Friday, August 17, 2007

Family History

The Midnight Ride of William Dawes
I am a wandering, bitter shade,
Never of me was a hero made;
Poets have never sung my praise,
Nobody crowned my brow with bays;
And if you ask me the fatal cause,
I answer only, "My name was Dawes"

'Tis all very well for the children to hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere;
But why should my name be quite forgot,
Who rode as boldly and well, God wot?
Why should I ask? The reason is clear --
My name was Dawes and his Revere.

When the lights from the old North Church flashed out,
Paul Revere was waiting about,
But I was already on my way.
The shadows of night fell cold and
As I rode, with never a break or a pause;
But what was the use, when my name was Dawes!

History rings with his silvery name;
Closed to me are the portals of fame.
Had he been Dawes and I Revere,
No one had heard of him, I fear.
No one has heard of me because
He was Revere and I was Dawes.

One of my contacts for a project I'm working on was delighted to direct me to this poem written by a woman named Helen Moore in 1896. Evidently, were it not for one of my alleged ancestors, we might still be British citizens.

The tie-in comes because of a little-known Patriot tanner from Boston named William Dawes, who was recruited by Dr. Joseph Warren for a very important errand. Dawes was to work collaboratively with that towering figure of American History and fine silver, Paul Revere, to ride one fateful night not, in fact, to warn all of New England that the British were coming, but instead to warn John Hancock and Sam Adams that the British were coming for them.

For most of my life, I took William Dawes to be something of a mythological figure like the many my parents made up over the years (they were old, how else were they supposed to have fun?). Then a few years ago a friend read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, in which Gladwell asserts that Dawes really kind of blew it by making less of his part of the famous ride. Dawes reached fewer townsfolk, but as it turns out, that wasn't his objective. His objective was to get to Hancock and Adams before the Redcoats did. In which case, he was by all accounts, a success.

I've never seen a picture of old Bill Dawes until I sat down to create this blog post. Readers who knew or who have seen pictures of my father will in fact note a rather eerie resemblance.

It's a long way from being a Boston merchant in 1775 to a Martins Ferry businessman in 1975. My dad was still around to celebrate the US Bicentennial, but a year later, on the a morning of first snow just a few days after my mother's birthday in November 1977, he died of a heart attack in the first-floor bathroom of our old Quaker built farmhouse. He was 57 years old.

Needless to say there's a lot of family history that my sister and brothers and I have unraveled since that day and again since Mother died coming up on five years ago this November. So to stumble across this piece of American history and imagine that maybe, just maybe there's a bit of that Patriot's blood running through my kids' veins was a bit of a bright spot for us.

My brothers and I and our families took the opportunity a couple of years ago to see Tim O'Brien at the Kent Stage. We'd all become Tim fans, particularly since he also hails from our WV panhandle stomping grounds. This tune is full of the bold irreverance we all indulge in occasionally in order to survive the shadowy side of our families. Hope you'll enjoy one called "Family History." If mine comes back to haunt properly, maybe my daughter really does have a shot at being President of the United States and not just a wandering bitter shade like her mother.

(As a side note, William Dawes' great-great grandson, Charles Gates Dawes, who served as a rather outspoken Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, also was a bit of a musician, having written the clever love song, "In the Game." A rather towering figure, he also bears an uncanny resemblence to my late grandfather. Spooky.)

Family History
by Tim O'Brien, recorded on Traveler (2003)

Family history, I don't know too much, family history, I don't keep in touch
With my mother and father quite like I want to do
There's some family history, I'd rather not go lookin' through

Family history will repeat, look through your history, you're sure to meet
Someone a walkin' much the same pathway as you
It's just family history, like it or not you're passin' through

Family bible, dates and names, faces in pictures look much the same
Like you're runnin' in circles, until you don't know where it ends
Can't know where you're goin' until you know just where you've been

What's with my uncle, I want to know, we never see him whenever we go
To some family reunion, no one dares to say his name
It's against the rules in our secret family history game

Family history, need to learn, lest old troubles will return
Come back and haunt you, you'll hear them rattle their chain
You'd better break it, it might just drag you down again

Family history seems like fate, but you can break it, it's not too late
To ask a few questions, it's time to face up to your fear
Because it lies there waitin', it's comin' back again next year


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