Kazuo Ishiguro on folk music

The way I see it is like this. There is this kind of treasure chest you have sitting in front of you, and if you were American or perhaps Irish you might have opened it by now, but because you live here it probably hasn’t occurred to you to do so yet. Well, I would urge you to open that thing up and delve inside it, because I believe you’ll find there a sublime vision of life in the British Isles at it has been lived over the last few centuries; and it’s the kind of vision that you can’t readily get from the works of say, Dickens or Shakespeare or Elgar or Sir Christopher Wren. If you don’t open that treasure box I think you are going to miss a certain dimension, a whole dimension of cultural life in this country so I urge you to do it.

Speaking at the 2003 BBC Folk Awards, London

Glastonbury photos appear

Glastonbury floodsAfter the customary pause for procrastination, a small set of photos from this year’s Glastonbury festival are now posted in the photo library. Another festival dominated by the weather, though some of our camp site neighbours seemed to revel in the drama of it all. Before even leaving their tents on Friday morning of the great rain, they were on mobile phones: “they’re saying it’s the muddiest Glastonbury of all time… well, for fifty years at any rate!”. You almost expected to hear: “There’s a bloke up in Green Crafts, name of Noah, he’s building an ark and going to take us out two-by-two.” One nearby woman, we dubbed ‘local radio DJ’ for her breezy, smoother-than-smooth telephone patter, declared “well, it’s blue skies all the way from hereon”. It wasn’t, but things did improve enormously, to the extent we got sunburnt noses on Sunday. We also got to exercise the twenty-three different words for ‘mud’ known to all Glasto veterans, and in double-quick time. Friday was liquid, Saturday gloopy, then claggy, and Sunday delightfully doughy.


The BBC Dorset site included this photo of Rob and Tom taking part in the djembe workshop at the Larmer Tree festival.

A couple of things I should make clear:

  1. You’ll have to take my word for it, but Rob is actually wearing some clothes.
  2. I have no idea who the man on the right is. Had I taken this photo I would have cut him out. But this one is the BBC’s photo.

Dink’s Song

jeff-buckley-sin-e.jpgSo I was listening today to Jeff Buckley – Live at Sin-é and he took me off on a little ethno-musicologist wandering. If you don’t know it, this is an extended recording of one of Jeff’s solo shows at a tiny NYC club, made shortly before he signed to CBS to record Grace (recently voted #61 in Channel 4’s 100 greatest albums). So in a way it marks the end of innocence for Jeff, and the start of an arc that would see him achieve superstardom and tragically drown within four years.

It’s fantastically discursive. There’s little or no editing, and so all of the between-song patter is there on CD, and in Jeff’s case this means snatches of nigh-perfect renditions of radio jingles, Zeppelin, Doors and Dylan. He has clearly absorbed all of this material through obsessive study and practice, and he uses snippets as a kind of extended vocabulary, just as a poetry-maven might slip in quotations to illustrate a debate. At one point he performs a song by the great Pakistani Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and it’s hard to tell whether he has learned the song phonetically, or studied the original Sufi poetry — but you suspect it might be the latter. He does mention that he knows “everything” about Nusrat, including his boyhood nickname.

However it was not the Nusrat song that caught my ear. There’s a track callled Dink’s Song, a long impassioned blues narrative that is classic Jeff. Based on stanzas that you’ve heard spun through Robert Johnson, Son House and about every other Delta bluesman, but driven towards the type of climax that Steve Berkowitz, Jeff’s A&R man, called “the flying Buckleys”. I’m pretty blues-literate but I’d never heard of this Dink’s Song so I googled it.

Roger McGuinn’s folk den provided the answer. John Lomax collected the song on a field trip to College Station, Texas in 1908. He witnessed there what can only be described as a mating ritual among the black workers, slaves in all but the narrowest definition. Lomax’s description from his 1947 book, Adventures Of A Ballad Hunter:

I found Dink washing her man’s clothes outside their tent on the bank of the Brazos River in Texas. Many other similar tents stood around. The black men and women they sheltered belonged to a levee-building outfit from the Mississippi River Delta, the women having been shipped from Memphis along with the mules and the iron scrapers, while the men, all skilful levee-builders, came from Vicksburg. A white foreman volunteered: ‘Without women of their own, these levee Negroes would have been all over the bottoms every night hunting for women. That would mean trouble, serious trouble. Negroes can’t work when sliced up with razors.’

The two groups of men and women had never seen each other until they met on the river bank in Texas where the white levee contractor gave them the opportunity presented to Adam and Eve – they were left alone to mate after looking each other over. While her man built the levee, each woman kept his tent, toted the water, cut the firewood, cooked, washed his clothes and warmed his bed. Down on the dumps nearer the river, clouds of drifting dust swirled from the feet of moving mules and from piles of shifted earth, while the shouts of the muleskinners sometimes grouped themselves into long-drawn-out couplets with a semi-tune – levee camp hollers.

But Dink, reputedly the best singer in the camp, would give me no songs. ‘Today ain’t my singin’ day,’ she would reply to my urging. Finally, a bottle of gin, bought at a nearby plantation commissary, loosed her muse. The bottle of liquor soon disappeared. She sang, as she scrubbed her man’s dirty clothes, the pathetic story of a woman deserted by her lover when she needs him most – a very old story. Dink ended the refrain with a subdued cry of despair and longing – the sobbing of a woman deserted by her man.

If I had wings like Noah’s dove
I’d fly up the river to the one I love
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

I’ve got a man, he’s long and tall
Moves his body like a cannon ball
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

One of these days and it won’t be long
Call my name and I’ll be gone
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

I remember one night, a drizzling rain
Round my heart I felt a pain
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

When I wore my apron low
Couldn’t keep you from my do’
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Now I wear my apron high
Scarcely ever see you passing by
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

Now my apron’s up to my chin
You pass my door and you won’t come in
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

If I had listened to what my mama said
I’d be at home in my mama’s bed
Fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well

So it’s the classic tale of woman left barefoot and pregnant by a deserting philanderer, cf Willie O’Winsbury in the Scottish tradition.

But back to Jeff. Closer inspection reveals that he has sacrificed form for feeling. He has attempted a sex-change on the lyric, that renders it almost nonsensical:

if I met your man, and he was long and tall
I’d heave his body like a cannonball
fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well

Furthermore he has injected bastardised versions of well-known stanzas, like Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen, which he renders thus:

oh she’s gone
I know she won’t come back
oh she took the last nickel out of my saving sack

In Johnson’s original “I took the last nickel out of her nation sack”… a nation sack, I discovered, is a bag used specifically by women to carry their mojo, or voodoo charm, a talisman used for spells of female domination over men. One wonders whether Jeff’s aware that a man would never use a nation sack, and hence changed to “saving sack”, or is it just a slip.

Ultimately one’s left with the impression that Buckley didn’t take too much care with the lyric and just let rip with his stream of consciousness. This would be typical of his approach, I think, and I don’t have a problem with that. His spirit and musicality do it for me.

And what of Dink’ She was dead when Lomax returned for a second visit a year later. And it would be twenty-five more years before Lomax and his son Alan returned with some extrememly primitive portable recording equipment to capture the sound of the blues. I’d love to hear Dink’s own rendition of her song, and so, I suspect, would have Jeff.

PostScript: Thanks to Brandon and Annalivia for the great comments. I’m a little shame-faced that I didn’t know about the Dylan version; almost certainly the model for Buckley’s. Of course, Dylan’s is now in legal circulation, thanks to the No Direction Home soundtrack, and I must do a little comparison to see how the two match up. And now we have a few candidates for Dylan’s source: Van Ronk, Baez, and also Pete Seeger who, I discover, recorded it in the late fifties as part of a massive project called America’s Favourite Ballads. Thanks to Scorsese’s film, Dylan’s early New York period is buzzing in my head. I dug out Chronicles Vol. 1, the kind Christmas gift of father-in-law Peter and am busily reading it. Another discovery, the woman whom Dylan describes as his favourite blues singer of the Greenwich Village era, Karen Dalton. She has a couple of albums in circulation and I’m looking forward to hearing them too.

By the way, the Seeger album is available on emusic.com, my absolute favourite legal download site, and a bargain at US$10 for 40 tracks a month. They have a wonderful archive of independent music, and I intend to write a jordan-maynard.org piece about it one of these days.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel

Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel“A record made from nothing but other records'” writes Frank Broughton on his djhistory.com site. The innovations that this record introduced have become so commonplace that it almost sounds clichéd: the Good Times riff, the scratching and ‘found’ recordings. But try to imagine this crackling from the speakers in 1981. This is where it started baby-boy!

We were used to dancing the simple, knees-bend, white-boy skank of Two-Tone, and along comes this record where half the music isn’t there at all. Eventually, you discovered you could dance through the breaks. The beat (ahem) goes on.

I’ve always believed the “Why don’t you tell me a story'” section comes from a Danny Kaye film, but scouring the Internet I find no justification for this belief. Answers on a post-card, please.

Finally, this record is a tribute to John Peel, inevitably the only person who would play it on the radio. Like so many other landmark records of that period, it was featured nightly over a period of a week or two, mingled with boring bands from Belgium, until it got so deep into you, you just had to go out and buy it. After John died I was limp with grief for weeks.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel. Buy it here

If you own the copyright for this track and would like me to remove it, please drop us a line, and I’ll remove it right away.

The Vinyl Countdown

A hoarder, me; I have a cupboard filled with about 500 LPs and probably an equal number of 7″ and 12″ singles. Caroline is constantly telling me they are an anchor, mooring us in the dock of clutter. And I sympathise. I loved a story I read the other day on a Zen Buddhist site, about the man who limits himself to 600 possessions — each time he receives a gift or acquires something new, he selects an item to give away.

As pleasing as this idea is, I cling to my vinyl like a comfort blanket. Belying the rock journo cliché that pop music is “disposable”, this stuff is no more disposable than a family photo album. Though I get shirty with those guests on Desert Island Discs, whose collections seem to represent only memories — as if what’s in the grooves counted for nothing — it’s undeniable that these records are stamped with their context: favourite record shops, pocket money and student grants, bargain bins, favourable reviews in the NME or radio plays.

[As I write, I’m conscious this talk of grooves and record shops casts me in the archaic mould of my grandparents with their wireless and stereogram, but bear with me young reader; you’ll be here sooner than you think, with your cherished memories of the shiny silver disc!]

The last LP I bought was Neil Young’s Freedom, and the first CDs included Kate Bush – The Sensual World and Rei Momo by David Byrne. So we must have graduated to CD around October ’89. A strange boy, I moved backward through recorded history as easily as forward, and so reckon my earliest is a November 1933 release of Your Mother’s Son-In-Law by Billie Holiday. A fifty-odd year slice of recorded music.

Inspired by the lovely Eclectic Boogaloo I have resolved to sweat this asset. J-M.org will unleash choice cuts into the blogosphere under the usual ethical-if-not-quite-legal guidelines. If you like the music, buy it (unless it’s deleted, in which case tough luck mr. music mogul). MP3s will be removed after a limited airing of a week or two.

And the most delightful part of this plan is that it allows me to use a cheesy pun. Welcome to The Vinyl Countdown. Now read on…

Spiers & Boden play Winchester

BellowLast Friday, the Tower Arts Centre treated us to a concert by the wonderful John Spiers and Jon Boden. This excellent booking was allegedly achieved through Boden calling John Tellett a bastard in Folk on Tap for not having booked them previously, despite Boden being a native son of Winchester, a stratagem clearly worth repeating.

Several times, Boden acknowledged his debt to the campfire singing of a “mysterious underground camping organisation” (how do you camp underground exactly’) called Forest School Camps. One of the songs he learnt there was Prickle Eye Bush, recognisable to the more mature members of the audience as Gallows Pole from Led Zeppelin III. (One of my earliest albums – the original gatefold sleeve with the rotating paper disc with weird little pictures on it.) Not having the benefit of the FSC, Zep had come to the song via Leadbelly and John and Alan Lomax, and perhaps didn’t even know of its English origins.

Through and ThroughCourting Too Slow could have been a letter from a timid software developer to a modern agony aunt, and brought out the Maynard school of counselling: just pull yourself together.

The packed Tower audience immediately warmed to the performers’ energy, and sung quite audibly. Tom, who had been dragged under protest to a boring old folk gig, and apparently had his suspicions confirmed by his first sight of the audience, was particularly enthusiastic (“why didn’t you tell me they were like this'”). And it was good to see some old friends again and come out as unapologetic folkies.

Finally, John Tellett please note, Spiers is a homonym for Spires, not for Spears.

One Morning

Before Christmas, Dervala and I discovered a shared relish for Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball album. It’s a quiet masterpiece, Daniel Lanois’ luminous production cradling a clutch of fine songs from a generation of great writers: Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and more. Dervala kindly sent me a compilation featuring some of Emmylou’s influences—along with a challenge to write something about these performers.

Hell Among the YearlingsGillian Welch is an odd one. As a student in Santa Cruz in the 80s, she was a devotee of the alternative rock scene. Camper Van Beethoven and The Pixies held sway on her turntable. But bizarrely, she began to develop a passion for old-timey and bluegrass music. The Clinch Mountain Boys elbowed out The Breeders, and Gillian, together with her writing and performing partner David Rawlings, adopted this archaic medium as her own. She can share a stage with a veteran like Ralph Stanley, but the real marvel is that Welch and Rawlings are able to escape pastiche and tackle thoroughly modern topics. For heaven’s sake, Everything Is Free is about illegal music downloads!

But the song that left the deepest mark on me portrays a historical, yet timeless scene. It’s deeply cinematic, vividly conjuring weather and landscape. In performance, it’s spacious, the frailed banjo refrains providing pause to absorb each stanza. Yet, unusually, I think it retains some power as poetry.

One morning, one morning as work I begun,

What did I see riding out of the sun,

On the road from Lexington’

One rider, one rider beating the breeze,

Down on his saddle, low to his knees,

Coming through my willow trees.

Now closer the terrible work of the gun,

Was stiffened and black where his blood all had run,

But I knew my wayward son.

One morning, one morning the boy of my breast,

Came to my door unable to rest,

Even in the arms of death.

On Hyndford Street

Walking out, gloved and hatted against the chill January darkness, leaving behind the Golden Mile, Belfast’s cosmopolitan, Victorian-yet-modern commercial heart, still lit with Christmas decorations. Crossing the Albert Bridge by the Central Railway Station, heading east and turning right on Castlereagh Street. Now this is East Belfast. This is working people’s land, unimproved. Loyalist; tattered Ulster and Union Flags flap limply from poles. Windowless bookie shops, eyes averted in shame from the street-corner Christian Outreach Mission.

Left now on Beersbridge Road, Magee’s Corner Coffee House a scant concession to the Cappuccino generation. Otherwise the scene seems little changed in forty years. Small engineering workshops, Chinese and Chips. A wee boy speeds past in a Formula One pedal car, pristine, The Green Machine — a treasured Christmas present, no doubt — and hops into the paper shop proffering pennies. For what’ ‘Barnbracks, Wagon Wheels’‘ Passing the site of the Elmgrove Primary School on the right, now demolished, graffiti reinforces my anxiety: Muggins is not acceptable in East Belfast; is it a misspelling, or is Muggins me’

Now right, on Hyndford Street, hallowed ground. Narrow road, narrow pavements, the odd-numbered side crammed with squat, flat-fronted terraces, the even-numbered, first workshops, then terraces with a downstairs bay; no doubt an important status elevator in this humble place. Staring rudely at doorways on the odd-numbered side, finally here it is. 125 Hyndford Street, the brass plaque proudly polished. Singer Songwriter Van Morrison lived here 1945-1961. I pause, but only for seconds, not wishing to draw attention to myself, and consider how this simple landscape gave rise to the epic grandeur of Astral Weeks. Continuing, teenagers on the corner send a radio-controlled car shuttling in my direction ‘Walter and John, Katie and Ron used to hang out by the corner lamp light’. Left on Dunraven Avenue the flags are now of the UVF, reminding that the troubles, though dormant, are not ended, still less forgotten.

But we’re moving up-market now, crossing avenues, first Martinez, broader, tree-lined. Solid semis, drives housing Mondeo and Avensis. And then — passing the rectangular heft of Bloomfield Presbyterian Church — Cyprus Avenue. ‘The clicking-clacking of the high-heeled shoe’. Astral Weeks is playing continuously in my head, burned-in by innumerable repeats in my own teens. Pavements broader still, two men could lie end-to-end across these. The trees, pollarded, providing summer shade. These are Victorian merchants’ houses, the drives deep and curving, nestling today’s luxury carriages: SUV, Mercedes, BMW. Vermilion walls and picture rails glimpsed through broad double bays. This is where Van came to spy on his fourteen-year-old princess, ‘rainbow ribbons in her hair’. A bare half-mile from Hyndford Street. The avenue, lofty from the start, climbs steadily to the grandest of the grand houses, ‘way up on the avenue of trees’. Was it simply the verdant space that fired Van’s poetic imagination, or did he also dream of privilege and upward mobility’ Music was, no doubt, his inescapable passion, but it’s hard not to conclude it was also his one-way ticket from Hyndford Street.

Goodbye Dance Tent'

According to efestivals, there will be no Glastonbury Dance tent this year. Its site will be used for the enlarged New Tent, now renamed the John Peel Stage. Which goes to show, as my mother claimed, that fashions always come around again if you just hang on long enough.