As regular readers of this blog/website/whatever it is have worked out by now, I have an awkward relationship with Folk Music in the same sort of way that I have awkward sorts of relationships with most things. Everything, probably. Like I said last time, I think I’m probably a bit brain damaged. I’m not looking for any concessions as a result of that – whether it’s true or not. I’ve got enough brain left to understand that people who literally won’t lift a finger to indicate off a roundabout when they’re propelling a ton of metal around aren’t very likely to go very far out of their way to accommodate anyone at all. And, let’s face it, that’s most people.
Anyway, my awkward relationship with Folk Music is, like most of my other awkward relationships, because I’ve got some funny ideas. Ultimately, it’s my problem because I’m a fussy arse. I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, and I know that with my, apparently arbitrary, taste – that means I don’t like very much of it very much at all.
The last four posts about folk music have all been about one record, one duo, one television programme’s music, and one band. There are other artists that I like a fair bit of in the Folk world, mainly Nick Drake, but I’m not convinced I’ve got anything much to say about his records, except they’re exceptionally posh sounding, and they’re exceptionally good. I might write about Nick Drake one day, but I won’t yet because I’m in the mood to rattle off some shorter pieces about Folk records I like, by bands and singers who, otherwise, I’m not really interested in, or they only did a couple of records and then out. Sometimes I’ll like a few songs, sometimes just the one.
So, Hey Nonny, here come Middlerabbit’s One Hit Wonders of The Folk World.
1. The Wicker Man Soundtrack
First things first, I don’t like everything on The Wicker Man soundtrack, especially the Christopher Lee baritone cod opera twaddle, and The fucking Landlord’s Daughter which is more or less a Two Ronnies’ music comedy number in a remote pub.
It’s not authentic, The Wicker Man OST but I don’t care about that anyway. It’s by Paul Giovanni and a load of students, and where the songs appear in the film, you tend to see the musicians onscreen, playing and singing it, except for one notable exception, which I’ll get to.
First up, Corn Riggs, which is a sort of take on a couple of Robert Burns poems. It’s Paul Giovanni singing, with the band put together for the soundtrack: Magnet, who didn’t do anything else together.
It’s a pretty little thing, a delicately descending acoustic guitar slips and skids down the neck as Sgt Howie’s seaplane flies over to Summerisle and the opening credits roll. An oddly romantic reminiscence to open a horror film with, but perhaps Christopher Lee’s somewhat bizarre take on what the film’s all about is right after all. Sort of. Well, it’s barmy, but I like it.
Christopher Lee used to regularly say that his role as Lord Summerisle was his greatest performance, and fair enough. At least he speaks in it, unlike most of the Dracula films for which he’s most famous, probably. And sings – the less said about, the better. Anyway, to listen to Christopher Lee talk about The Wicker Man – which I’m a big fan of – you’d think it was a heroic tale, in which he’s not the sinister leader of a Pagan island cult who lures an innocent policeman to his death, but rather one in which Lord Summerisle is the plucky protagonist who fights against the odds to save a rural community from ruin.
Funny business, but I quite like the idea. Anyway, Corn Riggs is lovely, setting us up to relax into a slightly raunchy rural romp with Britt Ekland as the come-hither-barmaid, and Edward Woodward as the prudish police sergeant.
It doesn’t last, of course, all that fond reminiscing. It take a turn towards the peculiar, and continues along that track as the film progresses.
Gently Johnny‘s sung in the pub, following the ribald proto Two Ronnies musical number The Landlord’s Daughter, which is alright as far as raising the expectations for some early 1970s British sexploitation horror film, like The Vampire Lovers or Lust For A Vampire, or any number of slightly risqué X rated films of that era that still would have shown in your local ABC or Cecil picture house. Gently Johnny is where it begins to feel slightly sinister for the first time, but only gently. Cheers.
Opening with an ominous but lazily thumped hand drum and a slowly collapsing-in-on-itself guitar line, it’s about a young man being encouraged to keep going by his girlfriend, sung in the first person by Paul Giovanni.
It’s hypnotic, fitting thematically in with what’s going on in the film. The islanders have to manoeuvre Sgt Howie into position without forcing him, and Gently Johnny‘s that sort of thing. It’s about sex, like all the songs on The Wicker Man are, but from this point on it goes a little bit creepy, but insidiously and, possibly debatably.
Maypole continues the theme of sex, but whereas the previous three songs have been about romantic reminiscences, bawdy comedy filth and slightly creepy songs of girls encouraging their boyfriends to go further, this one’s simultaneously a mating ritual – as seen in the above clip, featuring the boys doing the maypole ribbon thing, even though it’s girls singing it, while the girls inside the classroom bang their stationery on their desks as Sgt Howie walks around looking scandalised at youths singing songs about doing it. He’s a virgin, you see. A big Christian, and all this openness about the beast with two backs is giving him a touch of the mild concerns.
It’s a sort of cyclical shaggy dog song, in which one thing leads to another, a bit like everything else we’ve heard so far. On a tree, there’s a branch, on the branch there’s a nest, in the nest, there’s an egg, in the egg, there’s a bird, from which there came a feather, from which they stuffed a bed, on which a couple had sex, from which came a baby, who lived and then died, and from his grave, a tree grew, and it all starts again. It’s not exactly the same as The Circle of Life from The Lion King, but if Disney were a bit more interested in folk-horror smut, and a bit less interested in sanitised shlocky bollocks, then it probably would be. A bit.
There’s another bit to break it up, “In the Summerisle, Summerisle, Summerisle Wood” where it gets a bit witchy, in that sort of stereotypically cackling way that you associate with cartoon witches from the 1970s. Possibly even Disney witches, yes.
It’s all fantastic, not least the singer’s dance moves, which illustrate the lyrics. I don’t normally like this sort of thing, it’s a bit close to actually nonnying for the likes of me, but it all hangs together so well, and the images complement the song so well, that I can’t help it. It’s a bit scary, but in a good way.
I do enjoy a spot of Jew’s harp, and this opens with one played by Pete Brewis, who later found fame and fortune as the writer of the b side of Spitting Image’s hit Black Lace parody, The Chicken Song – I’ve Never Met A Nice South African. More, or possibly less, depending on your perspective, interestingly, he also wrote Santa’s Super Sleigh from the film of About A Boy, about – well, yes, a boy, even though the boy could be the strange little lad whose mother didn’t do him too many favours at school, or maybe she did, who knows anything anymore? Or Hugh Grant, who doesn’t really grow up until he starts learning from the literal lad – ahh! – clever – Hugh Grant living off the royalties of his dad’s perennial Christmas hit I’ve just mentioned. Naturally, Santa’s Super Sleigh didn’t actually become a hit. Still, them’s the breaks, eh?
Willow’s Song is probably the most famous song from The Wicker Man, accompanied, as it is, by Britt Ekland singing and dancing in front of Sgt Howie’s bedroom wall in the niff, slapping her arse and being magically seductive. Except it’s not even Britt Ekland’s arse, and it’s not Britt Ekland’s voice either.
Lyrically, bits of it are from the old folk story The Three Heads of the Well. Mainly it’s another song of seduction. Alluring, you know, in a sort of Scarborough Fair/Nottamun Town way, meaning it’s a song of paradoxes, of which there are a fair few in the Folk Music canon. In this context, the juxtapositions of the midday sun at midnight and the like connote to incantations and witchcraft – which is what’s going on in the plot. The bows of the violins scurry rapidly, but without hurry, the hand drum beats inevitably, and the guitar wheedles persuasively. It’s sexy, and you can’t say that about much Folk Music, can you?
There aren’t a lot of covers of the songs from The Wicker Man, except of this one. Baggy also-rans-cum-Britpop-no-hopers The Mock Turtles have a version on their Turtle Soup album, which main man, Martin Coogan, brother of Steve – Alan Partridge – Coogan, sings. It’s alright. He’s got taste, but it’s a bit nunty, as all Mock Turtles’ records are. Sort of alright, but not really. Katy J Pearson does the most 1980s electro version imaginable, which I also don’t rate. Acid Jazz also-rans Sneaker Pimps have a live version which is really quite faithful to the original, but which heads off a bit more organically into their own territory than Katy J’s. It’s not great, and the singing’s almost there, but not quite, and the burbling synth that starts poking out about a third of the way through is dead modern, I’m sure, and yeah, at least they do something slightly original with it, but not really. They’re all on YouTube.
The Wicker Man used to be a cult horror film, and I don’t even know if it’s that anymore. It’s certainly a lot more famous now than it was when I was a little kid, and the Folk Horror revival might not have been exactly mainstream, but I don’t know if anything you can buy in every HMV in the country really counts as cultish. Maybe it does, I don’t know. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out as far as I’m concerned.
2. Trader Horne
Former Fairport Convention girl singer Judy Dibble’s and former Them keyboard player Jackie McAuley’s one album wonder, Trader Horne were named by John Peel, after his nanny, which doesn’t bode well for anyone much, but for an of-its-time example of how early 1970s British Folk Music could have and should have been, their album, Morning Way, is great. From the sleeve illustration, which could have been a still from one of Bagpuss’ active reading demonstrations, to the whole sound, it’s absolutely spot on.
Not that I like everything on it, naturally. It works as a whole, but the standouts are…
I mean, dig this – it even starts like a Bagpuss story, with the slightly spooky harp introducing the hesitant, expectant guitar before leaving and then coming back again for the chorus about, basically, missing dead friends. The harp’s electronically treated – it might not even be a harp. If anything, it’s a variation on the great Them cover of It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue – one of the great Dylan covers, along with The Byrds’ Mr Tambourine Man – which I’d be surprised if it turned out that The Undertones weren’t influenced by when they did the single version of Julie Ocean.
Anyway, I don’t even know if Jackie McAuley played on It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue, but I bet he played it live, and the sound of the wobbling keyboard is what makes it. If terrible news has ever made your head spin, it’d sound like that wobbling keyboard. The tremolo guitar’s great, as is the click bass and the singing, but the keyboard’s where it’s at, man. I fucking love IAONBB. In addition to Julie Ocean, I get the same sort of feeling from I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos, which I keep meaning to write about, because there’s a spooky sounding song if ever there was one.
Still, Morning Way should probably be spelled Mourning Way, bearing in mind its theme of missing the dead people who used to care about you. It’s sort of selfish and self-absorbed, rather than yearning, and that lets it down slightly, but it’s still a valid response to death. Funerals aren’t really for the deceased, are they? They’re for the living, so they can say goodbye and start to move on. And this song’s a bit like that. It’s a bit mawkish, but it doesn’t sound it. The melody’s unusual but still grabs you and the counterpoint singing has an air of inevitability about it which slots in nicely with the lyrical ideas. It’s a sad song, and one of crushing defeat. Morrissey could sing this, and no-one’d bat an eye.
This is pushing it a bit for Folk Music – it’s more like straightforward pop music of the era, but no worse for it, and better in some ways. If anything, it’s more like some of Donovan’s slighter material from about 1969 – quite jaunty and slightly risqué while remaining catchy and infantile. A bit like Love Song, from Barabajagal.
Love Song‘s appalling. Everything’s wrong about it. There’s even the worst jive talking shtick in the world during the breakdown in the middle 8, and for that to stick out, even by Donovan’s standards, and general lyrical content is some going.
Sheena‘s better than Love Song but, as a similar sort of thing, it would be. It’s slight. If you don’t mind a bit of slight, fair dos. I dig it, but I’ve listened to Donovan’s Love Song probably seven or eight times in the last 25 years, so my tolerance must be fairly high. Approach with caution, especially the Donovan one. I don’t think the Donovan one is tolerable, really. Mind you, it’s not folk music either. It’s like something horrible that you can’t take your eyes off. Every few years I think, it can’t be that bad, but it always is. Sheena crops up on my MP3 player now and then, and I think, Oh, that’s pleasant, and never make any attempt to listen to it again, until it crops up unexpectedly with identical results every time.
Heron – Lord & Master
Like Morning Way, I first heard this on Bob Stanley’s excellent Folk Music compilation, Gather In The Mushrooms, which hangs together beautifully, even though quite a few cuts on it don’t really count as Folk Music at all. What everything on it is, however, is redolent of the era, which is what I’m pretty much looking for. I’m fairly nostalgic, as you might have noticed, bearing in mind absolutely everything I’ve written about is related to that. I’m not nostalgic for everything, though. Central heating’s a lot better than it was when I was a kid. Double glazing’s miles better. Cars look fairly boring, and I don’t care about them particularly, but even 30 years ago, cars were forever not starting and going rusty, but they’ve sorted those things out now, and for the better. Everything else though? Well, maybe not everything, but plenty of things, and Gather In The Mushrooms, if it was anything, was the opening of Kes, in which the brothers don’t want to get out of bed because it’s fucking freezing outside the covers. If they’d had a radio in their room, you could have played most of Gather In The Mushrooms through it, and you wouldn’t have been surprised. Nostalgia’s brother is melancholy, and I view melancholy as being miserable, but enjoying it a bit. Not exactly what the dictionary defines it as, but that’s everyone else’s problem in my book.
Apparently this was recorded in a field and you can hear tractors in the background, or cows mooing or something, but I can’t, unless I’m mistaking the bucolic, sonic leakage of Heron’s countryside recording studio for percussion. I wouldn’t rule it out.
They’re no Pentangle, but they’re not trying to be. It’s just as well, because you’ve got to be ludicrously good to do that, and even decent bands like Fairport Convention just aren’t up to it as far as I’m concerned. I mean neither Heron, nor Fairport Convention are really trying to be The Pentangle. Fairport are sort of the English Jefferson Airplane, and Heron are, well, Heron are typically English Folk music of the era. It’s pleasant. It’s tolerable. Ot opens with the line, “See the waters drifting by,” and that’s perfect, because that’s what it sounds like: it just drifts on by without being very noticeable.
It’s terribly English, and I don’t mean it’s terrible because it’s not, I mean extremely. The imagery is entirely of the British Isles – all trees, birds, rivers, and the sun. The accents of the singers are gently British, and the melody’s yearning. It’s never going to blow anyone’s mind, but I don’t suppose it’s meant to.
It illustrates the English countryside and the changing of the seasons, and I like that. I don’t have a favourite season because I like all of them. I like the fact that they change so wildly in northern England. I’m happy with all of them. I couldn’t live in California, where it’s sunny all the time, it’d drive me daft. My daughter asked me what my favourite season was a couple of months ago and I said that, you know, I like all of them and she said that was the worst thing I’d ever said to her, which I quite enjoyed. I mean, poor kid: she’s a chip off the old block, to Mrs Middlerabbit’s chagrin, but also that I can’t have said anything too terrible over the past 18 years either, which is pleasing too.
The last time we went on holiday somewhere hot – I can’t remember where, somewhere in the Mediterranean, on the flight home, the pilot announced that we were in for a bit of a shock because it was absolutely pissing down. The rest of the passengers let out groans of disappointment. I had to keep my mouth shut because I was secretly pleased about it. If I haven’t been rained on for a couple of weeks, I get a bit twitchy.
When it was really hot last summer, Mrs Middlerabbit wasn’t happy about it: it was too hot. But again, I liked it being hot. I like the grass going brown and yellow, I like the air being thicker and chewier. In the same way, I’ve just come back from my evening walk – it’s mid-December and about minus 3 or 4 – and the air’s thin and sharp, and I like that as well. The only weather I’m slightly irritated by is when it looks like it’s cold, but actually it’s still warm. The end of Summer, I find a bit of a drag. I wish Autumn’d either get on with it, or it’d stay properly warm for a bit longer, but other than that, I’m happy with the climate, on the whole.
And that’s Heron too. Lord & Master‘s not about anything really. You could make a case for the narrator being nature, or God, or something. Pan, maybe. But not really. It’s a collection of images that you can stick a thread through if you like, but if you don’t it’s still alright.
Like The Pentangle, Fairport Convention are a band of different phases. I don’t know who’s in them now, maybe there’re a couple of original-ish members still there, but I wouldn’t go to see them whoever was in the line up. I’m no expert because I’m not interested enough, but I gather phase one had Judy Dyble- who went onto Trader Horne (see above) and Ian Matthews, who formed Matthews’ Southern Comfort and had a hit with Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock. I don’t mind their Woodstock, but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s is my favourite. I’m still writing about them, but it sort of drifted into a long piece about hippies, and I need to sort it out.
Anyway, they both got the boot, and Sandy Denny came in, who was a bigger deal than Judy Dyble. She wrote some great songs, had a great voice, and was a big personality by all accounts. Again, I don’t really know, I’ve never looked far into it, but I read monthly music magazines aimed at boring, middle-aged men like me, and I’ve half read the odd article here and there on them, but not very closely.
There was a bus crash in which a couple of people died, including the original drummer. Sandy Denny left and formed another band, then did some solo stuff, then fell downstairs and died while still quite young, so far as I can tell. After that, I don’t really have any idea, but I gather that their imperial period was either side of the bus crash for a couple of years. I’ve got a few albums, and I like bits of them and other bits I find intolerable.
Same as Jefferson Airplane, really. I like White Rabbit and Somebody To Love, but nothing else really. I’ve seen lots of footage of them, and they don’t seem like my kind of people really. A bit full on, maybe. I don’t know if Fairport Convention were full on or not, but I only really like a couple of their songs too.
I don’t know the first album, with Judy Dyble, at all. I quite like the second album: What We Did On Our Holidays, their first with Sandy Denny. Do Primary School teachers still make kids write about that on their first day back in autumn? I had to, and I kept getting into trouble for just going off on digressions instead of writing the same lists that everyone else did: got up, then I had my breakfast, then I went to Paul’s house and we played football, and then I went home for my dinner and we had beans on toast, and then I went back to Paul’s and we played football until teatime… You know, forever. I just couldn’t be arsed with it and the teachers were always on at me to write about what I did, as opposed to what I thought about whatever it was I did. That was the 1970s, I suppose. Probably I should have paid attention and then I might not waffle on now so much. Maybe it’s still the same for kids now. I’ll have to ask some of my younger students.
Anyway, I like Meet On The Ledge, which is thematically a bit like Morning Way, oddly enough, given Judy Dyble had just left. Maybe the split was down to musical differences, because it sure as hell wasn’t lyrical differences. Meet On The Ledge is different because it’s more resigned than yearning and, more optimistic in a Rainbow Bridge sort of way. Tolerable, but the singing’s a bit close to Folk Club over earnestness.
I also like I’ll Keep It With Mine, but I knew that one from Nico’s Chelsea Girl, which is pretty Folky in places – in its best bits at any rate – and I prefer Nico doing it by far.
She Moved Through The Fair
Now this is more than tolerable. This is fantastic. It’s an old folk song that hundreds of bands have done, but this is the best one, oddly, given my distinct lack of enthusiasm for Fairport Convention.
Everyone’s great on this, including the drummer, who takes the Wicker Man soundtrack route – before that was recorded, though – with the thudding tom tom doing a hand drum impression. It doesn’t drag, like I’ve complained about Folk drums quite a lot. Richard Thompson’s electric guitar is perfect, and I know a lot of middle aged men are very much into his guitar playing, even if I’m not most of the time. When people describe electric guitar playing as liquid, they tend to mean smooth, but this is liquid guitar playing. It sounds like he’s in total control and making it up as he goes along, without putting a foot wrong. It’s a great performance. The acoustic guitar’s less animated, but similarly perfect. The bass is unobtrusive and Sandy Denny’s singing is, as it generally was in the early days, slightly theatrical, but bloody Nora, the kid nails it here.
It’s a song about a rich girl who’s in love with a poor boy and, more or less, she tells him that her dad won’t be bothered by his lack of money or stature, and they’ll get married. Anyway, her dad does mind, and she kills herself but, a bit like Nicole Kidman in The Others, she doesn’t realise that she’s dead, and keeps on haunting her bereaved boyfriend, telling him that it won’t be long until their wedding day.
By far the best version of this, and there are plenty out there. I like Dav(e)y Graham, and his instrumental version of She Moves Through The Fair, on the After Hours bootleg – recorded in a student’s room at Hull University – is impressive and virtuosic, but Fairport’s does the song justice without being overly showy about it.
Most folk music isn’t great when you’re on acid, I found, but this is.
Who Knows Where The Time Goes
If Fairport Convention have a greatest hit, it’s probably this. And fair dos, eh? It’s a classic. I don’t even know if it counts as Folk Music. I suppose it does, but it’s also Fairport’s closest sounding record to Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter album, which also features some of Fairport Convention on some tracks, notably Richard Thompson playing pretty much in the way he does on this.
I suppose it’s more or less mandatory, when talking about this, for every boring middle aged man in the world to point out that Sandy Denny was only about 20, or something like that. And fair fucks, eh? It’s prescient, isn’t it? I don’t know how old you are, but I’m 51, and the first twenty five years went on forever, and the last 25 have just gone. I expect it’s repetition, and getting used to things.
Novelty value doesn’t last, and you have to keep searching for the next thing, if novelty’s what you’re after. But it gets to be a pain in the arse after so long, doesn’t it? Most of us crave a degree of stability, and the downside of that is that it’s also a bit boring. Novelty livens things up a little bit. I’ve been doing the same job since I was about 26-27, even if I’ve taught different subjects in different schools to different kids. In contrast to what most teachers tell you, my perspective is that not only is every day not unique, but every year is, basically, Groundhog Year. There are different kids, but they tend to be variations on themes. The subjects don’t really change very much. People with vested interests regularly tell you that you need to change the way you teach but, having been in the game for that long, I’d say I’m on about my third time around the wheel. Nothing much makes that much difference, in my experience. The best kids would do just as well if you chucked the books at them and told them to get on with it, and the least academic kids won’t ever get it, whoever teaches them. For some kids in the middle, yeah, alright, a bit. It’s nice when you get kids who enjoy your lessons, I don’t deny that, but I’m not one of those teachers who finds it endlessly fascinating, because I don’t see how you can. Most kids don’t come up with anything I’ve not heard a thousand times before. You get the odd kid with their own ideas, but they’re very much in the minority.
Diversion – Critical Thinking
On social media, there are regular posts bemoaning the “fact” that schools don’t teach critical thinking skills and that’s what ought to happen. I can only assume that the people who post such things haven’t met many kids because I’m constantly trying to get kids to evaluate, to consider, to apply cost-benefit analysis, and to rigorously consider as many possibilities as they can for everything. If I say one thing more than anything else in class, it’s “I don’t want you to think anything in particular, but I do want you to think.”
Sadly, the reality is that most people don’t want to think, critically or otherwise. What most people want is to be right without actually thinking about it first. My experience is that most people like to parrot received wisdom because then, at least, they won’t be in the minority if whatever truism they’ve espoused turns out to be bollocks. A facile example being, “Oasis sounded like The Beatles“, which I’ve heard repeatedly over the years, and has nothing to recommend it as an opinion, except it’s a safe one to have because millions of Oasis fans will sagely nod, and that’s what most people want, so far as I can gather: to be in the majority. I’m similarly of the belief that that’s why football’s the most popular spectator sport in Britain. You don’t need critical thinking skills to understand what’s going on in your average game of football. What you get though, is the opportunity to be in a big crowd of people who agree with you. Hence, also the popularity of teams like Manchester United and Chelsea: not only are you in the majority in terms of your preferred sport, but you’re also in the majority as regards the team you “support”. Maybe vicarious glory comes into it a bit, but I’m not really convinced about that either. I think it’s the tribal nature of humanity. People need someone to define themselves against, because it’s easier to say what you’re not, rather than what you are.
So, yeah, critical thinking? You’d be lucky. For the overwhelming majority of kids I’ve taught over the past 25 years or so, they have precisely no interest in doing that at all. Up to them, isn’t it? It could be worse, they could be those self-proclaimed “Free Thinkers” who believe that parroting a slightly less popular piece of received wisdom that they watched on YouTube is any better. It doesn’t surprise me, sadly.
The people who complain most about the lack of Critical Thinking in schools don’t actually want their kids to think critically at all. What they actually want is for their kids’ teachers to tow the same line at school as they tow at home, which is the opposite of critical thinking, isn’t it?
End of Diversion
Anyway, Who Knows Where The Time Goes is, in a way, a genuine truism. The exception to received wisdom that proves the rule, I suppose. As you get older, the time zooms by because, basically, you’ve seen it all before. Time feels like it’s slower when you’re younger because you’re waiting for all these thing to happen, and most of them just don’t. Plus, a lot of the things you’re experiencing as a kid, you’re experiencing for the very first time, and there’s a lot to take in.
It’s a lovely song though. Lots of covers of it, naturally. I don’t really know any of them, although I’m aware that Eva Cassidy did one, but I’m a bit cynical about Eva Cassidy. You don’t hear so much about her these days, although she was big in the early 2000s. I appreciate that she’s dead, and that’s not very helpful in terms of producing new material, but what I mean is that, for a period of time in the early 2000s, Eva Cassidy records were everywhere. And they were all slow, baleful, gently inoffensive acoustic versions of slow, baleful, acoustic classic rock songs of the early 1970s. I mean, I don’t even know if that’s true. I’ve never actively listened to an Eva Cassidy record, maybe she did a load of ACDC covers in a Drum and Bass style – I wouldn’t know. I kept seeing these adverts on the telly for her albums, and she was dead by that point, poor lass. But it all felt a bit cynical to me. You know, Eva Cassidy sings Who Knows Where The Time Goes – and all those people who lap up received wisdom and pithy bon mots could sagely announce, “Oh, yes, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, indeed because Eva Cassidy’s a dead fuck.” Or, “Oooh, Somewhere Over The Rainbow by Eva Cassidy, yes, because she’s a dead fuck, isn’t she?” And then they could feel profound and touched. I’m being a bit harsh, but that’s because of how cynical the whole thing felt to me. WKWTTG is beautiful, and cynical marketing cheapened it for me a bit.
Nothing against Eva Cassidy, but if you wanted to give dullards some music they thought they could deal with and have something to say about that sounded poignant, getting a cancer patient to sing moribund songs about lost time and yearning and shit sounds like a cash register ringing to me.
Which is a shame, because WKWTTG isn’t cynical at all. Maybe Eva Cassidy wasn’t cynical either, I don’t know, but I bet some record company man’s done well out of it. It’s the maudlin version of Rod Stewart having seven pints of spunk pumped out of his stomach, in terms of giving people with nothing to say about anything something to say. It doesn’t bother me because it’s such a good song, it’s already sad and yearning without gilding the lily.
Spirogyra – Old Boot Wine
Another one from the Gather In The Mushrooms compilation. Like WKWTTG, it’s an overtly sad folk song which, thinking about it, almost all of these tolerable folk songs are. That’s probably because upbeat folk music – especially happy songs – just don’t suit folk music. The drumming’s usually a big part of the problem but ultimately, it sounds slightly forced to my ears. You know, shit like All Around My Hat, or Day Trip To Bangor or any of those late 70s well–aren’t-we-having-a-lovely-time-with-real-ale-and-an-authentic-atmosphere fucking records? They’re intolerable folk music. A bit of light whining, and I’m half interested. Even then I’m a bit of a fussy arse. I mean, I wouldn’t listen to Eva Cassidy doing sad songs because it seems cheap and obvious.
Old Boot Wine‘s great though, with all the ingredients of a lovely, sad early 70s folk record. Nice sounding acoustic guitar slowly picked, recorders played like little kids would at a celebrated children’s entertainer’s funeral, not much in the way of drums, a flaxen haired, lamenting woman lamenting in an English sort of way – probably in a slightly posh accent.
Lal & Mike Waterson
Being from Hull, I’m quite proud of The Watersons, even though I don’t really listen to them very much. I’m into the idea of them, more than anything. Their group material doesn’t really do it for me – I’ve got Frost And Fire, which has John Barleycorn Must Die on it, that Stevie Winwood heard and did with Traffic, but I prefer Traffic – though not by that much. I always think I should like Traffic more than I actually do, too. Some of it, of course, but mainly, not really.
However, Bright Phoebus, by Lal & Mike Waterson is – to an extent – a bit more like it. I don’t dig all of it, and there’s parts of the two songs I mainly like that I’m not in love with, but I can live with that.
What’s good about Fine Horseman, mostly sung by Lal – who also wrote it, there are plenty of covers of it on YouTube, I’ll have to talk about Anne Briggs’ a bit later – is how ominous it sounds. I say ‘ominous’, but I don’t mean ominous like the apocalypse is nigh, fire and brimstone and gloating Jehovah’s Witnesses. I mean being lost on the moors in fog and rain and finding a ramshackle building and nodding off among some straw and poorly maintained gardening equipment, and waking up to the sound of muttering ominous.
Most of that comes from the sound of Lal Waterson’s voice, which isn’t what you might call polite. On the other hand, since when was ‘polite’ something anyone looked for in a singer? And Lal, I suppose, is a rude singer. I don’t mean she’s a-cussin’ like an East Coast rapper, I mean she’s what my mother calls a yawper.
My mother’s got no room to talk because she’s from a Hessle Road backstreet and, I might add, was banned from Walton Street market for starting fights with the traders while in her 70s. You wouldn’t know it to talk to her though. She speaks very nicely, and she went to university when she retired. She’s better qualified than I am. I’m not the brains of the family. My dad’s the least well qualified of us, because he couldn’t care less, but he’s by far the brightest. My mother’s tenacious and methodical. Sadly, I inherited my mother’s brightness and my old man’s tenacity. So it goes, you know?
Anyway, Lal sounds like a rough arse, basically. Being from Hull, I knew women who spoke like Lal sings. My Aunty Val sounded like Lal. I don’t mean she can’t sing: she’s a good singer, she hits the notes, there’s power and feeling there. What else there is though, is the wind and spray from the docks that battered and hardened the faces, lives and voices of people like Val and Lal, who lived by it.
It’s not a commercial voice, Lal’s, because it doesn’t even sound like it’s for sale, any more than the air on the Yorkshire Coast is for sale. It just is. It’s part of the landscape of the East Coast as much as the clay in the ground is.
Anne Briggs normally sounds pretty real herself, but in comparison to Lal’s, you hear a vulnerability to her that’s just not there in Lal’s. I said that Lal’s voice makes it sound ominous – and the words are the same in both – but while neither of them sound like they can do anything about it, Anne sounds wistful and melancholy and Lal’s has none of that because she sounds like she knew exactly what was coming because she’s been shat on before. In fact, it sounds like she’s spent her entire life being shat on and she’s not depressed about it, so much as grimly hanging on because that’s what you do. You get on with it and you don’t mither. It’s not quite as grim sounding as that, because there is some sort of hope in her voice, but it’s the sort of hope that, now and then, the same sort of brief ray of sunshine will break into her life, and she’ll love it, but she still knows it’s never going to last because it never does. Still she carries on, because what else is there? And she’s got her pride.
And, while you don’t hear a lot of Anne Briggs on the Radio, you don’t hear the likes of Lal Waterson at all. I don’t blame them. I mean, actually, I don’t even know if that’s true because I never listen to the radio. Maybe it’s wall to wall Lal Waterson all over the airwaves. I don’t know, but I’d be surprised.
I shouldn’t like this, the title song of the album they did – which is fucking ace if you’re in the mood, but I wouldn’t call it all tolerable – but I do. At least I really like it for the first minute and eleven seconds. It’s that sort of Beatles/Donovan ascending chord changes and optimistically satisfying melody that everybody likes.
I say, “that everybody likes“, but I know they don’t really. People who like guitar pop like it. But even those people might find a bit much because of the singing. Mike Waterson, fundamentally, is the male version of Lal. He’s a rude singer, he sounds like he’s from Hull, but there’s more vulnerability in his voice than in Lal’s. Again, I know people who sound like him. My dad sounds like him, actually. Not quite as broad, but the same vowels, basically.
And whatever else it is, the Hull accent isn’t one that really happened in pop music. I like Liverpool, and when I go, if I get talking to any Liverpudlians, if they call me anything, the call me wool. As in woolyback. From the sticks. It’s not really unusual, Liverpudlians call practically everybody who doesn’t live in the city centre wool. John Lennon’s practically wool. But the point is, the Yorkshire accent sounds a bit rural, I suppose. Which works for folk music – it’s not really Hey Nonny – it can’t be hey nonny, because Hull’s not going to have that. It would have unaccompanied Sea Shanty singing in Hessle Road pubs though. Even when I started going to pubs in my late teens, there were blokes standing on tables doing that. Old blokes, mainly. To be fair, at the same places, you did see a bit of Hey Nonnying creeping in, and Hull did have it.
The last folk night I went to was a couple of years ago to find this bloke, Norman, who I’d left my Gibson 335 with for about ten years, in bits because I wanted the pickups sorting out, and it’s a fucking nightmare on 335s. I won’t go into that here, but I had to meet him at this folk club, and it was exclusively Hey Nonnying. I wasn’t impressed but at least I got my guitar back. And I love my 335, battered and scarred as it is. I haven’t given it a name, no, because I always thought what The Hound thought on Game of Thrones – only cunts give their swords names – about guitars, long before Game of Thrones. The closest it has to having a name is if I call it, “My red guitar”.
Sometimes, after gigs or soundchecks even, people’d come and compliment that guitar – as well they might – and they’d sometimes ask if it had a name, and I’d pretend I didn’t know what they meant and then say, “No, it’s a guitar, isn’t it? Why would you give it a name? It’s not going to come when you call it, is it?” Then I’d ask if they wanted a go on it, and they were usually quite shocked because most people are a bit funny about that sort of thing. You know, like it’s letting someone get off with your girlfriend or something, but I never thought of guitars like a lot of people seem to. Once I’d said that, most people would just get their mates to take a photo of them with it strapped on them but not want to play it. I didn’t mind and they seemed really happy about it.
Recently, a little girl who must have been about six or seven came up to me and told me how beautiful my red guitar was – it was at a wedding – I don’t play children’s parties – and I asked her if she wanted a go on it, while her mum was telling her not to bother me. She said she couldn’t play the guitar. I said it didn’t matter and gave her a plectrum and got her to strum it while I held down chords and she laughed her head off at the sounds she was making. Again, I didn’t mind – my dad was always letting me have a go on stuff: drills, blowtorches, things like that, and I really appreciated it. Naturally, then I had a big queue of little kids wanting a go, so I had them jumping on my pedals and showing them how to make it sound like something from outer space by getting the delay pedal to oscillate. They love all that shit, and I do too . In fact, I like that as much as playing in a band, to be honest.
Anyway, Bright Phoebus isn’t Hey Nonny, but there is the obligatory sing-a-long chorus that people in Folk Clubs lap right up. I don’t really like crowds singing along. I want to hear the singer sing the song, not a load of pissed up, bearded, arran-sweater clad people each with a finger in their ear. And this gets a bit like that, although the singers are all decent enough. It raised the alarm for me though. I don’t mind the sing-a-long: Hey Jude‘s great, Atlantis by Donovan’s great. But neither of them are folk, even though Donovan’s is a bit, sort of, it isn’t really because it’s daft late 60s pop music, and this is early 70s serious folk music. It’s noticeable. I mean, I wouldn’t pick Bright Phoebus over Hey Jude or Atlantis, but I like it, again, because of the singing. It’s rude, and I enjoy a bit of rudeness.
Magna Carta – Times of Change
I can’t remember where I heard this first. It was probably a compilation, but I can’t remember which one. At the time, I just enjoyed it as a sort of borderline-baroque late 60s English pop, which is one of my favourite things, really. The video I’ve linked to above, I’d never seen before writing this, and when it starts and the focus is on the kid who sings the verses I thought, he looks like he should be the keyboard player in the Jimi Hendrix Experience, then you see the brown haired guitar player – and he’s good – and I thought, of course: they’re like a really mannered, English Simon and Garfunkel. There’s another guitar player, but you don’t really see much of him in the video. In fact, you see more of a girl who appears to be Felicity Jones, having time travelled back to 1969 to appear in a pop video that nobody saw until the 21st century. Times of change, indeed.
It’s not The Pentangle, because it’s pop music, basically. Acoustic folk music, but acoustic like some Simon and Garfunkel records are acoustic, with skippety drums and a strict verse chorus structure. The lyrics are sort of alright, in the same way that Simon & Garfunkel’s are sort of alright. Paul Simon wrote some beautiful songs, but there’s always a hint of the over earnest college freshman about them to me. They’re always slightly awkward. Trying a little bit too hard. Especially in the early days, Sounds of Silence album era. Simon was trying to be Bob Dylan, basically, and he wasn’t really. If Bob Dylan’s my dad – all talent, but maybe lacking the inclination to polish – Paul Simon’s my mother – dedication and hard work plus a pretty good brain, but without that natural, raw ability.
I don’t mind crafted songs. They’re valid, and some of them are great. What else are you going to do? Paul McCartney crafts some songs and, obviously, doesn’t craft others. John Lennon, for all his talk, was more of a crafter than Paul ever was. Paul lets some very slack material out. Lennon did too, but for different reasons. Lennon didn’t always craft, and neither did Paul, but together, they made each work harder, which made the difference, and which is why neither of their solo careers are a patch on what they did in The Beatles. There are moments with both of them, of course, but The Beatles were consistent, and that was because they each made the other work harder, which makes a palpable difference.
Magna Carta are no Beatles though, just as Simon and Garfunkel aren’t. Simon and Garfunkel are still better than Magna Carta, who have a nice enough song, and nice enough voices, but they’re even less believable than S&G are. It sounds like they’ve written a song for the sake of writing a song. Fair enough, needs must, but watch Paul McCartney write Get Back on the film, and see how forced songs don’t have to sound like it. Times of Change tries to be deep and meaningful, but it’s all a bit hollow. None of which would matter, but if you’ve already got Simon & Garfunkel sounding like slightly forced versions of something else, why would you need an even more forced, less urgent version of that? It’s competent and I like it, even though I sound like I don’t. It just doesn’t stand up to any real thought. It sounds nice, it looks nice, and it doesn’t really matter. Maybe The Beatles don’t really matter that much – to some people at least – but if they don’t matter, Magna Carta really don’t.
Apart from that, if anything’s going to affect the tolerability of this, it’s the singing, which the Aylesbury Art Garfunkel handles most of. It’s mannered. It’s polite. It’s the opposite of Lal Waterson. Neither of their voices are going to fly with the public to any great degree, because they’re both at either side of the extremities of the pendulum’s arc. Nick Drake’s enormously polite, and tremendously posh with it, and nobody bought his records in huge quantities either. I don’t know if they do now, but even he’s less mannered than this kid. Like I say, I’ve got a soft spot for posh sounding English voices, so I suppose my tolerance for it’s a bit higher than most. Which is probably the point at which I ought to stop, if I’m going to call this tolerable folk music.
I dig it though, and I hope you do too. If it’s cold, give some of it a go when you’re out and about, you might be surprised.
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