Legacy, 2023 & Jamie O’Reilly & Friends, 2009
There was a rule in our house, though a ramshackle place with
children running in and out the doors, and broken window panes:
“Take care with the books”, my mother taught us.
We knew to not scribble on the pages or leave them piled on the floor.
(Notes on Silver Pennies)
With Christopher O’Reilly, Victor Holstein, Judi Heikes on chorus
Recorded live at WFMT Folkstage, Legacy album
Silver Pennies, a Collection of Modern Poems for Boys and Girls, edited by Blanche Jennings Thompson, was gifted to us from our Aunt Dottie. Published in 1925, and illustrated in black and white by Winifred Bromhall, Silver Pennies was often my mom’s choice of for our bedtime reading.
I was enchanted by the little book. I poured over pictures of elves and fairies, read classic poems of the era, like Vachel Lindsay’s The Potatoes Dance, The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cookie, Oliver Herford’s The Elf and the Doormouse, and Joyce Kilmer’s The House with Nobody in It.
In the late 80s, Tom Amandes set The Vinegar Man poem to music for our band Jamie O’Reilly & the Rogues. In 2009, as a gift to Tom, we recorded the song with me singing lead, and my sisters Beth Ann, Kate and Bridget singing harmony, along with my daughter Meg Broz.
With our sister Beth Ann’s painful passing from cancer in 2019, and the loss of my musical partner Michael Smith in 2020 during the pandemic, I started thinking of the things we leave behind. Of their sentiment and meaning. The unique and tragic reality of the Covid deaths meant many people had no time to prepare for end of life, or to organize treasured things for their loved ones to sift through. In time, locked down at home, we had no choice but to take stock of our “things” – surrounded by the lives we had lived. The books we’d read. The art on the walls. Shelves cluttered with ephemera and photographs. Closets and dresser drawers bulging with clothing we’d long ago stopped wearing.
“If you die tomorrow,” I asked myself. “What will your children and grandchildren learn about you?”
And so I launched what became the Legacy project – looking back at the roots of artistry in my family of origin, reacquainting myself with the writings, objects, stories and songs. I began the SongNotes Blog.
I was reminded of the Vinegar Man song. Tom Amandes’ musical setting of Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s compelling poem from Silver Pennies. The story of a recluse who was subjected to the taunts of neighborhood children – “face us and chase us, catch if you can,” and whose personal love story was revealed after his death, as strangers rifled through the objects he left behind. Objects that told the story of acute loneliness and a broken heart.
The Vinegar Man song is part of most concerts now, as I tell the story and talk with audiences about considering what we will leave behind.
Jamie O’Reilly & Friends sing Vinegar Man
Vocals with Beth Ann, Kate, Bridget & Meg Broz
Peter Swenson, Paul Amandes, guitars; Josh Lava, piano; Stuart Rosenberg, mandolin; John Floeter, double bass. Recorded at S. P. A. C. E. studio 2009, Jamie O’Reilly & Friends album