Gay Traditions: Singer/Harpist Seumas Gagne on Being Gay in Gaeldom
Seumas Gagne is a well-known Scottish-American harpist and singer in Seattle, Washington, a community-organizer who’s been happy to set up concerts and workshops in his home for visiting Scottish traditional artists and a passionate supporter of the Scots Gaelic language, though he lives far from this language’s native homeland. His latest album, Baile Àrd, was a lovely collection of poetic Gaelic songs and lively tunes, but I was especially struck by the song of his own composition on the album, “Is Truagh Leam Ar Sgàradh (Our Seperation Grieves Me).” The song was written for Seumas’ partner Doug and the separation referred to of course is their inability to get married. I wanted to talk to Seumas about this song and about his experience as (as he calls it) “A Gay in Gaeldom).” Here’s our interview:
Gay Traditions with Seumas Gagne
Hearth Music: Maybe you could tell me about your background. How did you get into Scottish-Gaelic music and harping. Gagne is a French-Canadian name, right?
Seumas Gagne: Yeah. My dad was from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The Gagne family has been in Eastern Canada for a very long time. There is a church in Sainte Anne de Beaupre that has the whole family lineage on it. Basically, the family mythology states that all Gagnes in North America are descended from one of two brothers who emigrated from Alsace in France. I have mine traced out and I’m descended from Louis. When people with the last name Gagne meet each other, if they think they might know the family tree, the first question is, “Are descended from Louis or Francois?”
So, how did you get into Scottish-Gaelic music then, with a French Canadian background?
SG: It’s kind of a mystery. My mother was born and raised in England. She was a war bride in World War II. My dad had emigrated to the States and he was drafted on Christmas Eve and went into the European theater and he was an electrical engineer on airplanes. He was first stationed in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis. So, if he had met a girl he liked there, I might have had quite a different life story. I could have potentially grown up as a native speaker of Scottish-Gaelic. But that didn’t happen and he met my mom after he had been stationed in England. And the usual things happened and they wound up raising their family on Bainbridge Island. My mother was English but she had a life-long fascination with Scotland. Little did I know until very recently, but she had a whole branch of her family that was Scottish… I remember, very distinctly, on my 5th birthday, I told my mom and dad that I had to have a harp. That I was supposed to play the harp, that’s what I was supposed to do. I don’t think I had ever seen one, but I walked into this life knowing what I was supposed to do. I started piano lessons when I was 9, and then, when I was 15 years old, my sister took me to the Puyallup Fair and I saw Pam and Phil Boulding [of NW Celtic band Magical Strings] performing. That was the first time I had ever seen a Celtic harp and it was like heroin! I saw it across the crowded fairgrounds and I knew… that’s what I had been looking for! So, it was actually within less than a year that I discovered that there was a harp teacher in the next town over from Poulsbo where I grew up. I wound up finding a small instrument to rent and started taking lessons when I was 15. I played my first gig after 6 lessons at the opening of an Irish restaurant on Bainbridge Island. I played for 12 hours, 6 tunes…
SG: Yeah, 6 tunes for 12 hours and I was paid with a bronze medallion. [laughing] If that is not an auspicious beginning to a music career, I don’t know what is. [more laughter] And then, subsequent to that, I continued to study generic harp for the rest of high school. Then I had to decide what I was going to do for college, because I was damned if I wasn’t going to go to college for something. With some help from friends, I decided that I was actually going to go to college for music. So, I went to Cornish College for the Arts here in Seattle, and at that time, in 1984, there was no such thing as getting a degree in traditional music. That simply was not an option on earth. So, I got a degree in classical harp, in composition and voice. That was a great experience and has absolutely shaped me as a musican in what I think is a positive way. I got out of college and basically, collapsed for a year. When I came to, I realized that I really wanted to go back to my first love, which was traditional music. But my first experience with it… I had never gotten any deeper than the kind of things you can find in a “Folksongs of Ireland” booklet in a general music store. From the time I was 5 years old and I had my vision of what my life was supposed to be about, I had an intuitive feeling that there was a great body of literature that was connected to ancient times on earth and that was connected to the wisdom of older societies. I felt that this was the case but I had never found it. By the time I was in college and very involved in doing the things that a classical musician does in college, I didn’t really think about it any more and I concluded that it was just a fantasy, the fantasy of a small child: that there was some amazingly deep, other world that you could somehow get to. A lot of kids have fantasies about that; mine was connected to the harp.
When I woke up as the holder of a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, I realized that one of the most important things I learned in college was how to do research. So, I started to do research and it was a long process, but what I concluded was that there was a great body of literature that was high art. It just wasn’t in English. One particular Saturday, I was still living with my parents in Poulsbo at the time, and I took a trip around to a place where I could get an Irish language dictionary, and a Scottish-Gaelic dictionary and a Welsh dictionary because I just wanted to look at the dictionaries and see what the words looked like. So, my mother, rest her soul, saw me arrive with these 3 dictionaries and said, [in falsetto] “Oh, God, not Welsh, not Welsh!” [laughing]
I was shopping around, at that time, for a Celtic music band that would want a harp player. Unfortunately, all the Celtic music bands that were on the hop at that time, and this would have been about 1991-1992, at that time, none of them really had the vision to understand how important the harp is to trad music. So, nobody wanted me.
It was out of fashion at that time.
SG: It was completely out of fashion and, to be totally honest, I understand why. But I said, “Screw it! I going to start my own.” So, I started advertising in The Stranger and a couple of other places, trying to find people who had a modern aesthetic, an open-minded aesthetic, but was still very interested in traditional core music. It took several changes of personnel and we were all in our mid-twenties, so there was a hell of a lot of drama that went along with every change but we did eventually settle into being a 6 piece that we recorded a record with some financial help from friends. Before the days of Kickstarter, of course, where you actually had to know one person who was wealthy enough to fund your project.
[laughing] A patron!
SG: Luckily, we found them. So, we made a record and we were working a lot. In our heyday, we were called Wicked Celts. We were rehearsing twice a week because we needed one rehearsal to develop new material and one rehearsal to get ready for that weekend’s gig. Those were great times! It was during that period when I had settled on Scottish-Gaelic as what I was going to pursue and I started digging into that really deeply.
It went on from there. Long answer but that’s the story of the beginning.
Let’s talk about the new album.
SG: The name of it is : Baile Àrd.
There’s a bit of a pun there, right?
SG: There is because, that’s what the people in my first Gaelic class decided to call Ballard which is a neighborhood in Seattle, of course. We went around the areas of the city in which we lived and translated or transliterated the names of our neighborhoods. We had people who lived in Ballard, so, that Norwegian family name sounds just like, “Baile Àrd” which means principal town. Baile means town, Àrd means high, chief, important. So, Baile Àrd, principal town, chief town. And there were others too but I don’t intend to title any more CDs on the Gallicized names of neighborhoods in Seattle because it takes a butt-load of explaining.
SG: So, I wrote a song about Ballard when I lived there and that was really the tie-in. That’s why I wanted to call the record that.
Yeah. I loved that you wrote songs for the new album. How did you decide you wanted to write songs in Gaelic?
SG: I had experiences that moved me and the only way I could respond to them in a meaningful way was to make art around them, to make songs out of these experiences. From my perspective, that’s one of the unique aspects of being involved in Scottish-Gaelic song literature. A disproportionately large percentage of songs that you encounter in Scottish-Gaelic are true stories. We often know who made the song; we often know a lot about them. There’s not the same feeling that you get with a “generic” folk song that it’s okay to change it because it’s a folk song and nobody knows who made it. We know who made a lot of these song and so we try to be very diligent about keeping them as we got them. Because they’re telling true stories, they are giving you a window into another person’s life of something that happened to them and how they dealt with it. Thinking about the Gaelic song tradition in general, I feel that’s a very enriching part of the tradition: these are stories about what happened to people and how they dealt with them. I had the experience of living in this adorable neighborhood in a great little duplex in the beginnings of our local Gaelic society Slighe nan Gaidheal and having the time of my life with friends and music and parties and really feeling like we were changing the world. So, that’s why I wrote that song, “Òran do Bhaile Àrd.” I wanted to encapsulate my thoughts and feelings about having been in that place in that time.
Seumas Gagne: Òran do Bhaile Àrd
That’s a really nice explanation. Thank you. The other song that you wrote was “Is Truagh Leam Ar Sgàradh.” Can you pronounce that?
SG: Sure. “Iss Tru-ug loom ar Ska-rug.”
Tell me a bit about that song because that’s a really powerful song on the album!
SG: Thanks. I wrote that for my new boyfriend at that time. We had been together less than 2 years and I met him because he was singing in the Vancouver Gaelic Choir and I had gone up to visit because Cathy Ann MacPhee, who is a very well known Scottish-Gaelic singer, was just moving from Britain to Canada. The Vancouver Gaelic society got very excited because they thought that she and her family were going to move to Vancouver which would have been a feather in Vancouver’s cap beyond all imagining. It turns out they wound up moving to Ottawa and that’s where they are now. Because everybody got excited, they said, “Okay, we’ll come to Vancouver for a visit.” So the Vancouver choir planned a performance and they put together a big ceilidh in the Scottish cultural center up in Vancouver and then my phone rang and it was my friend, Peggy MacKinnon who’s from the same island as Cathy Ann MacPhee, from Barra. She called me and she said, “Hamish, Cathy Ann is going to be here. You have to come up and play your harp in the ceilidh.” And I said, “Ach, I don’t know, Peggy, I’m so tired and there’s so much going on. I’m really busy at work.” Peggy said, “She will remember who she meets on this night and you will be here.” and then she hung up the phone. So, up I went. I was there and I played and I met Cathy Ann. Then, the Vancouver choir was singing and I noticed a guy in the back row that I didn’t know and that’s very strange. I was quite disturbed by there being somebody there that I didn’t know because I know them all. So, a mutual friend in the choir walked this guy out for the 2 of us to meet in the lobby and that was on the 7th of April 2001. That was the end of the story. He was a Scottish-Gaelic speaker and he had taught himself the language from books. So, I introduced him to some native speakers and helped him with a few pronunciation issues and we’ve been together for over 12 years.
Seumas & Doug
That’s a great story. First of all, there’s a small sub-set of the population that’s really into Scots-Gaelic, and second of all, homosexuals are a minority, so there’s 2 small sub-sets coming together, that’s a nice idea.
SG: What I tell people is: look at the unlikeliness of me and Doug Barr existing at the same time and then the unlikelihood that we might find each other and the unlikelihood that we might actually be well-suited to make a life partnership together and then tell me that there is no organizing principle in the universe. I don’t buy it.
[laughing] I like that. It really does feel that way. That’s great. But the song itself is more of a statement too about the fact that at the time you weren’t able to get married. That was not a possibility but now it is, right? How have things changed since the song was written?
SG: Well, they’ve changed hugely, of course. I wrote that song in 2002 and at that point, nobody was even talking about marriage equality, nowhere that I was connected to. So, when Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, on Valentine’s Day in 2004, said, “Screw the law, I am giving people marriage licenses.” People came from all over the country. As a matter of fact, two of my neighbors in Ballard jumped on a plane and went down to San Francisco and got married. So, of course, Prop 8 invalidated their marriage and now it exists again. In 2006, Canada legalized marriage equality nation-wide. As of just a few weeks ago, our world has completely changed. Doug and I are about to leave for 8 days in Hawaii and our intent is to come back from Hawaii with a plan of how we are going to reorganize our lives based on these new possibilities. When I approach “Is Truagh Leam Ar Sgàradh,” it’s an incredibly strange feeling to realize that when I wrote this song something that was impossible is now possible and we are in a new era of history. It’s not just a new era of history in the small scale; people in same-sex relationships have not had any place in society for millenia. Something has changed in the last few months that changes the possibility for human life as it has stood for millenia. I can’t tell you what it felt like as a gay American man when the Supreme Court partially struck down the “Defense of Marriage Act.” I can’t tell you how huge that day was in life and how it changes the way it feels to sing that song. It has become a song that now has a historical context because its subject matter belongs in a previous era of history. I’m really glad I wrote it.
Seumas Gagne: Is Truagh Leam Ar Sgàradh
I wonder if that’s a common feeling. All the songs that were written in the Scottish-Gaelic tradition, many of them were probably political. I wonder if that was a common feeling to have written a song and see the change and then have the feeling that the song is an artifact, and it’s good that it’s only an artifact.
SG: In the historical context of other song-writing, one of the immediate examples that leaps to mind, of course, are the songs that were created around Bonnie Prince Charlie. Many, many songs were created prior to the battle of Culloden that were full of an intense, almost maniacal hope that the world of Scottish identity and the world of Gaelic identity was about to be saved. The historical events, of course, dashed all those hopes. Then, how the Gaelic speaking world, in particular, there arose an entire genre of songs, that were saying, “This is not over and it’s going to come back and he’s safe somewhere and he’s still as wonderful as he ever was.” Some of those were written much later and can be described as nostalgia but some of them were written not too long after Culloden. Once again, in 2014, we’re looking at another potential historic change to the world if Scotland votes to separate from the United Kingdom and become an independent nation again. So, leading up to that vote in 2014, as a Gaelic speaker, when I encounter these Jacobite songs, expressing the idea that an independent Scotland will still happen in the future, there’s a resonance there.
When we talked before, you had a really interesting phrase. You said that you felt more comfortable as a Gay in Gaeldom than as a Gael in Gaydom. Could you expand on that idea?
SG: Sure. I can. I’m 46 years old. I came out to my family in my 20s, and that’s when I started going out into the world of gay men in the United States at that time. It was the height of the AIDs crisis; we were just discovering with scientific certainty how the virus was being transmitted and what it really was. At the same time, a very similar timeframe, I was getting into the world of Scottish-Gaelic. It was 2 different worlds, that I had not spent time in, and had not been connected to previously. I was exploring both of them at the same time. I would want to put my observations in the context of the 1990s and I’m talking about the world of gay men. For women, I don’t know what it was. For the trans-gendered, I don’t know what it was. I know what it was for me. That was due to the level of social stigma that was still then attached to being gay. The only place we found each other with any reliability was bars, clubs and the very beginning of online dating, which was a rocky start, let me tell you. What I encountered in the world of gay men was the cold water down the back that I was just as unacceptable in that world as I was in the world that I had come from. That gay men were only interested in pop culture; it didn’t matter that I was into pop culture at that time, but if you were even connected to anything else, you were weird. That’s right, the gays thought you were weird and completely unacceptable! So, that was my experience. I found myself rejected again. At the same time, in the world of Scottish-Gaelic, as a harp player, I automatically had prestige. I was automatically wanted. As I became a Gaelic speaker, I added this additional dimension of ways in which I was valued in this culture. As I gained expertise then as a singer, I gained another dimension of ways in which I could contribute value to the efforts to keep Gaelic going and to raise its profile in the broader world. For me, there could not have been a more stark contrast as to where I was accepted, where I was valued and let me tell you, it was not among gay men!
Where do you think the fault lies in the stereotyping? Is society only allowing gay voices if the conform to the “Will and Grace” stereotype or is it within the community? Where is the issue coming from, do you think?
I think the issue is multi-dimensional. When a group of people have a social stigma attached to them, they turn inward. The degree of gay male culture having turned inward is extraordinary. That’s why, in urban centers, we created whole gay neighborhoods because we needed some little, tiny postage stamp of the earth on which we were safe. But that kind of inward-looking mentality can produce a kind of harshness that is an unfortunate necessity when you are trying to defend yourself from the culture in which you are embedded that defines you as an abomination. So, if you want to ask yourself why gay male culture is so harshly restrictive, why it imposes such absolute litmus tests on who is acceptable and who is not, that’s the only way they can maintain that little, tiny boundary around the postage stamp in which they are safe.
In terms of why, a broader spectrum of kinds of people who happen to be gay have not been visible to the broader society, it’s a similar answer. You have an inward-looking group of people who must preserve each other’s confidentiality in order to keep their job, in order to keep their homes, in order to not face violence. So, who is society going to see of a group of people who are trying to hide themselves from it? Not many. In 2013, we find ourselves in an incredibly different environment in which that necessity for insular protection is plummeting. It’s becoming a relic of the past. At the same time, all of the coping mechanisms, some of which are incredibly cool, that gay society developed to protect itself, are falling apart. People who are just a few years older than me are lamenting the fact that there aren’t gay bars anymore because we don’t need to hide, we can go to everybody’s bars and everybody can come to our bar. There’s a lot of that ghetto-ized identity that older gay men, the few who survived the plague, are lamenting the loss of.
It’s something that I look at, quite frankly, as an outsider. I was never accepted in that world. When I’m having a bad day, and I hear someone who was accepted in that world complaining about the loss of it, I usually use obscene words. “You wanted to be exclusive. Guess what? F you.” And then, conversely, what I find in the world of Scottish-Gaelic culture is that the Gaels who emigrated to the New World, which were the first native speakers and expatriate Scottish people that I had long term bonds with, they, very much, want to preserve aspects of the culture they grew up in and they want to pass it on to future generations, but they also understand that they moved to the New World. As the New World has moved forward on social issues, they’ve kept up. I could tell you one story. One of my first native speaker teachers from the isle of Lewis is a woman called Maureen Lyon. I still am in touch with her. I was very concerned about coming out to the Vancouver Gaelic community because I had these stereotypes in my mind about what traditional culture was about. I felt confident that if I was open and honest with them that I would face some kind of repercussion for that. One of the individuals up there who I was closer to, basically did a very Gaelic thing, and tugged on Maureen’s sleeve and said, “You know that Seumas is gay, right? And he’s a little bit nervous about coming out to you. He’s afraid you’re going to reject him.” A few days had passed, I was coming home to Seattle from an event in Vancouver, and I got a phone call from Maureen. She said, “Stop by my house, I have something to give you,” which was not unusual. She might have found a book or a CD or something. So I pulled into her driveway and she was standing in front of her own front door waiting for me. I walked up and she handed me a piece of paper and said, “Here you go. Have a safe trip home.” She went back inside and closed the door. So, I got back in my car and I went, “That’s kind of unusual,” and I started driving back towards the border, stopped in traffic, pulled out the piece of paper, and it was a poem in Gaelic that she had written to me to tell me that she would love me no matter what. So there were all my stereotypes blown. In fact, traditional culture is not a monolith. That’s an anecdote that’s really about the fact that much more acceptance was available for me as an atypical, gay, American man in Scottish-Gaelic culture than was available to me say at Neighbors [a Seattle gay bar].
When my partner and I have traveled to the Hebrides, the first time we did it together, we had a certain amount of trepidation about what kind of a reception a male couple would receive there, and once again that stereotype was so inaccurate. In fact, the Hebridean world is anxious, by and large, to show that it is not a museum-piece. It’s not a relic of the past. It’s part of the modern world.
Do you find examples in the historical songs you’re listening to that could be seen as same-sex love?
SG: Potentially, but it’s hard to be really able to interpret that. I can look parallel to Shakespearean period literature and see friends referring to each other as, “My loves.” It’s hard to say that a song from a certain historical context can be correctly interpreted using the vocabulary as it is used now. As much as same-sex relationships have existed throughout history, in every culture, every kind of people in the world, the likelihood of that being documented in any detectable way is infinitesimally small. Someone living in Gaelic-speaking Scotland in the 1700s who made a song that was detectably documenting their same-sex romance would be killed.
But a person making a song that criticized the king or criticized the government would be killed as well. There were certainly a lot of coded songs about that. Wouldn’t you find the same thing for this?
SG: No. No. Because, if you were in political opposition to your government, you weren’t the only person. You had friends. If you’re a gay person in 1800s Perthshire, you don’t have any friends and nothing is going to be gained by your death. If you make a great song opposing foreign rule of your country, and it inspires tens of thousands of people, and you get killed for it, you’re going to be remembered forever. If you make a song about your same-sex love affair that gets you garroted or thrown off a cliff, or publicly disemboweled in the middle of the village, you haven’t contributed to anything. The motivation isn’t there.
There’s one particular song, “Togaibh an t-Aranach,” that leaps out to me. It’s a song from one warrior to his fallen comrade which expresses very, very intense emotion and uses the same vocabulary that, in modern Gaelic, would be reserved for romantic love. The title means “Lift up the Aran man.” It’s a song composed by Duncan Johnstone of Islay in the early 20th century speaking as a warrior lamenting his fallen comrade. It’s a very, very moving poem. I have a hard time getting through it, even in translation, without choking up. There’s an intensity of loyalty and affection that is rare.
LISTEN to “Togaibh an t-Aranach”
Togaibh an t-Aranach ‘us fàgamaid Ille.
Togaibh o’n talamh e; Aonghus mo ghràdh-sa.
Togaibh an t-Aranach ‘us leigibh a sios e.
Arain san t-sealladh dhuinn; Togaibh an càrn.
Togaibh an càrnadh, gach caraid ‘us dìleas.
Togaibh an càrnadh air mullach bhein bhain.
Togaibh an càrnadh air talamh nan Illeach.
Arain san t-sealladh dhuinn; Togaibh an càrn.
Dhachaidh do dh’Arain deanaibh a ghiùlain.
Esan bha airidh air cliù anns a’ bhlàr.
Ruigibh an cala ‘us greisibh an iùbhrach.
‘Us raichaidh sinn thairis le Aonghus mo ghràdh.
Lift the Aran man and let us leave Islay.
Lift him from the ground; Angus my Love.
Lift the Aran man and let him out from under.
Aran is in our sights. Build the carn.
Build the carn, each friend and faithful one.
Build the carn on the top of Fair Mountain.
Build the carn on Islay ground.
Aran is in our sights. Build the carn.
Bear him homeward to Aran.
He who was especially renowned in the battle.
Reach the harbor and speed the boat.
And we’ll to go over with Angus my love.
MANY thanks to Seumas for this wonderfully open interview and ALSO for this EXCLUSIVE recording of him singing Togaibh an t-Aranach: