Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics : A Life in Music

‘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’.

Christmas Cornucopia – Eighth Day

Today’s music comes from two countries: Russia and Ireland which share a reverence for poets and prophets, visionaries, bards and shamans. Both have produced more than their fair share of saints, scholars and wayward genuises.

In both lands a sense of the numinous pervades the air and prayers ascend unceasingly heavenward – even in the increasingly secular modern age.

Of course, both countries are filled with a hundred times the number of would be writers to actual page blackening writers and both have to deal with the drunken consequences of frustrated spirituality encountering the demon drink.

Still, veil-piercing poetry and song are central to the cultural life and achievements of Ireland and Russia. Both peoples love to carouse until they are stupefied yet both are capable of being stilled to silence and tears by a simple lyric or an exquisite slow air.

My first choice today is, ‘The Wexford Carol’ performed by the veritable custodians of Ireland’s traditional music, The Chieftains (here accompanied by a Texas rose, Nanci Griffith).

The Wexford Carol may well date back to the twelfth century though it’s widespread popularity is due to the work of William Gratton Flood, who was musical director of Enniscorthy Cathedral in the late 19th century.

The Chieftains play with an authority born of thousands of hours of perfecting their craft as traditional musicians – always respectful of the source material while being alert to each other’s role in bringing a tune to shimmering life. The Chieftains, led by Piper Paddy Moloney, who has proved to be a natural born networker, have recorded many inspired collaborations with leading artists in many musical genres (though their greatest collaboration is probably with an artist from their own island – Van Morrison).

Here, Nanci Griffith sings the carol with a beguiling gravity befitting the immensity of the events portrayed. Listening I feel as I were marching in a torchlit devotional procession with the same moon that shone over Bethlehem above the sentinel trees of the forest around me.

Next, from a powerhouse of Otthodox Russian monasticism, ‘The Song Of The Magi’. The choir is from the Trinity Lavra (monastery/hermitage) of St Sergius in Sergiyev Posad some 50 miles from Moscow. This has to be the sound of the breath of the Russian soul. Russian Othodox services provide doorways to contemplate the divine – an opportunity in stillness to be lifted into a different realm of being. Giving ourselves over to such an experience can be profoundly uplifting and over time transformative.

Russian spirituality opens itself to mystery and awe accepting that grace cannot be willed but only gratefully accepted. The Magi travelled long miles in search of a new kind of King and gave their gifts to a babe in a manger. Perhaps, listening to this work we could learn to give the gift of an attentive soul.

The poem today, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is provided by one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish Literature, the sage of Iniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

‘Cassioepeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodian’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

This post dedicated to the deceased members of The Chieftains:
Fiddler Martin Fay, Tin Whistle and Bodhran player Sean Potts and the mystical doyen of the Irish Harp, Derek Bell.

Christmas Cornucopia – Seventh Day

Well our Sleigh has travelled more than halfway now on our journey to celebrate ChristmasTide. Yesterday’s choices put me in something of a wistful contemplative mood and led to today’s selections by Chris Isaak and John Prine. Christmas is a time when we often turn our minds to reflection on the health of our relationships. Relationships with our parents, our siblings, our children and our spouses or partners.

And, we remember bitterly or with rueful affection the relationships of old which are now part of our history – part of the person staring back at us in the mirror. Christmas can be a healing and nurturing time for relationships it can also be the occasion for exhausting, tearful sunderings which will sully the season for years or decades to come. As in all things some will say you get the Christmas your life through the preceding year has mapped out for you.

First up a ballad of loss and longing from the golden boy out of Stockton, California – Chris Isaak. It’s not his fault that he looks like a matinee idol and that the microphone loves him almost as much as the camera. ‘Christmas On TV’ tells the sorry tale which Isaak sings without over emoting of a bereft husband with his nose pressed to the window glass watching the Christmas celebrations of his ex-wife and her well heeled new beau. Though he’s only across the street from the happy pair (or so they seem to him) he might as well be a million miles away. It’s so easy to be all alone in the midst of the crowd as the carols play and the lights twinkle. Sometimes only fortitude, a good whiskey and a ballad in blue will get you through.

Merry Christmas to the lost and the lonely, the abandoned, the abused and the outcasts.

Next John Prine who sits at the top table of American songwriters leaning back in his chair with either a rueful smile or a goofy grin depending on the circumstances of the day. Prine has a glorious gift for examining the human heart and it’s myriad joys and travails with a the precision of a tender surgeon. It seems as if he has watched carefully and listened closely as he has moved through life – building up a store of experiences he can hone into humorous shaggy dog stories, touching love songs or heartbreaking tales of misspent or misshapen lives.

John Prine has wisdom which he wears lightly – we can all learn a lot from leaning in when he speaks.

Very few songwriters could match the songwriting carpentry Prine demonstrates in, Christmas In Prison’. I remember my intake of appreciative berth when I first heard the lines: ‘I dream of her always even when I don’t dream – her name’s on my tongue and her blood’s in my stream’.

The Big House searchlight spotlights the snowflakes like dust in the sun and the prisoners aching for those they love outside the walls make do with Turkey and pistols carved out of wood. They’re all homesick waiting for eternity to release them. In the meantime nothing to do but sing up and hope the homesick blues fade away for one night at least. John Prine has a heart as big as any goddamn jail and if I’m ever in Prison it’s his songs I would sing as the doors clanged shut each night.

Today’s poem, ‘The Carol Of The Poor Children’ is by Richard Middleton.

‘Are we naked, mother, and are we starving-poor
Oh, see what gifts the kings have brought outside the stable door
Are we cold, mother, the ass will give his hay
To make the manger warm and keep the cruel winds away
We are the poor children, but not so poor who sing Our Carols with our voiceless hearts to greet the new-born king
On this night of all nights, when in the frosty sky A new star, a kind star is shining on high!’.