Handwritten playlist causes flood of memories

KAT BERGERON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDA handwritten playlist at the feet of musicians gathered for a formal or informal session of bluegrass or perhaps Irish reels hints at some foot-tapping music to come.
KAT BERGERON/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDA handwritten playlist at the feet of musicians gathered for a formal or informal session of bluegrass or perhaps Irish reels hints at some foot-tapping music to come.

Behind every piece of paper lies a story.

And sometimes music.

But always memories.

This particular piece of paper lies in green grass, within a circle of feet and sometimes even under a foot. It is folded in half and three lines of inked columns fill it, the cursive writing too small to read from a respectful distance. But, oh, what memories flood back anyway.

Magical year

I am transported to that magical year I lived in Ireland, when I finagled a sabbatical from the newsroom to be a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar.

I am walking across the campus and unexpectedly hear a fiddle. I follow the Pied Piper music to discover a lone fiddler, propped on a stone wall, a folded piece of paper at his foot as his fingers and bow cast a spell. The piece of paper moves in a gust of wind. He pulls it back with his foot.

I would learn this scene at University College Cork is commonplace, with these gatherings of musicians sometimes singly, sometimes in groups, sometimes in planned lunchtime concerts, sometimes just because they know there's a ready audience. I would learn Irish music sessions are no myth, and no thing of the past but alive and well, not just a faded memory of Irish-Americans who long ago left the Old Sod.

Mature student

Because I am older than most attending UCC, I am labeled a "mature" student. Ha! "Sponge" would be a better label, for that is what I am doing, absorbing. The music. The language. The folklore. The culture. The architecture. The food. The people. The pieces of paper.

I shake away the reverie of memory to bring myself back to the now. Five guys sit in a circle with their instruments at Graves Mill, a historic Blue Ridge community. Bluegrass wafts from their circle.

Unused banjos, fiddles and guitars lie on the grass, awaiting their turn to entertain locals and visitors who come to the Madison County Mountain Heritage Day sponsored by the Piedmont Environmental Council. I am here with a friend to learn local history and photograph the trilliums -- delicate flowers that bloom on the nearby Staunton River trailhead of Shenandoah National Park.

These musicians call themselves DnA, a joke, they say. As in Ireland, many American musicians have what I call "another life" that helps pay for their impoverished music passion.

When they notice me staring at the paper, I explain their playlist brings back memories of sessions I attended in Ireland.

Two weeks later, that handwritten paper continues to spur on memory.

A very short music 'career'

While at UCC, I wanted to take several Irish music history courses, but the chairman of the music department wouldn't let me do that unless I also took up an instrument. As a product of Mississippi schools, which in my time did little to encourage learning music, I couldn't even read a musical note. I also instinctively knew I was no "natural."

That was confirmed when I took two semesters in tin whistle at UCC. At practice time, when I'd get ready to toot with tin whistle in hand, my two flatmates would run out the door. Squeak! Squeak! Squeak! Well, I'll never be putting a paper playlist at my feet.

Another storm loss

In case you wonder, I was a bit relieved when the storm-thieving Katrina mermaids claimed my tin whistle, although I do miss my Biloxi Craftsman cottage and all my waterlogged stuff. I hope the mermaids play tin whistle better than I. Do they also write a playlist on a piece of paper?

Interestingly, I did get involved in weekly music sessions while in Ireland. Every Tuesday night I went to the Heron's Perch pub in Glanmire, an Irish-speaking village 10 miles from Cork. I occasionally sang with my flatmate, Lindsay, but my regular Tuesday duty was to tell one story. These Irish learned a lot about Gulf Coast and Southern folklore in my role as the Heron's Perch storyteller.

We fiddle with our own fate

My Mississippi Coast growing-up years were devoid of the kind of storytelling and music I relished in Ireland. I know there were and are occasional sessions on the Coast, but one hears about them through word of mouth -- they're not widely advertised. After my year in Ireland, I dreamed of holding sessions on my large back porch in Biloxi, but that never happened. Shame on me....

Earlier, before my year in Ireland and when I was president of the Irish-American heritage group known as the Hibernia Marching Society of Mississippi, I had hoped to launch an annual South Mississippi fiddling contest. Sadly, my music genius cohort in this endeavor, James Shannon, who was Gulf Coast Symphony Orchestra's first conductor, died unexpectedly and the idea with him.

The Coast, of course, has a lively music scene now, with homegrown groups and a plethora of club, Coast Coliseum and casino events with local and national names. But it is a different kind of music, rarely the laid-back stuff that calls for a handwritten playlist placed on the floor or grass.

Maybe, just maybe, the Katrina mermaids would give me back my tin whistle. Dare I promise to play better? Could I ever be good enough for a folded playlist at my feet? I suspect I need to use my pieces of paper just to tell stories.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535-4567.