Hiding In Shadows – The Way We Make A Broken Heart

‘No adultery is bloodless’ (Natalia Ginzburg)

‘Adultery is in most cases a theft in the dark.’ (Stefan Zweig)

‘To borrow against the trust someone has placed in you costs nothing at first. You get away with it, you take a little more and a little more until there is nothing more to draw on. Oddly, your hands should be full with all that taking but when you open them there’s nothing there.’. (Jeanette Winterton)

‘There must be millions just like you and me, practiced in the art …’
(John Hiatt from, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’)

The human heart is about the size of a large fist and usually weighs about 10 ounces. Throughout each twenty four hours of light, half-light, near dark and dark your heart will beat some 100,000 times and if you are lucky enough to live a long life it will beat on and on three billion times and more.

Beyond its anatomical functions the heart has had, in virtually all cultures, a central place in human beings understandings and puzzlements about why we live the way we do: sometimes behaving honourably and faithfully sometimes turning away to wilfully betray our deepest loyalties.

The theme of love found, love lost and love betrayed has been a constant subject in all forms of art since the first cave dwellers palm painted their walls. Singers and songwriters have found that a truthful song about the twisted dance of the human heart as expressed in our carnal and marital relationships never fails to find an audience which will recognise their own story or one of someone they know all too well.

Artists within the Country and Soul genres, speaking as they do to adult audiences, have specialised in forensically examining the sorrow and the shame, the exultation and the guilt, the secrets, lust, lies and conspiracies involved in those trysts conducted in the shadows away from the homes and marriages where the spurned spouse sleeps unknowingly with their heart beating steadily on.

Roseanne Cash’s version of John Hiatt’s, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’, featured above, was a number 1 single on the US Country charts in 1987. The song had originally appeared on Ry Cooder’s superb 1980 album, ‘Borderline’.

John Hiatt in this song carefully delineates a virtual users guide or manual for those locked in the throes of an illicit affair. The song recognises that the fruits of the passion shared by the protagonists are wormwood for the third party and come at high cost for all concerned. The song speaks of guilt, sorrow, lies and a trail of tears and ruefully acknowledges that the cycle may be unstoppable, ‘She’ll find somebody new and he’ll likely hurt her too’. However, it must be allowed that this perception may be the self-justifying shrug of a repeat offender who cannot believe others might follow a straighter path.

Still the affair must play out its painful course. Passion and longing are the drivers for the affair and once the strings are attached all must play their part whether they are willingly cast or not. In all affairs there is longing; longing to experience once again the white hot flame of addictive lust, longing to become again the person who inspires lust in another, longing for the thrilling possession of the shared secret knowledge of new lovers.

In the song we are in the shadows where lights are low and where on some dark night the lights will be forever dimmed on this affair. The song flatly advises that you get used to telling lies and intimates that the sorrow felt when the tears fall becomes ritualised rather than truly felt. The song may reveal the protagonist as an unreliable narrator who reveals more about himself, to his discredit, than he assumes in the telling of his tale. Hiatt’s reverence for the short stories of Raymond Carver may be making their influence felt here.

Roseanne Cash was at the height of her commercial success in 1987 racking up hit after hit: demonstrating that her success was due to far more than the help having her father’s name had given her initial steps in the music business.

Roseanne sings Hiatt’s song and makes it her own giving it an almost hysterical force in the live version shown here. Her lovely silver bell like voice rings out making every word strike home to do its emotional work on the listener. The arrangement and instrumentation take the song, given a soul/R&B flavour on the original recording, to the Tex/Mex borderlands emphasising the lyrical ballad like shape of the song and giving it a delirious dance rhythm.

It feels as if Roseanne is singing the song to herself as she twirls and twirls around a hardwood floor becoming giddier and giddier as she circles. Perhaps that’s why she lets loose with those intoxicating, ‘Ay, Ay, Ays’ as the song draws to a close. The hangover can, as she knows it must, kick in tomorrow! Tonight it’s a time to dance.

The pleasures and the pain of an affair are inextricably intertwined and this song and this performance bring both facets alive before us. How we hear the song will, of course, be partly determined by our own histories. We all have lessons to learn.

Roseanne Cash:

Roseanne has a distinguished catalogue which shows a highly intelligent woman building upon her considerable gifts as a writer and singer to create works of enduring musical merit and emotional impact. I particularly recommend the albums, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (for the announcement of a real talent), ‘King’s Record Shop’ (for its maturity and the luminous version of, ‘Runaway Train’) and two albums of beautiful but brutally honest and painful introspection, ‘Interiors’ and, ‘The Wheel’.

In the last decade Roseanne has produced a triumphant trio of records, ‘The List’, ‘Black Cadillac’ and, ‘The River And The Thread’ which show an artist at the height of her powers able to honour her family and regional heritage and face head on the sorrows and griefs which assail every life in songs of deep craft and humanity. She has also written an affecting memoir, ‘Composed’ to add to her earlier short story collection, ‘Bodies Of Water’. I think we can safely, at this point, refer to Roseanne Cash as a Woman in full.

John Hiatt:


John Hiatt is a top drawer songwriter and performer who has written a cache of songs including the song featured above which have been recognised by fellow practitioners like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan as modern standards.

Chief among these is the song, ‘Across The Borderline’ which uses the Rio Grande border as a metaphor for the borders we all long to cross while remaining fearful that the promised dream may turn out not to be the gateway to the future we have fondly imagined.

For, we know or dread, that the promises we believe in or make to ourselves can often be broken by our own fallibility or the malevolence of fate.
There are wonderful versions for you to seek out by Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender and Willy Deville (who also does a characteristically dramatic version of ‘The Way.. ‘).

Each artist covering the song brings their own understanding of the history and promises involved in the ballad to the microphone – its a song that asks questions of each singer who takes it on.

John Hiatt’s songs are the product of a highly literate imagination tuned into the rhythms and routines of the victories and defeats of everyday life as lived in communities and towns in modern America. They are principally set in the South where the accents are rich and stories and myths abound to be told and retold.

Some of his songs have a pickup out of control on a country road propulsion (Tennessee Plates’ ) and some have a woody back porch lyricism (Lipstick Sunset). All his best songs have wit and sharp observation incarnated in well honed lyrics. Hiatt is a hymnist of scarred blue collar lives giving them their due weight in careful description and emotional drama.

Recommended CDs – ‘Bring The Family’, ‘Slow Turning’, ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’, ‘Open Road’ and, ‘Anthology’ are my picks though a trawl through his extensive catalogue will undoubtedly find you adding your own choices to this list

An Archangel, A Journey, A Sacred River, The Folk Process and A Spiritual!

Or, to put it another way:

Four takes on, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’

‘… They were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.’ (Frederick Douglas)

‘And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great Prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as there never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, everyone shall be found written in the book.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’.
(Book of Daniel Chapter 12 King James Version)

‘Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah
Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, Hallelujah!’

I began my journey through primary education in the late 1950s with the good Nuns (and they were good Nuns) of the Convent of St Edwards in Paddington, London; which, though I was unaware of it at the time, was a only a couple of hundred yards from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios soon to be made famous by four lads from Liverpool.

I was a pupil at St Edwards from 1959 until the brutal (by UK standards) Winter of 1962/63 when our family made the move to leafy, suburban Harrow. I have two particularly vivid memories of my time at St Edwards. First, the disturbing thrill of reading a children’s version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’ and somehow realising that there was a magical transformative power in poetry and that this was a doorway to another life – the life of the imagination.

Second, I remember the hush that descended as we carefully placed our pens in our ink wells and settled down to listen to the Schools Music Programme Service of the BBC. The cloth covered radio speaker sat high on the class wall, out of reach of curious hands and from its cavernous depths there emerged songs and tunes which would lodge deep, deeper than I could ever have imagined, into my consciousness.

I remember listening to such works as: Stephen Foster’s, ‘Camptown Races’, the nursery rhyme, ‘Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly’, the rustic folk songs from the North East of England, ‘Bobby Shafto’ and ‘When The Boat Comes In’, the royally penned English anthem, ‘Green Sleeves’ and the American ballad (indeed a murder ballad!), ‘Tom Dooley’. These songs emerging from the mysterious ether entered my blood stream and permanently took up residence becoming as familiar as my own hands in front of me.

Above all I recall listening to and singing lustily along to a song I was told was a, ‘Spiritual’ called, Michael Row The Boat Ashore’. Something in this song from the Civil War era in America caught and permanently held my attention so that eventually I am now moved to trace its history and present several versions here on the Jukebox.

Spirituals are a marvellous example of American invention blending of several streams of cultural history to create something vivid, vital and new. Spirituals emerged from the black slave community as a thrilling synthesis of religious, physical and political experience. They frequently concern a downtrodden peoples journey, in hope and faith, from exile to salvation and deliverance in a promised land where the righteous will be reunited with their stolen families and departed loved ones.

In an act of supreme creativity Christian hymns and biblical texts were yoked to ancient African singing styles and melodic accents to produce something truly new and culturally particular. Spiritual are the primary artefacts of the enormous African-American contribution to modern American popular culture.

We shall never know when, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ was composed or who it’s author was. But, we can say that the first historical record we have of it comes from the 1867, ‘Slave Songs Of The United States’ collection by Charles Pickford Ware, William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. It seems that Ware first heard the song and transcribed a version during his stay on St Helena Island, South Carolina while he oversaw the plantations abandoned by fleeing Confederates in 1862.

‘Michael’ along with other spirituals (many collected from slaves Wallace and Minerva Wills by the Reverend Alexander Reid) such as, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and, ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ we’re popularised both in America and Europe from the 1870s by Nashville’s Fisk University Jubilee Singers through highly successful concert tours and a best selling songbook.

Spirituals began to be adopted as folk songs and vehicles of social solidarity and protest from the 1930s onwards by idealistic young white and black singers and musicians as part of what has come to be known as the, ‘Folk Revival’. For many white artists their initial encounters with the cultures evoked in black Spirituals and blues and the Appalachian instrumental and ballad traditions proved nothing less than a deeply affecting and transformative conversion experience from which they never wished to recover!

Songs that would form the Folk Revival songbook were carried and passed on, transmitted, in many different ways. In the curled pages of old ballad books, across the smoky campfire, hanging in the air of the chapel and echoing from the store front church. Some from the blues tradition were half-heard among the din of the honky-tonk, the shebeen and the jazz dive. Some were learned at the knee from the elders, some from local and travelling ne’er do wells, some overheard from the parlour radio, some blasted out from speeding cars and neon bright Jukeboxes. A good song will find a way to be heard and sung.

Pete Seeger, whose ‘Plain Folks’ and almost schoolmasterly sing a long version of Michael as featured above was a key figure in the folk revival through his indefatigable worldwide touring and his membership of important groups such as the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. Pete, who collaborated on the writing and/or popularisation of the folk standards, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and the Civil Rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’ quickly saw the potential in, ‘Michael’ when he learned it from Tony Saletan in the early 1950s.

Everywhere Pete went he sang the song and seeded a thousand folk music careers from his audiences at colleges, camp fire meetings and union rallies. For Pete, fighting the good fight with every breath in his body, songs were working tools to promote social solidarity and change. If you want to learn the basic repertoire of the folk revival Pete, with his no frills style and transparent sincerity, generosity and commitment is your only man!

Coming from a privileged academic and religiously rigorous family Pete became for over seven decades a warrior for truth, justice, peace, civil rights and the environment armed only with a long necked banjo and endless faith in the people and the future. With characteristic eloquence Barrack Obama eulogised him as, ‘America’s tuning fork’ and thanked him for, ‘… Reminding us where we come from and where we need to go’.

I think the Archangel Michael would easily have recognised the lanky, upright figure carrying a banjo who waded across the Jordan at the end of January 2014!

Listening to Pete Seeger in concert and hearing ‘Michael’ on the radio in the early 1960s was an impossibly handsome and talented young black American of Caribbean heritage called Harry Belafonte who would go on to have an extraordinary career as a singer, actor and humanitarian.

Harry’s version has a gospel fervour and burns with political commitment. Harry was a remarkably fluent and versatile performer who could sell any type of song with beguiling charm. His breakthrough Calypso and live at Carnegie Hall records were multi million sellers that took up residence in American Hi-Fi cabinets throughout the nation. Harry loved the limelight and was an authentic show business Prince but behind the scenes he was also a very important and influential figure in the civil rights movement. He was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King providing the bail money to get MLK out of Birmingham Jail and the insurance policy that provided for his widow after his death. In addition he quietly financed the Freedom Riders campaign that sought to increase voter registration from the black community and challenge head on the worst excesses of the bull headed, bull necked, Jim Crow South.

In light of this it is no surprise that Harry’s, ‘Michael’ enjoins its listeners, as they wait for the Archangel to row the boat ashore, to, ‘Hold that line in Arkansas’ and trumpets the message that, like Joshua at Jericho, Alabama will be the next to go. As for Mississippi, while the buses speed south, it’s time to kneel and pray. In my estimation, Harry Belafonte is a very fine artist but an even greater man.

Our third take on,’Michael’ is provided by Johnny Rivers: a much underestimated artist who had an unerring ear for a fine song and the ability to perform material from widely differing genres with an attack and flair that saw him rack up 17 top 40 hits from 1964 to 1977 including the gorgeous number 1 ballad, ‘Poor Side of Town’ and iconic driving rockers like, ‘Memphis’ and, ‘Secret Agent Man’.

Johnny’s residency at the Whisky A Go Go club in Hollywood drew a loyal crowd, including numerous rock luminaries, who recognised that Johnny had a rock and roll heart and a killer band. On record his band included stellar figures from the LA, ‘Wrecking Crew’ stable including Hal Blaine on the drums, Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knetchel on keyboards.

A Johnny Rivers record never out stays its welcome and I usually find, as with this storming take on, ‘Michael’ that I’m reaching for the repeat button as soon as the first second of silence hits me when the record finishes.

The final version of, ‘Michael’ I have chosen comes from the very hard working and productive roots music missionary, Eric Bibb. Eric grew up at the epicentre of the folk revival in the early 1960’s – New York CIty’s Greenwich Village. He was very well connected in this world with his father Leon being an actor and singer, his uncle John Lewis being a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet and his godfather being none other than Paul Robeson!

Eric, born in 1951, began to perform in his early teens and was making his recording debut by his middle twenties. He has proved a very deft artist who is at home in the gospel, folk and blues traditions. At his best, as on the version of, ‘Michael’ above he achieves a kind of meditative grace that searches out the heart and soul of a song so that a work you have heard a thousand times can suddenly appear fresh and alive with new potential and meaning.

A song, a Spiritual, a folk anthem, a testament to the human spirit, like, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ will never run dry. For we will always hope that we will meet again with our loved ones who have already crossed the Jordan. Downtrodden peoples will always need to have faith that there is indeed salvation and deliverance ahead even if it often seems so very far away.

Finally, Most of us will hope that when we step gingerly into eternity’s boat that our ferryman will be the Archangel Michael and that he will carry us safely home across the chilly and cold Jordan River.

This post dedicated to Sister Calasanctius, Sister Mary Monica and Sister Mary Mildred who were all extremely kind and indulgent to a quiet boy who seemed forever lost in dreams of poetry and songs when he should have been paying attention to arithmetic and his times tables!

One Degree of Bob Dylan:

Unsurprisingly given their association with the Folk Revival and the hectic days of the early 1960s all the above artists have connections with Bob Dylan, the Keeper of American Song.

Pete Seeger was an early and passionate advocate for the young Bob’s exploding talents and he helped to open doors and make introductions to key figures in the Big Apple’s folk elites.

Harry Belafonte had a unknown Bob play harmonica on, ‘Midnight Special’ marking Bob’s debut on record. In his wonderfully artful and characteristically enigmatic work of autobiography, ‘Chronicles’ Bob pays a very heartfelt, indeed effusive, tribute to Harry:

‘Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist … He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.

‘ … Everything about him was gigantic … With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect.’

Johnny Rivers recorded a fine version of Bob’s magisterial put down song, ‘Positively Fourth Street’. Bob called it the favourite of all versions of his songs and said it was obvious that they were from the same side of town and were from the same musical family.

Eric Bibb came across Bob through his Greenwich Village connections. In one of his first bands he played with Bill Lee (father of Film Director Spike) who played on Bob’s Freewheeling’ LP sessions. Eric also had a direct meeting with Bob when he was only 11. Apparently Bob advised the precocious Eric that when it came to guitar playing he should, ‘Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff’.

Album Of the Year 2014 – Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics

‘We are all falling. See my hand: it bends.
And look at others: It’s in all their calling.
And yet there’s One, who’s holding all this falling
Endlessly tender in his upturned hands .. ‘.

(Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation Walter Aue)

‘ The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness … Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.’

(Anton Chekhov: letter to Alexi Suvorin May 30 1888)

Vocation: A person’s main occupation especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication. From the Latin, ‘Vocare’ – to call’

‘I still have to practice a lot. You have to keep yourself going and moving and then you are going to be looking for new things … You have to keep exploring and finding new shapes and new versions, new melodic ideas. Keep at it all the time.’

(Richard Thompson interviewed by Martin Chilton for The Daily Telegraph February 2013)

Richard Thompson’s latest CD, ‘Acoustic Classics’ is the hard won though lightly borne product of a career that has involved more than forty-five years of ceaselessly seeking to write, perform, record and renew songs that honour the call he has heard to tell stories through his pen, voice and guitar about the thrilling, tender, terrifying and tormented experiences humankind is heir to before that last breath.

‘Acoustic Classics’ contains no new songs yet it is one of the most vital creations of Thompson’s storied and stellar career. It displays his considerable gifts as an artist and can be listened by the casual listener or fellow practitioner as a kind of vade mecum or handbook of the craft of songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.

Given Thompson’s immersion in and importance as a musician within the tradition of British folk music the CD might otherwise be described as a wandering minstrel’s chapbook for the ages containing tales, ballads, jests and fables illuminating the victories, defeats, joys and betrayals of an everyday life that would in its emotional essentials have been as recognisable to Chaucer’s pilgrims as it is to today’s citizens of London, Sao Paolo, Sacramento or Sydney.

Thompson is rightly proud of his songs and one of the purposes of this set is surely through the deft drama of his virtuoso acoustic playing to demonstrate their immense contained spiritual and emotional power without the listener being overwhelmed by the head swirling Sturm und Drang he brings to the electric versions.

One of Thompson’s greatest attributes as a songwriter is his ability to find the right tone and language to describe the characters he presents and the situations they are confronted with. He does not suffer from the besetting sin of so many modern songwriters of wearily reproducing self analytical, fast fading xeroxes of their own emotional states.

He has consistently been able to imagine lives that he might have led, that he could never have led or would never have wanted to lead. He is interested as an observer and as an artist in the dramas of the human condition as expressed in the travails of our endlessly variable capacity to build and/or destroy our relationships with ourselves, each other and our god.

Thompson, as a religious man, is acutely aware of the inevitability of death. As a songwriter he understands that an essential element of the beauty and poignancy of our lives is their fragility. To celebrate life necessarily involves embracing death and relishing the intense pleasures of the moment. There is an affinity here with Thomas Hardy – a certain winter chill of the imagination, a sure consciousness that time has an unflinching rigour that must not be denied.

His reverence for British traditional music has instilled in him a desire to create songs that will last because they speak to the eternal truths of the human condition. Songs that will not be found wanting by the tests of performance and passing time.

Take the example of, ‘Wall Of Death’ which through a deliriously circular melody and lyrical celebration of the pleasures of the fairground slyly hymns the thrill of peering over the cliff edge of life at the unfathomable depths of dark death beyond. To do so feels, ‘the nearest to being free’ so it’s well worth taking your chances when it reminds you of the miracle of every breath. His guitar playing here is springily and increasingly propulsive brilliantly mimicing the dizzy carnival ride.

Thompson had a pronounced stutter as a boy and young man and it was through the guitar that he found a voice that could communicate to the world with a depth, complexity and fluidity denied to him in everyday speech. Throughout the CD his playing though sometimes displaying astonishing technical accomplishment never seems strained or flashy. He has an acute sense of what to play and what not to play. He plays what needs to be played to bring the songs to life.

Thompson’s gifts as a storyteller and witness to the lost and disregarded are given full rein in his wonderful song, ‘Galway to Graceland’ which has the added merit of also being an oblique tribute to Elvis Presley. The song tells the tale of a Galway woman who leaves her marriage and everything about the west coast of Ireland life behind to travel to Graceland in West Tennessee to be with the King. She keeps an obsessive vigil over Elvis’ grave confessing to him the hopes and dreams she has never told anyone else. For, in her mind, they are married (doesn’t she have his ring!) no matter what the world might say. Thompson in his vocal delivery and the balm of his beautifully paced and graceful guitar gives the character her full human respect and dignity so that tears spring to the eyes.

I have been in bars in Ireland where a floor singer sang that song and heard people singing along and yet when I asked them who wrote the song I was told that it was a, ‘traditional song’ which says something for Thompson’s ability to write within and yet extend the territorial reach of the folk song.

The same might be said for his truly classic composition, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’ which has the soothing cadences of a long lost lullaby from another age. I am confident this song will be sung as long as, ‘the moon pulls on the tide’ for it speaks to core human needs; the need to have a confidant, the need to have a hand to hold in the fast falling dark: which can sometimes seem so much more powerful than the light.

We all need to find someone who will recognise our better side. I always feel the lovely line, ‘When all the bonny birds have wheeled away’ is a tip of the hat to his fallen comrade from Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, whose own great sigh of a song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ opens with, ‘Across the evening sky all the birds are leaving’. Thompson’s guitar playing on this song has a taste and simplicity that only a considerable artist can achieve.

The CD sound is bright, close and clear having been expertly mixed and mastered by Simon Tassano. You feel as if you are right next to Thompson as his fleet fingers and plectrum coax golden shimmering notes from his guitar. If you are a guitar player you can try to play along and if you have a hundred years of intense study to spare you might yet match him! Throughout his guitar is an eloquent complementary voice to his vocals alternately driving or commenting sometimes obliquely, sometimes ironically, on the action and themes of the songs.

Thompson has chosen the songs to showcase here wisely. So we get the crowd pleasing brilliance of his performance of, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ bringing the motorcycle world of 1950s England to technicolour life not least in the description of the femme fatale of the song, ‘Red hair and black leather – my favourite colour scheme.’ You can almost smell the petrol fumes and be dazzled by the chrome as his guitar playing effortlessly exceeds the speed limit as he climbs Box Hill. Bob Dylan, who knows a thing or two about great songs, recently played this song in concert as a tribute to his fellow songsmith.

There are the songs like, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and, ‘Down Where The Drunkards Roll’ in which Thompson captures in a tender but clear eyed way the lives of the boorish and the outcasts trying to make it through another day. The latter song shows an awareness that those in the gutters might just see more of the stars than those who rush through a sober blinkered life. There are songs like, ‘Valerie’, ‘Persuasion’ and, ‘I Misunderstood’ that show how the promises of love can be fulfilled or wring with wrong the deceived and the deceivers hearts.

Thompson knows that many gamblers never draw a hand and that there are sailors aplenty who never leave dry land. He knows that life can be as breathtakingly beautiful but also as fragile as a Bees Wing.

His art is always aware that everyday we are walking on a wire and that sooner or later we will fall. His songs give us courage and heart as we cross.

Tracklist: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Walking On A Wire, Wall Of Death, Down Where The Drunkards Roll, One Door Opens, Persuasion,
1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I Misunderstood, From Galway To Graceland, Valerie, Shoot Out The Lights, Beeswing, When The Spell Is Broken, Dimming Of The Day.

This post dedicated to Mike Brosnan – no mean guitar player himself. In our bachelor days we spent many an evening marveling at Richard Thompson’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter while the Whiskey flowed.

Christmas Cornucopia – Twelfth Day

So, at last – the twelfth day of our Sleigh’s journey and it’s Christmas Eve. I hope you have enjoyed the music and reflections on the way here.

I have agonised over the music choices in this series and have a couple of years worth stored up for Christmases to come (you have been warned!). But today’s choices were the first I wrote down and were my inevitable selections for the day before the great Feast.

First, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, with his inimitable spoken word rendition of Clement Moore’s, ‘The Night Before Christmas’. It is safe to say that Bob’s pronunciation of the word ‘Mouse’ has never been matched in the history of the dramatic arts! Of course, in the process of his more than 50 year career Bob has continually been reinventing himself and in so doing has gloriously renewed American culture.

The clip,above comes from his wonderful, ‘Theme Time’ radio show where over a 100 episodes he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century popular music and a wicked sense of humour. Bob also recorded for the season at hand the deeply heartfelt, ‘Christmas In The Heart’ album which gets better and more extraordinary with every hearing.

It is clear that Bob, who is well aware that it’s not dark yet (but it’s getting there) is consciously rounding out his career by assuming the mantle of the grand old man of American Music tipping his hat to every tradition (hence the upcoming Sinatra covers CD). The only safe thing to say about Bob is that he will have a few surprises for us yet!

Now we turn to Judy Garland with a Christmas song without peer, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous. It’s as if her singing really came from the secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard. No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

Today, not a poem but the concluding passages from, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the incomparable Charles Dickens – a writer for all seasons and situations.

‘Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?

‘I am very sorry, sir’ said Bob, ‘I am behind my time,’
‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.’
‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

‘Now I’ll tell you what my friend, said Scrooge, I am not going to stand that sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, leaping from his stool and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, and therefore I am about to raise your salary!’

Bob trembled and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

‘A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. ‘A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

And who am I to do anything other than echo Mr Dickens and Tiny Tim?

So, to all the readers of the Jukebox I wish you a peaceful and joyous feast – however you choose to celebrate it. God bless us, Every One!

Christmas Cornucopia – Eleventh Day

We are nearing the end of our journey now with our Sleigh still moving forward following a star. As you approach the end of any journey there is space for reflection on the path already travelled and anticipation of the welcome to be found at the destination.

The Holy Family, weary and anxious about the straitened circumstances surrounding the impending birth of Jesus had to hold on and have faith that somehow all would be well and they would be a family. Above all Mary had to have faith that her encounter with the heavenly realm at the annunciation and the event foretold by the Angel Gabriel was miraculously true and that she would indeed be a mother to a saviour (though one she would have to nurse and nurture like any other human child).

There would have been no Christmas birth without Mary’s assent at the Annunciation. From that leap of faith heaven and earth became joined and history eternally altered. Mary was in a very real sense the first disciple: accepting God’s call and following it never knowing the joys and sorrows it would entail as her son too accepted his destiny.

I was an altar server from the age of seven and I can still recite the responses to the Latin mass if I close my eyes. I can also recall the way certain prayers had a profound impact on me that was probably based more on their literary and musical cadences than any theological understanding given my youth.

The prayer that always moved me the most was the Loreto Litany Of Mary, the reciting of which even in an almost empty church seemed to set up a palpable spiritual vibration in my being.

‘Mother most admirable, Mother of good Counsel, Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, ….
Mirror of Justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, Spiritual vessel, vessel of honour …..
Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of ivory, House of gold ……. ‘

Those flowing phrases will never leave me.

My first music choice today is a song that shares the Litany’s hypnotic attraction. From Patty Griffin, one of the treasure houses of American song, ‘Mary’.

I spoke earlier about nursing and nurturing and I can think of no more apposite artists to express those qualities than the glorious partnership of Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Emmylou Harris as they invoke in, ‘Golden Cradle’ the mystery of motherhood and the light of the stable which still burns bright today some two thousand years and more since it first shone in Bethlehem.

Kate and Anna infused every song they ever sang with a deep feminine tenderness. Kate was not long for this world when this performance was recorded and in a sense it can stand as an epitaph for a woman who gave so much, as a simple gift, to her art, her family and the world.

The poem today is, ‘Christmas Night’ by a contemporary English poet, Lawrence Sail.

‘On the wind, a drifting echo
Of simple songs. In the city
the streetlamps, haloed innocents,
click into instant sleep.
The darkness at last breathes.

In dreams of wholeness, irony
is a train melting to distance;
and the word, a delighted child
Gazing in safety at
a star solid as flesh.

Christmas Cornucopia – Tenth Day

Let’s pull our Sleigh up again. Today I think it’s time to remember that Christmas is a time for celebration. A time to meet up with old friends and make new ones. A time to sing and dance and laugh. A time to shake our fists in the face of the dark, cruel winter as we affirm our faith in the inevitable restorative power of the light.

For many years I did much of my celebrating in bars, pubs, Honky Tonks and Road Houses soaking up the music and the booze as the nights progressed. The music choices today reflect that biblious spirit.

First, the Boss Of The Blues – Big Joe Turner. Big is no empty boast; Joe was over 6ft 2 and weighed more than 300 pounds so when he arrived in a room you knew he was there! You would also know Joe was around because his voice could break through walls and wake the dead. Joe had to develop his shouting style when he worked in the hectic, heaving bars of wide-open Kansas City in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Even though the joints Joe worked in such as the Kingfish and the Sunset would have been rammed to the doors with free spending, free fighting customers Joe never had any problem getting heard from behind the bar. As, ‘The Singing Barman’ he formed a famous partnership with pianist Pete Johnson immortalised in the standard, ‘Roll ‘Em Pete’.

If I had been a customer I would have ordered (in honour of the Rudy Toombes song) One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer – knocked them back and settled in for a night of peerless blues.

Joe’s career lasted some 60 years and he was variously styled as a bluesman, a jazz singer, a Rythmn and Blues stylist and a pioneer rock ‘n’ roller – whatever the label the big man went his own sweet way launching every song into the stratosphere with the immense power of his vocals.

From the moment, ‘Christmas Date Boogie’ opens we know we are in good hands. Big Joe is very much the master of ceremonies marshalling the instrumental forces around him. They are all fine players given their chance to shine but there is no doubt who is the star of the show! You can just imagine the big beaming smile of Joe as he tears into this Christmas frolic. Resistance is useless – where’s the Bourbon?

I’ll let the very fine Irish poet (I think you may have guessed by now that I am somewhat well disposed to Irish poets) Michael Longley introduce the next music Titan:

‘He plays for hours and hours on end and thought there be
Oases one part water, two parts gin
He tumbles past to reign, wise and thirsty, at the still centre of his loud dominion –
THE SHOOK, THE SHAKE, THE SHEIKH OF ARABY’.

The subject of the poem and the artist featured in our second music selection is, of course, the one and only, one man musical encyclopaedia and indefatigable party starter: Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller. A short list of his accomplishments would have to include his very considerable prowess as a pianist, organist, singer, songwriter, composer and comedian.

Yet any list of talents and achievements would undersell Fats impact on his contemporary artists and his audiences. Fats was beyond category – he was Fats Waller and The Lord of any room he chose to light up. He could in the course of a single number go from being rollickingly rumbustious to wistful gentle melancholy.

Sadly his early death meant that the true depth of his talents were never fully sounded but nevertheless he leaves a unique legacy of wondrously entertaining recordings. If you ever need cheering up and reminding of how good it is to be alive just press the button next to Fats name and you will feel a whole lot better – I guarantee it.

Today’s poem is, ‘Mary’s Song’ by Charles Causley.

‘Warm in the wintry air
You lie,
The ox and the donkey
Standing by,
With summer eyes
They seem to say:
Welcome, Jesus,
On Christmas Day!

Sleep, King Jesus:
Your diamond crown
High in the sky
Where stars look down.
Let your reign
Of love begin,
That all the world may enter in.’

Christmas Cornucopia – Ninth Day

After yesterday’s stop to gaze reverentially heavenward it’s time to turn to more earthly considerations. The Greeks, as you might have expected, had different words to describe the varied forms of love we express and experience. Yesterday we were concerned with Agape – the love of God for man and man for God. Today we will find sings that express Eros – sensuous, sexual love and the appreciation of beauty and Philia – the love expressed in affectionate regard and friendship.

Our first song today is a tremendous southern soul sermon from a master and mentor for the genre, Joe Tex. ‘I’ll Make Everyday Christmas (For My Woman)’ glows bright with Joe’s gently enveloping passion. Joe’s forte was telling stories in song using humour and homespun wisdom so that you felt he was gifting you the hard won lessons of a richly lived life.

Joe had a country preacher’s sense of the hunger in the audience for parables that would make sense of the roadblocks and confusions assailing them in their lives and provide a route map for the way ahead.

They knew that Joe didn’t pretend that he had never been a rounder and a rogue as well as a true romantic and love disciple. We often, rightly, pay more attention to the testimony of someone who admits to failure and frailty than those in their whited sepulchres who are quick to admonish our every fault.

Joe sings the song with a steadily growing intensity almost as if the promise he was making was as much to his own better self as to the woman it was made to. When the record finishes its hard not to say, ‘Amen! Brother, Amen!’ and vow to make sure you too take care to make everyday Christmas for your own woman or man.

Next, the delightfully cool Miss June Christy with, ‘Christmas Heart’. June was a veteran big band vocalist who followed Anita O’Day as the singer with Stan Kenton. As a solo artist she made a magnificent album, ‘Something Cool’ which should be on the shelves of anyone with an appreciation of the art of jazz singing.

I have always found something deeply engaging in the understated, wistful tone June Christy brings to a song. It seems she has stripped out all unnecessary flourishes so that we hear the essence of the song as she steers us gently to understanding through her embrace of the melody and lyric. The lack of hectoring or self regard in, ‘Christmas Heart’ makes its dreamlike plea for Christmas to be a day when all the wounded find rest and balm all the more affecting. You never really need to ask who is your neighbour – just look around you.

Today’s poem is, ‘Carol For The Last Christmas Eve’ by a favourite poet of mine, Norman Nicholson from Millom in England’s rural Cumbria. Never fashionable NIcholson’s work will endure.

‘The first night, the first night,
The night that Christ was born,
His mother looked in his eyes and saw
Her maker in her son.

The twelfth night, the twelfth night,
After Christ was born, the Wise Men found the child and knew
Their search had just begun.

But the last night, the last night,
Since ever Christ was born,
What his mother knew will be known again,
And what was found by the Three Wise Men,
And the sun will rise and so will we,
Umpteen hundred and eternity’.