This weekend, the Nashville Ballet performs a dance about immigrants that began in the pubs of London. Sergeant Early’s Dream delves into the difficulties that drove so many Irish and Scottish in the 18th and 19th centuries to leave their homes and forge new lives in America.
Choreographer Christopher Bruce says he was reading about that period in history when he first heard flutist Mike Taylor peform. Taylor was a classical flutist with an orchestra job, but on off nights he’d play with folk groups in public houses. Going to see Taylor play, Bruce quickly realized the music was closely tied to the stories he was reading. “The thrill of the reels and horn pipes was really something fantastic,” he remembers, “but then they would have you in tears when a vocalist would sing the most moving ballad.”
The house I was reared there’s not a stone on the stone
And all round the garden the weeds they have grown
And all the kind neighbors that ever I knew
Like the red rose have they have withered in the May morning dew
lyrics from the song "May Morning Dew," used in Sergeant Early's Dream
The choreographer became fixed on the idea of creating a dance about the culture that Celtic immigrants took with them and added to the art of the “New World.” He decided the best way to start was to really soak in the music. So he tagged along as Taylor went from gig to gig, never leaving the pub until the instruments were put away.
“The music, swirling cigarette smoke and alcohol was intoxicating and, toward the end of the evening, I must confess, things would become a little blurred. How the musicians kept playing so wonderfully considering the need to slake their thirsts so regularly, I will never understand. But, it seemed the drunker they became, the better and faster they played. This could become a problem on tour at the end of the week when there was a train to catch. My goodness did the dancers feet have to move swiftly on those occasions!”
Bruce came away with a collection of songs that combine dark stories with a dose of humor, to the mix of tragedy and hope in the lives of the immigrants his dance portrays. And they quite clearly make his point about Irish and Scottish cultural contributions to American traditions. Specific songs used in Sergeant Early’s Dream, like Barbara Allen, flourished in this country and helped form the backbone of folk music repertoire here, particularly in Appalachia.
The other dance on this weekend’s program highlights an artist who quite directly built on that folk tradition. Under the Lights uses the music of Johnny Cash. And in fact, both Cash and his in-laws, the Carter Family, recorded one the song Gospel Ship, which is included in Bruce’s ballet.