45. PEOPLE GET READY -Curtis Mayfield

No anecdotal attachment here, as such. It feels like this great modern gospel song has always been around. In fact when I was younger,  I might have thought of it as a version of some other train/salvation metaphor songs – didn’t the Seekers or the Settlers or the Rennies sing one about ‘the Gospel train’? (Wasn’t that also in ‘Youth Praise’, the British 60s hymnal for church youth groups?) I note that the original ‘Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ single/album of this title was actually released in 1965! But it’s been dormant for me, this song, only gaining a kind of prominence as, over the last 15 years, I’ve heard a succession of cover versions underlining what a classic of a song it is – James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Patty Griffin – but what, particularly, has occasioned this essay is hearing the mighty Seal singing it on his album of classic soul songs, which I picked up in a charity shop last week. Wow.

Going back to the original, it’s sweet, but surprisingly tight and low-key, with some neat choreography in the structured performance – the first halves of lines sung by a solo voice and then completed in the second half either by a different voice or by the whole group. Then there’s a key change before verse 3 – ah that tricky verse three (more in a moment) – and the first verse is repeated at the end. It’s a piece of smooth, controlled soul. If that’s not an oxymoron.

Hearing it being played in the car again last week, and having heard me warbling it round the house made my youngest daughter ask ‘Is this your favourite song at the moment, Dad?’ ‘I suppose it is,’ I said. These great cover versions over the last few years have made me want to add it to my repertoire, but I think I lack the necessaries to bring it to life – a good voice, maybe. My gifts such as they are – quirky song-composition-twiddling or whatever – are not enough to do this justice. You need a Voice, I think. On the only occasion I had a go at this in Folk Club, it all felt a bit flat. And then there’s the question of that trickiness in verse 3.

Before singing it publicly, I realized I had some theological problems with verse 3: ‘There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own..’ Hmmm, I thought: aren’t sinners precisely for whom there IS some carriage room? Or am I watering down Mr Mayfield’s justifiably urgent warning, because of a kind of liberal universalism? And maybe there’s the implicit understanding that said sinner is ‘hopeless’ because in his unrepentant malice willfully  misses the train?  Either way, I ended up singing ‘There’s STILL some room for the hopeless sinner..’ And the final two lines of the verse – ‘Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner/Cos there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne’… Well, that was just about OK, I suppose. But what too about the end of verse 2 which seems to differ in different versions – ‘There’s hope for all among those loved the most.’ Uncomfortable (Calvinistic?) ideas of God’s favouritism, as the lucky Elect chug on in their luxury choo-choo? However, Eva Cassidy sings ‘There’s hope for all among the loved and lost’ which I think is what I plumped for in my solo performance.

Why such scruples, you might be asking?  I suppose it seems such a neat bit of gospel, I want the metaphor to hold together in a way that has some integrity by my funny standards. Is a train journey a good image for salvation? It has some validity I think, especially the idea of the ‘free ride’ (‘you don’t need a ticket’), the sense of sheer grace that enables the ride (‘no baggage..’) , the sense of train rides as having destination etc. Alright -easy to stretch what is essentially a fun piece of imagery if we over-analyse, I know!

I don’t think I’ve heard a bad rendition of this song (except mine at folk club), and the opening exhortation generally makes something skip within me as a kind of response. I heartily commend – especially – the Seal recording. Could you get more soulful soul? And so, get on board, little children, get on board.

8. LET’S TWIST AGAIN by Chubby Checker; and SWEET SOUL MUSIC by Arthur Conley

What on earth?  Indeed…  The link between these two is Bedwellty Grammar School Christmas parties –and until I checked out the dates on these two discs, I didn’t realise that two separate events have blurred and blended together in my mind –particularly strange since they are three years apart, but perhaps that’s a mark of what a slow/late developer I was.  I probably approached the 1967 (form 4!) party not so differently from the way I did the Form 1 party in 1964…

…  Which we’ll deal with first.  Those who know me intimately might also know that this party –after just one term in secondary school, now I think of it –was the occasion of one of my earliest and proudest achievements –winning the ‘Twisting Competition’.  Largely due to the Chubby Checker single, and the industry around it, I suppose, the aforementioned dance had become a new, relatively successful, teenage fad.  The record played several times that night in the ‘dancey’ part of the evening (for surely, in 1964, we had games and food first?  I don’t remember) and teachers decided, I imagine, that it would be fun to test the youngsters’ expertise at ‘twisting’ their little bodies in an elimination competition.  Yay –last man left standing: me!  Of course, this being the only dance achievement of my life (and, thinking about it, one of the few dance experiences altogether) I definitely ‘peaked too early’.

Fast forward three years (if I went to the Christmas parties for Forms two and three, their musical flavour remains an undistinguished blank in my memory) and I’m in the Form four party – but…ah! the music!  The music being played over and over again is a genre to which I have obviously given too little heed –because on this particular evening, and without the aid of chemical substances and intoxicants, ladies and gentlemen!  -the music seems electrifying!  Several times the keynote single was played –Arthur Conley’s ‘Sweet Soul Music’ –I’d never heard it before, but it seemed to me that rarest of things, a ‘new sound’.  Although I was clearly too busy dancing (probably still the twist) along to it to recognise any lyrical content, I think I worked out that he was sort of referring to other stars of the same genre –Lou Rawls did I hear?  Wilson Pickett?  Apart from that, it was all tooting horns sections, and a ‘soulful’ controlled sort of shout –‘Do you like good music …?!’ And of course, 14 year old ingénu that I was, I certainly did!

Who was our DJ for the night, I wonder?  He had clearly decided that ‘soul’ was to be the order of the evening, though –because Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ also got several plays, as well as Otis Redding’s ‘Dock Of The Bay’ –and suddenly, I felt I was able to join the dots together and appreciate this music for it was: yes indeed, a brand new sound, an aptly named genre.

Now, this may well be a memory that is largely apocryphal fantasy – still, in my mind I seem to recall that brother Allan may well have come to pick me up from the school hall at the end of that evening in, I imagine, his first, ‘new’, secondhand Morris Minor (with its comical registration plate of MOO 118).  If I’m right, and he indeed did so, I believe he found me in something of a state of excitement, waxing lyrical about “Soul Music!!” What did I say to him that night?  “Hey Allan, it’s the new big thing!”?  “it’s the way ahead”?  “is where it’s at, man”?  Who knows?

My soul–excitement obviously never developed into anything life changing, or even listening changing.  Still, for one exciting night (two, if you count the Chubby Checker night and the glory of the Twisting Competition) I discovered what I suppose most youngsters experience routinely, and take for granted now –the simple links between a ‘new sounding’ sweep of popular song, and the urge to jig around to it, and that equally simple, sweet exhilaration of being alive!

6. SAVE THE COUNTRY – The Fifth Dimension

It was the early seventies, I presume.  For some reason, my brother had taken me to see Newport County football team in their home ground; even though we were really Cardiff City supporters.  It says much about the kind of boy I was that I remember nothing about the match but I do remember that during the half time interval, when music was played over the tannoy system –was this usual?  -that this song came on.  I’d never heard it before, and I thought it was fabulous.

Perhaps I inwardly jumped for joy because it had a kind of spiritual hymn-like quality; perhaps I responded to the raw, simple gospel appeal of the lyric: ‘Come on people, come on children…’; perhaps the vague but idealistically broad scope of the song –‘Save the country…  now!’  -also resonated with my 17 year old spirit.  But there was the sound too –something very rich and fruity and colourful in these voices belting out in unison then breaking into delicious harmonies.  I was hooked.

Did I know anything about Laura Nyro then?  I don’t think so.  If I had heard of her at all, I might have read –via the New Musical Express –that she wrote many songs which other people recorded –eg Barbra Streisand (Stoney End) and maybe I was already familiar with Wedding Bell Blues, a hit for this same group which I was listening to, there in the Newport ground.

I was still a couple of years from buying the ‘New York Tendaberry’ album, where Laura Nyro sings ‘Time and Love’, a similarly strong, anthemic kind of pop song, with an equal power to rouse goosebumps.

But ‘Save the Country’ –this is the one I’ll remember, on that cold weeknight football fixture and the halftime interval music which touched me in secret ways.