About 9:30 on Friday evening, drummer/friend Jerry Howard and my other band-mates will start banging out the intro to “Do That Thing,” and I’ll jump in with the vocal to kick off another night of dance music at Philadelphia’s Mermaid Inn. It’ll be the most fun we’ve had in months. And it’s something I wouldn’t be part of had I not said Yes when my friend Paul’s then girlfriend in 1970 suggested that we try the game of rugby.
Rugby and music?
Deciding to play rugby was one of the biggest turning points in my life, though at the time I thought I was just exploring an alternative to pick-up basketball in a church basement.
We knew that the sport involved tackling, thus making it hardly distinguishable from the way I played basketball.
I came away from my first match with a massive black eye and a love for the game, the culture, and the people that has never diminished.
Then we went to the party. Both teams. We drank beer together. Then, slack-jawed, I watched my opponents and teammates sing. One team tried to out-sing the other in what they considered The Third Half. Rude songs, Irish ballads, drinking songs, sea chanteys, oldies, hymns and gospel songs. In addition to loving rock and roll, I’d been a huge fan of traditional folk music and now was participating in the oral tradition!—well, a branch of it that included songs that one would never expect to hear in polite society.
In less than a year, the fledgling rugger and singer was named songmaster for the Blackthorn Rugby Football Club. We won more games than we lost, and we almost never lost a singing party. We mastered the bawdy repertoire then wanted to go beyond it. I wrote song parodies then made up complete songs.
I was learning more than a new sport. I was meeting people from around the country and around the world. And the singing begat more singing, ultimately with “actual” singers and musicians.
As we find in life’s learning experiences, one thing led to another. Which is the whole idea behind “Turning Points”: the value of understanding moments that matter in our lives. We cannot know the future impact of a seemingly random action. Once we identify key moments, we gain a better chance of impacting our own future. As a teacher, I tried to help students do this with their own life stories, something I write about in Open Admissions. Back in the early seventies, I was the lucky beneficiary of a friend’s wild idea. I am glad that I kept singing.
Singing led to performing, which led to being recorded. Playing with musician friends enabled me to explore other kinds of music. The Sacred CowBoys emerged from these musical combinations involving friends. And friends we have remained through decades of music. https://thesacredcowboys.bandcamp.com/music Here’s a little film that keyboardist John Avarese shot a few years ago. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Hs0iG3R6bAk
Sometimes we’ve played in larger venues, but we consider the Mermaid Inn to be the center of our universe, where we can talk with the audience and do the occasional rude rugby ditty. Which is only right. Before the beloved ‘Maid ever hosted an official show, it saw many a rugby party, including legendary nights when players and teams from around the world joined Blackthorn in raising a song and a ruckus.
No doubt, your path has been influenced unexpectedly. I’d love to hear your own such story.
I won’t be surprised if some current and former Blackthorn players join us this Friday. http://themermaidinn.net/ If you’re in the area, come on out and bring your dancin’ shoes and a partner. Or dance with a hooker. Or a prop. Or a lock, or maybe a wing. You never know where it might lead.
Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the “Turning Points” weekly blog on nedbachus.com. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction. Bachus’s article, “Learning From Turning Points in Our Teaching Lives,” was featured in the May issue of NEA Higher Education Advocate, which reaches over 150,000 college faculty in the U.S. http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/1901eAdvocate_ThrivingFinal.pdf