Good Gumbo from New Orleans! Frankie Ford, Huey Piano Smith & Bobby Marchan

The Mississippi River is a wonder of nature. From its source in Lake Itasca Minnesota it flows 2320 miles all the way to Plaquemines (love the sound of that name!) Parish Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

On its epic journey it courses through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The citizens of Minneapolis, St Paul, St Cloud, La Crosse, Dubuque, St Louis, Cape Girardeau, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans can gaze in awe as it majestically passes them by.

Songs and stories, tall tales and twisted tunes have always been an essential part of the freight and traffic carried by the mighty Mississippi.

No city (with all respect to Memphis) has contributed as much to the creative ecology of the river than New Orleans. Especially when it comes to players of the 88 keys of the piano.

With a roll call of keyboard saints and sinners including Jelly Roll Morton, Tuts Washington, Champion Jack Dupree, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr John, the lately departed Alan Toussaint and the piano man I’m featuring today, Huey Piano Smith, it’s obvious that New Orleans wears the laurel wreath when it comes to piano stylists. I feel a ‘New Orleans Piano Masters’ series coming on!

Now, each of the great musicians above has their own personal touch and tone: their own rhythmic fingerprint to charm our senses. What they share from their New Orleans heritage is profound immersion in the traditions of gospel, blues and jazz (not forgetting the concert music of the salon).

Sitting down at the keyboard a New Orleans Master can slide and shimmy through an encyclopaedia of piano styles calling up the distinctive rhythms of ragtime, stride and boogie-woogie as required.

The left hand lays down earthing bass lines while the right adds the melodic decoration. Listen closely and you will hear the interplay of rhythms from West Africa and Cuba giving what Jelly Roll Morton called a, ‘Spanish Tinge’ to the music.

And, all this is done with unhurried authority. New Orleans piano has marinated flavour. Tunes, at all tempos, swing. Each player their own River Boat Captain announcing their arrival in Town with proper swagger.

With all that dutiful history and exposition in mind let’s just glory in the absolute delight of Huey Smith’s ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu’ from 1957.

No system can resist this musical virus!

Johnny Vincent is credited with the novelty lyric (I have to admit that whenever anyone asks me do I have a cold I always answer, ‘No, but I do have the Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu!).

The record sold over a million copies and became a Jukebox favourite in any self respecting Honky-tonk.

The irresistible vocal is by Bobby Marchan. Commanding the keys Huey plays with gorgeous fluidity adding flashing filigree flourishes to the rock solid bass line. His years spent listening to Albert Ammons, Professor Longhair and Fats Domino all summoned up into 135 seconds of piano paradise.

Huey is a New Orleans native whose musical apprenticeship included several years as a teenager working with the superb showman Guitar Slim (see earlier Jukebox post). Specialty Records recognised his piano prowess and he was soon playing sessions for Earl King, Little Richard, Lloyd Price and Smiley Lewis.

It was 1957 when Huey formed, ‘Huey Piano Smith and His Clowns’ and signed a record deal with Johnny Vincent at Ace Records. Bobby Marchan, a flamboyant female impersonator with show-stopping vocal chops took the centre stage role.

Together in 1958 they made one of the most infectious records of all time with a lyric which defies certain transcription (I’ve had numerous arguments, on licensed premises, as to how the lyric should be reproduced phonetically!).

However you spell out the lyric you won’t be able to resist singing along to, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’.

Now that I think about it the song may well be founded and draw its immense energy from memories of childhood skipping games and adult excluding nonsense rhymes. Sometimes, nothing makes more sense or is more satisfying than to chant with all your heart:

… Ah, ha, ha, ha, hey, eh, ho, Dooba, Dooba, Dooba! Dooba, Dooba, Dooba!

There’s a tangled tale behind the next great record made by Huey. ‘Sea Cruise’ from 1959, the most famous song he was ever involved with, was written by Huey and recorded by him and The Clowns with Bobby Marchan (or by some accounts) Geri Hall on vocals.

There’s a fantastic paddle steamer surging tidal rhythm throughout the song that just sweeps you along before depositing you breathless and elated on the shore after three minutes of unalloyed joy.

Johnny Vincent smelled a hit. But, he thought (correctly) that the hit would be bigger and the dollars flow more freely if the track was speeded up, given some added sound effects and fronted up by a charismatic white singer.

After all Huey was a somewhat reticent figure and while Bobby Marchan’s transvestism raised few disapproving eyebrows in anything goes New Orleans it was hard to imagine them appearing on American Bandstand with Dick Clark!

Enter from stage left, Frankie Ford!

While the ethics of Johnny Vincent’s decision to superimpose Frankie on the original track are problematic to say the least it’s also undeniably true that Frankie Ford, given his shot at Major League status, hit the ball right out of the park for a huge home run!

Ooh – Wee Baby! You got nothing to lose . . Won’t you let me take you on a Sea Cruise!

Frankie was from Gretna across the river from the Crescent City. He was a campy show bizz kid who jumped at joining high school bands and entering talent competitions showcasing his piano and vocal skills.

Listening to DJs like, ‘Poppa Stoppa’ and hanging around music clubs gave him a liking and feel for rhythm and blues. One of New Orleans connected music fixers Joe Carrona took a liking to Frankie and introduced him to Johnny Vincent and thus was history made!

The final record featured here today, another fine Huey Smith composition originally titled, ‘Loberta’ was transmuted into, ‘Roberta’ when Frankie took up the mike to sing.

Notwithstanding Frankie’s heroic vocal it’s already a hit for me before he opens up because of Huey’s bravura piano intro and the immediate foot to the floor entry of the band. Beautiful New Orleans ensemble musicianship.

Huey Smith was never one to demand the spotlight.

Maybe he knew that there would always be those who would recognise and delight in a truly fine piano player and note that ‘H. Smith’ was the writing credit on some of the most cheering and enduring records of the 1950s.

Notes:

Huey Smith – there are numerous collections of his 50s classics. The one on my shelves which is full of treats is, ‘Don’t You Just Know It – The Very Best of 1956-1962, Singles As and Bs’ issued by Jasmine Records. Cue up, ‘High Blood Pressure’ straight away!

Frankie Ford died in 2015 aged 76. There is a compilation on Fuel 2000, ‘Sea Cruise’ which is a fitting memorial to a real trouper.

Bobby Marchan died in 1999. In addition to his wondrous performances on ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia’ and, ‘Don’t You Just Know It’ there are a number of fine records in his later career. Chief among these is his epic take on Big Jay McNeely’s, ‘There Is Something On Your Mind’

Philip Chevron (The Pogues) & Francis Ledwidge – The Music of longing

One of the roles of a true writer is to bring all the gifts of their being to the task of creating art which though conscious of history and artistic tradition demands that you attend to how it feels to be alive NOW in this particular society and culture in all its messy complexity.

And, if you can accomplish this task by creating songs, lyrical ballads, which speak urgently to their time while having depth of humanity and beauty of composition you will find that such songs do not wither and die.

Rather, they take on a life of their own and become beloved by audiences and fellow artists from different eras and cultures who will find universal truths emerging from these particular songs. Songs, filed with the quick life of the day, if they are good enough, find entry into the hallowed treasury of traditional song. Such songs will always find an audience and always find singers to sing them.

Philip Chevron wrote such songs.

Ireland was fortunate to find, in Philip Chevron from his 70s days with Ireland’s pioneer punk heroes,’The Radiators From Space’ through to his solo work and triumphs with The Pogues, a songwriter who wrote with fierce aching truth about the life he lived and the times he lived in.

Philip Chevron (born Philip Ryan) in 1957 grew up in Santry, Dublin. In his writing he chronicled with deep feeling, literary finesse, puzzlement and pain the realities of growing up in the Dublin of the 1970s. Few punk bands anywhere had a singer and writer with the ambition and artistic scope of Philip Chevron.

The Radiators 1977 debut record, ‘TV Tube Heart’ was filled with urgent songs displaying the frustrations and anger of urban youth in a society that seemed in many respects ossified and coldly indifferent to all those who in any sense lived lives which crossed the borders of catholic propriety.

The Radiators second album, ‘Ghostown’ produced by Tony Visconti is simply a great record including two songs, ‘Kitty Ricketts’ and, ‘Song of the Faithful Departed’ which demonstrated beyond argument that Philip Chevron was a world class songwriter.

Critical acclaim came plentifully but this was not reflected in record sales. Moving to London Philip found a home in the expatriate community and became friends with Shane McGowan of The Pogues and became a member of the band at the time of their second album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’.

His abilities as a guitarist, singer and songwriter became crucial especially in view of the increasingly erratic behaviour of Shane McGowan.

To celebrate Philip Chevron on The Immortal Jukebox I’m going to feature three wondrous songs. The first, ‘Under Clery’s Clock’ is a miraculous song which finds heart rending beauty in a situation where a young gay man struggles to find dignity and love in a world which stonily refuses to admit that love has never been limited to that between men and women.

The use of Dublin districts like Burgh Quay and the cultural landmark of the department store clock – for generations a meeting place for trysting lovers anchors the song in time and place.

The regretful melody adds poignancy to the protagonist’s situation; living with urges he can’t fight wanting to be able to meet a lover in the light not in a dark and stinking place. The sense of outraged dignity and desperate longing in this song is palpable and overwhelmingly moving.

Let’s turn now to ‘The Song of the Faithful Departed’, which may be Philip’s masterpiece. A compendious song which, without strain, artfully and compassionately invokes the literary, religious and historical crosses and legacies that Ireland stumblingly shouldered in the 20th century.

No better man to take on such a song than the eminence grise of Irish music, Christy Moore, whose radar always picks up on songs which speak with power and humanity.

The version here is from a July 2013 live performance – a benefit for Philip in the last months of his life. Christy introduces the song by reading a letter from Philip Chevron which shows the measure of both men.

A line like, ‘The graveyard hides a million secrets’ resonates with increasing power with every passing year as the sins and scandals of Official Ireland have been brought shamefully into the light. But, impressively, this is not a finger-pointing song it’s a song of empathy and fellow feeling. Its a song from a writer at the height of his powers.

There will be no end to the singing of this song.

The emigrant ballad is one of the staples of Irish song. Philip Chevron with The Pogues produced in, ‘Thousands Are Sailing’ a deeply felt and formally sophisticated song which yearningly evokes the shared experiences of Irish emigrants to America over two centuries.

Again the song does not hesitate to face up to the painful realities that spurred emigrants to leave home and the challenges they faced when arrived in the long dreamed of America.

It was one of the signal hallmarks of Philip Chevron songs that they beguile rather than batter and that while conscious of the painful realities of life in the end they urge us to sing out the darkness and dance into the light.

Philip Chevron’s funeral service in October 2013, attended by family, friends, fellow musicians and artist in their hundreds, saw his coffin carried in accompanied by ‘Faithful Departed’ and borne out to the strains of ‘Thousands Are Sailing’.

Among the tears there must have been enormous pride.

For poetry today I turn to a lesser known Irish poet, Francis Ledwidge who died at the third battle of Ypres in 1917. Sometimes referred to as the poet of the blackbird or as a peasant poet he was, as all true poets are a protean figure always remaking himself to write the poetry demanded of him. Contradictions prove creativity. I urge you to seek out his work.

To One Dead

A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Bluebells swinging,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.

A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
Bluebells swinging,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood’s threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me.

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

Derek Bell (The Chieftains) and Samuel Beckett – As good as it gets!

Posts for Paddy’s Day 2

My dad, God rest him, was sparing with praise. Only those truly outstanding in their fields got the nod. Sportsmen such as jockey Lester Piggott and Hurler Jimmy Doyle were credited as being, ‘As Good as it got’.

The other accolade, very rarely bestowed, on someone considered unique in character and achievement was, ‘Now, he’s a one to himself’ which I remember him saying only about the actor Robert Mitchum and Muhammad Ali.

Taking up these terms I now use them myself though characteristically with more profligacy than he ever did! Even so it’s rare for me lavish both terms on an individual no matter how high my esteem for them.

But, the exception proves the rule. So, today’s post concerns an extraordinary Irish artist, Derek Bell; harpist, harpsichordist, pianist, oboist, arranger, composer and conductor and bona fide eccentric. If ever any man deserved to be called, ‘As good as it got’ and, ‘One to himself’ it is Derek Bell.

He was born in Belfast in 1935 and before he was a teenager he was an accomplished pianist and the composer of a concerto. He had rigorous classical training at The Royal College of Music before taking up a series of prestigious posts with classical orchestras as an Oboist.

Incredibly, given his virtuoso status, he did not take up the harp until he was in his 30s. Searching through the harp repertoire in the Irish Tradition he inevitably came upon the work of the great 17th/18th century Harper, Turlough O’ Carolan.

O’ Carolan is a mythic figure in Irish music and history. A bard, blind from the age of 18, who equipped with harp and horse roamed Homerically throughout Ireland composing and playing exquisite tunes that have immense melodic charm.

O’Carolan’s music has had no better champion than Derek Bell. His perfectly paced performance of the haunting, ‘Farewell To Music’ has a limpid beauty that pierces to the soul.

Here Derek puts me in mind of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans’ playing on, ‘Blue in Green’ ; only musicians of the highest order, secure in their craft and selfless before their music, can play with such simplicity.

It was a 1972 St Patrick’s Day concert of the music of O’Carolan that first brought Derek into contact with The Chieftains (referred to by one of his orchestral colleagues as a, ‘Tatty Folk Group’). The ever alert Paddy Moloney, the ringmaster of The Chieftains, recognised Derek as a great musician and knew that the the addition of a brilliant harpist would give the group an even more distinctive sound and expand their repertoire

So from 1975 Derek was a full time Chieftain, an inveterate tourer and a beaming collaborator with musicians running the gamut from Ry Cooder to Chinese Folk Orchestras. Beyond his musical genius he brought a wholly individual character and impish sense of humour to The Chieftains.

Derek cut a distinctive figure on stage: attired as he invariably was in a crumpled suit, tie and pullover with the short legs of his trousers allowing view of cartoon socks! He was often forgetful of the mundane elements of life. He was once arrested at Moscow airport for carrying a ticking alarm clock in his jacket pocket as he was about to board a flight!

Listen to him here with The Chieftains as they hymn O’Carolan and demonstrate their eminence as traditional musicians – individually brilliant and collectively harmonious.

For Derek what really counted was the music. Like Van Morrison he was a dweller on the threshold who devoted his life to his art with an open heart, an elevated spirit and religious fidelity .

His death in 2002 at the age of 66 was an incalculable loss to music. Ones to themselves don’t come along very often.

Ireland in the 20th Century was blessed with a dazzling gallery of Poets, Playwrights and Novelists who won critical acclaim, popular success and serial Nobel Prizes. To my mind the most eminent of them all was Samuel Beckett.

I freely admit that I have been obsessed with the man and his work ever since I first encountered, ‘Waiting For Godot’ as a teenager. I have a zealot’s conviction that the tender Irish musicality, humour and precision of Beckett’s prose combined with the rigour of his thought and the scarifying uniqueness of his dramatic vision mark him out as the greatest writer of his era.

Beckett found in the actress Billie Whitelaw a muse who responded with dedication, wholehearted courage and endless commitment to the enormous technical and emotional challenges involved in the roles written for her by Beckett.

He acted as a composer/conductor and she as a brilliant instrumentalist determined to play a seemingly impossible piece perfectly. The work they did together, just to cite, ‘Happy Days’ and, ‘Not I’ must constitute one of the most significant partnerships in the history of the theatre.

Today I’m sharing a film which showcases one of Beckett’s most intense and poignant late works, ‘Rockaby’. The artful structure and deep musicality of this short play reflects Beckett’s immense theatrical craft and imaginative daring.

The play expertly deploys rhythmical language in descending loops to evoke a dreamlike state where buried memories swirl around a mind and being that is closing down.

Rockaby faces head on some of the deepest questions in human life? Who am I? How do we know ourselves and how do we know another? What moves the rocking chair? How do we come to terms with our extinction?

Billie Whitelaw found the play, ‘very frightening to do’ yet trusting to the truth of Beckett’s vision she produced a performance which is note perfect and almost unbearably moving.

Now, as they say, for something completely different. There was a time when the humour was on me and pints of porter were freely flowing when I would stand up, whatever the company and launch into the mock epic ‘Sucking Stones’ speech from Beckett’s novel, ‘Molloy’. A wondrous performance of the speech can be found on YouTube embedded in Barry McGovern’s legendary one man Beckett show, ‘Beginning to End’

I would suggest you read the text below out loud to catch the full brilliance of its humour. Only Samuel Beckett could have written this. After all, he was one to himself and as good as it gets.

I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn
about.

This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my
greatcoat.

Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it.

Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets,
but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to
suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my
greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time.
And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I
have just described. And so on.

But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that,
by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.

In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was
really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.

But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and
again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of
obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to
pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a
man like me. So I began to look for something else …

I might do better to transfer the stones four by four, instead of one
by one, that is to say, during the sucking, to take the three stones remaining
in the right pocket of my greatcoat and replace them by the four in the
right pocket of my trousers , and these by the four in the left pocket
of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my greatcoat,
and finally these by the three from the right pocket of my greatcoat,
plus the one, as soon as I had finished sucking it, which was in my mouth.

Yes, it seemed to me at first that by so doing I would arrive at a better
result. But on further reflection I had to change my mind and confess that
the circulation of the stones four by four came to exactly the same thing
as their circulation one by one.

For if I was certain of finding each time, in the right pocket of my greatcoat, four stones totally different from their immediate predecessors,
the possibility nevertheless remained of my always chancing on the same stone, within each group of four, and consequently of my sucking, not the sixteen turn and turn about as I wished, but in fact four only, always the same, turn and turn about.

So I had to seek elsewhere than in the mode of circulation. For no matter how I caused the stones to circulate, I always ran the same risk. It was obvious
that by increasing the number of my pockets I was bound to increase my
chances of enjoying my stones in the way I planned, that is to say one
after the other until their number was exhausted.

Had I had eight pockets, for example, instead of the four I did have, then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from
sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn about.

The truth is I should have needed sixteen pockets in order to be quite easy in my mind. And for a long time I could see no other conclusion than this,
that short of having sixteen pockets, each with its stone, I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard.

And if at a pinch I could double the number of my pockets, were it only by dividing each pocket in two, with the help of a few safety-pins let us say, to quadruple them seemed to be more than I could manage. And I did not feel inclined to take all that trouble for a half-measure.

For I was beginning to lose all sense of measure, after
all this wrestling and wrangling, and to say, All or nothing. And if I
was tempted for an instant to establish a more equitable proportion between
my stones and my pockets , by reducing the former to the number of the
latter, it was only for an instant. For it would have been an admission
of defeat. And sitting on the shore, before the sea, the sixteen stones
spread out before my eyes, I gazed at them in anger and perplexity …

One day suddenly it dawned on me, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve
my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the
number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim.
The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within
me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once,
and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense,
long remained obscure.

Finally I seemed to grasp that this word trim could not here mean anything else, anything better, than the distribution of the sixteen stones
in four groups of four, one group in each pocket, and that it was my refusal to consider any distribution other than this that had vitiated my calculations until then and rendered the problem literally insoluble.

And it was on the basis of this interpretation, whether right
or wrong, that I finally reached a solution, inelegant assuredly, but
sound, sound.

Now I am willing to believe, indeed I firmly believe, that
other solutions to this problem might have been found and indeed may still
be found, no less sound, but much more elegant than the one I shall now
describe, if I can …

Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a stone from
the right pocket of my greatcoat , suck it, stop sucking it, put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of stones).

I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket
of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents)
and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are
all in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the
five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by
the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the
right way, that is to say with other stones than those I have just
sucked.

These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other,
vand to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat,
being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this
kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but
others.

And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of
stones), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same
redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution,
that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now
again available, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my
greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on?

There was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I
abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck
the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with
method, was also I think a bodily need.

Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads.
Such things happen. But deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and
forewards.

And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked
a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had
collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and
such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little
store, so as never to be without.

But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without,
when they were all gone they would be all gone,
I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all
the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another,
and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or
swallowed …

Maura O’Connell – Silence and Stories: Maggie, Down By The Salley Gardens

Posts for Paddy’s Day 1

Christmas. New Years Day. Spring Solstice. Easter. Midsummer Day. First leaf fall. First fall of snow.

Way markers of the passing year. Each new feast chiming with all those that have gone before in the quickening parade of our lives.

And, if you are Irish, or of Irish stock, St Patrick’s Day.

On my twitter account (@thomhickey55 – sign up now if you’re not signed up already!) I describe myself, among other things, as, ‘Almost Irish’. That’s because though I was not born in Ireland both my parents and all my forebears were.

So, I unhesitatingly believe that whatever literary or rhetorical gifts I possess are drawn from a deep Celtic well. My mother told me a million stories and taught me how to tell them too. My Dad taught me how to listen to the important things that are always said in silences.

Stories and silences. Silences and stories. Of such things are true songs and poems made. By singers and poets who have listened, learned and dwelt in the silences surrounding the stories they offer up to us.

So, for the week that’s in it, I’m going to feature on The Immortal Jukebox some of the Irish singers, musicians and poets who have told the stories, sung the songs and made the poems that have touched my heart and lifted the spirits as the parade of my own life has passed by.

There are many stars in the firmament of Irish roots/traditional music and the nation has been particularly blessed by a generation of luminously talented women singers including Dolores Keane and Mary Black.

But, for me, the singer who has always shone the brightest and heartrendingly illuminated the miraculous combination of power, poetry, joy and tragedy contained within a really great song is Maura O’ Connell.

Some mysterious quality in her voice, which frequently brings me to tears, seems to bring out the truth that, ‘behind every beautiful thing there’s some kind of pain’. I can’t think of another singer who marries the story and the silence with such delicate grace as Maura O’Connell.

Her ability to find and reveal the beating heart of a song after searching within herself for the truest way to offer up its gifts, without histrionics or affectation, is achingly exemplified in, ‘When You and I Were Young Maggie’.

There is no grandstanding when Maura O’Connell sings. She once said that, ‘My intention was to just sing the song clearly. I just wanted to be there to serve the song, rather than to show off a particular vocal style’.

She seems to me to have perfected the art of sifting a song for the precious metal at its core. Through instinct and craft she finds the stillness and silence within a song. Then, with respect, discretion and measured emotion using all the resources of her vocal talent and personal presence; the very essence of her being – she sings. And we encounter a true artist.

Maura O’Connell knows that a true song though anchored in the time and culture of its creation will, if performed with a true heart and true art, live on into the future and speak to peoples never imagined by its author.

In W. B Yeats, ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ Maura found such a song. Though thousands of singers have sung this song it’s Maura O’Connell who sounds the deepest depths of Yeats’ incantatory cadences. Surrender, with gratitude, to the spell she and Yeats have cast.

Now a poem from a true inheritor of Yeats’ bardic role in the life of Ireland and the life of poetry, Seamus Heaney. The sudden manner of his death was a profound shock for Ireland and the world wide poetic community. Yet, while acknowledging our grief we draw sustenance from the poems which will surely continue to speak of the human condition down the ages as do the poems of Homer, Virgil and Yeats.

In his wonderfully vigorous poetry we are brought into imaginative contact with earthed lightning. And, sometimes we are guided to a realm that is usually just out of our vision, though always there.

Flaggy Shore 2

A place where known and strange things pass right in front of us and the world is made anew. Seamus Heaney made poetry which caught our hearts off guard and blew them open.

Postscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully-grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park or capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open

Dedicated to Peg Brosnan, Mikey Brosnan (RIP) and Kevin and Nora McElligott (RIP).

Thanks to Catherine Dunne for the haunting image

Richie Havens: Roots, Freedom, Bob Dylan & The Beatles!

‘I only know the first and last song I am going to sing when I go onstage. That’s the way I have always done it. I was moved to do this and sing these songs. My whole thing was that I was sharing something with everyone else that was give to me.’ (Richie Havens)

Richie Havens didn’t spend too much time, ‘strategising’ his career. He didn’t worry about developing his, ‘Brand’ or murmur in the night about the magnitude of his digital reach.

No! What Richie did is what great musicians have always done – he searched for true songs to sing and sang them with all the passion at his command to make a powerful physical, spiritual and emotional connection with his audience be they numbered in the dozens or the hundreds of thousands.

It seems to me that Richie Havens triumph as an artist was to make the whole world a tribal campfire through his musicality and the generosity and intensity with which he shared his gifts. Performing music was for him a freely chosen vocation and a sacramental act.

It seems appropriate then that the opening performer for the epochal 1969 Woodstock Festival which would rightly come to be regarded as an historic event in popular culture and American history was Richie Havens.

At 5pm he took the stage before an audience of some 400,000 souls and launched into a legendary set well captured in Michael Wardleigh’s documentary film of the event. Due to the mother and father of all traffic jams on the roads leading to Yasgur’s Farm other acts on the bill struggled to arrive on time. So Richie played and played and played until his fingers were raw and his shirt was drenched in sweat.

And, finally, when he was told he was about to be relieved he came back for a final encore with the inspired idea to take the tried and tested spiritual, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’ and meld it into a shamanistic celebratory chant of, ‘Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!’ summing up, in a single word, the underlying hope and theme of the Festival and the generation which gave it birth.

Whatever happened later to that hope; on that day, on that stage, Richie Havens made it a shining reality.

Richie Havens was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn in 1941, the eldest of 9 children. His mother’s family had West Indian heritage and his father was a Native American from the Blackfoot tribe (his grandfather had landed in New York through joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show!).

Richie, naturally musical, absorbed the gospel and DooWop sounds that echoed all around the stoops and avenues of 1950s Brooklyn.
Though no academic scholar, he was also intensely curious and inquisitive and these qualities led him to venture into and become a habitual visitor to the crucible of the late 50s/early 60s beatnik universe, Greenwich Village.

There, in the wild ferment of painters, poets, songwriters and social revolutionaries, inspired by charismatic folk maestro Fred Neil, he took up the guitar and swiftly developed his own mesmerising style on the instrument featuring open tunings and a tremendous rhythmic drive. Adding to this his gravelly, ‘You can’t doubt I believe every word I’m singing’ vocal style and you have a formidable performer who audiences couldn’t help but surrender to.

Richie’s catalogue is distinguished by his constant ability to find songs with emotional resonance and then to arrange and perform them with visionary force. Listen to his definitive take on a song about freedom and loss, ‘High Flying Bird’ from his major label debut album, ‘Mixed Bag’. Richie will have learned the song, written by Billy Ed Wheeler, from the recording by an under appreciated figure from the era, Judy Henske.

Playing the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, in the early 60s, Richie Havens was bound to run into the tousled kid who had just blown in from the windswept Iron Range – Bob Dylan. Richie, presciently, recognised that the kid was a genius and that the songs he was writing so furiously had a unique beauty of imagery and an imaginative depth which were manna from heaven for an interpretative singer who was willing and able to live them in performance.

Richie Havens would build a wonderful treasure hoard of Dylan recordings most notably, ‘Just Like A Woman’ which in concert he often segued with Van Morrison’s luminous, ‘Tupelo Honey’ (head on over to YouTube as soon as you’ve finished reading this post!).

I have chosen to feature here his deeply moving, elegiac, elegantly patinated, version of one of the key songs of the 1960s, ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’.

From this performance it is obvious that Richie knows that in the present time, in time past and time future, there is, was, and always will be, as an inescapable part of the human condition, ‘tears in things’ as Virgil wrote as well as hope for a brave new world.

Richie brings out the truth that the burdens of mortality leave none of our hearts and minds unscarred. Yet, we continue, must continue, to hope for, believe in, and work for a better tomorrow for us all.

Hope may seem to hide for years – yet it always returns. As has our Sun rising from the East every blessed morning for the last 4.5 billion years or so. And that hope, attached to the returning sun, has never been better captured than by George Harrison in his exquisitely beautiful, ‘Here Comes The Sun’.

Richie Havens knew in his bones that The Beatles were, along with Dylan, the supreme artists of the age gifting their contemporaries with songs vividly illuminating what it felt like to be alive, in all its joy and puzzled pain, in their times.

Listen to the way, in live performance, that Richie prayerfully rings out the song; sunbursts of hope goldenly showering upon us from his flying fingers and the gospel truth of his voice.

Don’t you feel lifted up!

Richie Havens, who died in April 2013, never stopped looking out for songs that could reach out and make a connection. I’m going to conclude this tribute with, what might have seemed a surprising choice to many, his gloriously exhilarating recording of Lamont Dozier’s, ‘Going Back To My Roots’. Don’t think you can sit in your chair once this one starts!

In truth Richie Havens never strayed from his roots as a troubadour. A musician earning his living and living his life to the full through playing his music. Famously, he said that he had never had a bad day on stage. Listening to him who can disbelieve him?

Richie Havens was a big man in every respect. What distinguished him most, of course, was not his height of six foot six or his striking full beard and huge hands. Rather, it was the largeness of heart and spirit he shared so unceasingly throughout a half century of recorded and live performance.

Richie Havens lent a might hand and heart to changing his times for the better: leaving all of us in his debt.

Notes:

Thankfully Richie Havens has a large recorded legacy.

The records of his I play most are:

‘Mixed Bag’ from 1967 featuring, ‘Handsome Johnny’, ‘Just Like A Woman’ and, ‘Eleanor Rigby’

‘Richard P Havens 1983’ from 1969 featuring, ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’, ‘The Parable of Ramon’ and, ‘Run, Shaker Life’

‘Stonehenge’ from 1970 featuring, ‘Minstrel from Gault’, ‘It’s All Over Now Baby Blue’ and ‘I Started A Joke’

Alarm Clock’ from 1971 featuring, ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and, ‘Younger Men Grow Older’

‘Nobody Left to Crown’ from 2008 was his recorded swan song. It features a brilliant take on, ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ and the incandescently reflective title track.

Many superb in concert performances can be tracked down on YouTube.

Free – Gloriously Blazing Too Far, Too High, Too Soon!

Ah youth, youth. When the blood sang in our veins. When there were worlds to be discovered, explored and thrillingly conquered. When we were almost sure, almost sure, we were immortal.

Yet, in the dark watches of the night – a sudden shiver.

Youth will, must, in time wither and decay. Beauty, so breathtakingly potent now, will, must, lose its bloom. What if the impregnable certainties of our beliefs should tumble and fall as medieval castles did to unimagined assailants?

The sand in the hourglass flows and flows running down your unknown span of days. Enjoy your youth while you may for it is a currency too easily spent never to be replenished.

These are the days, so soon to melt away, that you must savour. These are the days that will always echo in your soul. These are the days that you must always hold in your heart while it still beats.

Cut to April 1968. To a pub, The Nags Head in Battersea London, where a band of teenagers, named, ‘Free’ are about to make their debut. For all the hard drinking punters knew that day they were just another of the hundreds of the by the numbers blues/rock bands that had emerged in the wake of the pioneering work of John Mayall and his assorted Bluesbreakers including star alumni Eric Clapton and Peter Green.

As it turned out Free before they played their final gig at Newcastle’s Mayfair in October 1972 would justly earn a reputation as one of the great live bands of their era and record seven albums featuring superb singing and collegiate musicianship associated with a series of songs that would echo on in the decades after their days in the sun were long shadowed by time and personal tragedy.

Cut to the Isle of Wight Festival in August 1970. Free, riding high (helicoptering in!) with their anthemic signature song, ‘All Right Now’ topping charts all over the globe take the stage and deliver a performance to an audience of half a million souls which demonstrated beyond any doubt that two years of intense touring has turned them into an awesomely accomplished musical force no sensible competitor would choose to follow.

The brilliance of Free’s live shows are well captured on the essential, ‘Free Live’ CD with their set from Sunderland showing them at their incendiary best. Listen to their own ‘Mr Big’ and their definitive cover of Albert King’s, The Hunter’ and you will encounter magnificent musical control with every member of the band contributing with distinctive skill to create a glorious unified sound.

The sound of a band in its pomp playing with confidence, power and finesse. The sound of a band overflowing with love for their music. No wonder they accumulated a huge loyal fan base that filled and shook concert halls whenever they played.

Free’s singer and a natural born front man Paul Rodgers was 18 when Free formed. He hailed from Middlesbrough in England’s gritty North East. His father warned him that working class boys must learn a trade or face decades of insecure low paid drudgery.

Paul took this advice to heart though not in a way his father could ever have forecast! Paul’s apprenticeship was spent not in a shipyard but criss crossing the motorways and A roads of Britain with Free learning to form his own singing style from the lessons he had learned from youthful hours listening to Muddy Waters, Otis Redding and Levi Stubbs.

Like those masters Paul became a heroic singer able to command the stage and the recording studio using the resource of his smokily sensual voice as each song demanded; now playful, now raging, now tender, now regretful. A band with Paul Rodgers strutting his stuff out front was never going to be overlooked!

Free were blessed that their bass player, Andy Fraser, just 15 when he joined, was a genuine prodigy who had a seemingly inborn sophisticated sense of rhythm which gave the band a lovely organic flowing sound.

Andy as well as being a technically accomplished bass player was also an acute listener who was able to pick up on, channel, challenge and redouble the melodic imagination and songful soul of Paul Rodgers and guitarist Paul Kossoff to create thrilling song arrangements.

With Paul Rodgers he formed a songwriting partnership which would give Free a treasury of songs to draw on. Before his death in 2015 he would go on to write fine songs for leading artists with my own favourite being the exquisite, ‘Every Kinda People’ recorded most notably by Robert Palmer.

Behind the drum kit, escaped from rural Wales, was Simon Kirke, 18 when he joined. Simon anchored Free’s rampaging sound with unfussy authority. When they went into full blitzkrieg mode he was a heavy wrecking ball drummer but he could also rein things back and provide a lulling pulse on ballads and reveries.

His calm and sensitivity was an important element of the overall Free sound and his security playing at slow tempos marked him out from so many of his over busy contemporaries.

Enter, Londoner Paul Kossoff, just 17 when he joined, a genuinely tragic figure, dead at 25 a victim of a drug habit he seemed incapable of resisting, whose extraordinary guitar playing whether in unison passages or in heart rending solos marked him out as one of those rare musicians who has,
‘The Touch’.

The Touch is hard to define but easy to recognise and impossible to learn. It’s nothing to do with technical accomplishment. It’s everything to do with a sound that is immediately distinctive, a sound that bears the unmistakeable hallmark of the human soul with all the blessings, graces, weaknesses and wounds that produced it.

Peter Green had the touch. Jazz pianists Bill Evans and Jimmy Yancey, in their very different ways, had the touch. B. B. King had The Touch.

Players with The Touch stop you in your tracks shaking you out of imaginative torpor. They make you listen. They make you feel. They take you places you didn’t know existed.

Paul Kossoff lived to play the guitar, lived most fully, was most himself, when he played guitar. Playing guitar he transformed his Les Paul or Stratocaster into a wizard’s wand conjuring unrepeatable, inexplicable magic out of the air.

You can hear The Touch in nearly everything he played in his short life. You can hear it in his supernatural interplay with Andy Fraser on Mr Big. You can hear it in the anguished vibrato and nerve shredding trills of his sound in, ‘The Hunter’.

You can hear it in the measured magnificence of his playing throughout, ‘All Right Now’ which I must have heard a thousand times or more on student jukeboxes. Yet, I can still stand to hear Kossoff, Rodgers, Fraser and Kirke another thousand times or more because, ‘All Right Now’ is a real song they play with steady heads and full hearts.

In 1971 Rodgers and Fraser wrote one of the favourite songs of my youth – the dizzying, whirling carousel beauty that is, ‘My Brother Jake’. You can feel their joy in playing together, in getting away with doing just what they always wanted to do and getting paid for it! This is one of my first go to songs if I ever need reminding that it’s a wonderful thing to be alive.

Free were undone by the inevitable personality and character driven disputes that arise between charismatic, forceful young men like Paul Rodgers and Andy Fraser and by the tragic decline of Paul Kossoff despite the best efforts of his bandmates to save him from himself.

We will never know what wonders they might have created had their choices and circumstances been different. Yet it must be better to celebrate the treasures they have left us rather than to mourn what might have been.

As I was thinking about writing this post a song I could not name for several weeks kept edging its way into my consciousness. It was only when I sat down to write this tribute that the overworked minions of my memory vouchsafed that the song was, ‘Get Where I Belong’ which I will leave you with as an elegy for a band who blazed a shining comet’s trail and left us with music for the ages.

Perhaps, with the spendthrift wrecklessness of youth they did go too far, too high, too soon, with little thought of how they would come down but we should always be grateful for the view of the moon and the stars they illuminated for us.

Notes:

Free issued 6 albums of original material and a live recording in their brief 1968 to 1973 career. They will all repay your time.

The classics are, ‘Fire and Water’ and, ‘Free Live’

There is a handy 19 track compilation, ‘The Free Story’ and, for enthusiasts (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!) there is a marvellous 5 CD set, ‘Songs of Yesterday’