I arrived at the green lawns and riverbanks of Cambridge University in 1974 having drunk deep of the glories of English Literature and well versed in the political history of the nation.Embed from Getty Images
I was also brimful of blithe Irish eloquence.
I had read a lot and, apparently, knew a lot about matters profound and ephemeral. The work of the next three years (and the many following decades) would be refining mere knowledge into understanding.
I was immeasurably aided in this journey by the good fortune of being the only undergraduate of my year who chose the Medieval History option.
This was because it entailed weekly supervisions with The Master of my College, Edward Miller, an internationally renowned scholar who also happened to be a truly wise and kind man who could smile at my naivety without hobbling my enthusiasm while introducing me to rigorous, evidence led, thought and analysis.
Very often at the end of our discussions having described my latest essay as ‘showing real promise’ he would add that it might be helpful to read the work of some prominent historian (whom I had usually never heard of) in the interests of deepening my understanding of the subject.
At one of our meetings we were discussing how the approach of the first millennium had affected eschatological thought, religion and culture.
Edward Miler said that Norman Cohn’s, ‘The Pursuit of the Millenium’ was one of the great works of modern history and that I should lose no time in reading it.
So I did.
Having done so I found myself breathless in the high Himalayas of the mind.
I became a devotee of Cohn’s writings and reported that back to The Master at our next meeting.
Unprecedently, I was able to surprise him with my knowledge when I explained that this was not the first time I had come across the Cohn family as Norman Cohn’s son Nik had written a pioneering work of Rock’n’ Roll scholarship, ‘Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom’!Embed from Getty Images
I also explained that after reading the works of Pere et Fils Cohn and contemplating end times I had turned to two pieces of music in particular.
First to Wagner’s epic, ‘Gotterdammerung’ – which he knew well and then to Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End of the World’ – which he did not know (though he said on the strength of her name alone he would investigate).
Looking back introducing a major scholar to the music of Skeeter Davis may have been my sovereign accomplishment in my three years at College.
For, once heard, no one can forget Skeeter!
Now, I don’t know about you but if I’ve got to be around when The World ends I’m going with Skeeter rather than Wagner!
Some will tell you it will end in flood and some in fire.
Some say it will end in cold, cold, timeless, Universal stasis.
Some say it ends when the one who vowed to love you for evermore told you they didn’t love you anymore.
Others will tell you that The World ends every day for those who draw their last breath no matter how the globe continues to spin for the rest of us.
‘The End of the World’ was issued in December 1962, at the height of The Cold War, when rational people really did think that Nuclear War was imminent and that there was not really a whole lot of use in the, ‘Duck and Cover’ strategy.
Many were readying themselves for the hard rain that was assuredly a gonna to fall. A gonna fall.
Lying in my desk drawer there’s a film script of an alternative history of 1962 (to be directed by David Lynch).
In my scenario the Russian Battelships don’t turn back and the ICBM’s turn most of the world into poisonous ash.
As the opening and end credits play it’s Skeeter’s sweet apocalyptic threnody that sets the mood.
The lullaby of all lullabies for the end of The World.
The record was No 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 as well as featuring prominently on the Easy Listening and Country Charts.
It even hit the top 5 on the Rhythm and Blues listings!
When something’s in the literal and metaphorical air everybody feels it.
Especially when articulated by someone like Skeeter who sang with such affecting winsome purity.
Skeeter’s voice whispers to you in the lonely watches before dawn.
Skeeter’s voice is young and ageless.
Skeeter’s voice is as real as a summer breeze and as ghostly as the breath of those summers long passed by.
Skeeter gets under your skin and stays there.
She was born Mary Frances Penick in December 1931 in Kentucky. Her delightful nickname came courtesy of her grandfather’s wonder at her constant buzzing energy.
The ‘Davis’ came about through her association at high school with Betty Jack Davis. They found they had a natural affinity and that together their harmonies held audiences spellbound.
So, they became The Davis Sisters and soon found themselves local stars and radio regulars on shows like The Wheeling Jamboree on WWVA.
Emboldened, the girls decided why not go to New York and get signed by RCA?
Flying for the first time they nervously enquired where their parachutes were stowed!
Amazingly they managed to get the air of music business panjandrum Steve Scholes and they were indeed signed to RCA.
On May 23 1953 they found themselves in Nashville for their first recording session with music legends Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd in support.
Straight off the bat they came up with a classic record with Cecil Nunn’s, ‘I Forgot More (Than You’ll Ever Know About Him).
Here were divine harmonies telling an instantly recognisable story that resonated in so many lives.
An enormous hit resulted. Number 1 on the country charts for two months and a Radio and Jukebox staple for evermore.
Unlikely as it may seem the song hit home with the young Bob Dylan in Hibbing as he recorded it on his Self Portrait album as well as singing it live with Tom Petty in the 1980s.
The bohemian pairing of Elvis Costello and Tom Waits showed their softer side when they recorded the song.
When Skeeter toured with pre superstar Elvis as they sang gospel tunes backstage he confided that ‘I Forgot’ was one of his favourite songs
Still, it’s always Skeeter and Betty Jack for me. Listening to them evokes both the heaven of bliss and the regret of the love grown cold.
Now the girls were sitting pretty on top of the world. But, tragedy intervened when on 1 August 1953 they were involved in a car crash which left Betty dead and Skeeter seriously injured.
It would be the early 60s before Skeeter’s career really got back in gear. The support and encouragement of Chet Atkins who always believed in Skeeter was crucial.
From these early ‘comeback’ discs I’ve chosen the addictive, ‘I can’t help you I’m falling too’ an answer record to a massive Hank Locklin hit (this one should please the sage of Truro).
When it comes to Country singing Hank sets a high bar but Skeeter’s lyric Appalachian tones will have your heart and soul swaying in time.
Chet Atkins (pictured below) ensured that Skeeter always had the cream of Nashville pickers at her sessions and that Music City’s premier songwriters kept the material flowing.Embed from Getty Images
You really can’t go wrong with Skeeter’s catalogue as she brings the restorative balm of her voice to every song she sings.
In the interest of showing the breadth of her talent I’m now featuring her 1963 top 10 take on a Carol King/Gerry Goffin song, ‘I Can’t Stay Mad At You’ which demonstrates that Skeeter could have been a premier lead singer for any Girl Group!
My last selection today comes from her lovely tribute to Buddy Holly album. The tenderness in Buddy’s writing found a counterpart in Skeeter’s vocals making this a very happy conjunction.
Get ready to swoon as you listen to, ‘True Love Ways’.
Listening to the above has made me rethink my apocalyptic film script.
For, there’s another way of thinking about the end of the world.
Every day the world we thought we knew ends as we discover more about the world around us.
So, every day the world ends and every morning the world is born again.
Granting us a blessed opportunity to remake the world of yesterday and try again to make a world for ourselves and each other that might just be truly worth living in.
And, as we do,so, however dark the situation, Skeeter’s voice will light the way.
Every home should have a ‘Greatest Hits’ of her classic sides and the Buddy Holly tribute album.
I also heartily recommend the record she made with The NRBQ, ‘She Sings, They Play’ and the duets she made with Bobby Bare.
I was delighted when I learned that the plangent truth in Skeeter’s voice made her a huge star in Jamaica, Kenya and the Far East!