by Gene Owens
Semper et ubique fidelis
Frank Emerson is an overgrown leprechaun whose love of Ireland flows out of the hills of southwest Virginia in a stream of music that might have washed the Blarney Stone.
The musical traditions of Ireland surge through his voice and guitar, but they have also picked up the flavor of America and the South.
The Irish gave us much more than the archetypes of country music. In a sense, Ireland was to Britain what the South has been to the United States -- a country rich in culture but economically poor; a country with deep passions, for which it was willing to shed blood. The difference is that Ireland ultimately gained its independence, except for a few counties in the north; the South remains a distinctive but loyal part of the American union.
If you've ever heard the song "Will My Soul Pass Through the Southland" - the ballad of a Rebel soldier dying in a Yankee prison - be aware that it's derived from "Will My Soul Pass Through Ireland," the plaint of an Irish rebel dying in a foreign prison. The Southern version is sung to a Bluegrass beat; the Irish to a more mournful cadence.
I first encountered Frank about a year ago at Delaney's Irish pub on the fringe of the University of South Carolina campus. Between witty toasts from whatever that was in his glass, he sang songs ranging from "Galway Bay" to "Waltz Across Texas." You have to imagine Ernest Tubb with an Irish brogue. Frank brought it off well.
A year later, Miss Peggy and I drove to Columbia to join friends at Delaney's for an Emerson encore. I was eager to learn more about the "Wild Geese of the Irish Brigade," whose Latin motto translates to "Always and Everywhere Faithful."
The song, which Frank wrote, celebrates the contributions of Irish expatriates toward American independence. It tells of the men of Arthur Dillon's regiment who arrived under the French flag, "itching to get into the fray and knock off a few Lobsterbacks." Their request of the Marquis de Lafayette: "Let us be the first to strike the blow.
Yeah, Frank knows that it was the Bonhomme Richard, not the Serapis that went to the bottom after the epic battle in which John Paul Jones shouted, "I have not yet begun to fight." But the American crew lashed their mortally wounded ship to the British vessel and captured it in hand-to-hand fighting.
Who were the Wild Geese of the Irish Brigade?
The first group to bear the name left Ireland in 1607 - the year Virginia was founded -and fought for France and Spain. The second, and more famous, left Ireland in 1691 under Patrick Sarsfield after the Treaty of Limerick ended the war that resulted in Protestant control over Ireland.
Sarsfield and his 2,600 soldiers signed on with the French and fought against William III's minions in the Battle of Landen in what is now Belgium. Sarsfield was killed in the battle. His last words were "If only this were for Ireland."
A native of Ireland, Frank now lives in Wytheville, Va., the small town that lies in the Blue Ridge where I-77 crosses I-81 en route from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Charleston, West Virginia His wife, Frances, is director of historical resources for the town of Wytheville where she oversees three museums.
Frank sings in places with names like Kevin Barry's (Savannah), Mrs. O'Leary's (Gaithersburg, Md.), Nanny O'Brien's (Washington, D. C.), and O'Flaherty's Irish Channel (New Orleans).
Frank collaborated with a former co-worker of mine from Roanoke, Virginia, to write a D-Day tribute. Titled "A New Dawn Forever," it's based on a poem by Bob Slaughter, who ran the composing room for the Roanoke Times when I ran its editorial page. Bob was one of the heroes of Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion.
Frank took Bob's poem, tweaked it, arranged it, set it to music, and recorded it in a borrowed studio. The proceeds go to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, the little town in the shadow of the Peaks of Otter. It suffered more D-Day casualties per capita than any other American city.
Next time Frank performs at Delaney's, I want to hear him sing it.
Gene Owens has been around the Southern journalistic scene for 48 years. He has been senior associate editor of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., and editorial-page editor of the Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Va.
As senior editor for Creative Services, a management consulting firm in High Point, N. C., he ghosted more than a dozen published books for professional clients. For the past nine years he has been assistant managing editor, political editor and columnist for the Mobile Register. Register readers named him their favorite local columnist, and readers of the independent regional magazine, Bay Weekly, agreed. He was runner-up in the regional Green Eyeshades competition among writers of humor columns.
He has been on the board of directors of the National Conference of Editorial Writers and was editor of The Masthead, the NCEW’s national quarterly. He recently went into semi-retirement in Anderson, S. C.
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Write Gene Owens at 317 Braeburn Drive, Anderson SC 29621 or e-mail him at WadesDixieCo@aol.com
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