Yesterday I visited Homeboy Industries in Chinatown Los Angeles to meet Gregory Boyle, aka Father G, author of the book ‘Barking to the Choir: Radical Kinship’ who gave me a signed copy for the inmates at HMP Featherstone Prison where I work as Songwriter in Residence. Los Angeles is the gang capital of America with an estimated 120,000 gang members and home to 1,350 gangs. Many of the men I work with at Featherstone prison are serving long or life sentences for gang related…
A year ago I was on my way from Ojai, California to Los Angeles airport, heading to San Francisco to visit a friend and a tattooed Uber driver told me of his journey to enlightenment. He told me about the work of an American author and spiritualist Marianne Williamson.
I’ve just returned from a life enhancing trip to Maryland, USA performing at a Renaissance Festival and meeting some very special people.
My calling to Maryland began a year ago with a song I had created “The Lady of Shalott,” inspired by the pre-raphaelite John Waterhouse painting. I sent it to Washington DC National Gallery of Art where the original painting was being exhibited. The press officer, called Deborah was excited about the song, but had already scheduled musicians, so telephoned me with a list of 10 other contacts in the DC area of venues I could perform. I sent emails to each contact, and one responded. She was the director of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, Carolyn Spedden. She asked if I would be interested in sharing a stage with the Medieval Baebes. Coincidentally I had just seen them perform on the Isle of Wight in Ryde Cathedral. I applied for a temporary work visa and made plans to perform and release my first album “Song be My Soul” in America.
Most interesting in all of this is that Maryland is the hometown/state of Eva Cassidy, the late singer, whom many of you will know is an important inspiration to me, musically and spiritually. It was due to interesting connections on the Isle of Wight that three years ago Dan Cassidy, Eva’s brother, an exceptionally gifted violinist, visited me at my home in Worcester to arrange a concert for him at Huntingdon Hall, Worcester and later kindly recorded fiddle on the song “The Lady of Shallot” for my album. I then had the privilege of being a tour guide for his parents, Hugh and Barbara Cassidy, on their visit to the UK in 2011. The Maryland Renaissance festival site happened to be only a few miles from where Mr and Mrs Cassidy live. I was honoured to be invited to spend a couple of days with them in their beautiful home on the West River of the Chesapeake Bay.
On arrival at Washington Dulles airport strangely the first person I saw was Larry Melton, one of Eva’s long time friends, who now lives in the house where Eva grew up. He was also the double bass player in her band ‘Stonehenge’ at school, and I have met him in the UK a few times playing in the Dan Cassidy Swing Band. We were both stunned to see one another! I thought he had come as a surprise to collect me, but instead he was collecting Eva’s best girl friend Anna Karen from Iceland who was staying with them for a long weekend! Anna Karen’s flight arrived at exactly the same time as mine. I was then invited to have dinner with them. I had heard so much about Anna, Eva’s best friend and how much they shared together, so it was very special to find myself in her company. She is a lot of fun and a great blues singer. As if things couldn’t get any more connected, we go to a cafe bar next door called ’49 West’ and Eva’s father Hugh is playing cello with his band, and Eva’s mother Barbara is there too. There was much joy as we marvelled at this serendipitous reunion.
In my free time, after the first weekend of the Maryland Rennaissance Festival (which I will write about in more detail in my next blog) I was invited to stay for two nights at the Cassidy Residence in Shady Side, Maryland. They took me walnut picking at Black Walnut Creek, the walnuts make your hands very black, but worth it to make cookies and walnut bread! We walked through the woodland, and along the pier of the Chesapeake Bay and they openly shared they were Eva’s favourite places. I could understand why. Eva’s mother picked me a magnolia plant from the tree, and she said gently “watch it blossom.” It was amazing to see it sprout new bright red seeds every day.
Hugh and Barbara’s home was like an enchanted garden. A place of peace, stillness, calm, and beauty. Butterflies, vibrant red birds, deer walking among the trees, and statues of St Francis and Mother Mary which Eva bought her mum as gifts. Their home was like a piece of heaven on earth. The room I stayed in had a painting done by Eva above my head, with pottery, craft and jewellry she had made. On the bed was a beautiful American patchwork quilt, handmade by Eva’s grandmother. An angel sculpture made by Eva’s father in her memory surrounded by rosemary, graced the garden, which overlooked the boats sailing on the bay.
The music room walls were decorated with Eva’s unique paintings “The essence of Eva” and Hugh’s metal sculptures, inspired by mythology and legend. It was a beautiful creative space for a three hour guitar lesson with Mr Cassidy. He taught me a song “The river knows my name” and he explained the nashville numbering system. He is an excellent teacher, musician and artist. Eva’s sister Annette, who is a nurse and cared for Eva, visited while I was there, and I met the lovely neighbours. The warmth and kindness I experienced I will never forget.
We were taken on a sailing boat around the bay by a close friend of the Cassidys, Richard Elmquist. We saw Osprey nests, crabbing nets, and ate bluefish. We sailed until it got dark..and a touch breezy!
We had lunch at the Pirates Cove, a place where Eva and her Mum used to enjoy a drink together after working at Behnkes nursery. I experienced the famous Maryland Blue Crab. We were joined by Richard, whose boat “The naughty lass” was moored at the harbor, and Rickie Simpkins of the Emmylou Harris’ band (who accompanied me at the festival) and his lovely wife Ann. Hugh has long been an admirer of Rickie’s music so for them to connect was a real joy to see.
The BBC gave me a “flash mic” to take to America, as I am currently producing a radio documentary to commemorate and celebrate Eva’s 50th anniversary this year. It is set to be aired on BBC Hereford and Worcester this Christmas. It will be called “The Spirit of Eva”. I interviewed Richard, the captain of our ship, who went to the same school as Eva in Bowie, and had an enlightening story to tell, which I can’t wait to share with you. The documentary also features Roberta Flack, Judy Collins and Eva’s boyfriend Chris Biondo all paying tribute to Eva in this vey special year. Mr Cassidy also said a few words. I was very relieved to return and find I had pressed the right buttons and the interviews had saved!
The whole experience in America was miraculous and in divine flow. I had been looking for a book called “The Course in Miracles” by the writer Tara Singh before I left, but could not find a copy anywhere. I mentioned this to Hugh and he reached to his book shelf and handed me his own copy of the book and a special box of cards to accompany. Just as Eva’s poem “Springtime” which now appears on my album as a song, begins “Isn’t it a miracle?” .. each day brought new wonders of all kinds, without having to try, I allowed everything to unfold and “be” with a strong knowing of being in exactly the right place.
Before I came away, I researched Maryland and saw that it was named in honour of “Mother Mary” and that two boats had sailed from the Isle of Wight called the “Dove” and “The Ark” on St Cecilia’s Day to St Mary’s River in Maryland. I was on the Isle of Wight at Lord Tennyson’s 200th anniversary dinner when I first heard that Eva had a brother called Dan who played the violin, and since then met Eva’s family. I told this story to Mrs Cassidy, and she reached for a painting on the wall of the boat called the “Dove” and told me that St Mary’s River , a nature preserve was Eva’s special place. She visited the sacred church there often, and it was on the shores of this river that Eva’s ashes were scattered on St. Valentines Day after she passed in 1996.
When people ask me if I am an Eva ‘fan’ it doesn’t seem to fit as a word to describe how I feel about Eva, somehow she is more like a friend and a guide, as though she is still with us all in spirit continuing to do good and unite people across the world through love and music. Eva wrote a beautiful song called ‘Somewhere’ and poses the questions.. “Are the threads that bind us together falling loose or growing stronger?” Once in a lifetime, strangers share a common end.” “Look at the picture..has it changed or is it still the same?”. “Hear, hear hear.” Eva was kind hearted with a gentle nature, and universal vision. She cared deeply for the earth, animals and people, with hope in her heart for love and world peace.. and I believe her work here is not yet done. I feel our songbird is still weaving her magic and shining her light brightly from above.
‘God’ bless you, Eva.
First of the ‘beautiful houses’ we visited as part of our music and poetry mini April/May tour was the former home of the great John Ruskin, Brantwood in the Lake District. He was a poet, artist, critic and social revolutionary who challenged the moral foundations of 19th century Britain. A pioneering environmentalist, he was founder of the National Trust, patron of the Pre-Raphaelites and an inspiration to Mahatma Ghandi. Quite a busy man! His philosophy was simple, “to live in harmony with nature, education for all and honest satisfaction in work.” It was humbling to be in the spiritual presence of this great man.
Ruskin has strong links with Worcestershire, his trust owning 20 acres of the Wyre forest and in 1887 he visited Bewdley where he had the idea of creating a farming utopia. This led to establishing 3 farms in the area, including Uncllyss Farm, which still operates today and has helped rehabilitate drug and alcohol victims by working there. It’s literally a stone’s throw from the Hop Pole restaurant where I have a singing residency. (I’m there on May 29th by the way..do come along!)
It was lovely to have Jennifer perform flute with us, especially as Ruskins boat was called ‘Jumping Jenny’! See photo below. We met Jennifer at Swinburnes’ house on the Isle of Wight last year. She is a singer in her own right and sets Keats and Shakespeare to music, with unique guitar tuning, which we had the pleasure of hearing that evening.
En route we wrote a song based on Ruskin’s poem “Trust Thou thy Love” inspired by his first sweetheart ‘Rose La Touche.’ Rose caused Ruskin much anguish for 10 years refusing to marry him, and it is believed this contributed to the madness and hysteria he suffered in his final days. A portrait of her, painted by Ruskin hangs on the wall where we performed.
We stayed in the Lodge that Ruskin himself built and I felt very at home here. I grew up at ’79 Ruskin Avenue’ in Wales, home from home.. the completion of a circle perhaps?
One of Ruskin’s most famous quotes framed around the house is ‘There is no wealth but life’ and through the hundred of books and essays he wrote, a prophetic voice of the eternal values of human life can be heard. His journey was not an easy path, he sacrificed his own life to improve the lives of others, his legacy remembered and celebrated in this wonderful museum, Brantwood in Coniston, Cumbria, often described as a place of pilgrimage.
There is an intriguing light on this photo, and pretty much sums up how I felt about being here..alive, fully in the heart and connected. Thank you to everyone at Brantwood for making us feel so welcome. x
We performed to a full room, a repertoire of music inspired by Tennyson, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Rossetti, with a photo of the Mad Hatter at the back of the room promoting the newly launched ‘Alice in Wonderland’ exhibition. It was Julia Margaret Cameron that photographed the young girl Alice Lidell, who inspired Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Caroll to write Alice in Wonderland. Written on the wall attributed to Alice is “Think of at least six impossible things to do before breakfast”! Everything is curiously wonderful here.
Another interesting discovery for me was that Jenny Lind, the Swedish Opera Singer, who is buried in Malvern, had sung in the very room we were performing in, whose voice could be heard by the fisherman at freshwater bay. A victorian siren! Jenny Linds name certainly keeps appearing on my travels, again with strong Worcestershire links.
Exquisite portraits hang from the walls that move me in a way no other photographs do and I am reminded of my dear friend Claire Delaney, a young photographer I met ‘by chance’ whilst recording my album at the Hatch Studios in Tenbury Wells. She is one of the rare photographers today who can photograph like Julia Margaret Cameron and she learned her technique of ‘wet plate photography’ in America, which requires a certain temperature and alchemy! Photos for my album and youtube videos have all been done by Claire. Check out her wonderful art on www.clairejdelaney.co.uk
The next evening was our concert at Algernon Swinburne’s family home at East Dene, Bonchurch, joined by the world renowned accordian player Karen Tweed who now lives on the island, interspersed with readings from the great island poet Edmond Matyjaszek. Karen is an incredible light, gifted musician, and a fellow Pre-Raphaelite advocate. Edmond is a headmaster of a school on the island and I was lucky to meet him at Tennyson’s 200th anniversary celebration back in 2009.
We improvised to a poem ‘a singer asleep’ which was Thomas Hardy’s tribute to Swinburne when he visited his grave. (This poem was given to us the night before at Dimbola by the curator and inspiring author Brian Hinton who I met at the Isle of Wight Festival in 2009). Edward’s amazing oration against Martin’s improvisation as I experimented with vocal sounds was a new way of performing that we will certainly do again. Martin’s piano playing on the Bechstein, was one of his finest performances yet, so much so, he did an after show recital for the residents of East Dene in their pjamas!
I loved performing in these two venues. The energy was different to any other place I’ve been. A few people in the audience were crying during the music, which was moving to see. My friend Lisa writes a beautiful blog about the healing powers of sound for the human heart. You can read it here.
Thank you to our audiences and to Vic King, Brian Hinton, John at Dimobla, Dee & Jayne at East Dene, Sue Birch for kind hospitality and to Lisa for being a wonderful support and documenting these events on video and camera for us to keep and share.
The following day we returned to Portsmouth on St Clare’s ferry and continued our voyage to London to stay at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s, before an early appointment the next day with my friend to St Guys hospital, near London Bridge. St Katharine’s where we stayed was founded in 1147 by Queen Matilda as a medieval hospital for the poor and infirm next to the Tower of London. I recommend this to travelling musicians, looking for somewhere clean, inspiring, peaceful and very cheap. With a library, a chapel, and cloisters, beautiful gardens, and statues, it was no ordinary hotel, more like a tranquil retreat for £50.
The day at St Guys Hospital was in the end a surprising extension to the poetry tour. I couldn’t believe it when I saw a plaque on the wall of John Keats lodgings as he had trained at St Guys Hospital to be a surgeon of apothecary and lived on a nearby street, St Thomas! So much to my excitement (and my friends bewilderment at my reaction!) in the grounds of the hospital there was a statue of Keats and the wonderful quote carved on a bench “Sure a poet is a sage, a humanist, physician to all men.” He chose poetry over medicine as a profession, but never gave up his allegiance to apollo..patron god of poetry and healing.
Then just as we were about to leave we stumble across an old pub which happens to be a National Trust property, where Shakespeare and Dickens used to drink! His life insurance is framed on the wall. What the dickens?!! I feel like I am time travelling. Another venue now booked for the tour of “beautiful ‘public’ houses”..
To conclude I will share with you the genius wit of a 13 year old boy who came up to me in the interval of our concert and gave me my favourite review yet, leaving us all with a big smile.. “you are the voice of Wales, the female equivalent of Tom Jones with a Victorian Edge.” Who needs NME? x
I’ve spent much time recently on the Southbank, busking over Easter at the Real Food Festival, and several visits to St Thomas Hospital, on the river Thames, with a friend of mine who suffers from a rare respiratory disease called “RP”… short for “Relapsing Polychondritis”. Our visits haven’t been without adventure, or inspiration. The time before last we broke down an hour from the hospital, and were rescued by a tow truck, then the rescue truck broke down, and we arrived home 12 hours later! We arrived in one piece this time, just about, despite the crazy road systems of driving through Buckingham Palace and the city of London. St Thomas Hospital is no ordinary hospital, those who’ve been there will know. Florence Nightingale established her nursing school at this hospital in 1860, and there is a fascinating museum within the complex dedicated to her life’s work.
The first time I visited at the end of last year I discovered a poem in the museum which inspired me by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “Santa Filomena” about the virgin martyr “with the palm, the lily, and the spear” who was decapitated for refusing to marry an Emporer. The poem also references Florence Nightingale…”the Lady with the Lamp I see, pass through the glimmering gloom, and flit from room to room, the Lady with the Lamp shall stand, in the great history of the land.” Florence also rejected proposals of marriage so she could devote her life to serve others and be free to pursue her calling. She was a social reformer, statistician, the founder of modern nursing, and it was Nightingale that invented the term ‘sister’ for nurses.
Since that visit I began to compose a song called “Santa Filomena” based on these two fascinating women. The following day I sang at a Pre-Raphaelite talk at Wilden Church in Stourport, and was “co-incidentally” introduced to a woman who dedicates her whole life to Florence Nightingale, and even dresses up as her and educates children about her work in schools! Florence’ spirit was certainly present that week ☺
The most recent visit to St Thomas Hospital with my friend over Easter, I was sat in the waiting room, finishing the lyrics for “Santa Filomena”…when the receptionist calls out the name to the woman sitting next to me “FILOMENA THOMAS..You’re Next”.. my jaw dropped! A lady in a fur coat gets up and walks out. I still wonder now if she was real.
I then felt drawn to walk towards the children’s ward, the Evelina’s Hospital named after the wife of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who, along with her child, died in premature labour. I feel I am being led to something. I walk towards a huge statue of Queen Victoria.. it’s pretty impressive to see in a hospital.. but still no, its not that ..so I keep walking.. something is compelling me… a mini exhibition about the discovery of anesthetic… interesting but no … keep walking.. until I find what I am looking for .. a magnificent statue of the lady herself ‘Florence Nightingale’ in front of the most beautiful bechstein grand piano in what was like a concert hall.. in the middle of the hospital! How I wished we could do a concert there and then.
At that moment I then receive a text message from a folk musician friend of mine to say she has been rushed into hospital and is having an emergency operation that day… and then I receive news from a dear friend that his father has had a heart attack! Hmmm.. interesting timing. I’m left sat at the piano thinking how lucky we are to have the health care we do, and feel thankful to all the people before us that dedicated their lives to building the foundations of this hospital. Florence Nightingale played such a huge part in the medical knowledge we have today. Peace be with you, Florence. May the world know your greatness… x
For those who are interested in knowing more about ‘Relapsing Polychondritis’ my friend, Lisa who some days finds it difficult to breathe, talk, sing, shows great courage living with this chronic condition and helping others who suffer with the same disease. She is an amazing educator and is involved with forums and groups for people in the UK and US to share their experiences. If you would like to know more click this link http://www.facebook.com/polychondritisawarenessandsupportfoundationinc
This morning I experienced a different type of emergency operation, while walking with my young nephews in the woods in the Teme Valley, to find a frightened sheep engulfed with brambles, unable to move or breathe. My three year old nephew, Joseph and five year old, Dylan pretended they were the sheep ambulance, and together we sourced a pen knife and some gloves from the local farm house. It was distressing to see the sheep so fearful of human contact initially, kicking and bleating furiously against us as we tried to help, to then witness this magical transformation as the sheep surrendered to a state of complete calm, as my father and brother in law cut away at the thorns around her neck in complete trust. I read something earlier that day by a book that had been put in my path by ‘Jeff Brown,’ which really resonated with this experience. It said, “Spiritual growth is our journey. Like true artists, we have to find that delicate balance between wilfulness and surrender – when to act, when to still. Chaotic Magnificence.” After 20 minutes of sheep wrestling, the struggle was over, the sheep was set free and we all sang “Ba Ba Black Sheep. xx
In the midst of BBC interviews this week I managed to experience some wonderful folk and jazz music by some of the best musicians around. Tuesday evening was folk at the Tarc gallery in Stanford Bridge where I host live music once a month. For Burns night we were fortunate to have the delights of Ruth Angell and Sid Peacock play and sing for us. They both live up to their fantastic names.. Ruth sings and plays violin, guitar and harmonium like an angel, complimented by Sid’s witty irish repartee and impressive voice and guitar playing. Highlights were Sid’s version of Carrickfergus, and Ruth’s original composition of a Christina Rossetti poem ‘No Roses’. Not to forget the finale of a Burns song ‘My love is like a red red rose’. Hauntingly beautiful music. Rosemary did a wonderful haggis supper and everyone went home feeling elevated by the sounds of Angell Peacock.
Wednesday evening I was invited to be a guest singer with the Remi Harris trio and world renowned saxaphone player Alan Barnes at Pershore Jazz Club. More than 100 people were in attendance and it was great fun. I sang ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ ‘My heart belongs to Daddy’, ‘Can’t give you anything but love” and Autumn Leaves.. always a joy to sing with a full band, especially of this calibre. Listening to Remi and the band play new compositions was a real treat, and their instrumental version of ‘Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square’ was exquisite.. it was worth going to the concert for that alone. Remi’s playing never fails to mesmerise any audience and together the band really swing!
Thanks to all these great musicians for your company, and to Maggie and Graham for the warm welcome to Pershore jazz club..
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