As a teenager, I was horrified by the idea of white blues singers, but modified that view when I heard my friend Geoff Muldaur successfully channelling Lonnie Johnson on a Boston coffee-house stage. I was also put off by middle-class singer-songwriters until I was bowled over by Bob Dylan in a tiny room at a Cambridge, MA party in 1963. These prejudices never evaporated entirely; for every Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, there seem to be thousands of well-bred strummers whose cds I recycle to Oxfam. And don’t get me started on the Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter cults! But I digress from the subject at hand…
When I arrived in London in 1964, I had already developed, then lost or modified a number of such prejudices. Before setting out for London, I had a very bad attitude about English folk music. (I know, some of you, my dear English readers, still have a bad attitude about your own folk music; if so, perhaps you’d better skip this newsletter and wait for the next one…) I have written elsewhere about having these views confounded by an encounter with the Ian Campbell Group and Dave Swarbrick, and then by Norma and the rest of the Watersons. (White Bicycles,Ch. 7). But when I went to the famous “Singers Club” in Farringdon, there was Ewan MacColl singing shanties with a finger in one ear, conforming to the humourless stereotype prevalent across The Pond. MacColl had notoriously barred Bob Dylan from singing at the club; only songs from whence you came were allowed! His rigid, snotty attitude was just as advertised and I never went back to The Singers’ Club.
Around the same time, producer Bill Leader took me to small basement flat just down the road from MacColl’s club to meet a man from the opposite end of the class and stylistic spectrum of British songwriters. Sydney Carter was eccentric, middle-class, donnish, kind, off-hand and idealistic (He had worked in an ambulance corps in WW2 rather than fight…). He wrote poetry and taught a bit, but his primary source of income seemed to be fees and royalties from writing songs with Donald Swann of the Flanders and Swann comic duo. (Economic guru Stephanie Flanders is the daughter of the other half of that team.) I was entranced by his odd, off-hand songs. When I returned to London a year and a half later to open the Elektra Records office, I took Sydney into the studio to make an EP “The Lord of the Dance”. The title song was to become his most famous, gleefully sung by happy-clappy liberal Christians the world over. But don’t hold that against him! Like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, which became a red-neck anthem despite the ironic lyrics, “Lord” is a secular sceptic’s attempt to portray Christ as the very human founder of a cult of joy and ecstasy (which is pretty close to how it actually was until killjoys like St Paul got ahold of it). I think my EP was the first recording of “Lord”, but I wish the God-botherers had been quicker off the mark with the title song; the EP might have sold better and not been a black mark against my track record with the Elektra bosses back in New York. (If anyone has a copy and wants to sell it or make me a digital version, I would be very grateful; it’s the only one of my productions not in my collection.)
A series of concerts last year took me back to Year Zero of my exposure to the London folk scene. In April, there was a tribute to Carter (who died in 2004) in a small, medieval theatre adjoining the Porter’s Lodge at Balliol College, Oxford. One driving force behind this event was Martin Carthy, a longtime supporter who accompanied Sydney on that 1966 Elektra EP (and who shared my dislike of MacColl). Martin led a great group of singers in the canon of Carter songs, including my personal favourite “Taking Out the Dustbin in the Gray’s Inn Road” as well as his anti-war song, “Crow on the Cradle”, for years a staple at Jackson Browne concerts.
The other instigator was Stephen Sedley, whom I met in my first years in London. He grew up a folksong buff; his lawyer father represented many folksingers as well as Topic Records. Sedley now teaches law at Oxford, having retired from the bench after a heroic career championing human rights as a Lord Justice of Appeal, a member of the European Court of Human Rights and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. (After I introduced a girlfriend to him at a Human Rights Lecture, she told me it was far more impressive and thrilling than the time I introduced her to Mick Jagger.)
Earlier last year, I impulsively purchased a train ticket to Glasgow to hear some of my favourite singers pay tribute to one of my least favourite songwriters. Celtic Connections had brought together Norma Waterson, Chaim Tannenbaum, Martin Carthy (who knows a good song when he hears it, regardless of who wrote it), Jarvis Cocker, Eliza Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) and Karine Polwart to honour the long-deceased (1989) MacColl’s memory. One attraction for me was that the evening was curated by Ewan’s sons Neil and Calum and Neil’s wife Kate St John. Working with those three in various combinations on my own live tributes to Nick Drake and Kate McGarrigle has been an unalloyed pleasure. And there was in the back of my mind the nagging thought that if he had such great kids, maybe it was time for a reassessment…
The concert was terrific. Chaim and Norma stole the show with their renditions of “My Old Man”, “Go Down You Murderers” and “Shoals of Herring” (Tannenbaum) and “The Moving On Song” (Waterson). Sitting in the audience, I was forced to admit the old crank wrote a lot of great songs, full of anger and passion and wonderful folk-based melody. Even the often-corny “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” sounded pretty good in Buchanan’s hands.
But another reassessment was also slowly dawning in my prejudiced mind. Researching my world music book, I’ve discovered a hero-figure in Dimitri Pokrovsky, the man who defied Soviet ideologues to revive regional Russian folk music. Cultural specifics are anathema to authoritarian regimes; they prefer broad generalities and the music that expresses them (the Soviet Moiseyev Ensemble being the archetype). The Right-Left divide in politics these days often comes down to denial vs acceptance of facts. Local music is the equivalent of factual research. Pokrovsky was not only opposed to Soviet kitsch, but he peered into the future and recognized the dangers of post-Soviet Russian nationalism; he refused to call any folk song “Russian”. They were ‘from Voronezh’ or ‘Irkutsk Oblast’, never “Russian”.
At a time when cultural battles are being waged over what it means to be “British”, or “English”, MacColl’s strictures that you should sing songs from your home territory begins to seem like a good idea, an antidote to the kitsch clichés of UKIP and the Tories. And when I went to give a talk at the English Folk Expo last year, I found many wonderful musicians fully committed to the notion of local music, usually their own. It was inspiring, and yet another reason to give the old finger-in-his-ear crank a respectful reappraisal: he might have been right after all!
The Glasgow concert was such a success that they took the show on the road in November and the London show was, again, terrific. I hope a few of you got to see it. And I am so glad I bought that train ticket last January; Norma Waterson’s health has taken a turn for the worse and it’s hard to say when we’ll hear her sing like that again.
It was nice to see Jarvis Cocker and Norma bonding backstage. I remember the 1996 Mercury Prize awards, when the jury announced a deadlock between Pulp’s “Different Class” and Norma’s solo record for Hannibal. They gave it to Pulp in the end, but Oasis had also been nominated, and I’ve saved the Daily Mail headline “Grandmother beats Oasis in Mercury Prize Vote”.
Tribute concerts have sprouted like toadstools in recent years, but for me, 2015 was a vintage year because of those celebrations of two eccentrically British songwriters. They were based only a few hundred yards from each other along Roseberry Avenue, but between them there was a chasm of class, attitude, style and personality. Somehow, last year, they seemed quite nicely balanced, resonating beautifully across the decades, never to be forgotten.
On-line reviews of the A-Z podcasts…
“Digestible wisdom for all”by electrophreekJoe Boyd is one of the titans of music production and his hard fought insights into the nature and scope of global music are among the finest you will ever encounter. This is the bench mark of music podcasts and the standard by which all should be judged.
“Brilliant”by modal dExhilarating, mesmerizing, poignant. That such a pivotal figure, responsible for so much music I love, would take the time to put together this series is just an incredible gift. Listen!