Category Archives: music

What Manner of Folk be These, with Aran Sweater and Finger in Ye Ear?

English folk music is not nearly as well-respected as its Irish or Scots counterparts.  Maybe this is because we’re the dominant country, so we don’t have as much oppression to sing about – though I’d question this, in the light of historical events such as the Industrial Revolution.  But folk doesn’t have to be about oppression: much of it is about love – a love of place or a love of person (usually a woman since, let’s face it, most of these things were written by men) – and there’s a simplicity about the songs.  They arise out of working-class traditions and may not be erudite or complex but nevertheless have an authenticity.  Consider the simple pun on thyme/time in ‘A Bunch of Thyme’:

This also illustrates the primacy of the oral tradition, as the pun suffers from being written down.

English folk music has long been the object of ridicule: the sneers I’ve been subjected to for liking folk clubs are second only to those I suffered for being a Leonard Cohen fan.  The finger-in-the-ear-whilst-singing-nasally is a cliche too easily trotted out by cynics; but folk clubs are by and large open and inclusive spaces where a variety of styles can be aired and where people can come together to share songs.  You may think it’s ridiculous for a bunch of middle-class, middle-aged English folk to sing about being ‘lonely round the fields of Athenry’ but to join in with an impromptu rendering of a song you love is a moving experience.  It ain’t clubbing on acid, but it’s humming on real ale – and I like it.

Not that any of this sums up my experience last night.  I’d been meaning to go to Loughborough Acoustics for months and finally made it last night.  The club which hosts it boasted all the atmosphere of a wet bus shelter in Skelmersdale: I opened the folk room door with an ominous creak to find two-and-a-half men (one half hidden behind a PA) one of whom was on stage and tuning up.  I was greeted with all the enthusiasm of a horizontal wind blowing into the aforementioned bus shelter and approached the bar to see a complete absence of any Proper Beer.  Oh dear.  In the end I had some water and sat down to listen.

To be fair, I must have picked the worst night of the year to go to the club since everyone was apparently at some festival or other (not Glasto, I’m assuming).  It got better; people did eventually talk to me and by half-time I had thawed out somewhat, emotionally speaking.

I’ll give it another try.  Mind you, when I told my daughter I was going to a folk club she said ‘oh, what sort of folk are they?’  I think she considers me ripe for some sort of pensioners’ jamboree.  *Sigh*.  I guess this is what it’s like to hit sixty…

Kirk out

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The Relief of Mattocking

Having come across it in an archaeological context (I have written on many occasions about my brief career as an archaeologist), I did not expect to find a mattock in a garden shed.  To be fair, it is a rather smaller mattock than I’ve been used to, having only one blade and no ‘pickaxe’ bit on the other side, so that at first I took it for a hoe.  But hoe it is not.  It is, as I told Daniel in an effort to engage his enthusiasm, an earth-smasher, a clod-annihilator, a veritable soil-threshing machine.  And it worked!  He smashed away with vim and vigour and mattocked half the area marked out for him to plant his own stuff in.

For which relief, much thanks.  And if you don’t get the reference, you must be younger than I am:

http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/relief-mafeking

Speaking of Daniel’s enthusiasm, he has been far from idle.  In addition to learning classical and folk guitar, he is producing some stonking graphic art.  Take a look at this speed-video of him working:

That’s it for today.  Too hot to write much.

Kirk out

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The Singer not the Song

On the subject of John Martyn, I have been informed (see comments) that he didn’t write ‘Rather Be The Devil’ but covered it.  I was curious to hear the original so I looked it up: it’s very different from Martyn’s version, being more of a typical blues number:

It set me thinking about how different a song can be when performed by different artists, and that led me to the original version of this number:

Like most people I knew Harry Nilssen’s cover but not this one, and there’s no comparison.  The Badfinger version is pleasant enough but plodding and dull; and when it comes to the chorus it just sounds plain awful.  Compare and contrast: the Nilssen number is utterly heartbreaking:-

All of which leads me to ‘Hallelujah,’ perhaps one of the most covered songs in the history of song, with so many versions that now is the time to call a halt.  Cohen himself said it had been covered too much, and some of the versions are saccharinely awful, showing scant respect or understanding.  There are some covers I admire, however, probably the best being Rufus Wainright’s:

All right.  That’s enough songs for today.

Kirk out

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Merry Christmas to All

Before the sun dips below the horizon and before I dip below the sofa, I shall take this opportunity to wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a happy new year.  This afternoon I turned the radio on and realised it was time once again for the Nine Lessons and Carols, which always starts with the announcer saying:

‘And as the sun dips below the horizon a single voice begins the service of Nine Lessons and Carols’ (or words to that effect) and then a choirboy sings the first verse of ‘Once in Royal.’  There’s a great power in the annual repetition of these carols: this afternoon I went to an open-air carol singing next to the Carillon, a famous bell-tower in the centre of Loughborough, where the choir had to synchronise carols with the ringing of the bells.  I like carols: they’re atmospheric, poetic, cheerful and above all they link every Christmas back to my earliest childhood.  I usually find I know all the traditional ones by heart, having sung them so often.

When I was a child Christmases always followed the same pattern: church in the morning, Christmas dinner around one o’clock (the full works, usually with ten or twelve of us round the large dining-room table: this was used as a lumber-room for the rest of the year and only cleared out for Christmas).  There would be a rest before a Christmas pudding which would be set alight in a darkened room; served with custard, cream and home made mince pie, after which the adults would go for a lie-down and we kids would play with our presents.  At around seven the adults would dress (I kid you not) and we would assemble in the living-room for parlour-games until about nine when we would eat a buffet supper of rice salad, cheese, ham and other savouries.

But I forgot the Queen!  How could I forget the Queen?  At three o’clock precisely the entire family would settle in the lounge, the TV would be ceremoniously switched on and silence would prevail for the ten minutes or so of Her Madge’s address, after which the TV set would be returned to darkness.  At no time either before or subsequently was the TV watched on Christmas Day.

As a child I chafed against this: all my friends were watching the fabulous array of films and seasonal programmes which were only available at this time of year: and we were missing them.  As a teenager I thought it was unutterably lame to play parlour games – but I have to admit we’ve reinstated some of these traditions in our own Christmases, so that Holly and her boyfriend were yesterday subjected to charades.

They seemed to enjoy it, though I did discover it’s extremely difficult to mime ‘Minority Report.’

Anyway, at the risk of sounding too much like HM herself, it’s been a pleasure getting to know all my readers and followers.  If you follow or even comment I will take a look at your blog and I’ve come into contact with some really interesting life stories.  So keep it up; keep safe and warm and have a fabulous Christmas.

Love, Kirk

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An ‘O-Come-All-Ye’?

In some quarters in the folk music world you are invited to a ‘come-all-ye’; a traditional way of describing an open mic night (or, since this is folk, an open ‘finger-in-ear’ night).  I’ve always liked the expression ‘come-all-ye’ whilst finding it faintly risible at the same time, an attitude which pretty much sums up my response to the folk music world in general.  So, I guess if a singalong in folk is a come-all-ye, then a Christmas carol singalong would be an ‘O-come-all-ye’ – geddit?  And it was to two such events that I came – or went – yesterday, one Quakerly and one ecclesiastical.

The Quakers in Loughborough gathered for carols and readings – the readings were mostly poems – after meeting yesterday.  We had all the traditional carols in the tunes I like, some a capella but most accompanied by a harpist, a flautist, a bass guitarist and an acoustic guitarist.  It was terrific fun and quite moving at the same time, and I read a poem of mine about global warming called ‘In the Deep Mid-Autumn.’   Then in the evening at Emmanuel there was the traditional Nine Lessons and Carols which began with a single voice singing ‘Once in Royal’; the choir on the second verse and the congregation rising to their feet with a hushed movement to sing the rest.

If there is one thing I miss in being a Quaker, it’s the music.  Traditional hymns and carols have laid down patterns in my brain from a very early age; patterns which relate to poetry and maths and emotion and spirit.  But the thing that lifts the roof off my head is to sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ with the descant.  You get to the penultimate verse and you begin with your pedestrian melody.  You wait: and in the chorus it comes; the first voice going up like a rocket into the sky and hovering in the air; then the secong going up, following it and doing some pirouettes before reaching its final high note and ceasing to blackness.  When that chorus comes I can’t sing; I just have to listen.

Sadly yesterday we did not sing the tune I love the best to ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’, which is this one by Harold Darke:

Kirk out

 

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Grace

I have said that Leonard was a bizarre kind of guru for me, and so he was: and not so much for his art as such (though that has influenced me like a virus in the blood) as for his manner.  The way in which he dealt with success has been something I’ve sought to emulate, above all because of his graciousness.

Leonard is gracious to his opponents.  In the early days, as many of you will remember, it was hard to be a follower of Cohen.  Along with others, I got a lot of stick for it: my parents unkindly called him ‘old groaner’ and people would trot out the usual tropes about ‘music to slash your wrists by.’  It was most unfair on someone who had a bleak and authentic beauty and a wicked sense of humour.  But things changed, and by the end of the 80’s, after ‘Hallelujah’, it was OK to like him.  He became mainstream – or almost – and everyone you met had heard his name.

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name

I went to see him at some point around then and there was a sense of total triumph; not against his critics, but against those dark forces which had held him back for so long: depression and – yes, his unfortunate tendency to pursue women.  Deciding that this was no longer making him happy, he became celibate and entered a monastery; photographs of him were issued with a shaven head and wearing monks’ robes.  He embraced Zen and paradox as he had earlier embraced the poetry of Lorca, but without betraying any of his former influences, and this above all, is I think the reason I admire him so much.  Many artists go through phases where they renounce those things which influenced them so deeply before: Leonard never did that.  He wove it all into one amazing tapestry; past loves and past lovers, poets and philosophers, Judaism and Zen – it was all one.

And this led to an extraordinary grace in his public dealings.  I never heard him slag anyone off: when Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize which some thought should have gone to Cohen (not me, I don’t think it’s appropriate for songwriters) he said ‘It’s like pinning a medal on Everest for being the highest mountain.’  I think Cohen’s lyrics are far superior to Dylan’s, but that’s not the point.  He is always gracious in defeat; and when personal and financial tragedy struck with one blow and his agent and lover, Kelly Lynch, absconded with savings amounting to $5 million; all he said was, ‘We understand that these things happen.’  Despite a court order, Lynch never paid back any of the money, so Leonard was forced to go back on the road.  But he shows no bitterness, no condemnation, no vitriol.  And that is why I admire him so.

On stage he is unfailingly gracious too.  When I first saw him he was almost alone, sometimes accompanied by two or three women, but nowadays he has a raft of backing performers; usually a band and two or three singers.  He not only acknowledges them at the end, he gives them time and space to perform in their own right.  When we saw him in 2008 he gave ‘If it Be Your Will’ to the Webb Sisters to perform, and they were sublime.

This graciousness extends to the audience, too.  Leonard never, ever took his audience for granted, and I have read that when rehearsals are over and the stage is set, Leonard and the band sit down together for a meal and a drink wherein they toast the audience.  You can feel this appreciation for your presence when you are there, too.

We will never see his like again but as I said we can best honour his memory by following our own voice.

Here’s his best-known song: one whose rights, ironically, were stolen from him.  Later he said it should belong to everyone; and so it does.

Listen to Leonard’s comments about the song at the beginning, too.

Kirk out

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reconnaissance

Where rock bands tour to ‘get the product out there’ or to meet and f*** chicks or just because being on stage was a giant ego-trip, Leonard talked about touring as a kind of ‘reconnaissance’.  For him it was as much about the audience as it was about his art: touring was a way of meeting people and finding out ‘where they are at.’  That sounds very ‘sixties, and so it was – he visited Cuba at the time of the Bay of Pigs to find out what was going on – but it also represented the relationship he had with audiences the world over.  Leonard responds to the mood of a crowd: at one of his early concerts – I think it was at the Isle of Wight festival – there was nearly a riot and he went up on stage and calmed them down just by being who he was.  At another event (or maybe it was the same event) where the authorities were trying to shut the concert down, he sang, ‘they came up on the stage and they won’t go back no more.’  People surged forward and scrambled up onto the stage where, instead of mobbing Leonard, they left a respectful space all around him.

There was something of this energy in the space left around his death.  He died on Monday but the news was not released for three days – I didn’t hear until the Friday – because his family needed that time and space for their own grief.  It is hard to imagine the death and funeral of another, equally famous, singer where the news would not be leaked somehow.  It is dignified and fitting that he should die and be buried so, in private, when no-one outside his family even knew he was ill.  He has been buried in an unmarked coffin next to his parents, as per his request.  No celebrity tomb for him: again, this is most fitting for someone whose art far transcended his ego.

Cohen was no saint, but there was something priestlike about him – unsurprisingly, given that there were several rabbis in his family.  His concerts are almost rituals; his songs are prayers even when they don’t, like ‘The Story of Isaac,’ have a specifically religious theme.  His voice was hypnotic, as if there were some kind of liquid link between him and his audience.

For me his life began in a classroom in 1972 with a crackly rendition of ‘Suzanne’ and continued in my room where for years and years I played his songs alone, ridiculed by family and friends, listening to that lonely voice echoing down tube-tunnels and once or twice, gloriously amplified in concert.  He was a secret known only to a few of us back then.  Now the world knows him, and we will not forget.

Here’s what I’m listening to today:

Kirk out

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