I’ve been in the kitchen for part of the day, finishing up a quilt for my granddaughter’s second birthday. I stitch and think, think and sew. Her dad said he’s building bunkbeds in her room — another baby is expected in late August — and so it’s kind of serendipitous that I’ve made a quilt for one of those beds: the one she will sleep in. When I see her, I love the times when her parents go out in the evenings and I get to put her to bed. I wrap her in a blanket and sing old ballads to her. She never takes her eyes off my face while I’m singing. Her serious blue eyes, the tiny collection of curls at the nape of her neck (this is most of her hair; she has very little anywhere else): well, there’s something deeply lovely about these times. And what do I sing? Mostly the Child Ballads, the wonderful old songs of England and Scotland collected by Francis Child in the second half of the 19th century. I’ve loved them ever since I heard early recordings of Joan Baez singing “Mary Hamilton” and Pentangle’s version of that murder ballad, “The Cruel Sister”. I don’t have a great voice but Kelly doesn’t know that. And she’s a captive audience, a child in her grandmother’s arms.
We have a satellite system supplying our internet connection and our television reception. I don’t know how to turn the television on — I don’t quite see the point of televsion unless it’s used for movies I know I’ll love; otherwise I’d rather be in my bed reading. But the days when I’m quilting are perfect days for the Folk Roots channel. And today for some reason the old ballads kept coming on. And oh, they take me back. To my university years when I was listening to folk music as carefully as I was reading Milton. Those songs educated my heart while Donne’s Holy Sonnets educated my mind. Just now, Nanci Griffith singing “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which I know isn’t exactly ancient; but surely Bob Dylan had those rich songs in mind when he wrote it. It inspired the title essay of my book, Red Laredo Boots. We had Other Voices, Other Rooms on our stereo system in our old GMC pickup truck the winter we drove up into the Fraser and Thompson Canyons in search of history, our children in the backseat. And so it inflected the drive:
On the Ferry From Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, That Same Day
While the children walk the decks to stretch their legs after a long day’s drive, I am sitting with this notebook to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. Of course I have because I see I haven’t mentioned trying on a Lee jean jacket in the Fields store in Merritt or looking at the photograph in the Ashcroft Museum of the couple from the Upper Hat Creek Valley, he holding a cigarette and she, a cat in her arms. Who were they and where did they end up? Behind them you can see the evidence of hayfields and tall cottonwoods to picnic under when the work is finished. They look so young and proud in the air of 1913, before the War, before the fire that burned down most of Ashcroft, before the young men left nearby Walhachin for battles they’d never return from. We’ve taken lots of photographs, of course, and will put them in our album to tell something of this ramble. The truck still smells of sage, though the sprig hanging from the mirror is withered and dry. And every time I hear Nanci Griffith sing, I’ll regret that I didn’t at least try on the red Laredo boots:
Take heed, take heed of the western wind.
Take heed of stormy weather.
And yes, there is something you can send back to me.
Send me boots of Spanish leather.
from Red Laredo Boots, New Star Books, 1996.
Just now, “Silver Dagger”:
Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother
She’s sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.
It’s one I’ll have to work on for singing Kelly to sleep. Maybe under the new quilt, a friendly patchwork for a child to dream under. And the songs are cautionary, in all the right ways.
My daddy is a handsome devil
He’s got a chain five miles long,
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.