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…

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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.

72. NEVER IN MY LIFE – Mikel Kennedy/ The Fisherfolk

This morning, while breakfasting on my porridge and blueberries, I listened to this wonderful CD by Mikel Kennedy, entitled ‘Isn’t It Good’, and it wasn’t difficult to concur! The title track, the first track of the CD, is in some ways another wonderful morning song  – ‘a song for celebrating every day new..!'( I love ‘love-life’ morning songs!), and so very suitable for breakfast listening.  When or in what circumstances he wrote it I don’t know, but the song was used in the musical presentation ‘Ah there’s the celebration’ which the Fisherfolk showcased at the Edinburgh fringe in 1976  (see essay number 37  ‘I’d like to sit you down’) and in that context represented the Son’s confident delight in his Father’s love.

But I must have first heard Mikel’s very distinctive voice  on the album ‘Celebrate The Feast’ with a beautiful song about the eucharist ‘When You do This‘; there’s also a track where his acoustic style deftly interprets the old testament lesson, singing and playing the bulk of the Isaiah lyric in ‘Who Has Measured The Waters’ (Maggie Durren’s voice reciting the middle section against his acoustic guitar).  There is something quite captivating about Mikel’s voice and ‘performance’ on both those tracks; as a wannabe folksinger myself I may even have been a little envious of his ease of delivery.

The Fisherfolk’s album ‘On Tiptoe’ brought us quite a few ‘solo’ performances.  I suppose I was becoming aware that even though this ‘worship band’ came out of community lifestyle, it was inevitably made up of individuals, with individualistic musical styles and concerns.  So, in ‘On Tiptoe’ (and probably on most of the other albums, if I stop to think about it) we become aware of particular composers -Jonathan Asprey, Jodi Page, for instance -not that this distracts from the community focus.  It is a reminder that even where intentional community occurs, and people work to live harmoniously, that harmony is always made up of a variety of human beings, all with different wills, backgrounds, personalities, creative leanings – amazingly ‘submitting’ these, with a sense of calling, common purpose, and love.  Mikel Kennedy’s contributions to this particular album are lovely, and I was reminded this morning of my particular fondness for ‘Never In My Life’ which is a kind of unadorned ‘testimony’, an expression of sheer gratitude for the affirmation, the sense of worth we rediscover in acknowledging the unconditional love of God. The delivery is simple, understated: there’s a key change before the last verse and there’s a lovely string-section homage to ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ most appropriately woven in to the presentation.

One strange thing was that as I listened again to this much beloved song, I realized that one of my own songs ‘Reconciled’ very much echoed the sentiments of this song. ‘Never thought I’d make friends with myself again…’ etc – all the same sort of wonderment at the grace of the Almighty, the sense of discovery and surprise…  There’s so much that I love about this song, but I think what touches me is that there feels like a sensibility quite complex here (‘my hands were always quick to shed innocent blood/for things like independence, freedom, pride..’) who has been humbled and awed by something divinely simple – the song ends ‘Now that you’ve come in/never go away again/for never in my life/did I know someone could take away my sin’.  That kind of gratitude-song, for our redemption and forgiveness, seems almost too simple, too intimate; but I know its validity.

I know little about Mike Kennedy the person: I have a feeling I’ve read his conversion story somewhere  – remembering that he’d been drawn to the Church of the Redeemer as quite a troubled young man, and had found God, and healing, there ;his friendship seems to have touched many; reading between the lines, I’ve worked out too that he didn’t stop being a ‘real person’ even when Jesus took hold of him: i.e.he encountered some struggles, I believe, especially in the community’s life as lived out in their Scotland base.  There are inevitably struggles in any community, between the call to share together and the pull of our own individuality; still, for Mikel, the excitement and the commitment of the call to share is evident in his beautiful setting of Psalm 133 – ‘Oh how good and how delightful it is/for us to live together like this..’ But we would be naive to think that this was always easy, especially for the creative person he was perhaps?  The only time that I saw Mikel Kennedy perform as part of the Fisherfolk was in that Edinburgh festival – first of all as ‘Jesus on a step ladder’ (see again essay no. 37), but also in that same week – we’re talking August 1976, I think – a late night concert venue – amongst all of the worship songs drawn from the Fisherfolk’s own heritage, Mikel also sang Guy Clark’s haunting song ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’.  At that time I was  surprised by the ‘secular’ song choice!  Which strikes me now as a bit silly and hypocritical!  Like me, Mikel appreciated a good song – but maybe it was indicative of the growing difficulties of remaining within the strictures of that particular covenant community ? I don’t know.

Mikel died in 1998,  and The Community Of Celebration was sensible enough to honour his legacy, by putting together and releasing a compilation of some of his great songs, from Fisherfolk albums and from his own private tapes; the wonderful Fisherfolk cellist Max Dyer did much of the spadework that made this possible.  This is the CD I listened to over breakfast this morning – warmed by the opening song, as I said, I was made oddly tearful by a couple of the others!  Betty Pulkingham’s ‘ sleeve notes’ are wonderfully moving: ‘Mike will for ever be a part of us.  His warmth, his uncanny ability to come alongside another person…’ And it may seem a bit daft, I know, for someone who has never really known him in this life, but in so many ways I can only agree with Betty, finding no better words : ‘over the years, Mike has been turning up regularly in my life through the beauty of his songs…..  I expect him to be turning up again and again for each one of us, until that day when we join him in that ‘larger place’ Jesus has prepared for us all….’

 

66. THE LATE SHOW & HOW LONG? – Jackson Browne

 

 

I’m putting these two songs together –perhaps over-ambitiously? –and I’m not sure if I can convey what I want, but somehow I want to suggest that the gap between these two songs is a story in itself, from the introspective angst which characterises (and caricatures) too much of the early 1970s singer songwriter material, to something more outward looking, observational, politically and socially engaged [Note: this is one of the reasons why Dylan was outside of his time – the chronology of his own development is quite different.]

When Jackson Browne’s ‘Late For The Sky’ album was released, I was just ripe for its musings and expressions, particularly for the emotings and the confident pseudo psychological declaratives of the final song ‘The Late Show’…’ Seems like people only ask you how you’re doing/ ‘Cause that’s easier than letting on how little they could care..’ This kind of rawness, this naked facing up to the need-for-meaningful-love at the core of our beings , was exactly where I was at, there in the early 1970s.  And even while I’m writing this, I’m recognizing a chicken-and-egg conundrum: did the Californian songsmith’s navel gazing emoting actually engender my perspective, or simply correspond?  Remember that I was late adolescent burgeoning into early adulthood: first romance (Margaret); equally in love (or was this the fault of DH Lawrence?) with the idea of friendships.  So the song resonated and resonated.  And either way, I recognise this as both the internal and external mood of the time.  I remember singing a snatch of the song at home one evening –could possibly have been the lines already quoted –and my mother saying ‘Oh?  Do you think that’s true?’ Or something equally unexpected.  It led to a brief, interesting but slightly awkward conversation where I affirmed my commitment to be real, to talk about real feelings.  I think I might even have said that my experience of God’s love meant that I felt ‘reconciled to the world, and the universe, and myself’.  Something of that nature. (!!)

The song continued in that vein, arguing (it did argue, I think) for emotional honesty – ‘to see things clear, is hard enough I know…/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise..’ and encouraging us to probe beyond surfaces and to recognise the rawest of human emotional needs – ‘you could be with somebody who is lonely too/ He might be trying to get across to you..’

The disturbing thing is that some of my own songs may still be ploughing this same particular furrow. Yikes.  Take my song ‘Discover Me’ which urges the same kind of awareness (‘perhaps it’s like the one about Not waving here but Drowning’).  But despite that, listening back and thinking back, I recognise, as JB himself must have, that there are limits to this heavy emotional dissection.  It simply calls for a ‘breaking out’ to less-internal preoccupations; and it is a refreshment, relief and reinvigoration when this is reflected in the song-output.

I’m choosing ‘How Long?’ From the ‘World In Motion’ album as the other contrasting bookend.  I found the album in a shopping mall in Asuncion in 1991, though I think it may have been released quite a few years by then.  This wasn’t by any means the beginning of Browne’s more outwardly looking songs –even back in the mid 1980s, when Sue, Kev and I had gone to see him in Hammersmith Odeon, he was promoting his ‘Lives In The Balance’ album full of eloquent criticism of America’s foreign policy, and of awareness of its effects globally. That very title track in itself was a most arresting wake-up call.

The World In Motion album follows in the same vein –but the ‘How Long?’ track really got to me –because it seemed more than just mere polemic; it also employed the controlled emotive focus which song is so good at, of course (* see below) –to help promote and clarify that same anti militaristic perspective.  And so it alternates political statement (‘How long will they tell us these weapons are keeping us free?/It’s a lie..’) with more blatant emotive appeal (‘how long/can you hear someone crying..?).  *And OK, what needs to be debated of course, is whether all this is just political naivety; it could even be argued that the subtle complexities of political and militaristic pragmatism cannot adequately be addressed within the vehicle of song, which perhaps by  very nature tends towards simplifications and polarisations.  Today, I’m particularly aware that ‘emotive’ arguments can be easily abused – hearing Donald Trump crassly justifying his own recent air strike on a Syrian military target, with a suspiciously sudden newfound concern for the ‘poor little innocent Syrian babies and beautiful children’ who had not seemed on the radar of his compassion any time previously.  I’m not comfortable thinking that Browne and Trump might be using the same kind of manipulative technique , and I almost wish I hadn’t started this bit. Still, of the two, I know who the more articulate one is, and who I trust more.

Be that as it may, I still find this a powerful song –one of those rare ones that did make me cry; and it’s a song I have used in school assemblies – I constructed my first ever power point presentation with this song –and, with its sense of purpose and ‘protest’, I suppose it’s the kind of song I wish I had written more of, and perhaps had paid more heed to, and had celebrated more.

See what I mean?  In these two songs, a whole history….

65. BORDER SONG – Elton John

I think one often returns from time-out breaks with a sort of heightened awareness –and perhaps particularly so when they involve some cultural contrast, and in my experience this is especially true when the breaks have had some spiritual focus –and ones antennae towards matters of spiritual reference becomes acutely sensitive – perhaps amusingly so…

At least, such was the case in the spring of 1970 when I returned home from an Easter jaunt with the church youth group, who had been taken by our pastor Rev. Albert Turner (recently deceased – God bless him) to camp in the Bois De Boulogne and see the sights of Paris (following, now I come to think of it, a short Christian youth conference somewhere in Belgium, the first opportunity incidentally to practice my excruciatingly clumsy bits of O level French).  Show us the sights he did, and looking back it seems slightly unorthodox that for one of our evening visits he took us  -all young adolescent boys, if I remember rightly –to stroll along Pigalle’s avenue of strip joints and girlie shows. ‘Something of the world’s attractions’ he said, implying that anyone blithely following a perceived call to a Christian lifestyle might as well know what they were up against!  Ironically other visits and evening walks –less sticky and embarrassing –were equally alluring: the beauty of the Champs Elysees, the Left Bank, the art…

We must have returned home midweek, because I have a feeling that I was still fresh and raw from the headiness of foreign travel and from the intoxicating camaraderie of young people together, and the rarefied atmosphere of constant ‘Christian fellowship’ and refreshment, when we came to sit down and watch our regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ date, as a family, that Thursday evening.

I had probably only been away about 10 days at the most, but I suddenly felt that everything had changed – a song called ‘Spirit In The Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum had rocketed to the top of the charts –and this obviously a song about God!   Other singles too (I forget which) seemed less about teen romance and more about less earthbound concerns. …Spiritual awareness was everywhere!  And now, look –this young fresh faced pianist-singer Elton John was also singing a song of unequivocal gospel tones and content!  Had a revival taken place in my absence?  It was spring, after all, and an opportunity for awakenings in more than one way!

Okay, very funny now, that I should think of Elton’s song as evidence of a sweep of Christian fervour, or something akin.  What on earth was I basing it on? ‘Holy Moses’, no doubt (though today Taupin’s ‘Holy Moses’ seems little more than a substitute for a more frustrated expletive!) and possibly the impassioned call for tolerance in the last verse, which in its clunky literalism sounds more like The Office’s David Brent than anything else! (‘tell the man over there/what’s his colour?/I don’t care/he’s my brother/let us live in peace…’).  I subsequently learnt that young Reg added this verse himself, while Bernie Taupin’s lyrics in the rest of the song remain much more ambiguous and enigmatic –and somehow more enduring because of it.  Take the ‘bridge’ for instance –‘I’m going back to the border where my affairs/my affairs ain’t abused/I can’t take any more bad water/it’s poison from my head down to my shoes.’..  And borders are of course essentially dangerous, risky, uncertain, ambiguous tightropes between neighbouring or opposing states.  Perhaps that’s why they appeal to poet-singers –think of Richard Thompson’s ‘when I get to the border’ and Joni Mitchell’s wonderful ‘Borderline’ etc.

So yes, it was pretty silly wasn’t it, to see the song as potent with spirituality.  But the funny thing is, for me the feel of the song is still gospelish, and although my Elton-history is a relatively short one, I gladly come back to this one (it’s on the jukebox) and experience from it a familiar frisson.

 

 

 

 

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]

63. WHEN THE MUSIC FADES (‘THE HEART OF WORSHIP’) – Matt Redman

 

I feel like I have given ‘mainstream contemporary Christian music’ bad press and short shrift thus far in this series of postings; and I’m feeling something of the need to redress a balance.

And when I initially wrote this piece (oh, two years ago now I think) I was particularly indebted to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for including a Matt Redman song (not this one, actually) amongst his eight Desert Island Discs when he ‘appeared’ on that programme over Christmas 2014.  It was if I recall a lovely, gracious interview, as ever.  It made me reconsider my prejudices; and another thing it made me realise, and despite what I have said elsewhere, what I need to affirm is this: probably every generation has its cohort of pioneering hymn writers/psalmists/Jesus-troubadours who manage either to resist that glamorization and the inevitable contortions of identity that come with the commercial machinery of mass promotion and mass production; or to transcend it in some way; or perhaps just to ignore it and create  valuable psalmody in spite of it.

Now, I wouldn’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of the current sources of great contemporary Christian music. In the greenness of my prime there was the Wesleyan prolificness (prolificity?) of Graham Kendrick, the sensitive and accomplished Adrian Snell… Possibly today it’s bands like Rend Collective whose passionate, homespun, semi-makeshift style of joyous worship breathes authenticity.  20 years ago I found the same excitement in Delirious who –even in concert in Greenbelt a dozen years ago seemed to have managed to sustain their sense of heartfelt worship. (I wouldn’t know if the lucrative results of their excellence have eroded something of that: I surely hope not); and then in amidst the whole ‘stables’ of worship music – Hillsong, Vineyard etc –  there’s the Soul Survivor team with Beth Croft etc; there’s the wonderful solid crafting of Stuart Townend’s songs- these seem to have held on to some kind of worshipful integrity – and there must be loads more I’ve forgotten, or am ignorant of.  In that list (somewhere there) of songsmiths of spiritual integrity, number such as Tim Hughes and…. Matt Redman, composer of this wonderful song.

Because this song is something special, isn’t it.  Its unique because as well as being a valid worship song which engages mind and heart in its lyric and its musical construction – like so many of the psalms almost socratically working through to something that demands resolution in true submission and praise -, its special in that it kind of questions and challenges the very genre of which it is a part – “worship” (or perhaps I mean ‘the worship industry’) “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” he writes, and in doing so, wonderfully refocuses himself and anyone engaged in the listening/singing to the whole raison d’être – “it’s all about you, Jesus”.  For this reason, the song has a distinctive prophetic resonance: it was a song that needed to be written for those of my own Christian generation who have –let’s face it – because of the excitement of the creative process, or even the excitement of musical collaboration, or the alluringly emotive power of the poetic/musical engagement, been tempted to see song as an end in itself. “I’ll bring you more than a song/for a song in itself is not what you have required..” We are indebted to Mr. Redman for bringing us back in this song to the ‘heart of worship’ –which is of course not worship itself, but the object of our worship, our beloved, our redeemer and saviour. Him to whom we sing!

Does all of this have a wider relevance, even, to this very blog (which was conceived initially as a book of autobiographical reflections), to this whole process of reflecting and re-evaluating the place of songs in my life?  Hmmm… in some ways I think so: I hope that that is indeed what’s happening here, too – seeing and appreciating a song for what it is, sure, but also beyond it to its wider context of experiences and resonances that have shaped, continue to shape, our little lives, and how we see things.

 

62. NEVER LET HER SLIP AWAY – Andrew Gold

 

Here is a lightweight piece of pop that makes me smile.  In some ways, it’s just the perfect pop single, airy nothings in a romantic vein with a sweet neat hook of melodic progression and –clincher-a gorgeous, chugging, shuffling percussive beat driving the whole thing.

I heard it first on the radio in January 1989 –I know this because I was staying in a guesthouse in Bournemouth, where I had gone for an intensive TEFL course –increasing our work options to include teaching abroad.  It was a strange and unusual four weeks (five weeks?  Six weeks?) With little spare time as such; though, in my single bed somehow I still managed to read ‘Swallows And Amazons’ (never read it before) and Doris Lessing’s ‘The Fifth Child’.  Did I have a little transistor radio?  I imagine there must have been one, because I remember lying in bed one morning and hearing the song.

No epiphanies or anything.  I knew it wasn’t  great art –but that beat, that sound, those hooks got to me and I hummed and sang fragments of it for the rest of the day.  And even now if I ever hear it by chance (a relatively rare thing) the same thing happens. Cha-chung der-der-der-der-da, cha-chung der-der-der-der-da etc ‘I feel like a kid with a teenage crush…’

I could project backwards and suggest that it had caught my attention because there was perhaps some distinct lyrical significance for me   especially the opening lines ‘ I talked to my baby on the telephone long distance..’ i.e. there was a splendid wife back in our home in Factory Road, who had let me do this, despite the fact that she was caring for a two month old baby, as well as another child of eighteen months.  Hopefully I did realise that this was an extraordinary woman whom I should ‘never let slip away’ ?  Shamefully, though I was grateful and missing her – don’t get me wrong – my realization of this was probably at a less than  conscious level.  The fact that, 28 years later, she hasn’t ‘slipped away’ is more to do with her resilience and godly faithfulness than my ‘letting’ or ‘not letting’.  But –for the record –I’m very grateful. ‘She’s good for me.. and I know it [has made!] me happy.. to never let her slip away..’

[Ha – for the record – yeh, for this one too]

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.