I picked up Writing Out The Notes: Life in Great Big Sea at a Great Big Sea concert in Kent, Ohio a few months ago. I confess: I am a folk music fan. I have a tremendously eclectic taste in music; my iTunes library has everything from the Sex Pistols and Einsturzende Neubauten to Bobby Golodsboro and Glenn Gould and all points in between, which makes for some disconcerting segues when you put the whole mess on shuffle. A friend sent me some YouTube links to a couple of Great Big Sea songs a few years ago and I was instantly hooked. I love songs that tell a story, and I love songs I can sing along with — if I can’t crank them up in the car and sing as I’m racing down the highway, what fun are they? Folk music reminds me of the songs my father used to sing with his guitar on the front porch on summer evenings. Folk songs may tell some amazing stories, but folk music isn’t exactly cool or hip, so what makes a young musician choose folk music? What sustains them as they make a career of it? Writing Out the Notes tells a bit of that story.
This is not a big book, only about 170 pages, but it made for very pleasant reading — and it will take me weeks to get through my notes on bands I need to look up and music I need to listen to. Hallett talks at length about the music in his life, everything from the Newfoundland punk rock scene to Beyonce. I have a hard time imagining him in a punk band, but I think we’d have fun talking about music, considering the crazy turns that my personal collection takes (although I spent a chunk of my time with this book Googling all sorts of instruments — who do you know that plays the bouzouki?). I’ve got a list of songs and bands to check out, inspired by the music he wrote about in this book: the Barra MacNeils (subject of a terrific party story in the book), Ryan’s Fancy, Figgy Duff, Altan, the Johnstons. He writes very thoughtfully about music — I tend to be more of the “oooh, I like that!” sort of fan, so it will be interesting to listen to some of these bands, knowing a bit of history.
One of the themes that really struck home for me was the talk about travel. I’m writing this from Amsterdam, where I seem to write a lot of my reviews these days, while we are contemplating the schedule for our next round of work in Europe. (Aberdeen in January? Brrrrrr!) Much of my travel is for work, not just as a tourist, which is always a slightly different perspective. And since I’m working with local people, I tend to think a lot about the way people live in the different places I visit — I hear from my co-workers about their evenings and weekends, their difficult commutes, their complaints about local politicians and a host of other things you aren’t exposed to as a tourist. (We’ve been staying at the same hotel in Amsterdam so long that Christian, one of my favorite bartenders, has started telling me stories about picking up female tourists in the hotel. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted, but I am definitely intrigued.)
“I have spent hours looking out the windows of tour buses, watching town after town and mile after mile go by. More than once I have passed a pleasant afternoon strolling around a supposedly dull residential neighborhood somewhere in a factory town in the US Midwest. The houses, the trees, something is always different. It never really gets boring: there is always something to see, some drama, and some subtle different from home that makes it all brand new.
The same questions bother me wherever I go: What is it really like to live here? What are these people doing here, anyway? Do they like it? Do they like each other? Do they even notice where they are anymore?”
Whether I’m driving back to Amsterdam from Belgium, as I was yesterday, fighting LA traffic, broiling in the Houston sun or shivering in a Minnesota winter, I am always curious about the people who live in a place and what brought them/keeps them there. I am envious of someone who gets to travel the way musicians do and of the way they get to experience the places they visit.
Writing Out The Notes: Life in Great Big Sea is an interesting look at the life of a folk musician. Fans of Great Big Sea will enjoy the glimpses of the band’s history and folk music fans will enjoy a different sort of history lesson. This one wasn’t a review copy; it’s one that I bought for the permanent collection. I only wish I’d had a chance to get it autographed.