From the recording One For the Road
© David Mallett
Mark Clavey: lead vocals, guitar
Mary Hanover: vocals, hammered dulcimer
Rachel Bowerman: vocals, percussion
Tara McCullough: fiddle
What is most compelling about "The Ballad of St Anne's Reel" is the vivid imagery the song inspires. You can feel the sailor's neighborly welcome, his vague recollection of the fiddle-tune, his growing excitement at the contra-dance, the air of hopeful expectation for dances to come, and the contentment of a familiar tune that haunts the memory. Billboard magazine could not have said it better… "Mallett is a first-rate folk singer and writer. His portraits and townscapes are camera-sharp, and his understanding of his subjects is profound." The tune we play with the song is, of course, "St Anne's Reel", a French-Canadian reel (originally) that has found its way into many North American and British Isles fiddle traditions and remains a popular fixture in fiddlers' jam sessions.
He was stranded in a tiny town on fair Prince Edward Island, waiting for a ship to come and find him. A one-horse place, a friendly face, some coffee and a tiny trace of fiddling in the distance far behind him.
And a dime across the counter then, a shy "hello", a brand new friend, a walk along the street in the wintry weather, a yellow light, an open door, and a "welcome friend, there's room for more", and then they're standing there inside together.
He said, "I've heard that tune some where before, but I can't remember when. Was it on some other friendly shore, or did I hear it on the wind? Was it written on the sky above? I think I heard from someone I love, but I've never heard a sound so sweet since then."
Now there were people dancing everywhere, and sadly he became aware of his own feet, which had never danced before... so he leaned beside the door to watch, just happy for each chance to catch a glimpse of her as she danced across the floor.
And now his feet begin to tap, and a little boy says, "I'll take your cap." He's caught up in the magic of her smile. Then leap! the heart within him went as off across the floor he sent his clumsy body graceful as a child.
He said, "There's magic in that fiddler's arm, there's magic in the town, there's magic in the dancers' feet and the way that they put them down." People smiling everywhere, boots and ribbons, and locks of hair, laughter, old blue suits, and Easter gowns.
Now the sailor's gone, the room is bare, the old piano's sitting there, someone's hat's left hanging on the rack. The empty chairs, the wooden floor that feels the touch of shoes no more, just waiting for the dancers to come back.
And the fiddle's in the closet of some daughter of the town - a string is broke, the bow is gone, and the cover is buttoned down. But sometime on December nights, oh when the air is cold and the wind is right, there's a melody that passes through the town.