Fly angling has been the subject of more fine literature than any other sport — even baseball. Ernest Hemingway’s Big-Two Hearted River, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, David James Duncan’s The River Why, Harry Middleton’s The Earth is Enough, William Humphrey’s My Moby Dick and Thomas McGuane’s Ninety Two in the Shade are just a half dozen of the most famous examples of literature inspired by casting fur and feather on peaceful waters. The late Ted Hughes, a former Poet Laureate of England, wrote many poems devoted to fish, water and fly angling, as have a number of prominent poets.
Those who combine a passion for fishing generally, and fly fishing specifically, with music need not feel deprived or neglected.
Those with an ear for classical music will think immediately of George Frideric Handel’s Wassermusik (Water Music in translation), one of his court compositions written for Thames water parties in the dawn of the 18th century. I have a lovely recording by Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-fields, released in 1989 by EMI Records.
Then there’s Franz Schubert’s famous 1819 composition of Forellen Quintett (Trout Quintet in translation), the first of Schubert’s chamber works to achieve widespread popularity. And, of course, its popularity has endured. I have a delightful 1993 Deusche Grammophon recording, featuring James Levine at the piano.
Those who enjoy English music from the first quarter of the last century will point to George Butterworth’s melodic Idyll The Banks of Green Willow, inspired by a folk song. Butterworth’s unfortunate death at the age of 31 in the trenches of the First World War imbues a bittersweet quality to all his compositions. There’s also E. J. Moeran’s Lonely Waters, based on a fragment of a Norfolk folk song, and Frank Bridges’ later piece There’s a Willow Grows Aslant the Brook, among others.
As much as I love these classical works, I tend to cast my line toward contemporary acoustic roots music, whether folk, country, bluegrass or country blues, not to mention gospel, swing, light jazz and vintage popular music.
Music-loving anglers who enjoy one-stop shopping can do no better than Fishing Music and its companion Fishing Music II, released by Snake River Records. Produced by Ben Winship and David Thompson, each album features 16 instrumentals and songs encompassing a variety of genres.
Spanning traditional adaptations, covers and original compositions, all the material performed by a gathering of America’s finest acoustic musicians is ‘inspired by fish, fishing and rivers.’ Many of the musicians are well-known and celebrated including Tim and Molly O’Brien, Mike Dowling, David Grier, Matt Flinner, Karine Polwart, Rob Ickes, Jeffrey Foucault, among others.
Taken as a whole, the discs cover such familiar water as Django Reinhardt’s Fly Fishing (Pêche à la Mouche), Duke Ellington’s I’m Gonna Go Fishin’, Hoagy Camichael’s Lazy Fishing (by the way, the great composer/ musician is the father of the master fly rod builder Hoagy Carmichael Jr.) and A.P. Carter’s The Winding Stream, in addition to such traditional arrangements as Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues and Taj Mahal’s Fishing Blues. There’s even The Fishin’ Hole, the theme song to the vintage Andy Griffith TV show.
While many of the songs use fishing and water as evocative metaphors for life, especially desire and romance, many others actually deal with water as inspiration in itself, as well as the practice of fishing and fly angling. Most of the latter are original compositions written by the producers and guest artists. One assumes most of these were written especially for the project, including Tim Bays’ The Importance of Fishing, Foucault’s Mayfly, Thompson’s Upstream and Old Bamboo, Winship’s Waiting on the Evening Rise and Winship and Thompson’s Madison Brown, among others.
These are the CDs I most often slip into the car audio system before heading out for a day’s fishing. Played loud with the windows down, as I travel through Southwestern Ontario farm country, passing the occasional Mennonite horse and buggy, I eagerly anticipate the rise of trout or bass yet to come. A Tim Hortons’ double-double is usually close at hand.
A portion of Fishing Music profits is donated to organizations that help protect river watersheds. Information is available online at www.fishingmusic.com
Before splitting up after a quarter century, the Guelph-based folk trio Tamarack (consisting at the time of founding member James Gordon, Alex Sinclair and Gwen Swick) wrote and recorded a concept album On the Grand, released in 1994 on Folk Era Records. Subtitled The Story of a River, the collection of 13 historically inspired songs about the Heritage River meandering through Southwestern Ontario.
It is all original material, augmented by Gordon’s musical setting of Pauline Johnson’s well-known 19th century poem The Song My Paddle Sings. Johnson was born on the Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford. The Grand flows through the reserve en route to its mouth on the north shore of Lake Erie.
The strangely named Gurf Morlix is a Texas-based singer-songwriter/producer/in-demand sideman. A gifted solo artist, he produced the early albums of Lucinda Williams and has worked with Slaid Cleaves, a talented singer/songwriter raised in New England, who has called the Lone Star State home for more than 20 years.
Morlix was born in Buffalo. Every summer he leaves the torrid heart of Texas for the more temperate shores of Georgian Bay to fish from his grandparents’ cottage. Not well-known outside of roots and alt-country circles (think Ray Wylie Hubbard, Tom Russell or Robert Earl Keen for comparisons), he performs occasionally throughout Southern Ontario when summering here.
Morlix’s 2002 album, released on Chicago’s Catamount Records, is titled Fishin’ in the Muddy. The cover shows the artist with a large fishing net holding an acoustic guitar.
Although the raucous title song refers to a picturesque watering hole, Miss Edgar’s Muddy Water Tavern, I prefer to interpret the song as a tribute to fishing for big, ol’ catfish under the stars in a slow, muddy river somewhere in the Deep South.
Now we get to my favourite fly fishing songs. It involves a trio of dear friends, two American, one Canadian: old fly angling companions Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown, as well as Garnet Rogers.
The late, great — and I mean great songwriter — Bill Morrissey was an avid, split-cane fly angler. All of his songs were copywritten on Dry Fly Music. A photo on the back of his sophomore album North, originally released in 1986 and reissued on Rounder Records in 1991, shows Morrissey landing a trout in what is most assuredly a home river in his native New England. There are a pair of angling songs on the album, including Ice Fishing and the superb closing track Fishin’ a Stream I once Fished as a Kid.
The final lines to Ice Fishing are:
And there ain’t much to ice fishing
till you miss a day or more
and the hole you’ve cut freezes over
and it’s like you have never been there before
The words remind us that the important things in life, including love, family, home and our creative gifts, have to be cared for with attentiveness and devotion.
Fishin’ a Stream I once Fished as a Kid is a wise song about the journey of life that challenges Thomas Wolfe’s notion of never going home again. Morrissey contends you never really leave home:
Were it not for rainbow trout
I would have to fish for bass
Were it not for the seasons’ change
I would never see time pass
And were there not a chance for whiskey
I would make do with a beer
I wish I had known when I left home
every road just led back here
. . . .
Now I’m standing thigh deep in this trout stream
The air is still, the sun is low
Day is almost over now
I can see myself here years ago
And I dream I am nine again
when it seems like Summer never ends
Hear the crickets sing, hear the peepers call
See the full moon shine like a whiffle ball
Sadly, the reference to whiskey proved prophetic as it was one of the black demons that dogged Morrissey to the grave.
In 1993 on Rounder Records, Morrissey and Brown released Greg Brown & Bill Morrissey: Friend of Mine, a collection of a dozen duets of traditional, cover (including Ferron’s Ain’t Life a Brook) and original songs including Brown’s heartfelt Fishing With Bill. Here’s a transcription by Shirley M. Cottle, including the good-natured informal patter between friends as recorded:
Man what a winter,
Sorrow wide and deep.
Is it just the media industry or the whole country
That is turning into sheep?
I wanna go to a good place
With a friend of mine,
Cast our souls out in the river
And watch the whole deal shine.
Some little crick in Massachusetts, just over the hill,
Oh I, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Well, Bill, I bet he is a good fly caster.
He grew up on these eastern brooks.
Me, I grew up on the midwestern cricks
Casting crappie flies for chubs and such.
But in my young imagination,
I watched a Number 20 Coachman settle down,
Sitting by the stove in that little library
Reading Roderick L. Haig Brown.
I never did fish in Vancouver. I probably never will.
I don’t care. I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Well, it’s a long and noble tradition,
Catching trout on the fly.
When you’re done, with the setting of the sun,
Gonna drink a little bourbon if you’re dry.
See some folks out on the river,
Cool, scientific and clean.
They look like everything just kinda stuck to them
The last time they walked through ol’ L. L. Bean.
My friend, Dave, says the good fishermen are the ones who have fun and we will.
Oh I, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Sittin’ in a bar in Brattleboro
Thinkin’ about one of his songs.
The rain was pourin’ down, and I was pourin’ it down,
And all I could do was hum along.
We’ve talked about goin’ fishin’ so often
At some party when the gig was done.
Well, life slips by like a little dry fly
Sliding down a deep slick run,
So let us stand steady like an old mill.
Oh I, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Maybe Handsome Molly will pass by
As we cast away the hours.
Somewhere on a river somewhere far away
From stupid people in positions of power.
Someday when we ain’t folk singers
Flyin’ through the friendly skies.
We won’t be waiting for the big break
Or anything except the evening rise
On some spring crick in Wisconsin or maybe the Batten Kill.
Oh I, I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill. . . um um um,
I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill. . . yes, I am,
I’m goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Greg: Y’know, Bill?
Bill: Wha? Wha?
Greg: I think if we just tried a little, some kinda little streamer right
over there; go ahead and cast over. . .
Bill: What d’ya got – a blasting cap?
Greg: See that clump of grass over there. . .
Bill: A Number 12 blasting cap. . .
Greg . . . on the other side over there
Bill: Yeah, yeah I see that
Greg: I have a feelin’ there’s about a 5 1/2 pound rainbow under one of them. . .
Bill: Ah, 6. . .
Greg: . . . just waitin’ for someone to come along. . . and catch. . .
Bill: I’ll catch the fish
Greg: We need to catch just one trout here, Bill…just one. . .
Bill: What? Ya hungry?
Greg: . . .’cause I’m hungry, I don’t know about you. . .
Bill: Well, I’ll catch the fish.
Greg: I know we’re both catch and release guys. I know we believe in that
but if we caught just one trout, we could eat it, couldn’t we, so we could
sustain ourselves and the beautiful spirit of the trout would become part of
us. . . and I’m hungry.
Bill: Ah, ah. . .
Greg: Well, I’m not complainin’ ’bout gettin’ lost today.
Bill: We, we weren’t lost, Greg, ah. . .
Greg: We’ve seen a lot of parts of Massachusetts I’ve never seen before; it’s
not that, it’s. . .
Bill: . . . the map was broken.
Greg: . . . it’s late and we need to catch one trout and put…
Bill: . . . ok, ok, alright, I’ll. . .
Greg: . . . it on the grill if it’s OK.
Goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Goin’ fishin’ with Bill.
Rogers met Morrissey and Brown long before he embarked on a solo career following the death of his brother Stan on June 2, 1983. He is not a fly angler but he captured the essence of the pastime in a few lines in Shadows on the Water. It’s his touchingly haunting, deeply moving tribute to Morrissey, recorded on his 2014 release Summer’s End.
When you get there, and I know you’ll go.
just a couple of things you’ll need to know
they got a big old gate
but that’s just for show.
They been waiting on you forever.
There’s a house beneath some trees.
there’s a good old car, still starts with ease.
Pull down the visor
you’ll find the keys
anytime you need to go.
There’s a split cane rod, with 2 pound test
there’s an old felt hat you like the best.
And there’s a book of flies
in a canvas vest
in the hallway by the door.
And there’s a river, deep and cool
lots of shade, and sheltered pools.
Those damned trout
still make you look a fool
there’s just so much even God can do.
There’s lots of shows to do in the little towns.
The good people come from miles around
they got some genius up there
does the sound.
They always pay in cash.
Brand new strings on the old guitar
there’s a dark eyed girl sitting at the bar.
And that charm of yours
might get you far
or you could just win her with that sweet smile.
So when you get there, say hello for me
there’s music and there’s books and there’s poetry
lots of friends
for you to see.
Tell them all hello.
The river flows by deep and fast
clouds fill the sky … they don’t last.
I’ve lost track of all the souls who’ve passed
like shadows on the water
like shadows on the water.
Here is Rogers performing Shadows on the Waterat the Rose Garden Coffeehouse, Mansfield, Mass., on Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. It’s a heartbreaking introduction about his dear friend that is funny and searingly honest — a love letter between the living and the sadly departed.
As much as I love Fishin’ a Stream I once Fished as a Kid, Fishing With Bill and Shadows on the Water, great songs by any standard of excellence, my all-time favourite fly fishing song is Brown’s Eugene, the heart of his 2006 Red House release The Evening Call. Brown meanders his way through the modern-day pastoral ballad, talking rather than singing; his warm, rich, dusky bass-baritone tickling a spot deep inside, like straight Kentucky bourbon drunk from a tin cup in front of a campfire under a sky of deep, endless stars, ending a day of casting fur and feather on peaceful waters. Solace for an inquiring mind, a searching heart and an aching soul. Here’s a transcription of lyrics by Nancy Roche.
I think I’ll drive out to Eugene, get a slide-in camper for
my truck, pack a bamboo rod, hip boots, a book of flies from
a Missoula pawn shop, rub mink oil into the cracked leather,
wonder about the old guy who tied these trout chew flies.
They work good. Take along my Gibson JF45 made by women
during World War II, coffee stained stack of maps, a little
propane stove, a pile of old quilts, a can opener, kipper
snacks, smoked oysters, gun powder tea, a copper teapot, and
a good sharp knife.
Sometimes you have to go — look for your life.
I’ll park by some rivers, cook up some rice and beans, read
Ferlinghetti out loud, talk to the moon tell, her all my
life tales, she’s heard them many times. I’ll make up some
new juicier parts, drink cold whiskey from a tin cup, sit in
a lawn chair and fiddle with my memories, close my eyes and
see. Sometimes you gotta go not look for nothin’.
The Northwest is good, once you get off I-5 and wander up
and down the Willamette dammit, on the back back roads. I
know a few people who’d let me park in their drive, plug in
for a night or two, stay up late, and talk about these crazy
times — the blandification of our whole situation. And then
back to the woods. A dog is bound to find me sooner or
later. Sometimes you gotta not look too hard — just let the
dog find you.
Then head south and east, maybe through Nevada, the
moonscape of Utah. Stay in some weird campground where
Rodney and Marge keep an eye on things. Everybody’s got a
story, everybody’s got a family, and a lot of them have
RV’s. I’m on my way to the Ozarks, to the White River and
the Kern. Those small mouth are great on a fly rod. And
they’re not all finicky like trout. Trout are English and
bass are Polish. And if I wasn’t born in Central Europe I
should have been. Maybe it’s not too late. Sometimes you
have to dream deep to find your real life at all.
I might go on over through Memphis. I played a wedding at
the Peabody Hotel once twenty odd years ago, and everybody
danced. Usually they just set there and stare. A few at
least sway. The roads are stupid crowded everywhere. Kids
coming along are used to it — all wired up and ready, or
wireless I guess, and even readier. World peace is surely on
the horizon, once us old fuckers die. I’ll do my part, but
first I wanna to go across Tennessee into North Carolina.
Fish some of those little mountain streams, catch some brook
trout which are God’s reminder that creation is a good idea.
The world we’ve made scares the hell out of me. There’s
still a little bit of heaven in there and I wanna show it
due respect. This looks like a good spot up here. You can
try me on the cell, but most places I wanna be it doesn’t
work. Sometimes you got to listen hard to the sounds old
Mother Earth still makes — all on her own.
Here is Brown performing Eugene on YouTube.