Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

Everyday life set to song


It's not exactly news for many people in Stanstead County that David Francey is a very talented artist. But these days, the Ayer's Cliff singer, songwriter and "itinerant carpenter" is getting noticed by a lot of folks beyond our peaceable kingdom.

Pushed along by friends and colleagues and encouraged by his wife, naturalist and artist Beth Girdler, David has been on the road the last few months, hitting most of the big folk festivals across Canada.

And - no surprise to us back home - he's a big hit!

"David Francey is the best Canadian folk writer that I have heard in 20 years," said Calgary critic James Keelaghan.

"Each song is a little masterpiece," wrote a columnist in the trade publication Penguin Eggs.

"Francey is regarded as one of the brightest lights on Canada's roots music scene," said Calgary Folk Festival organizers.

And on. And on.

There's a new Francey CD called Far End of Summer. Plans are under way for a New England tour. And now Global Quebec has decided to do a prime time TV special on David Francey and his music.

What makes David's songs so good?

Every fan would have his or her own answer. But I think it's in part because he follows an old and noble Scottish and Scots-Irish tradition of indigenous folk poets.

David told me that as a child, he and his family recited and sang poems and lyrics by the great Scots poet Robert Burns. As we sat at his kitchen table, he sang some of his childhood favorites and the genetic link to his own songs was immediately apparent.

There's a professor at Queen's University in Kingston named Donald Akenson. He's written about the connections between Burns and the dozens of local folk poets who lived at his time in Scotland and in the Scottish settlements in Ulster. Burns was the unquestioned genius of the lot, but he was only the shining tip of a much deeper and richer tradition.

"The (Scottish and) Ulster poets were not the cosseted pets of the upper classes," writes Akenson. "Instead they were supported by the generality of their own communities, from bottom to top of the social spectrum. Community support involved, in many instances, the communities giving the poet a special title and casting him in a special role."

The folk poet that Akenson has written most about is a man named James Orr, known by his community as the Bard of Ballycarry. And, yes, I think there is some family connection here.

Orr was born in 1770, made his living as a weaver and a farmer and was a published poet, widely read throughout Ulster. He wrote in both Ulster Scots vernacular and in standard English. He was known for his public-spiritedness, for his commitment to democratic reform in Ulster society, and for his tendency to bend his elbow a bit too frequently. The latter may well have been the inspiration for what critics agree is his greatest poem, "Address to Beer."

So much whisky flowed in Ulster society at the time, that beer was a veritable health food by contrast, a cure for the ravages of the harder stuff. Drink killed James Orr. Maybe that's why my own Methodist ancestors from Ulster never claimed him as a distinguished cousin even though he did write a poem about how Methodism saved a debauched neighbor. It's also true, however, that he appears to have favored the brewed to the Wesleyan cure himself.

Orr wrote about politics and immigration, both sources of excitement and heartache for his people and his times. He wrote about beer and potatoes and dances and wakes. He wrote about local schools and churches and county fairs.

And with many of the local folk poets, his poems were often set to music, using traditional Scots and Irish tunes.

Like the Scottish and Ulster folk poets two hundred years ago, David Francey takes everyday life in Stanstead County and turns it into art. I won't try to saddle him with the title of the Bard of Massawippi. But I will say that he knows how to make poetry and music in which we recognize ourselves immediately but also see the deeper, universal truths that flow through our daily lives.

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