Folk lyrics

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, January 24, 2014


SOME of those privileged to have known Michael Jackson up close and personal remember a kind, gentle soul aching for a childhood. The whole world saw him as a caring human who, at the height of stardom, composed with Lione Richie “We Are The World” as theme for that star-studded fund-raiser for famine-stricken Africa.

As media continue to pour in details and anecdotes on the life and death of the musical superstar – reminding us of our own mortality – they trigger flashes of our own encounters in life, however remote and far-fetched these may be to those of the King of Pop.

Memory ricochets to our own seasons in the sun with fellow lesser mortals who had since gone ahead and to our moments with fellow ordinary people still with us. We discovered that their own, ordinary lives were and are as lyrical as those of the luminous stars above us, those whose greatness lies in their ability to express or sing what we can only feel.

Hooked on folk and country, my mind bounces to the lines of "The Fields of Athenry." It’s a plaintive ballad inspired by the Great Irish Famine of 1845-50 and written by Irish journeyman, composer and poet Pete St. John. It tells of Michael, a fictional young man about to board a prison ship for Australia.

Down on her knees outside a prison wall, Michael’s wife sings: “Michael, they are taking you away/ For you stole Trevelyan’s corn/ So the young might see the morn/ Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.” Michael answers: "Nothing matters, Mary, when you’re free/ Against the famine and the crown/ I rebelled, they cut me down/ Now you must raise our child with dignity."

It's one of Pete St. John's notable contributions to the long list of traditional Irish musical jewels, topped by the famous dirge “Londonderry Air”, popularly known as “Danny Boy”. Fans of Ireland's national soccer team saw fit to adopt “The Fields…” as its anthem in the 1990. In what he later admitted was one of the most memorable moments in his life, St. John sang it when he was invited to speak in Glasgow for a testimonial match of the Celtic Football Club’s Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner in 1991. It was Pete's way of thanking the people of Glasgow for taking care of the famine victims who had sought refuge there.

The piece is one of numerous songs of rebellion - and reconciliation -relating to the patriotism of Irish heroes the likes of Michael Collins against England’s centuries of dominion over the Emerald Isle.

Pete St. John’s wrote his other hit, “The Rare Ould Times”, after this Irish rover returned home to Dublin. In it he mourns the changes since, “as the grey unyielding concrete makes a city of my town”.

He might as well have written it for Baguio. It’s a lamentation for us soon-to-be feeble ones (to borrow from that line in “Maggie”, another Irish folk) over our own city’s continuing urban sprawl and the obliteration of its heritage and historical sites such as the colonial cottages that used to make up the Cabinet Hill.

When he listened to Billy Dean’s “If It Hadn’t Been You”, the late Philippine Star columnist Art Borjal also fell for folk and country. It’s a song of gratitude I had asked fellow Baguio boy and newsman Nick Calinao to spin in his radio program. Borjal’s copy was a gift from Nino Joshua Molintas, then a 10-year old Baguio boy whose successful surgery the columnist had arranged to mend a congenital, life-threatening heart defect.

Borjal printed the full lyrics in his column, also to thank those generous souls who contributed to the boy’s healing, among them pedia-cardiologist Emerenciana Collado and U.S.-based surgeon Serafin de Leon who came home to repair the kid’s heart.

"A man filled with doubt, down and out and so alone," begins the song I often asked soloist Conrad Marzan to belt out. “A ship tossed and turned, lost and yearning for a home/ A survivor barely surviving, not really sure of his next move/ All of this I would have been if there hadn’t been you.”

Wanting to pass on the country melody to the boy’s Samaritans, Borjal entered a music shop to buy copies to send. A salesgirl, fully sure she had it right, pulled out from the shelves an album and handed it to Borjal. It was "Thriller" containing "Billie Jean," one of Jackson's platinum singles.

Nino was christened for his uncanny resemblance to the Santo Nino. He is the youngest of four sons of the late Wright Park pony boy Mike Molintas and Maria Paz “Datsu” Feria Infante, a Spanish mestiza and daughter of a sugar baron in Bacolod.

Mike, himself a scion of the once-landed Ibaloi clan of Pacdal and Gibraltar, grew up with horses that he raised and rented out at the Wright Park bridle path. He looked forward to summers spent with Datsu, teaching her the basics of handling and riding ponies and singing for her Hank Williams' country classics.

They fell in love. Datsu gave up a life of wealth and ease to follow her heart. It was a romance made for the movies, the stuff paperbacks are made of. Suddenly, the hacienda senorita was out there also renting out horses, cutting “sacate”, raising and selling cactus to raise a family.

(For the full story, type out and click “A love that goes beyond Valentine’s Day” at www.sunstar.com.ph/baguio.)

Theirs is an unusual, inspiring love story that eventually turns into a widow’s might, a mother’s love and an orphaned family’s triumph over seemingly unending ordeals and trials. Any of these elements would have been enough inspiration for a composition by the King of Pop, Billy Dean or Pete St. John.

A ballad could have been written about how Nino’s cow multiplied to three, triggering a ribbing from his elder brother Jules Byron about them roasting one on Nino’s birthday. Nino brushed aside the suggestion, saying the cow heads will be for the future – that of his brother’s two young children. (e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments)

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on January 25, 2014.

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