Monday, March 31, 2008

The Ghost of Gight

It’s truly an exercise in the thrift, trying to explain a song in eighty words or less as I often  do when creating liner notes for recordings. For within a song there are many songs and a multitude of different stories. Say a the main focus of the piece is Highway 101 and your enjoying the ride as you speed down the road. However, if you wish there are always many side roads one can take. All of which exists in a song, especially the older ballads. 
A very timely quote about songs and ballads is from folklorist Frank Harte:

All songs are living ghosts
And longing for a living voice

For example track #13 on Celtic harper Kim Robertson's recording Highland Heart which is actually about a ghost titled: The Ghosts of Gight. 
Here’s the whole story in 83 words:
Gight Castle (near Fyvie above the river Ythan) was home to the Gordon’s for many hundreds of years. It was built by William Gordon around 1479 and eventually sold in 1787 to clear the gambling debts of one Mad Jack Byron whose son was the famous poet Lord Byron. The ghosts’ legend concerns a piper who was sent to investigate an underground passage and never returned. Though it is said that the sound of his pipes can still be heard at the castle.
That’s it, four hundred years of a Scottish family and their castle is now compressed into less then 90 words.
 As I would hate to short change the Gordon’s and their estate here is (as that obnoxious man on the radio says) the rest of the story:              

In or around 1787 Catherine Gordon (the daughter of the 12th Laird of the Gordon’s of Gight sold her families estate to pay off a gambling debt accrued by her husband “Mad Jack” Byron. “Mad Jack” was anything but a loving husband as he pilfered money from his wife so that he may run around Paris, drank, gamble and visit numerous houses of sin. He died before his son was three. Mad Jacks father “Foulweather Jack” was an officer in the royal navy with a reputation for attracting storms and his brother known as “the “Wicked Lord Byron” was a suspect for not one but two murders. As well as being members of the Gordon Clan they were also direct descendants of King Edward III of England (1312-1377).              

William Gordon constructed Gight Castle around 1479 as a home for many of the Gordon clan. The castle sits along the Ythan River just east of the town of Fivie. For the two centuries that the Gordon’s owned their castle they were plagued by mysterious circumstances some of which lead to the demise of a number of the occupants of the said estate. All of the various tragedies were prophesized by one Thomas of Ercildore who lived near the Eildon Hills sometime around the 13th century. His story goes something like this: 

One day a wizard named Michael Scott instructed three imps (who were known to the Scots as little mischievous devils or sprites) to split one hill into three. Out of the split hills came a Fairy Queen who abducted Thomas for seven years. There have been many verses written about this abduction, here be a few:

 And see not ye that bonny road, that winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,where thou and I this night maun gae.
"But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue, whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land, ye'll neer get back to your ain countrie.                

After his seven years in fairyland Thomas returns with the gift of both poetry and prophecy. He used these gifts to his advantage as he would create poems to illustrate his predictions and soon he became known as Thomas the Rhymer. In a very real sense he was the first Scottish rapper and the only one known to have the gift of prophesy.              

He is credited with predicting the death of King Alexander III in 1286, the defeat of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. Thomas soon gained the reputation as sort of a Nostradamus of Scotland. He became so popular that the Jacobites consulted his predictions before their uprisings of 1715 and 1745. For the Gordon clan he wrote theses prophecies: 

‘When the heron leaves the tree, 
The Laird o’ Gight shall landless be.’ 

When the Gordon’s first owned Gight Castle there were Herons living in a large tree by the castle. Around 1735 the herons flew away and in three years the estate was sold to the Earl of Aberdeen.                              

His next poem for the Gordon’s:

‘‘At Gight three men by sudden death shall dee,
And after that the land shall lie in lea.’

 In 1791  Lord Haddo fell from his horse on the Green of Gight. A few years latter a servant on the estate met a similar death while working on the farm. In this century a worker was crushed to death while working on a wall. The castle is now in ruins with only a small guesthouse standing on the estate and of course the ghost of a piper who disappeared while working underneath the castle. 

Catherine Gordon emerged from the ruins of Gight and moved to London. Shortly after relocating, her son Lord Byron is born (1888). Byron is born with a clubfoot an issue that some say was one of the causes of his erratic and sometime violent behavior.               
At the age of ten Byron inherited the titles and the estates of his great-uncle “The Wicked Lord Byron”. Byron then attends many prestigious schools (including Harrow and Trinity College) where he begins his career as a writer of prose and poetry. At the same time he is indulging himself in what some have called “an abyss of sensuality."
One of his lovers Lady Caroline Lamb described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know."              

In 1814 Byron became obsessed Anne Isabella and pursues her for a year. She is gifted in math and science Byron refers to her as the “princess of parallelograms”. In 1815 she agrees to marry him and in December of that year she gives birth to Byron’s only legitimate child a daughter whom they name Ada who would latter be credited as the first person to write a computer program.              

Byron’s moods soon sink and his behavior turns violent. Fearing for her and her daughter’s safety Anne Isabella off to her parent’s estate. A year latter they were divorced and Lord Byron soon leaves the country. He then travels though central Europe with his personal physician Dr. John Plidori and in 1816 they decide to rent Villa Diadati an elaborate estate constructed on the shores of Lake Geneva Switzerland.              

Meanwhile Clara Mary Jane Clairmont one of Bryon’s many lovers is relentlessly pursuing him. Claire was an aspiring writer and had an affair with Byron (as many women and men did) shortly before he left England. She constantly wrote to Byron for career advice in publishing but her desire was to always be Bryon’s lover as she had been at seventeen when they first met in London.
Clara is so obsessed with him that she persuades her eighteen-year-old half sister Mary Wollenstonecraft Goodwin and her lover, poet Percy Bliss Shelley follow him to his estate in Switzerland. Realizing that Claire is pregnant with his child Byron allows them to stay and soon forms a close friendship with Shelley and his young lover Mary. They swim in the Lake Geneva, inspire each other to write and indulge themselves with Laudanum, the additive opium beverage that became the drug of choice during the Romantic and Victorian era.               

It then rains for a week straight and Bryon suggests they read a book of German ghosts stories published in Leipzig in 1811 titled “Fantasmagoriana” compiled by German author Fredrich August Schultz originally titled Gespensterbuch. After reading a number of the stories Byron then challenges his guests to create their own personal tale of horror.               

Dr. Poldori based his character on Byron and called his work “Lord Ruthven” which was about an aristocratic vampire who bites into the necks of members of the establishment for sustenance. The novel is released in 1819 as “The Vampyre and for many years it is attributed to Byron. It is the first work in print to take the folklore of the vampire and place it in a contemporary setting. Shortly after being adopted for the stage in the 1820’s many authors including Poe, Dumas and Tolstoy wrote similar works, which of course culminated at the end of the century with Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula.               

Mary Wollenstonecraft who in a year would become Mary Shelley wrote a novel about the dangers of the industrial revolution titled “The Modern Promethus” after the character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who created a man “in godlike” image from clay. She worked on this idea for the next two years and released it under the name of Frankenstein.

The mysteries that followed the Gordon’s for two centuries, the untimely deaths, the rhyming prophet Thomas of Ercildore, and the missing piper who became the Ghost of Gight have now manifested themselves in the birth of the gothic novel.

Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do Nuns Have Feet?

The Madonna House was a two-story red brick building that was clearly visible from my bedroom window. It had a huge curved wooden door; with a large crucifix suspended ever so stoically above. Each time the oval gothic style portal opened, nuns would appear or disappear.
I’d gaze at them through the ninth floor window of the eighteen-story apartment house known as Knickerbocker Village and watch them making their way down Market Street. When they traveled in groups they were like an apparition from the middle ages. I could clearly see them—their long black habits and veils waving together in the wind, the metal keys suspended from their belts, and the wooden crosses, which adorned all of their necks. Their habits covered every part of their bodies except the center of each nuns face. The East River was just one block away and when the wind would blow it was as if they were gliding en masse and their feet never touched the earth. I ‘d be alone each afternoon and I’d watch them sail across Cherry Street on to Market Street and then they would pass under the crucifix, through the wooden doors, and slowly disappear into the great red fortress known as The Madonna House. In my eyes they were a fleet of dark ships floating home into their mysterious and vast red brick harbor.
I was a troubled child, a troubled nine year old growing up on New York's lower east side. Besides being raised in an extremely violent neighborhood I was also disturbed by the fact that my parents were communists. The second stage of the House of Un-American Activities Committee was in full swing and my greatest fear is that the FBI would come knocking on my door and take my parents away. This was a well-founded fear as they did just that to our neighbors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
 This was the environment I grew up in— physical threats on every corner and a precarious political agenda permeating the air in our home. I never let on to my parents that I was aware of all this political intrigue.
In 1955 instead of verbalizing fear and asking for help a nine year old starts to sleep walk, have constant nausea and become extremely anxious and begins to visibly shake from time to time.
At one point I became so frightened of the elevator that I’d always opt to climb the nine flights rather then enter it alone. My parents started to notice my restless behavior and decided that I needed a creative outlet and arranged for me to have piano lessons at The Madonna House.
I’m nine years old and I’ve never once talked to a nun and now once a week I’m fated to enter those big wooden doors and God only knows what goes on in there.
At least I knew who Jesus was. I had been told a number of times by some of my Catholic friends that my religion was personally responsible for his demise. I was extremely worried about being in contact with the nuns. Why did they have so many keys on their belts? How did they seemingly just glide down the street? Would they be angry with me because I was Jewish? I needed some help and advice and I knew it wasn’t going to come from my parents.
I did have a Catholic friend, his name was Tony d’Angelo and he lived on the sixth floor in the apartment down the street. Tony and I played baseball together, we were both Dodger fans, and we liked to hang out in the luncheonette read comics and drink cokes real fast and get a wicked sugar buzz. Tony was twelve and had 5 brothers and three sisters, it seemed like his mother was always pregnant. They also had one of those crucifixes (a real big one) mounted on the wall a few feet over their diner table. It was easily two feet high and the same length wide.
The Lords only son was featured in such great detail that one could easily see the nails plunging into his hands and feet. His head was lowered and the sculptured lines on his face revealed the intense pain he must have been experiencing. “Tony” I said pointing at the immense metal crucifix on the wall “how could you look at that guy when you eat”? “Ah it’s nothing” Tony replied “it’s been there for so long I don’t even see it any more, you get used to it. My father’s mother gave it to us, and then “boom” she drops dead the very next day. So my dad likes to keep it over the dinner table because it reminds him of his mother Teresa.”
“Well why don’t you just put a picture of your fathers mother on the wall instead” I asked? “Well” Tony replied “my mother wasn't too crazy about my dads mom but she’s very religious so this way they’re both happy, while she’s seeing Jesus my dad’s seeing his Mom.
“Funny thing” Tony continued, “every Saturday before my dad goes to the track he gets up on a chair and rubs Jesus’ head. Now check this out every Wednesday night before my mom goes to bingo she rubs his feet.” I then explained to Tony about my upcoming piano lessons at the Madonna house and my many fears about coming face to face with a nun.
Tony knew the Madonna House as he attended a Catholic Youth Group there once a week. Tony told me he didn’t know what all those keys were for either but he was pretty sure they didn’t lock up little boys and girls with them.
“Look it’s like this” Tony said, “first take off your hat when you go in, don’t say nothing dirty or disgusting or you’ll have to go to confession and you won’t like that.
As a matter of fact just ask them what room you piano lesson is in, and if your scared keep your head down and don’t say nothing stupid, take my word for it nobodies going to bite you or slap you with a ruler.”
I then told Tony that I had this fear that a nun could read your mind with a secret device that sat on top of their head underneath the crown of their wimple.
Tony looks at me rolls his eyes and says, “Who told you that stuff”? “No Neal they’re just people you know people doing a job just like a cop does his job, a fireman does his job and well a nun does her job”. “What job is that”? I asked? “Oh “Tony replied “it’s like there all married to God and they give their life to him and serve him. So you know they never go out on a date with a guy or you know they never do the nasty, you know sex with anybody.”
This latest bit of information actually comforted me, as at least I knew that nun’s and I had something in common. Not that I knew anything at all about sex but I knew it existed and it had something to do with being naked.
Tony did tell me about the time his sister dropped a candy wrapper on the floor and one of the Nun’s made her carry a very large and heavy rock around the building three times. This sounded a little harsh but nowhere near any of my creative vision of whips, fires, and devils with flaming pitchforks and of course eternal damnation in a place where the only thing to eat was tuna fish.
The day soon arrived for my first piano lesson. I elected to avoid the elevator and took the stairs down the nine flights to the lobby. I created a sort of rhythm with my feet as I made my way down the steps and I would also hum a little tune in counterpoint to the noise my shoes made. I did that “dance” each time I would ascend or descend the stairs; it was one of the rituals a child performs when alone to help keep him or her self-sane. I felt a sense of relief as I crossed over the baseball field, as this was always a safe place for me.
It was an extremely clear and bright afternoon, which only heightened the black habits of the nuns against the red brick building. I was really trying hard not to look too Jewish, as I wanted my first trip to the Madonna House to be as painless as possible.
I approached the large door there were three nun’s speaking outside. They were conversing in English they were not speaking in Latin or in any secret nun language that I had imagined.
Proceeding inside I went to the front desk and I walked as quietly as I could so as not to attract any attention. I did notice that as well as nuns there were also people in normal clothing just as I was. I stood in front of the information desk and waited for the nun to raise her head.
I noticed that she seemed to be dressed differently then the other sisters. I learned latter that she was a beginner nun called a novice. She lifted her head, she was young and pretty, she had a black veil pinned to the back of her head that accented her beautiful red curly hair. She looked at me, smiled and said, “oh yes your here for your one O’clock piano lesson, let me show you to the room.” Not only could I see her feet I could see clear up to her ankles, and the little man on her Cross-seemed almost to be smiling. I was so relieved, but not for long.
I entered the room and immediately recognized my piano teacher; it was Mr. Bloom he worked for the kosher butcher. I saw him only yesterday boning a chicken. He was bald and had a funny little mustache and wore wire rimmed eggshell glasses. It was the first time I saw him without a bloody apron and a cleaver in his hand and he still looked frightening. Mr. Bloom I exclaimed! I didn’t know you were Catholic? He scrunched up his face, removed the cigarette from his lips and looked at me with his little beady eyes and said “what Catholic, I’m Jewish just like you, I rent the room and give piano lessons, case closed, now sit down and show me what you know and try not to waste too much of your parents money.
He was arrogant, mean and horrible all at the same time. I tried to learn my scales but it’s hard to perform music when one is shaking inside. I returned a few times and each time the pleasant young nun would greet me with a smile before I entered the room with Mr. Bloom.
She’d always ask me if I had learned any pieces yet. I told her that I was working on “Volga Boatman” and the first part of “Ode to Joy” which in it’s own way seemed fitting since my father’s family was German and both my parents were communist.
It was during my third lesson that Mr. Bloom really cut me to the quick. As I was making the best pass I could at Beethoven, Mr. Bloom (with cigarette smoke bellowing out of his mouth) barked out “your fingers, there so stiff, there like bayonets”.
I never learned how to play the piano; but I did get to talk to a few nuns and they all seemed very helpful and very much human. My parents were not pleased when I told them that I’d rather play baseball with my friends on Saturday afternoons then take piano lessons. I was somehow getting used to them being annoyed with me as they both always seemed to be in a state of agitation.
I did have one less fear, as I looked out my window and watch the nuns walked down Market Street I realized that my friend Tony was right. Just like everyone else nuns had a job to do and like a policeman a fireman and a soldier they wore a uniform as well.

A rare look inside The Madonna House which was located on 173 Cherry Street, between Market and Pike Streets,
From the nypl digital library collection.