Tag Archives: Folk music

More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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Just a little bit of rain

Karen Dalton

Karen Dalton

After the ice, the rain. Endless sheets of it, sweeping up the Willamette Valley and over Portland. An occasional break, a lightening of the sky, is just a tease – here comes another chilly band. And the next, and so on, rinsing the city, and repeating.

It’s a good thing I’m mentally prepared for rain in February. I was born in this month, and as a child growing up in Ireland I remember birthdays bookended by drenchings, with huge, pregnant rain clouds sweeping on Spring westerlies over east Galway and Roscommon, and down on Athlone.

Oregon is no different at this time of the year. The winds are a little colder, maybe, and the heavy rain lacks the subtlety of the misty, wind-whipped showers that sweep over my home country from the Atlantic, but it’s all of a piece.

This morning’s early downpour kept me indoors, tinkering with my guitar and staring out the window. And thinking of rain songs. Not the obvious picks, Gene Kelly or Rihanna or Creedence Clearwater Revival, but something a little more blue, something that befitted a cold midwinter morning.

And so I came to a song I hadn’t heard in 15 years, when I used to play more acoustic guitar. Back then I learned it off a Fred Neil album, but, after playing his version for a couple of years, I heard Karen Dalton’s cover.

Dalton’s version of “Little Bit of Rain” (she drops Neil’s indefinite article) conjures up a deluge I never want to encounter, a flow of raw regret, the voice of a woman about to quit her lover, desperately trying to comfort him before she walks out. No reason is given for her departure but, like the rain, it’s coming, if not today, tomorrow.

Karen Dalton encountered more than a little rain on her life journey. Having recorded one of the folk revival’s great records, life and circumstances conspired to ensure that she never fully realized her talent. She did leave behind “Little Bit of Rain” though. Next time you find yourself watching drops slide down the glass, put it on – and be thankful for what you have.

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Keeping the hoping machine running

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

On an afternoon in February 1940 a songwriter, tired of what he saw as the blind patriotism of the then radio staple “God Bless America“, sat down in his New York City hotel room and typed out a series of verses that he’d worked on over the preceding months.

The writer was Woody Guthrie and the result was his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land” (which he’d originally, and sarcastically, titled “God Blessed America For Me”).

In the 80 or so years since, the song and its lyrics have become some of the best known and most sung lines in the American songbook.

But “This Land” was a slow starter. Having written the song Guthrie sat on it for four years, during which time he performed around New York city, including on the subway (above), and served in the U.S. Merchant Marine. When he returned to the song to record it, in 1944, he dropped two hard-hitting verses, one concerning private property and the other hunger.

(The latter was the most biting verse in the song, containing the lines “one bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple, by the Relief Office I saw my people, as they stood hungry, I stood there wondering, if this land was made for you and me?”)

This was unsurprising perhaps. After four years of war Guthrie no doubt felt the need to cast his song, written in anger, in a more unifying light. And so the version he recorded for Moses Asch in March 1944  is one laced with hope.

On the day that’s in it, hours before a new and divisive president is inaugurated in Washington, D.C., its lyrics are worth reading. Because if you can’t keep the hoping machine running, what can you do?

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

 

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The next time you hear “Ride On”…

Jimmy MacCarthy

Jimmy MacCarthy

There is something peculiarly folk music about the fact that the name of the man who wrote some of Ireland’s greatest modern ballads is not widely known, internationally at least, despite his songs travelling the world.

This occurred to me recently when I stopped into Kells Irish pub in downtown Portland one evening, and heard the performer on stage break into “Ride On”. The song was made famous, of course, by Christy Moore, on his 1984 album of that name and in thousands of live performances since.

The singer in Kells duly cited Moore’s performance of the song. I’m sure he has, at one point or another, performed “Missing You”, or “No Frontiers”, two other staples of modern Irish folk music.

And which were written by Jimmy MacCarthy – a name, though not as well-known as Moore’s or The Corrs’ (who’ve also recorded his work), ought to be.

“Ride On” alone secures MacCarthy a place in the choir of great Irish songwriters; the addition of “Missing You” would settle any debate on the matter.

But his greatest composition, to my mind, remains his poignant ballad about the tragic boxer Jack Doyle. Outside of song, Doyle’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story is relatively well-recounted. “The Contender” charts the Corkman’s rise and fall across five verses, from “the contender to the brawl”, as MacCarthy frames it.

It’s a masterclass in songwriting, a work that’s tragic without being sentimental, that’s affectionate but open-eyed. Perhaps fittingly, my favorite version of the song is the one below, recorded live by Moore in 2006. (MacCarthy’s own studio version, from his 2002 album “The Moment”, sounds overproduced, though his live performance of the song, which I saw in Wexford that same year, was wonderful).

Accompanied by guitarist Declan Sinnott, Moore mixes up the pride and the pathos of Doyle’s story. He also pays tribute, at the outset, to the man who wrote the song.

The next time you hear “Ride On” then, or the great London-Irish emigrant song “Missing You“, or even The Corrs’ breathy take on “No Frontiers”, tip your hat to Jimmy MacCarthy.

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A 70-year-old note to a new President

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.

That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.

This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.

Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.

Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.

In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.

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Listening to Dave Van Ronk

DaveVanRonkFolksinger (1)Sometimes a prophet doesn’t cry out in a wilderness,
He works in a great city, battling to be heard.

Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.

About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.

Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.

Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.

But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.

He Was A Friend Of Mine.
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It’s not you Richard, it’s me

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

Richard Thompson at Vicar Street

There is a moment at a Richard Thompson show when his guitar-playing virtuosity can put the listener into a trance.

Time is suspended, seconds becoming hours, all of which hang on a raised note, the spell broken only when the melody is resolved. It’s heady stuff – up to a point.

Thompson played more than one furious solo during his show at Vicar Street in Dublin last Tuesday. As he tore through a stomping Hard On Me I found myself strangely transfixed, one part of my brain following the notes, another part thinking ‘where did I put the gas bill?’

Is this something that affects the musician? While most treat a two-hour Richard Thompson set as 120 minutes in the presence of a maestro, does the maestro ever find himself drifting away as he fires off another note-perfect rendition of 1952 Vincent Black Lightning?

One of the most common complaints people make about their jobs is repetition – the tedium of the same tasks the same way, workday after workday. Why should it be any different if you’re one of the top 20 guitarists of all time, whose performances make grown men sigh?

Most of us will change jobs in our lives but rock musicians – of certain stature – can find themselves damned to playing the same songs over and over, for decades. As Thompson commented – after playing Fairport Convention’s Genesis Hall – “that was from 1969” – I thought, ‘you must be a bit tired of it at this stage’.

Perhaps such songs are new every time, with a tempo change, a different venue, a bigger audience, the mutable factors that nudge the original just enough to keep it interesting.

It’s difficult to know what Thompson, whose stage manner is one of acerbic politeness, makes of it. Unlike some of his generation (Bob Dylan, who I’ve heard mangle plenty of songs over the years) the English folk-rocker seems content to mostly stick to the blueprint.

And what a blueprint. The Vicar Street set list included Wall of Death, Shoot Out The Lights and a poignant Al Bowlly’s In Heaven; the show ended with Tear-Stained Letter.

The songs and the technique couldn’t be faulted. The virtuosity was spellbinding. And if I worked through my household chores or audience-watched during a couple of the solos, well, my loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t you Richard, it was me.

A performance to make grown men sigh.

Solos to make grown men sigh

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Place me up in Monto

Luke Kelly.

Luke Kelly.

I’M not sure if there’s a statue of Pete Seeger in his hometown.

But I know there isn’t one of Luke Kelly in his.

The Dubliners’ singer, long regarded as one of the important performers in Irish music, died 30 years ago today.

Kelly did more than most to burnish an idea of Dublin and Irishness in the public consciousness.

And yet you’ll search in vain for any likeness, sculpture or bust of the musician in his hometown.

Contrast this to the bronze figure of Phil Lynott on Harry Street, seen by thousand of passing pedestrians, Dubliners and visitors every day.

Or the litany of other statues that dot the city, from dawdling literary heavyweights (Wilde and Joyce) to mythical cattle rustlers (Cú Chulainn) to alleged prostitutes (Molly Malone, and I admit that’s up for debate).

If Official Ireland can see fit to maintain a (pretty regal) statue of Prince Albert (look him up, or up to him) surely they can do something for Luke Kelly?

Pretty regal. Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

Pretty regal.
Statute of Prince Albert, Leinster House, Dublin.

There’s no bust of Gabriel Byrne in his hometown either, although the Irish government did see fit to honour the actor with a cultural ambassador role a few years back.

The Dubliner emerged last weekend to criticise the government for “paying lip service to the arts”. “I don’t think they really care about it,” he stated, bluntly.

And correctly too, if the foot-dragging on a proper commemoration for Luke Kelly is any indication.

We’ve been here before of course. A decade ago Dublin’s city councillors voted to erect a statue…but nothing happened.

In the interim the boom, which saw just about everything and anything built in the capital, came and went. And still no movement on the statue.

It popped up on the agenda again last year, but there’s still no word on funding, or an actual site (surely somewhere close to Kelly’s home in the north inner city, or the nearby, fabled Monto area there he sang of?)

And all the while the culture of music and song that Luke Kelly lived, sang and even brought to the Ed Sullivan Show is flogged mercilessly, more often than not to sell booze. (To be fair The Dubliners weren’t averse to pushing the beer connection themselves.)

Across the Atlantic this week tributes have poured in for Pete Seeger, a performer who, over a 70 year career, came to epitomise that country’s folk music. There’s no Irish equivalent of Seeger but, in terms of influence and talent, a claim could certainly be made for Kelly.

Ireland is a country where, it was claimed this week, €2bn can be spent on a sweetheart deal for municipal workers.

A tiny fraction of that would erect a statue to Luke Kelly and put him – as he sang himself – “home for while in me own country”.

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Come all ye voices of a generation

'Come all ye budding folksingers.'

‘Come all ye budding folksingers.’

CAN YOU recall where and when you first heard The Times They Are A-Changin’?

Me neither. The song’s so deeply wedged in my ears that I was probably humming it in my cot.

It turned 50 this week, prompting a slew of analysis on whether the times had changed, what today’s youth have in common with their 60s forebears, what Bob Dylan had for breakfast the day he wrote it. The usual stuff.

Not many articles made mention of a fact which explains why the song has always sounded so familiar to me – its roots in Irish folk music.

Specifically in the rain-lashed, tear and beer-stained ‘come all ye’ ballads that ran, like a sodden thread of Aran wool, through the traditional Irish music of my youth.

An interest in folk songs, which I’d picked up from my parents’ cassettes at home, later saw me spend far too many evenings of my college days and after at sessions in dreary pubs.

These events often concluded with a late night lament  – for the lost soldier boy, the emigrant bound for Amerikay, or the closing of the bar.

As a budding folkie Bob Dylan sat through his own share of sessions. Luckily for him the ballads in the Greenwich Village taverns of the early 1960s were sung by the likes of Liam Clancy and his brothers.

'Knee slapping...'  The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

‘Knee-slapping…’
The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

Of The Times They Are A-Changin’ he later explained: “It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’…”

The former may a reference to the Clancy Brother’s knee-slapping Brennan On The Moor, which immortalised the 19th century Cork highwayman Willie Brennan. (Dylan had earlier used the song as inspiration for his own Rambling, Gambling Willie.)

While there are echoes of Ireland in the title track the album The Times They Are A-Changin’ boasts plenty of other material that wears its Irish folk influences on its sleeve.

Restless Farewell is a barely-disguised take on The Clancy Brothers’ The Parting Glass. The melody of With God On Our Side is identical to Dominic Behan’s The Patriot Game, another song popularised by the Clancys.

Maybe all this is why, when I first heard the album as a young student, much of the music resonated with the half-learned Irish melodies I’d picked up since I was in my cot.

Such influences come full circle in the end. Three decades after Dylan released The Times They Are A-Changin’ The Clancy Brothers took to the stage at Madison Square Garden during a tribute to the ‘voice of a generation’, Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert.

That night they performed When The Ship Comes In, transforming Dylan’s song into an Irish sea shanty, turning Dylan’s Irish influences back on him.

What went around had come around. And no doubt will come around again.

Or as Dylan sang 50 years ago this week: “The wheel’s still in spin.”

 

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