Thursday, November 20, 2008

story songs (continued)

as i was saying...
it was a couple of months before i wrote another Donnelly song,and i must have realized it was time to come up with something with a little lighter feel to it.

the Donnellys ran a coach business, taking riders from Exeter to London and back, in direct competition with the existing Flannigan line. there was only enough business for one line, and even that was threatened by expanding rail service. there are horror stories of how the clan dealt with their competitors, including extreme vandalism, threats, arson and the slaughter of horses.

i chose to tell the story of a particular journey from the viewpoint of a woman passenger. The Donnelly coach would leave Exeter just before the Flannigan stage, and Tom would race to get to each successive stop first, having been passed by Flannigan's, which was faster because not so heavy with passengers. this made for dangerous times on the narrow roads. sure enough, Tom Donnelly tried to pass the lighter stage on the descent into Birr. the stages collided and both ended up on their sides, sliding to a stop in the village, spilling riders, baggage and barrels of vinegar on the road.

the woman and her sister successfully sued Tom Donnelly for his reckless endangerment. he paid his fifty dollars and went back to driving the stage.

the song ends the first half of the live show, on what has to pass for a lighter note, although the choruses predict the revenge to come:
"and it's only a matter of time/ 'til the next crash, the next crime
1. and the unlucky ones will pay the devil's bill
a matter of time before innocents are killed.
2. and the frustrated no longer trust the law
a matter of time before the final straw.
3. and the bravest of us sue the bloody crew
a matter of time to find what we can do.

i was beginning to look at the placement of songs, what i had and the holes i still needed to fill. thinking back, i may also have been looking for some redeeming character to concentrate on.

it is a story with no obvious "good guy": even the poor victims proved evil when they participated in the White Boys' vigilante justice.

so i latched onto Patrick Donnelly, who must have raised his share of hell by the time he left home in 1867 at the age of eighteen, but who from that point seems to have led a peaceful life. he also tried many times to convince his family to leave the district, as the troubles grew and revenge was threatened.

"Blood and Fire" is a list song: it introduces each of the seven brothers, in Patrick's voice, and the chorus tells his reason for wanting the family to escape:
"You see, i have these premonitions
of blood and fire and deathly sounds
of men in black, and Bridget screaming
then silence in the holy ground."

outlines of the boys' personalities would be listed again in "Johannah's Prayers", ie. similar information from another mouth.
if the Donnelly Project stretches to a second cd, perhaps each of the boys will get his own song.

immediately next, i wrote the song which would follow "Blood and Fire", "Nowhere at All". it tells the major point, that the feuds of Biddulph Township were not created there, but carried over from Tipperary where most of the settlers, protestant and catholic, were from.

it also outlines the particular fight between James Donnelly and Patrick Farrell, who owned the land upon which the Donnellys were squatting, and the murder of the latter by the former. this song would lead directly into "Ain't Fooling Anyone", where James dresses as a woman and hides out in the woods.

i was thinking it was time for another uptempo number. also that the story of Pat Farrell's son William being taken in by his father's enemies was too good to pass up.

how could it happen?
"How can he ride with the Donnellys?
How can we be saved,
when they recruit from our side?
His father must be spinning in his grave."

"The Ballad of Billy Farrell" poses the question, and, contrary to the songwriters' code, answers it.

at some point, i had decided there would be ten songs in total, and i was now at nine. a number of considerations resulted in the song "Wisdom":
i needed an ending song, hopefully with an a cappella chorus;
i needed to put myself in the story, to make the connection with why i wanted to tell the whole thing, because i had been robbed of the opportunity by a head-in-the-sand education system;
i wanted to acknowledge that, as inevitable as the snowballing criminality may have seemed, the massacre might have been avoided had the Donnellys heeded the visions of their son Patrick.

i also had a timely bit of inspiration which jumpstarted the song. i saw my pal KC at the Minesing Unplugged Festival, where he was signed up for my songwriting workshop. he had recently visited the cemetery in Lucan, and told me that visitors were in the habit of throwing coins on the Donnelly graves, in order to fend off bad luck.

lightbulb! that would become the coda, repeated a capella with the choir:
"I'm throwing coins on your grave
to ward off the evil here
to find the wayward truth
the unlikely wisdom there."

once again, other things fell into place as well. when i figured out what year it would have been when Pat left home at eighteen, it turned out to be 1867, the year of confederation. so i placed myself as a teenager (which i was) in centennial year, 1967, at the cemetery (which i wasn't), thinking about him, why i hadn't been taught the history, thinking about making my way from my family, thinking about writing songs...

it feels to me like a very powerful way to end. i hope it does as well for listeners and folks at the shows.

speaking of the cd, i just found out yesterday that it is being picked up by CBC Radio, nation-wide.

first one to hear a song on the radio and let me know wins a free cd!

thanks for reading. now go write something.

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