Issue 6, Samhain 2012
Editor’s Note from Siobhán Dugan - Samhain, the antecedent of Halloween, was a holiday celebrated throughout the Celtic world; a time when the otherworld was powerfully present, and a time for the people to gather together in important assemblies. Some scholars believe it was the beginning of the Celtic New Year. A year ago at this time, we began this newsletter at the Celtic Junction. We look forward to many gatherings of the community to brighten the cold dark months ahead. Meanwhile, here is an article by Shawn McBurnie to give you a nice seasonal thrill!
Homegrown Spooks: Fearsome Critters of the Northwoods
"From Ghoulies and Ghoosties, Lang-leggety Beasties, and Things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us." - Traditional charm, Cornwall and Scotland
The ghouls, ghosts, and fey creatures of the Celtic lands are fairly well known here in Minnesota; we’d know better than to climb on the back of a kelpie, for example. Nor are we strangers to the trolls of Scandinavia. What may come as a surprise is that we also have a homegrown Northwoods folklore of surprising invention and richness, and you may very well have encountered one or more of the 'Fearsome Critters' from this tradition yourself.
Most of us have been outdoors at night and seen a dim shape with bright glowing eyes. Sometimes this turns out to be a cat, skunk, or raccoon - but if it turns and disappears before you can make out details, what you've seen is, indubitably, a wunk. Unlike many Fearsome Critters, the wunk is common in populated areas and even ventures into cities from time to time. Its method of eluding predators is similar to that of the wombat of Australia, which quickly digs a burrow with its powerful claws and plugs the entrance with its armored backside. The wunk does the wombat one better - not content to leave any part of itself exposed, it reaches back and pulls the hole in after it, leaving no trace. (As if this were not enough, rumor has it that the wunk could change its shape if it wished, even to the point of passing for a human - but it never does.)
So what exactly are Fearsome Critters? They’re beasties, long-leggety and otherwise, that featured in tall tales told in logging, mining, or railroad bunkhouses; around trappers' fires; or anywhere frontier workers relaxed and swapped yarns. Familiar examples include snow snakes and the famed hodag of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Rarely provable (or disprovable), even the large and dangerous ones tend to be shy, often making themselves known only indirectly. Most have at least one implausible feature, and many have attributes - like telescoping legs or gimbal-mounted extremities - that might have served as inspiration for mechanical advances had the mechanical equivalents not already existed. Here’s a brief introduction to a few of them.
Frightenin' Sights You Never See
The elastic-armed argopelter hides in the treetops, throwing dead limbs down on anyone who ventures too near. This habit was responsible for many casualties during the 19th and early 20th centuries, before helmets came into common use among loggers. More actively menacing is the hidebehind, who, as the name suggests, is glimpsed only momentarily as it moves from one hiding place to the next in the forest, following unwary loggers or hikers. Often, the hidebehind is only curious, and may be driven off by signs of vigilance (or, as one account has it, by whiskey fumes), but a hungry or angered one will abruptly snatch a victim away, never to be seen again.
Then we have the snow wasset, a chilling creature indeed in regions that need no further chilling. Described as an enormous ermine with no legs, the snow wasset is rarely seen beyond a flash of white fur against the snow as it surfaces to seize its prey. In its deep-snow tunnels, it awaits vibrations that tell it of unsuspecting passersby above. It then bursts upward to grab anything large enough to catch its interest, up to and including large bears and, on at least one occasion, a snowmobile. While proposed strategies of encircling a wasset and stabbing it through the snow seem doubtful at best, there are reports of northern First Nations people piloting white-furred skin canoes made from a single legless hide, which would indicate some successful method of capturing a wasset.
A less active - but no less dangerous - predator is the broad but skinny rumtifusel, which uses a strategy of hiding in plain sight: it drapes itself over a stump or a rock near a trail, in which position it bears a striking resemblance to a fur coat. When a curious (or cold!) person is tempted to try it on, he or she is promptly devoured. The rumtifusel, much less thin at this point, spits out balls of felted clothing and other inedibles and hides in order to digest in peace for a week or so.
All of this is not to say that all Fearsome Critters are predatory or even frightening. Consider the sidehill gouger, a ruminant which has adapted uniquely to the steep slopes where it makes its home by growing the legs on its downhill side considerably longer than those uphill. It is perfectly suited to traveling in one direction, which leads to the 'gouges' of its name: deeply worn lateral trails on mountainsides. As one might guess, the gouger's case is hopeless if it should ever have a need to turn around. (The sheep in some regions have been interbred with gougers for more successful hillside grazing; Andy Tatham of Black Swan Explorations has been known to point these out.)
Like the argopelter, the treesqueak is a master of arboreal camouflage. As one might guess from the name, these shy creatures are heard but not seen. Their preferred nesting areas and singing spots are where the branches of two trees cross, and they are particularly vocal when the wind is blowing. Owing to the difficulty of catching a treesqueak, it was a logical object for the 'snipe hunts' that credulous green loggers were sent on - competing with the snipe itself, which varies widely (variously reported as feathered, furred, or both, on two, three, or four legs) but is universally uncatchable and rarely resembles the shorebird of the same name.
While most Fearsome Critters are indigenous to North America, there are exceptions. Most notable among these are the feral leprechauns, said to have emigrated from Ireland as a result of the Great Potato Famine, when even the wee folk went hungry at times. Unfortunately, the New World seems to have been less kind to these immigrants than to their human counterparts; they were notorious not only for their mischievous sense of humor - being blamed for tangles in horses' manes, tails, and tack - but also for their ragged appearance and ravenous appetites. A favorite tactic was to spook horses with heavily loaded sleighs of logs, sometimes causing spills, and to make off with any food items left unguarded in the resulting chaos. Happily, no such attacks have been reported since the late 1800s, so we can hope that they eventually found more congenial occupations.
The next time you’re in the Northwoods - or failing that, even in your own backyard - don’t dismiss the unlikely beasties you may glimpse in passing, and keep an ear out for treesqueaks and their fellow Fearsome Critters. The truth may be out there, but who’s to say the folklore isn’t more fun?
Shawn McBurnie's research on Fearsome Critters is preparation for a larger project, supported by a 2012 Artist Initiative Grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board: to write and record original songs featuring creatures from Northwoods folklore and related tall tales such as the Squonk, the Hidebehind, and the Splintercat. Shawn can be reached at email@example.com.
Laura MacKenzie: A Bounty of Sound
Modest and gracious, Laura MacKenzie is not one to blow her own horn. But the music of this gifted and dedicated artist has not gone unnoticed; she garnered a 2012 McKnight Artists Fellowship, awarded to Minnesota’s finest performing musicians. I met with Laura recently to share some Earl Grey tea and conversation about her music now and reflecting on the early days in the traditional music community here in the Twin Cities.
Maid in Minnesota
MacKenzie was born in Northfield, Minnesota into a family Scottish on both sides -- MacKenzies and Rankins -- but one that was not particularly connected with those roots. "My family really never followed its Scottish heritage at all, it wasn't talked about, we didn't make family trees -- didn't make anything about Scottish… anything! However, this one strange thing happened…one Christmas there was an envelope on the Christmas tree from my father. It was 50 dollars -- it was a lot of money at the time, and the note said ‘For Bagpipes’. We had never talked about bagpipes, I had never shown any particular interest in traditional music, it wasn’t really around much. Anyway, I was rather embarrassed and just thanked him very much. A couple years after that he passed away. And… a few years after that", she laughs, "Something happened to me! And I've been involved in piping for decades now.”
That ‘something’ was time in Edinburgh as part of a liberal arts college education. “At Beloit College we had to go and work somewhere for a term” Laura recalls. Laura, double- majoring in classical music and anthropology, went to Edinburgh, not out of an intention to reconnect with their Scottish roots, but rather because happenstance had placed a sister there. Laura was on the last stretch of completing her classical music major, with senior recitals planned for her return. In the meantime, she found a job working in the University of Edinburgh School of Scottish Studies in their archives of traditional music. “It was there I had this HUGE awakening to what traditional music is all about" Laura recalls “because I was meeting living and breathing players of it”.
The Pipes Are Calling
“Everybody, when you find out you’re Scottish you think you want to play the bagpipes. Well, I was studying flute, but I was with the “in” crowd there in Edinburgh”, says Laura laughingly. “The head of the Army School of piping kind of sized me up. And, thankfully, took me down a little lane in the old part of Edinburgh, down a medieval close, and at the bottom of that was a little room and in it sat an old piper. He was a military piper, Pipe Major George Stoddart, quite aged. He sat in this little room and took students. He took me on as a beginner—I was quite in a numb state of shock with all this---and he taught me such.. wonderful music!” Stoddard introduced Laura to the classical music of the highland pipes, in addition to the marches and reels and so on. ”It was a great honor”, she recalls, ”he thought I could do it, understand it. “
“It was a marvelous experience and it was all about music. No posturing, or artifice or production or stage separation from audience…. So when I got back to college I tried to dedicate my recitals to this man…My teachers were not happy with this new attitude I had! I had lost some of that officiousness about getting trained as a classical musician. Something… less formal had come over me. And they were not happy with that and I was not happy with them. And I canceled my recitals and finished my major in anthropology and didn’t bother to take my finals in music.”
“Something had really, really turned for me. And having studied ethnomusicology, I understood what had happened to me. Because I was studying the form and function and context and meaning in a community of music, be it formal classical music or traditional music. I realized one is for me and one is not! One resonates with me and the other… isn’t a lifelong pursuit for me. So I never looked back.”
When Laura returned to the states, she moved to St Paul and found a small group of people who had, through their own paths, become hungry to learn traditional music, particularly how to play Irish music. They were Mary MacEachron, Patty Bronson, Sam Dillon, Bob Douglas, Jamie Gans. They spent hours down at O’Gara’s listening to Marty McHugh playing sessions, and they learned his repertoire that way, through the aural tradition. “I learned my whole basic repertoire and my aesthetic sense in the company of Martin McHugh... It was just go, hang out, sit there and learn. We just got together a couple times a week, week after week, learned the tunes. And we formed a céilí band, the Northern Star Céilí Band.”
There were great halls in those days, Laura recalls; there was the CSPS Hall, which is still used, but it’s very expensive now, two Oddfellows Halls and the Coliseum Ballroom, where Tapestry Folkdance used to be. At the céilís, which drew crowds a couple times a month, Laura played ‘wind-powered’ instruments, including wooden flute and tin whistle. The dancers were a mix of folks, some older first generation Irish, people from the Irish American community and beyond. ”It was such an exciting time. It was new for a lot of folk and it just suited them to a “T”. The dances were very enthusiastically attended and enjoyed. Mike Whalen was important in those days, he was the person learning how to teach it. So we were all learning together, learning how to make it good, learning how to make sets of tunes that would enliven a dance floor; we did not put tunes together willy-nilly. We put them together with thought as to give a boost to the dance floor.”
It was during these years that Laura’s son, Dugan MacKenzie Magraw, was born. “Oh my goodness”, she recalls, “I used to haul him to a lot of those Irish community events and dances almost from Day One. He doesn't perform himself, but he is my greatest supporter.”
In time, the local Irish musical community was enriched by Dáithí Sproule and Paddy O’Brien, the former joining the Northern Star Céilí Band for its last couple of years (total active time for the band 1976-1983). Laura’s local experiences were complemented by a series of long trips to Ireland from the mid 70's through the 80's, spending several months at a time, learning music from an older generation now gone. “Those were golden years, marvelous times, and I was so fortunate to be around such very special and often legendary musicians. The time spent in that way enabled me to be even more of a traditional musician in a community sense, once I returned to Minnesota. I have always been a community based musician - the community offered me the tools, gave me the skills and knowledge, supported my successes, making it possible for me to continue practicing as a performing and teaching musician in the larger world.” Laura says. While Laura clearly misses the style of session in the old days, she recognizes the value in the breadth of opportunity here today, the number of people willing to teach and the traveling artists who make the Twin Cities a stop. “And now that they are coming to the Celtic Junction, you know where to find them.” she notes.
Over time, Laura has enjoyed the richness of mixing it up with a variety of other musicians in ensembles, as well as playing solo. For a sampling of the diverse sounds those collaborations have yielded: she plays with Garry Jones in their duo ‘Talun’, with Gary Rue, with Gary and Michael Bissonette in the group ‘Laura and the Lads’(see right), with Dáithí Sproule, with Harpist Andrea Stern in 'Willow Brae', and with Ross Sutter.
Laura has stepped up her active involvement recently in the Traditional Singers Club. “It is unusual here”, she says, “Singer’s Clubs are all over Britain and Ireland, but there aren’t that many in North America, it’s kind of rare over here. The Singer’s Club is great. We had a concert recently with Norman Kennedy and I was the face of the organizing of it, so people would come up to me to exclaim something. So I got to hear from a number of people who had not been to the Junction before—heard about it through various mailing lists. And they were absolutely enthralled! They said things like, ’I’ve been looking for something like this. Now I’ve found it!’ They mean the solo unaccompanied song, the whole wealth of it, the styles of it, the stories, the lore, the information about it. Because the Singer’s Club, at our sessions (now at W.A. Frost in St Paul, on the last Sunday of each month)…of course there’s lots of songs… but people talk about the songs, too.”
McKnight Fellowship for Performance
The fellowship is intended to provide recognition and financial support to Minnesota musicians. This year, ninety-four soloists and ensembles applied for the fellowships by submitting recordings, artist statements and resumes. Of those, nine solo/ensemble finalists were chosen, by a panel of national judges, to perform in a live audition on May 4. Of the finalists, four won to be awarded each a $25,000 fellowship, Laura among them.
"One of the things I want to achieve in this fellowship year is a project with Marty, with Martin McHugh, being my original mentor in traditional Irish music. It was partly because Martin is just such an inspiration these days. I mean, he is playing magnificently. And playing in sessions in the way that just warms my heart and soul, playing joyfully, playing considering who else is at the session. When you bring an accordion to a session everyone is going to look to you to lead the tunes, whether you’re Marty McHugh or not - whether you are an important person or not, you’ve got the big, bold instrument. And Marty plays the session according to who is around him. He thinks about them: ‘who knows what? who can I kinda tease with this tune? or who can I maybe surprise with this tune, how can I engage everybody on this tune…’ He is just so inspiring. I want to make sure this isn’t getting missed by the younger learners of Irish music. I want them to know the way this can be. And Marty has just wonderful repertoire, he didn’t just learn the old tunes and was satisfied, he’s coming up with his own version of them. I told Marty that I was thinking of calling this CD we would do together “The Master’s Choice”, in honor of him, of course. He really liked the title, but I don’t think he made out that it was in tribute to him, he is the master.”
Laura will also use some of the Fellowship money to dig deeper into Scottish music again, which is on the cusp of an exciting growth, with more interest bubbling up the way it was happening for Irish music when Laura got started years ago. More artists, like Malinky and Norman Kennedy are coming through town, and even at Irish-music sessions there is a new inkling of interest in Scottish music as well. “It’s got freshness and excitement” she says.
Master Plays it Forward
Laura MacKenzie is a resident at The Celtic Junction, sharing an office/studio with Gary Rue as New Music Arts. There Laura offers lessons in in Irish and Scottish music and style on flutes, whistles, Scottish smallpipes, English-system concertina and will be offering classes in traditional song in the future. “It’s a great good fortune to have this studio space and I’m proud to be aligned with the mission of The Celtic Junction“. The studio has proven both convenient and convivial: “The opportunities to chat and collaborate with other folks in the Irish arts community and other resident artists is invigorating and invaluable” she says. Musician Shawn McBurnie has an insider’s take on Laura’s role: "Laura contributes mightily to the Twin Cities traditional music scene; she's a consummate musician and a generous teacher - full of kind words and good advice - and she’s one of the people behind our wealth of concerts and sessions. We're lucky to have her!"
Thirty-odd years ago a bright- haired lass trekked among the grey stone buildings of old Edinburgh and found musical treasure. She scooped it up with both hands, gathered more, and put up a trove to share, to our great gain. She has been called Celtic music “Wizard”, “High Priestess” and “Goddess” - but perhaps the right word is simply - ‘Master’.
Jeanne Morales and Tom Klein
In a spirited celebration of harvest time, the Celtic Junction gallery space will soon reveal the hidden visual arts talents of community members known to you for other gifts. Here is the story behind the images. - Editor
Jeanne: ”I have always been a crop art enthusiast and would make it one of my priority stops at the Minnesota State Fair. But I never thought about participating, until I saw Lillian Colton (the queen of crop art) demonstrate the craft at an exhibit of her art at Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She was inspiring to watch-- dabbing a bit of glue on the end of a toothpick and then picking each seed one by one for its appropriate placement on the canvas. The process was simpler than I realized and I thought…I can do that…I WANT to do that.
My first piece was a Haitian Voodoo flag, inspired by a trip I took to Haiti. I realized my crop art piece was an opportunity to educate the public about this Haitian art form, and hopefully convey as well that Voodoo has little to do with zombies. I included a “fact sheet” with my piece that explained the background of the flag. I am not sure how many people read it but a judge noted that they appreciated the explanation. I won a third place ribbon and was hooked.”
For Tom, the pull into crop art took a different form: “My wife, crop artist Adele Binning, got me into the seedy underworld of crop art. In 1994, as a pre-dating hazing, she asked me to come along to a “crop art party”. The idea being that - if I thought it was really cool- then I would be suitable for her to date. I like the party, the artistic challenge, the people (and the art) and now, here we are some 18 years later. ”
Jeanne: “Crop art offers endless opportunities to express what is on the mind…whether it’s a humorous event, a political opinion, or honoring a favorite animal or place. While the number and types of seeds may be limited (restricted to Minnesota crops only, at least for entries to the Minnesota State Fair), the end products from these seeds are varied and always interesting. The State Fair is very generous because it displays every piece submitted. I do enjoy creating pieces that I like and may connect with viewers. Occasionally I will be contacted about a piece and I appreciate knowing that I made someone’s day. “
She continues: “One of my favorite connections through crop happened in 2008. I did a piece that honored the late, great Minnesota architect Ralph Rapson. While I never met him personally, there were people in my life who were his devoted students and admirers of his work. The piece was a copy of a caricature he did of himself. Towards the end of the Fair, I received an e-mail from his son who had heard about the piece from several different people. He thanked me for remembering his father. While the piece is simple, it is definitely my favorite because it ties in many things that are great about Minnesota…the people, the places, ideals. “
“Any visitor to the crop art exhibit at the State Fair will see that it can be very political. I love to see the current debate of the time being expressed, often in very humorous ways, in the pieces. You could call this debate “civil discourse” --usually all sides are represented in Minnesota Nice sorts of ways. Crop art is also a haven for the lovers of puns and kitsch. “
Tom: “What I find really interesting in making crop art is the confines that are put on you to use an extremely limited “palette”. There are a small number different kinds of seeds you can use. And for that matter, I enter the crop art category (there are many different “lots” each with their own forms and stipulations) that allows only natural, (neither painted nor dyed), seeds on a regular, two-dimension surface. It is quite a challenge to make work you enjoy under such limiting parameters.”
“I work as a graphic artist (in the natural history sciences field) and musician (I am an uilleann piper). But I do have a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree in drawing, painting and sculpting. That being said, crop art is about the only “artsy” thing I do these days. I have been told that my graphics background shows in my designs. Thematically, my crop art tends to draw heavily on my natural history background, and I almost always have a critter in there somewhere.”
Be sure to come see the Crop Art exhibit in the Gallery at the Celtic Junction this Fall where the works of several Junction community members will be on display.
The Written Word: Robert Burns, Ploughman’s Poet
In the silly season before an election we can get caught up in the flim-flam flummery of it all, heads daily dusted with a dirt-devil of rackety insubstance. I found myself re-reading this classic Scottish poem/song by Robert Burns, the ‘Ploughmans’ Poet’, grounded in appreciation for common humanity. To hear wonderful singer Shawn McBurnie sing this as a special treat for newsletter readers, click here. - Editor
A Man's a Man for A' That
Is there for honest poverty,
That hings his head, an' a' that?
The coward slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure, an' a' that;
The rank is but the guinea's stamp;
The man's the gowd for a' that.
What tho' on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin-gray, an' a' that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine,
A man's a man for a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their tinsel show an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His riband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a' that.
A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Guid faith he mauna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities, an' a' that,
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a' that,
That sense and worth, o'er a' the earth,
May bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet, for a' that,
That man to man, the warld o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that!
Celtic Cuisine: Mince Collops, a Hearty Scottish Recipe
When I was little, I had a book of folk stories from Donegal “Hibernian Nights” by Seamus MacManus. There was a theme in several of the young folk leaving the home of their birth for adventures. As he left, a lad would say, “I am going out into the wide world, Mother Dear. So bake me a bannock, and cut me a collop, and I’ll be on my way.” So when I ran across a recipe for Collops, I had to share it! –Ed.
Serves: Serves 2-4
- 1 lb lean Scotch Lamb or Scotch Beef, minced
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1-2 tbsp Scottish oatmeal
- 150ml (1/4 pt) beef or lamb stock
- 1-2 tbsp Worcestershire Sauce or cider vinegar
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook the minced meat (in its own fat) and onions in a saucepan until the meat is browned and crumbly and the onions softened but not colored.
Season to taste, stir in the oatmeal (optional), stock and Worcestershire sauce (or cider vinegar, for the purists). Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust seasoning, to taste.
Enjoy simply with mashed potatoes.