Episode 1 – Across the Western Ocean
By accident perhaps in the grand scheme of things and some years after Annie Moore and her two brothers stepped off a boat onto Ellis Island, a young man the Americans called Ed or Eddy walked down the gangway of a steamer after a very long circumnavigation that started off in Antwerp. He had lied about his age and signed up as deck hand on a freighter. Their final destination was the Port of Boston but they had a small party of passengers on board who were bound for Quebec. His arrival in Boston was to be the first day of what he later used to call his “extended shore leave” in the States. All he had were the clothes he was standing up in, a bag that gave him a semblance of civility, a violin case under his arm and a wad of cash secreted on his person. The rest of his wages would be paid on his return to Antwerp, something he didn’t plan on doing for a while. The immigration officer, being used to this kind of semblance, mistook him for someone else and addressed him in a language Ed thought was English but wasn’t. The upshot was that this young man stepped into his new land, the United States of America with a new name: Edward Reelman. Had he arrived on Ellis Island they may have got his name right but there is still no telling. Obviously, the immigration officer was into the music and was a bit careless with Eddy’s papers and ended up getting both his first and last name wrong but with time this proved to be more of an advantage than anything else, as will be demonstrated further on. To this day, there is no real proof that any Rieleman was allowed into or even sent back from Boston then or ever. The closest we get name-wise is Raleman or Rayleman. Ed’s granddad had always said that his family were originally from up north and had moved south in search of a more clement climate during the religious wars. All we have to go on for now is a blurred name on a weathered tombstone in a Ghent cemetery and a very open question: was Reelman, Realman or Rieleman on his last go round or just returning for a brief visit and getting caught up in events he had no say in, no matter what he thought.
Ed found himself in the clear after the immigration officer gave him a nod and a wink and was standing alone and free on a crowded street in the mighty U S of A. His sense of relief and elation was momentary for the very second he stepped outside he was accosted by any number of runners whose main aim was rope him into all sorts of scams and rid him of his luggage particularly the fiddle under his arm. These guys were really sharp and spoke to him in a number of languages even Dutch, which he pretended not to understand just to stay out of their clutches.
- Hey kid, lookin’ for somewhere to stay?
- What’s your name kid? Lookin’ for work?
He was wary but somehow pleased with his new-found popularity. He was even getting the glad eye from the girls passing by. It was the very first but certainly not the last time he was called ‘Honey’. Past fate stung but he put it out of his mind. Word travels fast but surely not that fast. He changed some of his money and got a cheap room for the night in a flop house run by a cranky Irishwoman called Maggie McCarthy. There was no messin’ with this lady, which had its advantages: the place was relatively safe. Later that evening at what they jokingly called dinner he got talking to a few of the boys staying there, speaking broken English in a broken-down ramshackle hovel. The schooling he got served him well: what little English he knew he had picked from the son of an engineer brought over to service the looms in a cotton mill near the Rabot in Ghent. A lot can be learned over a game of marbles. He was complimented on his accent and soft voice, not to mention the shock of dark-brown hair on his head.
- Don’t lose your hair, said one of them.
- Couldn’t help but notice the fiddle, said another.
- Fiddle? he wondered.
- Any chance of an old tune?
- Ah, I don’t know.
- Ah go on, just the one.
He tightened and rosined his bow and plucked on the strings to see if they were in tune. He was still amazed the thing had survived the journey but it must have been all the playing he’d done on board that had saved it from destruction and him and many others from the sadness of leaving. He launched into La Brilliante, a schottische that was very popular back home, and followed that up a couple of others, much to the delight of all the people in the room. Even Mrs McCarthy dropped her guard for a second and Ed thought he even spotted a tear in her right eye. He always was a good observer.
- Where did ye learn to play all them reels, man? asked one the boys.
Ed wasn’t quite sure he understood the question so he waved his bow, gesturing eastwards, and decided it was safer to keep on playing. By this stage, the room was filling up and Mrs McCarthy, the sound business-woman that she was, was quick to spot an opportunity and soon produced whiskey and glasses from a well-locked and guarded hatch in the wall. Soon the place was hoppin’, as they say. There were sad tunes and happy tunes and a man in the corner sang a never-ending song about the hunting of the ram. Ed, as always, took a few notes, the place being so quiet during the song that everyone heard his pencil drop when it accidentally did.
This was to be the first night of many and a reasonable deal was struck about board and lodging in lieu of ‘the jigs and the reels, like,’ as Mrs McCarthy put it.
One evening the boys turned up with a few other musicians who asked if they could sit in on the session. Hands were shaken and chairs pulled up in a semi-circle. Word went out in the neighbourhood and the place was soon packed. McCarthy’s was getting a name for the music, but it was still a respectable place, what with Maggie keeping a sharp eye. That evening she looked on in admiration at her prize rooster but deep in her heart she knew such things were never meant to last.
- There’s plenty of money to be made where we’re going, said one of the musicians to Eddy
after the session.
- And plenty of craic to be had as well, said another.
Ed wondered what this particular substance called craic might be but left the question open for the moment. He’d find out what it meant sooner or later.
- What’s your name kid? asked a third who had sat in a little later than the other two.
- Eduard Rieleman, came the uncertain answer.
- There we have it. Let’s call ourselves the Reel Men or the Real Men, depending on the situation,
if you get my drift.
And that’s how it all started, even though nothing ever starts from nowhere or all at once.
to be continued
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