I may be the only folksinger with a flag. Flags aren’t very folk-singerish. I made mine several years ago: a conglomerate, mythopoeic emblem of sorts. You may have noticed it. A vexillological manifesto, it states that I’m from here and there and nowhere and thus it implies a love of freedom in all its aspects. Much like my music.
How so? Allow me to hoist it up the flagpole. Please don’t salute it, however. It’s not that sort of flag.
Basically, it is a gussied up version of the very first flag of the United States: the Grand Union Flag. That flag bore the 13 red and white stripes of the original colonies. In its canton, however, was the flag of Great Britain: the Union Jack, not the 50 stars.
Mine is obviously quite different. With the strange badge on top of its stripes (I’ll get to that shortly), my flag is not the Grand Union flag. It’s the Grand Onion Flag. It has many layers. It lends piquant flavor and a robust sensibility to almost everything. Cut it and you will cry. Isn’t that what a flag is supposed to do?
The United Kingdom with its mists, myths and maths is my birth nation. I am a UK citizen. The United States, however, is my step nation, the nation that raised me. I have spent most of my life in the US. I look with pride at some of the greatest minds and souls of the 18th century, our so-called Founding Fathers —men who would surely weep and rage to see what passes for thinking in their country today.
The Union Jack in the canton of the Grand Union Flag is slightly different from that in my Grand Onion. The Grand Union is missing the red saltire of St. Patrick (Ireland). It did not become a design element of the Union Jack until after the union of Britain and Ireland in 1801. The Grand Union Flag, however, flew a quarter of a century earlier, from 1776 to 1777, when only the Red Cross of St. George (England) and the white saltire of St. Andrew (Scotland) comprised the Union Jack.Well . . . that wouldn’t do. Most of my mother’s forebears were from Northern Ireland, the only part of Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and . . . Northern Ireland.
Though the UK was my birth nation, I was born in Kenya in 1954 when there was no Kenyan citizenship to be had. Being still a British colony, anybody born there then was born one variety of British or another. What —I am often asked— was it like?
It was an imperialist racist regime so, if you were white, it was marvelous. This might be hard to understand in the light of the fact that the British all but stopped both the East African slave trade and the practice of female circumcision. It’s much easier to understand, however, when you read Kenya Diary 1902 – 1906 by that shadowy and nefarious soldier / ornithologist, Richard Meinertzhagen. With the King’s East African Rifles, he led many a punitive raid on one tribal community or the other. Yes, ‘punitive’ is the word Colonel Meinertzhagen used.
So, when my father was 27, he found himself in the midst of the Mau Mau Rebelion (1952 to 1960). The austerities and fears of war-torn Britain were not even a decade past and now he and my mother had sailed into four years of terror (the British regained the upper hand in 1956, with the October capture of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi). Nowhere, it seemed, was safe. My father packed a pistol.
The meaning of Mau Mau was never revealed. According to one theory, it was an anagram of the Kikuyu words, Uma Uma, which translate roughly as: Get out! Get the Fuck Out!! Now!!! My father did not protest my assessment of British Kenya but simply said, “I was not a racist.” I have good reasons to believe him.
“Poor Little Englishman!” (DNL) from An Age of Fable (1987)
In 1962, the colony of Kenya became the independent nation of Kenya, which in 2013 celebrated its 50th year of Uhuru (freedom). The scars of colonialism are deep, however. In his brilliant ship of fools novel entitled Devil on the Cross (1980), Ngugi Wathiongo lampooned, among other things, his fellow Kenyans’ perverse need for white oversight .
His novel begins where I first went to school in the then idyllic section of western Nairobi called Dagoretti Corners. It is now an infamous slum but not, as many would have it, an example of what ‘tribally obsessed’ Africans do when ‘rational’ Europeans leave. Even so, Devil on the Cross was not necessarily a teachable-moment for the new nation. Ngugi soon had to flee the birthplace of Barrack Obama.
When my mother left my father in 1959, she took me with her back to rain grey England. Thus was born a great longing for Kenya’s sweeping grass lands dotted with acacia trees, an image that still haunts me today. Occasionally, that longing would remove its mask to reveal itself as my handsome father. I adored and missed him so deeply and inexplicably, I would simply cry. Please, put the mask back on! —I would beg— I am too happy for this. Longing I can bear. Not the loss.
No personal narrative is separate from the geo-political landscape in which it occurs. I was a little impish boy while all this was happening. Even so, these events made me as surely as did the beauty of the place and its people. It is a great gift for a poet (singing or otherwise) to love his birthplace, and know it as a place to which he was neither invited nor wanted. Despite Ayn Rand’s sentiments to the contrary, I wish such a gift for all my American friends.
“On the Trail of Tears” (trad/DNL) from How Like Ghosts Are We 
Now, let’s look at the Grand Onion badge. Notice the Masai shield flanked with two crossed spears. That is the emblem of modern day Kenya. Notice how it eclipses another emblem: a sun and crown.
This was the emblem of the Imperial British East Africa Company which, from 1888 to 1896, was a trading corporation, empowered by imperial charter to raise taxes, administer justice and otherwise govern with [and get this] immunity from prosecution.
Let’s keep things simple, M’lud.
Why is the badge crowned with a maple leaf? It’s like this: I began writing songs when I was 16. I wasn’t very good. My mother had remarried and we lived by then in Pennsylvania. Moving to sunny California produced only promising fragments. On the other hand, with it’s many similarities to Kenyan landscape, it was a homecoming for a boy who did not know until then that he was homesick. When I was 18, however, we moved to Canada. In the steam and slush of Toronto, my relapsed homesickness granted me my voice. Thanks, Canada. [Hence: the maple-leaf, the eloquent and simple flag of Canada.]
My declarations of Freedom and my struggle with identity began then in Earnest. So: All aboard a Greyhound Bus and back to the sweeping grasslands of KE-lifor-NYA dotted with oak trees.
And back to the flag: Lumbering into the future, the extinct California grizzly bear. Flaming into my ancestral past, the mythological Welsh dragon in counter passant.
Extinct and mythological? Is this all starting to make sense?
The lumberer is none other than Monarch, the last California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus), captured in 1889 at the behest of yellow journalist magnate, William Randolph Hurst. When Monarch died in the zoo at Golden Gate Park in 1911, his subspecies went extinct. He was promptly stuffed and can occasionally be seen at the Academy of Sciences eternally posing for California’s State Flag and, when reversed, mine.
The Red Dragon, Y Ddraig Goch, is the Bythonic people, or the modern day Welsh. Locked in arial combat every May Day Eve with the White Dragon that is every Saxon invader, the Red Dragon would let out such a cry of anguish that throughout the island pregnant women would lose their children, men would lose their strength and youth would go crazy.
To deal with this, the 5th century Welsh hero Silver Hand Lloyd (Llud Llaw Eraint) dug a pit near Oxford. This, he reasoned, was the center of the island and the place where the dragons in their exhaustion would therefor finally fall. His reasoning was correct. After they fell into the pit, they were bound and carted to North West Wales where they were buried deep under a hill near Mt. Snowden called Dinas Emrys. In all of Britain, there was nowhere more secure. So the story goes.
Not too much later, however, the Brithonic warlord Vortigern tried to build his castle there. But whatever work was done by day, it toppled to the ground that evening. Why? Fortunately the wizard Merlin was at hand. Two great dragons —he said— were battling underground. A Red Dragon —Merlin foretold— would eventually overpower a White Dragon after which the Brithonic people (or the Tudors, at any rate) would at last recapture England.
Monarch and Y Ddraig Goch in counter passant are the conflict and contradictory impulses that fuel my creative fire. Despite the flagging energy of age, I remain, as the motto beneath these two beasts proclaims: Oddly Livid Angel. [It’s an anagram of Idyll Vine God Lad which, in turn, is an anagram of . . . I’m sure you can figure it out.]
“These Idiot Blues” (DNL) from Ballads and Blues [in production]
Under the Grand Onion, I gladly break all the rules of contemporary songwriting and create song poetry. Not only that, I act freely within the landscapes of the Anglo/Celtic ballads that have been my people’s dreams since medieval times; these are my trad/DNL ballads. Furthermore, I sing with contrite joy the blues that are the victorious response to African people’s nightmare encounter with my people. These blues I call meta blues.
Long may it wave. Signed: DNL