DAVID HARLEY – So Sound You Sleep (ISBN 979-8377897699)

So Sound You SleepApart from saying, “As you’ll see from his website, David Harley is a Shropshire lad, now living in Cornwall, who has played guitar since the 1970’s”  I won’t give any further introduction – check out David’s website or the folking.com review of Introduction to Nashville Tuning for Guitar: https://folking.com/david-harley-introduction-to-nashville-tuning-for-guitar-weald-alice-music/

David Harley is currently prolific in his writing and publishing; So Sound You Sleep: My Shropshire Songs and Their Stories is over 200 pages and is one of a number of books he has published recently about his music (alongside an equally prolific website). This is a significant challenge to the art of precis so I won’t even try, I’ll simply give a flavour of why you might want to look at this book – and why you probably will want to look at this book.

Let’s start with the layout – you might, reasonably, assume that a book consists of words? Harley has done something rather more. He has links to webpages where you can hear the music. He doesn’t have to describe the delicate fingerpicking on ‘Rain’, for example – you can click through and hear it. Nor do I, by the way, there is a link below that you can click on. He’s also included the lyrics. This makes it much easier to understand the narrative around the background to the song and the way it has developed over the years. It’s a canny approach to writing about music.

More than this, though, there is also a wealth of research behind some of the chapters. My only connection with Shrewsbury is through a) long ago children’s reading set in the Shropshire hills and b) the annual folk festival held there nowadays. As well as a host of information about the town (history, geography, myth and story, for example), there’s also a ten-page appendix about how to pronounce the town’s name (“Shrosebury versus Shoesbree”). Given that this appears to be a topic of conversation every year at the Festival, I took, perhaps an undue, delight in these ten pages.

To give an example of the simultaneous erudition and humour of Harley’s writing style, chapter 4 is headed ‘Thomas Anderson’ and the sub-headings are:

  • ‘Start of a Journey’ – This tells us about Harley’s journey, from first singing publicly to playing in festivals, but also his journey of discovery from Cyril Tawney to Davey Graham
  • ‘Folk Baroque vs Singer-Songwriters’ – which not only covers the styles, and talks about song writing, but also has reminiscences, say, of meeting Bill Caddick and Vin Garbutt on railway stations
  • ‘Writing the Song’ – it was initiated by reading an article while off-duty in a nursing home; there is the full lyric, a link to the song on Bandcamp and the development of a different version as time passed
  • ‘Thomas Anderson: Historical Detail’ – I could write 500 words on this section alone. Suffice to say there is well-researched detail about the history of Shrewsbury, its churches, Thomas Anderson’s gravestone etc etc. This may not sound as interesting as it actually is, so here’s a flavour:

Thomas Anderson – Historical Detail

  • Perhaps there’s too much historical detail here – you don’t usually need to write a whole book to explain a single song, even if you’re a musicologist, which, clearly, I’m not. But here we go, anyway.
  • The first lines of the song
    • [“We are but images of stone
    • Do us no harm, we can do none
    • St Crispin and St Crispian are we
    • On the arch of the Shoemaker’s Arbour” – MW insert]
  • make a little more sense if you know about the Shoemaker’s Arbour. This is a stone archway in the Dingle, which is part of the park in Shrewsbury known locally as the Quarry and to the rest of the world (and the Council!) as the Quarry Park…….

A Load of Cobblers (and Tanners and Leatherworkers)

  • At the top of the Arbour gateway are the rather battered statues of the Saints Crispin and Crispian (the latter is more commonly known as Crispinian). These are the patron saints of cobblers, tanners and leatherworkers. One version of their story is that they were executed in the third century AD for preaching Christianity to the Gauls, while earning their crust as shoemaker

You get a feel? This brief example gives a sense of how musical detail is interspersed with learned research – but presented also with a sense of humour (“A Load of Cobblers” the exclamation mark after “Council”). All of this is interspersed alongside pictures, lyrics and Bandcamp links.

And there you have it: thirty-six chapters of informed writing about the songs: erudite, easy to read and with links to the music; a couple of appendices; a glossary (‘funambulist” is my favourite); a short biography of Harley – man, musician/songwriter, author, his career(s). There are two hundred plus pages, but they are an easy read – perhaps the phrase should be a welcoming read. Where there are links to the works of others, they have the clarity of a research editor. Visually, the pages are well laid out and easy to read.

And it’s great fun – to read, to click on the links, and to muse over the origins of the songs, the history of ‘Shrewsbury’ (or its pronunciation) et al.

I’ve found it a book to dip into over the past two or three weeks rather than to sit and read end to end in a small number of sittings. And I’m still dipping into it, finding new treats as I write this review. Try for yourself with the links below. There’s a fair chance you’ll find an hour or two has passed before you pull your attention out of it again.

Mike Wistow

Artist’s website:  https://whealalice.com