I bought a banjo! I think I’ve always wanted one, however uncool they may be. Perhaps it’s the Appalachian peasant in me; partly, perhaps, it’s a kind of tribute to one of my musical heroes, Pete Seeger, I don’t know. But since buying it, one of the first songs I wanted to learn to play is ‘Light Years Away’ as sung by Debby McClatchy.
On an earlier posting, one that addressed two traditional songs, ‘I wish, I wish’ and ‘Serving Girls Holiday’, I tell the story of my earliest acquaintances with folk clubs, very much toes being dipped into water, but never plunging, never developing into anything interactive or engaged. Now comes the second part of my folk clubs story –where this time, something did ‘take’ and develop. On our return from living abroad, in 1995, we were perhaps ripe for a few new experiences –the crazy world of amateur dramatics for one, for two: beginning to attend a weekly Folk Club. This was Llantrisant Folk Club (still very much alive and flourishing, though I am far less frequently a visitor), it took place on a Wednesday night, upstairs in a pub, and generally I didn’t get there until quite late, because I had been teaching Spanish at an evening class in Merthyr (yet another new venture), from seven till nine. I went along simply to enjoy the music, with no idea of playing my own songs, necessarily (and yet, eventually, this did develop into a whole new audience for my songs, and indeed new songs no doubt encouraged by the existence of that audience!).
On the first night I attended, Debby McClatchy was the guest performer, accompanying herself on her banjo and –because of the novelty, who knows? -I was quite entranced, but at no time moreso than when she introduced and sang this song ‘Light Years Away’. She explained that it had been written by two members of the Red Clay Ramblers for the off Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s play ‘A Lie Of The Mind’ where they also performed it on stage. Now, sure, that might have warmed me to it immediately – very possibly, because he’s brilliant, isn’t he, S.S. – but I felt an indefinable beauty about the song. It also provided the title for Debbie’s new cassette, which I bought that night and played repeatedly for the next few weeks.
In those early months of folk club attendance, there were many new and exciting discoveries –let’s see… the a cappella group Artisan, for instance, with those exquisitely crafted Brian Bedford songs; there was the haunting voice of Tanya Opland; James Keelaghan visited, and what a treat that was; then there was a little band called Gypsy Reel who also – blow me down! -covered the song ‘Light Years Away’ on their ‘Shake That Spirit Free’ album, and this time the darker, fruitier tones of Camille Parker gave this song a different quality, perhaps less tremulous, catching more assertiveness in the aching yearnings of the lyric. Two great versions…
But I come back to Debby McClatchy’s recording as my original and defining listen, and I like the ambiguities it first presented me with. This is a kind of love song, without doubt, to ‘Evangeline’ (not a character in Shepard’s play, so presumably this, like all the others which the Red Clay Ramblers wrote for the play is a standalone song, not dictated by dramatic events); but it’s also a song of longings that will seemingly be unfulfilled, and that tone of pining loss comes through right from the beginning in all those haunting conditionals –‘if I could wake to find you near me…’, ‘if I could call and you could hear me…’, ‘if you could take my hand…’. We get it in the repeated ‘out of the blue’… with its suggestion not just of something unlikely, but – the elegiac hint –of something dreamlike conjured from beyond earthly existence? We get it in the interplay between light and dark in thoughts of the beloved (‘my sunshine, light of my day…’; and yet ‘a star in the darkness…’) coming together in the song’s key phrase and title –‘light years away’ suggests that she is indeed a shining light but in endless dark space, way beyond the practicalities of warmth and reach. We get it underlined more explicitly in the song’s neat little two line bridge – ‘Stealing away in the night, pale and cold/Lost in the light of the Moon..’
And I like a bit of melancholy, me. So I’m trying to plunk-a-plunk my way towards it, and so far only achieving the vaguest approximation of Debby McClatchy’s accompaniment… I have a feeling that she may have tuned the banjo to something a little more unconventional to get the minor feel for this song; so if anyone has any clues as to anything connected with the tuning, the chord shapes and the fingering patterns for this great Tommy Thompson/Stretch Herrick song, send them along and make my day! (No doubt I could work it out from careful application to the youtube clip posted above – still, short cuts and second opinions much appreciated!)