v Remembering Merrick Jarrett - Jack Cole
It's been over a month since my friend Merrick Jarrett passed away, the cruel result of a fall. I've wanted to write about him ever since, but haven't been able to manage it. Today's the day.
I can't quite convince myself that he's gone, that he won't show up as usual, a half hour early for Song Circle, with his Martin under one arm and a guitar stand, dulcimer, and bag of tricks under the other; that he won't forget the words or the chords after each first verse, stare into space for 5 seconds, and then restart and carry on.
We used to reserve a chair for Merrick in the middle of the room, one without arms and not too crowded, so he could play. In earlier days, before his Martin was lovingly restored and returned to him by his family, he'd work at tuning his 12 string for most of that early half hour, and then again later, whenever his turn came 'round. Merrick was an old pro: he could tune strings and tell a story at the same time, and he always did plenty of both. Sometimes I wondered if the tuning was just an excuse to talk a bit longer.
That's a great segue into one of his famous stories - the time after a Mariposa festival that he was jamming with the other performers, and just couldn't get his guitar in tune. A hand took the guitar from him, tuned it, and passed it back. That was how Merrick remembered Joan Baez. He claimed that he was embarrassed that she had to tune for him, but I think he loved it.
Merrick also told us about hearing "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" for the first time. Ed McCurdy had just finished writing it, and Merrick and Mary happened to be visiting in his kitchen in Toronto. Merrick liked to tell us that he didn't think the song would amount to much, while Mary rightly appreciated what was to become an anthem. Merrick loved to make fun of himself.
That, I guess, was his most endearing trait. Merrick was passionate about his life's work, but refused to take himself too seriously. Hence the sub-title to his autobiography: "How to succeed, more or less, on five guitar chords, four keys, a capo, and a lot of nerve". If you haven't read it, go to your local library and treat yourself to his journey from cowboy singer to folk elder statesman.
I first met Merrick in about 1976, when my friend Cathy and I showed up for his Music 273G course at the University of Waterloo. As we came in the door he would be hunched over, reviewing his notes, or tuning his guitar, or sorting though a pile of records. He appeared, as he liked to say, like a leprechaun, sorting through his precious gold coins.
Merrick's class was like no other. In the days before multimedia was a word, Merrick moved from an old reel-to-reel tape recording, to a scratchy vinyl LP, to a slide show, to a live demonstration of English ballads, mountain dulcimers, and limberjack dolls. It felt like we were settling into his den, sharing his precious treasures. It was fascinating.
It was work, too. Who could ever forget the Unfortunate Rake Cycle? Merrick had collected a more than a dozen songs, all derivatives of St. James Infirmary/Streets of Laredo, all telling the same story in a different context. We went through them all, following the threads of history in the songs. Merrick's class was more than folk music; it was our history and culture reflected in songs, singers, and instruments. We need that course today.
Every course ended with a "hoot", and that year John Allan Cameron came in, with Merrick's daughter Kate, and a couple of others. We spent the evening listening and singing, and absorbing the idea that music needs to be shared just that way, that music should be active, not passive. The next semester we snuck back in for the final night. Those were great times, and I know that 3000 students, over 17 years, were better people for spending a couple of hours each week with Merrick and his passion for fol k songs. How could you not be changed by it?
I only saw Merrick a couple of times in the next 20 years, when he played at the Home County Folk Festival and Guelph's Hillside Festival. Merrick was a bit of an anachronism at those affairs - sitting in a chair and singing old songs in the old style, when everyone around him was outdoing each other to be slick, fast, hot, and eye-catching. At Hillside, Lori and I were part of a decent crowd at a side stage, listening to Merrick sing his way across Canada with a song from every province. He never missed a chance to educate. I overheard the group on the blanket behind me, talking. One of them had been a student of Merrick's but one of the others, totally not "getting it", asked him "hey man, do you like this stuff?". He did, and he stayed.
When we decided to try starting the Old Chestnuts, way back in 1995, Lori asked if Merrick Jarrett might come. I had no idea if he lived in the area, or if he would be interested, but a few phone calls tracked Merrick and Mary down just a half dozen blocks away on Ahrens Street, close to his beloved library.
Merrick was delighted at the idea, and for the next eight years or so he and Mary were front and centre at nearly every Old Chestnuts gathering. Merrick would be sure to get his turns in, teaching people more traditional songs, singing lullabies to the children, telling stories. It was inspiring (and telling) that he also learned some new songs for the circle - Mary and the Seal by Bill Gallaher and Navaho Rug, stand out in my memory.
Shipwrecks, trainwrecks, sheep shearing, courting songs, spirituals, broken tokens, transport songs, cowboy songs, and more rang though our living room thanks to him. Merrick was a dedicated caretaker of those old songs, and, as many as he shared with us, I don't doubt that many more were only still known to him.
After Mary got sick, Merrick would still come when he could, and Mary made it back to the circle a few times. One night after break, she was too tired to continue sitting but too content to leave, so she lay on the couch and listened while the circle continued. Music makes family, and we were so fortunate to have Mary and Merrick in ours.
In 2004 I invited Merrick to the Ontario Council of Folk Festival's gala dinner in Guelph. I expected that one of these years he would be the guest of honour, but alas that won't happen now. Anyway, I arrived at Sunshine Village to pick him up and was surprised to find him in the lobby with his Martin. To Merrick, a gathering of musicians meant that playing was on the menu. Sensible, but it hadn't occurred to me that this would include us!
We checked the guitar into the lockup, found a table near the stage, and settled in. And 3 minutes later Sylvia Tyson (who was the guest of honour) was at Merrick's elbow saying hello. They had both been on the bill at the very first Mariposa Festival, she and Ian only one "font size" larger than the Toronto cowboy singer Merrick Jarrett. Their paths had crossed many times since, and it was nice to see Sylvia come chat to an old friend.
Merrick seldom spoke of the people that he knew well or had met briefly on the way - people like Jean Ritchie, Burl Ives, Alan Mills, Edith Fowke, Helen Creighton, Woodie Guthrie, Ian Tyson, The Weavers, Sharon Lois and Bram, Oscar Brand, The Travellers, and many, many more. He learned from all of them, and inspired some of them too.
Back in Guelph that night, Merrick and Sylvia chatted for awhile - and I will always regret that I was being talked to from the other side and missed their entire conversation! After the meal Merrick went wandering to the showcases, and I found him an hour or so later at a table swapping stories with Kenny Palmer of the Dixie Flyers and the Home County Festival. The stories of the old times and their mutual friends were captivating. The respect that Ken had for Merrick and his legacy was plain.
At some point Merrick realized that he had put his guitar down someplace! The three of us scurried around the building until we found the precious Martin, sitting by the elevator door. Merrick was tired, and we agreed that we should go. I got to the door and turned around to discover that "there he was - gone!". He had spotted Eve Goldberg, Chris Coole and Erynn Marshall jamming in the corner, and like a bee finding honey he had the guitar out and was pulling up a chair. He joined in, and when he got a chance he played them a song. Then he packed up his guitar, pulled on his coat, and was content to go home.
We didn't see Merrick too often in the past year. He suffered a couple of small strokes that stole away his ability to play and affected his voice and memory. At the last couple of song circles he was more an observer than a participant, but I know that he wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else. Every voice was a treat for him, every song - no matter how roughly delivered - another delicacy to be savoured. He loved 'em.
I still have Merrick's last phone call on my answering machine singing Happy Birthday. Self-deprecating to the last he apologizes for his voice, which in fact is just as fine as it ever was. We will miss that voice every single month, and the Martin, the dulcimer, and the bag of tricks. Not the least of these, we will miss his love of those songs, that we are now the caretakers of for a wee while longer.
v Last Month and Next - Jack Cole
Life has been full for the last few months, and I am sorry that I missed writing reports for October and November. There was a good crowd both months, and many thanks to those who came out, and to Mary and Barry for hosting in October. I also missed writing about the Pied Pumkin concert - it was amazing. Life just gets in the way more often than we would like.
January's circle will be dedicated to Merrick Jarrett, as you no doubt guessed from the article above. It is perfectly true to say that, without Merrick, there wouldn't be an Old Chestnuts Song Circle.
I hope that as many of you as possible can come, and bring a song that Merrick sang, taught, enjoyed, or inspired. If you can't find one of those, then sing us a traditional song, and if you can't find one of those, sing a song that reminds you of Merrick or Mary, or that you think they would have enjoyed. And that gives you a lot of room to honour and remember them. Other songs, not on this theme, are welcome too, of course.
Some of Merrick's family and friends will be jpining us. They have been asked to bring or send song requests and stories to share. I don' t know how many people may be here, but if it's 15 or 50 we will find room for everyone and we will sing. A better gift we could not give. See you then.
In February we'll get back to the previously announced theme of Simon and Garfunkel songs.
P.S. What songs did Merrick sing? I took a pass through his autobiography and came up with some that he mentions. It would be grand if we could sing as many as possible, so by all means learn one if you like. Here they are: The Blue Tail Fly, The Foggy Foggy Dew, Blue Mountain Lake, I Know Where I'm Going, The Strawberry Roan, Old Time Religion, Over In The Glory Land, Further Along, D'ou Viens Tu Bergere, There Was an old Sow Who Had Three Little Pigs, Old Chisholm Trail, The Cruel Mother, This Land is Your Land, Wildwood Flower, My Pretty Quadroon, Mother the Queen of my Heart, Aunt Rhody, Cod Liver Oil, I Know an Old Lady, Frog's Courting, Land of the Silver Birch, Something to Sing About, Rickety Tickety Tin, I'se the Bye, Donkey Riding, Liza Jane, Henry Martyn, Barbara Allen, The Black Fly Song, We Shall Overcome, Molly Malone, Squid Jiggin' Ground, So Long It's Been Good to Know You. Also - Click Go The Shears, The Most Important Thing that Man Has Ever Done (what's it called?), his Australian Lullabye - there are so many.
Closing Notes - jc
#I have ordered a bunch of copies of Rise Up Singing, including a few extras. Unfortunately they have yet to arrive. If you ordered one through me please be patient. If you would like to speak for one of the extra copies please let me know.
#Interesting concerts are bursting out all over! On Friday March 10 the Old Chestnuts and WCAC are co-presenting The Pomelos at the Button Factory. This special concert is being offered as part of International Women's Week, and features five of southern Ontario's best songwriting women - Heather Katz, Marianne Girard, Laura Bird, Katherine Wheatley and Tannis Slimmon. This is a concert that you will not want to miss, I promise. Tickets are $16 in advance, and will be for sale at the next two song circles, and from Twelfth Night Music in Waterloo and the WCAC. There will be a web site soon - check back here for a link in a day or two.
The concept is similar for the Girls With Glasses tour, which stops in at The Boathouse on Friday, February 17. This time the songwriters are Allison Brown, Karyn Ellis, Eve Goldberg, and (the same) Katherine Wheatley (filling in for Evalyn Parry). This concert starts at 9:30 and tickets are $15. We've hosted Eve's concerts a couple of times and Allison opened for Pied Pumkin. This should also be a very good night.
Finally, a local folkie Loretta Fullerton has organized a concert that I've been wanting to do for some time! Good for you, Loretta. The concert is a benefit for Artscan Circle, an organization helping take music (via instruments and instruction) to the northern communities to combat problems such as the high youth suicide rate there. It's sheduled for Saturday, April 22 at the Boathouse, and will feature James Gorden and a bunch of others, in an afternoon-evening combination. That happens to be a Song Circle night, so I am hoping that we can support the afternoon. It's a good cause that is lead by really caring people, such as Woods staffer Mike Stevens.
About this newsletter..... It's on the Web at http://www.mgl.ca/~jhcole and available at Circles. Call 578- 6298 or write firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. It's been a heck of a season so far. Not even the weather knows what to make of it. Thanks to everyone who came out in November - I still owe personal Thank Yous and haven't forgotten. Thanks to Lo for organizing it! Come see the Pomelos! Some celebrate Merrick - it will be a night to remember many things. So long Muk, and thanks for all the folk.