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Rippling the pond
by Jez Lowe

The image of watching ripples spreading across a pool of water is almost too much of a cliché, one which I would shy away from using in a verse of a song despite the fact that it is an attractive one, and one which is often EXACTLY right for what a writer might have in mind at the time.

But that was the image that came to me as I sat in warm sunshine outside a bar in a back street in a small town in Denmark, looking at the cover of a CD I'd just been given by a group of Danish musicians called Drones and Bellows, thrust eagerly into my hand as I'd stepped off the plane on my very first visit to their country. They had recorded one of my songs, you see, and were keen to let me hear it, and keen to thank me for writing the song in the first place. And it's a good version too, with all the lyrics more or less intact, and great playing and singing with a trace of Danish accent on the vocals that seems quite appropriate on a song called "The Bergen," about a fishing boat from Finland that was wrecked off the North East Coast of England a hundred years ago.

Ok, so these people are Danish and the boat was Finnish, but it's close enough in my eyes. And dazzlingly incredible, too, since when I wrote the song in my front room in a little house in England back in 1986, I never dreamed that any of these events would come to pass: that I would be playing at a massive festival in Denmark, that other people would be there singing these little songs of mine, and that the songs would obviously mean as much to a bunch of strangers as they did to me.

As it turned out, this Danish group had never even heard me sing the song, either in person or on record. They had heard it from a bunch of American women who had in turn heard it from a group of Scotsmen who had heard it from another bunch of Scotsmen who had got it from a woman at a folk club in Edinburgh. I don't know where she heard it, but I hope that I appear in this family tree of sources somewhere down the line ­ presumably I must be in there somewhere, but evidently at the bottom of a pretty big heap. It's an amazing feeling.

Hence my allusion to the ripples on a pond: The song plopping from my pen into the "folk pool" and the ripples hitting all these people, eventually reaching the McCalmans, then the Tannahill Weavers, then Cherish the Ladies, and then Drones and Bellows, back and forth across the Atlantic without any further input from me.

All weekend at that music festival in Tonder, Denmark, I could hear the same thing happening all the time with other songs, from stages, bars, tents and campsites ­ I don't mean MY songs, I mean the folk songs of Ireland and America and Scotland and England and Denmark, passed around like currency, changed and shaped and reshaped again and again, allowing strangers to sit down with strangers and share words and melodies common to all of them, or learn new ones that took their fancy. And so it was that I found myself before 3,000 people, singing a song by Bob Dylan, and backed by 20 musicians from six different countries, most of whom I'd never met before, some of whom didn't even speak Dylan's native language, but all of them joining in and knocking the hell out of heaven's door with a 3,000-voice chorus thrown in.

Now, I'm obviously not saying anything remarkable here, nothing that Pete Seeger, Alex Campbell, and a hundred others haven't said before more eloquently than me. And I also must admit that if I'd heard one more version of "Whiskey in the Jar" sung with a German accent and a dozen thrashing guitars, there would have been some kind of international incident!

But it was remarkable to feel part of it, tangibly, at that very moment ­ that the pebble had dropped and the ripples were going onward and outward, unstoppable, millions of them, a million songs, a million voices. It was probably just too much free Danish beer, but it taught me a lesson that I'd forgotten, and that I needed to brush up on, that THIS was the point of the music. People Music. You know, like Folk Music.

Unfortunately, we never even got to play my song "The Bergen" that weekend, just never got around to it. Instead, at around 4 a.m. on Monday morning, as the festival drew to a beer-fueled close and the last few die-hards strummed with a vengeance, I found myself scraping the guts out of an upside-down guitar and harmonising badly with a very hairy guy from Hamburg on a rather splendid version of "Whiskey in the Jar." Great song!

[© 2001 Jez Lowe]

With a dozen albums to his credit and frequent tours solo and with his band, The Bad Pennies, England's Jez Lowe has created a body of musical work and a following that span both Atlantic and Pacific. His 1986 album with hurdy-gurdy player Jake Walton, Two a Roue, is available for the first time on CD. See CD reviews on this site. Learn more about this remarkable musician by visiting http://www.jezlowe.com.

Comments? E-mail the editor at djohnson@folklinks.com.

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