1. This week was a big week for gunslinger, gambler and lawman Bat Masterson. This week he paid an 8 dollar fine for firing a gun on the streets of Dodge City, the “Cowboy Capitol” of Kansas. As with most of the facts surrounding Wild West legends, it is almost impossible to truly know what happened during this shootout. The men he was shooting at survived, though one of them pitched forward, shot through the lung. According to the wounded man himself, the shot that downed him came from elsewhere — people up and down the main street had taken sides in the battle and there was quite a bit of enthusiastic gunfire. This event is referred to as ‘The Battle of the Plaza’ and it’s considered Bat Masterson’s last gunfight — he lived almost a full forty years afterwards and became eventually became a popular sports-writer in New York.

    The men he was shooting at were business partners of his brother, Jim Masterson. Bat had been running gambling tables at a saloon in Tombstone, Arizona when he received an anonymous telegram from Dodge City — “Come at once, Updegraff and Peacock are going to kill Jim.” Bat immediately headed for Dodge, and with a measure of devious caution decided to step off of the train as it pulled into town — before it reached the station. Seeing Al Updegraff and A. J. Peacock walking together in the direction of the depot Masterson hailed them boldly, at which point guns were drawn — Masterson ducked behind the raised railroad bed, his two opponents took cover behind the jail. Bullets flew everywhere, knocking out windows, and inspiring others to join in the general melee. When the mayor arrived, Masterson surrendered his now-emptied six-guns. Updegraff recovered, dying peaceably enough of smallpox a few years later. Jim and Bat left town.

    In August of 1881, a New York Sun reporter looking for Wild West material in Colorado sat with a certain Dr. W. S. Cockrell while the good doctor spun out an epic yarn about Bat Masterson. The story was exactly what the reporter was looking for and painted Bat Masterson as a dangerous killer: in Cockerell’s story Bat avenged Jim’s death in Dodge City by killing both Updegraff and Peacock; in the New York Sun account, Masterson had killed 26 people all told. More recent scholarship has gone through various legal records and debunked the legend — accounts seem to point to only six occasions on which Bat Masterson fired a weapon at anyone that the law felt was important to take notice of. Of those six instances it’s possible he only actually killed one or two people.

    One of the dangers of relying too heavily on the internet for one’s information is a sort of wishful-thinking cloud that begins to surround a topic. A sort of mob-rule judgement is passed on an concept, and in this case folks seem to be so charmed by the idea that we have now ‘proven’ that Bat Masterson’s reputation as a killer was founded entirely on one tall tale published by a misguided New Yorker, such that, over and over one finds this same depiction reiterated all over the web. Wikipedia tells us that “Indian-fighting aside, he used a firearm against a fellow man on just six occasions” but many of the people repeating this information leave off the Indian fighting and with a sort of racist forgetfulness emphasize the ‘fellow man’ part of that sentence.

    Bat Masterson was a participant in the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in which 14 Anglo riflemen held off a siege of about two hundred Southern Plains Indians. Masterson and his compatriots were in the area slaughtering buffalo — selling the hides was a lucrative business; the Indians recognized the wholesale eradication of their main food supply as essentially an act of war and responded with religious zeal. Wave after wave of horsemen assailed the white men and were gunned down. Every white person killed has been recorded in this conflict (four, although one of these deaths was accidentally self-inflicted) but there is no record of how many Indians died in the six days of shooting. I’m going to assume that Bat Masterson, held to be a crack shot with a rifle, having spent the last little while practicing on buffalo, well-armed and firing from the protection of an adobe building likely killed more than one, probably more than six, maybe even more than 26 of the gathered Comanches.

    I find I’m dwelling on this issue and perhaps it’s because we’re coming up into the thick of Easter season. I find that, as heroes go, Jesus stands out as a character who isn’t credited with killing anyone — at least during his lifetime — and who stood out as advocating a lifestyle wherein you ought not to kill anyone. And here I am in the United States of America that holds itself as being pretty solidly Christian and yet our heroes are far from holding to what I consider to be Christianity’s most impressive principle, that whole “do unto others as you would have done to yourself.” Instead, we stand firm in our belief in the underlying motto of the Wild West — “do unto others as you expect they want to do unto you.”

    Bat Masterson outlived his gunfighting career. Masterson’s showdown with Updegraff and Peacock took place the day before Easter, I’m not sure that has any significance really, but after that shootout he apparently did not feel the need to draw a gun on anyone — though of course he traded on his reputation strongly. He worked as a lawman for a bit, bought and ran the Palace Variety Theater in Denver Colorado, made money gambling and managing prizefighters and then finally parleyed his notoriety into a writing career out East. He died peaceably at his desk in the offices of the New York Morning Telegraph, writing an article that included the following statement — a statement I would feel very proud of if I could manage something as pithy for my final words: “There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose the ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I’ll swear I can’t see it that way.” Now that’s a pretty sentiment I feel, especially for us to consider in the run up to Easter.

    The music I made this week is a selection of tunes I feel would be suitable for a scene set in Masterson’s Palace Variety Theater, circa 1888. Masterson would have been wooing the woman he later called his wife at this time, she was a singer and indian-club juggler with a nine month engagement at the theater. The song and two tunes would have already seemed a little old-fashioned at the time, but sentimentality works fine even amongst rough-necked gamblers and cattlemen. The song is “Love Launched a Fairy Boat” composed for the stage sometime in the 1860’s and the tunes are the Acrobat’s Hornpipe and President Garfield’s Hornpipe found in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection.

  2. image: Download

    The mockingbird my cat dragged in.

    The mockingbird my cat dragged in.

  3.      April 8th is Draw A Bird Day. Really, no fooling. Go draw a bird.

    The story goes like this — a young girl, 7 years old, her name’s Dorie Cooper, she’s visiting her uncle in the hospital. This is in England, shortly after the World War II, her uncle is a veteran, he’s lost a leg. He’s battered down, body and mind brutalized, England has won the fight but what kind of victory is it, to be laid so low. His niece doesn’t know anything about all that. She wants him to draw her a bird. “Draw me a bird.” “I don’t draw, I mean, I don’t know how.” “Draw me a bird!” He draws the bird. “That’s not very good. But I’ll keep it. I’ll take it home and hang it on my wall.” That’s an odd kind of victory — acceptance. You don’t know how to draw a bird? Doesn’t mean you can’t do it. You don’t know how to live on, after you’ve had your right leg taken away. But you can still do it.

    The interchange seems to electrify the other soldiers at the hospital. They all start drawing birds. Every time Dorie comes to visit there’s a stack of new bird drawings. Is it a competition? Or just something to do? Proof, proof that life is an ongoing process — it’s good for morale. One might take this story as nothing more than good natured post-war propaganda — a bit of human interest fluff to get your mind off the pain and horror. But the story doesn’t end there. Three years later, Dorie is ten. And she gets killed in a car crash. Pain and horror doesn’t just get switched off now that the war is over. Her little coffin goes to rest, filled with pictures of birds. Family, friends, soldiers, the doctors and nurses at the hospital.

    Odd little world we live in. Birds represent a lot of things to us earth-bound monkeys. That dove coming to Noah with the olive branch, signaling a reprieve, a momentary token of peace amidst God’s murderous wrath. Eagles as symbols of power and strength, protection of an empire, conquest. Some of the earliest birds ever drawn by people are found at a site in Turkey, dating back to 7000 years BC. Catal Huyuk was a settlement of people who were just making the transition from nomad hunters to settled agriculturalists. The birds they drew were red vultures swooping above the bodies of headless people.

    I promise I’m not being needlessly morbid here. I think there was a very particular celebration of life in the red vultures at Catal Huyuk. People die. But life subsists every day on death. The vultures take their sustenance and soar brilliantly up into the sky. Zoroastrianism still holds this spectacle sacred. There are perhaps only 150,000 adherents left of this ancient Persian faith, mostly in Iran and Pakistan, and not all live in areas where this particular rite can be practiced, but the faithful believe that evil rushes into a body after death and that this corruption pollutes the world. Burying the dead would only prolong this pollution and this evil can even contaminate fire — so the dead are exposed on special towers to be carried away bit by bit by scavenger birds.

    Things with wings are messengers from somewhere beyond the everyday, and perhaps they will carry us away someday, to someplace beyond the experience of our-feet-firmly-on-the-ground. Birds represent imagination. And, as I am a musician, their ability to fly is matched in this respect with their ability to sing. Birdsong is a music people were listening to before we became people. In a way it may have helped us to become people.

    Scientists have been mapping the parts of a songbirds brain that are active when they sing, and find that these parts are the same as the part of our brains that learn and structure our language. Lots of animals have signal-sounds they make, and in some cases these calls have greater shades of meaning than we might expect: vervet monkeys make specific noises that don’t just alert their friends to the presence of a predator but specify whether the predator is a snake, an eagle or a leopard. Prairie dogs apparently have calls that tell their friends what color of predator to look out for. But birds compulsively combine and recombine their vocabularies, they seem to exult in the artistry of their songs; the human brain seems to have evolved to combine these two different levels of talking, the more basic level of signal-sound utterances which operate on what some scientists call the “lexical” level, which we then take to a more bird-like process, the “expression level”, where we exult in the possibilities of exploring and playing with communication — as a game, as an art.

    My musical offering this week is my attempt to copy the cadence and rush of birds singing, I was surprised how listening to a collection of recorded birdsongs made my head swim as I tried madly to puzzle out the various things being said — much like being in a room (or a city) full of folks speaking a language you don’t know. I don’t think any of us can remember what it was like to learn our first language — as children, but as a musician I’ve definitely tried to put myself in that position, sitting in rooms full of people playing fiddle tunes I’ve never heard and trying to start copying the sounds as I hear them.

    I was trying to think of the bird I would draw for today, and then my cat made the decision by bringing me the mockingbird that had been chattering in the tree by my front door all morning. When I was a kid I loved looking at the paintings of birds by famous naturalist John James Audubon, and later I was kind of horrified to learn that all his birds were painted from corpses — he went out and shot all those gorgeous creatures. And, in an odd way that’s what any representation of a bird is — a bird that isn’t moving is a dead bird. Photographs, paintings, drawings of birds, the more “life-like” the depiction the more lifeless it seems, because it’s impossible to capture the constant vibrant movement that a bird represents.

    When I heard about Draw A Bird Day, before I’d read Dorie Cooper’s story, I had no idea I’d be writing such a meditation on death. My mockingbird, so impossibly active, combining the songs of every other bird he’d ever heard and quiet now. The population of scavenger birds in North India has nearly
    disappeared completely, mostly because of veterinary use of dioclofenac drugs in livestock — the Zoroastrian faithful have had to turn to other methods to dispose of their dead. So let me leave you with these words from Walt Whitman, here at the beginning of spring as we pick ourselves out of the teeth of winter:

       What do you think has become of the young and old men?
       And what do you think has become of the women and children?

       They are alive and well somewhere;
       The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
       And if ever there was, it lead forward life,
          and does not wait at the end to arrest it                                                    

    And cease’d the moment life appear’d.

    All goes onward and outward — nothing collapses;
      And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.

  5. Here — some foolishness for All Fools Day.  These are the minutes from a secret planning session held at Greasy Coat Productions, April 1st, 2003.   Sitting in a porch swing is Artistic Director, Ezekiel Reese Jackson, discussing matters of grave cultural import with his Ombudsman and Treasurer, Walter ‘Wally” Stamper.

    Ezekiel Reese Jackson: Let me tell you what, I’m hoppin’ mad today — hoppin’ mad.

    Wally Stamper: Hoppin’ huh?

    ERJ: That’s right!

    WS: What’s got you riled, son?

    ERJ: I seen it on the news — how they’re gonna make a movie of that novel.

    WS: What, another Tom Clancy?

    ERJ: No man, don’t you pay attention to none of this local news? — I mean that Charles Frazier book what Oprah liked so well. Takes place over on Cold Mountain.

    WS: Cold Mountain? — over by Waynesville?

    ERJ: That’s the one.

    WS: Waynesville’s in a novel?

    ERJ: Not Waynesville per se — up on the mountain.

    WS: What’s this book called?

    ERJ: Well sir, its called Cold Mountain.

    WS: Oh! — that book! Cold Mountain, sure… some feller gets back from the Civil War and runs up into a bunch of adventures all in the woods and such: like a North Carolina version of the Odyssey by Homer — ‘course i remember that book.

    ERJ: Well, they gonna make a movie.

    WS: Is that so. Alright. Who’s gonna play the chicken?

    ERJ: Chicken?

    WS: Yeah — best part of that book, some soldier gets his brains blowed out, and this chicken hops down and starts peckin’ at ‘em. Just exactly like a chicken would do. So who’s gonna play the chicken?

    ERJ: Hell, they ain’t gonna put that in a movie!

    WS: Why, ain’t they got chickens in Hollywood? I know they got chickens in Hollywood. The place is full up with chickens. Chickens and waffles!

    ERJ: Can’t you be serious for a minute — it ain’t the chicken I’m worried about, it’s the mountain. Who’s gonna play the mountain?

    WS: What kinda serious are you bein’? Whatd’ye mean, play the mountain?

    ERJ: Here we got a story set in the unspoilt wildernesses of western North Carolina, and they gonna pick up all these rockstars and Hollywood starlets and whatnot and haul the whole mess out to some backwoods in Romania to shoot this movie.

    WS: They ain’t gonna shoot the movie in Waynesville?

    ERJ: No! With all the God-granted tax-breaks the great state of North Carolina hands out to get filmakers to make their movies here — and I know I don’t have to make the list out for you: Deliverance, Last of the Mohicans, The Fugitive, Nell…

    WS: Don’t forget that Werner Von Herzog movie.

    ERJ: Which one?

    WS: The one with the chicken.

    ERJ: Oh, yeaaah — the one with the chicken, down in Cherokee… But, c’mon — I mean it, I’m serious, all those movies — if they need a temperate hardwood forest they just pack up the production and come see us, but here we have a movie that’s actually set right here: wild and wonderful Western North Carolina — Haywood County for cryin’ out loud — and they’ve got the nerve, the unmitigated gall to snatch that bone out from under our noses and go traipsing off to dang Romania.

    WS: They got rhododendrons in Romania?

    ERJ: I don’t know.

    WS: They got chickens in Romania?

    ERJ: I don’t doubt they do, but that’s not my point. My point is: it’s criminal! They should have a dang civil rights tribunal at the dang Hague!

    WS: You gonna sue for reparations?

    ERJ: You’re dang right I am! Hollywood owes us!

    WS: Maybe they’s a movie set in Romania they could shoot here. Like a Draculer movie? They always makin’ new Draculer movies, seem like.

    ERJ: I got my eyes on somethin’ bigger.

    WS: Bigger’n Draculers?

    ERJ: Mm. That’s right. Better than Draculer — Elves. Elves and Goblins. And Dragons and Trolls and such!

    WS: Now what are you on about?

    ERJ: I say if they’re gonna outsource Cold Mountain, I want ‘em to insource that Hobbit movie they gonna make.

    WS: You mean all that Lord of the Rings mess? They already shootin’ those movies down in ol’ New Zealand.

    ERJ: And what has New Zealand got that we ain’t? They can’t be any more backwoods and third-world than Appalachia! We got wild woods and mountains and taxbreaks for Hollywood.

    WS: I don’t know, Reese. I’m pretty sure they already bought New Zealand a couple of times over with them movies.

    ERJ: So we gotta show ‘em. Greasy Coat Productions gonna get into the movie biz’ness. We’ll make a little demo film and give it to that Peter Jackson feller and he’ll see.

    WS: You sayin’ we oughta dress up in chainmail and bathrobes, go out in the woods and bust each other up with swords and such?

    ERJ: That’s about the size of it.

    WS: What we gonna do for Hobbits?

    ERJ: We got all kinds’a short hairy hippies livin’ in these woods, we’ll just go down to the Jackson Co. Farmers Market and scoop some up. And we wont stop there — there’s all kinda orc-looking sons-a-bitches on any given day or night at the Walmart. We’re set!

    WS: Ain’t there a volcano in this movie? Don’t the main Hobbit guy throw his magic ring and that gimp-slave frog-boy Gollum down in a volcano at the end of the movie?

    ERJ: Your cousin Jeff works at the paper mill in Canton. Any scenes we need steam and smoke and pits of hell in we’ll go over to Canton.

    WS: Dang son — you seem kinda like a genius when I squint at ye in just the right light….

    ERJ: Way I see it, they’s only two things our Lord-o’-the-Rings-type movie needs, that’s a bunch a big old trees and a sweeping epic soundtrack. Trees we got. And guess what buddy? We run a music production company, all we need is to get a buncha’ the guys down here in the studio and they’ll whip us up a stunner, a real Hollywood Swords-and-Sorcery stunner!

    WS: What, all these danged hillbilly bands? You figgering on cotton-eye-joe and Rocky Top for your soundtrack?

    ERJ: Hell, we can make do. Our mountain music will be perfectly suitable for this demo tape — Appalachian music got all kindsa’ Dungeons-and-Dragonsy Scotch-Irish roots: that’ll garnish up the proceedings just dandy. Now finish up your beer and let’s get going, I wanna talk to Jimmy Squarefoot over on the reservation, I figure we can get all his Cherokee friends to play the Elven-folk — they got a ton of practice bein’ magical woodland peoples.

    Our musical selection this week is a smidgin of that Swords-and Sorcery soundtrack, full of fulminatin’ supernatural bombast and rooted directly in these Southern highlands, to whit: a fiddle tune called ‘June Apple’ and an old shape note gospel tune ‘When Sorrows Encompass Me Round.’

  6. Books designed and printed by William Morris.

  7. William Morris

    March 24th, 1834 was William Morris’ birthday — he was born 180 years ago.  I have always been vaguely aware of who he was — an artist, right?  He had some bee in his bonnet about how the world would be a better place if we all went back to the Middle Ages.  He thought medieval craft guilds were the way for artists to combat the rising tide of industrial mass-produced home furnishings and textiles and architecture and well, everything; after all, in the mid 1800’s England and the rest of the industrialized world was just getting used to the idea that science and industry were going to change forever the look, feel, pace and spirit of everyday life.  William Morris designed textiles, wallpaper — did some book illustrations, got artists together in a commune or something, didn’t he have a big beard?

    Alright then.  William Morris was a ridiculously energetic man.  He was the sort of vast overachiever who likely would never have got as much done if he wasn’t already well-off from birth.  Son of a well-to-do businessman, he went to Oxford where he and his set of friends took the writings of John Ruskin very much to heart.  Ruskin was an Oxford graduate, and had recently published a three-volume work called “the Stones of Venice”; Ruskin’s meditations on the architectural history of Venice were also a critique of the elements that led to the cultural decline of Venice, elements that he felt were now in operation in Victorian England.  Ruskin presented a view of the Renaissance that saw the Late Renaissance as a time of arrogance and corruption but he idealized the period just before the Renaissance, the High and Late Middle Ages as a time of vibrant artistic expression, which found its greatest expression in the craftsmen who all banded together in guilds to produce the great Gothic cathedrals.

    Morris’ Arts and Craft movement as well as his contemporaries in the Pre-Raphaelite movement were greatly influenced Ruskin’s depiction of the Gothic cathedrals being built by ‘free’ artisans banding together for a higher purpose, a glorification of the spiritual, a demonstration of civic virtue.  Ruskin counted a love of nature as among the traits of the Gothic artisan, as well as a wildness of spirit, and all these attributes were ones that he saw as endangered in the increasingly mechanized and industrialized society of Victorian England.  The stratification of society was already intense but industrialization was creating a separation between creative thought and the work of implementation that would impoverish English culture entirely:

         “We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.” — Ruskin from ‘The Nature of the Gothic.’

    Another great thinker who concerned himself, not so much with art history and aesthetics, but thoroughly with the separation of the working class from the class who directs their labors, was Karl Marx, who had just arrived in England in 1849, after being run out of Berlin and Paris amidst political turmoil and unrest.  Marx lived out the last thirty years of his life in London, writing and organizing, and under his influence, Morris became an avowed Socialist.  And, as is often the case in matters of societal reform, well-placed people with means and education frequently make the lasting changes in a struggle to balance cultural inequalities.  There is a certain disparity, even hypocrisy, in the ardour with which Morris championed the cause of handicrafts as a moral alternative to the machine-made products of modern factories: he did, after all, run a factory himself, albeit one housed in beautiful renovated buildings a century old; he may have been intimately involved with all the processes that went on there, but the factory was by no means a worker-owned cooperative.  Morris was a wealthy and successful business owner, and likely this is how he was able to have such a lasting effect as an artist-craftsman and socialist organizer.

    Morris’ idealized vision of the Middle Ages as a time dominated by chivalry and a sort of Marxist art-communism seems relatively silly, and yet it was a vision that inspired him to action.  I know plenty of folks who dabble in equally silly medievalist fantasy, and I find I have much more respect for Morris and his work than I do for the legions of hobbyists who play Dungeons and Dragons and go to Renaissance Fairs.  J.R.R Tolkien, author of the wildly popular Lord of the Rings, was thoroughly influenced by Morris’ many books of knights-errant fiction, but — as much as I loved growing up with Tolkien’s books — there is very little of what I would term worthwhile social commentary in them.  Maybe the tree-giant Ents winning out against the evil machines of Saruman counts, but honestly the relentless feudalism plus the very pale-skinned elves as paragons of virtue versus the just plain evil orc-warriors of the Dark Powers makes for a somewhat questionable message, somewhat contrary to a international workers movement.

    I find I have talked more about the folks that influenced William Morris and even the folks he himself has influenced, but not a great deal about the man himself.  And I don’t think I can take a great deal of time to remedy that.  Suffice to say, he wrote a great deal of poetry that was best-selling in his time; his medieval-flavored fiction can be seen as a starting point for modern sword-and-sorcery fantasy, while his novel ‘News from Nowhere’ (1890) is a utopian science-fiction work, in which he creates a future world based on his medievalist-marxist fantasy.  He sparked a crafts revival, that we can see as ongoing today, by making a prosperous business in tapestries and textiles, wallpaper design and manufacture, stained glass, as well as a publishing venture that designed, printed and bound incredibly beautiful books.  His statement “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” is an often quoted maxim in architecture and interior design.  He was instrumental in forming the Socialist League as well as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. 

    This week’s musical offering is one of Morris’ poems, presented in a style as close to 14th century style as I can get it.  Our knowledge of what music was like in Morris’ beloved Middle Ages, specifically the era of Chaucer and the great Gothic cathedrals comes to us mostly through church music of the time.  Here is “A Garden by the Sea” (published in 1891) with a melody adapted from a devotional song collected in the famous Red Book of Montserrat (likely compiled in 1399.)  Thanks, and as always, feel free to put a dollar in the monkey’s hat.

    Listen/purchase: Though the Apple Boughs are Bare… by greasy coat productions

  9. The Salamanca

    With St Patrick’s Day coming on a Monday this year, we have had a nice long St Patrick’s Day weekend, and that has meant lots and lots of playing the fiddle, thank goodness.  The Salamanca is an Irish reel — it has always been a favorite of mine, and I have always been intrigued by its name.  I know the tune from playing at sessions in New York City, I would beg whoever was leading off the fiddling to tell me the names of the tunes and then I’d go home and brush up on them as best as I could, often looking them up in O’Neill’s Music of Ireland, the famous compendium of Irish tunes put together and published in 1903.  The Salamanca is in there amongst the reels, and oddly, out of the 380 or so reels in that book, there are only about 50 of them that have names that mention the names of towns and cities — names like The Boys of Ballinchalla, The Wexford Lasses, the Mullingar Races, Within a Mile of Dublin — and all of these towns and cities are in Ireland.  The only reel named after a city outside of Ireland seems to be the Salamanca — that’s the capital of Salamanca province in northwestern Spain.

    What was the connection?  Why would Irish tunesmiths find such magic in the name of this Spanish town that they would immortalize it so?  The tune became very popular — it was published in a lot of books — soon after the Battle of Salamanca, 1812, wherein the Duke of Wellington routed French forces thereby turning the tide in the Peninsular wars.  So that’s British forces coming out on top, after a lot of heavy slogging, in their struggle to defeat Napoleon’s thus far quite successful domination of Spain and Portugal.  There were likely Irishmen on both sides of this battle — Ireland was officially made part of the United Kingdom in 1801, and had been uncomfortably lorded over by the English crown for six and a half centuries previous.  Wellington’s army is described as 30% Irish — being in the army meant steady pay and a chance to get away from the grinding poverty of Ireland.  France was however a Catholic nation, and there were definitely Irishmen who joined the French armies in hopes that a Napoleonic defeat of Britain would win freedom for Ireland from British Protestant domination.  So the decisive defeat of the French at Salamanca would have stood out in Irish imaginations for many reasons, many of them conflicting.

    It is certainly possible that the Salamanca Reel commemorated this important battle — perhaps it was even written by a lucky Irish veteran — but the Irish interest in the city of Salamanca goes deeper than that.  It is worth mentioning that the very earliest settlement known where Salamanca  is today was a Celtic fort built before the Romans got there, though that wasn’t any kind of common knowledge to your average Irish fiddler I’m sure.  Celtic peoples were in evidence all over Western Europe before the Romans came a-subjugating.  An Irish soldier on either side of the Napoleonic conflict likely would have an entirely different reason to know about Salamanca — in the mid 1500’s English attempts to consolidate their control over Ireland took on a religious aspect with Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England.  Now the Catholics of Ireland could be pushed around with even more righteous zeal.  Spain and France, England’s longtime commercial and political rivals looked for any chance to encourage their Catholic bretheren in Ireland hoping to keep the British Crown uneasy.  Under Queen Elizabeth and King James II the monastic schools that trained priests in Ireland were shut down entirely, and in response, special Irish Colleges were set up in Catholic centers all over Europe.  One of the first and most famous was the Irish College at Salamanca, which was up and running by 1593.

    So, the best and the brightest were sent forth to learn their trade in exile, to return essentially as secret agents of Ireland’s outlawed faith, and Salamanca stood as a shining beacon of hope to many in this time of troubles.  We have no record of a Salamanca reel predating the wars with Napoleon but the Irish mind I’m sure has savored the sound of that name for centuries beforehand.  Please enjoy my rather hi-tech treatment of the Salamanca reel, and if you are so inclined, throw a dollar in my e-fiddle case via the handy bandcamp widget.

    Listen/purchase: The Salamanca by greasy coat productions