Thistle and Thorn in Harmony

February 8, 2021 by

On Sunday mornings my wife and I often take a “bush walk” with some of our children and grandchildren. Our home, Danthonia, is located on six thousand acres in rural Australia, so even with a population over two hundred, finding a place to ramble and relax with plenty of social distancing is not a problem. 

We recently accompanied our son, his wife, their children, and several goats on a two-hour wander through some paddocks on the east side of our land. The goats love to get out of their usual enclosure, prance about on rocky slopes, and find chewy green morsels in the wild shrubs and thistle patches. They follow along very nicely on family hikes.

painting of thistleArtwork by Nancy McKernan

At one point we found a shady spot where both sets of “kids” were happy, and we grownups all sat down for a rest.

Our family enjoys making music, and my wife often brings a concertina along on such hikes. But this time before she had it out our son asked if we would like to hear a song he had written for his wife. Over the last weeks they had memorized the lyrics together, weaving harmonies in a traditional folk style for this homemade song. I was pleased to hear their acapella duet, sung live and from the heart in the hot sun and rugged terrain.

During COVID, the artistic and musical expression of live song has certainly suffered. Many churches stopped singing and thousands of live music venues have closed their doors. Voices break down when not used. It takes a determined effort to “lift up your voice in song” when you are alone – or with so few people that you notice all the flaws.

In the comfort of our homes, technology still allows us to listen to the voices and instruments of the world’s best musicians, past and present. It is so easy to surround ourselves with high quality professional music that we may ask why we should bother making it ourselves. Learning an instrument takes years of work, and many of us never get very good at it. Singing aloud also makes us vulnerable to criticism. If we drift off-key listeners start cringing, and even good musicians can succumb to nerves or peer pressure when trying to express something meaningful to others in song. It is so much easier to put on the earphones, push that button, and leave it all to the pros.

Yet something real and significant is lost when we all become just the audience. I hope we never lose the ability to participate in a part of creation as natural and beautiful as singing. May we learn again to express ourselves through the poetry of original songs.

Thanks to Marie Warner for filming assistance.

Here are the original lyrics to “Thistle and Thorn” that we heard for the first time that day:

Thistle and thorn may leave your garments torn,
Barbed wire and nail, they may pierce, they may impale.
Briar and bramble ensnare and entangle,
But a blackberry pie from the woman I love 
More than accounts for the hardships I sing of.
Tempest and gale may bring sleet and hail,
Hook and weight may pierce the hand and not the bait.
Hours in the rain may yield nothing for a man’s pain,
But a fish in the pan, seasoned by a loving hand,
More than makes up for the travails of which I sang.
Plough and stone may weary to the bone,
Weather and weeds drive many a farmer to knees.
Hops and grain must answer to the fickle rain,
But a foaming brown ale by the hearth with my wife
Is one of the simple pleasures of life.

About the author

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan lives with his wife Nancy at Danthonia Bruderhof, in New South Wales, Australia.

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