' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Month: October, 2013

Lou Reed

A small tribute to the late great Lou Reed who, in my opinion was a towering figure in rock music – indeed, perhaps only Dylan surpassed him as a lyricist…

When my father died, I listened a great deal to Reed’s great album ‘Magic and Loss’ and plan to have this song played at my own funeral”

Also proposed to my wife with this one:

Lou wrote so many great songs (from the days on ‘Heroin’ and ‘Waiting for the Man’ onwards right up to tracks like the title track ‘Set the Twilight Reeling’ on what was probably his last consistently good album. However, these are probably my personal favourites (both, funnily enough, show Reed’s brilliance as a writer of love songs)

The Velvet Underground, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’:

Lou Reed & John Cale:

Lou was unashamed in writing music designed for grown-ups and which dealt with themes which had never previously been discussed in rock music.

10 Irish Classics – Part 2

Having noticed that my first list did not include any Planxty (the Irish ‘”Beatles’, as they have been described), decided I would remedy this by drawing up an alternate list.

It could, of course, have been made up entirely of tracks from Planxty’s classic first album (the ‘Black’ album), but thought this would be unfair to other artists. So will start this list with a classic performance of the “Raggle Taggle Gypsy-o’ from the early 1970s.

1. Planxty ‘Raggle-Taggle Gypsy-O’

2. The Pogues ‘White City’ – a song where Shane McGowan proves that great poetry can be made from the demolition of a greyhound track:

3. Johnny Duhan, ‘In Our Father’s Name” – fine song from an underestimated songwriter:

4. Paul Brady ‘I am a Youth that’s inclined to Ramble” -Before Paul Brady became a so-so MOR songwriter, he was a great folksinger:

5. Dolores Keane John Faulkner – ‘The Bonnie Light Horseman’ – a great, great song:

6. David Kitt ‘You Know what I want to Know’ – By far the best of the new Irish songwriters who emerged in the 1990s/ early 2000s:

7. Sinead O’Connor ‘I am stretched on your Grave’: Saw her sing this with Christy Moore once…

8. The Blades ‘Revelations of Heartbreak” – Paul Cleary one of the finest Irish songwriters of modern times. Discuss..

9. Micheál O’Domhnaill & Kevin Burke ‘Lord Franklin”: the definitive version…

10. Joe Heaney ‘Amhrán na Páise’; Can’t have enough Joe Heaney:

Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’ 2

Further to my post yesterday, what I am arguing for here is that a degree of rigour be used when employing terms like the ‘folk process’. In this regard, it is important to remember here that it was coined by Charles Seeger specifically in relation to folk music and that it was a contribution to a broader debate about the existence of variant forms of individual ballads in different countries. It was also primarily designed to refer to the oral transmission of such ballads and their subsequent adaptation to local circumstances when they reached new areas.

In recent debates, this concept is often linked in a loose way with vague references to ‘postmodernism’ etc, but this is a dangerous conflation (in my view) of two distinct ideas…

By definition, most folk songs can hardly be ‘postmodern’ since they pre-date ‘modernity’ and the author can hardly die when one does not exist or at least can never be traced…

However, it does seem to me that some of Dylan’s early songs can fit well within the definition of the ‘folk process’, loosely defined, as, for example, with the re-working of ‘Lord Randal’ into ‘A Hard Rain’…

But this type of definition becomes far slippier if we move to a song like ‘When the deal goes down’, which is a re-working of a conveniently out-of-copyright Bing Crosby song ‘Where the Blue of the Night’ which also includes (again) conveniently out of copyright lines from the poet, Henry Timrod:

It seems to me that if I were, say, to record a version of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ set to the tune of ‘Yellow Submarine’, this would hardly be an example of the ‘Folk Process’..

Indeed, Dylan’s recent writing methods have struck me as being much closer to unacknowledged borrowing than it is to any version of that ‘process’. It also strikes me as being more related to a dearth of genuine inspiration than to the creative adaptation which lay at the heart of the transmission of the old ballads.

Bob Dylan and the ‘Folk Process’

In recent times, there has been an interesting debate around the question of Bob Dylan’s song writing methods and its relationship to the ‘folk process.’ It seems to me, however, that much of this debate fails to address the ambivalence of Dylan’s position in this respect.

In a sense he has walked both sides of the street in this debate, from his early days as a ‘folksinger’ to his later role as the progenitor of the idea of the individual singer-songwriter and the heir to the “Romantic’ tradition of the ‘lone’ genius on the lines of a Shelley, a Byron or a Rimbaud…

In the Scorsese documentary, Dylan again walk this fine line: at one point, stating that nothing he had dome was really all that new, while at another describing himself as a ‘musical expeditionary’, tracing a new path…

It is, however, important to note here that the ‘folk process’ in its true form, really belonged to a period before ‘copyright’, when music was seen more as the property of a particular community than of any one individual. Indeed, one definition of a folk song that I have seen was that it is ‘a song which no one has written’. Folksongs then were an organic part of everyday life, with music being used while working, to spread news, to celebrate community occasions, etc etc. In a sense, especially before recorded music, singers expressed their individuality through their way of singing melodies which were part of a common stock and did not, as we have seen, belong to any single individual.

For example, it has been argued that before recording came along every performance of a particular song was different and idiosyncrasies were then an essential element in distinguishing a performer’s style. As a result, even when new songs or melodies were introduced into a community, they were then adapted to the local style, so, in Ireland, for example, there was a distinctive type of fiddle playing associated with County Sligo.

However, once the idea of the ‘individual genius’ emerges, and, with it, the idea of music as a ‘commodity’ which can be copyrighted and commercialised in a way that had not previously been done, then the ‘folk process’, as it had previously existed comes under a great deal of strain. In one sense, Dylan himself was an important figure in this process, as his success led many others to pursue careers as ‘singer -songwriters’, a development which Dave Van Ronk argues was a key part in the decline of folk music in the USA. This fact created an ambivalence which Dylan has never really resolved and which continues to be a source of controversy ever since…

Will return to this subject soon…

Ten classic Irish tracks

Have been thinking for a while of posting ten classic ‘Irish’ tracks here. These are not necessarily my favourite ‘ten’ Irish tracks of all time or anything as ridiculous as that – but the first ten that came to mind and which, hopefully, includes some relatively obscure tracks which will encourage others to check out other tracks from these fine artists.

1. Will start with Sony Condell’s song, ‘Down in the City’ – first appeared on his album, ‘Camouflage’ – which was, incidentally, one of the first albums I ever bought:


2. The Blades ‘Animation’ – the Blades were the Irish band which should have made it big in the 1980s – instead we got the empty posturing and preening of Bono & U2:

3. Rory Gallagher ‘Pistol Slapper Blues’: Rory’s great version of the Blind Boy Fuller song:

4. Have cheated by including two versions of ‘Raglan Road’ here – they are both classics. The first is by Luke Kelly:

The second is by Van Morrison:

5. Joe Heaney, ‘Una Bhan’: Perhaps the greatest Irish singer of them all:


6. Sean Keane ‘Bundlin” – as an Irish person living in Australia, couldn’t resist this one:

7. Freddie White, ‘the Parting Glass; – a great Irish singer makes this song his own:

8. Mary Black, ‘Annachie Gordon’ – before she ventured off into MOR territory, Mary Black was a fine folksinger:

9. Altan ‘Donal agus Morag’ – for some reason, this is my favourite Altan song:

10. Van Morrison, ‘Madam George’ – as good it gets, from one of the greatest albums ever made:

Randy Travis & Kevin Coyne

Two instant classics from CD’s I bought recently.

The first is Randy Travis’ superb version of ‘What Have you got planned tonight, Diana’. To my mind, Travis is easily the best country singer of his generation and possibly the best since George Jones. Unlike his early work, Travis also brings a weight built on experience and, perhaps, disappointments to the song:

For comparison’s sake, here is Merle Haggard’s fine version:

Although I often disagree with Robert Christgau, this is probably the best piece I have read on Travis’ work:


Second up is Kevin Coyne’s ‘Hypnotism’ from the recently released cd of home recordings from the early ’70s. Coyne is one of the few rock songwriters to have written convincingly about genuinely ‘marginalised’ people – the mentally ill, the homeless, loners and outcasts generally. To my mind, he is one of the greatest and most honest English songwriters:

Creative Borrowing Handel & Dylan

Went to an Andreas Scholl concert here in Sydney last week and was again impressed by the remarkable quality of his singing. As usual, his encore was Handel’s classic aria, ‘Ombra mai fu’.

When I hear Scholl’s effortless singing of it, I am always reminded of the great soul singers like Sam Cooke and Sam Cooke, who had a similar way of making great singing seem so easy. This is not the version I heard, of course, but gives an impression of the quality of Scholl’s singing:

What also struck me about the aria is that I had read an article recently on the net which suggested that Handel had largely based it on an earlier one by a relatively obscure composer, Giovanni Bononcini. Indeed, Handel was relatively unscrupulous about such borrowings although it should be borne in mind that this was in an age before copyright.

I decided to check if the Bonocini aria was available on the net, and discovered this fine version of it by Simone Kermes, a very good singer and a rising star of classical music:

What struck me here was that while Handel had borrowed the lyric of the aria and some of its musical architecture, his version was substantially different and, to my mind at least, still was, by a long way, superior to Bonocini’s version (which has considerable merits of its own).

There is an analogy here, I think, with the difference between Dylan’s ‘creative borrowing’ in his early career and some of his more recent work – where the borrowing process is far less subtle and the results far less interesting…

Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan

At a market here in Sydney recently, I managed to score a copy of ‘More Greatest Hits’ – an album which I had not heard in many years (it has, of course, been superseded by far more comprehensive compilations like ‘Biograph’) but which has a special resonance for me. It was the first Dylan album I ever owned – my late father giving it to me as a birthday present in ’76.

Realised I have been listening to many of the songs on it regularly for some 37 years now and that the best of them (like ‘Don’t Think Twice’, “Maggie’s Farm’, “She belongs to me’ and ‘It’s all over now Baby Blue”) still continue to yield new riches…

To my mind, Dylan is, by a long way, the greatest American songwriter of the last fifty years – and if my criticisms of his recent work here sometimes seem harsh, it is because I am judging it by the standards which he has set…