I’ve always been a night owl. When I was in high school, I would wait until my mother had gone to bed, then shut the louver doors to my bedroom and flip on the light. I’d sit up and read with the radio turned on very low. Mostly I’d listen to Alison Steele, The Nightbird (a generational icon), but other times I’d listen to a station that I can only believe was public radio based on what they played. It’s where I first heard Monty Python’s “Mary Queen of Scotts” and the genius Firesign Theater. They also played odd music from around the world, traditional American folk music and blues and Celtic songs, ancient and new.
On night, after I’d closed my book and lay there with radio on, listening until I felt drowsy, the announcer introduced a live recording by Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy called “Peter Kagan and The Wind”. It is a story-song that tells of the seal people, a legend widely known among the seafaring folk of Ireland, Scotland and the north east coast of America, and Peter Kagan, a fisherman from Maine who marries one of them. It is a beautiful ballad of love and sacrifice and the unforgiving wind and sea.
I lay there in the dim glow of the radio, hearing this song for the first time yet feeling it in a deep part of my heart; knowing it in my bones, the harsh beauty of the sea and a life on the rocky coast. Other than the Hoboken Ferry, I had never been on a boat but I understood how the dory rolled and bucked on the mounting waves. I smelled the briney green of the water and felt the sting of the salted wind. I heard the snap and rip of the straining sail. Tears dripped on my pillow as the sad banshee refrain called “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home. Wind and sea will follow thee and all the ledges calling thee”. And at the end of the song, when Kagan is found lying asleep in the dory wrapped in the sail with a snow covered seal blanketing him with her body, it is not just a lyric in a song, it is a real, hard, cold memory for me. I see it in my mind. I remember it; the fear as everyone rushes to the beached boat. I know the relief at finding him alive and the chorus of “What the feck” at the sight of the seal curled up with him. The smell of fish and wet wood and canvas. This is not a tale I’ve heard. I was there. I was there.
I never heard that song again. There was no You Tube, no Internet, no way to Google it. You went to a record store to buy music and the chances of finding an Irish Folk Music album at the mall were very slim. But I never forgot it. Now and then, I’d find myself humming “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan. Bring the dory home.”
Recently though, it’s been coming to mind a lot. And I’ve been thinking about the Seal People. As a child, my aunt would take me to the Central Park Zoo and all I ever wanted to see was the seals. And I’ve always been draw to the rocky coast of New England and the commercial fishing towns. I even have a large painting of rusty trawlers on my living room wall. Something about it says home to me. So this morning, on the train ride to work, I Googled “Peter Kagan and The Wind” and listened to it again for the first time in over forty years. I was back in that dory on the roiling sea, trying to steer a course to the gong bouy as the wind froze the spray on my skin and hair. The tears came streaming and I felt a terrible sadness as the concertina played the melody and Tommy and Liam sang “Kagan, Kagan, Kagan”.
Maybe it’s just that Makem and Clancy were wonderful story tellers; they were. Or maybe I have a vivid imagination; I do. But I believe there was I time I lived by the sea. A time I knew the ways of wind and sail and how to steer for home in the fog. When the fish jumped in my boat and the sea birds sang in time to the hauling of my nets. When life was hard but all the more sweet for the sheer hardness of it. I knew the Seal People. Or perhaps married one or was one myself. I feel it in my bones.
There was a time when I would not have trusted my own memories that are not of this lifetime. I would bury them thinking they were just dreams or stories I made up. With age comes wisdom, so they say. I’ve learned that not everything follows the rational, scientific rules we have imprisoned ourselves with. Because there are things that are always with you, things you remember from another time and place, things that have no logical explanation but are there nonetheless. Like the smell of salt air on a Manhattan bound commuter train.
Be sure to watch both.