Apr 082014


Today, yes, a little entertainment, a gorgeous music/text thing (with layers you can delve)  by my old friend Ian Bell (Ian’s father was my Grade 11 history teacher; his mother was a weaver and the village librarian). First of all, we have Ian’s lovely, comic lament “Signor  Farini,” a song about The Great Farini, a 19th-century (he lived till 1929) tightrope walker famous, among other things, for doing somersaults over Niagara Falls in 1860. But The Great Farini was really a man named Hunt, born in Lockport, New York, and Ian’s song is as much about the mystery of creation as it is about tightrope-walking and fame. It’s about having the courage to make oneself, to change, to gamble and risk, to take a chance in life. And beyond that (there’s more), Ian also offers an insightful and readable account of song-writing, the art itself.



Signor Farini is one of a couple of songs I have written about my own unwillingness to throw myself headlong into the music business. This has mostly been for fairly uninteresting reasons having to do with my need to spend time with children and other loved ones.

Guillermo Farini was one of the 19th-century daredevils who made his name crossing the Niagara Gorge on a tight-wire, but who then went on to a distinguished career in British circuses and theatres – developing the human cannonball act and inventing the folding theatre seat, before becoming an African explorer who sought lost civilizations in the Kalahari, and eventually returning to Canada to write a best-selling book on how to grow begonias. (I’m not making any of this up – in fact, I’ve left quite a lot out)

I first heard about Farini in an interview on CBC Radio. Peter Gzowski was talking to author/playwright Shane Peacock about a play he had written about the daredevil. I loved the whole story. Most of all I loved the idea that “The Great Farini” was in fact a guy named Bill Hunt, from Port Hope Ontario.


Shane talked on the radio about a Farini Festival that had been staged in Port Hope, to which the organizers had invited not only descendants of Farini, but descendants of the man who had held the rope for him. I thought this was very Canadian, and decided that if there was ever going to be a song about Farini it should be from the rope-holder’s point of view. Not wanting to get too hung up on what Canadian director/playwright Paul Thompson calls “historical resonance” I wrote the song – and then I read the biography.

After I wrote and recorded the song, Shane called me up to tell me how much he liked it. He was particularly taken with the line “Walking on air with the greatest of ease – a tangle of barn swallows sharing the breeze”, and he told me a story about the time his play was performed at Fourth Line Theatre, an outdoor venue in Millbrook, Ontario. Every night at dusk, when the tightrope walker stepped off the roof of the barn, the swallows who lived inside would make one last foray into the evening air and buzz “Farini” as he traversed the wire. “How did you know to put that in?” he asked me. “Sorry Shane”, I had to tell him. “I just made it up”.

The actual making of this song started with the chorus, which I believe I carried around inside my head for a few weeks before anything else manifested itself. Then the rest popped out one day.

I never consciously choose a rhyme scheme for songs before I start writing them. Usually the first verse pours out in a rush and then gets a chorus attached to it. Once it does, I consider the rhyme scheme and meter to have been set and that’s that. I always do my very best to stick with it. It can become challenging once I get further into the song – but that’s all part of the fun. This one turned out to be AABBBB for the verse and AABBB for the chorus. In another song, I wrote a first verse I really liked while driving somewhere. When I got home and wrote it down I was a little dismayed to find that it took 16 lines for the rhyme to resolve.

Maybe resolving a rhyme isn’t the usual term — I should explain. What I mean by resolving, is completing the entire pattern of the rhyming lines in a unit of the song, (like a verse) so that you’ve brought the reader/listener back to the beginning of the rhyme cycle, and you’re ready to launch into whatever’s coming next (like another verse — or a chorus).

I’m generally of the opinion that a song shouldn’t need more than three verses, a chorus and a bridge. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule (even in my catalogue) but this isn’t one of them.

A bridge can be a useful thing. Some people call it “the middle eight” and it’s part of a song that is neither verse nor chorus and usually only comes up once somewhere in the middle of the song. Paul McCartney is really good at bridges. It not only creates a bit of musical interest, but also provides a platform for lyrical ideas that might not be an obvious part of whatever narrative agenda the verses may be. It’s a good place for asides or other editorializing. In Farini the bridge comes after the second chorus.

I like creating little word movies which I hope will will be screening in my listeners’ heads, and with any luck may include some interesting surprises as they spool out. I think I’m usually copping ideas from the filmmakers who made an impression on me in my long-ago hipster youth; people like Fellini and Bergman – mostly Fellini I think.

In Farini I tried to make this happen right off the top, where we begin with a pastoral daybreak scene on the old family farm and by the last line of the verse somebody is stepping off the barn roof.

I’ve always secretly wanted to hear Leonard Cohen or Marianne Faithfull sing this song.

—Ian Bell


You can read all about Farini in Shane Peacock’s book The Great Farini – The High Wire Life of William Hunt. The song is part of the album Signor Farini and Other Adventures and can be downloaded from CD Baby.

Ian Bell is a traditional folk musician and singer-songwriter who also worked for many years as a curator in a number of Ontario museums. he has recorded several CDs of Canadian traditional music as well as his own compositions. He lives in Paris Ontario. www.ianbellmusic.ca

  One Response to “Signor Farini: Song & Essay — Ian Bell”

  1. You know what? I feel now as I did when I heard Ian perform this magical song (and others at Port Dover: that he’s as good a poet as I know. That line about haring the breeze with the swallows is about as masterful as it gets.

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