61. STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER/PENNY LANE – The Beatles

 

The thing about one’s personal Beatles history is this: for those of us who grew up in the Beatles years (a relatively short time, looking back), the peculiar impact of any particular song relied upon the intersection of two lines –the line of their development as a creative and imaginative band of artists; and the line of your own stage of growth and discovery as a young person…  And the less certain factor is how far their own boundary pushing changes helped to inform and influence changes in teenagers like me. Hmm. Discuss, or not.

Here’s something of my own Beatles history as I recall.  One early memory of them is their (second?) single getting reviewed on Juke Box Jury: some toff on the jury being patronising and sniffy  about ‘Please Please Me’ and commenting on their “misspelled” name.  I remember too running around on the local welfare ground and excitedly telling someone on that particular day that my parents, who had gone on the usual Saturday shopping trip to the nearby town, would be buying the new record ‘From Me To You’ –and how much I was looking forward to going home to play it. I remember one Christmas the ‘Beatles for Sale’ album (a gift for me?  Or Allan?) Maybe it was the same Christmas when my auntie bought me a Beatles scrap book – lots of early merchandising for the Fab Four.  And then there were subsequent Christmases where one family member or other received ‘Rubber Soul’ and then ‘Revolver’ –and by this time I was getting old enough to be impressed by both the innovative cover photography, and the clever wordplay of the titles.  And by the songs, of course.  (One Christmas – almost grown up now ! – it was the ‘white album’ double. That might need a blog posting of its own.) And it wasn’t just Christmases, it was summer holidays –‘Paperback Writer/Rain’  in our heads and on our tongues as we played mini golf in Scarborough; ‘All You Need Is Love’ during the summer of love, our Colwyn Bay holiday; ‘Hey Jude’, most memorably, as I returned home from a camping trip in Symonds Yat.  Memorable because it was Judy, my sister, who was enthusing about it, with such fervour that she almost persuaded me that the song was in fact written about her!

So –why ‘Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane’?  I’ll come to this soon, hopefully.  Let me say, too, that by this time in family proceedings, we had acquired a reel to reel tape recorder, and it became a regular event for a while that we would record ‘Top Of The Pops’, the classic BBC TV chart programme to listen to it over and over by the miracle of magnetic tape.  The weekly Thursday ritual would be that we would have to move the loud ticking clock from the ‘middle room’, remind everyone not to talk during the programme, and set up the microphone in front of the TV.  And on one particular occasion, the Beatles chose to showcase their new double-A side single on the programme, with perhaps two of the earliest purpose made ‘video’ presentations to accompany the tracks.  I wouldn’t swear to it –but I think it closed the programme –perhaps the single have gone straight to number one?

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever played and replayed any piece of magnetic tape as I did those  seven or eight minutes containing those two songs.  And probably only now am I dissecting the magic they held.  As a double-A side single it was perfect –because the two songs exemplified the two equally mesmerising sides of the Lennon McCartney songwriting partnership, and, really, of the Beatles Sound itself.  ‘Penny Lane’ –the McCartney side of the Beatles – was very ‘pop’ in some ways of course, but with distinct ‘advancements’ and with its catchy melodic structure, it’s lyric a rather quirky jumble of observations –often surreal – ‘barber taking photographs…  a nurse selling poppies.etc.’ Here was pop music perhaps attempting to uncover the lively randomness of mundane reality ‘there beneath the blue suburban skies…’

And the other side?  The Lennon side of Beatlesdom –with something of a more dangerous edge.  It’s even there in the opening invitation – ‘let me take you down..’ The sound and the language are much less amusingly suburban: instead there’s a skewing and questioning –‘nothing is real..’ I knew, of course, nothing about drugs then -but I suppose I couldn’t help picking up hints of consciousness-altering possibilities in the sound and the lyric ; ‘And nothing to get hung about…  Strawberry fields forever..’

For some reason, I particularly enjoyed playing this piece of tape, with the two songs, the perfect double-A side single, in our ‘front room’ early in the morning in the semi darkness, with the curtains still closed. Ah youth.

60. 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.)

 

59. I’LL KEEP IT WITH MINE – Bob Dylan

 

‘Some people are very kind’, I found myself singing in the car one day recently, when somebody let me into a stream of traffic, when they could so easily have not.  And wondered where the line came from, and then realized that in my head the line sounded like Sandy Denny singing.  Pretty soon, by a sequence of connections, I got there: the album ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ which I had bought during my first year at university and the song was by Bob Dylan, and I loved it.

I’m almost sure, that I purchased the album (from the ‘Duck, Son and Pinker’ record shop in Swansea) because it contained a cover version of a Joni Mitchell song that I’d never heard of before, and which had never appeared on any of her own recordings –the wonderful’ Eastern Rain’ (why on earth has no one else chosen to cover this beautiful song?); and also for some odd reason , I maintained a kind of illusion that this band Fairport Convention was somehow a bunch of undergraduates just like me who did this sort of thing in between lectures and tutorials.  I had the same sort of feeling, incidentally, about Bridget St John with whom I was musically half in love at this time: I imagined them all going to seminars about John Keats, or oceanography, or even mechanical engineering, and then getting together in common rooms to make music, or staying up late in student digs penning sensitive songs. Hmmm.

The sound, the sounds, on’ What We Did on Our Holidays’ was fabulous, and still is.  Richard Thompson has gone on to achieve iconic musical status; Sandy Denny –and not just because her early death confers ‘legend’ –is acknowledged rightly not only as one of the great contemporary folk singing voices, but also as an accomplished songwriter in her own right.  The choices of songs on the album seem, now, pretty inspired -and of course the timeless ‘Meet On The Ledge’ is included in that number…  along with this relatively unknown Dylan song.

What gave this song its wistfulness?  Well, first of all it’s within the context of a kind of unconventional love song  (loving you ‘not for what you are/But for what you’re not..’)- but it’s also about ‘searching’ (a popular idea in the post- flower power years), with the added slightly mystical appeal of searching ‘for what’s not lost’.  There’s the attractive idea of communality –‘everybody will help you/discover what you set out to find..’; and then there’s that quirky, ambiguous refrain which provides the title: ‘if I can save you any time/come on give it to me/ I’ll keep it with mine’.

Despite being a words man, I’m still not clear on this.  He could be saying of course that he’s more than willing to save ‘her’ (the addressee) time and trouble spent searching for meaning, or whatever (‘what’s not lost’).  But I think I heard it in a kind of literal way too –‘time’ being talked about as a sort of commodity to be ‘saved’, looked after, ‘kept’ (safe?) – and the playful offer from the singer is that if she will be willing to hand over her allocation of time to him, he will look after both their ‘times’, together – like love, sort of thing.

Where does the verse three train (which leaves ‘at half past ten’) come into this, I hear you ask.  Funnily enough, though trains often feature in songs as symbols of freedom and movement, in this one I wonder if the train’s monotonous regularity (‘back tomorrow at the same time again’), like the conductor ‘still stuck on the line’, is in fact bit of a contrast to the searching spirit, not earthbound by these timetables and schedules.  So does the refrain now come to imply: against this backdrop of mundanity, stick with me and either ‘we’ll do our searching together’ or rather that‘spending our time together is the right goal of all that unnecessary searching’?  Answers on a postcard please.

The only recording I’ve heard of Dylan himself singing this is, I think, with his own bluesily plonky piano accompaniment –still great, of course of course- but perhaps helping us to appreciate even more Fairport’s lightness of touch. Nico’s famous cover from her ‘Chelsea Girls’ album doesn’t do it for me really, and Judy Collins’s early stab at it (a 1965 single which she never bothered to include on an album) is perhaps a touch too jaunty. It’s not an easy song, perhaps, or I’m just fussy.

Or more likely, the lovely Fairport Convention recording spoilt me for any others.

So dear readers, if you have any further reflection, memory or interpretation relating to this song: come on, give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine.

 

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.

57. THE LIVING YEARS – Mike and the Mechanics

 

I’ve tried a few times to write this one, over the last several months, but never feel I’ve quite got it right.  Ironically, I’ve ended up with ‘crumpled bits of paper/filled with imperfect thoughts…’, but it’s a new year so let’s give it another bash.

Looking at the release date of Mike and the Mechanics’ classic single ‘The Living Years’-end of 1988-I must have been aware of this song before the occasion of our exodus from Blighty (end of 1989) but, as far as my memories are concerned, this song doesn’t acquire conscious recognition until the middle of 1990.  For reasons which will become obvious.

You might think that saying goodbye to our parents at the turning of that particular year and decade, travelling as we were to somewhere that seemed a world away (and to them, even further; in these days the whole trans-continental thing seems a much less significant thing – a mere jaunt you can be back from by evening!) would have been profoundly emotional.  In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn’t.  Possibly I had steeled myself against the emotional traumas of partings, but for the most part we were all stoical. Given my father’s relatively advanced age, I must have been aware, somewhere in the back of my mind, that this might have been our last earthly hug/handshake, or whatever we did, but of course there was no way that I could have confronted that consciously.

Perhaps something of the excitement of the impending transition, and the flurry of preparations, kept me from the whole emotional import of this awareness. (Until the very first night away, in a small damp apartment in Sevilla, where we had gone for six weeks language training.  There I spent  sleepless hours suddenly confronted with a waking dread of having made a horrific error – ‘what have I done?  Taken my children away from their grandparents!  Left behind my own aged parent!…’ I think of it now as one peculiar dark night of the soul, a kind of Gethsemane type temptation to despair, and when Seville’s winter sun dawned the next morning those feelings evaporated and amazingly , never returned.)

If I hadn’t cried at leaving, I made up for it watching ‘Field of Dreams’ as part of the in-flight entertainment from Madrid to Rio de Janeiro, a film which, of course, is all about sort of recovering a relationship with a father who is in reality ‘beyond reach’.  I wept buckets, but there again, I’m a bit like that with films and so on.  Anyway, cutting the story short a little bit, my dad did indeed pass away some 5 months later (fairly peacefully, apparently, in his living room armchair, having recently had a pleasant reunion which had enabled him to catch up on some of his own family); we were not only far away and phoneless, but also in that particular week when he had died, we had been enjoying a rare little break on the Brazil/Paraguay border at Foz de Iguazu, glorying in the magnificent waterfalls, and so  were even more incommunicado than usual; his funeral went ahead without us but many friends ‘stood in’ for us, out of love.

So, I ‘heard’ the song for the first time, the next time it reached my ears. At least that part of the song which seemed particularly pertinent: ‘I wasn’t there that morning/when my father passed away/I didn’t get to tell him/all the things I had to say…’ And I’ve come to recognise that that sense of regret –for unspoken conversations, unvoiced expressions of affection and appreciation- are not uncommon, perhaps even universal, since we never do quite say enough of these things in ‘the living years’.  (When my mother passed away, some 14 years later, I wrote a song which included a similar reflection:  ‘…  about how much we loved you, but forgot to say..’).  And since we had two small girls with us, the next bit of that verse of Rutherford and Robertson’s song did not seem too fanciful either – ‘I thought I caught his spirit/later that same year/I’m sure I heard his echo/in my baby’s tears…’ And of course, the refrain brought a lump to my throat for quite a while after this – ‘I just wish I could have told him in the living years..’

Apart from those key emotions, though, the song is not necessarily a perfect fit for my relationship with my father.  I wasn’t particularly aware (verse 1) of being ‘ a prisoner to all my father held so dear’ and ‘a hostage to all his hopes and fears’, though increasingly I think my siblings and I recognize his quiet legacy – Inevitably I do wish we’d talked more about his Union years and his Labour party responsibilities, his ideals and beliefs; and for my part about the Gospel as I perceived and believed…. the implied tensions and conflicts in the song didn’t really exist between us, but we could have taken more opportunities to find common ground or creative contrasts. Which is perhaps part of what this song is about.

Paul Carrack’s voice is amazing, and he ‘carries’ the song with powerful conviction. As a song, it’s more than a facile verse-chorus structure, and I think survives the test of time. I learnt to play the song (though not properly, as I realized when hearing someone performing it in Open Mic recently!)and taught it to the class of 17 year olds I was teaching that year. They loved the anthemic quality of it, belting into the chorus about ‘listen[ing] as well as you hear..’ . I hope in some part of our brains we all got the message, and eventually I learnt to sing it and love it with more of a dry eye..

56. LORD, YOU HAVE BLESSED US and TRUST IN THE LORD – Mimi Armstrong Farra/The Keyhole/Fisherfolk

It’s funny what tunes and ditties get lodged in the brain, to burrow away then surface forever after with regularity, playing themselves like a mantra.  My father, for instance, in the last years of his life whittled down the repertoire of his whistling more or less to just two tunes –one was Lara’s theme from Doctor Zhivago, the other an unidentified piece whose origin even he couldn’t remember.  I’m getting like my dad, no doubt, in this respect –except that I probably have a wider repertoire of nagging mantras in the jumbled recesses of my brain.  One such is certainly the first of these little songs from Mimi Farra, ‘Lord You Have Blessed Us’.

Nearly half a century ago, I began to discover fresh new worship music emanating from North America, firstly from an vibrant Catholic charismatic community called the Word Of God in Ann Arbor  Michigan (a bunch of fabulous albums containing songs that have endured…) and then from the Keyhole –a coffee house folk group, coming as I was soon to learn, from a wider life of ministry centred around Houston’s Church Of The Redeemer,  I was drawn in and drawn on to discover more, finding myself nourished, challenged, encouraged by this music.

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We are talking the beginnings of the Fisherfolk, of course, and it is clear that Mimi Armstrong played a key part in the early days of what was to be an extraordinary music ministry, in helping to develop something unique in the worship life of that burgeoning community.  You only have to look at the famous TV documentary on that church, ‘Following the Spirit’ aired nationally in the U.S. in 1970 (?), which one imagines gave the church suddenly a whole new public profile.  It’s a little over reverent, perhaps, by modern standards, but despite its grainy black and white artlessness, it’s still something inspirational.  And Mimi features strongly –a little interview with her in the church’s bookstore, footage of her seemingly fronting the Keyhole in their coffeehouse setting, as well as leading some simple songs (self penned songs which turn up on albums like ‘Glory’) in an informal lunch time eucharist.

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It seemed to me that where the equally exciting new compositions of the church’s music leader (Rev. Pulkingham’s  wife Betty) had a more classical kind of crafting to them, Mimi though no less musically accomplished, perhaps, seemed to favour simpler, slightly more repetitive, intuitive expressions.  I soaked up everything from this source, as has no doubt become apparent to anyone who has read much of this blog, and learned to value, and to use, the wealth of creativity that I began to perceive to be pouring from a veritable spring of authentic loving worship.  I sent for all the vinyl albums, including one that seems to have settled into a kind of obscurity –‘Room In The In’, featuring a Christmas folk mass which Mimi had composed presumably for use in the Way In coffeehouse?  Side two of the album featured others of Mimi’s own meditative compositions.  It’s a while since I heard the whole album, but I seem to recall that for most of it at least the accompaniment was one simple acoustic guitar.  The Christmas folk mass needs rediscovering, I think, each little bit of liturgical interpretation an unadorned gem in its own right.  But let me turn my attention to this quiet mantra: so brief I might as well quote it all – ‘Lord you have blessed us with your love/Lord you have given us such a longing/ to find, to know, to share with your saints/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’.  It’s that simple, and its second verse reiteration turns more into a prayer ‘Lord as you bless us with your love/ may we remember that great longing/ to find, to know, to share with the world/ the love, the life, the very presence of you’. It’s a prayer that comes from the very heart and ethos of the worshipping community that Mimi Farra was part of, to be an incarnational Christ-presence in a broken world; and appropriately on the album, in the mass, it is conceived as the post-eucharistic ‘thanksgiving’ song so that the ‘you have blessed us’ has specific as well as general reference.

Mimi Farra and husband Bill are still part of the Community Of Celebration, more pared down in number, but I imagine no less committed in the prayerful intentions which that song represents.  Since the days of ‘Following The Spirit’, the relocation to the UK, the re-relocation to the States, a host of changes within the community, Mimi’s creative output appeared to the casual (obsessive) observer perhaps a little more muted as a remarkably impressive team of other songsmiths emerged, producing a range of worship material, psalm-like meditations and thoughtful lyrical/musical reflections from the same source.  Fewer songs from her, then, but still classic ones: ‘We Cry Hosanna Lord ’ is still the seminal palm Sunday hymn, for me.

And in my two visits to the community’s home in Scotland in the seventies, when I attended daily evening worship in the Cathedral Of The Isles, I got to see Mimi leading worship with her guitar, and there was something solidly impressive about the ease and commitment with which she did this, modestly but confidently drawing others in without any ostentatious badgering (which ‘worship leading’ can sadly become.)  I was pleased to see, too, the community revisiting, in some of their recordings there, a few of her earlier gems including the song which opens side 2 of ‘Room at the In’ – ‘Trust in the Lord’. This is an setting of verses from Proverbs , using chapter 3 verse 5 as its refrain.  [I wish I could say that the setting has helped me follow the injunction consistently (!) but at least having it in my head has been a reminder..!]The same  gorgeous simplicity, and musically one notes  that Mimi makes good use of the ‘E sus’ for the  subtlest of chordal variation (She does the same in her lovely ‘Song of Simeon’). There’s a really nice story about the Fisherfolk’s re-recording of this song (for the ‘Sing the Word’ album) to be found in Betty Pulkingham’s ‘Mustard Seeds’ book – about the calming of a gale, and the unexpected addition of birdsong that accompanied the recording; somehow all in keeping with the unaffected beauty of the song.

In the substantial canon of Mimi Armstrong Farra’s work, these two songs might seem insignificant –   – well, that’s a neat ‘mustard seed ‘ link too – but  like I started saying, the mind and the heart have their own reasons when it comes to the kind of songs they choose to squirrel away for the life’s use. And these have proven enduringly useful, so… I honour the composer for her faithfulness in firstly ‘listening’ to the still small voice and, to having shared, musically, so significantly.

55. ANOTHER DAY & WHEN AN OLD CRICKETER LEAVES THE CREASE – Roy Harper

‘The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day…’  As I’ve mentioned more than once, it was not unusual  in the late 60s/early 70s for my brother to come home with a long playing disc of an artist hitherto unknown to me.  Here was a classic case: the album ‘Flat Baroque And Berserk’ was both captivating and intriguing.  On the one hand, there was some very nice acoustic guitar work, either with crisply strummed chords or some neat twiddly finger picking, and a few of the songs were par for the course in early seventies English folk prog imagery, with sunshine/ countryside/ seaside allusions, all not too far from McTell.  But with far more of them there was a different tone too, a Dylanesque sharpness, an edgy angry quality.  And let’s not forget to mention that voice – that lovely leaping range he has, from quiet/tender/menacing in the lower registers soaring up to strident/piercing/ challenging/pleading in the higher registers. ‘I hate the white man’ is a perfect example . One interesting feature  was a long monologue (would we pretentiously have referred to it as a ‘rap’ back then??) before Harper launches in to that particular angry song.  It’s a bit rambling, bordering on semi-incoherent, possibly fuelled by, ahem, substances… does it explain some of the ‘impressionism’ of these early songs?

Which is not meant as a put down, because this song ‘Another Day’ from the same album, is stunningly beautiful – but it feels like a case of words and images getting collaged, sort of, by slightly spaced out intuition or serendipity or because they sound good, rather than, I suppose I mean, by more conscious language choices : and maybe that was the creative spirit of the time and the perceived value of mind-altering  stuff – freed you from over-cerebral, overly-prosaic construction? So we listen to ‘Another Day’ recognizing that it’s in the feel  and the general tenor that emerges from the accumulated images – a feel of endings, missed chances, transitions ,loss, and I’m not sure the lines will hold up to too much individual analysis – ‘I must take her while the dove domains..run my wings under her sighs/ as the flames of eternity rise..’.

But I’m also thinking that to see it like this might slightly be doing Harper a disservice – he was avowedly a fan of the romantic poets so let’s assume it wasn’t just their toothache-remedies he emulated, but also their conscious lyrical power. There’s genuine aching loss in some of the lines – ‘I loved you a long time ago/ Where the wind’s own forget-me-nots grow/ But I just couldn’t let myself go/ Not knowing what on earth there was to know..’ and an attempt to explore distances between people – ‘sat here with ourselves in between us..’  And  there’s enough consistency to make it a thing of a unified, coherent mood – a delicious, almost colourful sadness  which ends with a ‘without a sound… walk away’. Whoever produced the album wisely and sensitively accentuated this simple minor chord sequences and ambience with a beautiful string arrangement , and you could play it over and over..

I only ever saw him once, and that was my first year in Swansea University, where he played a set in a very cramped and dingy student union bar.  His song introductions, his chat between songs, were as mumbled, profane and semi incoherent as that album had led me to expect!  But similarly I was not disappointed by this searing, incisive voice, and yes, he even included ‘Another Day’ in the set.

 

What of this second song?  I didn’t really follow the Harper trail, I’m afraid. I got a bit lost after ‘Stormcock’ – which, while I appreciated the ambition and the artistry..I dunno – blame it on my short attention span. Anyway,I can’t remember when I first heard ‘ When an Old Cricketer leaves the crease..’, and I suspect it was long after Roy Harper had ceased to be part of my familiar listening repertoire.  I know now that it comes from the HQ album , which actually was released a mere five years later.  One of the things that struck me about it was that it seemed, in its rather gentle evocation of English village green cricket matches, a far cry from the anti establishment anger stances with which I associated him in my memory.  But I am no Roy Harper aficionado, and perhaps those who have followed his career, and know the canon of his work more fully and more intimately, might be able to tell me that there is more seamlessness between the two Harpers than I was aware of.  The other thing about the song, bearing in mind what I said earlier, is that this one does seem more carefully, almost intellectually crafted, and gently sustaining its cricketing metaphor throughout.

I say metaphor , I assume metaphor, because surely this is a song about mortality, isn’t it.  ‘When the day is done and the ball has spun’.. and so on. (And I identify with this because as I look back at some of my own songs, a lot of them end up musing on mortality!) Even if it’s a tribute to the classic gentlemanly sport, it’s seeing it in the context of endings, and yet with the sense of the enduring spirit ? so ‘When an old cricketer leaves the crease, you never know whether he’s gone/
If sometimes you’re catching a fleeting glimpse of a twelfth man at silly Mid-on..’ There even seems something semi-mystical as we get into the second ‘verse’ – ‘Well this way of life’s recollection, the hallowed strip in the haze/The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days’. The lovely vocal range is still there, the ability to leap up the octave. And back to the crafting – wow, this one’s workmanlike – that neat aabccb rhyme pattern in the first two lines of the verse, ferinstance.  And – I don’t know if I’m getting this right but – I like the gentle ‘defusing’ of this perspective by equating it with the ‘sting in the ale’…it’s all a graceful ‘sunset’ (of an English summer Sunday? of life? Of old guys? Of village green cricket matches?) evocation. And in keeping, this time, production gives us comforting low-key brass band music rather than moody strings.

Two classics, two special songs, ladies and gentleman, deserving to be known and enjoyed. As does Mr Harper senior.

54. CHELSEA MORNING – Joni Mitchell

Since the old lady herself was on the radio the other morning, Radio Four delving into some old archival interviews – hers from 1983 –I suddenly felt it was high time to share a little more of my Joni story, and this song will do as well as any, and better than most, as a focus for those thoughts.

Christmas 1970 was very much the Joni Mitchell Christmas in our house: I came down on Christmas morning to find (as I think I’d probably expected, and was hoping for…) a couple of albums on ‘my’ section of the Christmas table –‘Sweet Baby James’ (Taylor) and…  ‘Clouds’ from Joni Mitchell.  I had been sort of lusting after this album since the summer; every record shop I came across I would wander in, finger through the female vocalists section, and gaze at that remarkable self portrait of the blond artist with the cheekbones and the freckles and the flower, with its heavily romanticised background from the warm, dark sunsetty side of the spectral palette.  It was transfixing as much for what it represented as for the kind of songsmithery delights to be discovered therein.  What I had heard of Joni Mitchell –very little, really: the cleverly gimmicky ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ single and the far more intriguing flip side ‘Woodstock’; a quick snatch of the BBC two ‘in concert’ performance –and what I had read of her (NME concert reviews…) suggested something/someone that could not fail to stimulate and engage my little teenage creative proclivities!

I knew that she painted –this crazy album cover, for one –and that her songs were already been covered by other people.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Collins, for instance.  What about this song?  My memory is a little hazy, but I think that I heard it first sung by John Rogers Prosser, extraordinarily talented classmate and head boy whose awareness of cool and exciting new musical movements and discoveries seemed several giant leaps ahead of me.  I often watched him closely, surreptitiously, listened in something like awe.  The song seemed fresh and remarkable for a few reasons.  We’ll come to that.  I think shortly afterwards I heard and saw Judy Collins singing this song on the Tom Jones show on TV!  (she did actually release  it as a single, though did not include it on an album until much later).  Since I only saw a bit of the famous 1970 BBC ‘pink dress’ Joni concert, a quick burst of ‘My Old Man’, I think – something better (!) over on ITV, maybe – I didn’t get to see her perform ‘Chelsea morning’ with which she opened the set, I believe.  [thankfully BBC repeated the recording the following year, I think; and in recent years have also trotted out, for nostalgic music-weeks. Am I right in thinking that the half hour productions often differ slightly in the edit, suggesting that the original recording was a slightly longer set list?] My point being, I still hadn’t heard the composer herself singing the song.

It might sound a bit pretentious, but I think there was something about the very structure of the song that seemed alluringly unusual.  Its phrasing and construction definitely wasn’t  ‘common metre’ –to use hymnody parlance –or ‘ballad metre’ even; it wasn’t really pop-idiomatic, either –though there was a bridge between verse two and three (but then the bridge modified at the end of verse three).  There was that little gap between the ‘woke up’ and the ‘it was a Chelsea morning’.  There was rhyme, of course, but not as we know it, Jim… and the verse certainly wasn’t enslaved to it –‘Christmas bells’ and ‘pipes and drums’ sounded like they should have rhymed, but didn’t.

The content, too, was excitingly refreshing for the richness of its imagery –‘the light poured in like butterscotch/and stuck to all my senses…’.  If you were sniffy, you could say that this was just the kind of dippy  poeticizing set of similes and metaphors likely to appeal to an equally dippy A level student of English.  Yet I was aware that it wasn’t Yeats, or Wordsworth or even the imagist complexity of a Dylan –but there was definitely something about it, as there undeniably is with every great song, that was much bigger than the sum of its parts.

If you’ve read  enough of these you may already be tired of hearing me say what a sucker I am for ‘morning’ songs.  I’m even not above a quick burst of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘oh what a beautiful…’ from ‘Oklahoma’; and it’s not rare for me to greet the day’s greyness with something like ‘This is the Day’ or even my own special ‘Buenos Dias mi Senor’ ; and this old Joni song, which takes its place among the classics – I never tire of it, or of playing it.

Joni wrote it as an urban morning song, of course (the Chelsea District of New York is her setting); she had already written a quieter, rural morning song (‘Come To The Sunshine’ – a pretty number that never made it onto any of the albums) but the feel good factor of Chelsea morning –and the other one too, actually –transfers itself to any setting!  And there is a sort of challenge to savour the days experiences, and to ‘stay in the present moment’ as they say: ‘Oh, won’t you stay/we’ll put on the day/and we’ll talk in present tenses’..

I said at the beginning that the album Clouds marked Christmas morning in the Hankins household –finally giving us a chance to hear the composer herself singing this amazing song, and it didn’t disappoint.  As track two, it followed the haunting ‘Tin Angel’, breaking upon us with those crisp jangly chords and the confident soaring voice, backed up towards the end of the song by her own multi tracked harmonies.  Stunning. Oh but then, in the evening present-giving celebration, my sister’s gift was ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’!  Plus,some aunty gave me a record token, which by the new year had magically transformed itself into the first album (‘Song To A Seagull’ or ‘Joni Mitchell’ whatever it’s called).  Suddenly I had the set! The rest is history.

No, one more thing…  Whatever obsessiveness there might have been, at times, in my enthusiasm for this artist, the one thing I do maintain is that the principle value and effect for me especially in those early days  – apart from the intrinsic interest, worth and often beauty of her own output –is that she inspired creativity  more than she inspired unhealthy ‘fandom’.  In other words, though I love to listen, hearing her and seeing her art has primarily made me want to write my own – more poems, more songs, do more arty dabblings.

53. ALL GOOD GIFTS/ON THE WILLOWS -from ‘Godspell’ (Stephen Schwartz)

 

I thought I heard, recently, that there was going to be a new national tour of this classic old 70s musical –perhaps I dreamt it, or if I did hear it, I might have now missed it –still, just the rumour got me a bit excited!  Though of course, nothing can possibly match the first time…

And the first time I saw ‘Godspell’ (a Tuesday night in the New Theatre, Cardiff –I’m guessing 1976) I was so blown away by it that I went back nearly every other night that same week, (I even sneaked in during the interval in the Saturday matinee where my wife to be – who coulda thunk back then – was watching it with her one-day-to-be-bridesmaid), to see it again and again. Mr Obsessive, even then.  Even today, i’m not exactly sure what Stephen Schwarz had intended as the effect of his musical (apart from money in the bank, obviously), but the impact upon me was pretty momentous –despite what it might be easy to see as crass, irreverent, flippant, gimmicky-hippie interpretations of gospel narrative, ironically I found that, with searing freshness it brought to life not only the narratives and teachings of Matthew’s gospel, but even, in some weird way, the person of Christ himself.  I can remember writing a (very bad, cringingly prosaic) poem about this, called ‘The Man’, the idea being that the musical had somehow helped to flesh out his reality for me in a new and unexpected way.

The other impacting effect of the musical is akin to hearing  gospel narrative all in one sitting –as I experienced most powerfully in one Edinburgh festival seeing Alec McCowan performing/reciting ‘The Gospel According To Saint Mark’ –it’s the shock, the unusual experience of seeing the arc of Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, the calling of the disciples, through to the end – betrayal, crucifixion (and of course, mysteriously, gloriously, what follows!)

These two songs are kind of book ends in that respect.  ‘All Good Gifts’ is sung, initially, by one of the disciples in the excitement of the early days of following the master, and intersects passages from the sermon on the mount.  It is, of course, that old chestnut of favourite harvest hymns, ‘We Plough The Fields And Scatter…’ – originally 18th century German, and translated into English in the 19th century (and mercifully cut down from its original 17 verses) –and given here a great new stirring melody.  As soon as I could, I taught it to our congregation for our own harvest celebrations!  In the context of the musical, the disciples are still bubbly, anticipatory and confident.  In the third verse they join in glorious harmony while the soloist improvises soulful responses of gratitude –“I really wanna thank you Lord…” etc.

Within an hour or so of dramatic action, and in theatrical terms in the second half of the production, the mood has slipped to a more realistic awareness of conflict, threat, impending suffering.  ‘On the Willows’ seems a strange insertion –an old testament psalm of exile in a minor key, sung ‘out of action’ by (at least every time that I have seen it) the musicians themselves rather than the actors, while on stage, there is a stylised re-enactment of the Last Supper with, most affectingly, Jesus embracing each disciple with some unique gesture reminiscent of their own story or actions from earlier in the narrative.

The mournful psalm captures just the right tone for the occasion –‘but how can we sing/Sing the Lord’s song/In a foreign land?…’ It’s Psalm 137,isn’t it, and it’s inspired lots of interpretations and versions -there’s the ’round’ that Don Maclean used to do; there’s a Leonard Cohen song based on it; my old house-mate Tim wrote a great song based on it, I think. (yes, Tim?) And..should we mention Boney M? But this version is lovely – all acousticky like an early Paul Simon song, all minor chords and sweet sad harmonies.The song symbolises the end of more naive idealistic rejoicings; or at least it signals significant grief-times, sobering times when those kind of songs must give way to more plaintive dirges.  Perhaps a repetitious cycle of experience most communities of believers must necessarily encounter, if they are also to know ‘reviving’ experiences and rediscoveries of resurrection joy and hope.

The movie version was…worth avoiding, but theatrical performances of it still give me a buzz, and yes I still find the music , admittedly  ‘of its time’ but despite that, compelling- for me, these two songs especially; I am glad to have become acquainted with it.  It’s now – for good or bad – a part of my internal musical fabric.  [smiley face signifying acknowledgement of pretentious phrase]

52. WE LEARNED THE SEA – Dar Williams

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2qzcnrXxPI

I remember, in form six English lessons, our teacher commenting on poems we had written.  “I like this one,” he said, “and I think I like it partly because I don’t quite understand it…” I think I feel the same about some Dar Williams songs.

And here’s the thing about Dar Williams songs.  From her great catalogue of albums, there are probably at least a dozen songs – eloquent, witty, clever, moving and quite explicit in their meaning –which are as good as any songs being composed by any contemporary song writer today (as far as one can compare these things!) But strangely enough, there’s at least an equal number of her songs, achingly beautiful  but where I am not 100% sure exactly what they’re about, if I’m honest.  these are generally the ones that get me in the gut, the heart, the brain, –like this  ‘sea’ song.

So here’s how I find myself listening to Dar Williams: for a day, a couple of days, I will just put one song on repeat, playing it like a mantra through trips to and from college, or supermarket  or wherever.  Songs where I’ve done this include ‘The Beauty Of The Rain’, ‘February’, ‘Calling the Moon’, ‘The Hudson’, ‘It Happens Every Day’ ‘I love, I love’…  so many of them.  Most recently it has been ‘The Tide Falls Away‘(hypnotically listenable, but I’m still not sure); a few weeks ago, and still quite recurringly, I think, over the years, it’s been ‘We Learned The Sea’.  And with each repeated listen, I thought I was perhaps a little bit closer to “understanding”…  ‘Oh, it’s about letting go of childhood…’, ‘Oh, it’s about birth…  – No, that won’t work …’, ‘Ah, are there several voices, like in ‘The Ocean’?  No…’ And then I start to wonder: will I really love the song as much if I can tie it down to a simple, single meaning?  I’m not sure.  Certainly, the enigmatic quality of it gives it a kind of numinous appeal.

And the song has an emotional appeal, quite evidently -the spare, bare guitar picking behind the simple sense of uncertainty at the beginning -‘I am a captain, and I have been told/that tomorrow we land, and our ship has been sold…’and there’s the stirring sweep of strings that comes in behind the song’s bridge -‘you take the wheel one more time, like I showed you/we’ve reached the straits, once even I could not go through…’ Even given the mystery of an eight year old captain (?) there is poignancy in this handing on of control (?), the protective concern for the first ensign, the sagacious aphorism -‘the stars of the sea are the same for the land.’ Even the line which provides the title is enigmatic -‘for all we learned the sea’ -all we i.e. all of us learned (about?  how to handle?  the mysteries of?) the sea?  Or all that we learned was the sea -we learned little else?  So I’ve decided –don’t interpret the song for me.  I’d like its dark starriness.

Me and Dar go back to 1995, in my earliest days (part time) at Cardinal Newman school: she was featured on a brief interview on BBC radio (2?) probably visiting the UK to promote ‘Mortal City’ -I heard it as I was driving to school; she also sang ‘When I was a Boy’ which I thought was clever, charming.  On the day of my interview for the full time post, I was sent off to amuse myself until the afternoon.  I went to Cardiff and bought the double cassette of her first two albums; I did the interview and got the job; I returned to the Pontypridd charity shop the jacket I had bought for the occasion; went home and listened to these beautiful albums, and was hooked.

I went to Brisol to see Dar Williams perform a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time.  I’ve been lucky enough on previous occasions to get the chance to quiz her, though not yet about this song.  “I’m still not getting ‘The Ocean’” I said, “despite Peter Mulvey explaining it has three distinct voices…” I also tried asking about ‘O Canada Girls’ (which, on two occasions, I managed to request her to include in her set -and she did) but she looks at me as if am a bit slow of mind, tries to explain, and tells me to persevere.  But do you know what? I don’t mind that I don’t completely understand. I’m getting closer on ‘We Learnt the Sea’ – certainly it’s got something to do with the tenderness of older siblings helping to guide (?) younger ones. Perhaps…

Because maybe (here’s another dodgy half-interpretation) the shifting fluidity of creative and imaginative experience is perhaps our natural milieu – feeling our way liquidly through life’s subtle complexities, through metaphors and intuitions more viscerally than bland two-dimensional earthbound denotations. After all, ‘we came to learn the sea..’