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

Category: Country Music

‘Songs of Innocence’

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,
The night above the dingle starry,
Time let me hail and climb
Golden in the heydays of his eyes,
And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means,
And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves
Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,
And the Sabbath rang slowly
In the pebbles of the holy streams.

Dylan Thomas ‘Fern Hill’

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.
Patrick Kavanagh ‘Advent”

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

William Blake, ‘The Lamb’

As the title suggests, this post includes a selection of ten songs which reflect an ‘innocent’ perspective on life. Generally speaking, they tend deal with childhood experiences or with the early teenage years. Of course, there will be a sequel:

1. Phil Ochs, ‘Boy in Ohio’ :

2. Neil Young, ‘Sugar Mountain’:

3. Lucy Kaplansky, ‘Manhattan Moon”:

4. Ricky Nelson, ‘Waitin In School’:

5. Chuck Berry, ‘School Days’:

6. Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World’:

7. Smog, ‘Teenage Spaceship’:

8. Guy Clark, ‘Texas 1947’:

9. The Go-Betweens, ‘Cattle and Cane’:

10. Mary Gauthier, ‘Sugar Cane”:

‘No Time to Cry’: A Selection of Songs For Father’s Day

A Kite for Michael and Christopher

All through that Sunday afternoon
A kite flew above Sunday,
a tightened drumhead, an armful of blow chaff.

I’d seen it grey and slippy in the making,
I’d tapped it when it dried out white and stiff,
I’d tied the bows of the newspaper
along its six-foot tail.

But now it was far up like a small black lark
and now it dragged as if the bellied string
were a wet rope hauled upon
to life a shoal.

My friend says that the human soul
is about the weight of a snipe
yet the soul at anchor there,
the string that sags and ascends,
weigh like a furrow assumed into the heavens.

Before the kite plunges down into the wood
and this line goes useless
take in your two hands, boys, and feel
the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
You were born fit for it.
Stand here in front of me
and take the strain.

Seamus Heaney

Reading Thom’s Hickeys fine post on Father’s Day at The Immortal Jukebox gave me the idea for this selection of songs. The idea of using a Heaney poem to introduce it also came from that piece.
As Thom points out there, the relationship between a child and its parents is one of the most significant in our lives. In consequence it is, perhaps, unsurprising that many of these songs are of a very high quality, indeed. By the way, my favourite is the last one…
Although the majority of the ten songs I have chosen here look at the relationship from the child’s perspective, the first three look at it from the other direction.

1. Jackie Leven, ‘Single Father’:

2. Sean Keane, ‘Kilkelly Ireland”:

3. Loudon Wainwright, ‘The Day That We Die’:

4. Merle Haggard, ‘I Still Can’t Say Goodbye”:

5. Paul Westerberg, ‘My Dad”:

6. Rosanne Cash, ‘Black Cadillac’:

7. Lucy Kaplansky, ‘Today’s The Day”:

8. Jimmie Rodgers, ‘Daddy and Home”:

9. Rodney Crowell, ‘The Rock of My Soul”:

10. Guy Clark, ‘Randall Knife”:

New and Recent Albums

In the last month or two , have been playing a small number of albums in rotation – a few of these are by a select group of excellent contemporary songwriters (Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson and Mary Gauthier), while the others are by more established artists like Randy Travis and John Anderson.

To start with, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern stands out as one of the very finest albums of recent times. At its best (on songs like ‘Travelling Alone” and ‘Elephants’, it has an emotional candour and raw honesty, which bears comparison with Mary Gauthier’s finest work. Here is one of the other fine songs from that album:

Have only recently discovered Jamey Johnson’s work, but it already seems clear to me that he is one of the best ‘real’ country songwriters in a long, long time. The best of his work combines the emotional candour which was/is central to the work of great country songwriters like Hank Williams and Merle Haggard with a contemporary edge – ‘the smell of tofu’, ‘depression pills’ and ‘cocaine’ in this fine song, for example:

While Mary Gauthier’s new album, Trouble and Love may not be up to the standards of her very best work, there are, nonetheless, some fine songs on it. This one stands out for me:

In recent times, have also been listening a lot to two fine compilations. The first,’ Three Wooden Crosses, showcases Randy Travis skills as a country gospel singer. The title track which could have been merely mawkish in other hands is magnificently performed here:

To finish up here is that superb country vocal stylist John Anderson’s great environmental song, Seminole Wind – one of the very few great songs in that vein which this avowedly ‘conservative’ form of music has produced. Go figure, as they say…

Dylan Criticism and a Sense of Proportion

The Irish historian Joseph lee once claimed that Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the ‘Easter Rising’ in 1916, has been a victim of being both ‘mindlessly adored and mindlessly reviled’. At a lower pitch, it npow seems to me that Bob Dylan’s recent work has suffered something of the same fate.

From a point where fine albums like Street Legal and Shot of Love were subjected to an over-the-top critical bashing, we seem to have reached a point where even the most inconsenquential Dylan track is suddenly an overlooked masterpiece and can only be discussed in the most hyperbolic terms…

in my opinion, this situation is almost as unhealthy for the artist as the first. What seems to be missing in both is a sense of proportion and a sense of the broader context of Dylan’s work.

I also happen to come from the school of thought which sees ‘Self Portait’ as a very minor work in the broader Dylan canon. While it may have some historic importance as a transitional work, the effect of time will leave it at best as little more than a footnote or a curiousity (along with the outtakes from it) within his broader output. I feel the same way about Tempest, which was one of Dylan’s poorest efforts, to date…

With these caveats in mind, there are some beautiful cover versions of traditional songs on ‘Another Self Portrait’. What stands out for me in the best of these is the care, respect and attention Dylan gives to their lyrics and a few of them are among the best vocal performances in his entire career.

Will single out for mention here the beautiful ‘Copper Kettle’ and ‘Pretty Saro’ and the magnificent ‘Tattie O’Day”. Of these, ‘Pretty Saro’ is available on ‘You Tube’ at:

Little Sadie, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Randy Travis

Here is another version of ‘Little Sadie’ – again far superior to Dylan’s perfunctory and off-hand version. This is by the late great Doc Watson:

Dylan’s version seems very close, indeed, to Clarence Ashley’s version. However, while Ashley’s off-hand approach works in his case, in Dylan’s it comes across as something close to indifference to the song:

Will add Doc Watson’s & Bill Monroe’s great version of the ‘The Banks of the Ohio’ here:

Will round this off with another great gospel performance by Randy Travis. This is his remarkable version of ‘Amazing Grace’. There is a case to be made for Travis being the last great ‘pure’ country singer, standing in a line that runs through from Hank williams to Lefty Frizell through to George Jones & him:

In The Garden, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Randy Travis

Was at a gospel choir here in Sydney recently and they did a great version of this country gospel song, which I had not heard before.

This sent me looking for other versions of the song on You Tube yesterday and I came up with these three which are my current favourites. Have placed them in ascending order (the last is my favourite – a magnificent version by Randy Travis – one of those occasions where he finds a song that is worthy of that great country voice. I like the other two, but it would have been good if George Jones had recorded it earlier in his career. His voice is somewhat wavery here, but it adds an air of vulnerability to his version, which fits with the theme of the song.

This is George Jones’ version:

Here is Merle’s Haggard’s version, which has a nice ‘Dixieland’ feel, at times:

This, to my mind, however, stands out as the definitive reading of this great song:

There is also an Elvis’ version, which I mean to check out

They called him the Breeze

A small tribute to the late great J J Cale, who died over the weekend – my favourite of his many fine songs:

For those who don’t know, this is where Eric Clapton derived the style which he has been using for the last 30 years…

Travellin’ Blues

Lets have some Jimmie Rogers…always good for the soul.

Play them blues, boy:

Here’s the great Lefty Frizell’s cover version, which is almost as good as the original:

Just to round it off, here is Merle Haggard’s version from one of the greatest tribute album ever made:

George Jones

A belated tribute to the late great George Jones, who was the greatest singer that country music has produced…

He was also among the greatest singers of the century in any art form.

Will start with a few acknowledged classics & then list a few of my personal favouriters.

Here is George singing ‘She thinks I still care’:

In any other hands, ‘He stopped Loving Her Today’ might have appeared maudlin – George sang it straight and gave it enormous emotional power. this is singing of the very highest order:

With ‘The Window Up Above’ George proved that simplicity and emotional profundity can go hand in hand. Even Hank rarely wrote a song as perfect as this:

A few personal favourites – ‘Choices’ was, I think, a very brave song for George to record and he did so at a very difficult time in his life:

Again, with ‘Don’t Touch Me’ George proved that a direct simple statement can carry a huge emotional weight:

http://www.myspace.com/george-jones/music/songs/don-t-touch-me-album-version-201866 -[Sample}.

For some reason, this is my favourite George Jones song – don’t ask me why: