Marie's Forest - the CD!It's taken a long time . . .
Thirty years ago I quit teaching and left Thompson to come south and make this recording. I guess you could say I’m a bit of a procrastinator . . .
The album that you may be holding in your hand right now is a kind of scrapbook: each song a snapshot from a specific time or incident in my life. Some were written when I overheard a story. Some were inspired when I listened to a specific style of music. Some are my attempt to remember loved ones. And some just showed up out of the blue!
This isn’t the recording I would have made thirty years ago. I’m not the person I was back then. But this is me now, and I think that this album has been made at absolutely the perfect time.
The stories behind the songs . . .
I'm a 'storysinger'. Every song I write has a story behind it. In fact, my introductions can sometimes take longer than actually singing the song! If I wanted to add the entire story to the album booklet included with the CD, it would have needed 100 pages! So I decided that I'd write the backstory for each song here. That way, those who are interested can get the whole scoop! So, here goes!
1. "Marie's Forest"
The title song for my CD was written about my late Mother, Marie Valentine Larson Ferris. Ma was a great gardener. I used to think that she didn't just have a green thumb, she was green right up to her elbow! She would work out in the gardens until it was dark, weeding and pruning. And one of the things she loved to plant was trees. Our farm benefitted from her passion, as Manitoba Maples, Paper Birches, Amur Maples, Willows, Spruce, Pine and Cedars, Russian Olives, shrubs and all manner of fruit trees took hold and flourished.
When my parents moved off the farm and into Holland, Manitoba, Ma had a new, blank canvas. One of the first things she did was plant trees. When you drive past that house today, you see mature trees that were only saplings when she planted them.
Once, when I was visiting, Ma was showing me her 'forest'. She had been given a 'tree-planting kit' - a box with peat moss and some white pine seeds. She'd planted them, watered them and turned them to the sun each day. When they finally emerged, looking like tiny red threads, she took an egg carton and planted each tree into one of the spaces. She had a forest; twelve tiny trees.
Ma was so excited as she showed me how they were doing! She said, "But I don't know where to plant them! If I put them between the sidewalk and the yard, the town would make us move them when they got too big!" My Dad, who at the time was about 90, said, "Yeah - as if we'll have to worry about that!"
But my Ma didn't care. She knew that she wasn't planting the trees for them - she was planting them for 'someday'. As I thought about this loving act, the words came to me:
"Let me tell you a secret 'bout why we plant a tree -
We don't do it for you, we don't do it for me -
We do it for the children, and the children to be . . .
We plant the trees for Marie's Forest."
2. "Dis-moi, Papa" (Tell Me Daddy)
Once, when my Dad and I were out in the field getting the cows, he pointed to the sunset sky and said, "See that colour there, McGinty? That's sky-blue pink!" And if you look at the sunset, you'll see it - sky-blue pink. It's not quite blue, it's not quite pink. Dad always told me he'd get me a dress that colour.
A few years ago I was performing in Red Lake, Ontario with my trio, "Small Rooms". It was pouring rain! The performance was moved inside to an arena, and the rain continued all day! When my husband, Fred Casey, and I were driving back home we crossed the Ontario/Manitoba border, heading west. There's a line that happens on the highway we all call "the Number One" - the Trans-Canada Highway - where all of a sudden you come out of the rocks and trees of the Canadian Shield and are suddenly in the wide, open Prairies. And that evening, at that moment, we left the rain behind and were treated to one of our magnificent Prairie sunsets - and there was sky-blue pink! Of course, I thought of my Dad, and a song started to form . . .
I had the picture in my mind of a Daddy holding his little girl and dancing her around the kitchen as they played a game. The little girl, who of course didn't want to go to bed, kept asking her Daddy to tell her what colour of the sky would the dress he bought her be.
I've never been down to Louisiana, but I've always loved Cajun music, and somehow the song took on a distinct Cajun feel. After a while I'd written the basic song, but felt that if it was to be a Cajun-style song, it should definitely have at least one verse en français! Unfortunately I know very little French, and certainly not enough to properly write a song!
Fred knew I was writing, because I was being so quiet! I sang what I'd written to him, then asked him to please write me a verse and one chorus in French. (It comes in handy having a tri-lingual spouse!) He thought for a while as he drove, and came up with a lovely addition which gave, I think, the perfect 'feel' to the song. Merci, Fred!
My dear friend, Mary Ann Tully, who painted the picture of my Ma's hands on the cover of the CD, is in the process of creating a children's book, 'painting' each verse. We look forward to publishing it sometime in the near future.
3. Rainy Afternoon
Our friend, Manitoba Hal Brolund (http://www.manitobahal.com/) - an amazing `ukulele player - issued a challenge: a song a day in May. I knew that I would most likely not achieve that goal, but I also felt that I needed some motivation, so I joined the group.
Well, no - I didn't write 31 songs. I only came up with two, but two good songs are better than 31 poorly-written ones, so I was very pleased. This is one of those two songs! Thanks, Hal!
It was - believe it or not - a rainy afternoon! A Saturday, in fact. I love rainy afternoons. For some reason, I feel that they give permission to just take it easy. So, Fred and I had settled in the living room. He was in his chair with a book, and I sat on the chesterfield playing my `ukulele, looking at the raindrops running down the window. I found myself settling into a specific chord progression, and started to sing - just stream-of-consciousness stuff. "Rainy afternoon, I'm just sittin' here and wonderin' what to do - nothin' appeals to me . . ." And while I touched it up a bit here and there afterwards, the entire song really did just 'come' to me in about 20 minutes. It doesn't happen that often, but when it does, I've learned not to question it. Like me, my Muse will only create in her own good time . . .
This was the first 'blues/jazz' type of song I'd ever written, and I have to give credit to another friend - Canadian `ukulele virtuoso, James Hill (http://jameshillmusic.com/ ) who, at Aloha Music Camp, taught me not to fear the jazz chord! Thanks, James!
I feel, however, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I must confess something. In the song, the line "I'm quite contented here, just cuddled up with you, my dear" does NOT refer to my husband Fred, who was actually sleeping in his chair. It was to my beautiful boy, Fergus - my 18-year-old black cat - who was curled up beside me, not paying any attention to my songwriting in the least!
4. I Want A Viking Funeral
We live about 5 miles from Lake Winnipeg, the sixth-largest freshwater lake in Canada. It's a relatively shallow lake, so it can get some incredible wave action. Our friend, Jim Peterson, found this out first hand!
Jim was sailboarding one afternoon - something he did regularly - when the wind suddenly shifted and blew him out into the middle of the lake. He was unable to get back to shore, and spent the night curled around the mast on his board. At times he said the waves were so high, he couldn't see the sky. Fortunately, the wind blew him all the way across the South Basin to the east shore of the lake, where he was able to make it ashore the next morning. He was exhausted and cold, but it could have been much, much worse.
A few weeks later we were at a get-together and started talking about Jim's experience. Somehow this morphed into a conversation of the high cost of funerals. Jim, a frugal kind of fellah, said "Well, when I go I'm not going to spend a lot of money on a funeral. Just give me a Viking funeral: drape me over, light me up, and push me out."
At 3 am I was still awake, hearing those words. What else could I do but get up and write a song about a Viking Funeral? It just happened that Jim's birthday was a couple of days later, so I gave it to him as a gift. Thanks, Jim!
By the way, my Grandfather, Olaf Larson, came from Sweden in the mid-1800s, and my Grandmother Larson was from Norway - so I actually DO have Viking "running through my viens!" Uff-da!
5. Ireland in my Dreams
For a dozen years - from the mid-80s - I played with an Irish group called "The Blarney Band". We were usually playing several nights a week, and often we'd end up having a pint or two at the Irish Club after gigs. In the wee hours of the morning, sharing pints and craic (conversation) things would tend to get sentimental, with tales of the 'Old Country' and 'Home' - of Ireland.
At one point, when I was thinking fondly of Ireland, I suddenly thought, "But, I've never BEEN to Ireland!" I was born in Canada, as was my Father, Grandfather and Great-Grandfather, and none of them had ever gone back to visit. And yet there had always been this feeling of longing for "home". Not only that, but certain sayings and customs passed down in our family came straight from Ireland. What was it, I wondered, that caused this?
I started to scribble ideas. I thought of how Dad was a storyteller, and how he loved telling old family stories. When I was a child, he would lilt while he bounced me up and down: "Diddly-diddly-dum-de-diddly" - and his nickname for me was McGinty. And yet, he'd never been to Ireland.
I finished this song two weeks after my Dad passed away. I was sitting on the rocks overlooking the McGillivray Falls trail in the Whiteshell. It was both a way of grieving, and of healing. It took a long time before I could sing it without crying.
In 2011, Fred and I visited Ireland with our dear friends Alison Clarke and Trevor Thomas, and we found the Old Church Graveyard in Derrygonnelly, County Fermanagh. There we found the gravestone for my Great-great-great-great Grandfather. Standing there, looking down at this old, old stone, all I could think was, "Oh - Dad would have loved to have come here."
Now, it's my turn to tell the tales and sing the songs for him . . .
Do people have autograph books any more? Do people even know what an autograph book IS any more? When I was a young girl, everyone had them, and we'd have our friends and relations write in them. There were the usual ones written by schoolmates - humourous and brief. "By hook or by crook, I'm the last in this book" written on the last page. "By ham or by bacon, I think you're mistaken!" written under it! One said "High on a mountain, carved in a tree, two little words - "Rember me!" A spelling mistake, perhaps, but even all these years later, I DO 'rember' her!
Then there were the more serious ones, usually written by teachers or older relatives. "Tender-hearted touch a nettle, and it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of metal, and it soft as silk remains." (Lovely, but untrue. I've both touched and grabbed nettles, and both times they sting like hell!)
My Grandma, Annie Ferris, was a tiny woman. I doubt she ever topped 100 lbs in her life. She bore 14 children, 13 of whom survived, yet never saw the inside of a hospital until she was in her mid-80s. For years I would go to her house in town after piano lessons, have supper with her, then go to choir practice. In her house until her passing, the neighbours used to say, "We know she's all right when we hear her playing hymns on the piano." Yes, Grandma was a very devout woman.
She wrote in my autograph book the following verse: "If I be first the Pearly Gates to see, I'll wait at those gates and watch for thee." I'm sure she believed that.
I was thinking of that autograph once while I was driving, and thought that it could lend itself to a sort of Appalachian-style mountain gospel hymn. Even as I was writing it, I could hear those open harmonies in my head; not shape-note singing, but not traditional 'hymn' harmonies, either. (On the recording, the vocalists are me, myself and I.)
I offer the song as a tribute to my Grandmother. Who knows? Maybe she is waiting . . .
7. Whoever Would'a Thunk It!
I never know when a song is going to 'hit'. In this case, Fred and I were attending the Canadian Ukulele Expo in Winnipeg in 2004. The MC introduced one of the performers as a 'tall drink of water', and my mind started one of its "Kate Journeys". If a tall, slim person is a 'tall drink of water', then what would a short - a-hem! - stout person be called? I pondered for a bit, and it suddenly hit me: an ample little sample!
I love playing with words: rhyming, stretching lines, breaking at unexpected places. Before I knew it, I was coming up with what, at the time, I thought was a bit of silly diversion. "Fiddle - middle", "laughter - after", "water - ought'er". Okay, I'm not beyond making up words if necessary!
Well, one thing led to another, and I kept thinking about opposites - and the saying that opposites attract! It was certainly true of Fred and me! And that led to yet another fork in my mental road, and I started thinking of how Fred and I had known each other for over a dozen years, yet never for a moment would have thought we'd end up together, much less married for twenty years! Neither did any of our friends. And still, when it happened, they all said their first thoughts were "Fred and KATE? Really? REALLY??? Well, ummm . . . yeah! YEAH!!!"
I mean - whoever would'a thunk it?!!
8. Plywood Windows
I was at a CD release for another friend, Bill Dowling, and in one of his songs he mentioned "plywood windows all downtown". I couldn't get the image out of my mind - I'd seen it so many times: towns filled with plywood windows. When I did an Artist's residency in a northern mining town, when I'd walk from my motel to the school, every third window was boarded over.
Small towns used to be the hub of the community. People shopped there, socialized there, went to schools and churches there. Trips to 'the city' - larger centres - were special occassions. It was possible to have a small business and thrive in a small town, and hometown loyalty was a big part of that.
Not far from where I lived there was a small community named Landseer. It wasn't big enough to be called a village - just a few houses, a small store and gas pump, a grain elevator. It was half-way between Holland and Cypress River. Sometimes if there was too long a line-up at the grain elevator in Holland, Dad would go deliver there. But being only 5 miles either way from a larger town, the store eventually closed. Houses moved out. Finally the grain elevator disappeared, too. They even removed the highway sign. Today, if you're not a local of a certain age, you'd never know it was anything but a house at the side of the road.
There are many small towns that have disappeared, and many more that are struggling as people drive into the big box stores in the city. It's more convenient perhaps, but in the end the cost is much higher than anyone expected.
9. Prairie Girl's Song
Sometimes my Muse can go on an extended vacation. This appeared to have happened when I kept trying to write a song for my wonderful niece, Karen. I tried to write one when she was an infant. I'd done that for her older brother and of course I had to write one for her, too! But I couldn't. I had an idea - even a bit of a melody. I had a chorus I really liked. But it just would NOT go anywhere!
Stubbornly, I kept trying . . . for years! And the older Karen got, the worse I felt. She, of course, never asked me "When will I get MY song?" But it was always there, nagging at me. "When am I going to finish Karen's song?!!" I think eventually she stopped expecting one.
One summer day when I was driving back from a visit to my family, I saw a field of horses. I drove down the gravel road hoping to get a few photos. As I sat and watched, a red-winged blackbird landed on the fence and started singing. Immediately the line came to me: "Black-bird sittin' on a barbed-wire fence, singin' to the mornin' . . ." I heard the melody. I knew it was played on a banjo. And I knew that THIS was Karen's song!
I loved living on the farm as a kid. Because my brother Les took over the farm from my parents, Karen grew up in the same place. Her room had been my room. And she enjoyed so many of the things that I enjoyed when I grew up there.
I ended up choosing to write her song as a sort of 'painting'. Every line or two paints a picture of some special moment or scene from the country; colours, shapes, movement. And finally - after waiting for over 20 years - Karen got her song. And not only that - it's now a children's book as well. I hope that makes up for the delay!
I named it "Prairie Girl's Song" for her, because regardless of where she may end up living, and what she may do, in her heart she will always be a Prairie Girl.
10. Diamonds in the Snow
I mentioned that I'd written a song for my nephew when he was born. When my brother Les and his wife Heather announced they were expecting, it was so exciting. The first Grandchild for my parents. My first nephew. And when he was born, he was named after both my Father and Great-Grandfather: William. I got to hold him when he was less than a day old, and as I looked down at this wonderful child, I knew that I would do everything in my power to always be there for him.
I also wanted to get him something special - something that would represent the bond I felt, and the promise I made to be there. The thing is, I was a singer/storyteller. Anything that I saw that would be even close to appropriate was so far out of my price range it was laughable! And I didn't want to get just any old thing.
One winter night I was driving home in my old car. I'd just paid my insurance, my bank account was down to almost zero, and there were several days before I had another paying gig. As I turned a corner, the headlights shone on the snow, and it sparkled like diamonds!
Immediately I was taken back to a time when, one night, I'd gone out with Dad to the barn. He turned on the yardlight, and suddenly the barnyard looked to be covered with crystal. "There you go, McGinty," Dad said. "Those are all for you - all those diamonds." I have never felt as rich as I did at that moment. And as I remembered, I knew what I could give to Will: all the diamonds in the snow.
11. Ukulele Yodel-ay-de-tee
We were at an event once where our friend, Manitoba Hal, sang a line that said “Can you yodel while you play the `ukulele?” I started thinking how the word 'ukulele' even sounds like a yodel.
So, the next day I walked around the house yodeling “Uku-le-le, uku-le-le”. Even the cats started to look wary! Then I left for a week for a residency.
When I got back home, I found that Fred had been busy. He was still teaching at that time, and while he had his English students write for a half-hour, he sat down and wrote most of the main verses of this song. At first I was a bit miffed: it was completely different from the idea I’d had. (I'd thought of a cowboy falling for a Hula dancer.) Even worse, it was GOOD! Far too good to ignore . . .
There were a couple of things I felt needed adjusting, so we sat down and made a few changes. Then I wrote the choruses and put it to music. Our first collaboration!
When we first sang this at the Aloha Music Camp, Hawaiian music legend Keola Beamer said that we’d written a real “Hapa Haole” tune. I love the way Fred plays 'Aloha `Oe' on lap steel in the background!
12. Old 'n' Mouldies
Does anyone feel anything as passionately as a very young girl? I don't know, but I do know that when I was young, my link to civilization (in my mind!) was my little Bakelite radio. I would go into my room and tune into CKY or CKRC, the two rock stations, and listen to all the songs of love and angst and teenage heartbreak - many of which were sung by "Girl Groups": the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Supremes, the Chiffons, the Marvelettes, the Angels, the Crystals, the Shangri-las . . . Oh, how I loved those songs. Then came Dusty Springfield, Lesley Gore . . . I could sing every word to those songs. And they shaped how I thought my life would be like when I got a little older . . .
Many years later I was driving through an area where the only radio reception I could get was for a "Golden Oldies" station. I had fun singing along. Then a song came on that was my absolute favourite from back then. I was thrilled to hear it again - until I started to notice that although the words were the same, they also weren't the same any more. What on earth had I been listening to?!!!
Lyrics like "And if you're born a woman, You're born to be hurt - You're born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt." (Sandy Posey - 'Born a Woman') and even my favourite, "Show him that you care just for him, do the things he likes to do. Wear your hair just for him, 'cause you won't get him wishin' and a-hopin' . . ." (Dusty Springfield - "Wishin' and Hopin' ")
By that time, too, I realized that so many of those wonderful women singers were never given credit for their talent and work - often not even having their names on the records.
Looking back, I saw how much of what I felt was a somewhat unhappy adolescence was because those wonderful, romantic things I heard in the songs just didn't happen to me. And why not? Weren't they supposed to?
Now, I can listen to those songs again and love them for what they were: snapshots of a very different time. And face it - musically, some of those songs were great, and some of the women had fabulous voices! I'm just glad we don't have to wear crinolines and spray and tease our hair anymore . . .
You can order your copy of the new CD, "Marie's Forest" right here! Canadian orders $20. All other countries, $23.