When I first listened to “Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden” on Tim O’Brien’s Fiddler’s Green, something happened to me. I don’t quite know how to describe the feeling; it was a strange synthesis of grief and longing and love. It was almost as if I was suddenly thrown into mourning the loss of someone I had never met.
Through listening to the song and having the emotional reaction over and over again, I have come to believe that I can know where I came from without ever looking at a genealogy chart or searching through records at a county tax office. There is something in Celtic-Appalachian instrumentation and harmony that takes me back to my ancestry: something in that music speaks to me.
I suppose I should explain that most music speaks to me in some way or another. I will admit in full honesty that I have been moved to tears by the dramatic swells of the soundtrack to the Food Network’s “Pastry Daredevils Competition,” and I went through a phase as a toddler when Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time” was the only antidote to a temper tantrum. (Sometimes it still works.)
So it does not come as a surprise to me that when I hear O’Brien’s music, I feel something, but this something seems to be so full of meaning, and I ache to understand it.
But how does one begin to understand something so elusive and mysterious? There are valid explanations, like the fact that my lineage can be traced back both to the Isle of Mann and to the rocky soil of Appalachia. But in this case, I would rather stretch my heart than my head, so I prefer to close my eyes and just listen.
I played the first track of the CD for my mom, and before I had disclosed to her my initial reaction to it, I could tell that she felt it too. “This reminds me of my Daddy,” she said simply. So it made me wonder how far back it would go. My mom’s father, my Papa, died several years ago, but if I had the chance, I would play this song for him. I would like to see if maybe he too would get that distant look in his eyes—that look that speaks of grief and longing and love: the look that would prove that he believed it too.
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