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The Second Coming of Joella Foulds

Posted on Oct 8, 2017

Last night I heard Joella Foulds sing at the Celtic Colours concert in Port Hawkesbury. She’s a splendid pianist, and she has a rich, powerful voice. In addition, she’s a fine songwriter, which I hadn’t known. She’s spent the last 22 years off the stage, working in arts administration, notably in shaping the Celtic Colours Festival itself, for which work she won the Order of Canada and an honorary doctorate from Cape Breton University. She was nervous last night, not surprisingly. But she gave a memorable performance.

I had almost forgotten that Joella was a musician herself, though I originally met her as backup singer/guitarist in the very early days of Rita MacNeil’s remarkable career. Hearing her again gave me a flashback I wanted to share.

It was 1981, I think, and Sylvia Tyson was recording an episode of Touch The Earth in New Waterford, Cape Breton. Joella was there with Rita, who was not yet a legend. I intended to read a scene from my novel Dragon Lady. The scene was an account of an informal wake in a Cape Breton fishing village after my hero Peter and his companion Elaine have found a sunken aluminum boat on an offshore reef, and have towed it to the village wharf. A fisherman named Howard tells them that the boat belonged to his brother, who was drowned a few weeks earlier. The searchers had found the body, but not the boat. That evening everyone gathers for an evening of drinking and singing.

I had a bright idea. I turned to Rita and Joella. In the scene, I quote four songs. Would they happen to know those songs? Well, yes, they did. Would they consider singing them as part of my reading? Yes, they would. So I stepped up to the microphone and read the text, and when I came to a song I stepped away while Rita and Joella stepped forward and sang. Thanks to those glorious voices, it was probably the most magical reading I ever did in my life. Here’s the passage we performed:

Peter and Elaine are drinking with Howard, his wife, and some others. Howard gets down his fiddle, in a battered black case, tunes it up, and plays a melancholy minor ballad. His teenage son comes home, silently goes upstairs in the little old house, comes down with his guitar and sits in the corner by the oil stove, tapping out the rhythm with sock feet on the shabby oilcloth, accompanying his father. A lament, thinks Elaine, not only for Wally and for Gilbert, the drowned brothers, perhaps, of these two sad men, but for all the men lost at sea along this seductive, moody, adamantine coast. For all those who have died, and who will die. For all of us.

She remembers Howard’s sorrowful remarks. “The worst of a drowning is you never know really what happened. And if you don’t find the body you don’t even know if he’s dead. Either way you don’t know what he felt like. I imagine Gilbert’s motor got swamped, and before he could get her going again she struck a rock and filled up. But you don’t know. Maybe it weren’t like that at all.”

She has never heard this music before. It is Scottish or Irish in its feeling, full of a nameless sorrow even in its brisk moments, but she understands it, she knows what it says, its beauty and its resignation mirror what its interpreters feel about human life. The two men stop playing, and Howard reaches for the rum.

Perhaps it is the rum she has drunk herself – she notes in passing that she is developing a taste for it – or perhaps it is the kinship she feels, but it does not seem unnatural to reach for the guitar. Perhaps it is something that she can give. For a moment, in the sudden hush of the kitchen, she fumbles for the notes, and then begins to pick a delicate, soft pattern, and to sing:

Farther along, we’ll know all about it;
Farther along, we’ll understand why;
Farther along, we’ll live in the sunshine;
We’ll understand it all by and by.

She sings through the old hymn alone, and then keeps the rhythm going, feeling around in her mind for something she knows to be there, a song that everyone must know by now, and finds it, changes the rhythm, and begins it:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
Was blind, but now I see.

They sing through that, and then Peter says, “Keep going, ” and she finds chords to serve the needs of a song she has never heard:

She’s like the swallow that flies so high
She’s like the river that never runs dry,
She’s like the sunshine on the lee shore,
My love, my love – but love is no more.

The songs tumble forth then, songs of love lost and betrayed, songs of shipwreck and peril, then songs of home-sickness and exile, and in the end songs of comedy and laughter, all the people in the little kitchen roaring it out as the rum goes down, Elaine playing raucous, bawdy songs she hears now for the first time, picking up chord patterns from the melodies, playing till her fingers are raw:

I’m a young married man who is tired of life,
Ten years I’ve been wed to a sickly wife,
She does nothing all day but sit around and sigh;
I wish dear to God that she’d get well or die…

Late in the night they give up singing. Howard’s wife, Louise, makes a huge plate of bologna sandwiches and a gallon of tea, and their rum–soaked stomachs and sung-out bodies gratefully receive the lunch, as Louise calls it. In the woolly night, with a light breeze from the ocean ristling the aspens, Peter and Elaine stumble off towards the wharf, back to the little schooner.

Joella, welcome back to the stage! It’s wonderful to hear you!

Now, d’you suppose we could get Rita back as well?

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