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.

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.


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.

38. SOMETIMES – Jonathan Edwards


A quick one.  Here’s a little something which has ‘stuck around’ in that hummy singy part of my brain for four decades or so, surfacing unexpectedly now and again with me crooning “sometimes, in the morning…” –usually, not too surprisingly, in the morning, sometimes.

Despite that, I’ve too often thought of it as a little bit of 1970s singer songwritery ephemera from a one -hit- album wonder (and by the way, big brother, if you’ve been looking for the album, it’s in my house) and this song a melodically repetitious but pleasant two-and-a-half- chords earworm of dreaminess.  But over time, over the decades of occasional morning hums and croons, I feel the song began to acquire substance for me, and so I’m going to redress the balance and give this song something of the respect I think it deserves.

Let’s say this.  It’s not just a love song –or, if it is a love song, it’s equally about loss and memory –and the tricky, shifting insubstantiality of those memories which have acquire dreamlike wateriness.  These three simple verses eloquently explore that.  In verse one, the memory of the loved one is “…  A falling dream, disappearing scene”; in verse two, “a phrase [which] echoes through the haze/just beyond my vision…” In the final verse he declares an intention to “go back to sleep…[to] keep my memories in motion…” And there is a sad and subtle irony there –that only in the unreality of dream can the memory acquire clear animation.

We can be forgiven for not noticing the profundity of that –after all, it sounds so throwaway, such a naive, ridiculously simple, starkly structured little thing.  But – turn it on its head –and it becomes a jewel – neat, unadorned, pared to perfection – of a song, a classic of its kind.  And the melody, and the accompaniment –bravely understated, the simple chord shape chased up and down a few frets –and that voice, perfectly echo the dreamlike longing state between love and loss.  No jarring chordal acrobatics, no distracting melodic manoeuvres, but this gentle, seamless reflection.

I’ll be continuing to croon snatches from it, sometimes, in the morning –not of course those zingy, glad to be alive, thank you Lord mornings –there are plenty of songs for those days; no, this is for those more wistful, misty-headed mornings when we reach to feel the beauty even in a bit of melancholy.

35. WHEN I GO – Dave Carter and Tracey Grammer

Some years back I was given a Dave Carter/Tracey Grammer CD by an enthusiastic friend; I listened to it once (only half attentive), and blithely shelved it, consigning it to the ranks of new-country-folk hybrids, pleasant and (may I be forgiven) unmemorable. This was very stupid of me. Circumstances have brought me back to the late Dave Carter’s impressive body of work – thoughtful, brilliantly imaginative, often ambitious songs. None moreso than this, which has already become a bit of a standard, and I do repent me in dust and ashes for being dull of ear, and slow to catch up with more discerning listeners.

Carter’s early death, of course, adds an ironic poignancy to this song: he no longer anticipates a going; he has gone. Where to start to respond to this pagan/earth-loving anthem about dying? Let’s start with the strength of its spirit, which puts me in mind of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle on the brink of his father’s death – the images seem allied to Thomas’s longing for men whose words ‘fork lightning’, whose deeds ‘dance in a green bay’; who ‘sang the sun in flight’, whose eyes ‘blazed like meteors’…There’s all that kinship with the natural world in Carter’s song, but not the rage, not the desperation and regret; instead a bold determined affirmation – ‘I will fly..I will strike.. I will bellow…I will leap..’

What do we make of all these? At the very least it perhaps paints death as the spirit’s release rather than the spirit’s extinguishment, but in images that imply perhaps an absorption back into the energies and the creaturely variety of the natural world. It conjures up a sense of native American spirituality and their identification with/reverence for creatures of earth and air. I also can’t quite divorce this song from images left with me by John Boorman’s great film ‘The Emerald Forest’…Here Carter sings of ‘leap[ing] like coyote’, ‘run[ning] like the gray wolf’, accessing consciousnesses and energies beyond the limits of the human frame.

Alongside the bold continuity-affirming statements of will, are the invocations, calling on the crowd of natural spirits to witness and welcome the power and release of this transition – and so ‘lonely hunter’, .my brother’, ‘spirit dancer’, ‘tireless entrancer’, and ‘mournful sister’ are all addressed – (the last of these acknowledging that there is something natural in grief?) –encouraged to ‘come’, ‘spring’, ‘sigh’ and encouraged too in the song’s final couplet to see both the irrelevance and, paradoxically, the beautiful value of that grief – ‘..do not sorrow for me..’ (yet) ‘all your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’

But I’m treating this like literary analysis – forgive me (again) – this is song, all song, and the lyric is perfectly married to a melody and the total production – the underscored simple plunking of the plucked five string banjo, the sympathetic interplay between the minor and major chord movements; the little leaping contrast between the more low-key invocatory first halves of the verses and the affirmatory second halves,  Tracey joining there for harmonies and the inter-verse fiddle additions; the powerful bridge between second and third verses, and the sheer modest understatedness of it all– Carter’s crafted it like a dream.

The glorious irony of this song is that in discussing death it actually celebrates life, in terms of a richness which only those with a sense of wonder and respect for the natural world can muster. Even in exploring and imagining that ‘absorption’ and release, while the images are of dissolving, ‘I will rattle like dry leaves’ , ‘I will crumble..’ – and this is an extraordinary image, and the point I’m getting to: even in this there’s beauty, glory – ‘..crumble down uncountable in showers of crimson rubies when I go.’!

Ok, clearly…this vision of the afterlife isn’t one according closely with (as you know by now I hold) a Judeo-Christian perspective; but neither is it a simple atheist-humanist perspective. The whole lyric implies continuity and transcendence, of course – not just ‘Should you glimpse my wandering form..’etc.  but hey, this is a song  and not a propositional thesis on afterlife perspectives ! And as a song it glitters with the glory of life and the natural world; it pulses with energy, will, determination, hope, and beauty, beauty, so that, in the final lines even the sadness of grief has exquisite worth and sparkling beauty – ‘..your diamond tears will rise up and adorn the sky..’


11. YOU DID THAT FOR ME – Pierce Pettis

I’ve deliberately tried not to make these essays a ‘Desert Island Discs’ book, But I do believe that if Kirsty Young were interviewing me today, this track may well be one of the eight I take with me on my famous BBC Radio marooned experience.

Pierce Pettis did this song in the set he performed the first time I heard him, in, I think, the Christian Aid tent in Greenbelt Festival, late nineties or early noughties. Also in the set was another stunner – ‘Alabama 1959’, possibly the best song about ‘benign racism’ ever written. When he introduced ‘You Did that..’ I seem to recall that he said he hadn’t recorded it himself since Sara Groves had recorded it and done such a great job. (After hearing the song and the rest of the set, I went and bought the Sara Groves album – ‘All Right Now’ and – yes, he wasn’t wrong.)

It’s quite simply a great contemporary song about – pardon my language – the ‘substitutionary atonement’ – and the ‘gracious releases and exchanges’ from which we benefit because of that once for all Lamb of God sacrifice. Silly and inadequate, of course, to talk in such legalese jargon about the history-pivotal event, the supreme act of self-giving love…! The song gets it: fleshes out the theology, makes it human, and in a gutsy, unsentimental way sings out and celebrates appropriate gratitude and wonder at how we experience the benefits of this gift.

I’ve never learnt to play it – but I have used the song whenever I could or whenever it felt appropriate: at a Church retreat I ran; in an ‘All-Age Service’; at staff Monday-morning prayers in my old workplace… And here’s my favourite Pierce Pettis story coming up.

First, I need to say that following that Greenbelt, I pursued whatever Pettis recordings I could find on ebay – and I have them all now except for that tricky first album, ‘Memories’, only available on (deleted) vinyl as far as I know. Rare indeed. This song finally did get recorded by Pettis a few years after that initial hearing – on his ‘Some Kind of Love’ album. His ageing voice gets growlier, Nashvillier. It’s great.

Anyway, I also watched out for any UK tours and performances – and, though there have been none in recent years, in the year following that Greenbelt, I was privileged to see him twice. The second of those occasions was in the strangest of places – a pub in Tregaron, West Wales. I drove there straight from work. Juliet Turner was his support act – another great performer and also someone I’d first encountered at Greenbelt. I managed to have a five minute chat with PP, asking him why he opened each album with a Mark Heard song. “ Because they’re such great songs” he said. Fair enough; and true enough.

But the first of these two performances was even more memorable – a weeknight gig at a small basement venue just at the end of Queen Street, Cardiff. This time the lovely Julie Lee was the support act – but actually ended up doing the whole evening, since PP had developed laryngitis and couldn’t sing publicly! The other curious thing was that the audience numbered…seven, I think, and there was lots of hanging around and lots of chance to chat. I told Pierce it was a shame he wouldn’t be performing since I was going to request ‘You Did That for Me’.

Graciously he said ‘well, maybe I could give you a quiet croaky personal performance..’ We found something like a toilet/changing room ‘backstage’ and indeed, true to his word, croaking his way painfully through it, he did that for me. Magical moment. Blessing/jewel of a song.