inventing sound tools to make use of these techniques. He also scored a series of hits as a duo with his wife Mary Ford in the early 1950's which, while not exactly rockin' did feature some spectacular guitar work that would influence future generations of Rock, Jazz and Country guitarists. He also hosted (again with Mary Ford) hit radio and TV shows in the mid-to-late 50's. He was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an "architect" and has a stand alone exhibit, an honour given as well only so far to Sam Phillips and Alan Freed. He was 94.

Les Paul Trio ~ "Dark eyes"

Mike Seeger was less well known than his famous older half-brother Pete but he was still an important fonder of the folk revival of the late 1950's & early 1960's. He played virtually every stringed insturment used in North American folk and blues music including guitar, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, autoharp, and fiddle as well as harmonica. Since 1959 he played on or produced at least a hundred recordings, mostly for Smithsonian/Folkways Records first with his band The New Lost City Ramblers or solo and with artists such as; Pop Stoneman, Hazel Dickens, Kilby Snow and Cousin Emmy. He was also an important historian, song collector and folklorist. Still active as of last year, he died of cancer at 75.

James Luther Dickenson Dickenson was a behind-the-scenes producer and songwriter from Memphis who started as a session musician playing guitar and piano for the likes of Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones (on "Wild Horses"), and The Flaming Groovies ("Teenage Head") then producing albums for Big Star, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Willy DeVille, Tav Falco, The Replacements, Green on Red, Mojo Nixon and Mudhoney. He also worked with Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder as well as recording some solo albums.

One of Dickenson's collaborators, Willy DeVille also died this month. Deville was the founder of Mink DeVille a fixture CBGB' era scene that also spawned The Ramones, Blondie, Suicide, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, Television and Robert Gordon. Like Gordon, DeVille's sound was closer to traditional Rock and Roll than punk and he later moved to New Orleans where he continued his career scoring an academy award nomination in 1987. Sometime after that I saw him do a drunken gig at the Diamond Club in Toronto where I stole one of his harmonicas after he fell off stage, which I still have.

Willy Deville ~ "Hey Joe"

Ellie Greenwhich never actually sang or played on a hit record but the Brill Building songwriter was responsible for more than her quota; "Be My Baby","River Deep Mountain High","Da Doo Ron Ron","The Leader of The Pack", dies at 68

The Shangri Las ~ "The Leader of the pack";

Sun Records Rockabilly great Billy Lee Riley who recorded the classic versions of "Red Hot" and "Flying Saucers Rock and Roll" dies at 75.

Billy Lee Riley ~ "Flying saucers rock and roll";

Deake Levin; Guitarist with Classic 1960's Seattle garage rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders, played on classics "Kicks", "Steppin Stone"," Just like me" dies at 62.

Paul Revere and the Raiders ~ "Kicks";

Doo Wop singer Johnny Carter, co-founder of 1950's The Flamingos ("I only have eyes for you"), later in the Dells after 1960 ("Oh what a night" & "There is") dies at 75.

The Flamingos (w/Alan Freed intro) ~ "Would I be crying";

Huey Long (not to be confused with the Kingfish), the last remaining member of the Ink Spots, a hugely influencial vocal pre-doo wop group of the 1930's & 40's died recently at age 104. Seriously.

The Ink Spots ~ "If I didn't care";

Jazz drummer Rashied Ali who played on the final recordings of John Cotrane as well as Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and James Blood Ullmer dies at 75.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Found; The grave of Blind Willie Johnson

Jazz, Blues, Ragtime and Country are full of Holy Grail artifacts which believers have spent years and in some cases decades in search of in the apparent hopes that finding them will open the discoverer to some sort of link to a mystical and misty musical past. Some of these icons have actually been found (photos of Robert Johnson) others have not (Edison cylinders by Buddy Bolden, recordings by ragtime pianist/composer James Scott), and then there are the lost graves of those who died in hopeless but romantic obscurity. Oddly three of the most sought after have been from Texas; namely bluesman Henry Thomas (no photos of him either by the way) and gospel bluesmen Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson. The circumstances behind the death and burial of Phillips were cleared up a few years back, and now it's the turn of Blind Willie Johnson.
Blind Willie Johnson is legendary for his harsh fire and brimstone howling and scorching slide playing backed by the plaintive keening of his wife in a series of recordings made in the 1920's. Although all of his recordings are religious in subject matter and therefore not technically blues, stylistically they are amongst the most powerful blues recordings of his, or any other era and would be covered by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, The Greatfull Dead, Nina Sinome, Rev. Gary Davis, Nick Cave, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Paul & Mary, Bruce Cockburn, Ben Harper, Beck and the White Stripes. So unique and otherworldly were his recordings that Carl Sagan insisted on including a copy in the Voyager Explorer Spacecraft disk of earth sounds along with Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong, Glen Gould, Stravinsky, Bach and Beethoven and a whole lot of world and folk music, to introduce earth culture to any possible alien explorer that may yet find it. Like most other rural performers of his era his recording career was wiped out by the great depression and he died in abject poverty in 1945 in Beaumont Texas after his house burned down and he was forced to live in the burned out ruins as he had no other place to go. He caught pnemonia and died shortly thereafter and he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
Starting with the 1960's blues revival there were attempts to locate his grave and give him a proper marker as had already been done for Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith however nobody had been able to find it until now. Blues researcher and fellow Texan Charles Ortman following on the previous searches by blues researchers Samuel Charters who had started his search in the 1950's and more recently Micheal Corcoran who had found a death certificate but gave up the search for a grave in 2003. Ortman decided that the previous failures to find a gravestone must mean that Johnson was buried in an unmarked and segregated potter's field and after a careful search of the burial records he is now convinced that he has located the grave in the "coloured" section of The Blanchette Cometary in Beaumont which is actually still separated from the "white" section by a chain link fence. In his exhaustive search Ortman made use of old industrial maps and satellite photos as well as other old documents and records.

Ortman has submitted an application to the Texas State Historical Commission (THC) which must okay any monument to built on public land. The THC is expected to give it's answer this fall and then a monument will be unveiled soon thereafter, an unknown benefactor has already pledged $1500 to erect a marker. Now Ortman can get to work finding a photo for Henry Thomas if not his grave, unless he turns out to be still alive of course.