In this particular song, the words came first.
I only had one grandfather alive when I was growing up. He passed away when I was seven years old. Yet my memories of him are vivid, full of emotion; he and I spent a lot of time together in the early years of my life. I loved him deeply because in retrospect he was such a sublime counterpoint, as a male role model, to my father.
My grandfather, Bill, was born in Ireland. He fought with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) whose mission at that time was to achieve independence from England. I have a picture of him with an IRA uniform on, and a rifle at his hip, at age 15. He fought in the 1921-1923 period, and then suddenly had to leave Ireland for some reason. The story behind his leaving is murky, and he never spoke of it; however the family lore suggests he left because of some dangerous act related to his IRA service which required him to leave the country immediately.
He was known as a great horseman; in fact some of the richest men in the region were his friends due to his horsemanship, and his involvement in horse shows and fox hunting events. He would bring me to a farm where he kept his horse, and he taught me how to ride a donkey in preparation for riding a horse. He passed before I ever got the chance to ride a horse. My father knew nothing of horses; his passion was team sports (the "Big 3" - football, basketball, and baseball). Had my grandfather lived only another 5-10 years, my life would in all likelihood have been very different, and not just because of his love of horses.
About three years back, I was at my parents' house for some party, and wandered down to the basement. There was a tall stack of old books on a table - these were books from my grandfather's old library. They had been sitting there since my grandmother died and we cleaned out the old house back in the mid-1990s. I discovered to my astonishment that these were books of poetry and theology; many of them first editions, some of them signed by the author. My parents' basement is very damp, so the books had sustained some mold and damage from moisture. I quickly grabbed a stack of the books with the least water damage and brought them home.
On occasion I began to peruse the books. Old photos were stuck in the inside of the books, including old pictures of me and my brother and sister when we were very young. One of the books I discovered was called "Rhymes of a Rolling Stone" by Robert W. Service. It is a first edition printing, 1912, printed in Canada.
|Robert W. Service|
Robert Service was an interesting cat. A Scotsman, he became a banker like his father. At 21 he picked up and moved to Vancouver, with dreams of becoming a cowboy. The Canadian bank he was working for sent him to this extreme post, way up in Dawson City on the Yukon River - east of Alaska. He lived there in a log cabin for a few years and got close to nature, while this small frontier town experienced the tail end of a gold rush. He sat in his cabin at night, read books, and wrote poems.
|Robert Service's cabin in Dawson City (note the sod roof)|
Service saw the world he knew coming to an end, and a new conflict - a new order - fast approaching. He saw that his fate was less and less in his own hands, and was being dictated by larger forces beyond his control. Armies were being formed, weapons built, alliances forged, swords polished up for the kill. And he backed off from that and reconnected with what it means to be human, way up there in the Yukon.
My grandfather carried this book in his pocket when he landed in Morocco with Patton's 7th Army, and in France with Patton's 3rd Army. Soldiers actually did that back then. They carried books like Kipling's "Barrack Room Ballads" and read them to each other around garrison campfires. He carried the book to remind him not just of home - but of higher things. The human soul is complex; interested in many things. The Irish soul even more so.
I found this poem and it just came to life in music for me. When I read it, I felt it captured very much what I was feeling given the times we all are living in. Things seem to be increasingly out of control with the economy, the weather, the decadent culture, and the disappointing behavior of those who lead us. Some form of large-scale conflict seems inevitable; the way we live our lives is certainly changing. With that situation as a backdrop, these verses set a tone that allows my heart to back away from despair and embrace hope in humanity - accepting that this is not the end, but a beginning. Life is what you make of it, no matter what the outside circumstances are. Don't lose sleep over worrying about things that are way beyond your control. Stick it to the man by enjoying yourself!
Additionally, to my great relief, I discovered something called "public domain." The copyrights on Service's work expired long ago. If something is in the public domain, that means legally you can use it for your own creative work and no one needs to be consulted, other than of course the lords of good taste. Thus, I've decided to play the song to honor my grandfather, may he rest in eternal peace. One day, when Lord willing God calls me to Heaven, Bill can finally teach his grandson how to ride that horse.
I will soon post an early version of the song once I figure out how to post MP3's on this blog.