In 1992, to commemorate the arrival on Prince Edward Island from Yorkshire, England of my ancestor Richard Hudson, I was asked to write a ballad telling the story of that migration.
I called the song New Branches, and it was performed at those family commemorative festivities, eventually becoming the title track of my first CD recording a few years later.
New Branches was composed mainly from family records. I tried to make it as faithful as I could to what historians refer to as the great Atlantic Crossing of the 19th century, when thousands of Scottish, English, and Irish immigrants left their homes in Great Britain to cross a foreboding and dangerous ocean, to create a new life for themselves on these shores.
The 73-day voyage of Richard Hudson and the other Yorkshire families in 1817 took them around the neck of Scotland, then across the Atlantic to Newfoundland and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
I have performed New Branches at countless concerts over the years, and it was the musical centrepiece of Here on the Island and Hedgerow, two main stage shows I was a part of a few years back.
Because of its specific lyrical content, I never expected this ‘commissioned’ ballad to garner much interest outside the Atlantic region, until the day I received an email from the Basque region of Spain. The representative of a Basque singer-songwriter, Benito Lertzundi, was seeking the recording rights for New Branches. I was told Lertzundi wanted to include the song on his upcoming album.
After a little quick research, I discovered Benito Lertzundi is a legendary singer-songwriter in that part of Europe, an accomplished artist who has been at the forefront of the renaissance in Basque culture and identity over the past 50 years.
With the Catalans to the east and the Basques to the north, Spain is in a constant state of political tension. Both groups have their own language and claim a national legitimacy.
Imagine Canada with two Quebecs.
In my initial communications with Ms Olatz Zugasti, who I learned is an accomplished musician on her own part and Lertzundi’s band director, I displayed my ignorance in referring to the Basque region and not, as she insisted, the Basque country. She promised to educate me.
For any songwriter, it’s always gratifying to have your work recorded by another artist. Early in his illustrious career, Lennie Gallant recorded my song Raise the Dead of Wintertime for his Breakwater album, and the same song has been recorded by folk artists in the United States.
But why the Basque interest in my song New Branches?
I learned there is a long-standing and widespread tradition in the Basque Country of the ‘bertsolari’, a person who improvises spontaneous rhymes. It seems one of these poets, John Maia, took part in an expedition to Newfoundland a few years ago, following the trail of the Basque whalers of the 16th century. Maia and his fellow sailors came ashore at Red Bay in a replica of the old Basque sailboats, wearing traditional attire and speaking the Basque language.
It was during his brief stay in Newfoundland that Maia heard a video version of my song on YouTube, complete with crashing waves and the dramatic Newfoundland coastline, which I describe in the lyrics of my song as “daggers of stone.” Maia was drawn to the story and the music, and he brought New Branches back to his friend Benito Lertzundi.
The Basque ‘bertsolari’ rendering of my song is somewhat different from the original, however the narrative is intact, and the music is beautifully arranged and presented. Lertzundi has been performing New Branches, or as it’s called in Basque, Kimu Bat Zuhaitzan, at concerts in major cities like Barcelona and Bilbao.
About a month ago, I received an email from Olatz Zugasti, with a video attached of a teenage Basque girl playing her guitar and singing New Branches. Olatz wanted me to know my song had taken root in the south of France with another generation.
There is a power of universal stories told in song, and it is a wonderful thing that a traditional folk ballad I wrote a quarter century ago, commemorating an epic voyage of hope and new settlement, has found its way back across the Atlantic.