The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
I’d already met and heard Chris Rawlings perform several times when he came to do a concert for the staff of the summer camp I was working at in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal in the summer of 1970. As I recall, his first set was built around the kind of original songs – “Pearl River Turnaround,” etc. – I’d heard him perform at Montreal coffeehouses like the Yellow Door. His second set, though, was something entirely different: one extended piece that held us mesmerized for close to an hour. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798 (revised in 1834), as set to music by Chris and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Paul Lauzon.
(I haven’t seen or heard of Paul in many years but a Google search quickly led me to the Acadia University School of Music site where I learned that Paul is now a professor of music therapy).
Later in the 1970s and ‘80s, I heard Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” several more times – including at least once at the Golem, the Montreal folk club that I ran in those days – and each performance was a mesmerizing as that first one in 1970, if not more so. So far as I can recall, I only saw Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” solo (although I’d often see him performing in those days with Gilles Losier accompanying him on fiddle and piano, so, it’s possible I may have heard a duo performance at some point).
But, over three nights – February 28-29 and March 1, 1976 – Chris and Gilles and an ensemble totaling 17 musicians performed “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as part of an extravagant production at the Bibliothèque National du Québec in Montreal. (I didn’t attend any of those shows; I would have been at the Golem on the nights of February 28-29 and have no idea where I was on March 1).
Years ago, when I suggested to Chris that he record “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” he told me that he did have some good recordings from that Bibliothèque production and now, 40 years later, he has released “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” on CD.
It had probably been at least 30 years since the last time I heard Chris perform “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” so all of it sounded new to me again – especially since I’d never heard it with such elaborate accompaniment before. When I saw that there were 17 musicians I was worried that they might get in the way of the singer or the text but those fears were largely unfounded. And, thanks to the Internet, I was able to follow the dense text as never before by reading it while listening to Chris sing.
I should note that Chris and Paul’s score was augmented at the concert and on this CD by excerpts from the instrumental composition “L’Abatross” by Jérôme Langlois, whose two groups, Lasting Weep and Maneige, supplied many of the 17 musicians.
Although this recording of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is broken into seven tracks – with audience applause at the end of each – corresponding to the seven parts in the text, I recommend listening to it as a whole piece when you can sit down with it and just listen (or read along) to this still mesmerizing performance of the tale of “an ancient mariner” who “stoppeth one of three.”
Pictured: Chris Rawlings and Mike Regenstreif at the 2007 Branches & Roots Festival in Ormstown, Quebec.