August 29, 2017 by

Most of us have heard the words “a family that prays together stays together.” This saying has a lot of truth in it. But twenty-five years ago when our kids were small, Sundays still had quite a few hours to burn after the church meetings were over. At that point our mob often kicked into a variation we called “The family that plays together stays together” – as in playing folk music.

In our first six years of marriage my dear wife, Nancy, gave birth to one happy girl and three very active boys. They were an amazing gift from God for which we were extremely thankful. But as the kids started growing up things got very busy – the boys made an awful lot of noise. We tried to harness some of those decibels in song and music.

Listen on SoundCloud.

Learning guitar, banjo, fiddle, and harmonica with vocal harmonies gave us plenty to do and kept us busy together as a family for countless hours. Not all of that time was blissful – some sessions were more like boot camp, and I was the drill sergeant. But when the tunes started sounding good we enjoyed busking on the street corners of nearby Woodstock, New York and watching coins go into our hat. We always had some kind of fundraiser on the go.

Folk tunes helped us to pass on our roots to our children. My Dad’s family were Irish Catholics. They came to Pennsylvania during the potato famine and worked the coal mines. Celtic fiddle tunes and coal mining songs were among our family favorites. Mom’s ancestors began arriving in the New World back in 1628. Her people (Dutch, Puritan, Quaker, and Huguenot) were a melting pot of some of the earliest white settlers. Mom actually has common ancestry with Pa Ingalls, the old-time fiddler made famous in the writings of his daughter Laura Ingalls Wilder.

As a schoolgirl doing a report my mom once asked my Grandpa “What nationality are we?” He thought for a moment and told her, “American!” That was the same grandpa whose fiddle my son learned to play on. From hoedowns to Handel – Grandpa’s 1889 Strad-copy still seems to sound mellower every year.

When our youngest was in first grade we moved to southwestern Pennsylvania. That part of the state overlaps the Appalachians, and the mountain culture was still very alive among the old people. Sunday afternoons we often headed over to the Old Time Fiddlers’ Jamboree in Dunbar where we met dozens of mountain musicians. They were eager to pass on their skills and favorite tunes to the next generation. Our kids learned a lot. One old fiddler made a point of trying to teach us all the tunes that his father had taught him. When he passed away his wife asked our family to play and sing hymns at his funeral. Music helps people share their joys and sorrows; it brings courage in a hard time.

Almost eighteen years ago, after our oldest graduated from Uniontown High School, we moved halfway around the world to live in the “Australian Bush.” Here in Elsmore, New South Wales, we began meeting Koori (Aboriginal) musicians and trading tunes with Irish “musos” from a local Celtic Fest. It’s amazing how easy it is to find new friends if you can sing and jam traditional tunes with them.

australian sunset
Sunset in Australia

Our nest is now empty. Each of our children has grown up and been blessed with a spouse that loves the Lord. Grandchildren have been arriving – they like to strum on my banjo strings if I hold the chord for them. Recently, one of my sons felt an urge to compose some songs that reflect the life we found here in “The Bush.” He reasoned if Americans can sing about country life there and call it Bluegrass, why not pluck out some songs about rural Australia and call the collection “Browngrass”?

Hmmm – nothing ventured, nothing gained. I told him to go for it.

One challenge is that his brothers (our two best musicians) went back to the states some years ago to marry and raise families of their own. We decided if the songs get written over here and played over there, we can always record in layers and combine voices and instruments from either side of the pond. Playing together and staying together (at least musically) would still be possible for our family.

At this point we have recorded about a dozen “rough concept tunes.” Singing an idea into a hand-held recording device is easier for us than writing down notes – and we can play it back and experiment with the “browngrass” sound before sending it over to get some instruments added. We were very excited when the first “refined” version arrived back from upstate New York recently. We would like to share it with you.

“Smoky Wind” is about the smell of spring in this part of the world. For thousands of years there has been a fire cycle in Australia. Whether the fires are started by lightning, Aboriginal hunters, or more modern causes, tasting smoke on the wind is part of Australian springtime.

Smoky Wind words: Donal McKernan; music: Donal McKernan & Geordie McKernan
Driving down the boundary line
Trail of dust blowing out behind
The wire and the pickets looking fine
Help me find some peace of mind
Smoky wind coming down
The hills and the gullies all around
Where I’m from you know its spring
When you taste that smoky wind
A rainy winter can’t complain
Grass went green then brown again
Feed for cattle, fire fuel
Nature can be kind or cruel
Smoky wind is back again
Strange how it feels like a long lost friend
Where I’m from you know it’s spring
When you feel that smoky wind
Pillar of dust spinning fast
Leaves a pattern in the grass
Cross the road then doubling back
Like a lifetime’s wayward track
I’ve known these hills half my life
Learned to drive and met my wife
Seen the fires and pouring rain
Sun goes down and comes again
And the smoky wind does its thing
Telling us life’s a fragile thing
We all return to whence we came
Like the springtime smell of smoky wind

Joe McKernan lives with his wife, Nancy, at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in NSW, Australia. Comments

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Joe McKernan

Joe McKernan

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

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  • Beautifully melodic! The light plucking of the strings is deeply soul stirring! I love how the music is an intimate reflection of life lived. You should be more than proud of the McKernan clan! Your cousin, Therese Pfeifer Sirles

    Therese Sirles
  • Tommy! thanks for your kind words. We remember well the times you visited our communities and our family - we played jigs and reels and Irish peace songs in our living room with you. You and Peter Seeger were huge inspirations to our children – you showed us how music can be used to make the world a better place. We thank you so much for planting that seed in the next generation. Your friends the McKernan Family

    Joe McKernan
  • Thank you for sharing Joseph! Such a moving piece that touched my soul. I learned Twinkle, Twinkle on Grandpa's "fiddle" and lugged that instrument twice a week to Buttonball Lane Elementary for lessons. Glad it survived and has been well played by your family. Love to all!

    Beth Giacoma
  • Beautiful songs, great talent with a wild and wonderful tenderness...well done Donal, Geordie, Joe and all this friendly and most hospitable family. TS.

    Tommy Sands