The worst of times is bringing out the best in us.
Charles Dickens’ novel ‘The Tale of Two Cities’ opens with the well-known lines, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope’, and although his story contrasts London and Paris during the French Revolution, those words have such resonance today!
With everyone in lockdown, the economy ground to a halt and only those in front-line and essential work out there keeping the NHS and care settings going, the food chain and delivery networks functioning, it all feels incredibly strange. Like so many others, all my regular teaching work ceased overnight and gigs for coming months cancelled with blanket venue closures – from a busy schedule to nothing, in the blink of an eye.
However, it’s by no means all gloom for there’s been a massive and beautiful blossoming of community spirit, kindness and helping of those less able or struggling. Imaginative people everywhere are finding innovative ways of sharing practical necessities, comfort, friendship and soul food. As a musician, it has warmed my heart immeasurably to witness the way millions across the world have embraced music as a means of finding joy, expressing solidarity, lifting spirits and connecting with others in this strange new world of lockdown isolation.
It started in Italy with folk singing from their balconies, filling streets with the glorious sound of arias, pop hits and traditional songs. I can’t say it surprised me it was Italians who thought of this. I recall my father, who had emigrated and was working as an engineer in Toronto in the 1950s, recounting tales of city construction sites and engineering plants being enlivened and beautified by Italian men singing with gusto as they worked. He said if you heard someone singing on a building site, you knew they were Italian.
We may not have many balconies or the warm weather so far but my goodness, how we have joined in! Scottish singers and musicians are sharing tunes, songs, live ceilidh sessions and house concerts, beamed from mobile phones and computers, and shared with the world on social media.
People are setting up ‘watch parties’ and inviting others to view livestreaming of house gigs, and it’s wonderful - you feel like you’re there with the musicians. I spent a lovely hour at the weekend ‘in’ the living-room of Inverness-based stars, Fiona Mackenzie and husband Brian OhEadhra, as they and their talented teenagers shared a beautifully diverse selection of songs in Gaelic, Scots, Irish and English, and playing multiple instruments. Even their cute wee dog was in on the act!
Lots of clever techy folk are getting very inventive with it, bringing musicians ‘together’ virtually to play tunes and songs. One of my favourites is Lewis singer Josie Duncan’s online song session where she gathered dozens of singers in many countries to sing the beautiful Tennessee Waltz. It was simply stunning to hear all those lovely voices sing the song, line by line.
My go-to tune to start the day though is local fiddle favourite, Duncan Chisolm, whose sublime playing is just what’s needed to lift the heart of a morning. Sometimes he plays outdoors - I love the different quality instruments possess when played outside – so we get to share the landscape and birds singing in the background too. Just lovely!
Even I’ve now posted my first videos of my own songs on social media. With no gigs for the immediate future, I thought it was time to join the #COVIDceilidh and share a few wee numbers. I’ve got to say it’s such fun to do and it’s nice to be practising and giving them an airing.
We might be in a weirdly eerie limbo, but I think we can take heart from so many positive things happening in communities across Scotland. Let’s leave the fighting over loo rolls to others and instead, embrace the kindness, artistic creativity, the humour and caring that is all around us.
Not convinced? Check out the million-times-viewed videos of Edinburgh’s Banana Flats residents at their windows, singing their appreciation of NHS workers with a spine-tingling rendition of their local anthem, Sunshine on Leith. Just make sure you have a tissue handy. Take care and stay safe, folks.
(First published by Scottish Provincial Press 30th March 2020)