75. MY FATHER – Judy Collins

 

Some while ago now, my sister Judy asked me if I had come across this song.  Her own kids, in their twenties at that time I think, were in the habit of giving her ‘mix tapes’ or the equivalent, to keep her informed of what they were listening to, or because they had stumbled across pieces of music they thought she might like, or maybe even to expand her range of listening, by exposing her to new (or often, strangely enough) rediscovered treasures.  One of those compilations obviously included this little jewel from Judy Collins’s ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ album.

Yes, I knew the song, had known it for quite some time.  Oddly enough, I first became acquainted with it as a warbly cover version from Melanie Safka on her album ‘The Good Book’ which someone gave me for Christmas back in the seventies.  Even channelled through Ms Safka’s rather mannered vocals, the song struck me as quite exquisite in its economical construction, its simple power to move.  I heard the composer’s own version, for the first time, sometime later –the simplicity of the delivery, devoid as ever of any affectations, gave the song a classic feel.

It did not surprise me in the least that the song had struck such a chord with my sister.  Over time it seems to be the case with my siblings and I, not that we have exactly begun to romanticise our past, our ‘mining family’ past, but rather perhaps that we have become almost proud of it, recognizing our father’s sacrifices and achievements and considering with a sense of wonderment the complex relationship between the ways our parents nurtured us within that context, and the people that we are now.  I think the song touches upon these ideas.

The song is not an autobiographical one for Judy Collins.  She had sisters, yes, but her father was not a miner (a blind pianist with a radio programme, did I read?), nor did she go and live in Paris as far as I know.  And yet –and I’m sure I’ve also read this somewhere –she acknowledges that there is something autobiographical about the feel and spirit of the song.  The sense that parental nurture can engender hope, aspiration, promise…  can imply futures that are different, opened up to newer possibilities… Where do we Hankinses come into that? Well, only that ‘he worked in the mines’ – in the Rhymney Valley, rather than Ohio. Well that’s the starting point, anyway.

Because the song – a neat, tight construction in three verses – goes beyond this ‘hopeful promise’ of the first verse (‘We’d go boating on the Seine/and I would learn to dance’). What happens in verse two is the realities of life overtaking the dreams – ‘All my sisters soon were gone…Marrying their grown up dreams’ and the disappointing sense that those kind of magical hopes were linked only to childhood and doomed to dwindle – ‘I stayed behind the youngest still/and only danced alone/The colours of my father’s dreams/Faded without a sound..’ But it doesn’t stop there – in the third verse there is a beautiful bittersweet blending of surprising fulfilment (‘And I live in Paris now/ My children dance and dream..’) with the wistfulness of loss, time’s inevitable generational movement (‘Hearing the ways of a miner’s life/In words they’ve never seen’) linked with nostalgia (‘I sail my memories of home..’) and perhaps too the sadness of loss and unfulfilment (‘And watch the Paris sun/set in my father’s eyes again..’).

I said three verses but actually – with a lovely sense of cohesion – after an instrumental break (at least on the original album cut) the song then combines the first half of the first verse with the second half of the last. It underlines too, by bringing the two references together, the ‘boating/ sailing’ metaphor – and… I think this defies neat analysis – I think it’s something about the inevitability of time’s passing, and loss, has its own sense of watery dreaminess – just as the father’s hopes could never quite ‘sail’ to the Paris of his dreams, his daughter’s thoughts of home ‘sailing back’ through memories, can never recapture that past either.

None of my ‘reading’ here does the song justice! It’s bigger than the sum of these parts, certainly, and in its spare images links subtle feelings about dreams, hopes, time, memory, family, that I haven’t quite been able to articulate.

Judy Collins is best known as an interpreter of other people’s songs – and in the sixties, particularly, a ‘discoverer’ of artists, significantly instrumental in helping to bring to public attention Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell – she even covered Sandy Denny and Robin Williamson, Brel, Brecht/Weill… and the trademark purity of her voice treated their compositions with  a respect which helped redisccover their melodic and lyrical content. But maybe because of this, her own compositions have often been overlooked, but they shouldn’t. Especially this one.

And, yes, Judy (my big sister) the song continues to strike a chord with me too – as we think of our now long gone Dad, and Mam too, we ‘sail our memories of home’ backwards against the tide, remembering fondly and a bit wistfully of the way they often survived sacrificially on their forward-looking hopes for us and what we might be able to have and do that they never would.

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74. SPEEDY GONZALES – Pat Boone

OK, what you have to remember is that this blog was never intended as a chart of ‘my favourite songs’ –although it might act like that at times- but rather as a kind of guilty inventory of ditties that have featured in the autobiographical snapshots that make up the fairly messy songline of my life.  And they don’t come much guiltier than this one.

I think I have mentioned already that as a postwar ‘you’ve never had it so good’ working class kid I was surprisingly spoiled with regular gifts of singles to play on the new record player (in my memory very few Saturdays seemed to pass when my indulgent parents would not buy me a ‘45’ of my choice from their shopping trip –on the bus of course –to Bargoed or Blackwood).  Still, there were some records that were more special than others: I believe that for my ninth birthday I received as my main present this disc – ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ By Pat Boone.  While we’re at it, to add to the shame, let’s also remember and confess that for my previous birthday (8th) my main gift had been ‘Transistor Radio’ by Benny Hill.

Oh, discerning reader, you might already have made the connection: both of these were ‘novelty singles’ as I think we might now term them.  What tickled and entertained the nine year old me about ‘Speedy Gonzales’ I can only now guess at.  Certainly I had no notion of the cartoon character on which it is based (I am presuming that now –am I right?); and the whole mild racism of the Mexican stereotype meant nothing to me then of course..  So maybe I was amused by the funny squeaky voices in the same way as I might have been amused by Pinky and Perky and Twizzle on early 60s TV?  Did the very unintelligibility of the foreignness seem a bit of tickly fun? ‘Hey Roseeta, come queek –down at the canteeena, they giving green stamps with tequeeela!’ And I presumably chuckled at all this with absolutely no knowledge of what it meant – Green (shield) stamps I knew about, yes, but ‘ tek-eela’ (fly-killer?), no idea –and probably ‘canteena’ likewise.

I could go easy on myself and say, well, I was very young after all…  But still my susceptibility to this sort of thing seems mildly depressing to me now.  In fact I can picture a whole stream of novelty singles stretching from Tommy Steele’s ‘Little White Bull’ (I even wrote to Children’s Favourites to get this played on the radio…) through ‘Ello my Darlings’ (Charlie Drake) and Bernard Cribbins’ songs ‘Right Said Fred’ etc.  Even something like James Darren’s ‘Conscience’ (‘Ah-ah-ah this is your conscience speaking..’) another 45 which was one of the proudest in my collection….through to the Barron Knights and their parodies of pop bands in the mid sixties.  And if all of that is depressing, this next thought is even more so: that all pop music is a kind of novelty single –a kind of lowest common denominator fun, cynically mass produced from a commercially driven industry eager to exploit the short attention spans, the need for quick titillation, for undemanding hooks, refrains and gimmicks for the new disposable-income generation in the postwar decades.  All of it –the parade (the literal parade – the ‘hit’ parade) of three-minute singles, churned out by (at the classier end of things!) the Brill Building –Klein and Goffin, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill et al; at the cruddier end, some cynical entrepreneur with capital to hire a studio, some backing singers, cliché-stringing pen, and the means of production. Pete Waterman and the ilk that preceded, and follow in that wake.

Speaking of which, let me take a minor detour for a moment to talk about another Pat Boone record we had bought –the very first in fact – ‘Sugar Moon’, and bought as a larger 78-rpm single in that thicker, harder, more brittle plastic that was used then.  I think I had pointed out to my parents for purchase (‘I’ll have that one’) almost randomly –maybe I liked the sound of the title, who knows, maybe even the assonantal rhyme of ‘Moon’ and ‘Boone’?  I found it on youtube the other day and listened.  The song could have been constructed by Tin Pan Alley computers (had such things existed then) with its predictable, bland, melodic construction, its ragbag of romantic clichés, its verse-bridge-verse format, its syrupy ooh-ing sessions singers behind Mr. Boone, its plinky hammered piano chords in 6/8 (?) dullness, and ubiquitous sixties bits of sax attempting to flesh it out to a fatter sound.  Selling it well, aren’t I?  Its saving grace is its modest brevity –today equally inane pieces of muzak are dragged out to twice the length.  But I played it; and must have liked it? …

Woe is me.  If you want to pile on the agony, you could even say that a distinctly ‘novelty’ single – ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ was even my way in to appreciating Joni Mitchell.  Yikes.

Where does this leave us once the gloom of this realization has settled?  Always good to face up to reality.  The wonder of it is that despite it all –the crassness, the formulaic commercialism, the cynical exploitation of low appetites and lazy listening, somehow, somehow and sometimes, something of value squeaks through.  Sometimes the form can transcend the silliness of novelty and touch the spirit like art can do; or can harness some kind of common humanity in a narrative or a symbol, as the best of folk tale and folk song can do.

Or, presumably, I wouldn’t be bothering to write these things… would I?

73. SEASONS OF LOVE – from the musical ‘Rent’ (Jonathan Larson)

In more recent years of secondary school classroom teaching, much more thought has been given to the structuring of lessons, the way they begin and end, for instance –and when we think about the beginning, not just a ‘starter’ activity, but the actual process of what students (oops, sorry, ‘learners’) encounter as they enter a classroom.  I suspect generally this was meant to mean some little challenging conundrum, or some curriculum based image displayed to get their studenty minds appropriately ticking over.  All good, by the way.  Me, what I liked (in those final years of my class-teaching when we all had PCs, interactive screens and access to youtube) was to put on some feelgood music as they filed in and shuffled to their seats.  Particular coming-into-class favourites for me included Michael Buble’s ‘Just Haven’t Met You Yet’, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’, and this one here – the opening over-the-credits song from the film musical ‘Rent’: ‘Seasons of Love’.

And I suppose I ought to confess at this point that I’ve never seen the whole musical ‘Rent’, and I half suspect that I actually never will.  I have the DVD, but no reports from friends who’ve seen it have ever quite been sufficiently enthusiastic to make me want to remove it from the box.  Oh I might, who knows – then I may have to add to this posting. Never mind, it’s this song that I love, and that I have found –as I have explained –most serviceable!  The song’s ‘message’ if you’ve never heard it (but surely you have!) is pretty simple – How should we ‘measure’ and presumably validate, all of the things that take place in the course of one year?  In the minutiae of daily trivia? (‘cups of coffee..’) in beautiful scenes experienced, in the maelstrom of emotions (‘in laughter and strife’), in movement, travel?  No, proposes the song, let’s ‘measure’ it by the many ways that love has been demonstrated (in comradely companionship? fraternal empathy?  Kinship and sharing?  Passion and compassion?).  Can’t argue with that.

While the song undoubtedly stands on its own, it’s hard to divorce it now from that brilliant piece of film that introduces the lineup of characters comprising the group of friends around which ‘Rent’ the musical is constructed.  It’s starkly orchestrated – darkness to light via 8 spotlights on the line of characters, becoming visible as the piano strikes the key sequence of chords, gradually added to by other instruments. Then they launch, in unison ,  into the neat bit of maths for which the song is probably most famous – telling us the number of minutes in a year – 525,600, of course. The camera pans along the line (oh look there’s Idina Menzel, probably now the famousest thanks to Wicked & Frozen), and when we hit the chorus bit – ‘How about love?..’ the line breaks into harmonies and parts- and gets very exciting. In the second verse, we get terrific solos – Tracie Thomas the first half, Jesse Martin the second  – and here the lyric, soulfully delivered, gets a bit heavier, maybe – ‘In truths that she learned/ Or in times that he cried/ In bridges he burned/ Or the way that she died..’ On the repeated chorus the vocal focus goes back to Tracie who in apparently semi-improvisational soul-singing ‘choose love – give love’ etc hits an incredible piercing (in a good way!) high note to bring the lyric, the performance, and the song’s injunction (Measure your life in love! )to its dramatic conclusion. Whew.

 ‘Sir can we watch it again!?’ Hmmm – but this apparent keenness may well have been just a wile to delay the onset of more demanding classroom activities. Or ‘work’, as we sometimes called it. Still, I like to think we launched into our academic endeavours all a little bit lifted, energized, stimulated or something like.