FOLLOW THE DRINKING GOURD – traditional/Richie Havens

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

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

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

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

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

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


A SIMPLE SONG from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance,, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

El Lazo by Victor Jara

Although famously in touch with my feelings, and something of an easy crier, there are not too many songs that have conjured forth tears on a regular basis.  Joni Mitchell’s ‘Tin Angel’ was one notable exception; and ‘The Living Years’ (Paul Carrack) for different reasons; but this song got me ‘welling up’ (as they say) regularly, when I was first acquainted with it.

I had known of Victor Jara by name in the 1980s – growing up as a miner’s son in a socialist family it might be strange if I hadn’t – as someone who had been a popular theatre director and (more importantly for me) ‘people’s folk singer’ in Chile establishing a burgeoning ‘nueva cancion’ movement in Allende’s brief administration.; and ‘martyred’ under Pinochet’s brutal reactionary regime. In several of my teaching years (both before and after South America) I championed the inclusion of James Watson’s teenage fiction novel ‘Talking in Whispers’ as a studiable text for Key Stage 3: it looked at Chile’s recent (then) turbulent history and had a character based upon Jara.

So, when, living in South America, we holidayed in Chile at the end of 1990/beginning of 91, I made sure I bought some music cassettes in the streets of Vina del Mar, of both the wonderful Violeta Parra (‘Gracias a la Vida’) and also, obviously, of Victor Jara. Then, back in Asuncion, got to listening to them more closely.

Jara’s tape was a ‘Best of’, I think – with the moving ‘Plegaria a un Laborador’ and the wonderful ‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’ which later I heard sung by Joan Baez.  But it was this song, ‘El Lazo’, which got to me most.  I can’t say I understood all the lyrics.  Even apart from the less comprehensible Chileanisms, my Spanish was still pretty basic, and I eventually got a more experienced colleague in the staff (thanks Pat Baldock) to transcribe the lyrics for me.  But the bits I could understand (and several I couldn’t) touched me deeply.  ‘Cuando el sol se inclinaba/Lo encontré…’ – there is something so deliciously lugubrious about the sound of this and the idea of the sun ‘inclining itself’ adds so fittingly to the melancholy, as does the almost onomatopoeic ‘sombrío’ describing the dark ranch, this ‘rancho de pobre’ where the poor ranchero lives, twisting and twining his lasso rope. So begins and ends the song, with this deeply moving slow,minor key evocation of a poor tired man at sunset (his own life’s sunset?). In between are seven pacier verses sketching out the man’s work and life (inseparable) – the strength but skillful deftness of his lasso-making dexterity; the solitary, unaffirmed and unrelenting nature of his work (‘nadie ha dicho;’Es bueno/Ya no debes trabajar..’); a sense of his growing tiredness; while the ‘lazo’ becomes a metaphor for his own weary life ‘laceando’ by the countryside and the need to labour.

You could see this as merely romantic, perhaps, the noble poverty-enslaved agricultural artisan; you could see it all as socialist propaganda; but I don’t cry any more when I listen to it. Beyond the merely emotive appeal, the song has a value and performs the function of the best of true ‘folk’ song: and it seems to me a beautiful  and necessary thing to do, to celebrate the dignity and worth of old, honest workers. Whatever one’s level of Spanish fluency, I think you can still get a sense of that in this gorgeous song.