Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Fields of Athenry" - Danny Doyle, Irish folk (1979)

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling
Micheal they are taking you away
For you stole Trevelyn's corn
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing
we had dreams and songs to sing
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young man calling
Nothing matters Mary when you're free,
Against the Famine and the Crown
I rebelled they ran me down
Now you must raise our child with dignity.

By a lonely harbour wall
She watched the last star falling
As that prison ship sailed out against the sky
Sure she'll wait and hope and pray
For her love in Botany Bay
It's so lonely 'round the Fields of Athenry.

This Irish folk song was written by Pete St. John, and is living proof that folk tunes need not be hundreds of years old to become near and dear to the heart of a nation. This number has become quite important to the Irish in remembering their heritage. In fact, this tune has been well covered not only by folk singers, but reggae, punk, country, and even psychedelic music groups, which is significant seeing as how the song was only written in the 1970's. The most successful recording was made in 1983 by Patrick 'Paddy' Reilly, but it was originally recorded by Danny Doyle in 1979, and it has become a popular sports anthem for Irish sports supporters and fans of the Celtic Football Club.

"Fields of Athenry" is a tune about a fictional character who is from Athenry in County Galway, Ireland, who has been convicted sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, Australia because he stole food to feed his starving family. The song is set between 1845 and 1850, during the Great Irish Famine.

The Great Famine started out as a fairly normal phenomenon. It is not uncommon for the agriculture industry to experience its fair share of shortages for various reasons; however, what happened in Ireland wasn't just limited to fluctuations in the growing season. There were man-made causes, which actually drew this catastrophe out longer than it should have lasted. As a result, approximately 1 million people died, which makes the Great Irish Famine the single greatest catastrophic famine in modern history, and it all started with infected crates of potatoes that had travelled from America to Belgium.

For the most part, when famine affects a geographic area, there is only a small percentage of the population in danger of infectious diseases and starvation as a result of the shortage. Yet, the Great Famine occurred during a period in Ireland's history when the country was on the brink of being one of the wealthiest in the known world. In general, famines only lasted for a season or two. Most famines were due to fluctuations in the growing season. However, successive wind-borne blasts of the potato fungus Phytophthora infestans left at least 1/3 of Ireland's population without their primary source of subsistence for 4-5 years in a row.

Of course, the question has always been, "Wasn't there anything other than spuds to eat?!" Well, the potato represented more than 60% of the nation's food source, and the successive blight in crops for several years on end created a significant food gap. Different countries and different regions of the world are better suited for producing different crops. Every region has a at least one crop that is particularly prolific, and thus that region grows those one or two crops as its main source of subsistence. While those areas are capable of growing other crops, those minor crops may not grow as well in that particular environment, thus the crop doesn't provide a harvest capable of sustaining a population. When the fungus blighted the Irish potatoes, it created such a gap that it was impossible for all of the other food crops combined to fill it.

It works a little something like this: I live in the Midwest. While it's true we can grow potatoes, tomatoes, grapes, fruit, and everything else, it gets very hot and very dry here for long periods in the summer. Corn and soy beans are highly resistant to our yearly drought conditions. As a result, corn and beans are our chief plant crops. Should either of these crops fail in the entire region, the whole world will feel it. We export every other row of corn and every fifth row of our beans. These crops not only feed people but animals - recreational animals like dogs and cats (kibble) and food animals such as cattle, which are not only produced for meat but are used for milk and cheese. So, we can see that the failure of one crop can mean famine for more than just the immediate farm or community, as that failure of one significant crop causes a ripple that radiates outward into other communities who depend on it for the production of their own crops. In fact, many of our modern farming techniques, such as irrigation and crop rotation, have been designed to ensure against regional crop failure, so that nothing like the Great Famine never happens again.

Because of the serious deficiency of their chief crop, nearly three times more grain entered the country than left it. The country was then faced with a distribution problem. Unlike home-grown product, imported product is not as widely available as quickly. One significant issue faced with imports is how to get food to those communities farthest from the port. In the 1800s, there were no highways and there were no refrigeration trucks or 18-wheelers to travel from one end of the country to another in a matter of hours. The farther your community was from the storehouse, the more your imported grain ran the risk of molding and becoming pest infested, which was not an issue with local farmers whose grains could be more quickly consumed before it went bad. These conveyances could also only hold so much grain, unlike your local farmers who knew exactly how much product they had to grow to sustain the communities around him. During the Great Famine, it was particularly difficult to get food to the smallholders and laborers of the west and south of Ireland.

Finally, there were three political ideologies which stood in the way of economic relief and caused the death of 1 million Irish. The first was 'providentialism'. Providentialism was the notion that God was somehow unhappy with Ireland, and as such the famine was His judgment upon the people. To interfere would mean to interfere with the will of God, and thus anger Him, bringing that judgment upon one's own self, family, and country. So many religious political figures advocated a hands-off approach.

The second ideology was one called 'moralism'. Moralists debated that Ireland should be left alone because the fundamental defects from which the Irish suffered were moral rather than financial. The educated, elite Britons notioned that the Irish should be left alone because this poverty was a direct result the Irish's warring, laziness, uncleanliness, lack of discipline, and lack of self-reliance.

Essentially, it was the government who dropped the ball. The British government had many tools at its disposal that would have provided heavy, sustained relief after the initial 2 years. The government's highest priority was not in saving lives and providing disaster relief, but cutting costs and expenses. A mandate should have been made that all food exports be suspended until the potato gap could be lessened. It doesn't make sense that they were exporting food while the imports weren't even enough to feed them all. The government's food pantries and soup kitchens were only operational for 6 months, and the public works projects and work houses provided little work at all compared to the number of out-of-work-and-food people (not to mention the wages paid were so menial that one could not afford to buy food for his family). Finally, the British government should have treated this famine as an imperial responsibility and bared the cost. Instead, it grew weary of the situation ("famine fatigue") and essentially threw the remainder of the famine back on its own woefully inadequate resources. All of this is due to the ideological structure of the British government of the time. It was a laissez-faire, which politics that government interference was strictly prohibited in the economy.

If the famine and the government's nonchalance didn't kill them, the one other thing did. The last great killer in the Great Famine were the "coffin ships" on which thousands of Irish boarded to immigrated from their homes in search of a better life in the U.S. These ships, crowded and disease ridden, with poor access to food and water, resulted in the deaths of many people as they crossed the Atlantic.

"Fields of Athenry" - Patrick 'Paddy' Reilly, 1983

(and this is my favorite rendition of the song)

"Fields of Athenry" - Dropkick Murphys, 2006

~information harvested from:

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Cuyahoga" - R.E.M., indie rock (1986)

Let's put our heads together and start a new country up
Our father's father's father tried, erased the parts he didn't like
Let's try to fill it in, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red

This is where we walked, this is where we swam
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We knee-skinned it you and me, we knee-skinned that river red
And we gathered up our friends, bank the quarry river, swim
We knee-skinned it you and me, underneath the river bed

Cuyahoga, gone
Let's put our heads together, start a new country up,
Underneath the river bed we burned the river down
This is where they walked, swam, hunted, danced and sang,
Take a picture here, take a souvenir

Rewrite the book and rule the pages, saving face, secured in faith
Bury, burn the waste behind you

This land is the land of ours, this river runs red over it
We are not your allies, we can not defend

R.E.M. always prided themselves on their lyrical ambiguity. After all, they were one of the first alternative bands to break into the mainstream, and of course, when the "squares" start listening to your music, you're about done. Michael Stipe and his crew often threw historical references (which had nothing to do with anything) into their songs in a deliberate attempt to create ambiguity and confusion. It was all part of R.E.M.'s was their "cool". This song (and a few others) was an exception to that rule of cool, not to mention that the subject for this song is practically in my backyard.

If you visit Ohio, you'll find that many places and geographical features have very strange and difficult-to-pronounce names. Historically, the area was home to the Iroquois Indian tribes, and many of our geographic names reflect their language. "Cuyahoga" in Iroquois means "crooked river". The Cuyahoga River was aptly named by the Iroquois to reflect the river's course. The river played a prominent role in both the civilization of the Iroquois and the white settlers who came here later. The Cuyahoga is one of the most important rivers in the Midwest both politically and environmentally.

In 1795, it became the western boundary of the United States under the Treaty of Greenville. In 1796, a surveyor named Moses Cleveland arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga, where it emptied into a vast inland sea. This sea is what we now call Lake Erie, and the settlement became Cleveland, Ohio (aka the U.S.'s "North Coast"). The Cuyahoga River's flow into Lake Erie made Cleveland an excellent place to set up shop. Lake Erie, as you may or may not know (but will shortly) has direct access to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. It also has direct access to the other four Great Lakes. This situation makes the sale of distribution of goods quite convenient, and the city continued to grow. Today, the city of Cleveland is the 33rd largest city in the U.S. and in a 2005 study conducted by The Economist, participants rated Cleveland, Ohio THE BEST livable city in the U.S. (along with Pittsburgh) and THE BEST place in the U.S. to have a business meeting.

The city has long been known as a hub of manufacturing. Business has always boomed for Cleveland, thanks to the Cuyahoga. However, the city wasn't the only thing that ever boomed. Many times, the river itself went "boom". Since 1796, many factories discovered that the water from the river was extremely useful to their manufacture of various products. Many used the river to provide hydro-electric power or as a coolant. As benign as these uses were, during the explosion of the Industrial Revolution, industry's use of the river became not-so-innocent. Many companies were using the river in which to discard various waste materials. Between 1936 and the 1960s, the Cuyahoga's water became so foul polluted, that it actually caught fire several times. Usually we are taught that fire and water don't coexist together, but the Cuyahoga proved that completely wrong.

Besides business of all kinds, there are many boats along the river: passenger boats, bay cruisers, small shipping vessels, etc. It's not only the great deal of water traffic or molten iron ore from the steel mills that spark a fire. One of the most beautiful sights a traveler will see when entering the Cleveland area (especially at night), are the bridges. "The Flats" (what we locals call the lower river bank areas) are a spectacular sight because they are riddled with railroad trestle bridges that span the river at various points. At night, each of these bridges is lit up a different color. These bridges are still very much functional. The river water, itself, catches fire when enough oil, debris, and other combustible and flammable contaminants are dumped. These hazardous materials are not as dense as the water, and so they float. Any spark is enough to raise blazes that did thousands of dollars in damage up and down the river's banks. Because of the sheer size, length, and breadth of the river, and thanks to the high volume of manufacturing mills along the banks, it is unclear what exactly started these fires; however, these flames could be sparked by anything from sparks from a rail of an over passing train to something as simple as an impact wrench or welding/cutting torch.

1969, though, was the final straw. Time Magazine covered the story and had this to say:

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. "Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays". . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: "The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes." It is also -- literally -- a fire hazard.

The Cuyahoga came to such a dire straits due to the complete lack of government authority and control over the business and industrial industry. It was during a boom period of American history, and as such, at the time we didn't quite know how to handle such growth. The government, however, was quick to take action. The deplorable condition of the water helped give rise to the Environmental Movement. Thanks to the faults of the business along the Cuyahoga River, in 1972 Congress enacted the Clean Water Act of 1972.

CLICK HERE for pictures!

"Cuyahoga" - R.E.M., 1986

~info from my own head & from surfing the net and finding such places as:

Thursday, January 8, 2009

"Immigrant Song" - Led Zeppelin, rock (1970)

We come from the land of the ice and snow,
from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.

The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying:
Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.

We come from the land of the ice and snow,
from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow.

How soft your fields so green,
Can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war.
We are your overlords.
On we sweep with threshing oar,
Our only goal will be the western shore.
So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins,
For peace and trust can win the day
Despite of all your losing.

I come from the land of the ice and snow to tell you all about how Led Zeppelin adds their two cents worth to the annals of history, beginning with Robert Plant famously wailing what sounds awfully familiar as the song "Bali Ha'i" from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical "South Pacific", but don't get too cozy just yet. While that opening hook may have you hooked on Tahiti, the rest of the song has nothing to do with any island paradise and everything in common with Ohio (where I live) in, cold, snow, and brrrrr!

"Immigrant Song" wasn't actually written around any particular historic event, really. It was inspired by a concert tour of Led Zeppelin's that kicked off in Reykjavik, Iceland. Long story short, the Icelandic government was on a bit of a cultural diversity kick. Zeppelin wasn't very well received by the working class, and the event was almost cancelled, but the local university made a way for them to play and Zep was blown away by remarkable response they received from the kids. Six days after that memorable concert, the song was written, inspired by that trip to Iceland. It is this inspiration that concerns us today.

Robert Plant wrote the song to reflect the travelling perspective of the Vikings. The song was dedicated to Icelander, Leif Ericson aka "Leif the Lucky". If you're not quite sure who Leif is, well, he's the reason Americans celebrate Columbus least he should be. After all, he was here 500 years before Columbus (who wasn't even here at all, but...).

Leif Ericson was a Norse explorer, and he was is officially the first European to set foot on North American soil. His father, well-known explorer (and sometimes outlaw) Erik the Red, had already begun to colonize Greenland. Following in his father's footsteps, Leif the Lucky set out in search of new and exciting places. According to Icelandic history, there are two stories surrounding his visit to the North American mainland. In 1000 AD, he visited Norway, where it is believed that he was converted to Christianity by King Olaf I. Olaf then sent Leif back home to Iceland to convert his fellow countrymen. On the way back, he accidentally sailed off course and eventually arrived at lush and fertile land which overflowed with an abundance of grapes. In the other story, the "Groenlendinga saga", it is believed that Leif heard about a rich western land from a passing trader and set out in search of it.

Regardless of which tell is true, the fact remains that Leif came to 'Vinland' (that's what he called it). He named it so because no matter which story one chooses to believe, when Leif got here, he found a rich and fertile land.

Because of Greenland's northerly location, we know for certain that in 998 AD he landed in Canada. More precisely, he visited Baffin Island, which he called "Helluland"; the Labrador Coast, which he called "Markland" (because of the trees he saw there); and Newfoundland, which is believed to be the area officially dubbed "Vinland", where he found wild grapes in abundance that just happened to make some highly palatable wine. He and his men even built a small colony and spent the winter in this new place.

While his Canadian detours are well respected, very little is known about his other ventures, including some ambiguity as to whether or not he actually did come to the area we now know as the United States. Nevertheless, in 1963, archaeologists discovered the remnants of ancient Viking settlements all up and down the US's eastern seaboard, which pre-date any other signs of European civilization. In fact, even though we cannot be certain what happened to the many Viking civilizations that occurred throughout eastern North America, there is much evidence of Viking influence as far inland as modern-day Minnesota, where pieces of wooden ships have been discovered; these ships follow the same building schematic as those of the Norse sailors and explorers.

The only other evidence of his mainland trek is the existence of a map. "The Vinland Map" dates circa 1300 AD and comes to us via Papal emissary to the Tartars. This map not only clearly outlines Vinland to include mainland USA, but it also has Leif's name on it. It might seem unreasonable that a map of Norse travels should surface in the Far East, but remember that at this point in time, the whole world was at Man's fingertips, and very little of it was known to any civilization. Thus, it was not uncommon for westerners to move east to explore the nether regions there, especially in the name of discovery. In doing so, there was much exchange of information and discovery (both willingly and by force). You can view this map HERE. Modern cartographers have carbon dated this striking piece of evidence and believe it to be the very first map ever drawn of the North American Continent, and it is quite accurate.

To commemorate the overwhelming evidence supporting the large Viking contribution in discovering these new lands that would eventually become the United States and Canads, in 2001, President George W. Bush formally declared that October 9 be officially designated a national holiday: Leif Ericsson Day.

"Immigrant Song" - Led Zeppelin, 1970

Thursday, January 1, 2009

"New Year's Day" - U2, 1983 (post-punk rock)

All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
On New Year's Day

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
The newspapers says, says
Say it's true it's true...
And we can break through
Though torn in two
We can be one

I...I will begin again
I...I will begin again

Maybe the time is right
Oh...maybe tonight...

I will be with you again
I will be with you again

And so we're told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes
On New Year's Day

Happy New Year, Auld Lang Syne, and all that good stuff! Welcome, 2009 today, and in January 1983, Irish rockers U2 broke through the Billboard Top 10 with "New Year's Day", hoping to fan the flames of political unrest in Europe. As is true for all U2 songs, Bono and the gang never actually intended for this one to become an instant pop hit (and eventual rock classic). Even though the band is part of the "entertainment industry", if you know anything about U2 then you know that very little of their music (if any) is written for entertainment. "New Year's Day" is no different. Frontman Bono had originally penned the lyrics as a love song to his wife; however, true to U2 custom, they were eventually re-fashioned to suit a more political purpose. The lyrics we know today were inspired by Poland's Solidarity Movement, co-founded by human rights activist, Lech Walesa.

The Solidarity Movement began in 1980 in the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland. Prior to the forging of Solidarity, Poland experiened a 'shortage economy', which was politically engineered by the oppressing Communist regime to keep the country and its citizens "in check." It is a dispicable tactic which has been used more than once by rulers who wish to maintain political power by keeping the people physically and emotionally weakened by depriving them of their life's essentials so that they are too weak and fearful for any uprising to occur; plus, if the government provides the essentials, the people would be forced to do completely without should there be a revolt. In essence, the government forces the people to be so depraved and dependent that they cannot retaliate against the government's harsh and unfair treatment. This artificial, intentionally engineered state of depravity put stress on the every day lives of the people of Poland, who were unable to buy even such basic amenities as toilet paper and bread. To even try to receive such items, they waited in endless queues, which even then rarely had a positive outcome.

History also records the boundaries of the collective human spirit. While man and his neighbors may suffer together and bend under the pressures of his rulers for what feels like an eternity, they are not infinitely flexible, nor can they withstand such stress without limits. In July of 1980, the Polish government was again "forced" to raise the price of goods while at the same time lower the rate of workers' wages. This was the last straw for Poland's labor force. On August 14, at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, the shipyard workers united, their tempers additionally fueled by the firing of outspoken activists. Walesa continued to give a voice to the workers, even more adamantly than ever. He instigated the monumental strike which demanded the institution of legislation for independent labor unions.

Even with a lack of any form of organized network, labor force strikes spread throughout the country. Dispite the government's ability to control media and communication, no matter how hard they tried, they could not disconnect Gdansk from the rest of the country. The Polish government instituted national censorship, even disconnected phone lines. Nonetheless, underground presses succeeded in passing the story from one place to the next. Walesa's and the dock workers' message had spread across Poland and the Eastern Bloc like wildfire. Within 2 days, on August 16, other strike committees joined Walesa and the crew in Gdansk. Two days after that, the unified strikers successfully put forth 21 demands. These demands called for the formation of independent labor unions, an end to media censorship, the right to strike, new rights for the Church, the freeing of political prisoners, and improvements to the national health system.

On August 18, the Szczecin shipyard joined the Gsansk shipyard and ingnited a slew of labor strikes all up and down the Polish coast. Within days, the entire country experienced factory shut-downs. Industry was grinding to a halt as more and more unions formed. Because of the monumentous effort made by the shipyard workers of Gdansk, they and the other strikers began to receive international media coverage. Of course, international media cannot be censored by the local, domestic government, and when human rights activities receive international notoriety, they often also gain international support. It was because of this international news coverage and support that this strike effort was such a success - Walesa and his collegues were able to hold out much longer than any other effort to overthrow the oppression experienced as a result of greedy government.

Poland's Soviet government couldn't ignore the people anymore. On September 3, the Governmental Commission was sent to Gdansk with an agreement to be signed, which ratified many of the workers' demands. This became known as The Gdansk Agreement, and is today often considered to be the first blow dealt in dismantling the Soviet empire. By successfully achieving the right to form unions free from Communist Party control or influence, Walesa and the other shipyard workers showed the world that it WAS possible to introduce democratic changes to the communist political structure!

On September 17, Solidarnosc ("Solidarity") was born. This was the very first completely independent, Communist-Party-free labor union in the entire Soviet Bloc. In the two years that followed, 10 million people joined Solidarnosc or one of its sub-organizations. People from all walks of life were quick to sign up: students, intellectuals, workers, farmers, etc. As much as 80% of Poland's workforce eagerly enrolled. This was the only time in history that such numbers of a country's population ever voluntarily joined any single organization.

Solidarity escalated into something much greater than an economic reforem effort; it snowballed into an international governmental revolution. However, to the credit of Walesa and Solidarity, unlike their opponents, they never once used violence. But no matter how peaceably they assembled (or dis-assembled as it were), Solidarity members still endured governmental backlash.

Moscow did what they could to put leadership into power to tighten the loosening Soviet grip on Poland, including the renig of certain terms agreeed upon in the Gdansk Agreement, particularly the term involving censorship, which was again instituted and implemented even more vigorously than before. In 1981, conflict had escalated enough for the Soviet government to declare Poland in a state of martial law. Martial law gave the government free reign. As a result, thousands of members of Solidarity were arrested in the middle of the night. Riot police patrolled the streets and easily put down workforce riots, which was Solidarity's staple push-back for when the government pushed. Still refusing to resort to violence and insurrection, it seemed as if Solidarity was crippled and perhaps the movement quashed forever. Solidarity was delegalized and banned.

Of course, whenever a good cause becomes illegal, it goes underground. It never lost its international support. Never in the history of the world has any cause been so supported. Reagan, Thatcher, the Pope, Carrillo (head of communist Spain); NATO, Christians, Western communists, liberals, conservatives, and socialists - all voiced support for Solidarity's cause. Ronald Reagan and the U.S. imposed sanctions on Poland, which forced the government to ease its policies. The CIA and the Catholic Church even provided monetary funds, training, and equipment to the Solidarity underground. No matter what the Soviets did to try and stop Solidarity, they couldn't. It was inevitable that even under harsh restrictions and martial law, the Solidarity movement would continue to gain momentum and change the world for the good of the people, systematically dismantling the Soviet Bloc brick by brick until it's final collapse in 1989.

The moral of the Solidarity story is: Never give up. Members were limitlessly persecuted. Thousands were thrown in jail. Their terms were agreed upon and then retracted. Because of their movements, the country's people were forced to endure periods of martial law. It may have taken 10 years, but in the end it was worth it. Today, Poland stands an independent democracy, thanks to a handful of dock workers who maintained the courage of their convictions. Their spark for democracy and independence spread throughout all of Communist Europe and changed not only the and fortunes of the people of one country, but also those of an entire continent.

Many people sacrificed much and risked their lives for the movement's success. History has not passed without recognizing them, particularly Lech Walesa, who earned the Nobel Peace Prize in October of 1983. In 1990, he was elected President of Poland and was the first Polish President ever elected by a popular vote.

"New Year's Day" - U2, 1983

~Information solidified from: