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]

FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD – traditional/Richie Havens

And no, it’s not just on my way to Wetherspoons that I find myself singing this one.

I bet I’m not the only one that had never heard of Richie Havens until I saw him in the ‘Woodstock’ film – first act on the recording, in my memory at least ; bet, too, I’m not the only one whose teenage imagination was fascinated by the sight and sound – not just the increasingly sweaty frenetic energy  , or by the tie-dye gloriousness, or by the proud dentally challenged  boldness of the delivery, and those weird thumb-barred open chords, and the seemingly endless improvisational extension of the Freedom song, but oh, that unique gravelly voice. And the context, of course – even though this was only on film – couldn’t help but gild that magic !

And maybe it’s because of that, that Mr Havens stayed locked out of sight in a mental Woodstock ‘box’ for me, for years; till a friend who came to bunk in my home for a few months brought his LP collection which included a (double, was it?) album of Richie Havens ‘Live’. Even today I can’t think of many better live albums – a smattering of Beatles and Dylan covers, Billie Holliday’s ‘God bless the Child’, a great ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’, the best cover ever of Fred Neil’s ‘Dolphins’ song. I was more than grateful for the introduction: I made sure I got it all recorded onto cassette, then in later years to CD, and now MP3-ed onto my ipod.

But it’s none of those songs which is my focus here. Apart from that Live album, if I’m honest, other Havens albums I’ve encountered have left me sadly underwhelmed – clearly he was made for performance more than studio… but then I chanced upon this track. Once again,it was on one of those street-vendor cassette-rack stalls in abroad-land, and the cassette was, I think, from a US –made TV series ‘Songs of the Civil War’ – and I probably went for it for other artists included – Sweet Honey from the Rock did a couple of numbers, the McGarrigles doing some Stephen Foster songs, was there a bit of Emmylou too? But this was the standout for me. American musicologists – or perhaps even your average American high school student for all I know -will probably be well acquainted with this song, but I’d never heard it till then.

In short, if I understand the notes I’ve read, the song is a sort of set of coded instructions to African Americans making a break from slavery in the south – the ‘drinking gourd’ being the (US) ‘Big Dipper’,  or the more prosaic (UK) ‘plough’ – guiding the escapees northwards. It’s more complicated than that, and its provenance and add-ons are debated by scholars – but you can Wikipedia yourselves up on all that at your leisure.

For now just enjoy it and the way that Richie H captures just the right note of urgency and ‘freedom’ (again – he’ll always be the ‘freedom’ man, after Woodstock). ‘For the old man is waiting to carry you to freedom…’ I’ve heard rawer versions, subsequently, and I’ve heard The Weavers: and even though you can’t help but love Pete Seeger et al and their fearlessness in those folkie years, there’s something just a touch too clean about the earnest liberal whiteness of their otherwise commendable version. At least when I compare it to Mr Havens, Mr sweaty tie-dye, thumb-barre open chords (chords which in this recording sing out with a wonderful zingy crispness.)




‘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.



‘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 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.

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!)

THE FERRYMAN by Ralph McTell

Those who only know him through ‘Streets of London’ have missed a songlifetime of treats – while the social conscience of that early anthem has continued throughout his canon, he can also do tender, probing, wistful, playful etc over a whole range of themes. And the melodies are strong, structurally defined, the guitarwork and musicianship proven and unquestionable.

Again kudos to brother Al for the initial discovery – he saw him perform in Bargoed when Bargoed briefly had some kind of Folk Club (and yes Andy Watkins, an honourable mention to you for playing an important part in setting things up and – as you often told me – meeting Ralph at the station), while I was at home presumably too young to care or doing homework or something. Allan came home with enthusiasm, and a copy of McTell’s third album ‘My Side of Your Window’, and it was not difficult to catch the infectious enthusiasm. Even now I think this is an absolute classic of an album, and I could blog on several of these tracks. I’m tempted, but won’t; let’s move on.

Over the years I’ve seen him playing live…five times, I think. One was certainly with my sister Sue, when we both fell in love with ‘From Clare to Here’; one was certainly in the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, where he did his Thomas-inspired set; but the first time was in Cardiff’s long gone Cory Hall (see also my blog posting on the Hart/Prior ‘Serving Girls Holiday’) and I think he did this song then.

Its long, elegant melody, repeated for five verses, combines the classic directness of traditional folk (‘Lo, and I give you the travelling man..’) with something more arty, more consciously ‘constructed’. But I do remember that first hearing as a spellbinding experience – the simple, linear, mystical narrative hooking in my ‘sensitive’ teenage soul with ease. It was a great concert, but for me, that was the highlight. Not surprisingly, when the ‘You Well Meaning’ album was released., either Allan or I bought it – a ‘different’ bunch of songs – some piano compositions (new) – and ‘Ferryman’ was the closing track.

Some people felt  that – after having heard the natural ease and fluency of the totally raw acoustic Ralph in concert – this album seemed ‘over-produced’ by comparison. Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti had done the job, and yes occasionally the tinkerings felt a little clumsy. ‘The Ferryman’ was left largely untinkered with until verse 3, when strings and  some ethereal choir-sounds  appeared, presumably to accentuate the mystical feel and/or the river’s sinuousness. Perhaps it wasn’t as heavyhanded as some tracks but a bit distracting in some minorly odd way.  Still, such a song…

It’s about Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddhartha’, this song.  He was a fashionable read at the time, Hesse – we were all dipping in – perhaps the Eastern transcendental business struck a chord with the spirit of the time, the figure of the questing traveller having a strong romantic appeal for the young. (Steve Turner: ‘Everyone loves a seeker; nobody loves a finder.’) I finished reading Siddhartha on a train travelling across Scotland; there’s romance for you.

I suspected that we were experiencing a bit of Buddhism-lite here: filtered firstly through Hesse, and secondly through McTell.  But for those of us who were fervent but faltering Jesus-followers, I suppose there was something attractive, and something dangerous in this ‘dabbling with the east’! Refreshing because it was at odds with the often-rigidly-overly –systematic nature of the theology in which our experiences of God were described, even channelled; and dangerous because the apparent flakeyness and ‘impersonalness’ of the mysticism (like Lucas’s ‘the force’) was a challenge to our sense of a personal deity.

No doubt, while significant differences between faiths exist, this unease was a bit of adolescent fretting and agonizing! Today I beloved T S Eliot (in the Four Quartets)had no trouble recognizing within the Eastern faiths areas of connection and correspondence. And I also think – so much of the wonder of God, not just his creative breath but also the mysteries of incarnation, redemption and salvation cannot easily be contained within prosaic blocks of fundamentalist evangelical discourse, but its understanding and exploration of truths are complemented  by the paradoxes and imagery of more mystical expression.

So now as I hear the song, I sense the beauty of its construction solidly reflects areas of valid spiritual longing, exploration and truth: the necessity of the search, to relieve the natural human ‘burdens’ (‘Many times he’s tried to lighten up his heavy load..’);  the inexplicability of the things that drive our pilgrimages (‘ the whisperings of despair that he could not explain..’); the image of the river as a symbol of fluidity, movement, time and timelessness, blending of many sources – as he learns from it that there’s a kind of unity to all experience (‘in it was the beauty and the sadness of the world/ The sounds blended together and they became a whole…’) – and Christians recognize some revelation in that – since we follow one who will bring ‘ all things in heaven and on earth together..’ (Eph. 1). In the song, the traveller’s eyes are opened to something of eternity (‘And the river had no beginning..’) and in the final verse to a revelation that the cyclical realities of eternity can all be glimpsed within himself  (‘And the traveller was the river, was the boat..’) Ha. OK, you can sense I’m straining a bit now – these days McTell’s more grounded stuff like‘Peppers and Tomatoes‘ appeals more – but I am saying this was a significant marker in the jukebox of my life…

Forgive me the heaviness, and let’s lighten!:– even if the song simply  tells a mysterious folk tale of sorts, and inspires a reverence for nature, and for rivers, it’s enough. I was going to go on to talk about when I bought the songbook so I could learn to play it, then on the train home met a man who said ‘It’s worth getting that songbook just to learn The Ferryman’! But I’ve said enough. Lovely song, ambitious but worth it.

‘WONDROUS LOVE’ – North American Folk Hymn (Jean Richie…and many more..)

Not only did we have this hymn sung at our wedding, but I fully intend that it shall be sung at my funeral.

I say ‘had it sung’ because it was not a congregational song; rather, a wonderful team of friends had assembled themselves into an excellent choir for the occasion (having rehearsed for weeks under the superb direction of Hazel Law), performing two set piece items –a more challenging Betty Pulkingham anthem written for her own son’s wedding –‘For You Shall Go Out in Joy’ –with wonderful harmonies, echoes and changes of tempo; and this song sung more simply in unison, but equally powerful.  The legend has it that after the singing of these songs,  I was so entranced and thrilled that I stood up as if to leave, thinking the service over, almost forgetting the bride next to me and the vows I had come to make.  I wish I could say that the legend had no truth.

I absolutely love this song.  So much so, that it is practically the only song I have bothered to learn to play properly and completely on the piano (if we forget Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ and half of ‘Rainy Night House’) painfully working my way through right and left hand parts from my dog eared copy of ‘Sound Of Living Waters’.  The family are probably sick of me playing it on the piano but, bless them, they’re far too nice to tell me so.

I suspect that if I were north American I would have grown up with this song being a far more familiar old chestnut; it is, after all, a north American folk hymn – possibly, I read somewhere, from one of the ‘Great Awakenings’(though probably too employing an early English folk tune).  As it is, I did not hear it until I was into my twenties and it will be no surprise to friends that it was the Fisherfolk who introduced me to it in their beautiful album of hymns ‘Lo He Comes’.  They treated it as a simple choral piece, unison, nothing fancy, and actually the album gives us only two verses – a kind of teasing taster.

Given that the song is always bigger than the sum of its parts, it’s hard to clearly identify why I love it so much, but I think I can put my finger on some of the ‘parts’ that add to its appeal. Well first I’d have to say the content, wouldn’t I, dealing with themes I’ve built my life upon.  Four verses (at least in the version that I’ve become familiar with) declaring a sense of wonder at divine grace in Christ; an acknowledgement of the depth from which I’ve been lifted; the resultant desire to worship;  and a grateful sense of hope and joyous continuation beyond death.  Secondly, the repetitions –ah, tricky, dangerous things.  Repetitions can give a song tedium, frivolousness and even suggest heavy handedness; but here the repetitions feel just right –beautiful key phrases picked out, of or expanding into, longer statements, the repetitions gaining  a meditative strength for these sometimes short phrases, sometimes longer lines, all suggesting simplicity but also a kind of focus.

Thirdly,I have come to see how much the tune means to me, too.  I learned recently that the song is written in the Dorian mode, and this made sense, reminding me of (the only time I ‘learnt’ – in some measure – about modes) when I learned, from a book, how to play the Appalachian dulcimer with its distinctive sound  reliant on drone notes. The Dorian mode tuning was less common, I seem to recall (I tried the tuning and wrote only one song in this tuning – ‘Touch Me’ which I can probably neither sing nor play now, but am quite proud of) and, for reasons I don’t really understand, I find the mode  a truly haunting one. Ironically though, dulcimer queen Jean Richie sings it here acapella.

And though I still love the measured, choral versions, I can see now why its folk origins and format lend themselves perhaps even more naturally to looser renditions in acoustic folk and particularly American bluegrass – listen to this lovely version by Blue Highway, which is a recent discovery for me – I think they miss some of the full range of melodic nuances, but the force of it, the haunting dorian mode, the ‘white spiritual’ of the lyric is all here, especially in that lovely overlapping finale, so stick with it till the end.

I don’t regret it as a wedding choice – My soul was in awe at wondrous love (‘what wondrous love is this…?!’) then as I am now; an even better choice for a funeral , though, you might indeed think (‘And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on…’). On that occasion, if you’re there, it’ll be congregational. Learn it, sing along.

‘DEPORTEE’ by Woody Guthrie and ‘FISHING’ by Richard Shindell

It must be the current migrant crisis in Europe that has brought these two songs back into my mind over the last few days. Though yes of course I know that it’s not exactly the same: there is a difference between USA’s handling of ‘illegal’ Central American immigrants, and Western European’s response to the families fleeing (particularly) Syria in recent months, seeking asylum, refuge, hopeful new beginnings. Perhaps the connection between that situation and these songs is the way these songs identify the distrust and dehumanisation of suffering individuals, and that even convenient labels employed in media reportage can start to erode necessary compassion.

While not totally overriding the complexity of the issue, Guthrie’s song hints boldly at his country’s institutional doublemindedness about Central Americans aching for more secure and prosperous lives north of the Mexican border  – i.e. tolerated when they are economically useful eg to bring in huge fruit harvests at minimal expense; shunted back speedily when that seasonal usefulness is over. The particular shunting flight which occasioned this song never made it – hence the subtitle ‘Plane Wreck over Los Gatos’. The key line which reflects (what he sees as) this callous dehumanizing process of the kind of media coverage discouraging imaginative empathy is the final line, slightly changing each time, of the chorus .. ‘The radio says they are just deportees’. Similarly in the last few weeks I note that people have used social media to challenge British newscoverage-speak and politician-speak  resorting to the kind of politically technical terminology – when referring to the tragedies of even the youngest individuals from these migration stories- likely to distance us from true fellow feeling . ‘The word you’re searching for, Mr Cameron’(or whoever, I can’t quite recall now), said one posting,’is simply children!’.

Both these songs are more than mere polemic: they invite us to enter the human situations of those making these perilous journeys: in Guthrie’s case we enter into a sense of loss not just for those who are bereaved by the tragedy (‘Gooodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita..’), but also that their very treatment seems to have deprived them of dignity and identity  – ‘You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/ All they will call you will be..deportees’. Shindell’s song is a masterfully imaginative composition, a largely one-sided dialogue featuring a Latin American ‘illegal’ being interviewed by an immigration officer, with a series of racial slurs (‘I bet you Indians can really reel them in..’), threats (‘We know just where [your next of kin] is hiding’), taunting half-promises, quickfire interrogation questions, brutal confrontations (‘good citizen or poor campesino?’) as pressure is applied to give information about more illegals. The extended metaphor throughout is of fishing – the officer, particularly, trying to ‘catch’ the worker out by guile and coercion – both the metaphor and the manner add to the dehumanization that is taking place.

Apparently (Shindell says in concert introductions to this song) he originally wrote it as this monologue, without the worker’s riposte in the final verse: this man is the literal fisherman who has been forced to flee his land of origin. I’m glad he gets a voice in this coda.There is a beautiful contrasting dignity in his response, in his unwillingness to play cynical pay-off games, in his resignation at returning to a land where, despite its presumable danger and poverty, he has a profession, and – in the final image of the fish – there is a paradoxical freedom and ‘wealth’ – ‘They’re waiting there for me/ Running deep’.

Shindell is a terrific troubadour, and my brief sketch of the lyric gives no real reflection of the power of this as a whole, sung song. Joan Baez covers this song well, but for grit and passion, hear the original. Guthrie’s song has been covered many many times (and you won’t be surprised by now if I say that Judy Collins’s version was the first I heard – her cover is both controlled and moving) but – interestingly – Shindell too has recorded it on his lovely covers album ‘South of Delia’. I’m not real sure I’ve heard a bad version – it’s such a solidly good verse and chorus standard of a song.

The best of art, the best of songs, should lead us to enter into and appreciate others’ humanity; these two songs certainly do that. And whatever political and economic solutions and compromises have to be forged between nations and (within nations) by local authorities and communities in the coming months, these don’t negate the necessity for compassion, and anything that encourages compassionate responses is worth listening to intelligently.

I WISH I WISH by John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris; & SERVING GIRL’S HOLIDAY by Maddy Prior and Tim Hart

I’m a little bit embarrassed by the under representation of traditional songs in this collection of reflections, particularly when friends so often think of me as a ‘folk’ person (while the sad reality perhaps remains that, for the most part, the idea of folk music appeals a little more than the general experience of it).  So I’m glad that these two songs have resurfaced, from somewhere, into my recent consciousness, reminding me that I am not, after all, totally forgetful of the pleasures and the value of traditional songs.

When I say that the idea of it appeals to me, and I suppose I mean that I so admire the preserving, rediscovering and championing of the old ballads and folk tunes; and stand in solidarity with the whole ethos that music and song should be the birthright of the ordinary man and woman –rather than the privileged classes, with leisure, wealth and opportunity to develop art-forms which –however life enhancing, however valid their exploration of universal themes –ironically distance themselves and their craft from the vast majority of people.  One important thing that the old songs do well is to celebrate the worth and the struggles of ordinary working people; including, as in these two songs, giving a voice to the various kinds of oppression and deprivation suffered by women.  So, OK, when I hear these songs (if the ballads don’t stretch out to too many verses!), and when I remember them, I’m often stirred, roused.  [it’s just that, I don’t know, when I compare myself to ‘real’ folk enthusiasts, I feel like I lack something of a passion: I will need to return to this in a separate essay].

Now, the anecdotal connections.  The first folk gathering I attended was that Freshers’ Week at university –and I remember it surprisingly well.  Jeremy Taylor was the guest; some undergraduates sang first –one earnest longhair sang both ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Gold Watch Blues’ a lá Donovan.  A lively trio sang Dylan’s ‘She Belongs To Me’, with fiddle accompaniment.  Why I never went back, to this day I don’t know.  So the first real (ie. In a pub) folk club I went to was in Cowbridge Road, Cardiff, and John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris were the guests, largely showcasing the collection of songs and tunes on this classic album ‘Amongst The Many Attractions…’ I bought it, played it much, recommended it to others…  But weirdly, my visit was a one off.  I don’t know why, but it was probably another 15 to 20 years before I started attending another folk club [this story is certainly for another essay.]

Meanwhile, there was Steeleye Span.  Our first encounter was when Al and I went to see Ralph McTell at the Corey Hall, Cardiff.  The first half support act were great fun –lively and accomplished musicians with a range of instruments, playing electrified, rocked-up traditional songs!  “Who are these?” we asked the young guy sitting next to us.  “Steel Ice Band” is what we heard.  Days later, Allan came home with an album from this band, with a slightly different name.  We played to death ‘Please to see the King’ and later ‘Below The Salt’ – loved their harmonies, and all these crazy songs about shepherds, foresters, kings and sailors, and ancient rustic rites, which we’d never heard anywhere else.  When I later found ‘Summer Solstice’ (just Maddy and Tim, less electrification) in a Swansea record shop, I bought it for Allan for Christmas 72; but I loved it myself!  Pastoral songs, for the most part, some narratives, a drinking song, and the final song ‘Serving Girls Holiday’, doing what I’ve said folk song so importantly does –giving a voice to the poor, working through their labours and privations, finding joy where they can.  This song lists the chores of an ordinary serving girl – sweeping floors, cleaning fireplaces, milking, kneading dough, fetching herbs etc.  –and inevitably, looking forward to the holiday when ‘spindle, bobbin and spool’ can be put away. Kate Rusby has recorded an equally lovely, though slightly truncated, version of this.

Sue Harris’s song, to Kirkpatrick’s squeeze box accompaniment, ‘I wish, I wish’ is apparently a version of a song much diversified, replicated and modified throughout the British Isles; giving a voice to another common ignominy suffered by young girls –wooed, impregnated, abandoned.  However common this experience of betrayal, the song gives a lively, credible, individual voice to the betrayed, fleshing it out melodically with overtones of regret, longing, wistfulness and even pleasant remembrances. In its tight regular form, and its hauntingly simple melody, there’s all of that, with some ambiguity, and persistent love too.

My Sue might dispute the sincerity of the feminist-sympathising going on here. Ha. Still, how great the mind, the memory, to bring these two lovely songs back for a visit…

Something’s Wrong by James Taylor

Okay.  Here’s the picture.  Its 1971, probably, or maybe 1970.  It’s late at night: and tucked up in bed in my a tiny, cosy box room of a bedroom in 74 Jubilee Road.  I’ve positioned my bed, and myself in the bed, so that I can rest my transistor radio on the windowsill and near my ear.  Is it Radio Luxembourg I’m listening to (was that still around then?) or some more obscure all late night radio one programme?  I would thrill to hear things like Moonshadow  by Cat Stevens or It’s too Late by Carole King.. and such.

And this song came on.  I knew James Taylor of course.  I probably already had ‘Sweet Baby James’ (Christmas 1970) and had seen him at least once on BBC’s iconic ‘In concert’ series.  Did I know then of the existence of his first London-made Beatles finished Asher produced Apple album?  I don’t think so.  And I’d certainly never heard this song before, when it came over the airwaves on my scratchy little transistor radio; but it sent a little chill through me. Mm

Off course, I loved the unfamiliarity of it, the fact of its existence as a hitherto unknown treasure (in the same way that I began to chase and mythologise the early unreleased songs of Joni Mitchell) but it was more than that.  Even at first listen, there is something so finely crafted about the song, its two simple verses (and I think I’ve always liked songs, and poems, organized into two mirroring stanzas); the diction crystal clear, and the appealing frisson –particularly appealing of course to the romantic 17 year old –of flight, escape, movement, adventure…

‘That restless feeling…’ –what adolescent could fail to identify with that? –and with the idea that the signs of invitation were all around –‘road maps in a well cracked ceiling’.  And there was that delightful youthful sense of holding lightly to things – and even relationships?  -travelling light, in order to follow the restless quest: ‘take some bacon/go and leave that watch chain…’, ‘…  Pack my bags/and leave them all behind…’

Richard Rohr, the Franciscan active–contemplative whose book about the male quest I’m reading this year (one meditation per day) would heartily approve, I think.