Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | October 15, 2012

Songs of Logan #6: Fear a’ Bhàta (The Boatman)


Achiltibuie Boatman’s Bothy

Last, but not least…

The essence of the fictitious Logan is that, had not so many events transpired that made his dream impossible, he’d still just be a fisherman back on the Firth of Forth, living simply, settled down with his sweetheart.  Perhaps it started with the conviction of the Logan name.  Perhaps it was Mar’s calling Scotland to rise up in ’15, but then maybe it was that beautiful, untouchable woman I danced with and that made me itch to prove myself.  How did I expect to woo her, anyways?  Perhaps it was Borlum and his damned fool march into England, or that coward Forster who doomed us all at Preston.  After that it was all luck, good and bad–getting to Liverpool, managing to get on a ship bound for America, tho’ a hungry bitch of a freighter with an afterdeck working her crew ’til the sheets were smeared with blood.  And then it was that fateful day when Hornigold and his brigands fell on us just as we were almost to the Colonies, and we, doomed anywhere but at sea, fought with the pirate and signed his articles…

That’s pretty much the first half of the unwritten Blue Lou Logan, The Pirate Far From Home.  All of this was in my head in some form when, a few years back, I was listening to my iPod and rediscovered the song “Fear a’ Bháta.”  It was an AHA! experience, and from it tumbled the “Imaginary Logan” score and, eventually, this blog thread.  The perspective, like “Logan Braes,” is that of the woman left behind.  The song was originally written in Scots Gaelic and has gone through several variations and translations.  Here are the lyrics as I first heard them in, in English, transcribed directly by me from the recording…

Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e

Mo shoraidh slàn leat’s gach àit’ an déd thu
Forever haunting the highest hilltops
I scan the ocean thy sails to see
Wilt come tonight love wilt come tomorrow
Wilt ever come love to comfort me?
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e…
They call thee fickle they call thee false one
And seek to change me but all in vain
For thou art with me a throughout the dark night
And every morning I watch the main
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e..
There’s not a hamlet but well I know it
Where you go walking or stay a while
And all the old folks you win with talking
And charm its maidens with song and smile
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e…
From passing boatmen I would discover
If they had heard of or seen my lover
I’m never answered I’m only chided
And told my heart has been sore misguided

Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e…

Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e
Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e
Oh fare thee well love, where e’er you be

In all of the versions I have heard or found online, the chorus is always left in Gaelic.  The refrain, “Fhear a’ bhàta na hóro eil’e,” translates roughly as “O, my boatman, and no one else.”  Here a translation of the last line of the chorus ends the song.  In fact, the verses both in Gaelic in English vary considerably.  See for, example, the lyrics on Wikipedia here, at electricscotland.com here, and at contemplator.com here.  The gist remains the same:  The boatman is gone, likely never to return, but in spite of all the hearsay against him she will keep waiting.  That hearsay paints the boatman as more than a bit of a scoundrel, off having his own fun instead of simply off at work or lost at sea.  Putting this into the context of my story, I read this as Logan’s fellow boatmen not having heard anything clearly indicating his demise but perhaps rumors of his shipping across the Atlantic and even turning pirate.  The mood of the forlorn lady watching the main is, in my imagination, close to that of the famous “Miranda – The Tempest,” inspired by the character in Shakespeare’s play, painted by John William Waterhouse c. 1916 (just maybe ignore the shipwreck):

For once with a song of this kind, there seems to be general agreement on its attribution.  Credit goes to Sine NicFhionnlaigh–Jean Finlayson–of Tong, a small village on the Isle of Lewis.  The song was written by her in the late 18th century during what was apparently an emotionally difficult courtship with a young fisherman from Uig on the Isle of Skye, Dòmhnall MacRath, aka Donald MacRae.  The good news is that Jean and Donald were married some time after she wrote the song.  Who says Scottish airs can’t have happy endings?

Black House Village, Garenin, Isle of Lewis, Scotland

  • Niamh Parsons, from Blackbirds and Thrushes.  Niamh Parsons is from Dublin and has in the last twenty years become one of the premier songstresses of traditional Celtic music.  In 1999, she recorded “Fear a’ Bháta” in Gaelic.  The lyrics of her version and a translation can be found here at Celtic Lyrics Corner.  It is a sparse arrangement for her and guitar, with piano on choruses.  Parsons’ voice is particularly well-suited to the heartbreak of the song.  It is available on iTunes.  A live rendition from 2011, recorded at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall as part of their “Sea Sessions” series, can be found here at YouTube.
  • Talitha MacKenzie, from Spiroad.  Back in yon Berkeley days, my best friend Harvey and I listened religiously to the late-night radio show “Tangents,” hosted by the awesome Dore Stein then on KCSM, San Mateo.  “World music,” whether you call it a genre, a marketing term, or a travesty, was still new.  In 1990, the album Mouth Music came out, a collaboration between Edinburgh-based composer and instrumentalist Martin Swan and Talitha MacKenzie, a Scottish-American ethnomusicologist and performer who had taught herself Scots Gaelic and done field work in Scotland.  Martin brought the synthesizers and the beats, while MacKenzie brought her knowledge of puirt à beul, a Celtic tradition of essentially using the human voice as a rhythmic and melodic instrument to accompany dancing, comparable perhaps to scat singing in jazz.  Swan and MacKenzie stopped work together after only a few years, but MacKenzie as a solo artist has continued with what she referred to as “the mouth music project,” maintaining her Celtic roots but finding mouth music from many other traditions around the world.  For her 1996 album Spiorad, she recorded a very distinctive take on “Fear a’ Bháta.”  The percussive nature of puirt à beul, with almost a yodeling quality, makes the Gaelic itself more intense, while MacKenzie’s interpretation rises and falls with the emotions of the words.  In the background are some ocean atmospherics.  A very cool track.  Words and translation can be found here, again from Celtic Lyrics Corner.  Spiorad is not available on iTunes, but “Fear a’ Bháta” is, as part of the compilation A Celtic Tapestry, Vol. 2.  This is in turn is also on YouTube here.
  • Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, and Ed Trickett, originally from All Shall Be Well Again, also on The First Fifteen Years, Vol. 2.  This is the song that launched this whole blog thread.  Gordon Bok I have already praised.  Ann Mayo Muir has been a New England singer-songwriter since the ’60’s.  Ed (Edison) Trickett, when he is not a Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois, is a folk musician.  From 1969 to 2000, Bok, Muir, and Trickett (or, simply, BMT) were something between a trio and collective, singing gorgeous harmonies together but maintaining their own styles, inspirations, and repertoires.  They recorded a long series of albums for the revered Folk Legacy label.  I was introduced to them as a teenager on the now-gone weekly folk programs on KPBS San Diego, and I saw them live at the University of Washington.  I was more than a little surprised, given my years-old familiarity with their works, to (re-)find “Fear a’ Bháta.”  Theirs are the lyrics I transcribed above, closely resembling those Silly Wizard used on Caledonia’s Hardy Sons (which almost made the list and can be found here on YouTube).  BMT’s “Fear a’ Bháta,” however stands alone and above.  Ann sings the lead on this one, Bok and Trickett singing harmony on the choruses, while Bok’s 12-string holds an insistent 6/8 rhythm.  BMT’s back catalog has not yet reached iTunes, and it is not on YouTube.  Maybe, if I’m nice, I’ll figure out how to upload it, but in the mean time you’ll have to dig yer own gold.

And so we reach the end of the Songs of Logan:  songs of Scotland, shanties both of the leaving and the getting home, and something in between.  This has been some hardcore blogging, facilitated in part (talk about mixed blessings) by round three of diverticulitis and thus some time stuck (again) on the sofa.  I’m gonna take a break now.  BUT I have two books nearby–another Aubrey-Maturin and my well-annotated copy of Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.  I also have received another commission from the CWB to perform for the holidays!  Don’t touch that dial…

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