Go To The Woods

Wood-noun. plural noun: woods

an area of land, smaller than a forest, that is covered with growing trees.

Scene 6- The mist creeps in over the woods as the camera zooms in on a group of tents. Nearby figures are gathered around a campfire. A sound not too far off in the distance startles the assembled group. “What was that?” asks one of the group.  “Ah probably just an animal” says another. The camera zooms out rapidly to a lone figure seen from behind observing the campers nearby in silence. The music becomes ominous as the figure starts walking towards the campfire…Cut scene.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” 
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Having spent much of February locked away working on the Lord Franklin series I decided I wanted to go in a vastly different direction for a new post. For starters, writing about the frozen Arctic in the actual winter here in the Northeast was maybe an odd move on my part.  Nevertheless, I was so happy with the results of this collection that you will see it now immortalized at the top of this page as a menu choice in case you missed it the first time around.

I decided on a theme of the woods and forest as a change of pace for a few reasons. First, I have long wanted to feature the handful of photographs I have taken in the woods over the years. It isn’t a normal subject matter for me to be honest. Typically I feel more connected to the water. Second there is something by equal turns fascinating, mysterious and ominous about the woods. I’m sure everyone has seen a horror movie with a scene in the woods such as the fictional one I created above. Third, it is of course spring now, and the trees and flowers are bursting out in full force with each passing day conjuring up the poetical language employed by writers such as Thoreau.

One thing I find fascinating is the ability of the woods and forest to regenerate. From earthworms churning the ground underneath to birds flitting about or the tiniest sapling sprouting from the ground that may one day turn into a mighty tree, the forest is all about regeneration and renewal year after year. Amazingly after fires and natural catastrophes, recovery often starts at a microscopic level yet gradually takes hold and flourishes. Renewal is a big word for me right now as a result of the broader themes I wrote about in the Lord Franklin series and its short followup piece. But lets leave my own story there and consider some of the other thoughts and images of the woods brought up through the lyrics of the wonderful Dar Williams song ‘Go To The Woods’ instead.

‘It’s the woods! What do you see?
In all the spooky shadows, in the forest of green
Is there a windy path, angry ass woman who will eat you?
Sad-eyed lumberjack, savior who will greet you?
It’s a different story for you and for me
Go to the woods and see’

I have been familiar with the songs of Dar Williams for some time now, but just after Christmas I went with some friends to see her perform in Brooklyn. As a result I have been exploring her work more directly. When I came across this one, I knew I had my song for this post. Like other great songwriters, Dar conveys the broad themes of the woods within just a couple of lines. She skillfully weaves the narrative of spookiness, fear, mystery and desire of the woods within just a handful of lines. Even more effectively she goes backwards and forwards in time, reminding us of the very real fragility of our increasingly disappearing woods.

‘If I was your memory, what would you do?

‘Cause you know if you go back in time there’s something waiting for you.’

Listening to the song I started thinking back to some of my own memories of the woods. Call it the ‘storybook’ version of the woods Dar Williams describes.  In my suburban childhood, there was a small patch of woods we used to go to. There was a rope swing someone had put on a sturdy branch which made you feel as if you were hurtling off a cliff. There was not much else there to be honest, but in my child’s eye the area was a vast wilderness even though in reality it was just an overgrown area yet to be developed.  Also in the larger surrounding area were a variety of trails we often hiked on. The sounds of the highway may have punctuated the feeling of stillness, but to walk on those trails always felt like an epic journey even if it only lasted a few hours. Eventually I finally witnessed what truly large woods looked like when in the summer of 1979 my family drove across the U.S. and I saw places that really did have woods like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, and the Redwoods.

As I got older my interactions with the woods were resigned mostly to hiking and camping in various places in the northeast. At first photography was not part of the equation, but gradually it took hold and allowed me to experience the woods in different ways. The deeper my interest in photography, the more understanding I  feel and think towards a subject matter. Cliche though it may sound, you really have to become one with the scene in front of you and being in tune with your surroundings. Photography is visual, but by listening to the sounds around you or feeling the breeze on your skin it can benefit the end result.

What being in the woods specifically taught me as a photographer is that there is an interplay of light and shadows throughout the day. There are the sounds of unseen birds in the trees or acorns suddenly plummeting to the ground.  There is both motion and stillness.  Each season of the year accelerates or slows down the process and adds to the sensory experience. As I sit here writing this piece I suddenly realized there is something magical or fairy tale like about setting off into the woods. There seems to be an imaginary line of demarcation between life inside and outside of the woods. We use phrases such as ‘out of the woods’ to imply foreboding. But if you dare cross that line a world of  wonder, mystery and discovery await. If you avoid it altogether you are missing out on potential treasures contained within, be you adventurer, botanist, photographer or even songwriter.

Writing this piece has reminded me that perhaps I do have a deeper connection to the woods than when I started. Though I may consider being near the water to be where my  heart lies, the woods have provided me with a lot of good memories over the years too. Perhaps I need to ‘go to the woods’ to witness the renewal and mystery of the woods for myself again.

Go To The Woods-Written By Dar Williams

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When I Write…

In the middle of writing the Lord Franklin series I could tell it was really consuming me. It had adventure, mystery, intrigue, survival, defeat, loss and death. Not that I was dwelling on all of those elements personally. Instead I was trying to navigate between the historical narrative, the songs I wanted to include in the piece as well as the photographs I wanted to use that best related to the frozen north. For the first time in a long time, I was really obsessed with something. Though everyday life and work intervened, it was a story I needed to complete.

When that type of obsession happens I find seemingly minor details can pop into your head at any time. It happens when you are passionate about the subject matter I suppose. Insert this paragraph here, quote a passage from this book there, that sort of thing. Not being under professional deadlines it can be exhilarating and exciting when you see a vision for a piece coming together. Sometimes you even dream about that vision as it turns out.

About halfway through the writing of the series I woke up at 2 A.M. on a weeknight with a thought. Just a sudden realization that came to me in that fuzzy world between deep sleep and awareness. For the past few months I have been leaving my  notebook (a marvelous little one I picked up with the softest paper imaginable, eco-friendly and fair trade made from leaves of  the Lokta plant in Nepal for the record!) on my little bookshelf/nightstand. When I came to that awareness of an idea,  turned on the light and grabbed my pen these are the words I wrote which are only slightly edited for clarity. It was 2 A.M. after all!  I am sharing them because in perusing the notebook the other day I realized that it really says a lot about me and ‘where I am’.

‘When I read I want to ‘see’ what I am reading about. When I ‘see’ I want to ‘hear’ the sounds of what I am seeing. When I am ‘hearing’ what I am ‘seeing’ I want to understand why that is so important to me. I yearn to express myself in this way. To make these connections between a long ago sunken ship together with a contemporary song and a photograph of my own that ties the two elements together. It is my way of combining the things I am passionate about. The things I have always been passionate about if I really think about it.’ 

When I re-read it the next morning it actually did not come across as profound and brilliant to my mind as it was when I wrote it. But on further reflection, it is inherently and uniquely me, especially the last two sentences. That is a very important realization in my life right now. As I related in the series, I have been seeing a therapist and my head is a bit of a jumble at present. Backwards and forwards in time reliving memories. But these recollections also jog my memory further and make me think how this-all of this idea I have laid my claim to and set my flag on have always been there for me.

I realized it is absolutely the way I engage subjects I am passionate about. It has always been important for me to visualize a story, be it a song or a book. So I need to see the Arctic, an English country lane, a pagoda in China, a baobab tree in Africa, a ship on the high seas or a steam train chugging its way through the Canadian Rockies in my mind. I think the photography came about because I needed to catalog my favorite elements to the stories for myself.

It also explains why music is so deeply embedded in me. Why I feel music so much. Sometimes it can go beyond actual music and be sounds such as birdsong, wind rustling through the grass, or waves crashing on shore. Digging deeper through my life and what that 2 in the morning thought was about I realized it was the idea that sound itself is an even deeper connection for me than I ever realized.

Combined together, the ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ explains a great deal. It is my visualization, my way of understanding, my prism. A way of interpreting my passions easily. If I expand the idea it is precisely why from the start I tended to take photos of favorite things-bridges, ships, trees, etc. They were always my fascination from an early age. So it is years later that when I am reading a book I need to make the same sort of connection. To tie all the elements together if only just for my personal benefit.

In therapy I am connecting the dots of my life up to now. Seemingly innocuous and never forgotten memories from childhood have significance because they correspond to my life right now somehow.   When I started writing this blog I can see now that like with the connections I am making in therapy, the dots between the present and past definitely become connected eventually. These ideas I bring out have always been there. I just needed to find the clarity and space to locate and elucidate it all.

That is where I feel I am right now at this exact moment. I initially thought what I wrote early that morning would work its way into the series, but I realized it was instead a realization of something that has been laying dormant for most of my life. Now it has been firmly unleashed and I can say that like the connections made in therapy that rocked my very core, I can truly say that I have a deeper understanding of why I need to have this space and present my photography in a deep and personal way. And to quote from this song by the great songsmith Chris Trapper- ‘I’m happy where I am.’

Happy Where I Am-Written By Chris Trapper

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 3

For Part 1 of this series, click here. For Part 2, click here.

The Legacy

By 1854, nine years after having set out the Admiralty let it be known that unless any tangible proof of survival among any of Franklin’s men was found, they would be declared dead. Whaling ships were known to go on very long voyages in those years, but this was an officially sanctioned mission. There was not one, but two ships. To have no word and little to go off of in the way of evidence, one can scarcely blame them for making that call. One person who refused to accept that decision was Lady Jane Franklin. She refused to go into mourning and made continued efforts to find out what had happened as late as 30 years after the ships had left England.

But there were precious few clues to go off,  and those that were found pointed into an ominous direction.  How well she accepted these clues is another story.  In 1850 clothing and fragments of supplies were found. On Beechey Island a stone cairn was discovered as were three graves-two men from Erebus, one from Terror. All three had perished in 1846. Suggestions were that by 1846, a mere year after setting off both ships had become trapped completely in the ice and the ships were abandoned. With McClure and the Investigator trapped in the ice themselves on the Western side of the passage, little new information was discovered until 1854.

The story of what happened after this time could result in this being a 20 part series. The shorter version is that various people searching over the years eventually found evidence of parts of the story. John Rae, a truly intrepid explorer from the Orkney Islands who had learned hunting and Arctic survival from the Inuit covered vast overland routes found artifacts and evidence of cannibalism among Franklin’s men. This was met with denials back home and stern rebukes from the likes of Charles Dickens and Lady Franklin.

Frank McClintock, another key figure at the time made perhaps the most pivotal discovery of all in 1859. First he found three bodies and clear evidence that they came from Franklin’s men. More importantly he found a note inside a cairn. The original note was dated May 28, 1847 and described meeting trouble. Scrawled around the note was a second message which revealed that John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. It went on to say that at the time of writing 24 men had perished.

Much has been speculated as to what ended the lives of the rest of the crews. The main theories are that many of the men died slow deaths as a result of lead poisoning either as a result of poor sealing on their tins of preserved food or via the lead pipes from the water tanks on board. Another strong plausibility is of the scourge of sailors at that time-scurvy. Though its cause was understood by that time and preventative measures well in place, it is possible it contributed to the poor health of the men. As Palin concludes though, perhaps it was a combination of many factors-lack of food, disease, poor planning, failure to learn tips from the Inuit. And it may have come down to poor leadership, starting with Franklin himself. Well noted for his fiery church services which he conducted on board ship, a major reason he took on the expedition was to salvage his wounded pride he had suffered as Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land some years before. That combined with being not exactly in shape for winters on the ice possibly led to some poor decisions.

But I think all of these theories contribute to the why. As in why we are still talking about Franklin all these years later. Why books are written. Why movies and documentaries are filmed. Why scientists have studied the preserved remains of corpses from the expedition all these years later. For me especially, it is also why songs such as Lord Franklin are still sung today, and why newer songs like The Erebus & The Terror, and Mercy Bay are still written. People like a mystery, they like the stories, the history and the drama. They imagine themselves on those ships, if even for a brief moment. Sailing the Arctic Sea along with Franklin and his ‘gallant crew’. After reading Palin’s book, Franklin’s story became even more poignant and personal for me. Not because of any sort of connection to the story, but because of a song that Palin mentions himself towards the end of the book-Northwest Passage, by the late and very great Stan Rogers.

In the song Stan Rogers tells a bit about the story of Franklin. He mentions the ‘long forgotten lonely cairn of stones’…a sight that must have been such a stark contrast to the untouched Arctic landscape in that time. He mentions the Beaufort Sea and Davis Strait. But when you contemplate the lyrics further, you realize that Rogers is talking about another journey. As the songwriter he was taking his own journey across Canada, through cites and the vast prairies. But in ‘finding the hand of Franklin’ he was going somewhere more personal. And that is when I realized that the song was telling me so much about not just the historical Franklin’s journey, but my own journey. It might sound trite to say this, but it is about finding your own elusive Northwest Passage. A journey unlike any taken before. A mystery. A struggle fraught with peril. Victory snatched before you as quickly as an Arctic ice flow closes a channel of water. It says so much while making you think and feel so much.

“How then am I so different from the first men through this way?

Like them, I left a settled life, I threw it all away

To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again”

Those of you who follow me on social media know that the past year has been a struggle. I have been going to see a therapist weekly for over a year now. Just over a month ago at a session I was recounting a memory from childhood. We have been gradually going backwards in time to some specific memories I have of my childhood, tracing the passage back from what I feel are inadequacies and failures of my past. Seeing connections to feelings and actions I still have today and how they relate to those memories. Though the memories are not traumatic or disturbing they still affect me. And so it was at this particular session at 9 AM on a Monday morning I had a particular jarring memory and connection made. It came out of nowhere. One moment I was reliving moments in my past and the next a connection was made to now and I became a weeping mess for several moments and unable to speak. I felt anger, hurt, rage, betrayal, guilt and sadness all at once. In the days and weeks after I have worked on these moments some more. It is still a work in progress, but it is a good thing to relive these thoughts.

It was in between then and as I began this series that I picked up Michael Palin’s Erebus. The boyhood fascination with the allure and admiration for the old sailing ships, for tales of adventure across the seas and being frozen in the Arctic with only the polar bears and the Inuit was still there. The love of history and science in discovering what happened to Franklin, of ship building and politics of the era was still there. But in reading the book I realized what was not there. As I raced through the book thoroughly enjoying myself I found myself thinking of my therapy appointments and the recent turn they had taken. What I realized was that the hurt I felt as a result came from a deeper pain inside me. That of failing to capitalize on my own value and worth. Weaving my own unique narrative.

All the things I ever dreamed about doing I have yet to do. The usual excuses come up-budget, time, fear of the unknown. The connections from therapy have proven to me that the desire and wanting has been there, but other reasons have caused me to put a hold on what I want or to give fuel to my system. But if that therapy session was a start in the right direction, then so too does this post. Because I see it guiding me towards the unknown. It might be only a personal unknown. A way of viewing my life differently, but it is a path I need to be on now.

My journey, perhaps all of our journeys are like Franklin. We go forward only to become trapped. We go in another direction only to have that close up as well. We search for those openings because we yearn to find the new. To live for the new. My life up to now has had all sorts of paths that have closed up. Yet the hope is that like Franklin and McClure and all the rest that those paths open up again. A crack in the ice that becomes wider and opens up to a new destination.

Writing this series became an obsession of sorts. It consumed me in a way I have not felt in quite a long time. It merged virtually all of my passions into one place. I came home from work at night and pored myself in as many stories and tales of the Arctic as I could find. I watched documentaries and searched for songs and all sorts of relevant data to the story to mention perhaps only in passing. But I needed to do this. To find the connections to my past in therapy. To find that passage through the  barrier of ice in my mind and live the words of the Stan Rogers song-

“Ah, for just one time I would take the Northwest Passage.

To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea. 

Tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage

And make a Northwest Passage to the sea.”

Postscript 

Unlike most mysteries, 174 years after setting out, Franklin’s expedition is still revealing itself. In 2010 using sophisticated underwater equipment, the wreck of HMS Investigator was found near Mercy Bay. In 2014 a rusted metal U-shaped object was found. Using a bit of on the spot internet research it turned out to be part of a davit, the mechanism used to lower the smaller boats off the sides of ships such as Erebus. The very next day using the location of this artifact as a guide, the underwater equipment spotted the remains of another wreck. A few days later divers went down to the wreck. Among the wreckage found was the ships bell. Erebus had at long last been found,

Such has been my passion for writing this series, I could not quite let it end. For starters, I have created a YouTube playlist for not just the songs from this post, but any relevant interviews, documentaries and supplementary material about Franklin and his expedition. Additionally, I feel compelled to give my own bibliography of some of the key sources used for this series-

Erebus-By Michael Palin

Off The Map-By Fergus Fleming

Sea Of Glory-By Nathaniel Philbrick

Let The Sea Make A Noise-By Walter A. MacDougall

To Rule The Waves-By Arthur Herman

Discovery Of The North Pole-By Dr. Frederick A. Cook & Commander Robert E. Peary

British Polar Explorers-By Admiral Sir Edward Evans

A Sea Of Words-A Lexicon & Companion For Patrick O’Brian’s Seafaring Tales-By Dean King, With John Hattendorf and J. Worth Estes

Other sources were the Encyclopedia Of Native American Tribes By Carl Waldman, the World Almanac 2019 for facts and maps, and various other online sources.

I also highly recommend a documentary series streaming on Netflix now called Arctic Ghost Ship, focused on the discovery of the Erebus wreckage. It also contains lots of great information about Franklin’s voyage as well.

Northwest Passage-Written By Stan Rogers

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 2

For Part 1-Click here

Part 2-The Search

“It was homeward bound one night on the deep

Swinging in my hammock I fell asleep

I dreamed a dream and I thought it true

Concerning Franklin and his gallant crew”

These words were written as a broadside ballad around the year 1850. Broadsides  were often single sheets of paper that contained the news of the day, woodcut illustrations, or sometimes ballad songs. Sometimes these songs were reprints of known traditional songs, but other times they were ‘ripped from the headlines’ of the day. This meant they were often about true crime, murder or other salacious tales. Other times they were about the buzz of the moment. And in 1850, five years after setting out to find the Northwest Passage, the buzz was still about what had happened to Lord Franklin’s expedition.

Yesterday in Part 1 I gave you as much that IS known about Lord Franklin’s expedition on the Erebus and Terror. But there is so much we still do not know for certain after all these years. By 1848 after not a single trace or word from the expedition the first relief parties were organized. As I mentioned in Part 1, it was understood that the ships would have to hunker down and live trapped in the ice during the brutal Arctic winter. But the fact that three years had gone by with not a single sighting or word along with the dogged persistence of Lord Franklin’s wife Jane persuaded the British Admiralty to become involved. In the short Arctic summer several official parties went searching via overland routes to where they believed evidence of the expedition would be, as well as by sea from both the eastern and western approaches to the Northwest Passage. Nothing was found.

In Fergus Fleming’s book Off The Map he takes up what happened next-a prize was to be given-£ 20,000 for definitive proof or sighting of  Franklin, and £10, 000 if in the course of searching for what happened the Northwest Passage was also found. In 1850 when the broadside of Lord Franklin is thought to have first appeared, no less than 13 vessels were in the Arctic searching for the expedition. This included Royal Navy ships, two U.S. ships, a small ship commanded by fellow polar explorer and hero Sir John Ross, and another financed by Lady Jane Franklin’s personal efforts.

All of which undoubtedly gave the broadside writers plenty of material to work with. And in the ballad Lord Franklin, or its other variant Lady Franklin’s Lament they came up with something noteworthy. In setting the song within the context of a dream the song becomes something ethereal and mysterious conjuring up what may have actually happened to the men on board Erebus and Terror. Years ago as I was becoming interested in traditional music I came across the song first from a giant of traditional music-Martin Carthy. This version comes from his second album released in 1966. Since then I have heard many versions by other artists, but Carthy’s version was my first. Typical for a broadside, a ‘device’ was used to set the story in context. And in using a dream as that device the appropriate mood is set for presenting the likely outcome of the disappearance of the expedition.

The song continues-

“In Baffin Bay where the whale fish blow

The fate of Franklin no man may know

The fate of Franklin no tongue can tell

Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell”

After five years gone most logical people would be forgiven for agreeing with the words of the song. A realization that the ships and crew were surely lost and all hope abandoned of actually finding them was not so far fetched. Yet some were not so convinced, especially Lady Jane Franklin who held a lot of sway in society circles. Which leads straight into the next part of the Franklin story.

One of the ships that set out in 1850 was HMS Investigator. Since those first relief parties started setting out the focus was searching the probable routes Franklin had taken. But what if Franklin had gone further west and was trapped in the ice beyond where the relief ships had gone?  Investigator was tasked along with HMS Enterprise to search locations from West to East where some possible trace may have been found. The ships made the long journey around Cape Horn, past Hawaii, and all the way around Alaska. Separated from Enterprise, the Investigator under Captain Robert McClure made an effort to search for signs of Franklin but also reveled in the chance of finding the Northwest Passage.

As it turns out they wound up getting caught in the ice themselves for two years, scarcely able to make any progress and faced with their own adversity. The extremely short window for getting ships as large as Investigator out of the ice or sending smaller land parties out searching for evidence of Erebus and Terror was surely frustrating. But it was understood to be the way things happened in the Arctic. That did not make life any easier for the crew of Investigator. Which is precisely what the next song is about. It makes for an interesting companion to the ordeal of Franklin and his men.

Fairport Convention have written and performed three songs about Franklin in recent years. I’m Already There is about his first doomed Arctic voyage, Eleanor’s Dream covers similar ground to ‘Lord Franklin’. But with Mercy Bay the band tells the lesser known story of Investigator and Robert McClure and their own agonizing journey. The mid-tempo pace of the song at the start becomes more insistent the further the story goes along. The song tells the story yet also conveys the hardship every man on board was living through. Once again it is an interesting exercise to imagine yourself in the situation. Numbing and unforgiving cold seeping into every part of the body. Sharing tight quarters with others. Little variety to diet and rations cut short. Being literally trapped in the ice. growing  more desperate with each passing day, the loss of three members of the crew. One can hear the voice of the unnamed narrator begging and pleading to be free of the ordeal-

“Turn this ship around, from these frozen grounds

Lets be homeward bound

Find a way”

As the song alludes to at the end, McClure and the surviving crew of the Investigator were fortunate to eventually make it back to England having spent a total of four years in the Arctic. They had their own harrowing tales of disaster, hardship and rescue.  As Fleming points out ‘in taking his ship to Banks Island, and then crossing the ice to Melville Island, McClure had become the first man to actually traverse the Northwest Passage. He was given a gold medal and was awarded the £10, 000 prize’. But what of Franklin?

Studying the entire history of relief parties searching for what happened is as much of a mystery as what direction the frozen inlets and narrow bays of the Arctic led to for the men on board those ships. Due to lack of communication it was not easy piecing together all the disparate sightings and tangible evidence that was being slowly pieced together both for the public and the ever hopeful Lady Franklin. Some evidence was actually even discounted And that is where we will pick up in the third and final part of this series.

Lord Franklin-Traditonal, Arranged By Martin Carthy

Mercy Bay-Written By Chris Leslie

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Seeking Lord Franklin-Part 1

 

The Journey

Wherever you happen to be reading these words right now, I want you to open up a map of the world before you go any further. Look anywhere your eye catches at first- maybe Brazil, Africa or Europe. Then gaze across the vast oceans and imagine yourself sailing the seas calling into exotic ports of call in Australia,  India, or South America. Next turn your attention towards the vast frozen continent of Antarctica, taking in its enormous size and scale. Now look at the top of the map and scan left from Russia across to Finland, Sweden and Norway moving west to Greenland. Next go in the opposite direction looking towards the  other side of Russia, past Alaska and stop when you are viewing Canada. Look for Hudson Bay, the massive slice seemingly carved out of roughly the middle part of the country. Finally look just slightly north of there and STOP.  Now imagine the year is 1845…

This jagged maze of frozen islands, inlets and rough unforgiving terrain is what in the Age Of Exploration was known as the Northwest Passage. Despite the ice and long winters, numerous expeditions went off to reach the Pole itself but more importantly in purely commercial terms the ubiquitous Northwest Passage as well. The theory of course was that commercial ships could cross from Europe to the lucrative Asian markets by way of a dedicated passage through the north instead of the more lengthy and dangerous trip around Cape Horn. It would be years before the Panama Canal was perhaps more wisely considered as a better and safer option.With 21st century hindsight it is easy to shake one’s head at the somewhat ludicrous nature of this pursuit again and again in the years before 1845. Yet persist various people still did.

Much has been written about these various expeditions to the north by intrepid explorers in search of whatever the Arctic had to offer. Since I was a boy I have always been deeply fascinated by these real life tales of adventure and exploration- be it climbing Mt Everest or the pursuit of reaching the North and South Poles.The stories of hardship and  perseverance always intrigued me and shook me out of my suburban existence. Over the years I have built my own small library of books on these tales.

Just recently another book was added to that stack which served as the impetus for this series-Erebus by Michael Palin. He may forever be known as part of Monty Python, but much as I love all things Python, for the last 30 years I have been even more of a fan of his travel programs along with their charming  companion books. When I heard he was writing about Erebus-a key ship in the annals of both north and south polar exploration  I was instantly curious about what he would come up with. Regardless of author sooner or later every story about both the Arctic as well as the search for the Northwest Passage eventually comes around to what happened to Sir John Franklin, commander of the Erebus.

With so much documented already I wondered what contribution I might add to the narrative that was unique. I have never been to the Arctic after all. I have never faced dangers such as these explorers did. I am a history aficionado, not a historian. But while reading Palin’s book I realized that there was a connection right up my alley that was staring right at me. Digging through my music collection I came across not just one song, but several songs directly related to John Franklin. It was time to immerse myself deeper into the story of Franklin. I pulled out all the books that were directly related or that had even passing references to Franklin and I began sketching out a plan. But the music would be my guiding force. I also had the idea to use my own photographs that were representational of the story of Franklin and the vast Arctic waters. When I had that realization I immediately sensed it growing into something much larger than I anticipated. But I get ahead of myself…

John Franklin

Prior to 1845 Franklin had laid his own claim to finding the Northwest Passage.  Between the years 1818-1827 he made two attempts. The first was disastrous. Desperately short of food and woefully unprepared Franklin’s group was forced to eat their old leather moccasins and other scraps of leather in order to put something…anything in their stomachs. It quickly devolved into an every man for himself situation with murder and the strong likelihood of cannibalism among some of the party.  By the time they were saved from their plight Franklin had lost 11 out of his 20 men. Despite this Franklin was able to chart some 500 miles of new terrain and coastline.

Just a few years later Franklin returned. Better prepared this time and with at least a passing acknowledgement of  learning some Arctic survival tips from the native Inuit, he and his second in command Dr. John Richardson charted almost the entire northern coast and some 1600 miles of new territory. As Fergus Fleming points out in his book Off The Map, as a result it was tentatively surmised that at least in the brief Arctic summer the Northwest Passage was looking like a (very) limited possibility. But the fickle nature of the Arctic had yet to reveal a definitive path, and the pursuit continued. I think I can understand why.

In imagining yourself in the year 1845 you must remember that the quest for the Northwest Passage not only made sense commercially but also fulfilled a more common desire. That is to seek the new and unexplored on our planet. Something perhaps lost on us in 2019. Changes in shipbuilding, technology, and mapping allowed intrepid explorers like Franklin to venture out into the unknown more easily than ever before. It is important to remember that in 1845 there were still a lot of those unknowns to be discovered. Places that were untouched or unconquered by humans still. The lure of being ‘first’ to anything was appealing indeed and it is safe to say that is what drove men like Franklin on in their explorations. Fame may have been part of the allure, but the reality shows that the exploits were very much fraught with peril. Fortune favors the bold as the saying goes.

So after months of preparation (some would say not enough) in May of 1845 Erebus and the Terror, the second ship of the expedition set out. They were initially assisted by supply ships whose task was to go as far as Greenland by way of the Orkney Islands bringing the vast amount of stores needed for a lengthy journey. By July of 1845 however, Erebus and Terror were on their own to pursue the task at hand.  It might seem disconcerting in now, but at that time it was understood that a large portion of the year would likely be spent trapped completely in the ice. Unable to move, the ships needed to hunker down and be self sustaining throughout a very long Arctic winter. Though fresh meat from polar bears, fish and other sources was hoped for the men on board both ships would have had to resort to some degree of ‘roughing it.’ But undoubtedly as Franklin and the men aboard Erebus and Terror set out from London I feel there must have been a sense of optimism about the impending journey. That is exactly what the first bit of music here is about.

The instrumental group Nightnoise recorded this original composition- ‘Erebus & Terror’ in 1987.  The two halves of the composition reflect both that optimism and perhaps a sense of the real danger the men were about to embark on. The piano-jaunty, celebratory and hopeful. The guitar tune then brings forth a sense of melancholy, foreboding and danger. When I heard this song I knew that it was the perfect song introduction to this story because it captures what all the men on board must have been feeling on the journey themselves.

But it was surely short lived. As Michael Palin points out in his book, other than Inuit sightings (which were frustratingly always discounted seemingly), the last recorded sighting of both ships was by  Captain Martin of HMS Enterprise who claimed seeing the tips of their masts ‘as late as 29 or 31 July’. After this date the remainder of the story of Franklin and the fate of his men is all speculation. But 175 years later tantalizing clues are still being discovered, which only adds to the mystery further. Which is exactly the right place to end this post. Tune in tomorrow for the continuation of the story of  John Franklin.

The Erebus & The Terror-Written By Mícheál Ó Domhnaill

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Lithograph Of John Franklin From The Book-British Polar Explorers (Written By Admiral Sir Edward Evans, Published 1942)

All Other Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground

About a month ago I treated myself to a new CD box set. I had heard from various sources that it was good, and when I saw it for myself in a store I decided to have a bit of an impulsive splurge. It is called American Epic, the companion music to the PBS series of the same name. At the time I had not seen the series but I quickly put that to right along with diving into the 5 disc set. Altogether the project is a true labor of love exploring the earliest days of recording various roots music from across the American diaspora in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Musically it covers a lot of ground-Delta Blues, old-time fiddle music, Cajun, Native American, jug bands, Hawaiian, Gospel and Latin. Collectively I heard songs I knew from established singers and players such as The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Lydia Mendoza, Lead Belly and Jimmie Rodgers. There are also some surprises-little snippets or lyrics of songs that I have known for years, but never knew the source of. Others I knew more by name as being seminal figures but was unfamiliar with the music.

Along with those key figures, American Epic covered some unsung people across the spectrum of recorded American music such as Charley Patton, Dick Justice, Geeshie Wiley, Elder J.E. Burch,  and many more. The producers of the series utilized new restoration techniques to really bring a new dynamic to the  music recorded in some cases nearly 100 years ago. It is a staggering realization knowing that we have reached a point in history where the recorded music you hear so easily streaming on your phone or the radio had its origins in these early recordings. Without these pioneers of recording technology crossing the country bringing back these gems, popular music in America may have never gone past Tin Pan Alley and the popular tunes of the day. As the show points out, once the radio became popular and affordable, the early markets for  records were drying up. The labels took this as a chance to expand their musical offerings to wider audiences.

These past few weeks I have been listening to all of the music, mesmerized by the diversity of sounds. I have also been reading along with the book, looking at the photos and reading the lyrics and words of so many long ago and in many cases  forgotten singers and musicians. Beyond that I could hear the influence many of these unsung singers had on names much more well known. I heard the cold lonesome whippoorwill of Hank Williams in the voice of Emmett Miller. I heard the testament of every gospel singer I have ever listened to in the songs of Reverend F.W. McGee. I hear the Rolling Stones attitude in the growls of  Howlin’ Wolf.

But before I go on describing American Epic in more detail, I’m going to stop myself. The series is currently streaming on Amazon for you to watch and enjoy yourself. I’m also stopping myself because I am thinking of spending some time making it a semi-regular feature here on Soundtrack Of A Photograph. I have learned my lesson from other false starts however, so for the time being I’ll refrain from putting it as a menu option at the top of this page!

What I do want to talk about in this post is a song that quickly rose to the top for me among the 100 songs in the set-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground by Blind Willie Johnson.  He was one of the artists I knew more by name than by his music, but I am sure glad this song made its way onto the set. The title was borrowed from a hymn popular around the time Johnson recorded it.  In some ways it is impossible to describe a song like this one. It is something you just feel. If you allow it to creep inside you after the first few notes, it goes to an even deeper place. One could almost be dismissive at first-a humming ‘vocal’ and a series of runs up and down the guitar neck with the slide (for which Johnson allegedly used a penknife for) doesn’t sound so impressive on paper. But it bores down deep inside your soul however. It speaks volumes without uttering a single legible word.

I find it equally dark and mysterious. I personally think that maybe that is the reason for the title. Maybe Blind Willie Johnson’s guitar symbolizes the dark night. Maybe his vocals symbolize the cold ground. Maybe they are interchangeable. However you want to interpret it is valid. I just know that those words-Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground come from a place of pain. Neither one is an ideal situation if you really think about it-

Dark was the night. Loneliness, Silence. Fear. Maybe those feelings came from his own blindness. Maybe it just came from the feeling of night down some deep, dark country lane in Texas in the 1920’s. Maybe it symbolizes death, pain or suffering.

Cold was the ground. Winter. Misery. Sadness. Poverty. Maybe those feelings came from the actual bleakness of winter. Body aching from the cold. That feeling of sorrow and quiet that pervades. Maybe it too symbolizes death-burying the body in the cold earth.

Regardless of interpretation, I find the song unforgettable. I have caught myself replaying  its haunting sound in my head several times over the past few weeks. It is one of those influential songs that has been heard in movies and documentaries alike. In 1968 Fairport Convention even put out a clear homage to Blind Willie Johnson with their song ‘The Lord Is In This Place…How Dreadful Is This Place. And musicians such as Jack White (a key contributor to American Epic) proclaimed it to be the greatest example of slide guitar ever. In 1977 the astronomer Carl Sagan selected it to be among a selection of sounds to send out in space on the Voyager 1 spacecraft.

Take a few minutes now and take it in for yourself without distractions. Imagine Blind Willie Johnson sitting in a recording studio in Dallas on December 3, 1927. The recording starts…Willie’s hands clutch the guitar. He runs his ‘slide’ across the strings. He leans into the microphone and lets out this plaintive wail of pain. Unlike anything that had ever been laid down in a studio before. Epic. American Epic.

The photograph was taken last week early on a snowy morning in Central Park. Though not actually taken at night, something about the scene seemed so bleak and sad. When I was reviewing the photos I took that morning Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground appeared in my head once again and I had the idea to not only write this piece about the song, but some of the other great material from American Epic as well.  Stay tuned for more.

Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground-Written By Blind Willie Johnson

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

Photograph Of Blind Willie Johnson-Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

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Two Rivers

This is a story of two rivers. One of my existence and my own history. One in my dreams. One preserved as a photograph in my own archives. One as a place I dream of seeing someday. One with a story I can  tell with my photos and words.  One with a story that comes out of songs and music from a far off land.

This is a story of two instruments. One popular and played throughout the world by millions on a diverse range of styles. One tied to a cultural and historical heritage of a small group of nations in West Africa and played by a much smaller number of people.

This is a story of two men. One older and seasoned player forging his own deep rooted sound out of six strings. One much younger player coaxing intricate patterns from an ancient 21 string instrument.

This is a story of two directions-north and south. Two places within the boundaries of the same nation with dramatically different languages, culture, traditions and music.

This is the story of In The Heart Of The Moon, a groundbreaking album released in 2005 by the late Ali Farka Toure on guitar, and Toumani Diabate on the kora.

For some reason or another, I have been thinking about rivers a lot recently. About everything they represent-movement, calm, strength, division. Actually this isn’t the first time I have had these thoughts. In an earlier post I wrote about how Jimmy Cliff’s classic song Many Rivers To Cross seemed apt for this time of year as people go through lists of resolutions and aspirations. One river at a time we try to cross over only to be confronted by another obstacle on the other side.

But I was also thinking about rivers in an even more personal context over this past weekend while listening to In The Heart Of The Moon. Rarely a month goes by without me playing it at least once. It was recorded in a portable studio alongside the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali. Astonishingly it was recorded unrehearsed by the two men who come from vastly different musical and cultural differences within the country of Mali.

Ali Farka Toure, came from the northern part of Mali and ethnically was Songhai. Ali’s bluesy guitar style won him many fans in the West. It was not a stretch to  recognize his guitar playing as being the origins of the earliest Delta blues recordings made in the U.S. So much so that over the years you will see his name on blues compilations right next to guys like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker. His songs and guitar go deep to the soul. It isn’t flashy playing like so many rock guitarists but comes from the soul itself.

Toumani Diabate on the other hand comes from the southern part of Mali and by heritage is a griot-renowned story tellers and preservers of tradition. Toumani’s own line of griots goes back over 70 generations and the kora, a harp instrument the typical (though not exclusive) accompaniment. Despite his traditional background Toumani was well versed in American rock and soul at the same time he was developing his skills on the kora. He has showcased this on a range of projects both contemporary and traditional, all the while putting the kora in the forefront with his astounding skills.

What is astonishing about In The Heart Of The Moon is that it has the movement of a river itself throughout the entire album with the gorgeous interplay between the kora and the guitar. You feel the movement and stillness of the river. You feel the gentle cooling breeze and the stifling heat. You hear the gentle sound of water crashing against rocks or the squawking of birds. You sense the calming rays of sunrise and sunset, you feel the movement of people and boats on the water. You feel life.

As the years have gone by since first hearing the album I have tried to transport myself along with the music to the banks of the Niger, imagining that same sort of ebb and flow. The beauty of music, much like the beauty of photography is that it can transport you anywhere you want. It invokes emotion, memories from the past or even dreams. In The Heart Of The Moon may have been recorded along the Niger River but the music is of any river where you have ever experienced this type of feeling. I think about the distance rivers go from the mountains to the sea. The people along the way. The fish and birds that run its course. Times when the river floods and causes devastation and times when a moment in time can be frozen perfectly in its beauty, be it a photograph, a painting, or even a song.

I spent time the past few days really thinking about ‘my’ river-the mighty Hudson River here in New York. From its humble origins up north, winding its way down the beautiful Hudson Valley past towns and cities all the way to the mouth of the ocean in New York Harbor it has its stories, and I have my stories that go along with it. I have seen it up close by boat. I have hiked alongside it. I have kicked back with a glass of wine alongside its banks basking in the sunlight.  I have witnessed sunrise and sunset, ice and snow. It is never too far away from both  my mind or geographically. When I listen to In The Heart Of The Moon I am reminded how lucky I am to have this sort of inspiration in my life. Especially for my art of photography.

The photo I used in that earlier post about Jimmy Cliff was taken alongside the Hudson several years ago on a rainy, foggy June day. This photo comes from that same day. The album cover for In The Heart Of The Moon has a faded image of an old sailboat on the Niger. I did not take this photo as an homage to that album cover. It was merely something I thought looked interesting at the time. As I have been thinking these thoughts about rivers the last few days, I thought this photo  seemed a perfect match to present this music. A way of expressing the river of my story, and the river of this music. A river that flows from far away bearing beautiful music to the world.  A river where my photos can drift and be seen in the same way. Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate’s river of music. My river of photography. What more do we need?

Below is a short promo film about the making of In The Heart Of The Moon as well as my own favorite song on the album. I urge you to listen to them both and feel the river drifting towards you as well.

Kadi Kadi-Music By Ali Farka Toure & Toumani Diabate

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All Photographs By Robert P. Doyle

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