This month, I’ve been learning to play and sing the the song The Wild Geese, as performed by Jim Malcolm in this recording:
Most of the challenge has been in getting a good sound on the harmonica while it’s strapped to my face with a rack. That requires all the brain power so the guitar part needs to be utterly automatic.
Anyway, I really love this song. It was written by the poet Violet Jabob in 1915 and turned into a song by folk singer Jim Reid sometime in 60s or 80s. The lyrics is posted below. The song is in Scots English, which is about 70% English, but with just enough oddly-pronounced loan words to make it kind of hard to understand.
“Oh tell me fit was on yer road, ye roarin Norland wind?
As ye come blawin frae the land that’s never frae ma mind.
Ma feet they traivel England but I’m deein for the North.”
“Ma man, I saw the siller tides rin up the Firth o Forth.”
“Aye wind, I ken them weel eneuch an fine they fa and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creepin mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, fit saw ye on the way?”
“Ma man, I rocked the rovin gulls that sail abin the Tay.”
“Bit saw ye naethin leein wind afore ye come tae Fife?
For there’s muckle lyin ‘yont the Tay that’s mair tae me nor life.”
“Ma man, I swept the Angus braes that ye hivna trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgie a hameless loon that canna see for tears.”
“And far abin the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A lang, lang skein o beatin wings wi their heids toward the sea,
And aye their cryin voices trailed ahint them on the air.”
“Oh wind, hae mercy, haud your wheesht for I daurna listen mair.”
The Anglicized version is a bit easier to understand:
“Oh tell me what was on your road, you roaring Norland wind?
As you come blowing from the land that’s never from my mind.
My feet they travel England but I’m dying for the North.”
“My man, I saw the silver tides run up the Firth o Forth.”
“Oh wind, I ken them well enough and fine they fall and rise,
And fain I’d feel the creeping mist on yonder shore that lies.
But tell me as ye pass them by, what saw ye on the way?”
“My man, I rocked the roving gulls that sail above the Tay.”
“But saw ye nothing, lying wind, before ye came to Fife?
For there’s much lying beyond the Tay that’s more to me than life.”
“My man, I swept the Angus braes that you havn’t trod for years.”
“Oh wind, forgive a homeless lad that cannot see for tears.”
“And far above the Angus straths I saw the wild geese flee,
A long, long skein of beating wings with their heads toward the sea,
And aye their crying voices trailed behind them on the air.”
“Oh wind, have mercy, hold your tongue for I dare not listen more.”
The song is about a Scottish man living in England who is longing for his homeland. Nearly every other line mentions specific places in Scotland. Alas, I’ve never been to any of these places named, nor even traveled to the UK. I have zero personal or emotional connection to anything literally mentioned in the song. I also don’t miss and yet the song is in fact very emotional for me. It’s easy, by analogy, to use the speaker’s loneliness and longing as a stand-in for your own. I don’t long for my homeland (The Pacific Northwest), because I’m still here, but I do long for my REAL home.
Just last night I read in Dante’s Purgatorio (canto 28), the lady explaining how the longing for another place spoken of by poets is often a sort of genetic memory of our time in Eden:
Those who in ancient times have feigned in song
The Age of Gold and its felicity,
Dreamed of this place perhaps upon Parnassus.
Here was the human race in innocence;
Here evermore was Spring, and every fruit;
This is the nectar of which each one speaks.
Incidentally, as I going for a walk around the edge of town a few nights ago, the sound of real wild geese cut through my noise-cancelling headphones and made me stop in the dark and listen to an unseen flock of them by the creek. I recorded this with my phone, and though nothing is visible the flowing water and the honks are rather enchanting!