Saturday, 8 December 2012

On Music of a Folkish Nature


Where would our lives be without music? Probably a damn sight more drab.

I was recently asked to list my favourite musical acts. I said I could probably, with a small degree of difficulty, narrow it down to a top 500, if I was being super critical. At which point both Jon Arnold and Tom Jordan, betraying the sound mind and judgment I had thought they possessed, seemed to suggest a series of blog articles on my musical interests might be useful. Not to let folk down, here we are, a mere fourteen months on, and the first hints of that. I pride myself on my punctuality, you know.

At first, I was just going to fob people off with a list. "Here's my top arbitrary number, enjoy!" But I decided against, mostly because any old fool can write a list, but also because it wouldn't have felt right. I haven't heard nearly as much of the Dubliners as I ought to have, yet I can well merit their place on any list of greats: that said, I wouldn't have been able to pontificate about them in nearly as many words as I might of certain other bands over the course of this series. Even so, there are people out there who might be reading this, and who have never had Ronnie Drew in their lives, a condition which must surely be rectified.

So before I go to Single Act Blogs (the ones where I go over nearly an entire backcatalogue, karaoke at will and have a hissy fit with their shippers on fan forums, most likely) I decided to compartmentalise the rest into genres.

I'm not very good with genre, as you might be able to tell rather swiftly. The arching theme of today is Folk, yet my ideas of what folk is probably differs muchly from the dictionary or popular taste. Indeed, I may look at others (hi Simon and Garfunkel) in later blogs which may seem folkier. Indeed, there isn't even a reference to Bert Jansch and his peers. Except for right there.

Ah, but you see, genre should be merely a guideline I say. Besides, I classify all music in my head as "blues", "hard" and "easy", even classical (Beethoven was the first rock act, you know) and those three might be a bit hard to get around. So I have given myself eight definitions to describe music under, which we won't go into here as I will no doubt change them over the course of time.


Anne Feeney

When I first heard of Anne Feeney, it had seemed but a short while before I would wind up reading her obituary. For the first acknowledgment came with the news she had been diagnosed with a dreadful cancer. Curious to find out more about this singer some acquaintances whose health some acquaintances were saddened by, I listened to as much of it as I could on Youtube. That he appears to be on the mend now is as pleasing as her Socialist message. 

I am particularly fond of the “Corporate Welfare Song”, first written under the Clinton Administration but which worked just as well with minor rewrites under the Bush government. It starts suggesting the typical right wing mantra of “bloody benefit spongers"  before twisting it on its edge, revealing the story to be about corporations which siphon money from the government, preventing the money going to worthier causes. The live version has a comedic twist to it, as Feeney auto-corrects the amounts owed by various CEOs to their current level of debt as she sings along with her audience. 

Her use of old Joe Hills song, and modern folk to supplement her own stuff is well achieved. Two of the best cover songs are Roy Zimmerman’s “Defenders of Marriage” and Joan Hill’s “We’re Nursing as Fast as We can”. The Zimmerman song is all about the types of people who try to prevent gay marriage taking place (“Now a man should not lie with a person who is a guy/ He should only lie to his wife, the bible is clear”) as well as same sex adoption (“ two people who want to provide a protective and nurturing family environment/ Have they no shame? It's so deviant!”). The Nursing song, I played to my dad, an ex-nurse, who says it is all true.

“We worry for our patients, yes we do.
They come to us much sicker than they used to.
We know they need trained nurses, but the bosses watch their purses.
When it's patient safety versus profit, we know what they'll do.
Nurses who are registered must go.
They hire nurses' aides because they're cheaper.
They should know, for patients' sake, that this could be a grave mistake,
but it's a chance they'll take to save a little dough.”

(Joan Hill)

Feeney’s politics aren’t so much written on her sleeve as flashing in large neon lights. In one song, she sings a mournfully threnody about having a drink with the President (Obama), saddened he is not the Jesus type figure Democrats had hoped he might, whilst still overjoyed he isn’t George Bush. The use of the Zimmerman and the Hill songs only add to her expression of political activism. Like Seeger and Ochs before her, this is her voice out to speak to the disaffected and the vulnerable. 

“Laws were made by people, and people can be wrong
Once unions were against the law, but slavery was fine
Women were denied the vote and children worked the mine
The more you study history the less you can deny it
A rotten law stays on the books til folks like us defy it”

A slow recovery from the dreaded cancer is occurring. May it be fully successful, for Anne Feeney’s is a voice needed in the world.


(A fine collection of beards. And musicians.)

The Dubliners, that long lived Irish band, play and spoke with a ferocity belying their gentle nature. The savagery of their satire was only second to their mastery of the tune. People might know them best by their stirring Irish Rover, which they later dueted with The Pogues, but for further introduction to this fascinating band, I suggest the wonderfully vitriolic The British Army. The Rocky Road to Dublin is a particularly fine example of getting stuff past the censors too, I might say. 

Neil Young

What can you say about a man who was once sued for sounding too much like himself? Who got one of the worst reviews of all time in Rolling Stone in 1970, yet is still a household name today. Who holds himself personally guilty for just about every music tragedy he couldn’t have prevented if he were Superman? Young’s talent lies in his refusal to die, in his ability to buck the trend, in his willingness to take on any form of music and give it a shot. A never say die attitude goes a long way in music, and it might just well have saved Neil Young along the way.

His classics are rightly well remembered. Southern Man, which started a musical correspondence with the Lynyrd Skynyrd men. Rockin in the Free World. Hey Hey, My My ... so unfairly tainted by use in Kurt Cobain’s suicide letter.

Even the amazingly weird We R in Control, which shows the dangers of letting people get over occupied with synths!

My favourite Young song is perhaps one of his more obscure. “Goin’ Home” is a nine minute tragedy, which starts with Young analogising himself as General Custer at his last stand, and his mental state collapses from then on in.

“You'd think it was easy,
To give your life away,
To not have to live up to,
The promises you made.”

It’s a wonderfully depressed song, forever on the brink of despair, which seems to mock the more jovial terms with which a song about going home might be. This isn’t a happy home coming. It’s the return to the place one came from, because there’s nothing left. For a man known for some frankly funereal lyrics and sounds, Goin’ Home stands as one of his bleakest, the oppressed joyless heartbroken singer going to his demise. Which might explain why it isn’t so much better loved.

But I do love it so. 

Pete Seeger

When Pete Seeger arrived to entertain the protesters at Occupy Wall Street, a weary American press had seen it all before. “Pete Seeger enters ninth decade of activism” read one paper. Seeger at one gig in the 1950s said that his contemporaries thought a good folk song “should be at least 200 years old, like a fine wine.” As Seeger himself gets older, his songs aging like wine, his message and taste becomes all the clearer to the generations that spring up around him.

His manifesto is clear from the start in his rendition of Ed McCurdy’s “Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream”:

Last night I had the strangest dream

I'd ever dreamed before

I dreamed the world had all agreed

To put an end to war

I dreamed I saw a mighty room

Filled with women and men

And the paper they were signing said

They'd never fight again

As a manifesto pledge for one’s musical career, it’s not a bad one. Slightly better than “bomb the bastards”, I guess! What separates Seeger from so many men who might have called for this at one point in their lives (Clifford Odets might fairly come to mind here) is that Seeger has been constant in his calling for nigh on seventy years now, so it is fair, I believe, to call it an honest one. His voice, hopeful but weary, tells us that although the dream was an illusion, and one he can’t see happening in reality – hence the “strangest” part – he won’t stop fighting for this cause. “Lost causes are the best causes to fight for” as Jimmy Stewart once said in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

“Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can.
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?”

(Which Side Are You On, Florence Reese) 

His cover of Tom Paxton’s “What Did you learn at school today” is worth a listen to. His voice seems to give credence to the views he expresses. 


I’ll be honest, in that I have no idea how Shane McGowan is still alive. Possibly, not even he knows. The Pogues at their best were outrageous – infamously banned from singing “Streets of Sorrow” on Top of the Pops - melodic, inventive, the worthy successors to the Dubliners. 

Though of his mortality, McGowan would probably, quite rightly, point to the words of If I Should Fall from Grace with God:

“If I should fall from grace with god
Where no doctor can relieve me
If I'm buried 'neath the sod
But the angels won't receive me

Let me go, boys
Let me go, boys
Let me go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry.”

As the opening lines to the opening song of one of the finest albums of all time, this “Ah well, so it goes” attitude sets us up for the ride, as The Pogues continue to be upbeat (Fiesta), political (a whole Medley in fact), drunk (almost all) and downright reflective on life. Fairytale of New York takes most of the acclaim from the album, and it is a fine track superbly dueted by the incomparable and missed Kirsty MacColl (of whom we shall speak lots more on later), but it sometimes overshadows many fine tracks on the same album. I suppose that is a damned good thing, to come to the album on the basis of the signature tune and find it rather than a one hit wonder, merely one of the good tracks of many. 

I love the lyrics, they are so expressive and amusing and angry, often in the same sentence. Bottle of Smoke is a great favourite which is nigh on impossible to sing at karaoke (believe me, I’ve tried!) as our Shane takes us through the vagaries of winning a horsing bet on a complete outsider. I don’t know if its testament to the legend surrounding McGowan that at no point in any of his vocals is my incredulity stretched. I could well believe he was speaking from bitter experience on all points, from betting on horses to raising a glass as an immigrant in New York when he heard of the death of JFK (despite him being six at the time, and living in the slightly less exotic Brighton).

In manhattan's desert twilight
In the death of afternoon
We stepped hand in hand on broadway
Like the first man on the moon
And "the blackbird" broke the silence
As you whistled it so sweet
And in brendan behan's footsteps
I danced up and down the street

Then we said goodnight to broadway
Giving it our best regards
Tipped our hats to mister cohen
Dear old times square's favorite bard 

Ah, those lovely, lovely lyrics. Let’s have some more:

There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there's four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they're still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time
In Ireland they'll put you away in the Maze
In England they'll keep you for seven long days
God help you if ever you're caught on these shores
The coppers need someone
And they walk through that door 

I say, getting a little political aren’t we? Course, the Pogues were on the right side of the history, same as Chris Mullin was, as World in Action was, ie the opposite side of Lord Denning! The Streets of Sorrow section of the above song were sung and written by Terry Woods. The Birmingham bit, which got the song banned, were pure 100% McGowan.

“A spokesman for the IBA said the song, from the album 'If I Should Fall From Grace With God' , contains "lyrics alleging that some convicted terrorists are not guilty and that Irish people in general are at a disadvantage in British courts of law. "We think these allegations might support, solicit or invite support for an organisation provided by the Home Secretary's notice."

The spokesman added that it would be keeping a close eye on any song which might also be deemed "supportive" in the future and would be advising radio and TV not to play them. The decision comes just days after County Sound Radio in Guildford cancelled an interview with Errol Smalley, an uncle of one of the Guildford Four bombers, also mentioned in The Pogues' song.

Pogues manager Frank Murray said he found the IBA decision "hilarious" and added: "I'm glad to see we're that important, that we're a threat to the State:" Murray said he never dreamed that the broadcast ban would stretch to the words of a pop song, but said that it would not affect the lyrical content of The Pogues' music in future. "We stand by everything we say in our songs, there is enough proof, particularly in the case of the Guildford bombers, that Irish people are disadvantaged in British courts of law. The Pogues will continue to write about what they want and we hope every other artist does the same."

(NME, 1988)

This ban, you might be amused to hear, was still in effect AFTER the men were released!

*Lord Denning, incidentally, famous said we wouldn’t have had so much trouble with the Guildford Four if we’d just hung them, as “ It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.” 

I could go on all day about Pogues lyrics, but it isn’t just that which separates them from their peers. The music matches the quality of the writing as they say. The openings to Fiesta and Streams of Whiskey are justly famous riffs. 

Their covers seem mostly of Dubliners classics, but even tracks as classic as Ewen MacColls Dirty Old Town seem like they were destined for McGowan’s vocals. 

There’s also Fuck You I’m Drunk, which I need not go into with polite company, but which can be easily found online...

Ferlin Husky

Of the songs I’ve ever played, and that is a fair few, only one has ever been banned by Mandy. The song which is owed that dubious distinction is “The Drunk Driver” by Ferlin Husky, a heart warming tale about a man who drinks, then drives, then runs over and kills two young children, who turn out to be his children he hasn’t seen for years. I can’t think why she didn't enjoy it. It was nominated as the most depressing song in music history.

Phil Ochs

Now Phil Ochs easily stands as the most tragic of the men we look at in this issue. Our losing him at the stupidly early age of thirty five, brought on by all the horrible unwanted demons in the world, was tragic enough, but Ochs life collapsed around a series of them, just as his musical voice was growing to enchant the world. A friend murdered by Pinochet’s death squads: Victor Jara, who rather brilliantly got the last laugh on the regime who killed him, by singing a Chilean Socialist freedom song when his unplanned executioners asked for a song after torture. Ochs was nearly murdered himself, in Africa, and his voice was severely hamstrung due to the strangling attempt for the rest of his life. But that is to jump too quickly to his end, and to focus on the horrible treatment the man got at the hands of Bob Dylan is to focus too much on the extracurricular nastiness of the music business than to focus on the art itself.

What stands out, even approaching fifty years on, is the humour in his work. Take for example, the start of the great Draft Dodgers Rag.

“I'm just a typical American boy
From a typical American town
I believe in God and Senator Dodd
And an keepin' old Castro down
And when it came my time to serve
I knew better dead than red
But when I got to my old draft board
Buddy, this is what I said
Sarge, I’m only eighteen
I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat
And my feet are flat
My asthma’s getting worse.
Consider my career, my sweetheart dear
My poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain't no fool, and I'm goin' to school
And I'm workin' in a defense plant.”

Delightfully, he manages to list two ailments that would strike me off from any military service in his opening tango, but that is just the first assault in a list of get out clauses which include the bombs causing “epileptic fits” and “being addicted to a thousand drugs”, but not before the singer assures his recruitment officer that if they ever find a war “without any gore” he’ll be first in the recruitment line. The wonderful hypocrisy – a knowing one too – of Ochs lines verges fully into the ridiculous. He manages, in his own way, to poke fun at both sides of an argument by descending it all into the daftest possible extremities. There’s also a heart to this type of music, and I feel when music has a message, as Ochs stuff always does, then the message has a better chance of getting across if the listeners are laughing their heads off at the same time. As the audiences can often be heard doing during the live performances. Over-egging the pudding is not an uncommon aspect of Och’s narrators, and his audiences love him for it.