Wednesday, September 10, 2008

what's in it for me?

this is me relaxing at Shelter Valley Folk Festival, where i let other performers entertain me as my ever-expanding fame and fortune rolled on out...

hyperbole is the constant friend of the songwriter. but things are starting to happen for me, as the cd gets into more hands and pairs of ears. and life falls into place and offers opportunities to advance itself, much as a song does.

this is how Art meets life. about six years ago. i finally got around to writing a song in response to Steve Earle's ironically-titled "Justice in Ontario", which had pissed me off some time before. In it were three stories from our province where justice was not served, including the massacre of the Donnellys of Lucan.

now, we weren't taught about the Donnellys in school, as it was a shameful chapter in our history. but i had learned enough to know that the Donnellys had terrorized Biddulph Township for close to forty years and had paid little for their crimes. Earle sang something along the lines of "Sure, James was no angel, but he didn't deserve to die". my immediate response was "Well, Steve, you Yankee hypocrite, actually he did. " James was sentenced to hang for killing the man who had held title to the land upon which Donnelly was squatting. his wife Johannah took a petition to the Attorney General, Sir John A. MacDonald, who commuted the sentence to seven years in Kingston. by the time he got out, Johannah had raised their "seven divils" to carry on the family tradition of arson, terror and dirty tricks.

the law was useless in most of their attempts to curtail the boys' activities. no matter how many times they were in court, the usual outcome was a slap on the wrist or meaningless fine. a couple of the sons did time, but returned to pick up the slack.

the local priest took it upon himself to institute the Biddulph Peace Society, otherwise known as the Vigilance Committee, hoping that by organizing the townsfolk in large numbers against the Blackfeet clan, the latter would give up and leave.

but the Donnellys and their friends stood firm. mounting frustration of the "White Boys"
finally culminated in the indefensible massacre on the night of February 3, 1880.

there was a young eyewitness to the horrible scene, who by all accounts was entirely credible. Johnny O'Connor named the few men that he had seen clearly, and James Carroll in particular, as the obvious leader of the mob.

the first trial ended in a hung jury, the second in a finding of Not Guilty. Carroll went free, and no one was ever punished for the five deaths that night.

i wrote "Hang the Jury" from the view of a fictional juror in the first trial, caught between relief that the terrible Donnellys had been despatched, and fear of reprisals from the White Boys should they manage to convict any of their lot.

that was how i was able to find the "truth" in the two sides of the story which Earle had turned into one. i had to inhabit a character, imaginary though he might be, in order to imagine what it might have been like to live in those times.

that was a watershed moment for me, in many ways. i learned how to write a powerful story, working from emotion. i went on to write many more very different songs, with greater confidence and conviction.

five years later, i revisited the stories in Ray Fazakas' The Donnelly Album, thought rather naiively that it might be fun to embark on a "project", and found myself soon in the grip of my own obsession with the stories and finding a faithful way to bring them to life. i wrote nine more songs, recruited Susan Charters to furnish stories to intersperse with the music, and arranged for a few very talented friends (Alyssa Wright, Carol Teal, Jennifer Ives, Don Bray, Scotty Thomas) to play, sing, record and produce. we invited our friends to come to two shows in December, 2007, which were recorded live, then engineered and mastered by the wonderful

Mr. Bray. another friend, Robin Hadfield did the art and duplication, and hey presto! i have my first cd: Blood and Fire: the Donnelly Project.

but then what? i had dreamed about, and then worked at, getting the damn thing out there for so long that i hadn't really considered what to do with it. the thing had had so much momentum, i guess i thought it would just carry on somehow. but that's not how it works.

so it's taken a while. starting this blog got me thinking about putting myself out there, sharing the gift of homemade music. then a few practical things to get the cd into the hands of those who might most be interested and help spread the word. and it's beginning to pay off.

i was surprised how gratified i was when i received my first library order - four cds for the collection at the London Public Library (London is the big town south of Lucan). i love libraries. and i love the thought of my writing and performance being a part of a "collection" of materials to inform and entertain anyone and everyone.

i've also sent one to the museum in Lucan, which includes a log home much like the one in which four of the Donnellys died. and Susan and i are booked for a show in nearby St. Mary's in April.

when i addressed the cd mailer "Lucan, ON", there was a rather chilling moment when it hit me: "this is where it all happened". even after all this time, i am still extremely moved by the power of the stories. and very happy that i embarked on this arduous, joyous journey.

this is what songwriting can do for you.

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