35. WHEN I GO – Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer

Some years back I was given a Dave Carter/Tracey Grammer CD by an enthusiastic friend; I listened to it once (only half attentive), and blithely shelved it, consigning it to the ranks of new-country-folk hybrids, pleasant and (may I be forgiven) unmemorable. This was very stupid of me. Circumstances have brought me back to the late Dave Carter’s impressive body of work – thoughtful, brilliantly imaginative, often ambitious songs. None moreso than this, which has already become a bit of a standard, and I do repent me in dust and ashes for being dull of ear, and slow to catch up with more discerning listeners.

Carter’s early death, of course, adds an ironic poignancy to this song: he no longer anticipates a going; he has gone. Where to start to respond to this pagan/earth-loving anthem about dying? Let’s start with the strength of its spirit, which puts me in mind of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle on the brink of his father’s death – the images seem allied to Thomas’s longing for men whose words ‘fork lightning’, whose deeds ‘dance in a green bay’; who ‘sang the sun in flight’, whose eyes ‘blazed like meteors’…There’s all that kinship with the natural world in Carter’s song, but not the rage, not the desperation and regret; instead a bold determined affirmation – ‘I will fly..I will strike.. I will bellow…I will leap..’

What do we make of all these? At the very least it perhaps paints death as the spirit’s release rather than the spirit’s extinguishment, but in images that imply perhaps an absorption back into the energies and the creaturely variety of the natural world. It conjures up a sense of native American spirituality and their identification with/reverence for creatures of earth and air. I also can’t quite divorce this song from images left with me by John Boorman’s great film ‘The Emerald Forest’…Here Carter sings of ‘leap[ing] like coyote’, ‘run[ning] like the gray wolf’, accessing consciousnesses and energies beyond the limits of the human frame.

Alongside the bold continuity-affirming statements of will, are the invocations, calling on the crowd of natural spirits to witness and welcome the power and release of this transition – and so ‘lonely hunter’, .my brother’, ‘spirit dancer’, ‘tireless entrancer’, and ‘mournful sister’ are all addressed – (the last of these acknowledging that there is something natural in grief?) –encouraged to ‘come’, ‘spring’, ‘sigh’ and encouraged too in the song’s final couplet to see both the irrelevance and, paradoxically, the beautiful value of that grief – ‘..do not sorrow for me..’ (yet) ‘all your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’

But I’m treating this like literary analysis – forgive me (again) – this is song, all song, and the lyric is perfectly married to a melody and the total production – the underscored simple plunking of the plucked five string banjo, the sympathetic interplay between the minor and major chord movements; the little leaping contrast between the more low-key invocatory first halves of the verses and the affirmatory second halves,  Tracey joining there for harmonies and the inter-verse fiddle additions; the powerful bridge between second and third verses, and the sheer modest understatedness of it all– Carter’s crafted it like a dream.

The glorious irony of this song is that in discussing death it actually celebrates life, in terms of a richness which only those with a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world can muster. Even in exploring and imagining that ‘absorption’ and release, while the images are of dissolving, ‘I will rattle like dry leaves’ , ‘I will crumble..’ – and this is an extraordinary image, and the point I’m getting to: even in this there’s beauty, glory – ‘..crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go.’!

Ok, clearly…this vision of the afterlife isn’t one according closely with (as you know by now I hold) a Judeo-Christian perspective; but neither is it a simple atheist-humanist perspective. The whole lyric implies continuity and transcendence, of course – not just ‘Should you glimpse my wandering form..’etc.  but hey, this is a song  and not a propositional thesis on afterlife perspectives ! And as a song it glitters with the glory of life and the natural world; it pulses with energy, will, determination, hope, and beauty, beauty, so that, in the final lines even the sadness of grief has exquisite worth and sparkling beauty – ‘..your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’

 

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34. I REMEMBER YOU – Frank Ifield

I’m including this because some mention needs to be made of Sunday afternoons with Cynthia Jeffries in her front room, which, no, dear reader, is not as saucy as it sounds.

If you’re piecing all these together, you’ll know by now that I only became aware of discs, as such, on Judy’s 21st birthday, when I was seven. The love affair with discs had begun, but we had few at first. My acquaintance with discs other than the Everly Brothers ‘Walk Right Back’ c/w ‘ebony Eyes’ owed something to my sisters’ friends. Sue’s friend Amy lent us a number of 45s – including, I believe, ‘Smoke gets in your Eyes’ by the Platters, Johnny Tillotson’s ‘Poetry in Motion’ and Ricky Nelson’s ‘Hello Mary Lou’ Then there was their friend Cynthia, who lived five doors away from us. Cynthia was in fact the older sister of Susan’s good friend Marjorie – and she gave piano lessons. Somehow or other, I found myself invited to her front room for an hour or so on Sunday afternoons to listen to her collection of singles. Was the summons a bit like Miss Havisham in reverse? Instead of ‘Send a boy to play for me’ more like ‘send the boy so I can play (records) for him’.

OK, yes, in retrospect this does seem a little creepy, I suppose. She was..what? 17? 18? She certainly had a boyfriend with a motorbike, because usually our Sunday afternoon sessions ended when Jimmy’s bike could be heard arriving outside, and Cynthia grabbed her coat and ushered me outside. But during that hour before he arrived, I’d sit, polite and pliant 8/9 year old as I was, on the edge of the settee, while she put one single after another on the turntable.

I was quite excited that she had the Frank Ifield hit ‘I Remember You’ . The Australian yodeller had caused something of a stir with his recording of this old standard, and it apparently stayed at number 1 in the British charts for an unprecedented number of weeks. Me, I quite liked that warbly sound they called a yodel, and within the bounds of politeness I asked Cynthia to play it again and again. Somehow or other – did I use my own pocket money or did I cajole my parents to buy it as a gift – some time later I actually acquired a Frank Ifield EP with the title’Frank Ifield’s hits’ the cover of which only tends to highlight an unfortunately equine appearance (see pic), and containing the memorable  ‘She Taught me to Yodel’.

Enough  said. Here’s to you, Cynthia, last seen (in my misty imagination at least) zooming off into the sunset – or at least towards the ‘top end’ of our street – hanging on to the back of Jimmy’s motorbike.

Now, a little heartwarming coda from my old primary school classmate Tony Kauczok who writes:

“  I can remember walking around the estate where I lived (Lewis Street, top of the Graig, Aberbargoed), knocking on doors, and asking “Who is your favourite?: Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, or…..Frank Ifield?”. Being a big Frank Ifield fan if there was any wavering, I’d say “Frank Ifield then…..?”.   Frank won! They had various polls in pop mags and Frank never won. He did in my poll though……. Think I must have been 9 or 10, so over 50 years ago. Still got his singles and EPs, although I, eventually, moved on…  but hey, Frank. I remember you.“

Nice one Tony, excellent market research.

33. THE FERRYMAN by Ralph McTell

Those who only know him through ‘Streets of London’ have missed a songlifetime of treats – while the social conscience of that early anthem has continued throughout his canon, he can also do tender, probing, wistful, playful etc over a whole range of themes. And the melodies are strong, structurally defined, the guitarwork and musicianship proven and unquestionable.

Again kudos to brother Al for the initial discovery – he saw him perform in Bargoed when Bargoed briefly had some kind of Folk Club (and yes Andy Watkins, an honourable mention to you for playing an important part in setting things up and – as you often told me – meeting Ralph at the station), while I was at home presumably too young to care or doing homework or something. Allan came home with enthusiasm, and a copy of McTell’s third album ‘My Side of Your Window’, and it was not difficult to catch the infectious enthusiasm. Even now I think this is an absolute classic of an album, and I could blog on several of these tracks. I’m tempted, but won’t; let’s move on.

Over the years I’ve seen him playing live…five times, I think. One was certainly with my sister Sue, when we both fell in love with ‘From Clare to Here’; one was certainly in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, where he did his Thomas-inspired set; but the first time was in Cardiff’s long gone Cory Hall (see also my blog posting on the Hart/Prior ‘Serving Girls Holiday’) and I think he did this song then.

Its long, elegant melody, repeated for five verses, combines the classic directness of traditional folk (‘Lo, and I give you the travelling man..’) with something more arty, more consciously ‘constructed’. But I do remember that first hearing as a spellbinding experience – the simple, linear, mystical narrative hooking in my ‘sensitive’ teenage soul with ease. It was a great concert, but for me, that was the highlight. Not surprisingly, when the ‘You Well Meaning’ album was released., either Allan or I bought it – a ‘different’ bunch of songs – some piano compositions (new) – and ‘Ferryman’ was the closing track.

Some people felt  that – after having heard the natural ease and fluency of the totally raw acoustic Ralph in concert – this album seemed ‘over-produced’ by comparison. Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti had done the job, and yes occasionally the tinkerings felt a little clumsy. ‘The Ferryman’ was left largely untinkered with until verse 3, when strings and  some ethereal choir-sounds  appeared, presumably to accentuate the mystical feel and/or the river’s sinuousness. Perhaps it wasn’t as heavyhanded as some tracks but a bit distracting in some minorly odd way.  Still, such a song…

It’s about Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’, this song.  He was a fashionable read at the time, Hesse – we were all dipping in – perhaps the Eastern transcendental business struck a chord with the spirit of the time, the figure of the questing traveller having a strong romantic appeal for the young. (Steve Turner: ‘Everyone loves a seeker; nobody loves a finder.’) I finished reading Siddhartha on a train travelling across Scotland; there’s romance for you.

I suspected that we were experiencing a bit of Buddhism-lite here: filtered firstly through Hesse, and secondly through McTell.  But for those of us who were fervent but faltering Jesus-followers, I suppose there was something attractive, and something dangerous in this ‘dabbling with the east’! Refreshing because it was at odds with the often-rigidly-overly –systematic nature of the theology in which our experiences of God were described, even channelled; and dangerous because the apparent flakeyness and ‘impersonalness’ of the mysticism (like Lucas’s ‘the force’) was a challenge to our sense of a personal deity.

No doubt, while significant differences between faiths exist, this unease was a bit of adolescent fretting and agonizing! Today I think..my beloved T S Eliot (in the Four Quartets)had no trouble recognizing within the Eastern faiths areas of connection and correspondence. And I also think – so much of the wonder of God, not just his creative breath but also the mysteries of incarnation, redemption and salvation cannot easily be contained within prosaic blocks of fundamentalist evangelical discourse, but its understanding and exploration of truths are complemented  by the paradoxes and imagery of more mystical expression.

So now as I hear the song, I sense the beauty of its construction solidly reflects areas of valid spiritual longing, exploration and truth: the necessity of the search, to relieve the natural human ‘burdens’ (‘Many times he’s tried to lighten up his heavy load..’);  the inexplicability of the things that drive our pilgrimages (‘ the whisperings of despair that he could not explain..’); the image of the river as a symbol of fluidity, movement, time and timelessness, blending of many sources – as he learns from it that there’s a kind of unity to all experience (‘in it was the beauty and the sadness of the world/ The sounds blended together and they became a whole…’) – and Christians recognize some revelation in that – since we follow one who will bring ‘ all things in heaven and on earth together..’ (Eph. 1). In the song, the traveller’s eyes are opened to something of eternity (‘And the river had no beginning..’) and in the final verse to a revelation that the cyclical realities of eternity can all be glimpsed within himself  (‘And the traveller was the river, was the boat..’) Ha. OK, you can sense I’m straining a bit now – these days McTell’s more grounded stuff like‘Peppers and Tomatoes‘ appeals more – but I am saying this was a significant marker in the jukebox of my life…

Forgive me the heaviness, and let’s lighten!:– even if the song simply  tells a mysterious folk tale of sorts, and inspires a reverence for nature, and for rivers, it’s enough. I was going to go on to talk about when I bought the songbook so I could learn to play it, then on the train home met a man who said ‘It’s worth getting that songbook just to learn The Ferryman’! But I’ve said enough. Lovely song, ambitious but worth it.