Chariots Chanting

Dear Brian O’Donovan,

Hearing you on BPR today was the last straw; another was on a dark December night in 2016, when my wife and kids and I found ourselves reluctant occupiers of a pew in the UCC church in Gloucester. There were handfuls of battened fisherfamilies evident in the wide, underlit space, all facing in the same direction as the klieg lights’ throw. Up there where a pulpit should have been were singers, and players, reaching down into somewhere, time and again, to retrieve ancient tunes equal in spark and radiance to the dark that was—and that was coming. I mean they were caroling, and chanting, up among the strung pine boughs, behind a huge yule log, and teasing us out, cajoling us to join them. How? With hurdy-gurdy, a new sound to me, and fiddle, as my father called what he played, and wide drums they wielded like cymbals or flashing shields.

And didn’t we find our separate clusters blending into one big one, and our stiff hesitance softening and dissipating away, and our limbs moving in time, unbidden, and then our actual voices singing along, and even—who’d have believed it?—our bodies, old and young equally, deigning to lift from the pews, and moving out into the aisles, all of us, every single one, to join hands, and circulate the empty seats, the creaking floor drowned by the stomp and tickle of the music we made, and by the dance, wherever we may be, which was in a dark, bright Gloucester church on a night no one expected would hold such a thing, no one who was me, anyway.

The other straw was on a recent Saturday afternoon by the sea in Marblehead, my kids and me in the car on an early March day of our long withdrawing, listening, after climbing a rocky hill, to someone on your show who you’d recorded earlier, back from a tour or about to tour again, one of many such persons whose song that day, in whatever voice, male or female, with whichever instrument, sparked up like a fire against the strange darkness and distance we knew were coming, and have come—waiting in the rollicking air until the song ended, and only then turning the key, and driving on into the day.

I hope you’ll give 30 seconds to the attached audio clip [below] from that old December night; you’ll hear the stomp and tickle you yourself are so familiar with, and our voices, chasing our eager leader, following her with hope and heart into the long passage through night.

Brian O’Donovan is the host of A Celtic Sojourn, Saturday afternoons on WGBH radio.

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