Wednesday 24 November 2010

Ten Great Songs From The Shadows

That is, songs which are obviously the product of genius, albeit unknown genius. It may be that the the name on the credit (I’m talking about cover versions here) is unknown, and the song is manifestly immortal. This may occur because a) the writer was (or is) too well-balanced to pursue a conventional career in music, or b) he happened to be Bob Dylan’s best mate, and the magic has retrospectively rubbed off (otherwise known as the Bob Neuwirth Syndrome). There are an awful lot of Great Songs From The Shadows out there, so here are ten to be getting on with. 

1. Your Sweet  & Shiny Eyes by Nan O’Byrne
An irrepressible song about youth, romance, Mexico, escape, and the escalating pleasures of life. It comes from Home Plate (1975) by Bonnie Raitt, and features a fresh-faced Tom Waits among the chorus. Nan O’Byrne’s name sounds as earthy as the peat and potato mentioned in the lyric, and I would never have guessed (as a quick Google reveals) that the same hand is responsible for ‘You Might Need Somebody’, the Randy Crawford hit.     

2. She Sang Hymns Out of Tune by Jesse Lee Kincaid 
Wistful and absurd, ‘Hymns’ follows the logic of a nursery rhyme, replete with a touch of brain-fried psychedelia. Nilsson sang it on Pandemonium Puppet Show (1967) but the definitive treatment is on Wheatstraw Suite by The Dillards (1968), complete with church organ and high-rent orchestral backing. Jesse Lee Kincaid was a member of The Rising Sons with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal (above, Kincaid with Taj Mahal). The sole Rising Sons album was issued in 1992, some 27 years after it was recorded.
More info:

3. Icarus by Anne Lister 
A paean of praise to glamorous extremism from a dull bystander. The Icarus of the Greek myth is a charismatic who pushes at the boundaries, and is hero-worshipped from afar. The doomed skydiver here is emblematic of all the decadents, addicts burn-outs and madmen who experience life to the full so that we don’t have to. Found on Martin Simpson’s Sad Or High Kicking! (1985) and guaranteed to cause goosebumps. Writer Anne Lister has another song on the album, ‘Moth’, which is a less effective variation on the same theme. More info: (which reveals a more extensive discography than I suspected). 

4. Jazzman by Ed Holstein 
Also celebrating the self-destructive, wilful side of human nature and also on Martin Simpson’s Sad Or High Kicking! (clearly an existential kick), the definitive version of ‘Jazzman’ comes from Steve Goodman on his eponymous debut (1971). It’s distinguished by the contrast between Goodman’s voice - normally warm, but here simmering with controlled frenzy - and the turbulence of the accompaniment (Nashville’s finest, crossing over to the dark side). Bonnie Kolok got to it first on After All This Time (1971), and the song was also recorded by Pure Prairie League and Tom Rush. Ed Holstein, a singer-songwriter from the South Side of Chicago comes from that generation who were fired by Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. He co-owned a club, Someone Else’s Troubles, with his folksinger brother Fred and Steve Goodman (Ed is pictured, far right, on the cover of the Goodman album of the same name), and subsequently opened Holstein’s, which closed for business in 1988. Ed survives Goodman (d. 1984) and Fred (d. 2004).
Picture by Richard Wasserman -

5. Goodbye Goodbye by Nigel Beresford 
An enigmatic, haunting song - from Thank You For… by Bridget St John (on Dandelion Records, 1972), in which something momentous - like the end of a relationship, or the end of the world (the running refrain is “It’s the end of time”) - is held at bay by dreamy composure. The song summons everyday pleasure and everyday melancholia and is inexplicably touching - “Broken down doorway and into the street / Saving my breath for the people I’ll meet…” - in its trust that love will survive the end of time. Who is Nigel Beresford? No idea. A friend of Bridget St John, who delivered ‘Goodbye Goodbye’ bespoke, would be my guess. The line, “Picture the lady who daily flew high” echoes ‘Fly High’, a song from the same album. Beresford also contributed a song to Jumblequeen (‘Last Goodnight’), but that album lacks the charm of Thank You For…, and indeed Ask Me No Questions and Songs For The Gentle Man

6. Nelson’s Farewell by Joe Dolan 
A gleeful account of the blow struck against the English Empire when Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin was blown up by IRA sympathisers. The song appears on The Dubliners’ Finnegan Wakes, a live album recorded in April, 1966. The bombing only took place in March, so songs, like journalism, are history’s first draft. It’s author, ‘Galway’ Joe Dolan, is the ultimate songwriter from the shadows. Possessed of a rich baritone voice, oodles of charisma and songwriting genius, he quit Sweeney’s Men (the group he formed with Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine) at the first sign of success, and buried himself away in Connemara, where he pursued a living as a painter. Songs still came at a prolific rate, however, and he would preserve them by singing into a humble cassette recorder in his kitchen. The tapes were later transferred to compact disc, and sold by mail order to a tiny fan-base. Dolan’s version of ‘Nelson’s Farewell’ is on Lost Miles and Broken Strings 3. It’s hard listening - the lo-fi sound matches the austerity of Dolan’s vision - but the songs are wonderful. Dolan, plainly a man wrestling with his own demons, identifies with doomed figures from history. There are songs here about Ernest Shackleton, who died trying to reach the South Pole in 1911 (with a companion piece, Amundsen, about the man who succeeded), hunger striker Bobby Sands and Jack Kerouac. Joe Dolan died on January 7, 2008. 
More info: 
And see also 

7. They Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore by Pete Betts
The song casts a rosy glow over a deprived past to relieve an equally deprived present. ‘They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore’ celebrates the communal sing-song of old with a communal sing-song of the present. It’s nostalgic twice over: for the time it commemorated (pre-rock and roll), and for the time it was written, which are now equally remote. The song graced Vin Garbutt’s 1978 album Tossin' A Wobbler. Naturally, the album didn’t disturb the charts, nor was the author, Pete Betts, troubled by a nomination at the Ivor Novello Awards. Nevertheless, ‘They Don’t Write ‘Em’ is a folk club standard, and can be relied upon to get any assembly singing along with gusto. Pete Betts? This from “...Pete Betts, a long-time friend of Vin Garbutt’s from the Middlesbrough area. I first saw him at one of Vin’s gigs at Louth Folk Club in 1972. He had driven Vin to the gig but also did a floorspot himself. He was superb and was later booked in his own right” - Captain Swing.  (Above, Pete Betts, left, with Vin Garbutt.) 

8. Aqaba by Bill Caddick 
June Tabor is a great cultivator of songwriters (Dave Goulder, Maggie Holland, Les Barker) but the most consistent and enduring has been Bill Caddick. Indeed, no June Tabor album would be complete without a work of heartbreaking genius by Bill Caddick as its centrepiece (‘Unicorns’ for A Cut Above, ‘She Moves Among Men’ for Abyssinians, ‘The Writing of Tipperary’ for A Quiet Eye). ‘Aqaba’, in which England and Arabia, and victory and defeat, are dissolved in the last moments of the life of T.E. Lawrence, gave its name to a 1989 album by Tabor. It is Caddick and Tabor’s masterpiece. Indeed, the notes of the Always box-set reveal that the song is close to being a co-write.   

9. A Woman’s Quiet Night by Marty Kuwahara 
From Calavera (1998) by Abner Burnett. Abner Burnett and Marty Kuwahara were friends on the fringes of the Texas folk scene. Kuwahara’s repertoire included ‘Child’s Song’ by Murray MacLuachlan and ‘A Woman’s Quiet Night’, which he claims to have stolen, but would never reveal the exact source. The song clearly derives from ‘Heritage’ by Benny Gallagher and Graham Lyle, which Kuwahara may have found on McGuiness Flint (1970), or as the B-side to the Mary Hopkin single, ‘Think About Your Children’ (1970). It’s a simple song, which Kuwahara simplified even further by dropping all the verses and retaining only a modified version of the chorus - “If I could only give you tomorrow / And put it in your eyes / I’d be satisfied.” The context is the same - a message of reassurance to a lover - but Kuwahara stretches the words and the melody into something infinitely more subtle. Marty Kuwahara? A suicide, Abner thinks, although the circumstances are mysterious. This gem of a song, transformed in the act of theft, is his legacy. 

10. Annabelle Lee by Bob Neuwirth  
Self-loathing and lost love in the cantinas and alleys of Mexico (we’re back where we started). It comes from the album T-Bone Burnett by, ahem, T-Bone Burnett (1986). The author’s own version can be found on Back To The Front (1988). ‘Annabelle Lee’ wouldn’t disgrace Desire by Neuwirth’s old buddy Bob Dylan. 

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