Just A Summary

Piers Cawley Practices Punditry


Pretty Saro

Pretty Saro by pdcawley

I’m a wee bit late writing this because it’s mostly about my summer trip to the Swannanoa Gathering at Warren Wilson College near Asheville, North Carolina. It just so happened that YAPC (Yet Another Perl Conference) was held in Asheville this year, the week before the gathering’s Traditional Song Week. Well, I’m a perl hacker. I sing traditional songs. My employer was paying for me to attend YAPC and were willing for me to extend my stay in America by a week. It was a no brainer really.

YAPC was bloody good this year. Perl 5 development is moving forward and the community is buzzing because of it. Lots of “… and we’re hiring” slides. And that’s before we get to the pleasure of catching up with friends that I only see online most of the time. If you’re working in any field that has grassroots conferences associated with it, I can’t recommend attending them highly enough.

On to Swannanoa

At Swannanoa, I met Sheila Kay Adams and immediately switched my schedule to spend as much time singing with her as possible. Sheila’s a seventh generation ballad singer from the Sodom Laurel community in Madison Count. Her “grannie Berzil” Wallin remembered Cecil Sharp coming to Madison County and collecting songs from the family.

Pedigree in singing shouldn’t matter, but it turns out it does. Sheila grew up in a community which was changing, but which still had old ‘love songs’ as an important part of how it understood the world. Today, not so much. People still relate to the world and understand it through songs, but the songs are more likely to be contemporary. Lyrically, many of the love songs that Sheila and her family sing could have been written yesterday, but their performance is radically different from contemporary style. One voice, unaccompanied, a style that requires the listener to concentrate on the song rather than any aspects of production. Not something you’re going to dance to at your wedding, say.

Sheila’s classes, on Meeting House Songs (more later) and her Ballads class with Bobbie McMillon were just wonderful; I won’t forget in a hurry the sound Bobbie singing “A conversation with Death” as a thunderstorm grumbled across the campus in the background. Spine tingling stuff. Sheila’s description of how she learned songs “knee to knee” has been helpful too. The way it would work was that the teacher and student would be sat out on the porch, often doing some chore or another, and the teacher would sing the first verse of a song. The student would sing it back and the teacher would sing the second verse. The student would then sing the first two verses then the teacher would sing the third verse and the student would sing the first three verses and so on, until the student was singing the whole song back to the teacher. A time consuming process to be sure, but it works.

I know this because I learned Pretty Saro from a recording of Sheila’s late husband Jim Taylor, using a variant of the method, “knee to CD” if you like. I’d play the first verse, hit pause and sing it back, play the second verse, pause, repeat the first two… and so on. And in very short order I had the words and tune (up to a point; I listened back to that recording again recently and I’m singing a different tune now) and could start the process of actually learning the song, which involved singing it it lots, listening to other recordings, singing it some more and then taking the song out and trying it out in front of audiences and listening to what works and what doesn’t. I’ve never really finished learning a song; this recording is a snapshot. I hope you enjoy it.

The Further Adventures of Child of the LIbrary

Or… what I did this summer.

Summer as been frantic. Mostly joyous, but frantic.

I had talks accepted at both YAPC and OSCON. Because YAPC was in Asheville, and the Swannanoa Gathering Traditional Song Week fell the week after YAPC, that meant I flew out to Asheville for an intense fortnight of Perl community engagement followed by a week spent singing myself hoarse and being blown away by Sheila Kay Adams’s singing and her stories of mountain life and listening to future stars like Sam Gleaves and inspiring activists like Saro Lynch Thomason. I could write entire posts on every one of those, and that’s before I get on to the magic of watching the sun go down and the fireflies come up from the grass of the Warren Wilson College’s natural amphitheatre. Magical so it was.

On the last night of the gathering, there was a student showcase. Of course, I sang Child of the Library. Rather embarrassingly, I skipped a verse, but the response was great. Several people came up to me afterwards and told me their library stories and, I hope, went home with a determination to help protect their libraries.

Then it was back to the UK for a fortnight before heading off again to OSCON in Portland, OR. I was down to give two talks, one on Higher Order Javascript and a second on Polymorphic Dispatch which proved to be a bear to write. I’d planned to have everything done and dusted and the slides learned by the time I flew out, but spent a huge amount of time blocked on how I was going to present the ideas using a motivating problem that hit the sweet spot between too simple and too complicated. It wasn’t until I arrived in Portland and talked things through with my host, David Wheeler, that I got that worked out. The slides were written in a tearing rush and weren’t as good as I would like them to be. I still owe the talk attendees a full writeup, so I’ll take this opportunity to apologise for the lateness and promise that a writeup will arrive. The Javascript talk was based on one I’ve given before, but I’m starting to realise that it’s a full tutorial masquerading as a short talk. More on that later, I hope.

What with flapping about the unwritten talk, and the 10 minute gap between them, I didn’t really worry overmuch about the Perl lightning talks. It’s been my practice to sing a lightly massaged version of Lou and Peter Berryman’s very splendid song A Chat With Your Mother with tailored verses about different language communities and various Perl luminaries. I had decided to retire it, but at YAPC I came up with a snide verse about myself and another about Larry Wall, so it felt renewed enough to be worth singing this year as well. I ended up singing Child of the Library again.

The response was phenomenal. I’ve been singing it for long enough now that I know it gets people. Hell, when I was writing it, there were verses that were hard to sing because they got me and I was choking up as I tried to sing them. But the lightning talk got a standing ovation. Again people were telling me library stories and I found that the UK isn’t the only country with local governments stupid enough to consider closing libraries, it was happening in the US too. So, fired up by that response, I went to see Sarah Novotny and begged her for five minutes on the OSCON stage before the closing keynote. Bless her, she let me have it.

Pics, or it didn’t happen!

I have proof too! The main stage at O’Reilly events has serious video equipment pointed at it. Because it’s important that people get to see serious talks about known bugs and exploits in wetware. Because my performance wasn’t on the schedule, and I didn’t have a video release all signed and ready to go beforehand, it’s taken a while to get the video available. But last night, that changed, so here I am, in all my corpulent glory. Enjoy. And please, spread this video as far and as wide as you can. Libraries are important.

Published on Wed, 31 Aug 2011 13:51:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , , , ,

A Child of the Library, revised

Here’s a revised version of A Child of the Library.

Child Of The Library (Revised) by pdcawley

Whenever I learn a new song, there’s a period of making it “mine”. This happens as I sing it out to different audiences and find out which bits work, which bits are hard to sing and all the other little details that you only find out when there’s a living, breathing, listening and (hopefully) singing audience in front of you.

It turns out that the same things happens with songs I’ve written.

The biggest stumbling block of the original version is the last line of the first verse:

My wife met Pippi Langstumpf, I met Paddington the Bear

Someone on the comment thread suggested:

Heidi, Pippi Longstocking and Paddington the Bear

Which is fine, except that means singing ‘PIPpi LONGstockING’, and I’m not happy with putting the emphasis on the WRONG sylLABles if I can possibly help it. In the revised version, I think I’ve cracked it. The line is now:

The daughter of a pirate king and Paddington the bear

Which is much easier to sing and follows the rest of the verse by being a more oblique reference to the character. If you know who Pippi is, then it’s obvious who I’m singing about. If you don’t, then maybe I’ve piqued your curiosity.

The first recording also had two slightly different tunes for the verses, this version has settled on just the one.

And, for people who care about that sort of thing, this was recorded with a click track at 110bpm rather than speeding up over the course of the song, which should make life a little easier for anyone taking part in Rabid Gravy’s project to remix and rerecord different versions of the song.

If you’re concerned about Library closures, a good place to start is Voices for the Library. If you’re on twitter, you might also start following @ukpling. If you’re not concerned about library closures, why on earth did you read this far, and what kind of excuse for a human being are you?

Published on Mon, 04 Apr 2011 05:45:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , , , ,

Lands' End

Lands’ End Mail Order Catalogue by pdcawley

This is by Chris Manners, a Yorkshireman who I met when we were both exiled in Essex. The commute into London from Essex was made so much more bearable if we managed to share it with Chris and Tim Blyth. The day Chris moved back home was a day of mixed feelings, we were sorry to lose his company every but delighted for him too. As well as being good company, Chris is an accomplished singer, guitarist and, as this song proves, songwriter. I’m very pleased that he’s given me permission to record this.


Published on Mon, 21 Feb 2011 01:44:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , ,

Save Our Libraries

So, on Saturday, the opening line, and pretty much the entire tune, of a song banged on my head as we went to our local Library to fill our boots with books and generally get with the “Save our Libraries” message. Here it is. Sing it out. Sing it loud.

Child of the Library by pdcawley

A Child of the Library

I’m a Child of the Lib’ry, it made me who I am,
It taught me about freedom and the fellowship of Man
A sea of story waits for you behind the lib’ry door,
Don’t say we can’t afford them any more.

The Lib’ry’s where I made some friends I’ve known my whole life through
The Walkers and the Blacketts and the Pevensies so true.
Simp the canine cannonball, Galadriel the fair.
The daughter of a pirate king and Paddington the Bear

I’ve travelled South with Shackleton and all his gallant crew
And to the African interior that Mary Kingsley knew
I’ve rode the trackless prairie where the bison used to roam
An travelled round the Universe, not half an hour from home.

And as I grew the libr’y fed my curiosity,
All there for the asking. All of it for free.
It’s there I found the stories that I couldn’t find at home.
It’s where I learned I was myself and not my father’s clone.

So make friends with your library, don’t let it fade away.
Teach your kids the lib’ry’s where you go on Saturday.
Don’t let the bastards tell you they will cost to much to save
While they’re shovelling our taxes down the hole the bankers made

So make a stand for the lib’ry. Stand up while you can.
Stand up for your freedom. Stand for your fellow man.
Ignorance is never bliss, don’t close the lib’ry door.
For a lib’ry lost is lost forever more.

Lyrics © 2011 Piers and Gill Cawley
Music © 2011 Piers Cawley

Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA License.

Anyone who sings this is a friend of ours.

Notes and Updates

Mike Whitaker has worked out a set of chords for this, if you’re happier singing with a guitar. Frankly, instrumentation scares me, I’m much happier singing unaccompanied but I realise I’m in a minority on this.

When you sing it, try making the song your own by changing things to suit your own. Julie Chilton’s posted an alternate first verse in the comments, but the world is the mollusc of your choice.

The ‘I’ in the song, isn’t quite me and it isn’t quite Gill either. Most importantly, both of us grew up in houses where no book was out of bounds. Our fathers used to take us to our respective local libraries (Lewisham for Gill, Doncaster Central and then Bawtry for me) every week or so on a Saturday morning. As soon as I was old enough, I’d ride my bike from our home in Scrooby to Bawtry with a carrier full of books hanging off the handlebars. Bawtry is currently in the crosshairs of Doncaster’s idiot mayor – the bloke who suggested getting kindles for everyone instead – along with 13 other libraries in the district.

There’s a revised version of the recording with additional notes at: http://www.bofh.org.uk/2011/04/04/a-child-of-the-library-revised, or just press play:

Child Of The Library (Revised) by pdcawley

August 9th 2011

I’ve updated the lyrics here to reflect what I sing now. A few of the clumsier bits have been fixed. Hopefully there will be video from my performance at OSCON 2011, which has the ‘right’ lyrics.

Published on Wed, 09 Feb 2011 02:50:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , , , ,

The OSCON Proposal I really, really want to be accepted

Open Ears, Open Mind, Open Mouth. Music Making Made Easy


Our bodies are the most versatile and sophisticated musical instrument we know. From the complexities of making at beat with our hands and feet to the surprising simplicity of harmony singing, we are all of us musicians.


Musicmaking isn’t some kind of sophisticated profession that requires the intervention of gatekeepers and techno priests. You don’t need autotune, you don’t need a record label, you don’t need drums, a guitar or anything else but your hands, feet, ears, brain and mouth to make music that will satisfy you for the rest of your life.

By the end of this talk I promise that, unless you are one of a tiny, tiny minority of people, you’ll not be tone deaf, you’ll be damn near pitch perfect. And you’ll have a song in your head that, unless I have seriously misjudged the people who come to OSCON, you’ll want to teach to everyone you know.

Come along. Clap your hands. Stamp your feet and sing. What have you got to lose?

Published on Mon, 07 Feb 2011 17:28:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under , , . Tags , ,

Repertoire Project: Lottery Song

Lottery Song by pdcawley

This is the only song I’ve written. I don’t really think of myself as a songwriter at all, but Gill was doing a songwriting module on the Folk degree at Newcastle University and was writing a suite of songs about the lottery. She was stuck trying to write something about how lottery winners think the money won’t change them but it does. As I was driving her into town for her lecture, I suggested that maybe what she should do was change the viewpoint and try and write something from the point of view of a friend of the big winner.

I dropped her off at the Armstrong Building and, as I pulled out of the university car park, this song fell on me. It arrived pretty much fully formed – I had a tune and all the verses by the time I got back to our house in Bensham, so I wrote it down fast as I could, tweaked a few bits and pieces, kicked out a verse that didn’t belong and recorded the tune into garageband with my laptop’s internal mic just so I didn’t forget it.

“I’ve written that song!” I said as I picked Gill up.

She nearly killed me.

Published on Mon, 31 Jan 2011 16:00:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , , , ,


Tamlyn by pdcawley

Ah, Tamlyn, one of the ‘muckle sangs’ appropriate to this time of year. This isn’t the first time I’ve recorded this and put it online, but I lost the original AIFF files and Bandcamp doesn’t accept lossy files.

So, rather late for Halloween, I’ve rerecorded it.

This is the first time I’ve broken my ‘one take’ rule – when you’re singing a 10 minute long song and you cock it up 7 minutes in (for the second time), you tend to think “Sod it! I’ll fix it in post” so here it is – with only the grossest errors covered up.

I got the bones of this from Pete Morton’s version on “Frivolous Love”, but it’s been modified somewhat by hearing Mike Waterson’s take on it (which seems to have informed Pete as well) and I found the pair of verses involving the “old grey knight” on Mudcat and thought that they help make Margaret a little less of a doormat and more the kind of strong willed independent woman that’s depressingly rare in folk songs.

Published on Sun, 07 Nov 2010 11:37:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under . Tags , , , , ,

Arguments you wouldn't make in Alabama

I spent the weekend at the UK Sacred Harp Convention, singing blood curdling hymns to the glory of god, very loudly with a hundred or so others. Great fun so it was. There’s something joyous about hollering out a hymn that opens with the line “And am I born to die?” and ends with the stanza

Waked by the trumpet’s sound
I from my grave shall rise
And see the Judge in glory crowned
And see the flaming skies

Especially if you’re stood in the middle of a hollow square with the altos behind you hitting a high note that lifts every hair on the back of you neck.

Anyhow, at one point during the Saturday evening social I found myself arguing that, although we singers today may feel grateful to those congregations of singers down the years who have sung these songs and handed the practice down to succeeding generations, there’s no requirement to be grateful, or even to go hunting for ‘authenticity’. Every generation that’s sung these songs and many others haven’t sung them to preserve them or to pass them on. They’ve sung them because the act of singing them has helped them to get through their lives. The songs we have, we know because successive generations have found them to be worth singing or recording. And we sing them for similar reasons. Future generations can go hang, I sing this stuff because it makes me feel good, not because I have some kind of duty.

“It’s a Darwinian argument,” I said, “Though obviously, I wouldn’t put it like that in Alabama…”

Published on Mon, 15 Sep 2008 04:06:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under , . Tags , ,

Capturing a rant

There was a session at EuroOSCON on ‘Music 2.0’ and very good it was too. However, during the Q&A, I found myself ranting about how the model of music as product is dead. About the only specific thing I can remember of what I said was “I make music because I must. I record it because it helps me improve. And I distribute it because I can.”

If anyone reading this was at the session and can remember what I said in a little more detail, I’d love to hear from you. It’s amazing how quickly things fade from the memory.

Published on Sun, 24 Sep 2006 03:22:00 GMT by Piers Cawley under , .

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