Alchemy by Fran Hutchinson

Photo by Baher Khairy on Unsplash


Your past knows where to find you.

I’m fond of using that phrase, because it’s true.  It may sound a bit sinister, and perhaps at times it is.  But at times it’s more of a reunion than an unwelcome surprise.  My past recently paid me a visit, via a collection of old-school cassette tapes, Scottish music, and what happens when musician joins instrument creating music, when music joins technology creating memory, and memory creates… the place where your past can find you.

Once upon a time, my life was music. Lively, gentle, joyous, heartbreaking. Straight from the source… from Scotland, Ireland, Britain and Brittany, Australia and beyond, spun by artists who shone in their realms. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded by it, and them. Paths too complex to trace here dropped me into the company of the kind of people who made the purest kind of sounds.  They joined with their wire and wood, their reeds and bellows and bows and gut and voices, and together they made the air ring with magic.

That was some years ago.  Paths diverged, as they often do, and connections were lost. Some of the finest people and musicians I have known are no longer with us.  But where music meets technology, memory is created.

“Back in the day” (the 70’s) I was a denizen of a New Bedford, MA coffeehouse called Tryworks.  Some of the greatest music makers anywhere, both known and un,  played on its stage.  The director of Tryworks was a formidable woman named Maggie Peirce.  Maggi had a daughter named Cora.  Forty years on, our paths converged again when Cora began working in social services at the senior housing where I live. When we’d recovered from the shock of reunion, we fell headlong into our shared history of bearing witness to alchemy.

The alchemy of music can only be witnessed as it happens (unless you’re lucky enough to create it yourself).  No matter how many roaring choruses or stamping of feet you take part in, in all music the highest magic happens only in that place where the musician and the instrument are joined as one. There music results.  There is no space between them for anyone else.  You can only bear witness.

Which brings me to the cassettes.  Cora had, by a series of circumstances, come into possession of studio-quality recordings of some of the very people and events that once were such a part of my life. Knowing their significance, she passed them on to me.

Thus on a recent Sunday morning, as the tape spun out, I recognized a concert I had attended at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in the early 80’s featuring two exceptionally gifted Scottish musicians.  I smiled as I recognized singer/guitarist Dick Gaughan’s rough ad libs with the audience, and positively wallowed in the guitar tunes and songs.

And then… the fiddle.

There was no name on the tape’s case except “Dick Gaughan”, but the sound was unmistakable to me.  Nobody spun fiddlesong like that except Johnny Cunningham, the unparalleled master. After that set of tunes, when the wild acclamation had died down, Dick acknowledged Johnny by name. For another thirty minutes Johnny and his fiddle swooped and soared through raucous reels, lively jigs, and finally a set of weeping airs.

There, right there, is where my past found me. And once more, I bore witness.

Your past does know where to find you.  It can and it will, often when you least expect it.  And if you’re very lucky, the result will be alchemy.

Author’s note: Dedicated to the late Johnny Cunningham… master of the Scottish fiddle, occasional whisky buddy, and my “ghost” writer for this piece.

About the author: Fran Hutchinson

Fran HutchinsonCurrently a resident of New Bedford, MA, Fran Hutchinson experienced a “poetic incarnation” while embedded in the 80’s folk scene in Boston.  Occupied variously as live calendar producer for WGBH’s Folk Heritage, contributing editor at the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston’s monthly Folk Letter, artist manager and booking agent, and occasional concert producer, she was surrounded by exceptional music and musicians, including those she had long listened to and admired.  The result was a rich source of inspiration for verse, of which she took full advantage. No longer writing poetry, Fran has recently been the recipient of a surgically altered back and two new knees, and spends her time reading and listening to music (natch), texting and emailing long-distance friends,  and hanging with her posse at the Community center.