88. TOGETHER TOMORROW – Tom Chapin

 

[I have a confession: I wrote this as one of the earliest blog-essays, published it, then took it down almost immediately, with misgivings that it simply wasn’t cool enough. Whatever that means. So here it is, in all it’s uncoolness.]

Our five years in South America were cassette years (post-vinyl, pre-CD), pared-down possessions years (so not so many music cassettes either), snail-mail and no such thing as internet- and-download years; and they were also child-rearing years, when it seemed natural to want to fill their little ears with appropriate kiddy songs. You forget how important that is until you have kids yourselves. It’s the only time I’ve written children’s songs, too..

Friends sent us cassettes from the Early Learning Centre – nice collections of Wheels on the Bus and Incy Wincy Spider type things. But I was always on the lookout for more. Most music available from city centre vendors – those mainly on street ‘stalls’ – were shoddily copied knock-offs in from Brazil and Argentina of Latino artists like – oh, I can’t remember – Xuxa? Jon Secada? Legitimately imported cassettes in more upmarket shopping malls were generally exorbitantly priced. So…some thrill, then, to stumble across a store with an eclectic selection of cassettes from North American labels – who must have offloaded huge stocks (in the advent of CDs) onto South American distributors; and they were available for…well, pennies (a mere thousand guarani note?) You’ll see more about this in others of these posts, I think, when we came to think about Bruce Cockburn and me. (see number 12)

All this is a rather-lengthy intro to my chance encounter with some new kids’ cassettes for the girlies, and, in particular, Tom Chapin, a name hitherto unknown to me. The covers of his cassettes contained colourful images of him and his family in that endearing naïf art style a la Grandma Moses. The songs, when we began to play them, we discovered to be lively, imaginative, playful, inventive…in short, a veritable treasure trove of musical fun. There were two albums, ‘Billy the Squid’ and ‘Family Tree’ – we loved them, and we played them to death, the latter, particularly being our favourite, containing two tracks with lovely rounds to sing en famille – one called ‘Rounds’ and one called ‘This Pretty Planet’. I’d forgotten, until I got the cassette out again yesterday, that Judy Collins (yes, how many more times will she get mentioned in these posts? Answer: a lot) makes a guest appearance, adding her vocals to that track, as well as to this track I’m meant to be focusing on right now.

That is, the closing track ‘Together, Tomorrow’. It’s possibly the simplest of the cuts on this sparky collection, and I will forgive if you find it unbearably twee,but in a strange way it touched a chord in me, as the ‘family man’ I clearly felt myself to be then,  particularly the sprightlier-spirited me of my thirties and early forties.

How often did I say to Sue, as night came, that sleep seemed a distraction – I was just eager to get on with the next day? (Hard to believe in that same Jeff now?) Something of that here: ‘I don’t want to say goodnight/ Don’t want this day to end/ But we will be happy together tomorrow/ Together tomorrow again’. And of course that sentiment reflects the joy of family: the people you love will still be there in the morning; the ones you’ve said good night to, you can soon say good morning to!

At its best, some our more intense church and community life has also reflected that joy: I can remember late night hugs at the end of some Saturday church-activity, for instance, just glad that we’d be seeing each other again in the morning. So too, and most of all, the joy, the stability, the continuity of marriage, of course – ‘Tonight when I’m sleeping/ I’ll dream of us being/ Together tomorrow again.’ Thanks, Sue. And hey, thanks so much Tom Chapin for composing it and singing it.

[Quirky postscript: saw a clip of a very young Tom Chapin a few years after this, when someone sent me footage of an early 60s hootenanny-folk type TV show : the act preceding a young Joni Anderson (later to become Mitchell) was a trio of fresh-faced young men – The Chapin brothers! Ie the more famous ‘Cats in the Cradle’ Harry, this children’s song aficionado, Tom, and..the other one]

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87. YOU DON’T NEED – Jane Siberry

Perhaps it’s not surprising, bearing how much the town of Merthyr features in my life these days, that a Canadian song referencing ‘slags of Merthyr Tydfil’ would be one that has made me sit up and take notice. Just to be very clear, it’s not a slur on the townswomen – she’s thinking of course, of the dark artificial-mountain waste heaps left behind from the town’s iron-industry heritage. And for the record, she’s using it merely as a simile for the ‘darkness and heaviness’ of her heart.

I thought, when I came to Jane Siberry, that the song I would be writing about –I may still –is ‘Caravan’, the first ever Jane Siberry song I heard, after, in a mildly inebriated pre-Christmas staff do state, I picked up, in Kelly’s secondhand music store upstairs in the Cardiff market, the Christmas double album by Jane Siberry, entitled ‘Child’. I had seen her name mentioned somewhere on the Internet, as a Canadian singer songwriter; she had sung at a Joni tribute concert, I believe… but I picked up ‘Child’ on a whim, and, playing it over and over in those few pre-Christmas days that were left, I fell head over heels. Even my kids learned to love her version of ‘the 12 days of Christmas’ and (to a lesser extent) her own little anthem ‘Are You Burning, Little Candle’. It was an exciting new voice, and I was hooked – I bought up anything I could get (within reason i.e. second hand, of course. ) I’ve written already in these blogs about ‘The Valley’ (essay 44)

I think I first heard ‘You Don’t Need’ on a live recording which John van Tiel sent me (thanks once again John). I’d like to think it wasn’t just the Welsh references that gripped me (‘slags of Merthyr Tydfil’, tee-hee, and there was also Beddgelert, of course) but the song itself. And I did get a copy of the album on which it first features – ‘No Borders Here’ but I can’t find it upstairs in my collection, so if you’ve borrowed it, can I have it back please. By the way, I emailed Jane about the Welsh references – she was very accessible at that time – she said she had some Welsh ancestry and was aware of those places. I must say, she uses them nicely for impressionistic purposes.

It’s a song which she keeps playing in live recordings (as far as I can see in youtube) and certainly the only time I’ve seen her live – St Paul’s in Bristol (2009, maybe)– she did this song, in the middle of one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever seen: monologues and stories and recordings and improvisations and a handful of remarkable songs sometimes fluidly presented, otherwise impeccably delivered. The guy next to me (also on his own) in the front row said ‘I’m going to ask her out after the show’. Wonder if he did.

So yes, she performed ‘You Don’t Need’ then . OK, I’ll be honest that one of the things that really hooks me about that song is the one-note-samba business of the ‘chorus’ or whatever. I’ve mentioned this before, I know, where songs sustain a single note but the accompaniment or chording behind the melody changes so you get this really subtle and powerful effect.. (think ‘The Great Bear and Plaiedes’ blog essay number 13) but there’s something awfully captivating about that effect. Especially here in her assertions of the things ‘one doesn’t need’…

The song starts on an odd note, like a rather naive plaintive cry from a jilted lover (like ‘I used to be Bobby’s girl’); the little man-made hillocks of industrial waste all around Merthyr are conjured up to convey a sense of that desolation; but what happens there is it swings away from facile self-pity , into an exploration of the solitariness of the sense of selfhood that has been left to its own devices. There’s an odd awareness of the unfamiliar (the extraordinary onomatopoeia of the ‘bird I don’t recall called..’etc) and a sense of disconnectedness – ‘I know you must be there /Because people stop and talk to you’. But the refrain is the real jewel of learnt wisdom, the affirmation of the worth of the individual, apart from ties, ‘ You don’t need anybody…You don’t need any comfort, you can get it for yourself..’ etc. And it’s this that, musically, is played out on a minimalist range of notes, making of it a potent mantra of sorts, or a manifesto for the self-aware and the self-sufficient.

The final verses find her sort of embracing the coldness and frozenness in equally impressionistic language…and I feel I might have said this before, but this song inspired me to write my own song ‘The Comfort of Ice’ because I was so keen to get ‘ice floes’ and ‘tundra’ into a song, as Jane did, and finding their sounds and images potently evocative.

Listen to any recording of her singing it. She’s still exceptional and unique. The song transcends its time.