“Sweet Bells,” Yorkshire pub carol performed by GreenMatthews

Instead of New Year’s resolutions, I’m dealing with hunches and nudges this year. Besides, I know myself and most of my resolutions don’t make it past the first weekend in January. But hunches? Sometimes I act on them, and lately I’ve had several clamoring for my attention like they want to be acted upon. Nudging me, in other words, to do something about them.

Or, to put it in what I hope are slightly more spiritual terms, to dig up the talents I’ve buried for safekeeping, to develop the gifts I’ve been given and maybe, hopefully, to put them to some use.

Last year about this time, for example, I had a nagging hunch I was letting my historical research slide and I ought to do something about it. It came to head while I was listening to Dickens’ Christmas Carol on a car radio, and that night I got a project about Swedish immigrants off the back burner and started to draft a new outline.

The upshot: In October, in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic and all the other obstacles the year 2020 brought us all, in in October I presented a paper titled “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden: Acculturation in Immigrant Churches, 1848-1860.” I presented it over Zoom, but present it I did. And it went better than I had expected.

Score one for hunches and nudges. And a year later, they’re working on me again. In no particular order:

  • I’m making music again in the last few weeks. After a long time away from it. Way too long. A lot of this gets pretty arcane, involving different tunings on the Appalachian dulcimer; the differences between jam tunes and the ballads and folk hymns I prefer to play; and, of course, the damn pandemic. That one cuts both ways. On the one hand, our jam sessions have been on hiatus until there’s a safe, available vaccine. But I’ve been calling up more and more folk music on YouTube. And I’m playing the dulcimer at home in a different, and more congenial, style than chording along at jam sessions.
  • I’m outlining “Swedes in Roger Williams’ Garden” again. My presentation in October went over pretty well, and the Q&A suggested there’s an audience for my subject. Maybe a book. Maybe further articles. I don’t know, and can’t reasonably expect to know without further analysis. But I’ve got a hunch I ought to try. Since immigration and acculturation have been political footballs in recent years, I feel like I need to get a better handle on some of today’s cultural attitudes before I can frame an expanded version adequately. After reviving it this year, I hope to keep plugging away.
  • It’s getting time for me to resume spiritual direction. This is probably more a hunch than a nudge, because my last spiritual director left me with a assortment of Jesuit exercises, lectio divina, prayers and bible study that have worked out pretty well for nearly three months now. Zoom has helped immensely, too, since my church has weekly discussions of the assigned lectionary readings. But my director died in October, and in some ways I’ve been marking time since then. After the holidays, I ought to see about getting it up off the back burner.
  • If I get my priorities straight, I’ll have time to do all this. But if I don’t, I won’t. That’s neither a hunch nor a nudge. It’s a fact. It’s really that simple. Period. End of paragraph. End of story.

Well, not quite the end of the story. Over the last four years or so, I’ve let my interest in music wither, too.

And there’s an elephant lurking in a far corner of the room. I’ve known for a long time that macular degeneration runs in my family, and that gives me more than a passing interest in musicians like Turlough O’Carolan, the blind 18th-century composer who toured Ireland with a harp, a horse and a manservant and wrote “at least 214 pieces of music, several of which are classics in the repertoire.” (The linked piece by Eileen Battersby of The Irish Times [see note 1 below for citation] is also a classic, easily the best piece I’ve read on Carolan.) I don’t expect to go blind — at least not right away — but I think about Carolan. A lot.

So as this dumpster fire of a year progresses, I’m getting more and more of a sense I ought to develop my musical skills now, before reading becomes difficult. (It’s hard enough reading music, anyway, when you have to keep repeating “every good boy does fine” between every note.)

And what have I been doing instead, in this year of pandemic?

Doomscrolling through stories about our soon-to-be-ex-president’s ongoing psychodrama or our homegrown Illinois song-and-dance starring downstate Republicans who file frivolous lawsuits against the Illinois Department of Public Health and refuse to wear masks. Not a good use of my time.

But the pandemic cuts both ways, and it has its up side. Some of which directly relates to music.

Stuck at home, I’ve spent more time on YouTube. Especially since the Nov. 3 election, when the president’s antics haven’t seemed quite as threatening, and especially as Advent and Christmas came along a few weeks later. Suffice to say it’s reawakened an interest in folk song and early music (which were often essentially the same thing before the 1800s), and I’ve been getting my dulcimer out more and playing the songs I look up on YouTube.

Another benefit of the pandemic: Since I’m not jamming anymore, I’ve gone back to a more traditional style of playing, in a modal tuning (DAA or CGG, depending on the instrument) that’s more compatible with the folk songs I enjoy the most … and I’ve discovered that, really, when all is said and done, I like it best.

Nothing against jamming! I keep a dulcimer tuned to DAD (the obligatory tuning for dulcimer jams) next to my computer, so I can check out online tablature in DAD. And after there’s a safe, reliable vaccine readily available and we can jam again, I can go back to the three-chord trick and playing along on the festival versions of jam tunes.

In the meantime, I’m calling up tunes on YouTube that I played when I was first learning the dulcimer back in East Tennessee 44 years ago. And, especially this month, old French and German Christmas carols that use the same modes (Ionia, Mixolydian, Dorian, etc.) I learned on the dulcimer when we still played in the traditional style. It’s self-reinforcing, because I like the music so much.

And the music is so appropriate for the dulcimer, which traditionally was used to accompany Appalachian ballads like “Barbr’y Ellen” and the “Cherry Tree Carol.” I don’t know how long it’s been since I listened to them very much — quite a while ago I learned they don’t work at dulcimer jams — and hearing them again in this year of social distancing and isolation I was reminded how very much I like them.

(And how versatile the old songs are, as the linked interpretations of “Barbara Allen” by Dolly Parton and the “Cherry Tree Carol” by Mark O’Connor’s band will attest.)

It’s self-reinforcing, like I said. I like a song, and it reminds me of other songs I like. And, of course, YouTube’s algorithms are more than happy to analyze my search history and serve up more songs I like.

I don’t exactly know what all this has to do with my spiritual journey, but I suspect it’s leading me somewhere I might want to go.

That’s why this year instead of new year’s resolutions, I’m thinking of hunches, especially the ones that nudge me in one direction or another. In an article I quoted last month on how to survive all the pain and political turmoil that 2020 brought us, Jesuit author James Martin writes:

 Ignatius said that for those of us on the right path, the spirit that moves us toward God will be experienced one way, while the spirit that moves us away from God will be experienced in another. Simply put, the “good spirit” will be one of calm, uplift and encouragement. The “bad spirit” will cause “gnawing anxiety” and throw up “false obstacles.”

As I listen to folk music during this Christmas season, I think I’m hearing Fr. Martin’s “good spirit.” And I’m willing to follow those hunches.

Sometimes they lead by indirection. Here’s one example (there are others) —

On Christmas Eve, I was looking for a Yorkshire pub carol called “Sweet Bells.” I first came across it maybe 10 years ago when a fellow Sacred Harp singer loaned me a CD of the pub carols, a genre similar to our early New England choral anthems. While I was doing a keyword search for English singer-songwriter Kate Rusby’s version, which is quite lovely, YouTube’s algorithm served me up an interpretation by GreenMatthews, another English folk group. It’s also lovely.

This in turn led me to GreenMatthew’s website at https://www.greenmatthews.co.uk/. It’s a duo, Chris Green and Sophie Matthews. They live in Coventry; they’re both accomplished musicians; and they tour widely in the UK and Europe. Or did before the pandemic interfered. (What Brexit will do to their European gigs remains to be seen, but this video at Burgfest Creuzburg, a medieval fair in Germany, is lovely. They know a bit of German, too.) Now they’re doing virtual concerts and bringing out CDs in spite of the pandemic.

To promote a series of online concerts over the holidays, Green and Matthews did at series of “Twelve Days of Christmas” videos, including a “virtual wassail” that closed out “this festering boil of a year” and showcased Green’s satirical songwriting talent. Among the other videos in the series was a plug in the voice of Marley’s ghost for their musical adaption of Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

So — wait a minute! — another year has gone by, and I’m listening to Marley’s ghost again. Isn’t this where I came in? Are Fr. Martin’s “good spirit” and Marley’s ghost singing the same tune? Another hunch, in other words.

Anyway, I’ve got a new interest, also born — or at least midwifed — by the pandemic. I’ve also gotten interested in a folksinger in Asheville, N.C. who’s putting songs from Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag, including one from the Missouri Harmony, up on YouTube.

Where all of this will lead me, I don’t know. But I’m learning a couple of the songs I found on YouTube, and I’ve got no fewer than three dulcimers (in different modal tunings) set up now in my home office so I can experiment with tunes as I call them up on line. I’ve got a hunch it’s not quite a New Year’s resolution yet, but it seems to reflect a “‘good spirit’ … of calm, uplift and encouragement,” and it shows signs, in my book, of passing Fr. Martin’s test.


  1. The article on Turlough O’Carolan is Eileen Battersby, “Plucking the strings of genius,” Irish Times, April 24, 2006 https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/plucking-the-strings-of-genius-1.1042607.
  2. I am cross-posting this to https://hogfiddle.wordpress.com/2020/12/30/is-noodling-on-the-dulcimer-a-spiritual-discipline-english-folksingers-nudge-me-to-try-it-after-this-festering-boil-of-a-year/, in my trad music blog Hogfiddle. Hence the arcane chit-chat about dulcimer tunings.

5 thoughts on “Is noodling on the dulcimer a spiritual discipline? English folksingers nudge me to try it after this ‘festering boil of a year’

  1. I really appreciate your exploration of nudges here. While mine are quite different from yours, I also can sense a couple under the surface. In fact I have been thinking of 2021 as a sabbatical year. In academe for me that meant a time of focused creativity(I was at an art college even though I taught English so research wasn’t expected but creative work.) So I am open to what that means. I love all that old music. I played an autoharp in high school. Totally self taught with an autoharp bought with babysitting music. Sadly it seems to have disappeared in the last 60 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why thank you! I’m not sure how the word “nudges” came to me — it was a common cliche when I covered Illinois politics to speak of Chicago politicians agreeing to something with a wink and a nudge, and it just seemed to fit these unspoken resolves like this one — even though there’s really nothing underhanded about it in this case!

      BTW, if you ever decide you want to take up the autoharp again, I’ve got one in our basement that I never play — bought it used when I thought I was going to take an introductory class, but my plans fell through. Once the #$%! pandemic is over and I can get out to FedEx, I’d be more than happy to work out details and rehome it with you.


    1. Why, yes! A couple of days ago when we forgot to turn on the TV, I really enjoyed chatting. Now that he-who-must-not-be-named is about to go away and quit bothering us in 20 days, we definitely ought to do it more often.

      Liked by 1 person

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