67. SPARROW – Mary Hopkin (composed Gallagher & Lyle)

I’ve been up to say hello to the lapwings, again.  There’s a breeding ground –fairly rare for Wales, I’ve been told – just a couple of miles north from here.  I’m very fond of them, and I have to try and enjoy them while they’re around, because after all it’s only for a few short months.  I love their erratic flappy, upside down sideways (presumably courtship showings off?) flights, and their little quirky curls as they strut in profile.  When I get near them, though, they rise up in warning, in distraction, and then fly up really high above me.  As high as larks?

I’ve no idea of course; I’m not a real ornithologist; so I don’t know how much ornithological truth there is in the chorus of Gallagher and Lyle’s beautiful song: ‘the sparrow sings, the sparrow flies/ With mighty wings he reaches/ As high as any other bird..’ but I can’t say I’m worried about the scientific veracity of this.  I came across the song (and thank you, peewits, for bringing it to mind this morning!) as the B side of a much fluffier, more instantly accessible –and ultimately more forgettable –single by Mary Hopkin.  I think it was called ‘Goodbye’, and having flipped it to its flip side, I’m not sure I ever flipped it back again, because this song ‘Sparrow’ was to my teenage self an intriguingly elliptical song with a gorgeous melody and an equally gorgeous romantic ‘feel’.  And ‘feel’ was all, maybe, because back in 1969 (I’m guessing) I was no lyrical analyst –otherwise I might have been concerned about how flummoxing the total lyric is.

But the way it works, perhaps, is this –we ‘pick up’ on this phrase, and on that phrase (much like, now I think of it, sparrows in the garden today picking at the wispy tops of last year’s crop of –totally incongruous in this garden –tall rushes, and flying off hopefully to help give a nest a bit of a downier lining?)…  I suspect the smell of freedom and independence was stirred by bits of the lyric – ‘I had to find it out my way/ They couldn’t stop me leaving…’; something romantic about the spare selection of muted imagery ..’a wealth of silence will descend upon the town/ in colours of the evening..’ and open ended ambiguity of the song’s conclusion ‘In the blue and hazy drift of after two, a saxophone is moaning./ I rise and step into the cool night air…’  There’s a whiff of detachment and wistfulness about the observations of the first verse too, observing a village held by its own routines (?) ‘ On Sunday morning everyone will leave the house, dressed for the Sunday service, /and through the streets I used to know, they go…’

But most of all that chorus speaks to something primal within us-the longing for (or the awareness of the unexpected possibility of) the apparently ‘small’ and insignificant to achieve inordinately beyond all expectations.  We are talking Jack and the beanstalk, maybe, David and Goliath, Sylvia Plath’s ‘Mushrooms’, the little engine who could (‘ I think I can, I think I can…’) and perhaps even what we hear from Micah every advent – ‘out of you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small…  Out of you will come…’ Well, you know who comes.   And the biblical overtones here do not go unnoticed  ‘…he shall inherit all the earth’ (like the meek, of course).

I’ve heard the composers singing it – they are/were(?) much undervalued and under-appreciated songsmiths, and their version of their own song is more than serviceable…but having heard Mary Hopkin’s interpretation…  Well, it’s just drop dead beautiful, isn’t it?  (And here’s a thought: having arrived at our aural doorsteps via Opportunity Knocks, how well would Ms Hopkin have fared in the X factor or Britain’s got talent? Just musing, idly.] And that extraordinary sweet voice: isn’t she a bit like ‘Eleanor [who] sings in the choir/ [and] it’s like a lark in summer’?  The ‘production’ here might be seen as a bit overblown – the bells, the woodwind, the saxophone at the end, the ethereal ‘chorus’. Ah but I must confess I rather like it.

 

64. FOR MR. THOMAS – Robin Williamson

I’ve been listening to RW’s lovely ‘Songs of Love and Parting’ again, now I’ve got it on CD at last. My confession is this: I didn’t really get into the Incredible String Band when I should have.  I liked the pictures I saw of them on album covers and in music magazines, I found interviews and reviews interesting, the whole gypsyish-ragamuffin Celtic-folk-alternative/slightly stoned-looking image was of course beguiling; and I particularly liked the fact that one of the girls was called Licorice.  But the music, for whatever reason, passed me by.

And even when I did begin to appreciate something of their sound and their charm, I’m ashamed to say it was through the doorway of the cutesy novelty track ‘the Hedgehog Song’ which Bob Harris played on his radio show one night.  This did send me back to looking for and at the albums – found some cheapo second-hand ones in a hippy shop in Pontypridd, where in a haze of nag champa the owner told me he’d listened to lots of ‘the Incredibles’ when he’d made his trips across land to Katmandhu. Honest, it’s what he said. Listening to the albums, though, I found that with each bunch of tracks it was with some relief when I came upon one with a ‘proper tune’.  What a shallow plebeian am I.  I really got to love ‘Seasons They Change’, though, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one night my good friend Julia and I found out that Robin Williamson was performing in Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre and we went along.  Without doubt, it was one of the best concert experiences of my life –I was quite blown away by this harp playing, guitar playing, word spinning storyteller, and particularly by this song. *

The funny thing is that the frissons of excitement I got from hearing this song for the first time –with its heady and relentless barrage of words and images addressed to Dylan Thomas –corresponded very closely with the chills of delight I got when I first read ‘Under Milk Wood’.  And my memory of that is fairly sharp –I was 15 or 16, I think –still in school anyway –and I got a copy of this famous play for voices from our local library.  For some reason I decided I would read the book by torchlight under the blankets of my bed.  No logical reasons for this: I was no longer sharing a bedroom with my big brother by this time, and my parents had no problems whatsoever in allowing me to keep the lights on till whenever.  I must have just thought it would add something to the atmospheric thrill of the experience.  And in a strange way, it was fitting.

I don’t think for all my teenage reading that I had encountered anything where words tumbled over each other with such rich relentless profusion, and yet at the same time seemed to be savoured for the precise, delicious value of their sounds and connotations.  And now here’s a funny story.  When I applied for a place in Swansea University, I was invited for interview (do they still do that sort of thing?).  On the day, following some kind of written ‘test’ of my lit crit skills, I sat before a panel of some kind.  They glared down at my application form. “Oh, you’re quite a reader,” one of them said, “Tolstoy?  Evelyn Waugh?  Kafka?” (I had written to impress, largely bluff based on a couple of pages here and there) “and you like Dylan Thomas, apparently.  What is it that you like about him?” Awkward and inarticulate as I was then I managed, “well…  he’s…  a master of words, isn’t he”. “Ah, and what if we were to say to you,” said one of the boffins eagerly leaning forward, “that words mastered him, rather than him mastering them?  How would you respond to that?” My awkward inarticulacy stumbled up a further notch – “well…  I suppose…  I.. wouldn’t really agree,” I said.  My cross examining tutor smiled. “Well, you can write anyway, so that’s good,” he said  (kindly? benignly ? patronizingly?) looking down at what I’d written earlier that day.  Even today, I’m not sure what the answer to that question should have been.

Back to this song.  There is a frenetic stream of images from the word go in this song – I’m probably clueless about any precise meaning many of them have; yet the energy of that stream perfectly echoes something of Thomas’s own mystically poetic verbal extravagances; and the words have something of the wildness and ferocity and recklessness which he sees and admires in Thomas. And just like the best of Thomas’s poetry, the magic is as much in the sound as in the content.  The beautiful rawness of Williamson’s Scottishness adds edge to this –even that first line (excuse the clumsy attempt to phoneticise) ‘fram faded newsprint used tae wrap a fush..’ , every alliterative fricative sounded, every ‘r’ a crisply struck rhotic . It draws you in straight off.  [I didn’t know until today that no less a figure than Van Morrison had covered this song – adding to the mix of Celtic connections; and yes of course you can see why he chose to.] Williamson’s guitar style in the song is spare but with some deft hammering and picking, the tune simple, repetitive and cumulatively powerful.

I’m not sure I could analyse the lyric if I tried, but if we are selective we can get some flavour of the qualities Williamson perceives in Thomas, and which to some extent he emulates.  He clearly identifies with him – ‘while I sit drinking namelessly in a nameless bar/ 5000 miles and 30 years away..’ He highlights that whiff of freedom he recognizes within Thomas’s work as distinct perhaps from the repressiveness of traditional literary academia – ‘let smirking scholars writhe in their favoured bondage/ to hold you plaintiff to the charge of art..’.  He sees in Thomas an anarchic free spiritedness which perhaps defies any attempts to crystallise and capture him as an image or a persona, even that of a ‘wild Welsh Rimbaud’?..Rather ‘you’d laugh to see the monochromes they make of you..’ (I like that.) His sense of identification seems to gather pace towards the end of the song, into ‘Let us (together)..’ expressions – ‘let us ramble through the midnight fair…’ Ending in a violently forceful image seemingly invoking connections with a earthy sense of rooted history, with a vigorous Celtic heritage, perhaps  -‘(Let us) hack wide the bellies of the swollen mountains/and rip molten heroes forth to their furious tears…’ Just like Thomas’s famous villanelle ‘Do Not Go Gentle..’, these images have an urgency and energy that affirm the very beauty and preciousness of life itself.  Since this song, 35 years plus old now, Williamson has produced a whole album more or less inspired by Dylan Thomas’s work ‘The Seed At Zero’ with an interpretation and appreciation of a broader spectrum of Thomas’s qualities, though nothing quite touches the intuitively gutsy authenticity of this response.

[* By the way, we shouldn’t have been surprised to find Robin Williamson performing in Cardiff –he’s been living there for quite a while now, apparently.  My former boss, when we were discussing inviting guests to come to  school to inspire students, mentioned the one of his neighbours was something of a poet/performer. ‘you might have heard of him’ he said…  We didn’t invite him, eventually.  Best keep these icons at a distance]

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.

56. LORD, YOU HAVE BLESSED US and TRUST IN THE LORD – Mimi Armstrong Farra/The Keyhole/Fisherfolk

It’s funny what tunes and ditties get lodged in the brain, to burrow away then surface forever after with regularity, playing themselves like a mantra.  My father, for instance, in the last years of his life whittled down the repertoire of his whistling more or less to just two tunes –one was Lara’s theme from Doctor Zhivago, the other an unidentified piece whose origin even he couldn’t remember.  I’m getting like my dad, no doubt, in this respect –except that I probably have a wider repertoire of nagging mantras in the jumbled recesses of my brain.  One such is certainly the first of these little songs from Mimi Farra, ‘Lord You Have Blessed Us’.

Nearly half a century ago, I began to discover fresh new worship music emanating from North America, firstly from an vibrant Catholic charismatic community called the Word Of God in Ann Arbor  Michigan (a bunch of fabulous albums containing songs that have endured…) and then from the Keyhole –a coffee house folk group, coming as I was soon to learn, from a wider life of ministry centred around Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  I was drawn in and drawn on to discover more, finding myself nourished, challenged, encouraged by this music.

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We are talking the beginnings of the Fisherfolk, of course, and it is clear that Mimi Armstrong played a key part in the early days of what was to be an extraordinary music ministry, in helping to develop something unique in the worship life of that burgeoning community.  You only have to look at the famous TV documentary on that church, ‘Following the Spirit’ aired nationally in the U.S. in 1970 (?), which one imagines gave the church suddenly a whole new public profile.  It’s a little over reverent, perhaps, by modern standards, but despite its grainy black and white artlessness, it’s still something inspirational.  And Mimi features strongly –a little interview with her in the church’s bookstore, footage of her seemingly fronting the Keyhole in their coffeehouse setting, as well as leading some simple songs (self penned songs which turn up on albums like ‘Glory’) in an informal lunch time eucharist.

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It seemed to me that where the equally exciting new compositions of the church’s music leader (Rev. Pulkingham’s  wife Betty) had a more classical kind of crafting to them, Mimi though no less musically accomplished, perhaps, seemed to favour simpler, slightly more repetitive, intuitive expressions.  I soaked up everything from this source, as has no doubt become apparent to anyone who has read much of this blog, and learned to value, and to use, the wealth of creativity that I began to perceive to be pouring from a veritable spring of authentic loving worship.  I sent for all the vinyl albums, including one that seems to have settled into a kind of obscurity –‘Room In The In’, featuring a Christmas folk mass which Mimi had composed presumably for use in the Way In coffeehouse?  Side two of the album featured others of Mimi’s own meditative compositions.  It’s a while since I heard the whole album, but I seem to recall that for most of it at least the accompaniment was one simple acoustic guitar.  The Christmas folk mass needs rediscovering, I think, each little bit of liturgical interpretation an unadorned gem in its own right.  But let me turn my attention to this quiet mantra: so brief I might as well quote it all – ‘Lord you have blessed us with your love/Lord you have given us such a longing/ to find, to know, to share with your saints/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’.  It’s that simple, and its second verse reiteration turns more into a prayer ‘Lord as you bless us with your love/ may we remember that great longing/ to find, to know, to share with the world/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’. It’s a prayer that comes from the very heart and ethos of the worshipping community that Mimi Farra was part of, to be an incarnational Christ-presence in a broken world; and appropriately on the album, in the mass, it is conceived as the post-eucharistic ‘thanksgiving’ song so that the ‘you have blessed us’ has specific as well as general reference.

Mimi Farra and husband Bill are still part of the Community Of Celebration, more pared down in number, but I imagine no less committed in the prayerful intentions which that song represents.  Since the days of ‘Following The Spirit’, the relocation to the UK, the re-relocation to the States, a host of changes within the community, Mimi’s creative output appeared to the casual (obsessive) observer perhaps a little more muted as a remarkably impressive team of other songsmiths emerged, producing a range of worship material, psalm-like meditations and thoughtful lyrical/musical reflections from the same source.  Fewer songs from her, then, but still classic ones: ‘We Cry Hosanna Lord ’ is still the seminal palm Sunday hymn, for me.

And in my two visits to the community’s home in Scotland in the seventies, when I attended daily evening worship in the Cathedral Of The Isles, I got to see Mimi leading worship with her guitar, and there was something solidly impressive about the ease and commitment with which she did this, modestly but confidently drawing others in without any ostentatious badgering (which ‘worship leading’ can sadly become.)  I was pleased to see, too, the community revisiting, in some of their recordings there, a few of her earlier gems including the song which opens side 2 of ‘Room at the In’ – ‘Trust in the Lord’. This is an setting of verses from Proverbs , using chapter 3 verse 5 as its refrain.  [I wish I could say that the setting has helped me follow the injunction consistently (!) but at least having it in my head has been a reminder..!]The same  gorgeous simplicity, and musically one notes  that Mimi makes good use of the ‘E sus’ for the  subtlest of chordal variation (She does the same in her lovely ‘Song of Simeon’). There’s a really nice story about the Fisherfolk’s re-recording of this song (for the ‘Sing the Word’ album) to be found in Betty Pulkingham’s ‘Mustard Seeds’ book – about the calming of a gale, and the unexpected addition of birdsong that accompanied the recording; somehow all in keeping with the unaffected beauty of the song.

In the substantial canon of Mimi Armstrong Farra’s work, these two songs might seem insignificant –   – well, that’s a neat ‘mustard seed ‘ link too – but  like I started saying, the mind and the heart have their own reasons when it comes to the kind of songs they choose to squirrel away for the life’s use. And these have proven enduringly useful, so… I honour the composer for her faithfulness in firstly ‘listening’ to the still small voice and, to having shared, musically, so significantly.

55. ANOTHER DAY & WHEN AN OLD CRICKETER LEAVES THE CREASE – Roy Harper

‘The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day…’  As I’ve mentioned more than once, it was not unusual  in the late 60s/early 70s for my brother to come home with a long playing disc of an artist hitherto unknown to me.  Here was a classic case: the album ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ was both captivating and intriguing.  On the one hand, there was some very nice acoustic guitar work, either with crisply strummed chords or some neat twiddly finger picking, and a few of the songs were par for the course in early seventies English folk prog imagery, with sunshine/ countryside/ seaside allusions, all not too far from McTell.  But with far more of them there was a different tone too, a Dylanesque sharpness, an edgy angry quality.  And let’s not forget to mention that voice – that lovely leaping range he has, from quiet/tender/menacing in the lower registers soaring up to strident/piercing/ challenging/pleading in the higher registers. ‘I hate the white man’ is a perfect example . One interesting feature  was a long monologue (would we pretentiously have referred to it as a ‘rap’ back then??) before Harper launches in to that particular angry song.  It’s a bit rambling, bordering on semi-incoherent, possibly fuelled by, ahem, substances… does it explain some of the ‘impressionism’ of these early songs?

Which is not meant as a put down, because this song ‘Another Day’ from the same album, is stunningly beautiful – but it feels like a case of words and images getting collaged, sort of, by slightly spaced out intuition or serendipity or because they sound good, rather than, I suppose I mean, by more conscious language choices : and maybe that was the creative spirit of the time and the perceived value of mind-altering  stuff – freed you from over-cerebral, overly-prosaic construction? So we listen to ‘Another Day’ recognizing that it’s in the feel  and the general tenor that emerges from the accumulated images – a feel of endings, missed chances, transitions ,loss, and I’m not sure the lines will hold up to too much individual analysis – ‘I must take her while the dove domains..run my wings under her sighs/ as the flames of eternity rise..’.

But I’m also thinking that to see it like this might slightly be doing Harper a disservice – he was avowedly a fan of the romantic poets so let’s assume it wasn’t just their toothache-remedies he emulated, but also their conscious lyrical power. There’s genuine aching loss in some of the lines – ‘I loved you a long time ago/ Where the wind’s own forget-me-nots grow/ But I just couldn’t let myself go/ Not knowing what on earth there was to know..’ and an attempt to explore distances between people – ‘sat here with ourselves in between us..’  And  there’s enough consistency to make it a thing of a unified, coherent mood – a delicious, almost colourful sadness  which ends with a ‘without a sound… walk away’. Whoever produced the album wisely and sensitively accentuated this simple minor chord sequences and ambience with a beautiful string arrangement , and you could play it over and over..

I only ever saw him once, and that was my first year in Swansea University, where he played a set in a very cramped and dingy student union bar.  His song introductions, his chat between songs, were as mumbled, profane and semi incoherent as that album had led me to expect!  But similarly I was not disappointed by this searing, incisive voice, and yes, he even included ‘Another Day’ in the set.

 

What of this second song?  I didn’t really follow the Harper trail, I’m afraid. I got a bit lost after ‘Stormcock’ – which, while I appreciated the ambition and the artistry..I dunno – blame it on my short attention span. Anyway,I can’t remember when I first heard ‘ When an Old Cricketer leaves the crease..’, and I suspect it was long after Roy Harper had ceased to be part of my familiar listening repertoire.  I know now that it comes from the HQ album , which actually was released a mere five years later.  One of the things that struck me about it was that it seemed, in its rather gentle evocation of English village green cricket matches, a far cry from the anti establishment anger stances with which I associated him in my memory.  But I am no Roy Harper aficionado, and perhaps those who have followed his career, and know the canon of his work more fully and more intimately, might be able to tell me that there is more seamlessness between the two Harpers than I was aware of.  The other thing about the song, bearing in mind what I said earlier, is that this one does seem more carefully, almost intellectually crafted, and gently sustaining its cricketing metaphor throughout.

I say metaphor , I assume metaphor, because surely this is a song about mortality, isn’t it.  ‘When the day is done and the ball has spun’.. and so on. (And I identify with this because as I look back at some of my own songs, a lot of them end up musing on mortality!) Even if it’s a tribute to the classic gentlemanly sport, it’s seeing it in the context of endings, and yet with the sense of the enduring spirit ? so ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone/
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on..’ There even seems something semi-mystical as we get into the second ‘verse’ – ‘Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze/The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days’. The lovely vocal range is still there, the ability to leap up the octave. And back to the crafting – wow, this one’s workmanlike – that neat aabccb rhyme pattern in the first two lines of the verse, ferinstance.  And – I don’t know if I’m getting this right but – I like the gentle ‘defusing’ of this perspective by equating it with the ‘sting in the ale’…it’s all a graceful ‘sunset’ (of an English summer Sunday? of life? Of old guys? Of village green cricket matches?) evocation. And in keeping, this time, production gives us comforting low-key brass band music rather than moody strings.

Two classics, two special songs, ladies and gentleman, deserving to be known and enjoyed. As does Mr Harper senior.

54. CHELSEA MORNING – Joni Mitchell

Since the old lady herself was on the radio the other morning, Radio Four delving into some old archival interviews – hers from 1983 –I suddenly felt it was high time to share a little more of my Joni story, and this song will do as well as any, and better than most, as a focus for those thoughts.

Christmas 1970 was very much the Joni Mitchell Christmas in our house: I came down on Christmas morning to find (as I think I’d probably expected, and was hoping for…) a couple of albums on ‘my’ section of the Christmas table –‘Sweet Baby James’ (Taylor) and…  ‘Clouds’ from Joni Mitchell.  I had been sort of lusting after this album since the summer; every record shop I came across I would wander in, finger through the female vocalists section, and gaze at that remarkable self portrait of the blond artist with the cheekbones and the freckles and the flower, with its heavily romanticised background from the warm, dark sunsetty side of the spectral palette.  It was transfixing as much for what it represented as for the kind of songsmithery delights to be discovered therein.  What I had heard of Joni Mitchell –very little, really: the cleverly gimmicky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ single and the far more intriguing flip side ‘Woodstock’; a quick snatch of the BBC two ‘in concert’ performance –and what I had read of her (NME concert reviews…) suggested something/someone that could not fail to stimulate and engage my little teenage creative proclivities!

I knew that she painted –this crazy album cover, for one –and that her songs were already been covered by other people.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Collins, for instance.  What about this song?  My memory is a little hazy, but I think that I heard it first sung by John Rogers Prosser, extraordinarily talented classmate and head boy whose awareness of cool and exciting new musical movements and discoveries seemed several giant leaps ahead of me.  I often watched him closely, surreptitiously, listened in something like awe.  The song seemed fresh and remarkable for a few reasons.  We’ll come to that.  I think shortly afterwards I heard and saw Judy Collins singing this song on the Tom Jones show on TV!  (she did actually release  it as a single, though did not include it on an album until much later).  Since I only saw a bit of the famous 1970 BBC ‘pink dress’ Joni concert, a quick burst of ‘My Old Man’, I think – something better (!) over on ITV, maybe – I didn’t get to see her perform ‘Chelsea morning’ with which she opened the set, I believe.  [thankfully BBC repeated the recording the following year, I think; and in recent years have also trotted out, for nostalgic music-weeks. Am I right in thinking that the half hour productions often differ slightly in the edit, suggesting that the original recording was a slightly longer set list?] My point being, I still hadn’t heard the composer herself singing the song.

It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think there was something about the very structure of the song that seemed alluringly unusual.  Its phrasing and construction definitely wasn’t  ‘common metre’ –to use hymnody parlance –or ‘ballad metre’ even; it wasn’t really pop-idiomatic, either –though there was a bridge between verse two and three (but then the bridge modified at the end of verse three).  There was that little gap between the ‘woke up’ and the ‘it was a Chelsea morning’.  There was rhyme, of course, but not as we know it, Jim… and the verse certainly wasn’t enslaved to it –‘Christmas bells’ and ‘pipes and drums’ sounded like they should have rhymed, but didn’t.

The content, too, was excitingly refreshing for the richness of its imagery –‘the light poured in like butterscotch/and stuck to all my senses…’.  If you were sniffy, you could say that this was just the kind of dippy  poeticizing set of similes and metaphors likely to appeal to an equally dippy A level student of English.  Yet I was aware that it wasn’t Yeats, or Wordsworth or even the imagist complexity of a Dylan –but there was definitely something about it, as there undeniably is with every great song, that was much bigger than the sum of its parts.

If you’ve read  enough of these you may already be tired of hearing me say what a sucker I am for ‘morning’ songs.  I’m even not above a quick burst of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘oh what a beautiful…’ from ‘Oklahoma’; and it’s not rare for me to greet the day’s greyness with something like ‘This is the Day’ or even my own special ‘Buenos Dias mi Senor’ ; and this old Joni song, which takes its place among the classics – I never tire of it, or of playing it.

Joni wrote it as an urban morning song, of course (the Chelsea District of New York is her setting); she had already written a quieter, rural morning song (‘Come To The Sunshine’ – a pretty number that never made it onto any of the albums) but the feel good factor of Chelsea morning –and the other one too, actually –transfers itself to any setting!  And there is a sort of challenge to savour the days experiences, and to ‘stay in the present moment’ as they say: ‘Oh, won’t you stay/we’ll put on the day/and we’ll talk in present tenses’..

I said at the beginning that the album Clouds marked Christmas morning in the Hankins household –finally giving us a chance to hear the composer herself singing this amazing song, and it didn’t disappoint.  As track two, it followed the haunting ‘Tin Angel’, breaking upon us with those crisp jangly chords and the confident soaring voice, backed up towards the end of the song by her own multi tracked harmonies.  Stunning. Oh but then, in the evening present-giving celebration, my sister’s gift was ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’!  Plus,some aunty gave me a record token, which by the new year had magically transformed itself into the first album (‘Song To A Seagull’ or ‘Joni Mitchell’ whatever it’s called).  Suddenly I had the set! The rest is history.

No, one more thing…  Whatever obsessiveness there might have been, at times, in my enthusiasm for this artist, the one thing I do maintain is that the principle value and effect for me especially in those early days  – apart from the intrinsic interest, worth and often beauty of her own output –is that she inspired creativity  more than she inspired unhealthy ‘fandom’.  In other words, though I love to listen, hearing her and seeing her art has primarily made me want to write my own – more poems, more songs, do more arty dabblings.

52. WE LEARNED THE SEA – Dar Williams

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2qzcnrXxPI

I remember, in form six English lessons, our teacher commenting on poems we had written.  “I like this one,” he said, “and I think I like it partly because I don’t quite understand it…” I think I feel the same about some Dar Williams songs.

And here’s the thing about Dar Williams songs.  From her great catalogue of albums, there are probably at least a dozen songs – eloquent, witty, clever, moving and quite explicit in their meaning –which are as good as any songs being composed by any contemporary song writer today (as far as one can compare these things!) But strangely enough, there’s at least an equal number of her songs, achingly beautiful  but where I am not 100% sure exactly what they’re about, if I’m honest.  these are generally the ones that get me in the gut, the heart, the brain, –like this  ‘sea’ song.

So here’s how I find myself listening to Dar Williams: for a day, a couple of days, I will just put one song on repeat, playing it like a mantra through trips to and from college, or supermarket  or wherever.  Songs where I’ve done this include ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’, ‘February’, ‘Calling the Moon’, ‘The Hudson’, ‘It Happens Every Day’ ‘I love, I love’…  so many of them.  Most recently it has been ‘The Tide Falls Away‘(hypnotically listenable, but I’m still not sure); a few weeks ago, and still quite recurringly, I think, over the years, it’s been ‘We Learned The Sea’.  And with each repeated listen, I thought I was perhaps a little bit closer to “understanding”…  ‘Oh, it’s about letting go of childhood…’, ‘Oh, it’s about birth…  – No, that won’t work …’, ‘Ah, are there several voices, like in ‘The Ocean’?  No…’ And then I start to wonder: will I really love the song as much if I can tie it down to a simple, single meaning?  I’m not sure.  Certainly, the enigmatic quality of it gives it a kind of numinous appeal.

And the song has an emotional appeal, quite evidently -the spare, bare guitar picking behind the simple sense of uncertainty at the beginning -‘I am a captain, and I have been told/that tomorrow we land, and our ship has been sold…’and there’s the stirring sweep of strings that comes in behind the song’s bridge -‘you take the wheel one more time, like I showed you/we’ve reached the straits, once even I could not go through…’ Even given the mystery of an eight year old captain (?) there is poignancy in this handing on of control (?), the protective concern for the first ensign, the sagacious aphorism -‘the stars of the sea are the same for the land.’ Even the line which provides the title is enigmatic -‘for all we learned the sea’ -all we i.e. all of us learned (about?  how to handle?  the mysteries of?) the sea?  Or all that we learned was the sea -we learned little else?  So I’ve decided –don’t interpret the song for me.  I’d like its dark starriness.

Me and Dar go back to 1995, in my earliest days (part time) at Cardinal Newman school: she was featured on a brief interview on BBC radio (2?) probably visiting the UK to promote ‘Mortal City’ -I heard it as I was driving to school; she also sang ‘When I was a Boy’ which I thought was clever, charming.  On the day of my interview for the full time post, I was sent off to amuse myself until the afternoon.  I went to Cardiff and bought the double cassette of her first two albums; I did the interview and got the job; I returned to the Pontypridd charity shop the jacket I had bought for the occasion; went home and listened to these beautiful albums, and was hooked.

I went to Brisol to see Dar Williams perform a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time.  I’ve been lucky enough on previous occasions to get the chance to quiz her, though not yet about this song.  “I’m still not getting ‘The Ocean’” I said, “despite Peter Mulvey explaining it has three distinct voices…” I also tried asking about ‘O Canada Girls’ (which, on two occasions, I managed to request her to include in her set -and she did) but she looks at me as if am a bit slow of mind, tries to explain, and tells me to persevere.  But do you know what? I don’t mind that I don’t completely understand. I’m getting closer on ‘We Learnt the Sea’ – certainly it’s got something to do with the tenderness of older siblings helping to guide (?) younger ones. Perhaps…

Because maybe (here’s another dodgy half-interpretation) the shifting fluidity of creative and imaginative experience is perhaps our natural milieu – feeling our way liquidly through life’s subtle complexities, through metaphors and intuitions more viscerally than bland two-dimensional earthbound denotations. After all, ‘we came to learn the sea..’

51. LIGHT YEARS AWAY – Debby McClatchy

 

 

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!)

44. SANCTUARY – Red Horse, & THE VALLEY – Jane Siberry

We had a sermon, a few months back ,on Psalm 23: the priest said that it was one of those pieces of sacred literature which somehow resonates strongly and roots itself firmly into the memories –surfacing and surviving even in the senile, in stroke victims etc.  (Like Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ in Gillian Clarke’s poem about reading this in a care home).  You know what I mean.  And I believe it –even in a largely post-biblically-aware civilisation, there are these residue echoing strands…

I’m not sure what Eliza Gilkyson intended from her lovely song ‘Sanctuary’: was she indeed trying to write a psalm 23 for the 21st century?  Was it a love song for a significant other couched in the assumed elegance of semi-biblical echoes?  Was it simply an acknowledgement of her awareness of an overseeing/accompanying ‘presence’ in her life?  I don’t know –but it is a most enriching song –  its pace and its melody cradling measured tones of peace that entirely marry to the lyric.

It starts with that straight biblical ‘lift’ of course –‘…  The valley of the shadow…’ but from there on, the ‘deathly shadows’ of modern experience are expressed in fresher, more original ways –‘in the crowded rooms of a mind unclear…’, ‘through fear’s dark thunder…’, ‘through the doubter’s gloom and the cynic’s sneer…’, ‘…  The sea of desires that drag me under…’ My favourite is one I’m not sure I fully understand – ‘though I’ve been traded in like a souvenir…’!  And, like the iconic psalm it sort of emulates, this is a prayer for every one.  ‘Though my trust is gone and my faith not near…’ – for strugglers, for believers, for doubters – the affirmation we all long for –‘Thou art with me.’ And yes, please note, family, another to add to the list: I want this recording played at my funeral.

One particular memory I have of it is when, a couple of summers ago, I tried to walk sections of the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway.  Trying to follow the maps, I found myself (between Hengoed and Maesycwmmer, for the record) stuck in the middle of a huge brambled-up area, hoping to find a path, but increasingly snagged up and hardly able to move.  In all of this, for at least 40 minutes I think, before emerging much scratched and bloodied, my iPod played ‘Sanctuary’ into my earbuds, and it was a most appropriate and energising prayer.

On the ‘Red Horse’ recording, it’s sung by Lucy Kaplansky, and with the other two songwriters on this sharing-our-songs project –John Gorka and the song’s composer Eliza Gilkyson, singing backup and harmonising.  As with ‘Cry Cry Cry’ (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell) another great album and project similar to Red Horse, I don’t know whether these collaborations are driven by creative or commercial impulses – but  I can’t help but  love the end results of the co-operative, composite venture – these remarkable  recordings.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRKQWzm14-E

Looking again of the lyric of Jane Siberry’s ‘The Valley’, I’m not exactly sure why I’ve always automatically associated it with Psalm 23 – and yet I have the kind of gut feeling that she was aiming for something of the feel of it (?), in certain places anyway – ‘the valley is dark…  You walk through the shadows…  You trust the light…  The shepherd…’ Rhythmically, and and as regards tempo and tenor, it’s very close to Gilkyson’s ‘Sanctuary’.  When I first heard it, it was on that amazing Christmas (live) double album ‘Child’ –and while there are distinctly quirky choices on there,  I felt this song had a genuine spirituality and solemnity to it.  Since then, I’ve heard it in her original early album recording (on ‘Bound to the Beauty’) and also as a stunningly good cover on KD Lang ‘s wonderful album of songs from Canadian songwriters.  In each case my original impression is confirmed. More about Jane Siberry very soon. Though I’ve written more about ‘Sanctuary’, I hope this one doesn’t get overlooked:  listen to this recording.

In this song, the affirming refrain is ‘You will walk in good company’ –and although I’m not entirely sure what Siberry intended from that either, in my head it has the same psalm 23-type sense of ‘Thou art with me’.  I love it when songs lead me back to God, whether they intended it or not.