Only Steal From The Best

We’re all having to do more with less right now. The fat times are behind us, and we are all having to hone our craft. What does this have to do with stealing? It depends on your point of view, as so many things do.

The old Tales, read closely, are all about point of view. Is it Deirdre’s fault the men of Ulster fought a bloody battle, or is it theirs? Who raises the sword? Who causes it to be raised? Did Medb cause the Men of Connaught to be strayed and destroyed because she was female, or is that just the way many a cattle raid turns out? As my grandmother said, “It depends on whose ox is being gored.” The place of gender in Irish culture, and the culture itself was changing in that time, and the versions of the Tales we have reflect that.

I was listening to the radio last Sunday and a wonderful segment came on. It was about a book called “Steal Like An Artist,” by a man named Austin Kleon. The segment can be heard here. Through the miracle of ereading, I was once again able to download the book to my iPod from the public library before the show was even over. We live in such magical times! I have tools now that I could only dream of when I first started busking.

Kleon’s point was that we are all the product of our influences. We all create based on the work of others. Without the Tales written down over a thousand years ago by people whose faces I will never see, whose names I will never know, I wouldn’t have the stories of Deirdriu and Blodeuwedd to draw on. Without the recordings of Steeleye Span, Capercaillie, and many others to draw on, I wouldn’t have had voices, patiently playing the same tune over and over while I sang along until my voice could do the same things theirs could. If we surround ourselves with the best that our culture has to offer, we, too, will be able to offer our best in return.

Stealing is both a bright line and a slippery term. To take someone else’s work and claim it as my own, that is stealing. To admit that my work is built on the work of others, that is homage and the simple truth. Retelling the old Tales, for example, is a long and venerable tradition. They need to be fit to the spirit of the age they are told in if they are to have their true power. The versions we have, after all, are the Tale as told at that moment in time, not a timeless perfect version to be held up as the Definitive Work. It is the work of the storyteller and the scholar to read the older versions and understand the context in which they were told in order to grasp the essence of the Tale, to separate the nut from the husk. Morgan Llywelyn, to give but one example, does this beautifully. To read her novels is to be led to the heart of the Tale, and back to the source of it, if, like me, you don’t ever want the story to end. Give someone the passion for knowledge, as she does, and you light a fire in the head. Who knows where that will lead?

To bring it even closer to home, I am listening to an album right now, called The Dance Goes On, by a duo called Blanche Rowen and Michael Gulston. I fully intend to learn a number of songs from it simply because they’re already half in my head and won’t let me be until I learn the rest of them. I urge you to give them a listen and then run, do not walk, to buy your own copy. You see, I want to learn how to light such a fire in others as they have lit in me. I’m listening to it now, and have been since I got it. I know that my first album, limited as its circulation was, did that in at least a few people. I replaced a few tapes for people who played them to death and get occasional requests for a CD of it to this day. To me, that’s the highest compliment I could receive, and it brings the fire home to hopefully make the next recording even better.

Songs don’t live unless they’re sung. They live on the breath, and in the moment they are heard. I hope to leave this world knowing that my songs are on the lips of others, and so I too give life to the songs of others. But I credit, and I buy recordings, so the artists can continue to make music. To me, that’s the bright line. Besides, it’s so embarrassing to be caught.

We are so rich, in this beautiful and terrible age we live in. We have the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips, and such power that we can destroy ourselves. If we do not truly step into our power and the responsibility that goes with it, we may not have a next generation to gift our wisdom to. The chain of beauty may truly be broken. What a wonderful time to be alive! What a chance to make the art that may play a part in bringing us though this time into the next age! It truly does all depend on your point of view.

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