81. THE SONG OF THE WANDERING AENGUS/ THE LAKE ISLE OF INISFREE – Hamilton Camp/ W B Yeats

Not until my second year at university did I discover the poetry of WB Yeats. And what a fabulous treat it turned out to be, getting to know his work! Some of the poems felt more searching and stimulating than anything I’d read – I’m thinking of things like the Byzantium poems and ‘The Second Coming’ – which revealed more layers and perceptions on each successive read: far too complex to be interpreted in song, I thought (though many years later Joni Mitchell had a pretty good stab in her ‘Slouching Into Bethlehem’). The earlier, more lyrical and pastoral pieces were another matter though. I was learning to put more than just two or three chords together on the guitar, and also at that age (oh that it were ever so!) melodies just seemed to be there, ready to be snatched from the air! And so it seemed natural to try and make some of these poems singable!

Scene change: college holidays: home town. At this same time I had a girlfriend whose parents had a piano in their front room. I had no piano training of course, but I knew I could plonk out a melody one-fingered with my right hand, while making simple chord shapes with my left. Poor Margaret must have endured many an hour of me ‘finding’ tunes to poems. Actually, tackling WB Yeats required slightly more courage; I/we ‘practised’ first on a copy of the complete poems of W. H. Davies (I can still recall my cringingly jaunty melody for ‘What is this life if all of care/We have no time to stand and stare..’).

During this period my parents’ house also finally regained a piano (the family of a college friend were getting rid of theirs. I jumped at the chance!). I say ‘re-gained’ since in my very early years, until I was about five, perhaps, we had possessed a piano – my elder sisters had both been sent for piano lessons, my elder brother not for some reason, and by the time I was old enough to sit at the piano stool… one-day I woke to find that that wonderful and mysterious instrument had been chopped up by my father for firewood! I seem to recall vague talk of woodworm. I won’t say I was resentful but in some measure I felt its absence right up until that replacement was procured, when I was 19, and on which I could practise and play around during college holidays.

So, with those two pianos, and the guitar, and more time than I seem to have these days, and certainly more melodies available to pluck from the air, having desecrated enough of W H Davies’s poems, I cracked on more confidently with Yeats – ‘When you are Old and Grey’ was one of the first to get the treatment – ‘The Pity Of Love’, ‘Down By The Salley Gardens’ followed, and a few others. They weren’t good, but at least it taught me that any valid musical adaptations of these beautiful poems would have to be very special indeed.

Enter Hamilton Camp. Or to be quite precise I suppose I would have to say enter Judy Collins, again, since she has appeared in these little essays an embarrassing number of times. The thing is, she was at that time such a brilliant song selector, discoverer and interpreter. Her second album –much more easily available today than it was then –showed that she was beginning to feature ‘composed’ songs not just old traditional ballads; it not only featured Hamilton Camp’s setting of Yeats’ ‘Song Of The Wandering Aengus’ but made it the title track of the album – calling it ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’, and perhaps deliberately dropping the reference to Celtic mythological characters and folklore. But that suited me fine –it seemed and it seems now a more universal little pastoral fantasy about love and longing, loss and search. And Camp’s tune is a suitably subtle, haunting one.

Some years further on, several albums further on, Judy Collins picked up on another of Hamilton Camp’s settings – this time ‘The Lake Isle of Inisfree’ on her ‘Living’ album. The same respectful delicacy of melodic interpretation, a tune which couldn’t handle the words any more subtly and sensitively than it does. Again, something as romantic as moonlight, another idyll whose natural images say much about the human longing for connections with the earth, but also (more internally) for peace – even when we are ‘standing in the roadway/Or in the pavements grey..’

Love this one so much that it has become my ‘go to’ song when I sit down at the piano, howling out to a few lugubrious minor chords ‘And I will have some peace there/ For peace comes dropping slow…’ But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea! I sang the song unaccompanied once, as an ‘opening number’ for a little set of songs in a disastrous concert when I was opening for Frank Hennessy.(or perhaps it was ‘Let’s snog’ that the audience didn’t find too tasteful.) I wasn’t invited to repeat the experience. Ho hum.

So I take my hat off to Mr. Hamilton Camp, who has done so exquisitely what I failed to manage in all those compositional efforts of my student years! Strangely enough, it’s only recently –through the wonderful power of Deezer – thanks Deezer – that I’ve got to hear the originals and to discover the man himself, an old sixties’ Greenwich Village Guthrie-ite folkie if there ever was one. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s also hear it for his too often unsung lyricist –Mr. William Butler Yeats. Go, guys.

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78. TRANSCENDENTAL REUNION – Mary Chapin Carpenter

 

‘What is it with you and girls-with-guitars?’ a room mate asked me when I was in college.  Well, whatever it was, it doesn’t seem to have gone away.

We were talking, weren’t we, in number 77, about ‘Country girls’, and how Emmylou and her contemporaries helped to change something of the public perception of what formerly we might have been quite dismissive of, ol’ Country and Western.  Perhaps I’ve still got a slight aversion to the unremitting twanginess of the genre, and , forgive me, without really knowing much about her, I probably slotted Mary Chapin Carpenter into that category, even though I was also kind of aware that she had a bit about her – things like ‘He thinks he’ll keep her’ suggested a feisty feminist challenge to the genre’s stereotypes; and I had even heard some great collaborative work that she had done with Shawn Colvin.

So I don’t know why I should have been taken by surprise by her appearance on one of the series of the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’, and perhaps wondered how well she’d fit in to the earnest folkiness and the decidedly august musicianship characteristic of the series.  I watched her perform this song accompanied by Aoife O’ Donovan.  At first its simplicity seemed a bit embarrassing – I waited for the melody and the guitar accompaniment to develop with some subtleties and complexities into a song with more substantial architectural construction.  But it didn’t: the simple melody was, instead, consistent and determined, the guitar chords likewise, in a way that I began to find oddly hypnotic and stylishly, bravely appropriate to the piece of work that she had created.

If I’m honest, and if it had only been that one occasion when I had seen and heard that song, I might still have had a few niggling reservations  about its potential for monotony, but let’s give thanks to youtube, that has allowed me to watch that clip again and again (and yes of course, I listen to it too on my ipod etc) because the more that I listen to it the more I am impressed by the courageousness of its composition.  That mesmerising dreaminess of its style seems more than ever entirely apposite to the ideas it explores and the perceptions it conveys.

Carpenter is not of course the first girl-with-a-guitar to think about the way that air travel can convey interesting fresh outlooks  on life.  I remember us flying over the Pyrenees with Nicola our friend, on the way to Seville.  She told me about the song ‘From A Distance’ (popularised then, but not written by, Nancy Griffith ) and something of the lyric – looking down on the world’s beauty and somehow (OK, rather facilely, I know, because it’s that kind of song) seeing the world’s problems in perspective. (I heard this song later, and despite it all, have come to rather like it).  Then I can think of Joni Mitchell’s great song ‘Amelia’ filled with aviatory images ending in the last verse with ‘747s over geometric farms..’ Oh, and here’s a boy-with-a-guitar – think of the last verse of Jackson Browne’s great song ‘How Long?’ -‘If you saw it from a satellite/ With its green and its blue and white..’ Also,  Dar Williams has a great song called ‘Empty Plane’ which has a surreal dreaminess in its depiction of the airport experience, not a million miles away from the kind of feelings MCC has evoked in her song.

Lyrically, although she starts with an observation about ‘the lights below me..’,  it’s less about the flight (‘and the curve of the world passed..’) than about the arrival, the slightly unreal experience of the Airport itself.  At first despite the song’s leisurely , floaty kind of pace, the airport images are concrete and organisational and decidedly  untranscendental – ‘stamped ..waved through..mouth of the cannon(!) …  Then the baggage carousel , and her prayers that everything’s OK, and her initial ‘envy’ at some of the emotional displays at the reunions of loved ones.  But then MCC begins to make the ‘Hall of Arrivals..where the great river empties’ seem more otherworldly, a transitional  space between actual places; and it’s within this slightly spiritualised zone that she encounters illuminating perceptions.   Ironically this new sense of detachment perhaps also allows her to feel an empathetic sense of unity with the others around her – ‘all borders vanish here’ seems something of a key line. And despite the fact that there is ‘no one to meet me’ her heightened distance-enhanced awareness allows her to appreciate the richness of humanity and its interactions all around her.  She feels ‘all but surrounded/by the tears and embracing/by the joy unbounded..’  And where this line of visionary perspective takes her is to a perception of ourselves as transient, not fixed but always moving…  but not aimlesslessly or in some nihilistic vacuum –  moving on in positive, hopeful directions.  This is a song infused with a sense of hope about the human journey. ‘we are…. travellers… gypsies’ but in MCC’s eyes not without wisdom of some kind.  ‘We are… philosophers gathering…finding our way…to the next destination…from night into day..’

I go back occasionally to that youtube clip from the ‘Transatlantic Sessions’.  I love the way that Aoife O’Donovan is clearly enjoying her opportunity for gentle harmonies and particularly joining in on the ‘Hey hey  hey’s and  ‘Ah ha ha’s.  And I join in too, rather pleased to share a little in those few minutes of dreamlike ‘transcendental’ perspective, as a fellow traveller, gypsy, philosopher (hmm)……and in imaginative sympathy with the song, looking down on the world and seeing (oh, despite it all, Syria, Trump, ISIS, famine and corruption, sex slaves, North Korea, capitalism, consumerism), by the grace of the Great Spirit I believe to be both Love and Creator, ‘lights twinkling below me..’ or ‘glowing’ as they become in the song’s final lines…

77. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM – Emmylou Harris

 

A lot of autobiographical stuff here, I’m afraid.  Feel free to skip (quite) a few paragraphs, to get to the song!…

I can carbon date my love for this song to that time, mid seventies, after graduation; I still lived with my parents; I worked for the DHSS in a big office on Newport Road in Cardiff.  It was a funny old time.  I often stayed in the city after work and caught the train home late.  There were things to see –I mentioned in an earlier essay about discovering opera (see no 13 ‘Now the Great Bear and the Pleiades’) But there were concerts, too, in Cardiff’s Capitol theatre – saw the Beach Boys there one night, and Donovan in his ‘intergalactic laxative’ phase.  Enough said.  And there was a funny couple of months when I hung around town because I was visiting a Trichologist. Yes.  Blame my mother for this one: my premature hair loss was of great concern to her, and when I declined her suggestion to ‘rub half an onion over my scalp and bury the other half’ (??), she then cut out for me an advert from the South Wales Echo for a clinic on Cardiff’s Queen Street, which for a modest fee would cure the problem of premature baldness. On her encouragement, I went along (and hey, it worked a treat, clearly!) I won’t go into the detail of treatments here but part of it involved a fairly noxious-smelling potion.  For everyone’s sake, I felt that wandering around town for a few hours would give my head’s smell a chance to wear off.

The relevance of all the self indulgent reminiscing, you may ask?  OK, I’m getting there.  One of the places I ended up ‘hanging around’ was a newly opened fairly trendy hamburger restaurant –can’t remember its name now –which played some really interesting music, which I suppose now that we might identify as ‘Americana’.  There was stuff like the Eagles, I think, country-tinged stuff I might not have paid attention to much up until then.  But I think this is where I first heard Emmylou Harris’s voice.  The Beatles’s covers blew me away – ‘For No One’, ‘Here, there and everywhere’…  But wow, that voice.

Then suddenly, of course,  she was everywhere.  The music mags – NME, Melody Maker  -showed pics of this cowboy-boot woman and raved about her music. Did I perhaps hear her as a fabulous backing voice on Dylan’s ‘Desire’ before I heard her solo performances?  I can’t remember.  But I remember an appearance on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ and suddenly too,  Country seemed to have shed something of its redneck right wing conservative image and become sort of cool.

No doubt it  helped too that the lady was pleasing to the eye, in a simpler and more fashionable way than most ‘country gals’: she in no way presented herself as a Tammy or a Lorretta (etc) – there was no primped-up hairdo, no mawkish sentimentality or TV show-smiles either in her introductions or in her performances.  And ah, that voice, that voice…  which of course has been much commented upon since those days.  While, yes,  it has a distinctive listenability, its uniqueness also relies undoubtedly upon a peculiar ‘catch’ in her register which adds, as some have said, a note of ‘ache’ or ‘heartbreak’, and therefore is ideally suited to tender songs of love, longing, and loss. Which brings us almost to the song!

But before then, back to memoirs.  Towards the end of my two year stretch in the civil service I was encouraged to seek promotion.  I went along to an interview in Bristol (a bit of a waste of time, since I had already planned to leave the job in a couple of months’ time).  My memory of the interview is that, having just read a book about the beginnings of the charity ‘Shelter’, I talked at length about the problem of homelessness in the UK.  Probably nothing to do with the question they asked me.

I came out of the interview and wandered around Bristol in an oddly euphoric mood.  In a record shop, I purchased Emmylou Harris’s ‘Pieces of the Sky’ album, because it seemed the right thing to do.  Back home that evening, I played it and played it.  There’s not a bad track on the album; even Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of many colours’ seemed to be redeemed from something twee into something noble…  But THIS song, ‘ Boulder to Birmingham’,this self penned songs of hers (OK, alongside some other bloke) brought prickles down the spine, tears to the eyes.

I had no idea about the inspiration for the song.  I didn’t know then that it was about the grief of losing Gram Parsons; but you get it from the weariness of the opening declaration  ‘ ‘I don’t want to hear a love song..’; you get it almost impressionistically, even through those images ‘this airplane…  the wilderness…  the canyon…  on fire’ you get a sense of someone struggling to give expression to a fierce kind of sadness (‘The last time I felt like this…’).  It’s there in the repetitions at the end of the two verses – ‘watched it burn…  watched it burn’ then ‘coming down to wash me clean…wash me clean’ – somehow a kind of need for catharsis.  It’s there most poignantly in that enigmatic chorus with its oddly ‘spiritual’ allusions – ‘my soul…bosom of Abraham…. saving grace’ and the longing in the conditional ‘if I thought I could see..  your face’.

Well I’ve said that was the most poignant, but perhaps that’s not true – on a conscious level I feel I hardly listened to the lyrics, certainly not initially in the analytical way that previous paragraph suggests! Because, really,  most telling of all was the voice that handles the lyric and that pretty exquisitely sympathetic melody.  It still feels like a classic, doesn’t it?

Emmylou has aged gracefully, opted for silver locks instead of dark dye; and kept on singing.  With a kind of modest sensitivity she seems to have become a ‘duetter’ for many other performers, and when she does, always enhances the sound.  You might remember her, for instance, in the first of the wonderful   ‘Transatlantic Sessions’ duetting with Mary Black on Sandy Denny’s ‘By the Time it gets Dark’. OK, just joining in on the refrains, but there’s that kind of understated shiver of silver which her accompaniment adds to others’ performances.  I’ve never seen her live, and I don’t know if she still performs ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ but it’s enough that we have that enduring recording on her first solo album.  Amen.

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.

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.