‘WHO WILL BUY’ from ‘Oliver’ by Lionel Bart

The more that I think about it, the more I delve into these songs that have been pals and markers for my days, the more I feel that I’ve had quite a blest upbringing, ‘musically’.

One perfect example is this.  When I was about just seven or eight, my sister Judith was working in London, as a teacher in Upminster, then Surbiton.  On several occasions she invited us to stay with her and –now I appreciate what a sacrifice and expense this must have been –on those occasions she would book tickets for West End shows.  Now, I may well be blurring together memories of separate visits, but in my mind, it seems probable to me that in one single week she took us not only to a West End cinema to see The Parent Trap (thus beginning my lifelong fascination with Hayley Mills), but also to two theatre visits: ‘The Sound Of Music’, a smash new hit musical transferred from Broadway; and the equally new British hit musical theatre version of Dickens’s Oliver Twist! With historical hindsight I now see this to have been indeed the original production – Ron Moody, Georgia Brown and all.

Perhaps I was at a very impressionable age; perhaps I might already have heard some of the songs on the radio (‘As Long As He Needs Me’ very possibly); perhaps I’m imagining it, but, I recall finding that every song in ‘Oliver’ seemed instantly engaging and memorable: from the opening workhouse boys chorus of ‘Food Glorious Food’ onwards, I was transfixed.  If I hadn’t already committed most of the songs to memory, on the following Christmas, as a gift for our parents, Judy bought the LP of the original London cast’s recording of the musical’s songs, and then, with repeated listens, they were sealed for ever inside me…

Part of Bart’s genius was that the songs of the production cover the whole range of moods – seemingly something for every feeling.  My particular favourites included ‘Where Is Love?’ which I would sing when I wanted to feel mawkishly sentimental or self pitying, or when I was savouring some delicious slice of childhood solitude.  For more boisterously happy occasions, I might have chirped up with ‘Consider Yourself’ or the aforementioned celebration of food; but the real feel good song for me, and the one that won out most of the time was ‘Who will buy?’

Most people will remember its theatrical context I’m sure (especially since, when a film was made of the musical some years later, they made something of a choreographical meal of this very song…), with all those early morning mongers, costers and barrowboys hitting the streets to ply their wares and their produce –their individual cries and voices alternating and interweaving to create a musical collage (‘ripe, strawberries ripe…’… ‘any milk today, mistress?’…  etc.).  Into and over this, young Oliver, entranced with his touch of Brownlow luxury, a good sleep and a bright morning, sings ‘Who will buy this wonderful morning..?’

Now, we could get quite analytical here and find several layers in the lyric worthy of discussion: you might say for instance that the song romanticises the drudgery of work and commerce –after all these singing salespersons got up at the crack of dawn to push their barrows, peddle their knife grinding skills; and how much fun being weighed down with a yoke of milk pails?-all from the viewpoint of the lucky leisured classes’ high balconies.  Or we could discuss the ‘buying’ concept, and the commoditization of nature and beauty; but we be missing the point – more probing ecological songs will consider this (eg Artisan’s ‘What am I bid?’) – this one doesn’t.

No, this is simply a song about wanting to capture and savour a beautiful experience and because we know it’s ephemeral, particularly that sense of joy, beauty, freshness of a new day – and okay, especially one that’s free of responsibilities.  And I suppose there’s a particular kind of joy attached to city morningscapes as opposed to country side ones (Think of Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’ for instance)– that sense of the miraculous mix of humanity, its endless range of colours, activities and interests coexisting and even somehow harmonising.  That’s the feel of the song, of course, somewhat simplified, but the nine year old still inside me still loves it.

And perhaps those of us who scribble a bit have all tried to write something about wanting to stop time, crystallise a moment etc.  I can think of a couple of my own songs echoing that sentiment, even one called ‘Hold On To the Morning’!  But for that sheer crazy sense of morning time wonder, all filtered through a child’s innocence, this fondly remembered musical set piece takes the biscuit.

RUNAWAY by Del Shannon and LITTLE DEVIL by Neil Sedaka

Del Shannon sedldps

It makes sense, in my mind, to write about these two together.  They mark, really, the beginning of a more independent pop-addiction which began from about the age of nine or ten: these were sounds that I liked, regardless of the records which Judy had (precious few of them –‘Walk Right Back’ by the Everly Brothers; ‘Wooden Heart’ by Elvis…) or the records we were borrowing from Susan’s friend Enid (‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ by the Platters; ‘Poetry In Motion’ by Johnny Tillotson…) or the records I was played in Cynthia Jeffries’s front room (thereby hangs a tale…  more of this in a future blog).  And these two were artists whose output I ‘pursued’, as far as a ten year old can, for…  as long as youthful obsessions last.

With both of them it was all about the sound.  I had probably heard Sedaka’s ‘One Way Ticket’ and the flip of this double A side ‘O Carol’, in my Cynthia Jeffries sessions; but I remember hearing ‘Little Devil’ for the first time on the radio of a bus taking us… where?  Was it the Saturday lunchtime bus that took Allan and I from New Tredegar to Ninian Park to watch Cardiff City play?  It’s possible.  The words seemed nonsense – in fact I thought it was ‘Hey diddle diddle’, I think  (‘Hey diddle diddle I’m gonna make an angel out of you..’?) –but the jaunty repetition of this, backed by the screechy doo-wop girls gave it a lively bubblegum effervescence which hooked me.  And perhaps most of all, I liked his surprisingly sissyish singing voice – aware, I think, even then, that my own voice had less-than-standard valleys-machismo to its timbres! Incidentally, when we bought the single, the B side ‘I must be dreaming’ proved even better, and an infinitely more enduring listen.

Del Shannon’s iconic chart topper was also a matter of unusual sound –the nasal drumming of the ‘Run-run-run-run runaway’ and probably too the famously leaping falsetto which became his sort of trademark.  (His producers presumably tried to capitalise on this and market it as a kind of alpine yodel in ‘the Swiss Maid’ –which I also loved!) Though the sound was richer and fuller than those two elements: consistent plinky piano going down the chords, farty horn sounds punctuating and underscoring everything, Del’s voice hoarse, urgent and driving even when he wasn’t wailing up there somewhere. And that funny ‘stylophone-type’ musical instrumental break? Del Shannon became so much of an obsession, in fact, that I actually joined his fan club –still the only official fan club I have ever joined –which provided me with – what?  -annual newsletters, perhaps, about his possible plans to come to the United Kingdom, and –if I sent in my autograph book, the fan club organisers would ensure that he’d sign it for me.  He did.  They also suggested that I play my part: I could bombard radio stations with requests for them to play his latest single.  I seem to recall on that occasion that it was ‘Two Kinds Of Teardrops’

.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0S13mP_pfEc

My family humoured me.  Here’s a ferinstance: when my sister Judy went on her first holiday abroad, to Italy, her present to me on her return was a record of Neil Sedaka’s ‘Happy Birthday Sweet 16’ with a picture cover, and the title also in Italian.  The first ever LP disc I had – for Christmas 1962 or 1963 I imagine –my main gift that year from my parents, was ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon – featuring the famous hit and, if truth be told, a dozen more mediocre songs.  Still, I was thrilled, more about owning it than listening to it.  Hmmmm…

Happy_Birthday_Sweet_16

My infatuation with Neil died away earlier than my infatuation with Del, though not until I had amassed a collection of singles by both.  ‘Breaking Up Is Hard To Do’ got more plays on the record-player than most, but I remember also getting very excited about coming across some of Neil’s early singles like ‘Run Samson Run’ in a local junk shop.  I was still buying Del Shannon singles into the late sixties  I think –when was it that he covered ‘Handy Man’?  By then, though, we were all moving on –the kinship of an effeminate lisp or the thrill of nasal falsetto didn’t do it for me like they once did; and sorry, especially, to Del/Charles: I was obviously never enough of a fan to stick with him through a  perhaps more interesting later career and the darker years to his untimely death.  Neil, your increasingly cheesy career did fine without my patronage. Still, here is a nod of gratitude to both.

[A funny memory just occurs:  at least once a week, when I taught in Paraguay, I would take a guitar into the classroom and teach a song – in English, of course –to my pupils.  While most of these were Jesus songs, and some of them were my own songs, I occasionally threw in something else.  My ‘quinto curso’ class learnt ‘From A Distance’, ‘The Living Years’, but one they really loved singing was ‘Runaway’. Ifmagine, then, twenty odd Latino-inflexioned accents launching enthusiastically into “as I walk along I wonder/what went wrong with our love/A love that was so strong….’ and getting more than excited on the ‘Why why why why why she went away…’ Ha. Nice memory. Thanks again Del]

‘The Bells of Rhymney’ – Pete Seeger/Idris Davies

It seemed like a miracle, the first time that I heard this.  And once again, I am indebted to A.  Judy Collins –my earliest exposure to the song  was on her compilation album ‘Recollections’ –and B. my  brother Allan, of course, who bought the album .( Her version is still one of the most stridently powerful you’re likely to hear.)

Despite the mispronunciation (rim-ney) it was clear that Judy Collins was singing about my valleys, these villages and towns!  Blimey!  Somewhere in the vast commercial music business machinery of North America’s long playing record making and distribution industry, someone was highlighting the plight of the miners of the Rhymney and Rhondda valleys!  It boggled my teenage mind!  Here was my heritage in a song: my father’s struggles –remembering his life as a miner’s champion as the local colliery’s Lodge Secretary, N.U.M. representative and Labour Party Secretary in our village..  How far down the road I was in my recognition of the characters and talents of Pete Seeger and Idris Davies,  I can’t remember –I may have had some vague awareness of both…  But within not too long a time they had both become heroes of a kind.

Our secondary school awarded an ‘Idris Davies Memorial Poetry Prize’ to senior students –which I won in my final year of school…  To this day I don’t know for which poem, or perhaps it was for my general fascination with poetry?  To my shame, despite receiving the prize, I don’t think I bothered to explore anything about Idris Davies, beyond remembering that he had lived at Rhymney.  Then for one birthday, when I was in my twenties, my sister Judy sent me a copy of Idris Davies’s  Collected Poetry – with a note inside telling me that he had in fact taught at our primary school (Cwmsyfiog, New Tredegar) during her time there!  The connection felt even stronger; and I started to read the poems and loved his compassion for the people of his valleys, as well as his lyricism and pithiness.  ‘The Bells of Rhymney’ is from a long poem sequence called ‘Gwalia Deserta’ (wasted Wales?) and there are many sections of it which I began to ‘mine’ for teaching purposes doing my time as a secondary English teacher.

Somehow, in the 1950s it had caught the attention, then, of Pete Seeger – he the tall liberal, union-encouraging, banjo playing member of ‘The Weavers’ whom I had known primarily as someone who had popularised songs like Malvina Reynolds’s ‘Little Boxes’, and the folky antiwar ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ Branded inevitably as a commie-sympathiser in the 1960s witch hunts, he remained a musical hero right up to his death last year,  in his nineties, when he was still playing, still supporting the causes of international justice, unions, labour, societies’ underdogs, providing a voice for the oppressed, without ever being ‘precious’ about his own creative output, or trying to promote himself as any kind of ‘celebrity’!

Given those priorities, and that kind of integrity, we perhaps shouldn’t be surprised that this poem came to his attention –but the meeting of minds and artistry which his song ‘adaptation’ represents still seems miraculous!  The melody totally ‘gets it’, echoing sympathetically the reflected emotions.  Take for instance the way that the melody rises to something plaintive in ‘is there hope for the future?’ (the brown bells of Merthyr), and the lyrical trill in ‘why so worried, sister, why?/sang the silver bells of Wye’ perfectly captures the kind of blithe complacency of a ‘sister’ valley that geographically appears to parallel the industrial valleys to its immediate west, and yet in its rural comfort and relative affluence, cannot identify with their plight and struggles.  Seeger seems to get this, and makes of the poem a stirring anthem.

I sang it a few weeks ago in Merthyr’s monthly ‘Acoustic Evening’ in their beautiful, recently renovated town hall (Red House).  I feel like everyone around here must know this song, yet I hear it sung so rarely.  One man came across afterwards  and said ‘That’s an old Byrds song –they used to do it, didn’t they?’ They did indeed.  West coast electric folkers, a million miles away from the struggles of Blaina miners asking for a fair wage for their dirty work.  Funny old world.