Thursday, 28 June 2012

Old Greenock Characters - Dan's Band

This is a story I wrote a good few years ago for Downriver, but which we ultimately never used. It's my wee tribute to John Donald and his "characters", concerning a Fair Friday performance from a band of misfits. It's a bit long for one post, so for added dramatic effect, I'll run it over two. 
Have a nice fair weekend whatever yer up tae.

Most folks agree, that the whole thing wis Scutcher Dan's idea. Across the years, this itself has been a matter of no small disagreement what with Dan's record in the ideas department being almost as impressive as his record in the "stayin' sober fur a whole Tuesday" department.

But that's whit they say. And whit they say is all we've got tae go on, so Dan, Scutcher Dan it was who hauled together the ragtag gang of chancer's and ne'er do well's, who started a wee band the likes o' which the Free and Easy's had never seen. And okay, he mebbe didnae get them aw playin' in time, or in tune but the spectacle of this mob on stage was more entertainment than you'd usually find in a whole summer of steamboats. Wee stories of their few memorable performances and the chaos which ay followed efter have been told, retold and exaggerated over the years, and now the only thing anyone knows fur sure is that if they were actually any good tae listen tae, they would have been nae fun tae watch.

In his day, ‘Scutcher’ Dan McKinnon had the voice of an angel, but the demon drink had long since robbed him of that particular virtue. Dan, like so many before him, and jist as many since, had turned to the dram efter having his heart well and truly bust. A young lady domestic, employed in the West End had been the object of Dan's not inconsiderable affections, and having succumbed to our man's charms, the two were betrothed. This is, as I'm sure you can guess, where it all goes wrong. Unhappy with Dan's trade and his constant singing, the lady exercised her prerogative to change her mind and ran off with a pub landlord. Given poor Dan's subsequent descent into careless pleasure, this was bitter irony indeed. Forever after, this particular pub - The Eagle Tavern - was distinguished by being the only public house in Greenock where Dan refused to drink.

In his later years, which is where our wee story takes up, Dan was in far from fine form. He had been dossing in a tug boat for a number of months, and during the day, he was wandering the street, looking for alms. Saddest of all, Dan, a well respected time served cooper, was visiting cooperages where he had been employed there to gather spales for to sell as firewood.

On this particular day, Dan had been passed a few pennies by an old foreman of his, and had stopped to take refreshment. As he stumbled out of whatever pub it was that had been nearest to him, with the day looking altogether rosier, he began singing. This was not unusual; unusual would be if he managed to sing more than two lines from the same ditty.
"My name is Norval, on the Grampian hills...Napoleon was a hero, stout, brave and bold, he fought upon...The bonnie bunch o' roses..."
Someone passing by and hearing the calamity, jokingly remarked to Dan that a voice like his needed music behind it. Ye can only assume that the person in question meant really very loud music in order to maybe drown out Dan's creaky wails. Nevertheless, this, they say, is when Dan had his Idea. "Right enough." he thought, "I need a band."
And he thought of all the folk he knew that could play an instrument, or sing. It was no small coincidence that many of the folk Dan knew were able to play or sing, for mainly, Dan knew vagabonds and vagrants. And as you know, such folk are wont to ply a little street-trade to raise cash for lodgings, food or even a little refreshment.

So it was, that Dan rushed intae town to see who he could see. Havin taken a rather roundabout route through the West Brig, it was small wonder that the first person he happened upon wis Jumpin' Jamie O'Donnell. And when I say "happened upon", I mean "fell over".

Jamie was, as usual, hopping, jumping and skipping at the corner of Dalrymple Street, amusing both himself and anyone who saw him. Someone who did not see him, was Dan Scutcher, who in his hurry to assemble a band while the notion was still upon him, was paying very little attention to anything. The two collided and fell oer, rattlin aboot on the ground like a sack of no very well kept cats.
“Sorry Jamie.” said Dan, finally regaining his legendary composure, “Let me help ye up.”
“Aye right.” said Jamie, “Ah wouldnae take your hand if it wis dipped in sugar. Ah don’t know where ye’ve been.”
This was a wee bit rich comin fae Jamie, but Dan let it pass. And then he had another idea, for among his many other skills, Jamie was a chanter.
"Would ye like tae be in mah band?" said Dan.
"Whit dis it pay?" asked Jamie.
"Whitever we make singing, we split between us."
"Aye equal split but eh? And whit's the name of this band?"
Now, since his epiphany some time earlier, Dan had thought long and hard about this.
"Dan's Band" he said "It's called Dan's Band."
"Oh aye? And how come it's Dan's band eh?"
"Because it's mah idea."
"How is it?"
"Well let me put it this way, did you come up tae me when ah wis jumpin' aboot on a street corner like a daftie and say 'Do you want tae be in a band?' "
"Aye. Well ah must've missed that."
"Nae surprises there Dan, ye wur probably steamin'. So. Jamie's Band it is."
"Jamie, ye'll be oot the band in no time if ye don't shut it. It's mah idea. It's mah band. Dan's Band."
And that, it would seem, was that. Except, as Jamie quite reasonably pointed out,
"Some band we are"
"Ye whit?" asked Dan.
"Two singers?" said Jamie, and then he looked at Dan and added "And wan o them naw even very good. This isnae a band. This is hauf a choir."
Much as he didnae like tae admit it, Dan knew Jamie was right. This was a start, but they needed more folk.
"Okay well." he said "Whit next?"
"We need a fiddler."
"Oh ah dunno, mah wee corned beef tin sounds a bit like a fiddle.", and at this, Dan scratched out a few bars of "The Auld Fingal".
"It sounds like a banshee being strangled." said Jamie, not altogether unfairly, for Dan's corn beef fiddle was famed for it's ethereal howling. "We need a real fiddler."
"Blind Dom?" asked Dan.
"Blind Dom." smiled Jamie.
So they headed off to Hamilton Street.

Dominick O'Donnell hailed from Glenties in Donegal, he'd travelled to the new lands with the best of intentions, but a bout of sunstroke robbed him o his sight. He left the Americas and settled here in Greenock, where for a goodly number of years he had been making a few pennies playing the fiddle. If he had a vice, and he did, it was that his temper often got the better of him. Dom was wont to refer to this rather grandly as his "Celtic fire", most folks though, jist stayed oot his road when he was on the whisky.
"There he is." said Dan, marching swiftly over to the fiddler.
"Haud on Dan. That's no Dom."
"Walking stick. Fiddle. Daft bunnet." said Dan, pointing, "How many blind fiddlers do you think there are up this end o the town Jamie?"
Dan's tones were never the most quiet and restrained, so the answer to his question came from the fiddler himself.
"Two." he said "But there's only one here the now."
"Stevie!" exclaimed Jamie "How ye?"
Inexplicable as it may seem, this was indeed another blind fiddler, a contemporary and chum of Blind Dom's who, although not from Greenock would often visit when there was good trade on the steamships. And while sure enough, he was blind and a fiddler, there was scant chance of you confusing Blind Dom with Blind Stephen, for the one was forever telling you he wasn't the other, and explaining that he was the better musician. The truth is, that Blind Stephen probably was more musically inclined than his compatriot, certainly he was more of a showman, popular particularly with the ladies. Now Jamie knew this, and it was his feeling certainly that one fiddler was as good as another.
"Stevie, would ye like tae be in mah band?"
"Mah band." said Dan "It's mah band Stevie. Dan's Band."
"Aye whitever." said Jamie "Whit d'ye say Stevie? Ye game?"
Stevie, who wisnae very busy that day anyhow, agreed.
"Okay." said Dan "We've two singers and a fiddler, whit next?"
And they walked on, with a view to maybe havin' a wee look around doon the docks, they didn’t go too far before running into trouble.
"Dominick!" hissed Jamie. "Here Dan look. It's Dom."
Dan looked, and sure enough, it was Dom wandering towards them, clearly having enjoyed a wee drink. Jamie wis smiling and trying tae look all pally, but he was wasting his time, 'cos Dom couldnae see him and everyone else knew he wis at it. They all knew that the minute Dom found out they'd chosen Stevie to be in a band instead o him, they were all likely to be on the wrong end o his Celtic temprament. The smart thing to do would have been to walk the other way. But none of our lads were ever famed for their
"Who's this I'm hearing? Could that be James O'Donell now?"
"It is Dom. It is aye. I’m havin a wee chat with yer man Stevie. How’s you?”
"Och a disaster today on the boats James. Disaster!"
"How come?"
"Ah! Did I not have another one o mah wee disagreements wi somebody?"
The last time Dominick had a wee disagreement with somebody, he was without income for a number of weeks on account of him having broken his fiddle over a passenger's head.
"And did this wee disagreement end up wi you gettin' put off the boat?" asked Jamie.
"It did James. It did. Sure there's no justice."
There was a wee awkward silence, because everyone thought that Dom being put off the boat was most likely a shining example of justice.
"So whit ye doin' bletherin' wi Stevie here?"
"Ahm gonnae be in a band Dom!" said Stevie, ever eager to get one over on his pal.
"Yer what now?" said Dom, the merest spark o fire in his eyes.
"Jamie and Dan huv asked me to be in a band."
This clearly did not fly well with Dom.
"Oh did they?" he asked. Dan wisely backed off and Jamie, hardly a diplomat at the best o times, but well oot his depth here tried to explain with
"Well we wanted a fiddler Dom, but ye weren't about, so we've asked Stevie and…"
But Dom wasn't for having it.
"And here I thought ye said ye wanted a fiddler! His fiddlin's no better than that big drunken eejit Scutcher Dan on his daft wee corned beef tin."
"I'm standin' right here Dominick. It's mah band."
"Dan! It's yourself!" said Dom, knowing full well, then with a dash of wickedness he added "How's the missus?"

Jamie fetched Dominick a clip round the ear, and Dominick, aggrieved by this assault, swung his stick to and fro about him with the sole intention of catchin' Jamie in the mooth. In point of fact he succeeded only in clouting poor Stevie across the ear, and Stevie in turn lashed oot and belted the already greatly distressed Dan. The four of them fell aboot howlin, punchin' and scratchin'

There was already a wee crowd o' folk gatherin', so wee Erchie, passing by and never one tae miss a trick, hauled oot the tin whistle and started promptin' the crowd for coppers. And they were the lucky few, because they were the ones who saw the very first performance of Dan's Band. And by all accounts, it wis vintage.

When aw the bleedin' and greetin' wis over, and everyone had a wee keek at the haul in Erchie's cap, the mood brightened considerably.
"Here," said Dan "we could actually make a few coppers oot o this after all."
"Aye." said Jamie
"We need a singer."
"Ah can sing." said Dan. And he belted out a few bars of ‘Bonnie Ship the Diamond’, or at least, something with roughly the same tune. There was another wee moments silence following this recital.
"John Bone." said Dominick "Yon's a grand singer."
So with Dan lookin awfy crestfallen, they went to find John Bone.

to be continued....

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