68. WATERS OF MARCH – Antonio Carlos Jobim

I’ve started to try to learn to play this song on the guitar.  No, don’t laugh –give me another 17 years or so, and if my aged hands have managed to stay free of any crippling arthritis, who knows, maybe I’ll have got the basics by then.

Meanwhile, let’s just say that this is one of the greatest songs of all time. As any fule kno (Molesworth).  When I first heard it, from Art Garfunkel no less (was it the B side of something?  Or an album track?), I just thought it was quirky, different, and rather fun because of that.  Over the years I have become aware of what a legendary glegend Jobim was, and have come to appreciate the glory of these little bossa nova (?) masterpieces – a few tracks on Diana Krall’s lovely ‘Quiet Nights’ album….  Ella Fitzgerald’s album of Jobim’s compositions (those sadly not in the same league as her other ‘Songbook’ albums –recorded rather later in her career, and with a tireder voice), and there’s a nice Sarah Vaughan Latin rhythms album too.  And down the years have become aware of what a classic it is. The song was only written at the beginning of the 1970s – amazingly just a few years before Garfunkel recorded it! –so perhaps it is still in fairly early stages of gaining the reputation that it must inevitably achieve.

It’s oddly refreshing to have a lyric that is not a linear lyric –not attempting to express emotion, persuade a lover, explore angst, because on one level it is purely a kind of colourful collage –I presume –  of items swept along in Brazil’s floods, in the rainy season.  Musically it’s the kind of echo of that flow, too –often a kind of bobbing monotone, or rather rippling lazily along between two or three notes, and then suddenly quick trills into a high register as the streams take minor detours perhaps, divide around rocks, tumble over shallow falls, join each other in the gutters running down Rio’s favelas, maybe.  For our family, it well recalls our Asuncion days, the subtropical climate giving us not so much a rainy season as a regular cycle of building humidity then powerful street-transforming storms.  Such as the one where my wife’s flip flop got washed away into a storm drain as she walked the kids to school one morning!

I say ‘on one level’ because clearly there is a little more to it than that.  Jobim’s original Portuguese lyric would have been alluding to the end of the Brazilian summer. Some sense of an ‘ending’ is still there when he came to write his English version (and yes, clever clogs, he did it all himself) – ‘a stick, a stone/It’s the end of the road’…  but I think he wrote his English version with an awareness that for most English speaking singers and listeners, March would more likely have connotations of the ending of winter, thaws and spring rains and an anticipation of longer, brighter days. So we still get the sense of a swirl of disparate stuff being washed along in a downward stream, but in that mix are distinctly ‘abstract objects’ – ‘its a beam, it’s a void/its a hunch, it’s a hope’ and there’s also a great-tapestry-of-life, to-everything-there-is-a-season sort of feel in the way that darker references, objects of threat or pain are there in the flowing water – ‘a spear, a spike/ a point, a nail..’. And yet, and yet…this is a joyous song because the ‘refrain’ as far as we can call it that, leads us to this affirmation: ‘And the riverbank talks/Of the waters of March/It’s the promise of life/It’s the joy in your heart’. But because of the context, nothing facile about this kind of joy and hope.

There are plenty of performances of this song out there now –Sergio Mendez and his Brazilian band were perhaps one of the first to popularise it, and their version is as bright and shiny as everything they did; youtube has an interesting and slightly awkward duetted version with Suzanne Vega and Stacey Kent (who has also recorded it in French); jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit zips it up a little; Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan do a nice job, tackling the whole thing in its original Portuguese.  And there is a fine performance from the composer himself of course (also known as Tom Jobim).

But although it’s not the most dynamic of the sounds,and in no way the ‘best’ version, and you could even say there is something a bit lost and insipid –and very non Latin –about his ‘pretty’ vocal, I still come back to the Art Garfunkel version, just perhaps because I am indebted to it for introducing me to the song in the first place..  And now, let me get my fingers back to trying to contort themselves into those very non English chord shapes and rhythms.  Wish me luck!

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.

43. BURBUJAS DE AMOR – Juan Luis Guerra

 

There are some days, even now, when only Juan Luis Guerra will do, to jig along to in the kitchen while making a meal or washing up.

By the early 90s Guerra was something of a Latino legend in South America. Certainly, when we lived on that continent, and when JLG had slotted Asuncion into his itinerary, suddenly the TV (both channels!) was filled with little promo ads for his concert in one of the city’s football stadiums, and the racks of the street-sellers full of cheap copy import Brazilian/Argentinian cassettes had more than plenty of this particular bearded cantante. I picked up one of the many badly produced copies of his ‘Grandes Exitos!’ flooding the racks of these vendors in the plazas and…well…Guerra provided much of the soundtrack for our final year in Paraguay, for some of the nostalgic transition times in our return to GB, and – as I’ve said – has been absorbed into the general fabric of listening repertoire, as an occasional but integral part.

The merenge/bachata/salsa rhythms of his band and his songs were intoxicating, and as un-English as you could get. There was hardly a dud track on this Greatest Hits compilation, or in fact on several of the other cassettes I subsequently acquired (I had a particular fondness for his ‘Arieto’ album, and also one sent to me after we returned to the UK – ‘No es el mismo..’) His songs often touched on social comment – ‘Costo de la Vida’ and ‘Ojala que llueva cafe’ come to mind – but the pop-tinged love songs were equally good, perhaps better, with language and imagery that was fresh and inventive.

This song is a great example of that – ‘Quisiera ser un pez/Para tocar mi nariz en tu pecera/ Y hacer burbujas de amor por donde quieras/Pasar la noche en vela, tocada en ti…’ Blowing bubbles of love in your fishtank, spending the night ‘soaked in you’ may well be quite erotic imagery, but it’s at least fresh, original, playful. Many of the songs have that same air of inventiveness – ‘Como abeja al pañal’, ‘Carta de amor’ – but ‘Burbujas’ seems to me the best. Plus, as someone distinctly non-fluent-but-still-in-love-with-the-language, I love the sound of the words – ‘Burbujas’ (onomatopoeic?) is lovely.

Wikipedia tells me that his career has gone from strength to strength, and that’s great to hear – particular since his notable Christian conversion sometime in the late nineties/early noughies (?) – when such events can often signal career decline. I was of course excited to hear he’d found Jesus. Still am. But there’s one small cirrus cloud of disappointment: his album of entirely Christian worship songs – ‘Para Ti’ which I bought via ebay a few years ago has nothing like the sparky originality of language and imagery to be found on the ‘secular albums’. Instead, some rather conventional, even (I’m sorry) clichéd expressions of worship.

So here’s the thing. I know what’s really important, and I do rejoice in his fearless stance, his new faithful service to Jesus. But for some creative, stimulating, zippy love songs to dance to in the kitchen, I’ll be singing ‘Quisiera ser un pez..’!

36. FOR THE ROSES – Joni Mitchell

In 1972, Allan told me he’d got us tickets to see Joni Mitchell in the Royal Festival Hall and, bless him, was willing to drive us there too. It was 6 May, Cup Final Day, though, and believe it or not, dear smirking reader, in those days this actually meant something to me. Yes, I could actually watch a whole football match without wanting to shout out (in the words of a revered older lady of our acquaintance) ‘Oh for goodness sake, look at those men chasing a ball – give them ALL a ball!’ Even harder to believe I had an extra-special particular interest in the match since ‘my’ team (?!) Leeds United was battling it out, against Arsenal. Yes, hard for me to believe I was interested, but it was unquestionably essential we watched the match.

Allan hit upon a plan, deciding we could drive to London in the morning, and watch the TV coverage of the match at the home of our cousin Jean – despite the fact we had never visited her before, or given her any notice of this . Jean had earned some notoriety for us by having married Bruce Rowland, drummer in Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, and later in Fairport Convention. It was something of a cheek, perhaps, to turn up at her door unannounced, but that’s what we did. Jean and Bruce were clearly not Saturday morning risers though, so when we brightly introduced ourselves, middayish, to the slightly groggy dishevelled Jean who answered the door, we were sent for a 20 minute walk around the block while they got their act together. Eventually we were welcomed, and given a scratch lunch; despite being a bit in awe of Bruce we still rifled through his album collection; then we were allowed to watch the match (Leeds won 1-0) and went on our way into the heart of the big city. Hard to believe now, but Al was able to park ‘just around the corner’ from the RFH, without too much difficulty and without cost.

It did not go perfectly smoothly, this concert. It started late – the sound system wasn’t working so they ended up using the ‘house PA’ system which was a little echoey and tinny. Jackson Browne’s support set, then, was somewhat curtailed, but not before he’d whetted our appetite for further acquaintance.

Joni’s set, despite all this, was utterly entrancing and memorable. She seemed to me at the peak of her creativity – looking back, one of many peaks. Like the Cairngorms. She opened with ‘This Flight Tonight’, making the most of the song’s drastically dropped bass string to hammer a note of warning –if that doesn’t sound too fanciful (it does –Ed.) – that we were in for a confident showcase of some special stuff. And so we were: she focused heavily on the new songs, at times even a little apologetically – ‘but it makes it more interesting for me’ she explained introducing yet another new one. I for one wasn’t complaining – these new compositions were enthralling, instantly engaging. She rarely gave them titles, but each was unique and compelling. Only later did we learn we had been introduced to ‘Electricity’, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’ (breathtaking), ‘Lesson in Survival’, ‘See You Sometime’, ‘Judgement of the Moon and Stars’(the ambition, the melodic sophistication!), ‘You Turn me on I’m a Radio’ – all finely honed, eloquent in distinctive ways, none moreso than this song, which was to give the album that eventually featured these new songs, six months or more later, its title.

She introduced it at length with some detail  of its inception – hearing the leaves of the arbutus trees rattling together like applause, while there in her retreat home in remote British Columbia. And she linked the anecdote with reflections from her friend who had talked about artists being like horses running for the rosettes and roses…

And of course this is what this wonderful song is about – or at least one of the things that it is about – art for art’s sake versus art for acclaim and rewards.  What happens to the artist when the acclaim and the accolades come.  The complex maelstrom of responses to success and fame, to the changing context of the artistic endeavours…  This song was chilling, then, when I first heard it on that slightly echoey PA System 43 years ago.  It is still quite chilling and it’s rich in its complex exploration of feelings and thoughts.

You’ve got to admire this about Joni Mitchell: there is generally an honesty in what she produces.  As early as ‘He Played Real Good For Free’ which made it onto the third album, she was beginning to confront awkward and uncomfortable discrepancies between the simple troubadour she had been and the superstar she was becoming, between the musicianship of fame, and the equally adept musicianship without fame, the discomfort and the something-like-guilt this engenders.  In the following album she was acknowledging the lucrative base of the business she was now a part of –‘I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna quit this crazy scene..’ (she didn’t, hasn’t, couldn’t, quite…) ‘For The Roses’ takes an honest look at that –the artist caught up in a commercial merry go round so that art becomes contrived to the purposes of the machinery –‘in some office sits a poet…  And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around..’ She explores and confronts the discrepancy between the crowds of public acclaim (‘giant screens…  Parties for the press’) and essentially solitary nature of the artistic endeavour –‘it’s just you up there, getting them to feel like that…’ She explores and confronts the essentially inhuman, impersonal nature of the financial business world which controls the promotion of popular music –‘people who have slices of you from the company…’, and the powerful ‘golden egg’ metaphor in verse three hints of the precarious position of the popular artist, needing always to produce something marketable – ‘who’s to know if the next one in the nest will glitter for them so…’ The song is honest in confronting the idea that fame confers a lifestyle that is hard to move back from (‘…  Brings me things I really can’t give up just yet..’) so that to challenge the system for a successful artist indeed will seem like ingratitude as well as folly (‘…  My teeth sunk in the hand which brings me things…’) and –notably-we get the sense that recognition and acclaim are attractive enough that we carry the longing for them with us (‘did you get a round resounding for you way up here?’ from verse 1), but, equally, are essentially hollow –the ‘empty spotlight’ of that wonderful final phrase. How much more refreshing this bare probing than musicians perpetuating the pretence that they are reforming and doing another (fabulously remunerative) world tour of stadiums in their twilight years, merely for the love of the music, man.

Joni’s ‘you’ seemed ambiguous throughout the song – at times she seems to be addressing herself; at other times she seems to see the ironies and discrepancies more clearly by addressing a different second person – a former lover maybe,  a James, a Graham, a Jackson or whoever –it doesn’t really matter, the reflections are still valid just the same.  And it is powerful, this eloquent reflection-and-recollection in tranquillity, and by no means just as a lyric, but as a completely integrated music-and-words song.  Five verses, the final (half) verse bringing us back to the opening image but with a warier note.  In each verse, the opening lines follow a simple melodic strain dropping down in semi tones until a ‘lift’ in the second half of the verse with more dynamic thrusting images, somehow faltering into a final line with a chord reflecting irresolution and uncertainty –none more so than the ending of verse four where the fickleness of investment popularity has become ‘…  Bringing out the hammers, and the boards, and the nails…’ –the phrasing, the pauses perfectly reflect a world-weary cynicism with the business…  There’s a kind of instinctive compositional brilliance about this.

The song speaks – OK, yes, as one particular artist’s reflection on commercial success from the perspective conferred by distance and solitude; but also it speaks beyond itself to anyone engaged in expressive, creative or performance related pursuits.  It asks questions: was it ever enough to ‘pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee’?  Or is some kind of recognition and acknowledgment always to be desired?  Why this blog?  Why upload onto youtube and look for the likes, the comments?  How important the backpats, the smatterings of claps at open mic events?  How dangerous is it to be thrall to that. What’s creative integrity all about and how does it live with the audience it presumably needs?

(For goodness sake, give them all a ball.)

34. I REMEMBER YOU – Frank Ifield

I’m including this because some mention needs to be made of Sunday afternoons with Cynthia Jeffries in her front room, which, no, dear reader, is not as saucy as it sounds.

If you’re piecing all these together, you’ll know by now that I only became aware of discs, as such, on Judy’s 21st birthday, when I was seven. The love affair with discs had begun, but we had few at first. My acquaintance with discs other than the Everly Brothers ‘Walk Right Back’ c/w ‘ebony Eyes’ owed something to my sisters’ friends. Sue’s friend Amy lent us a number of 45s – including, I believe, ‘Smoke gets in your Eyes’ by the Platters, Johnny Tillotson’s ‘Poetry in Motion’ and Ricky Nelson’s ‘Hello Mary Lou’ Then there was their friend Cynthia, who lived five doors away from us. Cynthia was in fact the older sister of Susan’s good friend Marjorie – and she gave piano lessons. Somehow or other, I found myself invited to her front room for an hour or so on Sunday afternoons to listen to her collection of singles. Was the summons a bit like Miss Havisham in reverse? Instead of ‘Send a boy to play for me’ more like ‘send the boy so I can play (records) for him’.

OK, yes, in retrospect this does seem a little creepy, I suppose. She was..what? 17? 18? She certainly had a boyfriend with a motorbike, because usually our Sunday afternoon sessions ended when Jimmy’s bike could be heard arriving outside, and Cynthia grabbed her coat and ushered me outside. But during that hour before he arrived, I’d sit, polite and pliant 8/9 year old as I was, on the edge of the settee, while she put one single after another on the turntable.

I was quite excited that she had the Frank Ifield hit ‘I Remember You’ . The Australian yodeller had caused something of a stir with his recording of this old standard, and it apparently stayed at number 1 in the British charts for an unprecedented number of weeks. Me, I quite liked that warbly sound they called a yodel, and within the bounds of politeness I asked Cynthia to play it again and again. Somehow or other – did I use my own pocket money or did I cajole my parents to buy it as a gift – some time later I actually acquired a Frank Ifield EP with the title’Frank Ifield’s hits’ the cover of which only tends to highlight an unfortunately equine appearance (see pic), and containing the memorable  ‘She Taught me to Yodel’.

Enough  said. Here’s to you, Cynthia, last seen (in my misty imagination at least) zooming off into the sunset – or at least towards the ‘top end’ of our street – hanging on to the back of Jimmy’s motorbike.

Now, a little heartwarming coda from my old primary school classmate Tony Kauczok who writes:

“  I can remember walking around the estate where I lived (Lewis Street, top of the Graig, Aberbargoed), knocking on doors, and asking “Who is your favourite?: Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, or…..Frank Ifield?”. Being a big Frank Ifield fan if there was any wavering, I’d say “Frank Ifield then…..?”.   Frank won! They had various polls in pop mags and Frank never won. He did in my poll though……. Think I must have been 9 or 10, so over 50 years ago. Still got his singles and EPs, although I, eventually, moved on…  but hey, Frank. I remember you.“

Nice one Tony, excellent market research.

33. 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 think..my 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.

32. LITTLE BOY FISHING – Shirley Abicair

Before anything else, song-wise; before my sister’s 21st birthday, when songs suddenly became tangible, accessible, re-playable plastic; before my siblings’ friends shared selections from their disc collections, and before my parents’ generosity helped to amass our own modest collection…  Before all this, song recordings were transitory, occasional, ethereal; and there was Children’s Favourites on the radio, and that was about it.

Saturday mornings, I think, over a leisurely makeshift breakfast sitting next to the kitchen fire, there’d be Nelly The Elephant on the radio, and Danny Kaye singing various songs from Hans Christian Andersen; there’d be Alma Cogan singing either about a railroad running through the middle of the house, or about ‘This Old House’.  There’d be the Teddy bears Picnic (‘if you go down to the woods today…’) and the three Billy Goats Gruff and –as I later discovered –AA Milne’s little song about Christopher Robin watching the changing of the guard; there’d be Tubby the Tuba and – a particular treat –Sparky’s Magic Piano .  In retrospect, it was all pretty good.

Retrospection and nostalgia have become, of course, big business.  At the end of 1988, I found and bought a double cassette album of all these old songs, ‘Children’s Favourites’, originally thinking of it as a great Christmas gift for… somebody, and then realizing that nobody would appreciate it as much as I would, and so deciding to keep it.   I shamelessly wallowed in the syrupy nostalgia and enjoyed every song.  Amongst the crass gimmickry, and there was plenty of that, there were also some tasteful classics, and some nicely crafted treasures including ‘Little Boy Fishing’.  We’ll come back to this.

It was a time when I had given up my regular income job on a whim/ spiritual impulse/mid-life crisis/sense of vocation…  Travelling to Bournemouth in the turning of the year to begin my intensive TEFL course, I listened to the cassettes as I drove and seriously considered ways of raising income: how about busking on the streets of Bournemouth, I thought, and, hey, why not buy into the musical nostalgia business, and focus on these numbers for us baby-boomers?  Okay, I couldn’t quite see myself performing ‘I Know An Old Lady’ (and I didn’t begin to look like Burl Ives till several years later)  or even Max’s ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’, – but I could sort of imagine myself singing  ‘Robin Hood’ (riding through the glen);’Little White Bull’ a la Tommy Steele; I’d have a brave stab at ‘The Runaway Train’ (while coins continued to drop in the imaginary hat)…  and yes I thought I could learn that Shirley Abicair number about the little boy fishing off a wooden pier.

It was a daft, momentary dream – for one thing a TEFL course allows no free time for anything beyond planning lessons, let alone busking!  So I never did take to the streets with my handful of Uncle Mac classics. But oddly enough about seven or eight years later I did work the ‘fishing’ song into my repertoire.  Singing it at folk club got a fairly ambiguous response –but then again so did most of my ‘covers’ (in that list include ‘Paper Moon’, Brel’s ‘The Desperate ones’, Goffin/King’s ‘Goin’ Back’) – but it gave me a kick, and that’s what counts.

If I came to love this song as a child – and I did, I think – then I can only conjecture at some of the elements of appeal.  The image of the solitary kid enjoying his solitude was always attractive – particularly with the added ideas of imagination, dreaming…  and that’s all here.  ‘Little boy dreaming with a secret smile/one day sail away cannibal isle…’ (!  Uncertain attraction there, perhaps!).  The song also hinted at the exciting anticipation of growing up (‘Soon enough little boy’ll grow big man/then he’ll go fishing for the frying pan’ – not that I got that, I’m sure), the idea of aspiration (‘Gotta make some money for that boat of mine…’) but all within the cosy safety of childhood – getting sleepy and going to bed –on ‘Blanket Bay’.  And I’m guessing the jaunty little internal rhymes were fun too: ‘Dogfish catfish any this or that fish’; ‘can’t catch shellfish but I wanna sell fish’; as well as the colourful idiomatic lines which would have seemed nonsense to me, but fun if taken literally – ‘Many a general would eat his hat…’ We didn’t fish, as kids, our family, but I kept the image of it, Huck Finn-like, as something a bit romantic, and requested a rod for one birthday before I’d quite quit childhood. (The reality of fishing was less entrancing, though.)

If I think of the TV Shirley Abicair, all I can conjure up is someone compositely between the lady who accompanied Muffin The Mule, Shari somebody who worked Lamb Chop, and Mary Travers from Peter, Paul and Mary.  But with a zither…  Or was it an autoharp?  But this was radio Shirley Abicair, just a pretty voice, singing a  nice song… The song? Well, without any supporting research, I suspect this is a sort of modified traditional song.  I think I’ve read it has aboriginal origins (and S.A. was Australian wasn’t she?), but to me it has a kind of possible West Indian feel, somehow, at a time when it was not particularly non PC to affect Caribbean mannerisms to sing about ‘dat ol banana boat’ etc.  This song doesn’t do that; and I may be way off the mark.  Even if this were some kind of traditional, it has been neatly smoothed, anglicised, even almost sort of pop-structured.  But there’s something quietly substantial about its dreamy childhood images, that has stayed with me a little more doggedly than eg.Windmill in Old Amsterdam, and such . And yes I still like it.

31. LOVE THEME from ‘LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG’ – Michel Legrand

Of course you could say that the whole of ‘Les Parapluies..’  is one long song – it is after all a seamless piece of sung dialogue –recitative, like opera – from beautiful beginning to beautiful end.

I watched the film one evening, while I was still living with my parents, presumably because there was ‘nothing else on’, or perhaps I convinced them it would help my A level French studies.  It’s hard to imagine Mam and Dad watching it with me (Did she knit her way through it? Did he read the Echo? ‘Watching’, in the same way, perhaps, in which I ‘watch’ TV with my family –doing a jigsaw on the coffee table, doing ebay negotiations or playing scrabble on the laptop) but –at an impressionable age, of course –I found the whole thing very poignant; the delicious sadness of that final scene stays with me –soft snow falling on a petrol station in the dark …

I don’t know if the main protagonists –the delectable Catherine Deneuve and… the bloke -sang their own parts [no they didn’t – note to self:Check on Wikipedia before writing! ] or whether they were dubbed, but the sound was sweet, clear and affecting,  and the music, like all great opera, soon made the unnatural device of singing everything (even the most mundane, casual remark) seem as natural as breathing.

The particular ‘song’ I’m thinking of here I always assumed was called ‘Ne me quittes pas’ which the Deneuve character begs her boyfriend more than once during the lyric.  Perhaps Jacques Brel’s song of the same name meant that Michel Legrand  thought that he would call his something else, and popularise it internationally under its English title (‘I Will Wait for You’).  But I’m just guessing.

The song covers the pivotal part of the narrative.  The young man announces that he has been drafted to do his National Service and will be away for two years; she is distraught, not sure how she can cope with such a long absence; since this is their last night together, he tenderly leads her up to his room (in the familial apartment) where they will have a night of physical congress to remember (and from which, of course, a conception occurs).  The song covers all that dialogue –the revelation, the anguish, the tender reassurances, and also in fact covers their goodbye the following day – remarkable that the one song spans so much of that central narrative without it appearing strung out or contrived, and the romantic sweeps and swoops of its melody are entirely appropriate and entirely captivating.

I was reintroduced to the song through the singing of Nana Mouskouri who, on her appropriately titled album ‘the Exquisite Nana Mouskouri’ gives a sensitive, faultless rendition of the song – in French, I think.  Yes, certainly: ‘No je ne pourrai jamais vivir sans toi…’ or something like that. ‘O mon amour, ne me quittes pas,’ she sings, soaring confidently and sympathetically over the gorgeously rich orchestral accompaniment.[ More than just a pair of glasses, that woman.  More even than a campaign for the return of the Elgin marbles.]

And yet from somewhere, I’m also familiar with its English ‘translated’ incarnation –‘the clock will tick away the hours one by one..’ .  Still, it’s the French that will give me the goosebumps, and send  me back to that first viewing, that uniquely moving 1964 film and all of the ways in which it touches the trembling consciousness rawly aware of the potency of love.

29. MARRAKESH EXPRESS – Crosby, Stills and Nash

You’ve got to love Graham Nash.  And you’ve got to sort of envy him, too, obviously; and.. sort of feel proud of him as an apparently ordinary sixties’ pop Hollie who left behind Top Of The Pops Britishness, and transformed himself transatlantically, and was suddenly no longer singing ‘Hey Carrie Anne’ etc  but was part of a West Coast Supergroup and… (how did this happen? Dream of dreams?) shacked up in an idyllic Laurel Canyon home with Joni Mitchell and two cats in the yard!

The story is that in his ambitions and creativity he was always aiming ‘outside the box’ –take , for instance, ‘King Midas In Reverse’ (not a great song, really?) that the other Hollies had to be persuaded to record against their better judgments.  As I believe the story goes.  Anyway, and I may be making this up, ‘Marrakesh Express’ was a step too far for them, too left field, too non-UK-charts, and so he left behind their Northern narrowness, and the provincial unimaginativeness of the British scene, man, and (suddenly?) became the N of C S N – and the rest is history.

So there’s a touch of our-lad-made-good when we hear him of waxing lyrical about this particular popular bit of the sixties’ hippy trail, think of him in the ‘striped djellabas we can wear at home’ and ‘blowing smoke rings from the corners of [his] ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mouth’…  And it’s a happy sound, as recorded with this harmonising pals Crosby and Stills.

In interviews, they always say what a happy recording that first album of theirs was –because they were all in love at that time –Stills with Judy (Blue Eyes) Collins, Nash with Joni, Crosby with…  his boat?  (and the girls who sailed on it with him?).  And indeed the album has a really easy, relaxed, happy feel.  In fact – that whole West Coast interaction/crossover from late sixties’/early seventies was a buzz of good feeling for a teenager: include in this Stills’ first album with its (dubious message song) ‘Love The One You’re With’, and Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ album with ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’.  (love, love, love –lots and lots of philosophising pronouncements about love in those times!) I’m glad that the loved-up harmonising boys decided to include Graham’s moderately lightweight Marrakesh song, though.

My anecdotal attachment to it dates back  to 1970, I think, and to an overnight charity walk I did in aid of Oxfam (?).  It was called the Yog-Jog, and we walked from Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens, starting at midnight, 26 miles to Porthcawl.  Most of it, as you might imagine, is a blur, but I remember that some of the walkers had radios with them, and, as day broke, and our tired legs were nearing the goal, daylight giving us the last surge of motivation, we were listening to some early morning radio programme, and this song came on.  Although a walk to Porthcawl is not quite the same as ‘taking a train to Casablanca going south…’ there seemed some sort of vague resonance in the sense of movement and mission, and the zippy feel good factor of those sunny west coast harmonies must have added something of a spring to the tired steps.  ‘All on board that train…’!

Good man, our Graham.

Introduction

I’m imagining that these writings will be an attempt to justify the inordinate importance which songs, moreso even than ‘pieces of music’, have always had in my life.

So, I’m going to chart –randomly, and as they occur in daily life –songs that have assumed a kind of resonance with me –evoking clear memories of when I first heard them, or the emotions and thoughts which I associate with them,and perhaps the kind of symbolic significance with which they might have seemed invested at the time, or become invested subsequently. If we’re lucky, there may even be a little analysis of lyrical content or reflections on accompaniment and performance!

When I say songs of course, these will primarily be the ‘popular song’ which commercial opportunities made ubiquitous for my generation.  My class meant that art-song, lieder, operatic arias and ecclesiastical chants, anthems and cantatas were largely inaccessible…  But instead we were soaked in musichall ditty, Hollywood crooner tunes, swing and dance numbers, nursery rhymes, folk ballads and sing a longs, and then most of all pop songs: those three and four minute singles aiming for ‘chart success’, and then the slightly more sophisticated, crafted creations which were the privileged purchase of said success –album tracks and such.

So here we go: I sing the body electric –and acoustic.