32. LITTLE BOY FISHING – Shirley Abicair

Before anything else, song-wise; before my sister’s 21st birthday, when songs suddenly became tangible, accessible, re-playable plastic; before my siblings’ friends shared selections from their disc collections, and before my parents’ generosity helped to amass our own modest collection…  Before all this, song recordings were transitory, occasional, ethereal; and there was Children’s Favourites on the radio, and that was about it.

Saturday mornings, I think, over a leisurely makeshift breakfast sitting next to the kitchen fire, there’d be Nelly The Elephant on the radio, and Danny Kaye singing various songs from Hans Christian Andersen; there’d be Alma Cogan singing either about a railroad running through the middle of the house, or about ‘This Old House’.  There’d be the Teddy bears Picnic (‘if you go down to the woods today…’) and the three Billy Goats Gruff and –as I later discovered –AA Milne’s little song about Christopher Robin watching the changing of the guard; there’d be Tubby the Tuba and – a particular treat –Sparky’s Magic Piano .  In retrospect, it was all pretty good.

Retrospection and nostalgia have become, of course, big business.  At the end of 1988, I found and bought a double cassette album of all these old songs, ‘Children’s Favourites’, originally thinking of it as a great Christmas gift for… somebody, and then realizing that nobody would appreciate it as much as I would, and so deciding to keep it.   I shamelessly wallowed in the syrupy nostalgia and enjoyed every song.  Amongst the crass gimmickry, and there was plenty of that, there were also some tasteful classics, and some nicely crafted treasures including ‘Little Boy Fishing’.  We’ll come back to this.

It was a time when I had given up my regular income job on a whim/ spiritual impulse/mid-life crisis/sense of vocation…  Travelling to Bournemouth in the turning of the year to begin my intensive TEFL course, I listened to the cassettes as I drove and seriously considered ways of raising income: how about busking on the streets of Bournemouth, I thought, and, hey, why not buy into the musical nostalgia business, and focus on these numbers for us baby-boomers?  Okay, I couldn’t quite see myself performing ‘I Know An Old Lady’ (and I didn’t begin to look like Burl Ives till several years later)  or even Max’s ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’, – but I could sort of imagine myself singing  ‘Robin Hood’ (riding through the glen);’Little White Bull’ a la Tommy Steele; I’d have a brave stab at ‘The Runaway Train’ (while coins continued to drop in the imaginary hat)…  and yes I thought I could learn that Shirley Abicair number about the little boy fishing off a wooden pier.

It was a daft, momentary dream – for one thing a TEFL course allows no free time for anything beyond planning lessons, let alone busking!  So I never did take to the streets with my handful of Uncle Mac classics. But oddly enough about seven or eight years later I did work the ‘fishing’ song into my repertoire.  Singing it at folk club got a fairly ambiguous response –but then again so did most of my ‘covers’ (in that list include ‘Paper Moon’, Brel’s ‘The Desperate ones’, Goffin/King’s ‘Goin’ Back’) – but it gave me a kick, and that’s what counts.

If I came to love this song as a child – and I did, I think – then I can only conjecture at some of the elements of appeal.  The image of the solitary kid enjoying his solitude was always attractive – particularly with the added ideas of imagination, dreaming…  and that’s all here.  ‘Little boy dreaming with a secret smile/one day sail away cannibal isle…’ (!  Uncertain attraction there, perhaps!).  The song also hinted at the exciting anticipation of growing up (‘Soon enough little boy’ll grow big man/then he’ll go fishing for the frying pan’ – not that I got that, I’m sure), the idea of aspiration (‘Gotta make some money for that boat of mine…’) but all within the cosy safety of childhood – getting sleepy and going to bed –on ‘Blanket Bay’.  And I’m guessing the jaunty little internal rhymes were fun too: ‘Dogfish catfish any this or that fish’; ‘can’t catch shellfish but I wanna sell fish’; as well as the colourful idiomatic lines which would have seemed nonsense to me, but fun if taken literally – ‘Many a general would eat his hat…’ We didn’t fish, as kids, our family, but I kept the image of it, Huck Finn-like, as something a bit romantic, and requested a rod for one birthday before I’d quite quit childhood. (The reality of fishing was less entrancing, though.)

If I think of the TV Shirley Abicair, all I can conjure up is someone compositely between the lady who accompanied Muffin The Mule, Shari somebody who worked Lamb Chop, and Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary.  But with a zither…  Or was it an autoharp?  But this was radio Shirley Abicair, just a pretty voice, singing a  nice song… The song? Well, without any supporting research, I suspect this is a sort of modified traditional song.  I think I’ve read it has aboriginal origins (and S.A. was Australian wasn’t she?), but to me it has a kind of possible West Indian feel, somehow, at a time when it was not particularly non PC to affect Caribbean mannerisms to sing about ‘dat ol banana boat’ etc.  This song doesn’t do that; and I may be way off the mark.  Even if this were some kind of traditional, it has been neatly smoothed, anglicised, even almost sort of pop-structured.  But there’s something quietly substantial about its dreamy childhood images, that has stayed with me a little more doggedly than eg.Windmill in Old Amsterdam, and such . And yes I still like it.

24. THE FOLKS WHO LIVE ON THE HILL – Peggy Lee

I still really miss Benny Green’s Sunday afternoon radio programme.  Some weeks, especially if, after church and after lunch I’ve gone out for a drive towards the Brecon mountains and reservoirs for some scenery and a little stroll, I stupidly try to twiddle the dials to Radio 2, hoping to still find him there.

His program was quite unique, and –like John Peel, from another context –introducing me to things I might not have heard anywhere else; his knowledge of the ‘great American songbook’, particularly, was encyclopaedic –but he also got you appreciating the context in which there were written, with anecdotes about the composers and the performers, the creative partnerships or business collaborations which had produced these songs.  He got me listening to lyrics in a new way – I remember when he shed light on ‘Paper Moon’, seemingly a throwaway romantic ditty –describing how it deftly proposes the idea that love can give validity and substance to otherwise superficial and insubstantial scenarios.  Something like that.  Anyway, Benny Green wasn’t above repeating favourites on his playlists, from what I (at least imagine) I remember,  this extraordinary beautiful Peggy Lee song seemed to get more than its fair share of Sunday afternoon plays.

It’s a Jerome Kern – Oscar Hammerstein number: in essence, I suppose it reflects the generic dream of every young couple –a home, their own living space, independent house ownership (and ‘location, location, location’).  And the aspiration of building a family together in an idyllic setting, before eventually settling to enjoy the living space in post-childrearing comfortable old age.  I have to ‘hold lightly’ to these lyrics, or I will get very cranky about how hard it is now in the UK for young couples to gather the money for a deposit, especially while still paying off a student loan, to get the simple ‘foot on the mortgage ladder’, let alone get the capital to build a house on a hill!!!

Still, the romance of dreams and songs.  Hammerstein’s lyric is simple and economical –three verses (one: building and living, two: family and extensions, three: on their own again) and a playful little ‘middle eight’ –‘our veranda/will command a/view of Meadows green/the sort of view/that seems to want to be seen…’ In the third verse, Peggy Lee apparently didn’t want to sing ‘Darby and Joan’ (who used to be Jack and Jill) –perhaps she didn’t understand it –so she sings ‘baby and Joe’ (?) Doesn’t matter; still sounds nice.

Let’s be honest, what’s most gorgeous about this is the sound, just the sound – from the first intriguing, haunting sweep of strings, and the single trumpet that enters, quickly augmented by other woodwind instruments taking up the introductory phrases and overlapping before Ms Lee slides in with one sultry, simple word ..’Someday..’ So many beautiful ingredients to this song –as well as the silky allure of the voice, and the sensitive orchestration, there’s a kind of wonderful leisureliness to the phrasing and the pace of the whole song, so that, yes, Mr. Green, it bears many a repeated listen.

Funny thing, I can’t take too much Peggy Lee all at once.  We’ve got ‘Fever’ on our jukebox, of course, but that’s something else –a clever little minor classic, a paeon to sexual chemistry –but a whole album of Peggy Lee?  Hmmm, maybe like overdosing on cream.

A final word on the lyrics: perhaps too they tap into another part of the aspirations of  romantic dreamers –to be acknowledged as a recognized unit (an ‘item’ as we say these days) with its own established identity –‘And we’ll be pleased to be called/what we have always been called/the folks who live on the hill…’ And…  given our geographical location, and our relative marital longevity, I suppose this could be said to be what Susan and I have become.

20. MOUNTAIN GREENERY by Mel Torme

‘Funny thing’ I said to the woman behind the Oxfam counter, as I handed over this CD and the 60p to pay for it, ‘I just don’t remember Mel Torme as being this attractive!’ She smiled politely. ‘Would you like a bag…?’  The song under discussion comes from a completely different disc –though this Moon-themed one is worth the 60p just for ‘Moonlight in Vermont’; but this little incident from last week at Hay both tickled me, and has become my way in to remembering my first Torme disc, ‘Live at the Crescendo’, a December 1954 recording (5 months after my first birthday).

So..that recording sends me to a brief window in my life where I lived technically alone –  I suppose, without checking it out, that must be the two or three years after the various house-sharings and prior to my marriage i.e. the early 1980s.What was I listening to back then the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s?  -nothing ‘contemporary’, I think.  For much of the time I was attempting to educate myself into enjoying Beethoven; and so to Kelly’s Record Exchange (upstairs in Cardiff indoor market) I went many a Saturday with dispensable contemporary folk (bye bye Carly Simon et al) and I came home with rather tattered-sleeved secondhand discs of the symphonies, the Emperor Concerto and piano sonatas.  But of course, I also listened to Joni, Bob and the Fisherfolk.

A couple of times a year at that stage in my life, and particularly in the pre-Christmas run-up, I’d take a trip to London for some mild browsing and shopping, and always called in to the used record stores around Charing Cross Road and Soho Market.  There was one particular shop I loved, where the vinyl was just crammed in –not always with any perceptible notion of order –and their basement stock contained classics, easy listening, jazz, swing/crooners and humour.  I found myself often drawn to picking out quirky things with which I was only modestly familiar.  On one visit I brought home a Flanders and Swann LP (with its sleeve in a very sorry condition) –I played it to death and loved it.  On another occasion a Noel Coward compilation, on another the double album of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter songs –even today this is among my most prized series of recordings –have it now in CD of course.  On yet another occasion, I came home with this live Mel Torme LP.  What did I know of him?  Why did I choose it?  Did I notice perhaps that it contained the ‘Christmas Song’ (‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire…’) and did I notice on the liner notes that he was in fact its composer?  Did I feel it might be a nice seasonal sound to take back home to my funny telly-less little terraced home?

If that was what I’d imagined, I wasn’t wrong.  I have warming, perhaps slightly romanticised, memories of me nearing Christmas, enjoying my homely solitude, the fire banked up with coal, spreading on the floor all the Tear Fund/Traidcraft items which I had bought as gifts (working out what would fit whom), listening to this album on repeat, no doubt singing along.  There couldn’t possibly be a voice that more comfortingly combines silk and huskiness, and the live performance takes us not only through Christmas Song, and another of his own compositions ‘County Fair’, but a couple of Rogers and Hart songs – the lovely ‘Blue Moon’ and this one under discussion; the Gershwins’ great ‘Love is Here to Stay’, a couple of Cole Porters, and several others, all with a genuine, winning charm.

‘Mountain Greenery’ was track one on side 2, I seem to recall –and I’d probably known the song from childhood days – Forces’ Favourites on the radio, perhaps –but to discover it again was very nice indeed.  It’s a Rogers and Hart song, such a neat, playful construction both melodically (that fun climbdown on ‘greenery’ and the climb back up on ‘scenery’) and, particularly, lyrically, with jokey and inventive rhymes throughout –‘your lover let…/coverlet’; ‘planned which is…’/’sandwiches’ etc.  Some great couplets: ‘How we love sequestering/Where no pests are pestering’, and ‘Beans could get no keener re/ception in a beanery’- clearly one madcap lyricist was Lorenz Hart! And I should mention the very inviting song-introduction which encourages us alluringly to a real recklessness –‘spring is here so blow your job/Throw your job away’ and ‘now’s the time to trust/to your wanderlust.’ So there’s much to delight in, while you’re sitting on the floor wrapping presents.  And of course,it’s the old pastoral, Romantic idyll, the lure of the rustic retreat, the sweet scent of freedom and travel, the promise of places of perpetual peace and freshness.. shared of course romantically, this time with a small r, though the playful wit gives it a tongue-in-cheek urbane archness.(A bit like Marlowe’s ‘Come live with me and be my love..’, now I come to think of it!)

Admittedly, it’s also very much a song of its time, and not beyond mild sexism – inviting the beloved out into the country so that he could sit and watch her cooking beans –if I hear it correctly!  I’ve heard Ella doing this song too on her own Rogers and Hart song book collection- it’s nice, but this version for me, by Mr Torme, is still the quintessential.