32. LITTLE BOY FISHING – Shirley Abicair

Before anything else, song-wise; before my sister’s 21st birthday, when songs suddenly became tangible, accessible, re-playable plastic; before my siblings’ friends shared selections from their disc collections, and before my parents’ generosity helped to amass our own modest collection…  Before all this, song recordings were transitory, occasional, ethereal; and there was Children’s Favourites on the radio, and that was about it.

Saturday mornings, I think, over a leisurely makeshift breakfast sitting next to the kitchen fire, there’d be Nelly The Elephant on the radio, and Danny Kaye singing various songs from Hans Christian Andersen; there’d be Alma Cogan singing either about a railroad running through the middle of the house, or about ‘This Old House’.  There’d be the Teddy bears Picnic (‘if you go down to the woods today…’) and the three Billy Goats Gruff and –as I later discovered –AA Milne’s little song about Christopher Robin watching the changing of the guard; there’d be Tubby the Tuba and – a particular treat –Sparky’s Magic Piano .  In retrospect, it was all pretty good.

Retrospection and nostalgia have become, of course, big business.  At the end of 1988, I found and bought a double cassette album of all these old songs, ‘Children’s Favourites’, originally thinking of it as a great Christmas gift for… somebody, and then realizing that nobody would appreciate it as much as I would, and so deciding to keep it.   I shamelessly wallowed in the syrupy nostalgia and enjoyed every song.  Amongst the crass gimmickry, and there was plenty of that, there were also some tasteful classics, and some nicely crafted treasures including ‘Little Boy Fishing’.  We’ll come back to this.

It was a time when I had given up my regular income job on a whim/ spiritual impulse/mid-life crisis/sense of vocation…  Travelling to Bournemouth in the turning of the year to begin my intensive TEFL course, I listened to the cassettes as I drove and seriously considered ways of raising income: how about busking on the streets of Bournemouth, I thought, and, hey, why not buy into the musical nostalgia business, and focus on these numbers for us baby-boomers?  Okay, I couldn’t quite see myself performing ‘I Know An Old Lady’ (and I didn’t begin to look like Burl Ives till several years later)  or even Max’s ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’, – but I could sort of imagine myself singing  ‘Robin Hood’ (riding through the glen);’Little White Bull’ a la Tommy Steele; I’d have a brave stab at ‘The Runaway Train’ (while coins continued to drop in the imaginary hat)…  and yes I thought I could learn that Shirley Abicair number about the little boy fishing off a wooden pier.

It was a daft, momentary dream – for one thing a TEFL course allows no free time for anything beyond planning lessons, let alone busking!  So I never did take to the streets with my handful of Uncle Mac classics. But oddly enough about seven or eight years later I did work the ‘fishing’ song into my repertoire.  Singing it at folk club got a fairly ambiguous response –but then again so did most of my ‘covers’ (in that list include ‘Paper Moon’, Brel’s ‘The Desperate ones’, Goffin/King’s ‘Goin’ Back’) – but it gave me a kick, and that’s what counts.

If I came to love this song as a child – and I did, I think – then I can only conjecture at some of the elements of appeal.  The image of the solitary kid enjoying his solitude was always attractive – particularly with the added ideas of imagination, dreaming…  and that’s all here.  ‘Little boy dreaming with a secret smile/one day sail away cannibal isle…’ (!  Uncertain attraction there, perhaps!).  The song also hinted at the exciting anticipation of growing up (‘Soon enough little boy’ll grow big man/then he’ll go fishing for the frying pan’ – not that I got that, I’m sure), the idea of aspiration (‘Gotta make some money for that boat of mine…’) but all within the cosy safety of childhood – getting sleepy and going to bed –on ‘Blanket Bay’.  And I’m guessing the jaunty little internal rhymes were fun too: ‘Dogfish catfish any this or that fish’; ‘can’t catch shellfish but I wanna sell fish’; as well as the colourful idiomatic lines which would have seemed nonsense to me, but fun if taken literally – ‘Many a general would eat his hat…’ We didn’t fish, as kids, our family, but I kept the image of it, Huck Finn-like, as something a bit romantic, and requested a rod for one birthday before I’d quite quit childhood. (The reality of fishing was less entrancing, though.)

If I think of the TV Shirley Abicair, all I can conjure up is someone compositely between the lady who accompanied Muffin The Mule, Shari somebody who worked Lamb Chop, and Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary.  But with a zither…  Or was it an autoharp?  But this was radio Shirley Abicair, just a pretty voice, singing a  nice song… The song? Well, without any supporting research, I suspect this is a sort of modified traditional song.  I think I’ve read it has aboriginal origins (and S.A. was Australian wasn’t she?), but to me it has a kind of possible West Indian feel, somehow, at a time when it was not particularly non PC to affect Caribbean mannerisms to sing about ‘dat ol banana boat’ etc.  This song doesn’t do that; and I may be way off the mark.  Even if this were some kind of traditional, it has been neatly smoothed, anglicised, even almost sort of pop-structured.  But there’s something quietly substantial about its dreamy childhood images, that has stayed with me a little more doggedly than eg.Windmill in Old Amsterdam, and such . And yes I still like it.


Of course you could say that the whole of ‘Les Parapluies..’  is one long song – it is after all a seamless piece of sung dialogue –recitative, like opera – from beautiful beginning to beautiful end.

I watched the film one evening, while I was still living with my parents, presumably because there was ‘nothing else on’, or perhaps I convinced them it would help my A level French studies.  It’s hard to imagine Mam and Dad watching it with me (Did she knit her way through it? Did he read the Echo? ‘Watching’, in the same way, perhaps, in which I ‘watch’ TV with my family –doing a jigsaw on the coffee table, doing ebay negotiations or playing scrabble on the laptop) but –at an impressionable age, of course –I found the whole thing very poignant; the delicious sadness of that final scene stays with me –soft snow falling on a petrol station in the dark …

I don’t know if the main protagonists –the delectable Catherine Deneuve and… the bloke -sang their own parts [no they didn’t – note to self:Check on Wikipedia before writing! ] or whether they were dubbed, but the sound was sweet, clear and affecting,  and the music, like all great opera, soon made the unnatural device of singing everything (even the most mundane, casual remark) seem as natural as breathing.

The particular ‘song’ I’m thinking of here I always assumed was called ‘Ne me quittes pas’ which the Deneuve character begs her boyfriend more than once during the lyric.  Perhaps Jacques Brel’s song of the same name meant that Michel Legrand  thought that he would call his something else, and popularise it internationally under its English title (‘I Will Wait for You’).  But I’m just guessing.

The song covers the pivotal part of the narrative.  The young man announces that he has been drafted to do his National Service and will be away for two years; she is distraught, not sure how she can cope with such a long absence; since this is their last night together, he tenderly leads her up to his room (in the familial apartment) where they will have a night of physical congress to remember (and from which, of course, a conception occurs).  The song covers all that dialogue –the revelation, the anguish, the tender reassurances, and also in fact covers their goodbye the following day – remarkable that the one song spans so much of that central narrative without it appearing strung out or contrived, and the romantic sweeps and swoops of its melody are entirely appropriate and entirely captivating.

I was reintroduced to the song through the singing of Nana Mouskouri who, on her appropriately titled album ‘the Exquisite Nana Mouskouri’ gives a sensitive, faultless rendition of the song – in French, I think.  Yes, certainly: ‘No je ne pourrai jamais vivir sans toi…’ or something like that. ‘O mon amour, ne me quittes pas,’ she sings, soaring confidently and sympathetically over the gorgeously rich orchestral accompaniment.[ More than just a pair of glasses, that woman.  More even than a campaign for the return of the Elgin marbles.]

And yet from somewhere, I’m also familiar with its English ‘translated’ incarnation –‘the clock will tick away the hours one by one..’ .  Still, it’s the French that will give me the goosebumps, and send  me back to that first viewing, that uniquely moving 1964 film and all of the ways in which it touches the trembling consciousness rawly aware of the potency of love.

30. SWEET JESUS – The Keyhole/The Fisherfolk

Stumbling, as one might, across Isaiah 12:3 again recently, reminded me of this wonderful song.  And now I’m rediscovering it, and being refreshed by it all over again.

Its provenance, I think, is an interesting one, and I am going to indulge in a little informed guesswork, to work through its tangled origins.  I’m actually not sure if I first heard the song on the vinyl album by The Keyhole (the Church of the Redeemer’s coffeehouse worship and ministry team), a group incidentally that seemed like a ‘second generation’ Keyhole, since the core of their original team had already relocated to the UK to become the base of The Community Of Celebration and of its touring music and creative ministry team to be quickly dubbed ‘the Fisher folk’; or was it in fact from that very same ministry team that I first heard it, when Colin drove us to the Woodcroft Christian centre in Chepstow?  [ More about this in my blog on ‘I am a Rock’ from July’s postings] Diane Davis took the lead vocal in this small team and the bright clarity of their delivery highlighted, in a startlingly fresh way, the song’s poetic appreciation of the Spirit’s potentially dynamic effect on our lives.

I note that the song’s composers are David Lynch and Grace Krag.  For anyone fascinated, as I am, in the history and development of ‘intentional’/experimental Christian Communities, I heartily recommend reading the extensive account of a community called The Symphony Of Souls, and later The Trees, recounted with helpful detail and eloquent selection, in a blog (though its dozen or so sections comprise something easily book length) by one of its founding members Katheryn (Shishonee) Reutenik, under the title of ‘the Seven Story Bus: the story of the Trees Community’ http://www.thetreescommunity.blogspot.co.uk/  It is one of the most fascinating accounts of the development of a spiritual community which I have ever read and more than repays the patience of sticking with it.

This small, hippie-ish, counter cultural community, with its own rhythms of worship litanies and liturgies, and diverse experimental music styles – with an emphasis on a range of instruments that would now signal ‘world music’ – found themselves, at one stage of their windblown itineraries ‘parked up’ for a while at Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  going of course through its own emerging radical and life changing renewal.  As is the way of these things, there seems no doubt that there was both friction and blessing in the mix, mutuality of influence between the communities, and mutuality of effect.  ‘Symphony of Souls’ songs show up in early Redeemer/Keyhole/Fisher folk recordings –‘The Bell Song’ (most notably), ‘O Jesus How I Love You’, ‘He Was Wrapped In Flesh’, on a Christmas album, and, I’m guessing, this song.

Certainly David Lynch was a member of the Symphony Of Souls.  Katheryn’s narrative names this as a song which their team performed .  She also comments about Grace Krag considering and praying about the possibility of joining their community –though clearly she didn’t: she turns up as a flautist on recordings of the Woodland Park Fisherfolk in the early eighties.  It would seem that she stuck with the Redeemer/Celebration model.

So maybe this song was a collaborative outcome from the mingling of the two communities?  Perhaps Grace wrote a poem which David put to music, adding the Isaiah verse as a chorus? [Since starting this,my ‘researching sources’ have confirmed my guesses are not far off the mark. Grace’s lyric is in fact part of a poem she wrote originally as a student assignment; another Symphony of Souls member David Karasek suggested inserting the Isaiah verse as a refrain; the whole was presented on a birthday card to David Lynch who almost immediately  ‘heard’ a tune for it.] However extraordinary the collaboration, the result is whatever the spiritual version of ‘magical’ is.  The five verses focus on Biblical images and keywords for the Holy Spirit –fire, power, love, breath, water – handled with a light but freshly poetic touch, and with a personal perspective – i.e.  Lord, this is what your spirit does, not just generally, but in me … And the images are not twee or overly-gentle, if you know what I mean.  While the fourth verse highlights the Spirit as wind/breath ..’gently breathes, bringing peace, freeing me… the opening verses are much more shockingly dynamic – ‘Your fire purely sears a clean hollow within me..’ and ‘ Your spirit…breaks through me…/ Constrains my fragile will…’ Grace says her tutor compared her poem to Donne and suddenly, yes, now I see the distinct  parallels to Donne’s sonnet  ‘Batter my heart, three-personed God’!

The use of the Isaiah verse as refrain is inspired, masterfully appropriate – launched from the springboard of each verse, it presents something at the same time a response (‘Therefore, with joy..’) and a promise (‘..shall ye draw water…’) and an affirmation of mysterious depths to the sources of the Spirit’s power/love/life (‘..out of the wells of salvation’); the melodic contrast which the refrain  offers sounding like a peal of confident bells.

The original Lynch/Krag composition contains a prefaced vocative/invocation ‘sweet Jesus’, given slow, rich harmony  on the album to which it gives its name. While on the surface it may seem a dispensable and incidental bit of preparatory throat-clearing, I believe there’s sound theological justification for it – acknowledging Christ as the ‘giver’ and conduit for the Holy Spirit’s indwelling of those who follow and love – ‘Your spirit within me…’. Interestingly, when, a decade or so later, another recording team from the Fisherfolk stable (largely a British one from the community’s interaction with the Post Green Community in Dorset)made a fresh stab at the song, they dropped the invocation, changed the title to ‘Wells of Salvation’ and –though surely not necessarily because of that- produced something which, while valid in its own way, doesn’t for me match the exhilarating zing of the original.

I’m loving the song all over again. And I’m feeling that even at 62 there’s more re-re-rediscovering of the mysterious third person of the Trinity to be experienced – (which is probably the pattern more or less of two milennia of church history!) . Grace and David’s song makes the connection between the Isaiah verse, and John 7:38 (Jesus’ extraordinary public pronouncement on the last day of a significant temple feast); and the subterranean connection between those verses still excites. I more than suspect the well’s still full, and deeper than we can imagine!

29. MARRAKESH EXPRESS – Crosby, Stills and Nash

You’ve got to love Graham Nash.  And you’ve got to sort of envy him, too, obviously; and.. sort of feel proud of him as an apparently ordinary sixties’ pop Hollie who left behind Top Of The Pops Britishness, and transformed himself transatlantically, and was suddenly no longer singing ‘Hey Carrie Anne’ etc  but was part of a West Coast Supergroup and… (how did this happen? Dream of dreams?) shacked up in an idyllic Laurel Canyon home with Joni Mitchell and two cats in the yard!

The story is that in his ambitions and creativity he was always aiming ‘outside the box’ –take , for instance, ‘King Midas In Reverse’ (not a great song, really?) that the other Hollies had to be persuaded to record against their better judgments.  As I believe the story goes.  Anyway, and I may be making this up, ‘Marrakesh Express’ was a step too far for them, too left field, too non-UK-charts, and so he left behind their Northern narrowness, and the provincial unimaginativeness of the British scene, man, and (suddenly?) became the N of C S N – and the rest is history.

So there’s a touch of our-lad-made-good when we hear him of waxing lyrical about this particular popular bit of the sixties’ hippy trail, think of him in the ‘striped djellabas we can wear at home’ and ‘blowing smoke rings from the corners of [his] ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mouth’…  And it’s a happy sound, as recorded with this harmonising pals Crosby and Stills.

In interviews, they always say what a happy recording that first album of theirs was –because they were all in love at that time –Stills with Judy (Blue Eyes) Collins, Nash with Joni, Crosby with…  his boat?  (and the girls who sailed on it with him?).  And indeed the album has a really easy, relaxed, happy feel.  In fact – that whole West Coast interaction/crossover from late sixties’/early seventies was a buzz of good feeling for a teenager: include in this Stills’ first album with its (dubious message song) ‘Love The One You’re With’, and Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ album with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’.  (love, love, love –lots and lots of philosophising pronouncements about love in those times!) I’m glad that the loved-up harmonising boys decided to include Graham’s moderately lightweight Marrakesh song, though.

My anecdotal attachment to it dates back  to 1970, I think, and to an overnight charity walk I did in aid of Oxfam (?).  It was called the Yog-Jog, and we walked from Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens, starting at midnight, 26 miles to Porthcawl.  Most of it, as you might imagine, is a blur, but I remember that some of the walkers had radios with them, and, as day broke, and our tired legs were nearing the goal, daylight giving us the last surge of motivation, we were listening to some early morning radio programme, and this song came on.  Although a walk to Porthcawl is not quite the same as ‘taking a train to Casablanca going south…’ there seemed some sort of vague resonance in the sense of movement and mission, and the zippy feel good factor of those sunny west coast harmonies must have added something of a spring to the tired steps.  ‘All on board that train…’!

Good man, our Graham.