60. FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD – traditional/Richie Havens

And no, it’s not just on my way to Wetherspoons that I find myself singing this one.

I bet I’m not the only one that had never heard of Richie Havens until I saw him in the ‘Woodstock’ film – first act on the recording, in my memory at least ; bet, too, I’m not the only one whose teenage imagination was fascinated by the sight and sound – not just the increasingly sweaty frenetic energy  , or by the tie-dye gloriousness, or by the proud dentally challenged  boldness of the delivery, and those weird thumb-barred open chords, and the seemingly endless improvisational extension of the Freedom song, but oh, that unique gravelly voice. And the context, of course – even though this was only on film – couldn’t help but gild that magic !

And maybe it’s because of that, that Mr Havens stayed locked out of sight in a mental Woodstock ‘box’ for me, for years; till a friend who came to bunk in my home for a few months brought his LP collection which included a (double, was it?) album of Richie Havens ‘Live’. Even today I can’t think of many better live albums – a smattering of Beatles and Dylan covers, Billie Holliday’s ‘God bless the Child’, a great ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, the best cover ever of Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ song. I was more than grateful for the introduction: I made sure I got it all recorded onto cassette, then in later years to CD, and now MP3-ed onto my ipod.

But it’s none of those songs which is my focus here. Apart from that Live album, if I’m honest, other Havens albums I’ve encountered have left me sadly underwhelmed – clearly he was made for performance more than studio… but then I chanced upon this track. Once again,it was on one of those street-vendor cassette-rack stalls in abroad-land, and the cassette was, I think, from a US –made TV series ‘Songs of the Civil War’ – and I probably went for it for other artists included – Sweet Honey from the Rock did a couple of numbers, the McGarrigles doing some Stephen Foster songs, was there a bit of Emmylou too? But this was the standout for me. American musicologists – or perhaps even your average American high school student for all I know -will probably be well acquainted with this song, but I’d never heard it till then.

In short, if I understand the notes I’ve read, the song is a sort of set of coded instructions to African Americans making a break from slavery in the south – the ‘drinking gourd’ being the (US) ‘Big Dipper’,  or the more prosaic (UK) ‘plough’ – guiding the escapees northwards. It’s more complicated than that, and its provenance and add-ons are debated by scholars – but you can Wikipedia yourselves up on all that at your leisure.

For now just enjoy it and the way that Richie H captures just the right note of urgency and ‘freedom’ (again – he’ll always be the ‘freedom’ man, after Woodstock). ‘For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom…’ I’ve heard rawer versions, subsequently, and I’ve heard The Weavers: and even though you can’t help but love Pete Seeger et al and their fearlessness in those folkie years, there’s something just a touch too clean about the earnest liberal whiteness of their otherwise commendable version. At least when I compare it to Mr Havens, Mr sweaty tie-dye, thumb-barre open chords (chords which in this recording sing out with a wonderful zingy crispness.)

 

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59. I’LL KEEP IT WITH MINE – Bob Dylan

 

‘Some people are very kind’, I found myself singing in the car one day recently, when somebody let me into a stream of traffic, when they could so easily have not.  And wondered where the line came from, and then realized that in my head the line sounded like Sandy Denny singing.  Pretty soon, by a sequence of connections, I got there: the album ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ which I had bought during my first year at university and the song was by Bob Dylan, and I loved it.

I’m almost sure, that I purchased the album (from the ‘Duck, Son and Pinker’ record shop in Swansea) because it contained a cover version of a Joni Mitchell song that I’d never heard of before, and which had never appeared on any of her own recordings –the wonderful’ Eastern Rain’ (why on earth has no one else chosen to cover this beautiful song?); and also for some odd reason , I maintained a kind of illusion that this band Fairport Convention was somehow a bunch of undergraduates just like me who did this sort of thing in between lectures and tutorials.  I had the same sort of feeling, incidentally, about Bridget St John with whom I was musically half in love at this time: I imagined them all going to seminars about John Keats, or oceanography, or even mechanical engineering, and then getting together in common rooms to make music, or staying up late in student digs penning sensitive songs. Hmmm.

The sound, the sounds, on’ What We Did on Our Holidays’ was fabulous, and still is.  Richard Thompson has gone on to achieve iconic musical status; Sandy Denny –and not just because her early death confers ‘legend’ –is acknowledged rightly not only as one of the great contemporary folk singing voices, but also as an accomplished songwriter in her own right.  The choices of songs on the album seem, now, pretty inspired -and of course the timeless ‘Meet On The Ledge’ is included in that number…  along with this relatively unknown Dylan song.

What gave this song its wistfulness?  Well, first of all it’s within the context of a kind of unconventional love song  (loving you ‘not for what you are/But for what you’re not..’)- but it’s also about ‘searching’ (a popular idea in the post- flower power years), with the added slightly mystical appeal of searching ‘for what’s not lost’.  There’s the attractive idea of communality –‘everybody will help you/discover what you set out to find..’; and then there’s that quirky, ambiguous refrain which provides the title: ‘if I can save you any time/come on give it to me/ I’ll keep it with mine’.

Despite being a words man, I’m still not clear on this.  He could be saying of course that he’s more than willing to save ‘her’ (the addressee) time and trouble spent searching for meaning, or whatever (‘what’s not lost’).  But I think I heard it in a kind of literal way too –‘time’ being talked about as a sort of commodity to be ‘saved’, looked after, ‘kept’ (safe?) – and the playful offer from the singer is that if she will be willing to hand over her allocation of time to him, he will look after both their ‘times’, together – like love, sort of thing.

Where does the verse three train (which leaves ‘at half past ten’) come into this, I hear you ask.  Funnily enough, though trains often feature in songs as symbols of freedom and movement, in this one I wonder if the train’s monotonous regularity (‘back tomorrow at the same time again’), like the conductor ‘still stuck on the line’, is in fact bit of a contrast to the searching spirit, not earthbound by these timetables and schedules.  So does the refrain now come to imply: against this backdrop of mundanity, stick with me and either ‘we’ll do our searching together’ or rather that‘spending our time together is the right goal of all that unnecessary searching’?  Answers on a postcard please.

The only recording I’ve heard of Dylan himself singing this is, I think, with his own bluesily plonky piano accompaniment –still great, of course of course- but perhaps helping us to appreciate even more Fairport’s lightness of touch. Nico’s famous cover from her ‘Chelsea Girls’ album doesn’t do it for me really, and Judy Collins’s early stab at it (a 1965 single which she never bothered to include on an album) is perhaps a touch too jaunty. It’s not an easy song, perhaps, or I’m just fussy.

Or more likely, the lovely Fairport Convention recording spoilt me for any others.

So dear readers, if you have any further reflection, memory or interpretation relating to this song: come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.

 

58. PROSERPINA – Kate McGarrigle

I can guarantee that this is a song which after a couple of listens will get into your head – it has into mine, anyway, in the few years that I’ve been aware of it. (And it will annoy people around you no end as you keep muttering this strange polysyllabic name and humming this simple hypnotic tune while you’re going about your daily business…)
This being the case, one would like to think there’s more to it than an insidious earworm, and I suspect there is. It’s worth considering something like this: the Proserpina (Persephone) / Hera (Ceres?) story – where beautiful Springlike Proserpina is captured and carried off into the underworld –  must have some sort of connections with ideas of seasonal cycles, withdrawal and re-emergence, death and re-birth. The song charts the grief of the mother’s loss, the insistent cry ‘Come home to Mama’ echoing a longing for the return of Spring perhaps, or for some sure survival beyond death.  Meanwhile  the ‘verse’ of the song is a kind of angry curse on the land reflecting  inescapable wintry barrenness (‘I will punish the earth/…I will turn every field into stone…’). The biographical poignancy of this is that this was Kate McGarrigle’s last song before her death.; and a more ‘polished’ recording has been made by Kate’s daughter Martha on her ‘Come home to Mama’ album.

Kate and Anna McGarrigle, whose debut eponymous album is much loved by my generation of listeners, eventually extended their franchise into a kind of legendary tribal grouping, incorporating friends, children, sisters, husbands, ex-husbands (notably Kate’s famous ex-husband Loudon Wainwright III….and his family members).  This extended family first surfaced in the extraordinary ‘McGarrigle Hour’ album and then with expanding and slightly modified configurations each year for a Christmas concert (and a Christmas album); the one recording of Kate singing her song was at one such ‘family’ Christmas concert at the Albert Hall in 2009; and since Kate’s death, I believe, these concerts always include this song.

Both in lyric and melody the song’s content is brief, simple, artless; but in subsequent performances the Macgarrigle/Wainwright clan have shaped it , despite its simplicity, into something with an almost operatic intensity – solos on some lines (Sloan Wainwright the best of these), some lines with two or three harmonising (Rufus Wainwright good on the harmonies), others where the women in the wider group surge in with added weight of unison (‘i have taken away every morsel to eat..etc’), then as the men adding their own thrust, the verse expands to fuller harmonies to the harshness of the ‘curse’ verse  ‘I have turned every field into stone..’ etc. Not unlike a Chorus in a Greek tragedy, now I come to think of it.  And it ebbs and flows with these subtle variations, never allowing us to lose the plaintive sense of longing in the chorus, and sustaining that evocative quality.

There’s an interesting and powerful contrast between the simple repeated call of the chorus, and that ‘verse’ I’ve mentioned. And I think it’s at least partly to do with rhythmic contrast. (Indulge me a moment). In poetic terms, there are the arresting trochaics of the called name; Próserpína…then in the verse the angry march of these anapaests – ‘I shall punish the earth, I shall turn down the heat.’..etc. It’s quite chilling to listen to.

So listen to it. Find some of the clan’s performances of this haunting song on Youtube. A final word about this tribe of performers: they make fascinating watching, as any extended family does. You find yourself musing on the dynamics at work.  Rufus and Martha Wainwright are its guiding members, it would appear – and (imho) Rufus through genuine music talent, Martha through a strong personality (and perhaps sheer bossiness?),both with an extremely high profile in the music world, though (personal viewpoint again)probably neither of them as talented as their father whose presence is fairly low-key in these events. Likewise Anna, half the ‘original’ duo. Interesting to see that Lucy Wainwright Roche is relegated somewhat to sidelines, though a creditable songwriter/ performer herself – at least the equal of Martha;  but it’s Martha, the composer’s daughter, who’s claimed this song for herself and rightly so, as with confidence and pride she  helps to keep alive the legacy of Kate’s warm, extraordinary talent.

57. THE LIVING YEARS – Mike and the Mechanics

 

I’ve tried a few times to write this one, over the last several months, but never feel I’ve quite got it right.  Ironically, I’ve ended up with ‘crumpled bits of paper/filled with imperfect thoughts…’, but it’s a new year so let’s give it another bash.

Looking at the release date of Mike and the Mechanics’ classic single ‘The Living Years’-end of 1988-I must have been aware of this song before the occasion of our exodus from Blighty (end of 1989) but, as far as my memories are concerned, this song doesn’t acquire conscious recognition until the middle of 1990.  For reasons which will become obvious.

You might think that saying goodbye to our parents at the turning of that particular year and decade, travelling as we were to somewhere that seemed a world away (and to them, even further; in these days the whole trans-continental thing seems a much less significant thing – a mere jaunt you can be back from by evening!) would have been profoundly emotional.  In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn’t.  Possibly I had steeled myself against the emotional traumas of partings, but for the most part we were all stoical. Given my father’s relatively advanced age, I must have been aware, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this might have been our last earthly hug/handshake, or whatever we did, but of course there was no way that I could have confronted that consciously.

Perhaps something of the excitement of the impending transition, and the flurry of preparations, kept me from the whole emotional import of this awareness. (Until the very first night away, in a small damp apartment in Sevilla, where we had gone for six weeks language training.  There I spent  sleepless hours suddenly confronted with a waking dread of having made a horrific error – ‘what have I done?  Taken my children away from their grandparents!  Left behind my own aged parent!…’ I think of it now as one peculiar dark night of the soul, a kind of Gethsemane type temptation to despair, and when Seville’s winter sun dawned the next morning those feelings evaporated and amazingly , never returned.)

If I hadn’t cried at leaving, I made up for it watching ‘Field of Dreams’ as part of the in-flight entertainment from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, a film which, of course, is all about sort of recovering a relationship with a father who is in reality ‘beyond reach’.  I wept buckets, but there again, I’m a bit like that with films and so on.  Anyway, cutting the story short a little bit, my dad did indeed pass away some 5 months later (fairly peacefully, apparently, in his living room armchair, having recently had a pleasant reunion which had enabled him to catch up on some of his own family); we were not only far away and phoneless, but also in that particular week when he had died, we had been enjoying a rare little break on the Brazil/Paraguay border at Foz de Iguazu, glorying in the magnificent waterfalls, and so  were even more incommunicado than usual; his funeral went ahead without us but many friends ‘stood in’ for us, out of love.

So, I ‘heard’ the song for the first time, the next time it reached my ears. At least that part of the song which seemed particularly pertinent: ‘I wasn’t there that morning/when my father passed away/I didn’t get to tell him/all the things I had to say…’ And I’ve come to recognise that that sense of regret –for unspoken conversations, unvoiced expressions of affection and appreciation- are not uncommon, perhaps even universal, since we never do quite say enough of these things in ‘the living years’.  (When my mother passed away, some 14 years later, I wrote a song which included a similar reflection:  ‘…  about how much we loved you, but forgot to say..’).  And since we had two small girls with us, the next bit of that verse of Rutherford and Robertson’s song did not seem too fanciful either – ‘I thought I caught his spirit/later that same year/I’m sure I heard his echo/in my baby’s tears…’ And of course, the refrain brought a lump to my throat for quite a while after this – ‘I just wish I could have told him in the living years..’

Apart from those key emotions, though, the song is not necessarily a perfect fit for my relationship with my father.  I wasn’t particularly aware (verse 1) of being ‘ a prisoner to all my father held so dear’ and ‘a hostage to all his hopes and fears’, though increasingly I think my siblings and I recognize his quiet legacy – Inevitably I do wish we’d talked more about his Union years and his Labour party responsibilities, his ideals and beliefs; and for my part about the Gospel as I perceived and believed…. the implied tensions and conflicts in the song didn’t really exist between us, but we could have taken more opportunities to find common ground or creative contrasts. Which is perhaps part of what this song is about.

Paul Carrack’s voice is amazing, and he ‘carries’ the song with powerful conviction. As a song, it’s more than a facile verse-chorus structure, and I think survives the test of time. I learnt to play the song (though not properly, as I realized when hearing someone performing it in Open Mic recently!)and taught it to the class of 17 year olds I was teaching that year. They loved the anthemic quality of it, belting into the chorus about ‘listen[ing] as well as you hear..’ . I hope in some part of our brains we all got the message, and eventually I learnt to sing it and love it with more of a dry eye..