Tuesday 19 January 2010

Clive James vs Sandy Denny: A No-Brainer

Climate change is nothing to sing about. This doesn't stop people writing hand-wringing ditties with titles like 'We Are The Cancer of the Planet' (Brittany Franks: clearly no Jackson C Frank) or parroting 'Climate change, climate change ' Ice is melting / It is so strange…' (the web is full of them, heaven help us).

A brooding, haunting quality would convey the message a lot more subtly. Something which favours restraint over fulminating bombast. Something which mixes dark fatalism with serene beauty. I offer The Sea, by Fotheringay, which, because it was written in 1970, is also refreshingly free of proselytism.

Fotheringay, a vehicle for the majestic voice and oddly disquieting songs of Sandy Denny, filled the gap between her leaving Fairport Convention in 1969 and launching her solo career proper with The North Star Grassman And The Ravens in 1971. The Sea is the highlight of their eponymous 1970 album, the sole legacy of the band until a successor was belatedly released in 2008.

The voice of the song is the voice of the sea, immortal and implacable, and so ubiquitous that it's difficult to hear properly. 'Is that what you hear?' the song asks. 'Can you feel it now?' The mood is ominous, rather than stormy. Its calm actually adds to the disquiet, just as a threat is more chilling when delivered in a hush. And threats don't come more chilling than, 'You will be taken, all you ladies and gentlemen'. Cataclysm is inevitable. Indeed, the enemy has, undetected, already crept through the lines of defence: 'The sea flows under your houses in London town…'

And so it is with Denny's voice: majestic whether full-throated or restrained. The music is wonderfully descriptive: acoustic guitars (Denny and Trevor Lucas) emulate the swell and surge of the tide, Gerry Conway's cymbals evoke crashing surf, and Jerry Donahue's guitar rides the currents gracefully, like light reflected on water.

A mood of impending dread similarly infects The North Star Grassman And The Ravens. The title track touches on the legend that foretells disaster if ravens leave the Tower of London. 'I wonder if they flew one day / And no-one ever knew they'd gone…' The psychology is disturbing: there is some confusion about whether the worst is about to happen or has already happened. This is what it is to be mad. (Crazy Lady Blues is the album closer.)

Next Time Around, etched in brooding, minor chords, describes a city engulfed in flood, whilst Late November jumbles manmade and natural disasters in an apocalyptic vision. One line - 'I see only smoke from the chimneys arise' - seems to foretell the image that haunts our own collective, post 9/11 nightmares. It might be significant that Denny is shown reading tea-leaves on the cover of North Star Grassman.

Ah, but prophecies are necessarily couched in oblique, mysterious language, and who at the time could decipher their meaning? Certainly not Clive James, who contributed a critical analysis of Sandy Denny's writing to the March 1974 issue of Let It Rock. Favourably comparing her singing to Elizabeth Schumann and Joan Sutherland, he owns to disappointment with her 'slapdash' songwriting. 'In general the linguistic points of the song are undistinguished going on feeble,' he opines about the Fairport song Autopsy. His tone is lofty and patronising throughout. 'Eminently listenable even when one has abandoned all attempts to find the lyric substantial,' is his comment on The Sea. 'The linguistic mannerisms are out of control,' is his verdict on Late November, and, with crushing finality, 'Next Time Around demonstrates that a strophic form can't be sustained even by the most scrupulous singing unless either (a) the argument advances, or (b) the imagery varies.' Which is, of course, pontificating claptrap and pompous nonsense.

Perhaps he was so unforgiving because he perceived Denny as a rival. At the time of writing (1974), Clive James was an erstwhile lyricist, playing Bernie Taupin to Pete Atkin's Elton John. The Atkin/James partnership had been enshrined in four albums - Beware Of The Beautiful Stranger, Driving Through Mythical America, A King At Nightfall and The Road of Silk: more were to come. As late as 2008, Atkin and James were touring major concert halls in the UK. The best songs of the early period, or, more accurately, someone's idea of the best songs, were gathered on a 1974 retrospective, The Master of The Revels. This is surely the place to go to study the songwriter's art, and learn by comparison where Denny was going so sadly wrong.

The Master of The Revels contains not one, but two songs sneering at superior musicians. Thirty Year Man is told from the standpoint of a bitter jazz pianist, jealous of the attention the young girl singer in the band attracts. Sessionman's Blues takes a pot shot at session-musicians, which is rich, since all the accompaniment on Pete Atkin records comes from hired hands. With mind-numbing literalism, the line, 'Doublin' on baritone' is a cue for a baritone solo from Ronnie Ross, which hasn't managed to lodge in the public consciousness like his solo on Lou Reed's Walk On The Wild Side.

The preceding tune, Perfect Moments, is actually graced by a tenor solo from the great Tony Coe, revisiting the bleary smokiness of his work on Solid Air by John Martyn (recorded eight months earlier in November, 1972). If Perfect Moments has been forgotten, while Solid Air is worshipped by new generations of music lovers, that's not the fault of Tony Coe.

Girl On The Train fantasises about, erm, a girl on the train. The object of James' wandering eye happens to be reading a book of poems. Ever competitive, the lyricist sizes up the competition. 'She kept on the job of improving her single-track brain/Ploughing steadily onward through obsolete Monsieur Verlaine.' (If the poet had been William McGonagall, James might have found his true soulmate.)

Coincidentally, Bob Dylan went on to reference Verlaine on You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - 'Situations have ended sad/Relationships have all been bad/Mine have been like Verlaine's and Rimbaud's' - comparing a self-destructive love affair with the notoriously ruinous relationship of French Symbolist poets V and R. This, it strikes, is a subject worthy of a song: fixating on a pretty girl in the same train compartment is just banal.

Of course, James' determination to become a writer is laudable, and, then as now, versatility is essential for the successful hack. But the only possible excuse for The Wristwatch For A Drummer is a mix-up between the folder with the Pete Atkin lyrics and the folder with the ad copy. Here, jazz drummers are recommended the 'Omega Incabloc Oyster Accutron 72' as a tool to navigate tricky time signatures. This is characteristically smart-arse and superficial, and notable only for James' knowledge of jazz drummers, some of them obscure and/or unlikely (Baby Dodds, Max Roach). Another line from Dylan springs unbidden: 'You have read all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books…'

If Clive James was a bit less concerned with 'strophic form' (whatever that is), and not so fond of parading his learning; if he was a bit more self-aware and, crucially, if he had learned to sublimate his feelings of inadequacy into great rock 'n' roll riffs (Elizabeth Schumann and Joan Sutherland!?), he might have penned, 'I Wanna Destroy You'. Instead, that task fell to Robyn Hitchcock (cf The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight), and James found the fame he craved by ridiculing stupid game shows and mocking intellectual pygmies on his too-frequent TV and radio appearances.

But is it fair to take him to task for an article written 34 years ago? I'm sorry, but the old wound was re-opened when James, in his guise as a radio pundit, recently voiced scepticism about global warming. This was around the time I re-listened to The Sea, and realised its full significance, and it so happened that I also came across a secondhand copy of The Master of The Revels, which I purchased with £2 and an open mind.

Except that James is too guarded to deny climate change outright. His exact (weasel) words were 'nobody can meaningfully say that the science is in.' It comes as no surprise. First he denied Sandy Denny; then he denied climate change. Here is a man who has made a speciality out of denial.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Nina Simone - And Piano! (1970) RCA SF-8074

"Would you rather be remembered for My Baby Just Cares For Me or..."

"I'd rather be remembered for Nina Simone And Piano!" Nine Simone, in an interview with Mike Butler, March, 1999.

Coming from a turbulent time when Nina Simone was the figurehead of the civil rights movement, Piano! is not so much a pronouncement on the state of the nation as the state of the soul. A stately cadence introduces Seems I'm Never Tired Lovin' You, and sets the tone for the entire album: deep emotion, exposed to the point of recklessness, with nothing superfluous. Nothing intervenes between artist's intention and listener's response. Nina's exquisite piano bears the weight of cauterising feelings. Arrangements are spare and perfect.

The song, by Carolyn Franklin, Aretha's sister, describes a superhuman love, strong enough to survive the world's destruction (evoked by crashing chords, thunderous bass tremolo and dizzying glissandi). It says something for Nina's highly wrought state of mind that such an unassuming love song could be a pretext for apocalypse. Nina then personalises the holy blues with Nobody's Fault But Mine. The fundamentalist sentiment is mildly subverted by funky-butt piano but the fear is genuine: a belief in a stern God has overwhelmed the singer's hope of salvation.

Randy Newman's quietly cracked study of emotional ambivalence, I Think It's Gonna Rain Today, is more defiant than the original, with Nina settling personal scores in the imaginatively reworked middle section ("tin can at my feet...") Odd to think, but perhaps, in 1969, Jonathan King and Randy Newman seemed kindred spirits: alike in their sardonic, socially concerned songs. Whatever, Nina invests Everyone's Gone To The Moon, King's jibe at consumer society, with more profundity than the song has received before or since. Compensation, Simone's setting of a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, returns to the deadly serious question addressed by Nobody's Fault: has our experience in this world irretrievably damaged our immortal soul? The lyric, in full, reads:

Because I have loved so deeply,
because I have loved so long,
God in his great compassion,
Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,
and sung with such faltering breath,
the Master in his infinite mercy,
offers the boon of death.

And then things get really metaphysical. Who Am I, the first song on side two, tackles the theme of reincarnation. Nina's mood is solemn. "My friends only think of fun, they're such a curious lot," she declares, before worrying about her place on the animal chain with speculative incarnations such as a mountain lion, a rooster, a hen, a robin, a wren, a fly, etc. It would be absolutely bonkers if it wasn't so profound.

By now Piano! has achieved a level of sublimity from which it never departs. Another Spring is a moving portrait of old age. An old woman sits in a rocking chair, garrulous and ignored. She is talking to herself, and out comes a litany of complaint: her husband is dead, her children don't come to visit, etc. The situation is recognisable everywhere, and not specific to the song's setting (a black community in the rural backwoods of the southern states of the US).

Marvel at how the piano accompaniment marvellously conveys the shifting, mercurial moods of the old woman. Splintered shards of sound represent her confused mutterings. A simple, single line of melody conjures up the shabby streets and bare winter trees that form her entire world. "And then..." And then a miracle occurs; Nina makes it happen right in front of our eyes. The quickened pace and a burst of clapping announces the renewal of hope and life. Another Spring is a paean to rebirth and regeneration, and moves from despair to triumph in the space of a breath. The "groovy" ad-lib, a word more frequent on Nina's lips than an old countrywoman in a one-room shack, reveals that this is also Nina's story.

The unsettling message of The Human Touch - that affection and warmth have been supplanted by impersonality and alienation - is belied by the tenderness of the singer's delivery. This makes the final, whispered assent ("Have we lost the human touch? Yes, yes, yes...") all the more devastating. The mood of reverie is maintained by I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes), which begins with a shower of notes like summer rain. Again, the delicacy is deceptive. Dreamy eloquence threatens to collapse under the weight of remorse. "What a guy!" the singer sighs, to Debussy-like shimmers. "What a fool am I... to think my aching heart could kid the moon."

The song's history is interesting. At Indiana University sometime in the late twenties, the composer Hoagy Carmichael was handed a scrap of paper containing a poem, signed only 'J.B.' When the song was published in 1939, the credit line simply said "Words inspired by a poem written by J.B. (?).' Finally, the author was located in Philadelphia - a Mrs Jane Brown Thompson. The poem was inspired by the death of Jane Brown's husband. Nina conveys the emotional reality of loss, with her tremulous, unbearably fragile voice. I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes) has become a standard among torch songs, and has been recorded over eighty times, but Nina's account is the definitive one.

After Nina Simone and Hoagy Carmichael, Nina Simone and Jacques Brel. The High Priestess of Soul and Belgium's great chansonnier must have shared shelf-space in countless bohemian households. In the late sixties, when Piano! was recorded, an Off-Broadway show called Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was packing them in. Nina, who popularised Ne Me Quitte Pas in the States, must take some of the credit. Both Simone and Brel were romantic, charismatic performers, both had their demons, and both were drawn to use song as a means to make the world a better place. The extent of their shared disillusionment can be measured by The Desperate Ones.

The spiritual paralysis of The Desperate Ones is complete. In this City of Dreadful Night, death is not the final reward (as in Compensation) but the last degradation in a lifetime of futility. Oblivion is the inevitable end of all human aspiration, feeling and hope. Nina's incandescence briefly lights up this desolate place, only to be snuffed out as she takes her place alongside the innumerable souls who "disappear beneath the bridge of nevermore". A dispassionate, unnerving yet childlike bass counterpoint (one of only three overdubs on the album) tolls "boom ba-boom ba-boom". It has the last word.

It's curious that Nina's testament to compassion and resilience should conclude on a note of utter despair. Nina Simone - And Piano! reminds of what William Blake said about his Bible of Hell: "which the world shall have whether they will or no." Piano! was virtually ignored by the critics on first release, and sold hardly at all. Yet it's the definitive Nina Simone album.

Mike Butler

Sunday 10 January 2010

The Avett Brothers - Four Thieves Gone (2007) Ramseur RR2710

Hothousing in the North Carolina woods. Three slackers hothouse in the North Carolina woods and make a definitive statement about what it is to be untamed, dissipated and in love. An intoxicating blend of tenderness and raucousness and a shot in the arm for American roots music.

This article is a stub, and awaits fuller treatment when Mike gets around to it.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Shirley Collins

Shirley Collins’ half century as a heroine of English folk music is an incredible record. That wistful, pure voice is the sweetest sound to have emerged from the sixties Folk Revival, and, during her recording career (1959-1978), she anticipated most of the really worthwhile developments in homegrown roots music. The occasion was the eve of Folk Roots New Routes, a five-day festival at Southbank Centre, curated by Collins. The story was for Metro (London edition). Dateline 18.3.08

SC: Is that Mike?

MB: Yeah.

SC: Hello, how are you?

MB: Pretty good, thanks. not bad. I tell you, I’m doing this from home.

SC: Right.

MB: I’d rather do it from home than the office. But sometimes the reception is very poor when I come to do the transcription. Let’s see. Can I ask... (sorry about this, it’s a bit unprofessional really), I’ll ask you a sample question, see if you come through OK, and if you do, all’s well and fine. If not, I might have to decamp to the office, which about a ten minutes cycle ride.

SC: Alright. Let’s hope it works.

MB: well Shirley, how did you get the offer of the Folk Roots New Routes Festival. How did you get the gig?

SC: Well about eighteen months ago I gave a talk at the Purcell Rooms. It’s more than a talk, it’s a show, America Over the Water, which is based on my book, America Over the Water, which tells of the field trip I made in 1959 in the Deep South with Alan Lomax, the American folk song collector. I’ve written a show about it, with an actor and with music and with pictures. And they just liked it so much at the Purcell Room, that James [Beith?], who’s the booker, offered me this whole series, which is fantastic.

MB: Excellent. It’s a sort of Meltdown thing, is it?

SC: It is a sort of Meltdown thing, yes. Yes it is. It’s a generic title now isn’t it for...?

MB: You following on from Morrissey and Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt, I think.

SC: Fantastic. Oh, and Patti Smith, of course.

MB: Let’s not forget Patti.

SC: Yes, I’m in great company.

MB: Shirley, I’ll see if it’s playing back OK, and I’ll ring you right back.

SC: OK. Bye.


SC: Is everything OK?

MB: Yeah, you’re coming through loud and clear. So, let me see. The festival is named after the album you made in 1964 with...

SC: With Davy Graham, yes.

MB: The title seems to indicate that you were aware of the importance of what you were doing at the time. That’s an album which begs the word ‘seminal’.

SC: That’s right. And it still holds up when you hear it today.

MB: I think so.

SC:DIt still sounds fresh to me. I mean, when I made the album with davy we weren’t aware that we were making a seminal album. We just did it. Although Davy was experimental anyway, with his influences of North African music and Indian music. It just worked somehow. I mean, it shouldn’t, on the face of it. Align that with English music and American mountain music, and it shouldn’t have worked. Although, in a way, the modes are the same. And in Davy’s hands, of course, he was a genius. It did work. It caused a lot of fuss at the time. Some people liked it, and some people didn’t. But it’s held its own over the years. It just seemed an appropriate title for the Meltdown series, because it’s music that’s going back to its roots but also looking forward as well, with some of the musicians I’ve chose.

MB: Yeah, it’s really appropriate. But Davy and nnot many of the sixties generation are playing. So is the emphasis very much on the emerging generation?

SC: No it’s not. It seems to be an equal share between older singers that I like, but not big names. I mean, they’re big names in the folk world, and I’ve got people like Linda Thompson on. And well established people like John Kirkpatrick, who is just the greatest of all the people who are doing folk music in the country as far as I’m concerned. But he doesn’t get to play big venues often, you know. And I think it’s about time he appeared on a bigger stage. He’s such a wonderful musician. I don’t know if you know him.

MB: I do indeed. He’s great.

SC: He is great. He’s great in his own right. And people like Martin Wyndham-Read. Again, a beautiful singer, but doesn’t appear on big stages. I just like their music better than I like the music of a lot of other people. So with The Close of Play concert, I actually have chosen people I love, people whose music I love. And I’m thrilled to bits that we’ve got Ned Oldham coming over from Virginia. Now he’s Bonnie Prince Billy’s brother.

MB: My researches hadn’t gone so deep actually, but that’s interesting. And then there’s the connection with Alasdair Roberts who did an album with Will Oldham.

SC: Alasdair is just lovely.

MB: Yeah, in fact... Let me tell you. I was kinda bounced into this piece just yesterday - I’m officially a freelancer. Didn’t give me that much time to prepare. But they did set up an interview with Alasdair that very afternoon, so I spoke to him yesterday.

SC: Oh good.

MB: He’s a very deep chap isn’t he?

SC: He certainly is, yes. I’m quite superficial.

MB: It’s just that he made me feel a glib, shallow journalist.

SC: I know. He slightly has that effect on me as well. He sent me a book that I found almost impenetrable. But don’t put that in the article. The point about him is that he has his own way of interpreting traditional music. I wasn’t ever sure how successful it was. I liked it and I liked him, but I think with his new album, The Amber Gatherers, which is all his own songs. They’re so absolutely beautiful. What somebody in Mojo said about it (which I can just ssee it, it’s on the programme now), it says ‘The whole album seems like some beguilingly beautiful charm against modern evils’. And I think that really hit the spot. But I have a lot of time for Alasdair anyway, so I really wanted him on. And I’m glad he’s on. And he’s sharing his concert with a new singer, Ian King, who is just making his debut album. What’s lovely about something like this is that you can give somebody new, who’s just starting out, an opportunity as well. So he’s supporting Alasdair. It’s incumbent on us older singers anyway to encourage the young, and help them out when you can, because I know how tough it is to get started.

MB: It begs the question, is folk music a pursuit for the young rather than the oldsters?

SC: Well it is. When you look at it, it was always the music of both young and old because it was passed on from older singers to the younger ones, who in their turn become old, you can’t help it, and the music just gets passed down through generations. But I think what’s lovely about the young singers is they’re so talented a lot of them. They’re really fine musicians as well, and they just bring a lot of energy and a new life to the songs, and it’s really important that they are encouraged.

MB: Do you see something of the youthful Anne Briggs in Lisa Knapp or, I don’t know, the youthful Robin Williamson in Alasdair?

SC: There’s a couple of tracks on Alasdair’s album, it does sound a bit like Robin Williamson. Riddle Me This sounds a bit like an Incredible String Band song, for instance. Close your eyes and you can almost see Robin there. But he’s not copied that. I think it must be come sort of Celtic thing that comes through perhaps... It may be that he hasn’t even heard the Incredible String Band. He’s not as whimsical as they are, or they were. He’s a strange combination is Alasdair. He really feels connected to the earth and to life, and he’s down to earth as well. There’s something quite magical about him, I think.

MB: Medical?

SC: Magical, not medical (laughs).

MB: Sorry. Oh dear. It’s all coming back. He said ‘archetypes’, and I said ‘architecture?’

SC: This is going to be a fascinating article (laughs).

MB: I said to him that you represented the bucolic, English, Copper Family tradition and did he represent some dour, dark Scots alternative? He demolished the argument in one line: Love, Death & The Lady.

SC: Yes. the Copper tradition is... What never quite gets said is that there’s such a dark heart at the centre of English music. I mean it goes back centuries and it’s not all sweetness and light. There’s some very, very heavy stuff going on. The traditional ballads, to deal with all the big subjects, and in a very straightforward way. He’s quite right.

MB: He’s right, but do the Coppers represent an alternative strand? Bearing in mind that you called your talk A Most Sunshiny Day? Pleasant and Delightful, and all that.

SC: ‘A most sunshiny day’ is a quote from one of the Copper songs. And the lines are, ‘There’s many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a most sunshiny day’. And it comes right at the end of the show. It’s a plea really to the young singers to make sure they listen to the proper traditional singers, in order to carry the true tradition on. Not just a version of it but the real thing. And I do feel optimistic about it, so there’s that little optimistic line in there.

So that’s why that’s there. Although the talk gets quite heavy as well. It deals with the first World War and it deals with how impoverished people were, the working classes in the countryside, and yet they managed to... They still had this spirit to keep this beautiful music going. I think it’s a huge achievement. But they didn’t necessarily do it consciously. It was just there as part of their lives. And I think the country would be a bit better off if it was stll part of people’s lives. I think music is so superficial these days. And this music just isn’t. And when you listen to... I’m doing the gypsy talk as well, talking about the gypsy music. It’s just stunning stuff. And again it is mostly old singers, the field recordings, because that’s how it was when the music was being recorded in the field. They sing some of the ancient ballads. They sing ancient carols, and they sing songs about what’s happening to them, and what’s happening in the countryside. The English tradition and the gypsy tradition exist side by side and share as well. The songs would have been given from one to the other, and then back again as they travelled to the work.

MB: I guess an important event was when Topic released Voice of the People a few years ago. That brought all that source material back into circulation.

SC: It did. Absolutely. I can understand if a lot of people find that difficult to listen to, because it is unaccompanied, and it is largely older voices, but if you listen past that, what you get from the songs is the truth of them, and the experience of the singers. The whole of their lives are in those songs. I just think that it’s a miracle. I just love the stuff.

MB: The siixties counterpart, was it called Folk Song of Great Britain?, that Topic again issued. I’ve got some of those too. There seems to be a shift of emphasis. Whereas in the old collection the singers represented an archetype - the farm labourer, the fisherman - listening to The Voice of the People the character of the individual singers comes across, and there’s more importance placed on the biographies of the individual singers.

SC: That’s true, and I think that’s the right way to go. Whenever I sang a song that I learned from the old singers I always said where I got it from. I always mentioned their names, because I figured that a lot of these people had really hard lives, coming from the labouring classes as they did, they had had such tough lives, and they had hadd their stuff neglected and despised for so long, and they’ve been exploited all their lives, you know. The least we can do is to honour them, I think, even by just remembering their names and where the stuff comes from. It’s just so important to me.

MB: So are a lot of songs that we know as ‘trad’, if people can be botherred to look, they have names attached.

SC: That’s right. If people can be bothered to look. That’s what I try and do, to encourage people to bother to find out. And you find out such fascinating things about the people as well. It suddenly comes alive, because it’s not come from a book or, ‘I don’t know where this came from, I just sing it’. There so many stories to be found out about the people and their lives as well, which is why I’ve written the talks really. It just brings it to life. It’s not just a dry history, it’s a living history.

MB: I guess the link in your case ws the Copper family. Bob Copper, perhaps?

SC: Yes it was Bob. Because when I was 16, and I lived in Hastings. My grandad was a gardener on a big estate there, and I listened to lots of... There were folk music programmes were on the radio at that time. Country Magazine and As I Roved Out. Both of which programmes had millions of people listening to them. And they played field recordings of the British Isles on them. And I just loved this music. And it was the music I was hearing at home as well from my grandad and my mum and my aunt. And when I was 15 I decided I wanted to be a folk singer and I actually sent a letter to the BBC to tell them. Idiotic as it sounds, it’s a great stroke of luck because - and this is back in nineteen-fifty-something - the BBC were then recording folk music. They had several collectors who were going out in the countryside and were recording what was left of the music. Someone at the BBC handed my letter to Bob Copper, who was recording in Suffollk and Surrey. And when Bob came down to Hastings to record the fishermen in the old town, he had this letter in his pocket and he just came up and knocked on the door, and there he was one day. He recorded one or two songs from my mum and from granddad. And then he asked me, because I had written the letter, and I said, well I’ve got to really impress this bloke, and I sang a Scottish ballad that I’d learned, and I think I tried to sing it in a Scottish accent (laughs). Bob luckily saw past this bit of flim-flam. He understood. He always had a great sense of humour, and he had teenage children of his own. Just a couple of years before he died Bob actually gave me his worksheet for that day, a copy of it, in which it said ‘Shirley Collins. Occupation: schoolgirl’.

It was lovely because it started a lifelong friendship with Bob, a friendship I kept up over the years, right until he died. An incredibly vaulable part of my life. So what started out as one of those silly things to do - to write to the BBC - turned out to be a great blessing.

MB: I was going to ask your opinion of Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger, those guys. Did they emasculate the music when they made it suitable for singing in middle-class parlours?

SC: Well in a way they did. It is strange. I mean, I love Vaughan Williams and, of course, he collected so much stuff in Suffolk and Surrey, and he adapted a lot of the folk tunes from hymn tunes, because he was compiling the New English Hymnal at the time. And of course his greatest hymn, the Bunyan hymn, To Be a Pilgrim, he set to a tune that he had recorded in Sussex from a Mrs Verral. In the Hymn Book it says, ‘Tune: Monks Gate’, and Monks Gate was the name of the village that she lived in.

But he had such an ear for this music as well, and then he was able to re-interpret it in his bigger things, like Dives and Lazarus, and The Lark Ascending and the Greensleeves Suite. I don’t think you can fault Vaughan Williams. He did understand it. But Percy Grainger and Sharp, in their arrangements... Percy Grainger, for me, he did lighten it too much. He didn’t seem to understand that this is really quite profound music, with profoundly beautiful melodies, and he just did things like In An English Country Garden and stuff. A bit too slight for me. And people like Benjamin Britten didn’t understand traditional music. They can’t do the right thing with it. While Sharp collected this stuff, and thank god he did, otherwise so much would be gone because the generation that was wiped out in the First World War was carrying those songs, and a lot them would have died with them. So what Sharp did was absolultely invaluable. But in a way it felt like he was collecting for the middle classes. And when you hear a Sharp arrangement it is drawing-room stuff. It has very little to do with the people it came from. But his work was invaluable.

MB: Is this a state of affairs - if it doesn’t sound too grand, which I guess it does - but a state of affairs you were trying to rectify when you made Anthems in Eden with classical guys like Christopher Hogwood and David Munrow?

SC: Well I mean it’s robust music. And early music instruments are robust, and just slightly off-key sometimes. It just felt truer to me than piano or string arrangements, or flute. I can’t bear flute with folk song. It’s just the kiss of death, I think. I just love early music as well, you see. It’s another great passion of mine. And I just love the sound of those instruments. And I always thought English folksong should be accompanied by something more appropriate. Those seemed to me to be the right instruments. And, of course, my sister Dolly was absolutely so thrilled to be able to score for those instruments as well, and musicians like David Munrow. It was such a wonderful thing for her to be able to do. And for me to be able to sing with them as well.

MB: It’s such a distinctive sound: your singing, Dolly’s arrangements. Those were wonderful albums.

SC: Oh thank you.

MB: And I suppose that side of your interest is represented by Catherine Bott in the Purcell Rooms recital.

SC: Yes it is. Catherine and I have been friends for a long, long time, and at one point in the eighties at one of the early Meltdown things at the Royal Festival Hall, Jim Lloyd who used to introduce Folk on 2, he decided to give Anthems in Eden a new airing, and Dolly played and because I couldn’t sing at that point, Catherine sang the songs. And she understands them so beautifully. Although she’s a classically trained singer she can par herself down to just singing the songs as simply as they should be sung. But absolutely beautifully. I was just so thrilled when she accepted. She’s pretty famous and I just think it’s lovely for her to take this little step aside from her career and do this. But as I say, she’s done it, just as an act of friendship really. And she loves singing the songs anyway. I’m looking forward to that evening enormously.

MB: That should be good.

SC: And she’s got a little flute organ as well, and she has a wonderful accompanist. That’s all working out...

MB: They’re Dolly’s arrangements.

SC: They’re Dolly’s arrangements, yes.

MB: That should be good. I was going to ask too about your own experiences in the States. I must catch up with the book. But I have some of those Southern Folk Heritage records. It must have been absolutely extraordinary to hear the congregation belting out Jesus On The Mainlline, what was it, in Mississippi, in 1959?

SC: It was. The whole experience was remarkable and fascinating. You just get to hear so much contrasting music as well. Because while you’ve got the black congregations, as you say, belting out that stuff, and it’s really powerful. On the other hand you’ve got the white Baptist singers up in the mountains singing their hymns, which were based on the Scottish lining hymns. Their music comes across as so powerful, but so mournful and almost tormented,. And then other white religious singers, like the Sacred Harp singers. They were doing everythiing through a so-fa version and then they would launch out into the words, and that’s such a big sound as well. It gives me goosebumps still when I hear it.

MB: People are just catching up with that music now, post Oh Brother Where Art Thou, but to have been there in 1959...

SC: It’s a unique experience, and of course we discovered Mississippi Fred McDowell, the bluesman, which was... I can still see Fred. He’d been picking cotton all day, and we’d been recording some older musicians in a clearing where their tumbledown shacks were, and Fred came after work, and he just walked into the clearing carrying a guitar in his dusty old dungarees, and just sat down and started playing just unbelievably beautiful blues. We spent three days with Fred and his wife, and the people there, recording blues and spirituals from Fred, and children’s games, and music from other people that dates back to the Civil War: the fife and drum bands, the black musicians played. It was just... When I think about it, it just seems like a miracle that we found the people we did. I can talk about it endlessly (laughs).

MB: Ever since I noticed your name on those records, I wondered if, after the tape stopped rolling, did you sit around swapping songs?

SC: I did up in Virginia, and especially in the Ozark Mountains. There was a place we went through called Timbo, which was just almost as if the pioneers were still... Well, the pioneering spirit still existed there. In one house, the house of Oscar and his wife Ollie Gilbert, the men and the women were separated. The men all went off into one room, and I was sent off to join the women. When food was served the men ate first and the women ate when they were finished. It was quite extraordinary. But it worked in my favour because Ollie had an absolute fund of Ozark balld songs, and of course they’re all songs from the British Isles, that were taken over by the settlers. And I recorded Ollie for a whole afternoon and we did it. We did swap songs. And she was often amazed that I knew her songs, but in different versions, you know. We got on absolutely like a house on fire. She was just wonderful. She was in her sixties then, I guess. It was a great time. But Oscar... Oscar was a fine singer too, and a fiddle player. But he had murdered seven people in his lifetime.

MB: What!

SC: Over women and whiskey. Yes! And he was out of jail again, and had quietened down, I guess, because he’’d gone blind. Surprisingly, because he was a big and wild and aggressive man, but when he sang, he was so gentle. These gentle songs. Although he was singing a gentle song about Cole Younger and the James Boys, who were atrocious outlaws.

MB: it’s interesting that when you got back from that trip... Did it have the effect of reinforcing your English roots? There’s not a trace of Americana anywhere.

SC: You’re absolutely right. I did obviously have one or two American songs that I still loved and still wanted to sing. Because I love the Appalachian music. It is beautiful stuff. So with Davy, for instance, I sang Pretty Saro, which is from Tennessee, I think, and I sang Boll Weevil Blues, which we recorded from Vera Hall. So there was still part of me that hadn’t quite let that go, but after that, it was English all the way. And as it went further on I tried really to concentrate on the songs of Southern England. Because that’s where I’m from, and I understand them. Besides, when I was a young singer in the sixties and seventies, Scottish and irish music were just overwhelming everything else. It was a real struggle to be an English singer. But it was what I was, and it’s what I am, so I had to do it.

MB: Again, that situation is reversing now, I guess through the work of the Carthys, Martin and Eliza.

SC: Absolutely.

MB: What else? There’s so much. I’m never going to be able to use a fraction of this.

SC: I’m sorry. There’s an awful lot.

MB: There is, isn’t there? Well I suppose the obvious question, which you must be tired of people asking you, is will you ever start singing again?

SC: No, I don’t think so. I did actually lose my voice, and couldn’t sing, and still can’t really sing very well. I love the music too much to want to sing it badly. But what I can do is talk about it and... Especially with the talks. They’re about three topics that I really love. Are you going to be able to come to any of it?

MB: Well I’m based in Manchester. I’m strongly considering timing a visit around this. It sounds too good to miss.

SC: The America Over the Water talk is particularly good. I know we did a good show. There’s so much music in it, and so many wonderful pictures, and the story is just incredible really. If you did want to, you must let me know because I could certainly get you a complimentary.

MB: I might hold you to that. Thanks, Shirley. OK, we might as well call a halt, as we can go on for a couple of days and nights, and I’ve got a maximum of 450 words and Alasdair to fit in too. I’ve got my work cut out. But no, what a great thing. Well done and the best of luck with it.

SC: Thank you so much. It’s very nice, Mike. I just hope you get your piece done. I don’t envy you taking this lot down, I must say.

MB: The phrase, ‘embarrassment of riches’ comes to mind somehow.

SC: Anyway if it brings a few more people to the show, that will be fantastic. I really do think this is going to be a lovely week, and I think it’s going to be a bit of an eye-opener, or an ear-opener.

MB: That’s right. Again in that great folk tradition, you’re cutting across the generations.

SC: Not only that, but also to bring some people in who don’t get enough of a hearing. I know Eliza’s wonderful, but she’s so ubiquitous at the moment. You could hear her seven nights a week it seems to me, and other people are as good. I know Close of Play is going to be the most brilliant evening.

MB: You do well... Without wishing to appear condescending, but you do well to keep up because there’s such a tidal wave of emerging talent, isn’t there?

SC: (laughs) That’s true. I’m not sure I quite keep up, but I do my best. I love this music. It’s the thng that runs my life, so...

MB: And it’s in a fairly healthy condition right now.

SC: It is. It’s great, yes.

MB: Probably the best since your generation in the sixties.

SC: I think so. There’s just lots of vitality at the moment. That’s wonderful.

MB: Right, Shirley.

SC: Thank you so much, Mick. Erm, Mike. I really do appreciate it.

MB: I enjoyed our talk Shirley...

Esbjorn Svensson

The news of Esbjorn Svensson’s death in a diving accident on Saturday, June 14, 2008, was sad beyond words. Svensson’s trio, e.s.t., reached beyond the jazz audience although his luminous, jewel-like compositions fulfill the jazz criteria and always pack surprise. The occasion was the 2007 UK tour to promote the then current album, Tuesday Wonderland. A version of the interview was filed to Metro newspaper. Dateline, 13.3.07.

MB: Hello, Esbjorn, it’s Mike. How’s it going? You’re in Spain at the moment...

ES: We’ve just been in Spain, and we just came home a few days ago.

MB: Ohhh.

ES: It was great. Beautiful weather.

MB: OK. This is Sweden is it?

ES: This is Stockholm, yes.

MB: I was going to ask you about the new album. You seem to have reached a plateau of perfection with Tuesday Wonderland. But I’ve read some critics say that a formula is beginning to creep in. Is this fair?

ES: I guess they’re right. Of course we’ve recorded ten albums and there will be some recognisable patterns under the surface. That also has to do with our personalities. That’s also what makes our music personal - that you actually can hear more or less immediately that it’s e.s.t. Of course it has to do with the way we’re playing and the way we produce our albums and the way I compose the music. I don’t think it’s bad just because it’s recognisable. it’s just something that always comes with...

MB: Familiarity?

ES: Yeah absolutely, and when you do lots of things. We’ve recorded ten albums. There is a typical e.s.t. sound and a typical e.s.t. approach to the music that you recognise.

MB: So it’s really unfair to expect you to reinvent yourselves? Especially as you’ve got a large audience for the e.s.t. sound.

ES: I don’t like the definition of reinventing yourself. Does it mean that you have to play totally different? In different styles? The thing is, we’ve found something in ourselves that we’re just bringing out. We’re trying to play ourselves. That’s what we’re doing, and of course it’s recognisable. You can’t really look for new things all the time. I don’t think that’s interesting. What you should look for is good music, harmony, a good way of... I mean, harmony inside yourselves. You’re able to relax and just let the music out. That it’s natural to not struggle maybe. Maybe for some people that’s not interesting. That’s fine. For us, we’ve reached the point where we’re actually playing ourselves in a much larger way than we ever did before.

MB: Part of the e.s.t. appeal is that fantastic empathy you’ve got. Is it necessary to play together for a long, long time to achieve that?

ES: I don’t know. I think in e.s.t. it has been necessary to know each other for being able to play the way we do. It might very well happen that you meet someone and just play one show and everything happens in that moment while playing for the first time. it depends so much. The hard thing is to able to keep the inspiration and improvisation, to be able to play exciting music for us, still after fourteen years. That is something that I should say I’m surprised by. It’s fascinating that it still works.

MB: Now that you’ve hit your stride is there any reason why you should stop?

ES: I don’t know. There might be reasons for coming to a stop, and then I guess we have to follow. But so far, as I said, we’re not trying to do that much. We’re trying to relax, trying to play what feels natural to us. We’re just trying to follow the music. And while it’s working,. that’s fine. There might be several reasons to go different ways in the future. If those possibilities appear we will definitely follow them. If they really come from the music and not from people criticising us, telling us to do other things. That’s not really the meaning for us. We always did what we felt was right and what feels natural for us. I think that’s what we should try and continue to do.

MB: You’ve talked about recognisable patterns and part of your signature sound is the steady build of tension and then the final release. And then the juxtaposition of unexpected elements, like in Fading Maid Preludium when you start with a pretty Bach-like counterpoint harmony and then shove in a bombastic riff. It makes me jump everytime. Do you take delight in confounding your listeners’ expectations? Do you set traps to keep listeners on their toes?

ES: We always mainly think about ourselves and how we want things to be. We just like, taking that example, Fading Maid, we just like the idea of having me play what I did and then having the band coming in, like it was a total surprise even for me. I told them not to show any sign to me when they were coming in, just to start playing wherever they want to. So even I got surprised. Of course then, when we recorded it and when we were listening to it, we realised, yeah, this is great. We liked it. Then we started to think about how would people react to this, because it’s such a big contrast from the piano to when the bass and drums appear. We just found it interesting. We wanted to play it for the people and see. If they like it, they like it. If not, not.

MB: Have you road-tested the songs on Tuesday Wonderland?

ES: Have we done what?

MB: Have you played them in front of a live audience a lot, or is that the point of this tour?

ES: We’ve played them quite a lot now. I mean, not before the recording but after the recording we have been touring a couple of countries so the music has been played quite a lot. And some of the songs are taking new, or little bit different directions, compared to the recording, but it’s still very recognisable, I think, from the album.

MB: Does that happen quite a lot? Do things happen to a composition in perfornance?

ES: When you record an album, it’s like when a child is born. A little bit like that. And then when the child is growing and changing; maybe not changing, the personality is probably there all the time, but is growing up and at least for people around, the child is maybe changing, being older. It’s a little bit the same with music. When the music was recorded it’s like it was born. Then it continues living. It’s not a static thing. The music is constantly changing, and we allow the tunes to change if they want to change. Which is something we figure while playing them, live, for an audience.

MB: Are there certain key tunes which you’ll always play, no matter how old they are?

ES: There’s a couple of tunes, yes, that have stayed with us for many, many years. We play The Rube Thing, which is a very old tune which I dedicated to my son when he was one year old and he is now thirteen, so that tune has been with us for twelve years. There is actually one older tune that we sometimes play, Hands Off, from our very, very first album. There are some tracks we never take away from the repertoire. But we try mainly to play tunes from Tuesday Wonderland and then we mix it up with things, older stuff that we choose.

MB: Is that an argument for a live album, so we can hear how a tune has changed and developed?

ES: I think so. I’ve always wanted to make a live album but there are many people who should say their opinions. There are many of us in the band, and our manager and so on. I very much would like to release a live album. We’ll see about it. [In fact, the next release was the 2 CD set, Live in Hamburg.] Also we’ve made a DVD. I don’t know if you’ve seen it?

MB: No, I haven’t.

ES: Maybe that’s the way we want to present the live material, also with visuals... Because the live DVD was recorded, I think, 2000, and shows us in a very good way. Maybe there will be another DVD.

MB: It fulfills the same job. It’s a document.

ES: Absolutely. Plus it’s a very good live documentary and you get the visuals as well.

MB: That’s another e.s.t. trademark, isn’t it? The visuals?

ES: Absolutely. The music is the foundation but I think when you go to see a live performance it’s actually not only about listening, it’s about what you see, it’s about what you feel, it’s the whole room. It’s so many things. You have to take as much as you can into consideration when you’re meeting an audience to make a good performance.

MB: That’s the total antithesis of the usual jazz attitude, which says it’s all in the music and anything else is secondary. Are you a real jazz group or perhaps a prog-rock group in disguise?

ES: Of course we love jazz, but we’ve grown up with rock ‘n’ roll as well. We’re also interested in classical music and all different kinds of music. I think you’re right. We’re definitely not a puristic jazz band. We’re as much an alternative rock band. If you see it from that point of view, I think we’re quite dynamic for a rock band [laughs].

MB: That’s right. But the temperament. The way emotion simmers and then spills over into euphoria. That’s more common in rock ‘n’ roll than jazz. Is that why you’re the only so-called jazz group in Europe to regularly feature in the pop charts?

ES: Maybe. For the last albums we’ve been selling lots of CDs for a jazz band. If you do that you appear on the charts.

MB: Well done. What’s the function of the hidden track on e.s.t. albums?

ES: I think the hidden track is a little bit like... You can see it in many ways. But the whole album... we want to present the whole thing, not only different tunes. If you listen to our albums from the very beginning to the end, it’s the whole thing. It’s more like a book with different chapters. But then it’s always interesting... The album is what people expect to hear but then to give them a little break and then to say something completely different. To add something: oh,what are they going to say now? It’s like a postludium. Like you’re telling a whole book and there is a story and everything and then right after you’re saying, but maybe all this is wrong.

MB: e.s.t. in a parallel universe.

ES: Yeah, with e.s.t. we do a lot of different stuff and sometimes it’s hard to fit everything in on an album. We really want to make our album as a whole thing, and by using this hidden track we can sometimes put in things that we really couldn’t really fit into the album schedule. Therefore it works that way as well. You can also compare it to a live performance. We’re playing a whole show, and that’s it, people are applauding, and then we give a little encore. it’s also a way of finding new ways of using the CD. Because you have to find ways of making a piece of art out of the CD. It’s just a piece of plastic otherwise. This is a way of trying to find interesting ways of using the CD as a platform for art.

MB: And you have a great talent for whimsical titles.

ES: That’s Magnus. I am the composer of the music, and then we arrange it and play it together, and then Magnus is the title maker. We always discuss his ideas and say what we think about them, but he is the one. He’s a little poet in that sense.

MB: Well Esbjorn, I think that will me nicely.

ES: Wonderful.

Peter Bocking

PeterUK to the world

Peter Bocking, who died two days before his 67th birthday on October 31, 2009, was a hidden jazz guitarist, revered equally among his peers on the North West beat group scene, and the US blogosphere. Neither group knew of the existence of the other.

Recorded evidence of his playing is scarce: Yes I Do, a 1963 Decca single by Peter Maclaine and The Clan (the song, which Bocking co-wrote, was also covered by Freddie and The Dreamers); a white label acetate of Sunshine Superman bw Eleanor Rigby, made by an organ trio of Pete ‘Quatermass’ Robinson, Bocking, and drummer Geoff Mullin in 1968; sideman on Goodbye Brains, a 1972 offering from Coley, a vehicle for saxophonist Barry Cole. Since his death, some recent private recordings made with singer Kate Fox have surfaced on the web. And that’s it. On the face of it, not a lot for a lifetime in music.

Yet Bocking, born in Withington in 1942, was an essential part of the sixties Manchester music scene: an instinctive jazz guitarist surrounded, by an accident of time and placet, by Merseybeat. The simplicities of beat music were not enough for Bocking. ‘Surely there were more than three chords? I’d counted the frets on a guitar. They were definitely twelve. They must be there for a reason, but what?’ he mused. The record that set him on his path was Bill Haley’s Goofin’ Around, a showcase for guitarist Franny Beecher.

Another formative influence was James Burton, the tasteful picker on Everly Brothers records. Don and Phil were the avowed role models of the Two Teens - otherwise Graham Nash and Allan Clarke. The Two Teens shortly joined forces with Manchester’s first rock ‘n’ roll combo, Johnny Peters and The Jets (including Peter Bocking), to become The Fourtones. ‘Back then, everyone was called Johnny,’ recalled Bocking wistfully.

Before The Fourtones could evolve into The Hollies, however, the guitarist left to form the Pete Bocking Six, proposing a pioneering fusion of jazz soloing and rock riffing. The adjective ‘powerful’ crops up in eyewitness accounts of live performances. With a fine disregard for the literal, the line-up of the Six was very elastic, and might include multiple saxophonists and bassists. When they supported the Beatles at the Oasis in December, 1962, Paul McCartney borrowed Butch Mepham’s Fender bass guitar and scratched the varnish with the oversized buckle of his stylish belt.

In 1963 Bocking was hospitalised for six months with ankylosing-spondylitis and emerged to a changed world. The talent scouts who had combed the North West for the next Beatles had packed up and gone home. Bocking drifted into session-work, palais bands (“some of the stories would make your toes curl...’) and touring bands, visiting Las Vegas with Lonnie Donegan in 1972. By the mid-eighties, live work had been supplanted by teaching: (uture jazz star Mike Outram was a pupil.

He was semi-retired when I first saw him, playing blues with Victor Brox (legendary bluesman and character) and, shortly afterwards, pub-rock with Charlie Darlington. The latter was the landlord of The Star and Garter, a lugubrious Victorian pile next to Piccadilly Station. It was a loose arrangement. Charlie gave Peter a pup from his dog’s litter - the much loved Jasper, a Belgian Groendal - and Peter would sit in with Charlie’s band. But I still hadn’t heard Bocking play jazz. It was a revelation when I did.

He was a master with an orchestral conception: laying down a bass line, and filling in with vamps or walking chords whilst playing an independent melody, often with quite startling interval leaps. The clean attack of the line owed to jazz masters Tal Farlow and Barney Kessel; the colours and inflections recalled the impressionism of Debussy.

Yet his wider fame rests on non-musical talents. His death was greeted with an outpouring of grief from US blog sites, where PeterUK’s contributions had become legend. For example, here is PeterUK enlivening the staid is-Barack-a-black-Lincoln debate: ‘There is some European socialist in him, so perhaps he is a Lincoln Continental.’ PeterUK’s comments have been collected on several sites. In a sense, Bocking surpassed the achievement of his great Merseybeat peers, the Beatles: he conquered America without ever leaving his armchair.

Peter Bocking married and divorced twice - to ‘unknown’ (he never talked about his first marriage), and to Maria, in the mid-nineties. He was predeceased by his mother, Harriet, in 2003, and leaves no family.

Incidentally, please find selections from Peter's old correspondence scattered in 'comments' boxes around the site. This might seem a bit spooky, but I believe I'm justified on grounds of public interest.

See also
Switchgrunt and Cowardy Cowardy Custard
Dyverse Values: Spirogyra - St Radigunds
New Records
Obsessions With... Victor Brox
Brox: A Mystical Experience

The Dyverse Idea: The Seven Ages of Dyverse

This blog celebrates music of all kinds, and finds the right stuff everywhere. Hence, Dyverse Music. But is it possible to like so much different music, and appreciate them all equally, like PG Wodehouse's male codfish, 'which suddenly finding itself a parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, resolves to love them all'?[1] Yes, because all music is a manifestation of the human spirit, and the emotions music expresses - joy, love, infatuation, angst, serenity - are universal.

Although it might truly be said that different emotions dominate at different times of life, just as music means different things at different times in life. Consider Seven Ages of Dyverse, to correlate with the seven ages of man.

Rock 'n' roll, or rock, is the first age, the first music to speak directly to adolescent hopes and fears and longings. Rock uses excess and melodrama to protect a fragile sense of identity, and works best when it rages with angst and petulance. My teen years coincided with that cheerfully shabby and optimistic decade, the seventies, and neatly straddled prog-rock and punk. The seventies were absolutely the best decade for music after the sixties.

The Second Age is folk. That is, roots music from one's native soil, which also dovetails with rock if, like me, you were touched by the folk-rock movement. The Third Age, with strong connections to the Second Age, is USA music. This covers blues - no great leap from rock, thanks to Robert Johnson - and soul and country music, which are inextricably linked culturally and emotionally, and are both similarly earthy and direct. Both have a central place for the broken heart.

The Fourth Age is jazz. The Fourth Ager is curious about the formal aspects, the nuts and bolts of music, and naturally turns to jazz, the chosen medium of the finest composers and performers of the last and present centuries. Which isn't to say that jazz isn't also rich in emotion and expression.

Africa and world music (incorporating reggae) constitute the Fifth Age. The love of USA soul encourages a move to trace the sound of blackness to source. The music of the Americas corresponds to the Sixth Age. NB AMERICA AND USA ARE NOT SYNONYMOUS TERMS! There is as much richness in the music of North (i.e. Mexico), Central and South America as there is in the music of USA. Consider the contrasting charms of cumbia from Colombia, or tango from Argentina, or son from Cuba, or huapango from Mexico, or bossa nova from Brazil!

The Seventh Age is Classical. It would be too conventional and un-Dyverse to consider Classical as the pinnacle of human achievement in musical terms. No, Classical crept up stealthily, partly as a result of my radio listening habits: I discovered that no piece of Classical music is so bad that listening to The Archers is preferable. The string quartets of Beethoven hold more appeal than his symphonies, just as chamber jazz is more palatable than big band jazz (intimacy is definitely a Dyverse quality). The writer was still holding out against opera into his fifth decade, but then Puccini came along, and the last barrier came tumbling down.

In short, Dyverse Music celebrates the inexhaustibility of good music. The blog is home to The Dyverse Record Collection, a companion to great albums, with particular attention to forgotten and overlooked classics omitted from every other survey. TDRC stands in opposition to those canonical lists headed with predictability by Sgt Pepper, What's Going On and Pet Sounds (great albums that they are). Other strands include Dyverse Lists, alternative music lists; 'I Was There', which gathers eyewitness accounts of significant concerts from the past, and 'I Am Here', covering reviews of present-day gigs. There are interviews from the archives (from the writer's time as a full-time music journalist), and essays (Dyverse Dyatribes), and Dyverse Values, an authoritative guide to vinyl prices, gleaned by first-hand research into what the same albums can fetch on eBay. And every month a selected artist is singled out for rigorous scrutiny in Obsessions With… The Hero Worship section is devoted to friends, comrades and inspirations (sometimes all three at once) Abner Burnett, Peter Bocking and Bill Leader. Welcome to Dyverse Music. May it bring you joy.

[1] PG Wodehouse, The Custody of the Pumpkin, Blandings Castle and Elsewhere.

The stories, sounds and ideas of Dyverse Music are grouped as:

Bridget St John - Ask Me No Questions (1969) Dandelion S 63750

Sensuality and loveliness from an English arcadia.

This article is a stub, and awaits fuller treatment when Mike gets around to it.

Judy Henske & Jerry Yester - Farewell Aldebaran (1969) Straight STS 1052

A psychedelic classic from an ex-supperclub singer and former Lovin' Spoonful sideman. It culminates in the destruction of a universe.

This article is a stub, and awaits fuller treatment when Mike gets around to it.

Betty Harris - Soul Perfection (1969) Action ACLP 6007

"Did you dig deep into your feminine side to write all those great songs for Betty Harris, like Mean Man and Trouble With My Lover?" 

"She had enough feminine side. I didn't have to look for any other one" - Allen Toussaint, in an interview with Mike Butler, May 2007. 

Every generation must have a Betty Harris collection. In 1980, Charly issued In The Saddle, and made rather a poor fist of it: the LP contains All I Want Is You by Zilla Mayes, rather than All I Want Is You by Betty Harris! Soul Perfection Plus, a CD issued on Westside in 1998 - with all the Jubilee and Sansu 45s, plus outtakes and studio chat - offers the most complete overview yet of the great soul singer. However, vinyl addicts (like me), will be sentimentally attached to the original Soul Perfection, a 1969 LP on Action, which gathers all the Sansu 45s bar two duets with Lee Dorsey. Here, the clicks and scratches (because every copy, especially mine, is much-loved and well-hammered) serve only to enhance the New Orleans grooves cooked up by the Meters. 

I would guess that the model is Tamla Motown. When producer/composer Allen Toussaint and his business partner Marshall Seahorn started their own label, Sansu, and signed Harris as their first artiste, they were clearly aspiring to emulate the success of Hitsville USA. So tambourine appears prominently in the foreground of 12 Red Roses, and I'm Evil Tonight has a clipped offbeat and sweetener strings (™ Tamla Motown). But Toussaint, a true citizen of the Crescent City, was steeped in New Orleans' musical heritage. 

The most arresting part of Toussaint's work as a musician is his melding of New Orleans jazz and New Orleans R'n'B, as embodied in the horn arrangements. Lonely Hearts and I'm Gonna Git Ya transpose the rhythm of New Orleans funeral parades to deep soul ballads, and, like New Orleans funeral parades, treat pain and jubilation as the same damned thing. There's clarity and buoyancy about the horns, which knit together with Toussaint's Professor Longhair piano. The great Ziggy Modeliste has a way of swinging that sounds like a development of the marching bands and funeral parades. Hear how he underscores Betty on the climactic passages of Nearer To You. At such moments - the monumental There's A Break In The Road from Plus is another example - all the other instruments fade away, leaving only Betty and Ziggy to rage together.  

And Betty is remarkable! So appealingly multi-faced: simmering with restrained passion on Nearer To You or emoting ferociously on I Don't Wanna Hear It. All woman on Trouble With My Lover; deploying womanly powers of clairvoyance on Bad Luck and 12 Red Roses; much tougher than the song Mean Man allows (a stomping little number with Betty stomping all over her faithless man); suddenly vulnerable and heartbreaking on Nearer To You, as flirtatious as only free spirits can be on I'm Evil Tonight. 

Every soul singer must have a touch of Betty about her. If Beverley Knight has a problem, it's because she's more of a Beverley than a Betty. 

Robin Williamson 2005 Interview

Back in the sixties, the Incredible String Band jumbled up Celtic folk and orientalism, and raised the consciousness of a generation with records like The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. It makes sense that ISB’s Robin Williamson should also record for ECM, home of Jan Garbarek and purveyors of jazz-friendly mysticism. His far-flung cultural references and spiritual undertow fits the ECM ethos nicely. At the time of the interview, Williamson had released his second ECM album, Skirting the River Road, which contained his settings of William Blake and Walt Whitman. The occasion was a concert tour as a duo with Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn. A shortened version of the interview appeared in Metro (Newcastle edition). Dateline, 20 January, 2005.

MB: Has the public perception of you changed since you became an ECM recording artist?

RW: That's a very philosophical question. I don't think so. I think the things that we're doing with ECM are a direct extension of all the things I've wanted to do. I'm very, very pleased with the way they've turned out. A lot of the creative work I'm doing at the moment has been in collaboration with my wife Bina, so that's all going on on the sidelines. And then I'm continuing to do solo work, and I'm also getting back into painting quite a lot, so there's lots going on.

MB: Do you think the Incredible String Band paved the way for the ECM sensibility, with their esoteric cultural references and mystic inclinations?

RW: I don't believe so. I mean the Incredible String Band is now so long ago for me. It's like, forty years ago. Of all the members of that band, I'm the only one who continued working the whole time. I lived in America for twenty years. I toured all up and down the length and breadth of America and Canada, Europe and Britain, the whole time, doing things in the seventies with the Merry Band and in the eighties with the storytelling revival, and continuing to write. I worked quite a lot with theatre in Wales, and doing various film scores, including stuff with George Lucas: a variety of things anyway, in the twenty years between the sixties and the eighties. Between the eighties and the nineties, I began working on doing Pig's Whisker Records - a massive number of records - and that financed the Incredible String Band revival, which Bina and I put together. So anything that's happening now is happening on the tail-end of quite a lot of ongoing work.

MB: Do you resent that you're mostly known or remembered for those few golden years in the Incredible String Band?

RW: I don't think I am mostly remembered for that at all. I've been working the whole time.

MB: I don't want to harp on too much about the Incredible String Band, but the fascinating thing is the range of references on albums like 5000 Spirits and Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. Where did the inspiration come from?

RW: Again, we're harping back forty years before the world music and roots music revival occurred. People were listening to African and Indian music for the first time in the west, and I took the liberty to think, well we can have a go at trying to sound like this. It was a question of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. The idea was to have a go at doing an innocent and naïve version of world music, which was a little bit ahead of its time. Jack Kerouac was really the main influence for the writing styles.

MB: That struck me with force with the ECM album, Skirting the River Road. To hear 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry' is to realise that the beats sprang direct from Walt Whitman.

RW: Absolutely. The beats sprang from Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman had a lot to do with Blake and several other people and Henry Vaughan, the other great person we draw on on that record. The sense of visionary inspired voice is a very ancient Celtic idea, going back to bards and druids and so on. The notion was you could draw on the inspiration of the universe and come up with something that was sort of prophetic, not necessarily about the future, but to reveal something different about the present. That sort of vision was what Whitman drew on, and what later on, the beats drew on, and what the hippies drew on. It's what I drew on in hippy times.

MB: Does the artist or musician have any special purchase on deep spiritual truths?

RW: I think nowadays, in the absence of a coherent, living tradition of what you might call shamanic or truly therapeutic spiritual activity that's got a cultural root of any depth, then art has to supply things that would normally have been supplied from a variety of sources. People have come up recently with a definition of art that says - if it's disturbing it's art. There was an earlier definition of art that went - if it's healing or inspiring, it's art. I definitely incline, in my own work and with my work with Bina, towards the healing side of the vision in art.

MB: Can you tell me something about your rediscovery of the bardic tradition?

RW: I don't think it ever went away. That's what I'm saying. It continued through people like Blake, Whitman and the beats, up to the present day. In Wales, of course, they've got something called the Eisteddfod, which is full of official bards. Elsewhere it's a word that, for lack of a better one, expresses someone who draws on the inspirational power of the universe. There is something in life itself that reveals new and meaningful truths.

MB: Was it a relief to find an established tradition with a readymade mysticism instead of borrowing bits from all other cosmologies, as with the Incredible String Band?

RW: The quest was always the quest for one's own voice, and so rather than finding a readymade mythology, it was finding the basic mythology that was central to one's own character. All of these things are just painting faces on the unpaintable, and saying things about the unsayable, you know. But the great nothingness from which things emerge into reality remains a creative root for every voice, including every person's deepest self.

MB: Are you still adding to your knowledge and learning?

RW: I don't see any reason why that should ever end. I don't feel that I'm any sort of authority or anything, in fact rather the reverse. I feel very much that I'm still continually seeking and continually finding out new things. For instance, you'd think that with 34 strings on the harp, you'd run out of combinations, but in actual fact it seems to be absolutely endless.

MB: You seem to lead an active life.

RW: Yes, I'm working quite vigorously. Bina and I are collaborating on a bunch of new projects. Mostly seasonal. We're doing things that have to do with the four seasons and the passage of life and time. So we're working around the edges of a lot of things there - country village halls, libraries, art galleries, churches.

MB: Tell me about the collaboration with John Renbourn.

RW: John and I go back a long way. We're both roughly the same sort of vintage. It's very pleasant to be able to get together with John. He is, as you know, a slightly jazz, slightly baroque guitar genius, and to that I'm adding a kind of ragtime harp. I play bits and pieces of other things - mandolin, viola, whistle and what not. We do quite a lot of things together. Indeed, we got nominated for a Grammy a few years ago for a record called Wheel of Fortune. Dylan got it though. Bastard!

MB: So the emphasis is very much on the now. It's not a retrospective show?

RW: Oh no. A number of the songs are traditional but they're not harking back to Pentangle or the String Band. John's name for it was the Impenetrable String Tangle.

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...