Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams : Drifting Too Far From The Shore

Out on the perilous deep
Where dangers silently creep

I’m gonna die today.

29 last month.

And, I’m gonna die today.

Consider this my last letter.

About 12 hours from now I’m gonna take that slow walk.

To The Chair.

To The Chair.

I been drifting too far from the shore for a long time now.

Drifting too far.

Counting down the hours sets your mind thinking all right.

Mine goes back to the beginning.

A cabin in the Piney Woods.

Listening to the radio at night with the moon and stars shining through the windows and ol’ Bill Monroe (with Mama’s harmony) singing me to sleep.

Ain’t no one sing like Bill.

Today, the Tempest rose high,
And clouds o’ershadow the sky

There’s many a guy in here who’ll look you straight in the eye and tell you they is innocent.

Not one of them telling the truth.

Well, not me.

Not me.

I’m here because I killed a man.

Shot him twice through the heart.

Caught him carrying on with my wife.

Glad I done it.

Ain’t no reprieve from The Governor coming.

Just counting down the hours.

Counting down the hours.

Eight hours now.

Eight hours.

Drifting too far from the shore.

Drifting too far.

Can’t get that song out of my head.

Come to Jesus today,
Let Him show you the way

Padre came.

Told me all about repentance and forgiveness.

Told me all about tender mercies waiting for me.

Mama would have said the same.

Jesus name was never very far from her lips.

Just tidying up she would be singing, ‘Kneel At The Cross’ or, ‘Just A Closer Walk’.

She was a true believer.

True believer.

Never did take with me.

No, when you go.

You go.

No Sun. No Moon.

No Heaven. No Hell.

Black earth and the worms.

Four hours now.

Four hours.

Still, I sure would like to hear Mama sing Drifting Too Far one more time.

No one forgets their Mama’s voice.

No One.

One more time Mama – as I drift further and further away.

Further and further away.

Sure death is hovering nigh,
You’re drifting too far from shore

Well, I had my steak and eggs.

Everybody’s lined up.

Lined up to take me away.

Minutes not hours now.

Minutes not hours.

Drifting too far from the shore.

Drifting too far.

I’m gonna stand up straight and walk with my head up.

Ain’t gonna cry or scream.

Keep my eyes open wide when they shave my legs and head.

Can’t get that song out of my head.

This time.

This last time it’s Hank Williams I hear.

He never made it to thirty too.

If there’s one man who looked over the River of Death then it has to be Hank.

He walked with Death all his life.

Walk with me now Hank.

Walk with me.

Hold my hand Hank.

Hold my hand.

Hold …

Notes:

If you want to assess the influence and reach of Drifting Too Far From The Shore consider this statement from Bob Dylan The Keeper of American Song:

Maybe when I was about ten, I started playing the guitar. I found a guitar… in the house that my father bought, actually.

I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top.

And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there–country record–a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.”

The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else …
that I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.”

Bill Monroe – the Father of Bluegrass and one of the greatest figures in 20th Century music first recorded Drifting Too Far with his brother Charlie in the 1930s.

I like to think this was the mystical version that opened up Bob’s head!

The RCA/Bluebird recordings of The Monroe Brothers are eternal treasures.

Boone Creek – featured the wonderful high tenor voice of Ricky Scaggs and the Dobro King, Jerry Douglas.

Their late 70s recordings, ‘Boone Creek’ on Rounder and, ‘One Way Track’ on Sugarhill glow with passion.

Emmylou Harris – Her luminous version of Drifting Too Far is from her, ‘Angel Band’ collection of Country Gospel songs.

Hank Williams – His version was unreleased during his lifetime. One thing I can say – you can never have too many Hank Williams records.

Rod Stewart, Jerry Lee Lewis : Song Stylists – What Made Milwaukee Famous

Hey Buddy!

Hey Hank!

The Usual?

Pint of Guinness?

No, today, I’m in need of a Bim, Bam, Boom!

A Bim, Bam, Boom?

Yeah, you know:

One Scotch – Bim!

One Bourbon – Bam!

One Tequila – Boom!

Ha! Coming up.

That ought to do it all right.

Sometimes you just need that Bim, Bam, Boom – or think you do.

You like to be in a place where everyone knows your name but nothing really important about you.

You like a place where the Jukebox is stuffed with drinking, fighting and cry, cry, crying songs.

The ones you sing along to under your breath without even realising that’s what you’re doing.

The ones that bring those stinging tears to your eyes.

The ones that remind you of all the things you had.

The ones that remind you of all the things you lost.

No, the things you threw away.

Threw away.

Threw away in a joint just like this.

Threw away because you thought you needed a head full of Red, a bellyful of Beer or the wild song of Whiskey in your blood before you could face another Night or find the courage to face another Day.

In the end the nights and the days bled into each other and love and happiness drifted away with the alcoholic tide.

Too late you finally see.

Too late.

Time now to call on The Killer.

He knows a thing or two about throwing things away.

Hey Hank – right now I cant read too good – what number is, ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous’?

‘A1’ ‘A1’

Aint that just right.

Funny, every time this song comes on the place goes quiet and the murmur of the Loser Choir drowns out the Air Con.

Take it away Jerry Lee.

Sing this one for me.

Jerry Lee Lewis! Jerry Lee Lewis!

Now, it would take the combined genius of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews to invent a character half as extraordinary as Jerry Lee.

For my part let’s just say that with Ray Charles I consider him the greatest song stylist of the modern era.

I’m not one for joining Fan Clubs.

But, at 17, I did join the Jerry Lee Lewis Fan Club and much as I looked forward to my subscription copies of The New Yorker, Southern Review and The London Review of Books coming through the letter box none of them quickened my pulse like seeing the bulky envelope with, ‘Fireball Mail’ stamped brightly in red hitting my mat!

What Made Milwaukee is from 1968 when Jerry Lee was rebranding himself as a Country Singer( having had more than a few run ins with the press, the radio, local sheriffs and the whole damn, petty, you can’t do that here!, official world which just couldn’t cope with a bona fide Wild man).

A Wild Man who also happened to be by an act of will and character a conduit for the great streams of American Music.

Jerry Lee, is of course, a Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll as well as a Country Singer to top all except George Jones.

Goodness gracious Jerry Lee can sing the Hell out of any song that’s ever been written and make it 100% Jerry Lee.

100% Jerry Lee.

And, Glen Sutton, when he wrote, ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous’ sure gifted Jerry Lee one fireball of a song.

Now, as is so often the way, the song was not the product of careful deliberation and prolonged polishing.

No.

Glen was reminded by a music publisher that he was supposed to have songs for The Killer who was due to be in town tomorrow.

What had he got?

With a professional’s presence of mind (Glen also wrote ‘Almost Persuaded’ and, ‘Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad’ among many other classics) he looked down at the beer mat next to the phone and said, ‘Its a drinking song – should be perfect for The Killer!’

Nw, it was simply a matter of working through the night to turn the slogan on that Schlitz beer mat, ‘The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous’ into a song that would appeal to Jerry Lee and the record buying public.

I think we can agree he succeeded!

Jerry Lee recorded the song the next day and gave it a regretful stately majesty powered by his rolling piano, glistening fiddle, and a vocal that proceeds with the awesome certainty of a Paddle Steamer navigating The Mississippi.

Follow that!

Very few could (you’ll find numerous versions of the song if you search) but there is only one other version which can stand comparison with The Killer’s.

One by another great song stylist who, when he was on his game, treated songs with a profound respect and care.

A singer who had an instantly recognisable voice – a voice which could express deep emotions with elegance and elan.

Let’s call Rod Stewart to the microphone!

On the evidence of this magnificent performance it seems to me that Rod missed a trick in his career by not recording an album of Country Songs.

Had he teamed up with a producer like Cowboy Jack Clement and launched into, ‘There Stands The Glass’, ‘Cold, Cold, Heart’ and, ‘Heartaches By The Number’ I think we would have had a record for the ages.

Still, lets look at the glass as half full given his bravura take on ‘Milwaukee’.

Of course, Rod, knew a fair bit about drinking as a member of The Faces who were Olympic Champions of partying.

At his best Rod’s let’s live it large! relish for life combined with an acute emotional intelligence when reading a lyric made him a truly great singer.

One entirely ready to share a microphone with The Killer.

I’ll leave with Jerry Lee, live at the piano, performing with his trademark insouciant charm.

‘Well it’s late and she’s waiting
And I know I should go Home.’

Dwight Yoakam, The Amazing Rhythm Aces & Alan Jackson : Third Rate Romance

The ‘Moving House’ saga continues.

Now, everything down to the teacups and the toothbrushes is labelled, wrapped and ready for our new Home.

How did we accumulate so much stuff!

A major winnowing exercise lies ahead (honest!).

Soon, we will finally move into our Home in the Hills.

Everyone hearing where we are moving to says ‘It’s nice up there before adding with a shake of the head – of course you can be snowed in there for weeks, weeks!.

But, before we cross the threshold of our Shangri-La we are going to check in to a Hotel for a week.

Hotel living will be a blessed relief after all the clearing, packing and cleaning.

Room Service! (Talk me through your list of Malt Whiskies).

Now, you wouldn’t expect me to take up residence in a Hotel without sending the Jukebox Research Department (AKA my memory) off in search of songs featuring Hotels would you?

One fine day I’ll give you 5,000 words on, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and somewhat fewer on Chris Isaak’s, ‘Blue Hotel’ and They Might Be Giants’ ‘Hotel Detective’.

Despite the many merits of the above works the song that agitated the neurons most intently was the Carveresque ‘Third Rate Romance’ performed below by The Amazing Rhythm Aces.

A short story in song filed with dry wit and hard lived wisdom featuring a laconic vocal, a lovely guitar break and adept ensemble harmony – that’ll do for me!

The Aces came out of Knoxville originally before hitting their stride in Memphis.

Barry ‘Byrd’ Burton provides the liquid guitar line.

Jeff Davis and Butch McDade keep the rhythm flowing on bass and drums.

BIlly Earhart and James Hooker add keyboard colour.

Lead vocalist and principal songwriter Russell Smith has a keen eye for the way frail selves behave, especially when away from home, when it might appear identities and loyalties can be checked in at the front desk (for an hour or a night).

There’s some acute observation in the lyric:

‘She was starin’ at her coffee cup
He was tryin’ to keep his courage up …

‘… talk was small when they talked at all

She said, “You don’t look like my type
But I guess you’ll do …

He said, “I’ll even tell you that I love you
If you want me to …

Call me an old romantic but I like to think the above two lines were internal mental conversation rather than spoken out loud!

Undoubtedly though many a Hotel has been the venue for just such a Third Rate Romance.

Just such a low rent rendezvous.

Half truths .. evasions.. the devalued currency of adultery:

‘ I’ve never really done this kind of thing before, have you?

‘ Yes I have but only a time or two ….

Third rate romance.

Low rent redezvous.

Third rate romance.

Low rent rendezvous.

Now let’s see what chiselled retro Honky Tonk hero Dwight Yoakum can make of the song!

Well, that’s surely rugged, rowdy and more than right!

Dwight has a Voice.

Sure, Dwight looks like a Country Star precision fashioned by Hollywood central casting but it turns out he has a voice like the high desert wind and a real feel for classic hardwood floor Country.

I like the way this live performance uses Tex – Mex accents to suggest that the low rent Hotel is maybe whichever side of the border the participants are least likely to be recognised.

Now, if you and your sweetheart fancy a twirl or two around that sprung hardwood floor you can always rely on Alan Jackson to set those dancing shoes in motion.

Like the man says he put a little flavour on that one!

Have to admit I did more than a little high stepping as that disc was playing.

Time for me to check out for this week.

I got a first class Hotel waiting for my family and me.

Notes :

I strongly recommend The Amazing Rhythm Aces debut Record, ‘Stacked Deck’.

Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry, Dobie Gray : The In Crowd, Drift Away

We all like to think we are in the know.

We know important things.

Things that those not in the know don’t even know they don’t know.

A few code words and we know from their reaction, or lack of it, if others are in the know or not.

We soon know if they know.

We know whether or not they merit entry into the In Crowd.

If it’s square, brother we ain’t there!

In music, especially, there are communities of In Crowds.

I know some of these communities very well.

The Bluegrass buffs who can list, alphabetically, chronologically or by instrument every member of every incarnation of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

The Jazzbos who can do the same for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

The walkin’ talkin’, don’t interrupt me, Beatles completists who tell you solemnly that if you weren’t at their Port Sunlight show on 18 August 1962 (Ringo’s debut of course) then you really don’t know much about The Beatles.

The matrix number alchemists.

The, yes but have you got the Swedish pressing with the alternate take of track 3 on the EP, show offs.

The, of course, I’ve got The Complete Basement Tapes including the song where Bob …

OK, OK, OK.

I know those communities because in many respects I’m a paid up, card carrying, got the T Shirt and the embossed programme, member of those communities.

And, of course, if you’re reading The Immortal Jukebox then you are most definitely in with The In Crowd.

Dobie Gray is an In Crowd artist par excellence.

Covered by everyone from Ray Charles to Bruce Springsteen and revered by fans of Country, Soul, R & B and Pop Music (not to mention the fanatical devotees of Northern Soul) he recorded a series of classic songs in the 60s and 70s that will always launch the argument as to whether the original is really still the greatest.

Written by Barry Page and arranged by the brilliant Gene Page, ‘In Crowd’ was top 20 in the USA and top 30 in Britain in 1965.

I’m sure it was Gene who so artfully blended the brass flourishes and The just so backing vocals.

The tempo is just right for dancers – uptempo but not frantic with crescendos allowing for those so inclined to demonstrate their athleticism by spinning and pirouetting all the way to the fade out.

Dobie’s vocal has an Olympian, above it all, quality ideally suited to the song’s theme.

The thing about great Dance songs like this is that when you’re living inside one you dance with heightened senses and you really do make every minute and second count.

Dobie, born in 1940, came from a Texas sharecropping family with a Father who was a Baptist Minister. So, as for so many, the first songs he sang were Gospel standards.

But, of course, the radio beamed in R&B, Country and Pop and Dobie liked them all and found his warm vocal tones could easily cope with the demands of the different genres.

In the dawn of the 60s in Los Angles, in pursuit of a career in acting or singing, he hooked up with Sonny Bono (always an In Crowd Hombre) who got him his first recording contract.

By 1963 he had his first minor hit ‘Look at Me’.

The name Dobie came from the popular TV show, ‘The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis’ (there is much debate about Dobie’s original name but I’m going with Lawrence Darrow Brown).

Dobie wasn’t able to find a hit follow up despite some excellent recordings. Showing his versatility he switched to acting and was a cast member in, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and had a two year run in the definitive 60s Musical, ‘Hair’.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, the son of a Northumbrian Coal Miner who looked after the Pit Ponies, Bryan Ferry, became an art student and connoisseur of black dance music.

I think it’s fair to say that Bryan most definitely set out to be in with The In Crowd and that few have had such a complete sucess in achieving their goal.

Flushed with the artistic, critical and commercial success of Roxy Music in his early solo records he revisited the records that had electrified his youth.

It’s not hard to see the attraction, ‘In Crowd’ had for Bryan.

His version had a crepuscular 1970s urgency signalled by the growling aggressive guitar with Bryan’s vocal walking the razors edge between witty reflection and self satisfaction.

Bryan, by now, knew all about those other guys striving to imitate him!

The final version I’m showcasing today comes courtesy of The Ramsey Lewis Trio and Nettie Gray. Nettie Grey? Well, as In Crowders know Nettie was the Washington DC waitress who played, ‘In Crowd’ for Ramsey on her coffee shop Jukebox suggesting that it might make a rousing set closer.

Sensibly, Ramsey took her advice and the live version cut at Bohemian Caverns became his biggest ever hit (top 5 Billboard).

I’m not going to say anything about this version beyond the fact that it always has me throwing a whole series of shapes that are most definitely not recommended by any osteopath or chiropractor but which afford me an enormous sense of well being

When his time in, ‘Hair’ concluded Dobie met the songwriting Brothers Paul and Mentor Williams.

It was Mentor who wrote and produced Dobie’s greatest record, ‘Drift Away’. I’m loath to call any record perfect but I’m making an exception here to prove the rule.

The incandescent warmth of Dobie’s vocal and the shimmering production really does sweep you away into an ambrosial reverie.

A song that is played on Pop, Soul and Country Stations every day and will do so as long as humans need to get that beat and drift away (which is to say until the day we turn into Replicants).

Drift Away was recorded in Nashville at Quadrafonic Studios in early 1973.

No praise can be too high for the team of musicans who lift Drift Away into the stratosphere.

David Briggs on Keyboards, Mike Leach on Bass, Kenny Malone on Drums and Reggie Young on Guitar were very much a Nashville A Team with extraordinary musical alertness and empathy.

I must mention the lovely, pellucid guitar figures played by Reggie Young for the intro and doubled up throughout the song. Now that’s a hook!

And, what about the wonderfully right and resonant sound Kenny Malone produces on a field marching drum!

Engineer Gene Eichelberger managed to balance all the elements so perfectly that you imagine all present exhaling a sigh of complete satisfaction when the track was played back in the studio.

Perfect, perfect, perfect!

The song, of course, sold more than a million copies as it became a top 5 hit and eternal radio staple.

Now, you can say all kinds of laudatory and derogatory things about Rod Stewart’s career but one thing everyone should agree on is that Rod is one hell of a judge of a good song.

So, it was almost inevitable that Rod would pick up on Drift Away and give it the full tartan scarves waving on the terraces treatment. And that’s
meant as a compliment – its rare that someone can be simultaneously part of the crowd and step out from it to lead it as Rod did so brilliantly in the 1970s).

After Drift Away Dobie continued to record quality material without troubling the charts. He earned favour in the music business through a productive songwriting partnership with Troy Seals.

George Jones, Ray Charles and Don Williams among others queued up to record their material .

Dobie died just before Christmas in 2011.

His songs will always last because rhythm and rhyme and harmony never go out of fashion.

Because, confused though we often are we will always seek solace in melodies that move us.

No one understands all the things they do.

But, one thing we do know.

One thing we do know.

Music can carry us through.

Carry us through.

Notes :

Dobie’s ‘Greatest Hits’ should be in every collection. I would draw your attention in particular to the dance classic, ‘Out on the Floor’ and his gorgeous version of, ‘Loving Arms’.

I have a special fondness for his album, ‘Soul Days’ produced by Norbert Putnam for its wonderfully relaxed and glowing treatment of soul standards like, ‘People Get Ready’.

There are a staggering number of versions of ‘Drift Away’.

My favourites are by The Neville Brothers and Tom Rush.

The Grateful Dead, Raul Malo, Marty Robbins & Me with El Paso – Ultimate Western Ballad

The Way Out West Series No 2

Loyal readers of The Jukebox will recall my previous post in the, ‘Way Out West’ series which was themed around an unlikely friendship formed through a mutual love of, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ (go straight there as soon as you finish this if you haven’t read it already!).

Ghost Riders was voted No 1 Western Song of all time by the Western Writers of America.

My friend Carl and I didn’t know that as we sang it into the tequila fuelled small hours back in those dim and distant days.

We just knew it was a great song and that singing it never grew old.

Finishing Ghost Riders the next song that floated to the tip of our tongues was always Marty Robbins immortal classic, ‘El Paso’.

This one has everything you could ever ask for in a Western Ballad.

A West Texas location.

A Mexican maiden with flashing eyes whom a young cowboy can’t resist even at the cost of his life.

A gunfight over this fatal maiden leaving a handsome young stranger dead on the floor.

A hurried escape in the night on a fast stolen horse to the badlands of New Mexico.

The fateful return to Rosa’s Cantina even though a posse and deadly bullets surely lie in wait. For, in truth, the attraction of love really is stronger than the fear of Death.

A deathbed reconciliation sealed with a tender kiss.

What more do you want!

Well you might want this ballad to be sung with swooping authority by its author and have him backed by ringing Spanish guitar licks which echo through the song like chimes of destiny.

Take it away Marty Robbins and Grady Martin!

Now some sources will tell you that Marty wrote this song in less than 5 minutes and some say it was the work of several months. You choose.

What is sure is that it was recorded on 7 April 1959 as part of an epic session which produced what will always be greatest Western Ballad collection as long as the wild West Texas Winds blow over the plains, ‘Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs’.

There was some nervousness at Columbia Records that at four and a half minutes El Paso might be too long for audiences to take in an era when many hit songs barely made three minutes. This was to underestimate the power of story.

For, once you’ve heard the ringing guitar intro and the first line … ‘Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl’ you’re hooked and wild horses couldn’t stop you from wondering what happens next!

Released in late October, ‘El Paso’ soon became one of those rare songs that wins universal affection.

By the dawn of the new decade it was Number One on both the Country and Pop Charts and lodged deep in the consciousness of several generations.

The story of the nameless Cowboy and his love for Faleena indelibly sung by Marty with the invaluable assistance of Bobby Sykes and Jim Glaser echoes through popular culture to this day.

Now, The Grateful Dead might have been the emblematic group of the 1960s, ‘Counter Culture’ but they were also young men who had grown up watching John Wayne, James Stewart and Randolph Scott heroically ride through the Western landscape winning the love of Grace Kelly or Maureen O’Hara (even if Katy Jurado got caught in the cross fire) as they brought summary justice to those lawless frontier towns.

The 1950s were, of course, the glory days of TV Westerns.

I’ll wager that Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir spent many an hour watching, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Bonanza’ and that that out of sight of parents they considered themselves to be six shooting moody hombres not to be messed with.

Surely, this history and the lure of a long gripping ballad with room for plentiful six string stretch outs explains their devotion to, ‘El Paso’which they played many hundreds of themes over their fabled career.

Their version has a charm which never fails to engage me.

Western stories and Western lore do cast a spell like the eyes of Faleena.

There are few pleasures as reliable as settling down to watch a Western Movie or listen to a Western Ballad.

I caught the bug early.

When my Mum was out doing nursing night duty my Dad and I, entranced before the flickering 12 inch TV screen, would delight in the adventures of Rawhide’s Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates.

We agreed that Dad was perfect for the role of the mature Gil while I was a natural for the more youthful form of Rowdy.

Between us there were no situations we couldn’t handle.

I remember vividly that for my 6th Birthday my present was a wide brimmed Western hat with matching six guns, holster and spurs. Since those days I’ve been lucky enough to have been given some truly generous presents from those near and dear to me.

However, hand on heart, I have to say that no present has ever given me the sheer joy that receiving my six shooter set did!

Maybe it’s that memory that haloes the songs and the films as I watch and listen.

Maybe it’s the mythopoetic allure of The Western.

Maybe it’s because I’m one moody Hombre. One moody Hombre.

I feel inclined to emphasise the South of The Border aspect of the song now.

So, let’s swoon as the golden vocal tones of The Mavericks Raul Malo evoke those wild Texas days as the night falls all around Rosa’s Cantina.

Though we know the Cowboy’s love for Faleena is in vain, doomed, somehow as Raul glides through the verses we cling to the belief that maybe this time, this time, the two lovers will ride out into the sunset together.

Together.

And, in a Cantina, far away, Faleena’s eyes will flash as they whirl across the floor together.

And, as the music plays they will laugh as they remember those days in El Paso.

Notes :

Marty Robbins was a considerable songwriter as, ‘Big Iron’ and ‘You Gave Me A Mountain’ (a live staple for Elvis) attest. He had 17 No 1 Country Chart Hits.

Grady Martin was a magnificent Guitarist whose splendid licks feature on Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ Brenda Lee’s ‘I’m Sorry’ and Ray Price’s ‘For The Good Times’ among scores of other Hits.

El Paso was produced by Don Law who also produced the epochal Robert Johnson Blues sessions in the 1930s as well as Bob Wills’ ‘San Antonio Rose’. That’s verstIlity!

Skeeter Davis : The End of The World – Sweet Apocalypse!

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.

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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’!

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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.

Notes:

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!

Mystery Revisited! Iris Dement, The Velvet Underground & Blind Willie Johnson

By some mischance or gremlin one of my posts disappeared from the WordPress system leaving a spectral trace as, ‘Unknown or Deleted’ in my Stats.

It’s taken me a while to work out which post.

Now, I find, perhaps appropriately, it’s the one on the theme of Mystery!

So here it is again (with an additional track).

We are born into a world of blooming and buzzing confusion.

Yet we soon learn to discriminate. Magellans all, instinctive cartographers we test the boundaries of our physical and intellectual environments every hour of every day as we draw and redraw the map of the world we have made for ourselves.

We try, schooled and unschooled, consciously and unconsciously, to make sense of it all. We continuously attempt to construct a free flowing narrative which we hope will contain, order and give meaning to our lives.

Yet, on every mind map, every finely inked delineation of the rivers, the seas, the coasts and continents and the sheer mountains there is always, must always be, a blank space, that used to be called, ‘Terra Incognita’ the unknown world(s) coexistent with the known world.

And, who knows, perhaps that land sustains and shapes everything in the world we think we know.

We all understand that there is much, much, that seems far beyond our understanding. Much that may be beyond any human understanding.

I believe, without getting too catholically theological on you that there is essentially at the heart of every life much that will always remain – probably necessarily – a Mystery.

Each of us will have our own evolving sense of the mystery. A sense that grows not from interrogation but out of fleeting glimpses.

One of the graces my love of music has given me is a conviction that there will never be an end to the making of songs because there will never be an end to our sense of and need for Mystery.

Songs, even the greatest songs do not expain Mystery but they can, sometimes, illuminate Mystery and allow it to settle and perhaps to bloom in our own mysterious centre.

The songs that follow are best listened to in still, patient solitude. These songs are alive and if you open yourself to them they will speak. They may well carry you so far away that you find yourself confronting the most mysterious realm of all – your own inner self.

As one of the songwriters most dear to my heart Iris Dement (featured previously in the ‘Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories’ post which provides her background) put it so much more eloquently than I can – ‘Let The Mystery Be’.

The version at the head of this post is Iris solo.

As a Bonus for this recovered post here’s a lovely version featuring David Byrne and Natalie Merchant with 10,000 maniacs.

Uncharacteritically, I will say little about my selections here. I’ll allow the artists to each evoke Mystery in their own way.

No one knows for certain. I think I’ll just let the Mystery be.

The Velvet Underground’s third album from 1969 could never have equalled the seismic impact on contemporary culture of their debut and sophomore records which seemed to have tilted the axis of music; opening up new thematic territory with a mixture of cool calculation and raging brio.

Maestro John Cale departed taking his unique combination of chapel fervour, conservatoire training and cathartic use of unleashed chaos with him.

There is a feeling of calm after the hurricane infusing the third Velvets album. Lou Reed, now unchallenged as leader, chose to showcase quieter, mor contemplative songs. Two of those ‘What Goes On’ (memorably covered by Bryan Ferry) and, ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ are among the most luminously beautiful and aching songs in popular music.

To close out the record Lou wrote a seemingly artless song, ‘Afterhours’ which was sung with limpid grace by the self effacing Mo Tucker, the band’s percussionist.

After Hours contains a lovely line that rings through my mind every time I am wending my way home after a late night in London – ‘All the people look well in tne dark’. I find comfort, disquiet and unfathomable Mystery in that line and the song that surrounds it. A song that speaks powerfully in the child like tones and cadences of a nursery rhyme.

My venture into Mystery concludes with a recording, a performance, from December 1927 which Ry Cooder (whom God preserve) has called, ‘The most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music’.

Blind Willie Johnson’s, ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’ is rightly featured on the, ‘Golden Record’ sent in 1977 aboard The Voyager space probe to represent the human experiences of the natives of Planet Earth to whomsoever it might encounter!

However far Voyager ventures it will still be catching up with the immensities contained within Blind Willie’s masterpiece. I seems to me to be the most profound keening ever uttered on the essential loneliness of the human condition.

Listening to the songs above I’m reminded that music is the most pure, potent and direct means we have of engaging with the deepest, inescapable mysteries of life.