Handful of Earth
It was time for me to go back to school, to pick up those much needed qualifications I had reneged on a few years earlier. Punk was dead, the mods had taken over the asylum and the New Romantics were plying their eyeliner. My teenage party days were over, I was twenty years of age and needed to focus on my future.
I enrolled in St Louise’s adult education programme in West Belfast to study Art, Drama and English after which I could go to Art college or Drama school…or so I thought. I sailed through the exams and my new artistic adventure awaited me.
Then just like the movie with that darn sliding door I met a tall straggly teacher at St. Louise’s by the name of Gerry Jones. He had found out that I played the bass guitar and persuaded me to play at the school Christmas show in 1982.
By early 1983 he had asked me to join his new band playing an unusual style of folk and traditional music mixed in with a splatter of political songs from around the world. They were called ‘Handful of Earth’ named after a album by a Scottish singer/songwriter called Dick Gaughan.
I met the rest of the band in Gerry’s house that evening, an unlikely bunch of folkies who were completely alien to my previous world. Maurice McHugh who played guitar and Wurlitzer sat with a huge grin constantly pushing his long hair from his face while picking notes from an open tuned guitar with consummate ease. When he played the Wurlitzer it made such an endearing sound similar to an asthmatic cat jammed inside a Billy Joel solo. I haven’t heard that sound in a keyboard ever since.
Gerry himself with his broad Derry twang could sing a story through his thick moustache, blending his words with delicate picking and elegant chords.
Brian McAteer played fiddle adding colour, a professionalism and a lasting friendship. His knowledge of different music from trad to country, blues to rock helped weave it’s way through the cracks and crevices of the loosest arrangements. I arrived with my new Fretless bass unsure of my sound but jumped into the music with so much enthusiasm that I forgot to ever go back to college again. I believed in this new sound and my love for music was ignited and realised that this was a sort of punk music but with acoustic instruments.
Paddy Walsh was added later, playing a few gigs with the band on keyboards and freeing Maurice to concentrate on playing his guitar. We all left after a few years ultimately to pursue other musical excursions. For me the rest of the decade entailed me honing my trade as a songwriter and musician. I never forgot my baptism in trad and folk music thirty years ago with Handful of Earth and by the way did I mention there is a little bit of a reunion in the Sunflower folk club, Belfast this Thursday the 5th of December.