Aengus and I went to school together at Lester B. Pearson College. The goal of our school is to connect people who will then work towards world peace. Many graduates end up carrying that level of dream in their heart, and it’s not a light burden. At a school with only 200 students, everyone knows everyone at a certain level, but we were not close. He was a year older, and we had our own circles of friends.
Ten years later, we both flew to British Columbia for our reunion, and he sang. His music hit me like a big wave of water, how the themes and voice hit my heart. We bought his first CD, Fool’s Gold, on the spot.
When we got back home, Bob caught the flu. He kept playing Aengus’ CD over and over – perhaps it is good music when you want to just lie still and get better. It definitely became deeply embedded in our lives.
Then came Aengus’ second CD, North Wind, which we quickly ordered and it also joined the soundtrack of my life.
A few times, Aengus came to Baltimore or Washington, and we tried to get to his concerts. One time, we got stuck in the most brutal traffic not far from home, so we realized we were not going to make it time and turned back.
In 2004, I heard that Aengus had given up touring in a big way because touring just kept building up debt. Being a folk musician is a blessing and a curse really – it takes such talent, but it does not often make a living. So our chances of seeing Aengus in concert seemed unlikely without a trip to Canada.
The House Concert
Tonight we attended our first house concert ever, and we learned that this is how it works in the world of folk musicians. Generous folk music fans host audiences at their homes, and folk musicians travel for miles. This concert was at a home in Columbia, Maryland, and Aengus was on the bill along with a group named the YaYas.
I wrote this on our calendar six months ago. As the date neared, the usual conundrum arose – we have no babysitters. Could we bring the kids? Nora knows the words to Aengus’ songs even better than I do – she has been listening to his songs since birth and has a natural talent for lyrics. Russell is oblivious but perhaps we could distract him with a new comic book and worst case, the iPad. We wrote the host and they said it would be fine, so we decided to go for it.
After a quick hug from Aengus, it was time for him to sing. The house had a small balcony that overlooked the living room where Aengus was singing, so we got the kids settled in up there, where they would not bother any of the other guests.
I think I had goosebumps the whole time Aengus was singing, if that is physically possible. We have heard his songs so many times at this point, I know every word. On certain songs, his voice would start to crackle with emotion, and hearing the difference from the recording made the song even more memorable.
He did not sing my absolutely favorite Aengus song, My Heart Has Wings, but he did sing Lately, which is a very close second in my books. He also told very funny stories about growing up near Grafton. He unfortunately sang Fly Away, which is a song I cannot bear to hear because it breaks my heart completely every time, and this was no exception. (And I hope it is clear, I am saying that in a teasing way, because any song that can break your heart completely after a decade is a very powerful song.)
After Aengus, the YaYas sang and they were probably on the opposite end of the folk spectrum with songs that contain many silly moments and loving teasing. While Aengus does sing about love, it is always in a way that is still breaking your heart even when it is going well! So they were actually a great contrast to each other and made for a balanced evening.
Aengus and Storytelling
As you know, storytelling is a big part of Trashmagination, and it did my heart good to hear Aengus’ stories between and in the songs. His latest CD is called Once Upon a Time, for heaven’s sake. At one point he said something about how he loves it when he stumbles on a story and how stories are everywhere. Now that is a statement in my heart too.
He sang one of his songs, O’Shaunessy’s Lament, with his guitar propped on his foot, and only his voice in the room. He told us that he was travelling near Cobalt, Ontario, when he saw a sign for Old Cemetery Road. He joked that it is a rule of folk musicians that if you see such a sign, you really must stop. He found some graves there for the O’Shaunessy family, which showed that that the mother, Rosella Mae, had died in childbirth with twins forty years before her husband. Aengus wrote a song about that family and it won the prestigious New Folk Songwriter’s Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas.
The idea that a folk musician wanders into cemeteries looking for stories makes me think about my own journey for stories, all that I have learned about that process, how passionate I am about that.
He also told the story about falling in love with a girl in grade 8 on the school bus named, yes, Carla. In the end, it did not work out for them, but Aengus borrowed her name for his song Apple Blossom Time about a young man who is rebuffed by a young girl. Bob has teased me for years that my name is in that song. Aengus said he saw the real Carla and she knows about the song, plus he named his touring van Carla. Seriously.
Aengus described giving concerts at the Kingston Penitentiary (what prisons are called in Canada). He normally avoids singing Irish classics because he did not want to be a typical Irish folk singer, but when those men demanded Danny Boy, he delivered.
He also talked about performing at senior’s homes. I won’t tell his whole story here but the song Ruins was inspired by meeting a gentleman in a senior’s home after a concert who said he wished he had burned down his farm before the bank foreclosed on it. It was a real man, and when Aengus was describing his clothing down to the tiniest detail, he was making my storyteller heart so proud.
Perhaps it is something about having Irish roots that makes one a good storyteller. Aengus said his mother used to put them to bed singing Irish murder songs. I know Newfoundland is not Ireland, and my mother certainly never sang an Irish murder song to me, but perhaps it is something about cultures which use stories to keep their hearts alive that we have in common?
Living Room Revolution
After the music, we got to talk a little bit and Aengus explained that these house concerts are the main way that folk musicians reach their audiences. It reminded me about an article that I just read a few days ago about the Living Room Revolution by the Center for the New American Dream. The author, Cecile Andrews, says “We’re taking back our living rooms—throwing out the old tyrant TV, and bringing people together in a congenial setting to talk.” Or in this case, to appreciate and support musicians.
Folk musicians also meet at regional conferences called things like the NERFA (Northeast Regional Folk Alliance) conference. At these conferences, song writers share their newest work, often around campfires. What an incredible network of creativity!
Aengus also talked about Jack Hardy, a song writer in New York City who used to host song writers to his tiny apartment. The musicians would play and get honest feedback from other writers. Aengus met Jack in Texas and didn’t know the important role that Jack had played in developing new songwriters. They just became friends. Jack passed away last year and it seems to have impacted Aengus in that he is trying to come back to his passion of sharing his music. Jack used his living room, as tiny as it was, to create a living room revolution for many young artists.
The Older Generations = The Creative Works Generations?
I couldn’t help but notice that everyone in the audience was a generation older than me. Our two children were particular odd to see in that group, even to the point where the YaYas thanked them for coming. It reminded me of my green tours and my rug hooking guild. It hit me that there may be something common across many creative disciplines right now, where the older people are the avid consumers of creative works, while the younger people are too busy surviving to be there. I want to believe it is because the younger people are too busy surviving. I don’t want to believe it is because my generation is too clued out to care or would prefer to receive everything through a screen. Because I have listened to Aengus’ music via a device for ten years, and it is not the same as hearing him in person.
It’s a bit scary to think that live performance, live tours, live classes, live guilds – are only for older people. My mother-in-law just came back from a tour of the Arctic – an incredible tour meeting cultural and natural experts, seeing the impact of climate change firsthand. And almost everyone on that ship was her age.
When I think about developing classes that I could offer at the community center in creating art from trash, I know in my heart that most of my students will be either children or the older generations. And while I have worked with both generations and love them both for their own reasons, where are my peers and those a little big younger? I know they are online, blogging, taking photos, editing video, making production companies for heaven’s sake. But are we so busy producing that we are not trying to connect with each other? The act of receiving our gifts is left only to other generations?
I thought about what it would take to host a house concert for Aengus in Virginia, and first of all, it would take a larger house than mine. I could find a venue at the community center or a friend’s house perhaps. But would my friends come? I feel like it would be such a foreign idea to them – could I fill that living room with even 35 people?
Being in that room made me realize that my generation needs to figure something out, and quick, if we are going to sustain the creative hearts of the Aengus and the Carla. Aengus told me that his heart was broken ten years ago when he had to stop touring because it cost too much. The irony is that his job now is to help other musicians apply for funding to tour with the Ontario Arts Council. So at least he helps others keep on their journey, even if doing his job disqualifies him from applying for such funding. I so want Aengus to tour because he looked so happy up there, even singing his songs of deep tragedy. I want to believe that following your heart is the right thing to do.
Thank You for the Music and all the Lessons Besides
So hooray and thank you to the people who are hosting these house concerts, giving a forum to songwriters and ensuring that their music is heard farther and wider. And thank you for letting me hear Aengus in person after a decade of listening to him via a CD. Thank you for giving Aengus a place to land, so we could come hear him. To borrow a lyric from Aengus’ song, you “gave that bird a new home.”
I only hope some day to hear him again and this time, I’ll be sure to request My Heart Has Wings.
My heart has wings, love,
Wings to carry me home,
And my heart it sings, love,
Your name is its song.
And to Aengus, I know Pearson put inside us this need to have huge dreams, and sometimes it seems like we cannot bear it, but we can. With your music and the support of friends, we can.
Visit the YaYas’ website. – We bought their Paper Boats CD and already love the songs Third Girl from the Left, All These Gifts and Last Good One.