Tuesday 18 June 2013

In Search of a Song

picture by William Ellis 

Where do the songs come from? It's the eternal question, the one most asked of someone from the circle of performers at Oddfellows at the close of a song. Who wrote 'If I Had a Boat?' (I knew that one: Lyle Lovett.) Who wrote 'Killing the Blues'? (I'd forgotten that: Roly Salley.)

Ian Reynolds, impressed by the heart-breaking emigrant song 'Sailing Off to the Yankee Land', asked Donal Maguire if it was one of his own. "I've never written a song in my life," Donal replied. "No, it's…" (exaggerating the mouth shapes to make his point) "...a-non!" 

It was a good night at Oddfellows. John Ellis and Kirsty Almeida dropped by with Tom Davies, and some other musician friends. Usually this means that some recording has been going on at Ellis' home studio down the road, which often results in an impromptu post-studio performance at Oddfellows from unknown and unsuspected talents. In this case an Australian couple - Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. He a wild man from the mountains (or the outback, I suppose); shaggy with a guitar. She with the strongest, purest voice this side of Hedy West. Cara and Kirsty duetted on 'Down to the River to Pray' from the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, and it was a spine-tingling experience. 

Then Helen Howard, whose turn was next, spoke of being in a parallel Oddfellows in Cumbria last week, again with a folk session going on, and she would like to sing a song by one of the artistes who was there. She proceeded with 'A Thousand  Years Today' by Paul Metsers, whose best-known song is 'Farewell to the Gold', as heard on Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones. Actually, 'A Thousand  Years Today', on consideration, might be one of my least favourite songs of all time. It aims for the sublime - dissolving the barriers of time, and all that - and settles for the banal. It's a National Trust song at the end of the day. (Metsers comes from New Zealand, which is telling: New Zealanders tend to be disproportionately impressed by the sense of history embodied in stately homes.) 

And then John Howarth sang 'They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore'. A song where the deprived past comes to the aid of the deprived present, ‘They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore’ mourns the passing of the communal singsong of old by re-staging one in the here and now. And who wrote ‘They Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore’? His name is Pete Betts, and I was surprised when one of my oldest and dearest friends, Mick McElvaney, currently resident in China, told me that Betts was  the brother of his ex-wife. One degree of separation, eh? 

Actually, you can tell it's a Middlesbrough song. The first verse is preoccupied with booze, the second gets scatological and is innocently racist (Jack, in a desperate bid to get to the toilet in time, falls in the coalhole and emerges in black face, singing 'Mammy'). All of these traits I associate with the seventies and Middlesbrough. 

The North West equivalent is another of Howarth's standbys, 'Ee, When I Were a Lad', which taps the same rich seam of working-class nostalgia. And who wrote 'Ee, When I Were a Lad'? Keith Hancock, who emigrated to the Far East and now lives in Saigon.

This quest for the song and the person behind the song is endless, inevitably involving a story behind the song, and then another song, or a person behind the person behind the song. Me, I would like to track down Stan Ellison to ask him about 'July Wakes'. Paul Graney - the subject of a projected article for Rock 'n' Reel - enters the story, but as a fixer or catalyst, an impresario almost, who matched author (Richard Pomfret) with composer Ellison. And Bill Leader wants to track down Stan Ellison to pay the royalties owed to him from the first Oddfellows album, which contains 'July Wakes' as sung by Ian Sidebotham. And who is Richard Pomfret? A little-known Lancashire dialect poet whose poem, 'July Wakes' Graney found in an anthology called My North Countrie, edited by Wilfred Pickles. And who is Wilfred Pickles? What, you mean you've never seen Billy Liar?   

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