Ballyferris. The view from the caravan.
When we were all rather young, that is, before we became teenagers, a barn was set aside at Turkington’s caravan site, ( the one on the Millisle side of Hope’s) in which caravanners could gather, to have a bit of a concert . Well that was always such a good old sing song, and in the inimitable Irish way if you felt like it, you could get up and strut your stuff musically!. Noone minded... if you got all the notes ...even if they were not exactly in the right places!
I remember one of the regular favourites was... “Look over your shoulder, I’m walking behind”……now who on earth sang that? Does anyone remember?
Google tells me it was Eddie Fisher !
In the fifties in Ireland I don't remember singing many national folk songs. You would be more likely to hear a country and western being rendered..or mangled, depending on how it came out. But the enthusiasm was boundless.In fact my drama teacher was surprised when upon winning a prize at school I opted for a book of Irish "come-all-yees"...dad's name for Irish songs.
This was at the end of the fifties when Elvis broke into our world and thrilled us with songs such as “ Teddy Bear” and “ Jail House Rock” and you know…. we kids wanted to rock it up in the Barn.
I remember one day in particular... at the swings in Turkington's yard with Vicky another caravanner and close school friend....when we must have sung "Teddy bear" constantly all afternoon...and I mean...all afternoon!!
In Ballywalter... in Lemon’s Café and Fish and Chip emporium..., we often gathered in the store room at the back of the shop to feed our money into their exotic juke box. Bill Haley, Little Richard and The Big Bopper fed our fertile minds and brought us dreams of faraway places and possibilities in distant lands. Could that be one of the reasons why so many left Ireland for distant shores, as soon as teenage years were behind them?
For me, even more important than all of this, was the scruffy caravan in Hope’s second field. A musical cooking pot full of enormous significance for my young enquiring soul.
The van was owned by Derek Cathcart.
He was much older that me, and in my young eyes... very worldly-wise. He played guitar and more than that, played and sang regularly in local pubs. A fount of musical knowledge of a genre I had never heard before.
I often waited until the other "van" kids were in his scruffy abode some early evening... before he sallied forth to the bright lights of Donaghadee, Millisle or even Ballywalter...and creep in to sit at the back of the caravan... near the door. A thick smokey fug filled the space and meant that you could hardly see to the opposite end... and I’m sure more than contributed to his throaty singing voice.
He sang the usual country and western songs of those days. Do you remember..."It wasn't God who made honky tonk angels" ? or Jim Reeves and "He'll have to go"? Oh my ...you and I are old!!
More important to me however was the jazz that he sang... and in particular the blues I heard for the first time in my life.
From Derek I learnt to sing "Beale Street Blues, St Louis Blues" and many many more.
One song in particular that I loved to hear him sing, was his rendition of "Miss Otis Regrets".
..I still sing it today.
I was probably only ten or twelve at the most when I first sat in that caravan, and I had already had quite a few years studying drama and music, but this new sound was something that entered my soul and stayed with me ever since.
Though a rough diamond, he was kindly. He seemed to recognise something in me and encouraged me to sing. I found that I had a natural inclination to harmonise and so when he launched into some blues piece, I would quietly sing along absorbed in this wonderful world of music. More often than not I received an encouraging word from him at the end. That did more for my confidence than all of the scales and classical pieces given to me by my singing teacher .
I have a memory that once, in a lesson, she informed me that if I continued to sing in the lower register I would absolutely ruin my voice. Ooops!
Ah me what a great memory. Who could better that instruction with so much fun thown in. It was many years before I met any one else who had such confidence in my vocal abilities.
Thankyou Mr. Cathcart wherever you are.