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.

Jesse Winchester Remembered … The Songwriters’ Songwriter

Sometimes I’m asked because of my eclectic tastes if there is one under appreciated, lesser known artist who deserves to be much better known.

i always answer – Jesse Winchester.

 

To explain why and to pay tribute to his wonderful songs three years after his death I am Reblogging my Post on him from 2014.

An investment in Jesse Winchester records will pay you dividends for your lifetime.

Jesse  Winchester died at the age of 69 in April 2014.

I first heard him in the mid 1970s on Charlie Gillett’s rightly legendary radio show, ‘Honky Tonk’ which became my open university course on 20th century popular music.

Jesse Winchester was a highly accomplished songwriter and an affecting singer who could hush a room with the intensity of his performances.

He was recognised by fellow songwriters of the calibre of Elvis Costello, John Prine and Ron Sexsmith as a master of their calling.

Bob Dylan, surely the dean of Songwriting, said that you could not talk about the best songwriters in the world without including Jesse and he paid him the compliment (granted to few of his contemporaries) of playing one of his songs on his wonderful radio show, ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’.

Jesse was born in Memphis and always carried with him a southern courtliness and a very strong sense of place. When he wrote about a state or a town, say Mississippi or Bowling Green, he brought it to life with such arrestingly vivid imagery that you really felt you had spent time there with him as your home town guide.

There was an elegiac, black and white photograph quality to many of his best songs. I often went to the prints of Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, who shot so many evocative documentary images of the pre-civil rights era south, to find a visual companion for his work.

It seems to me that his songs emerge into the air like photographic prints blooming into rich detailed life from the developing fluid of his imagination.

Jesse Winchester’s songs were mature crafted works: the product of a highly intelligent and sensitive man with an acute sense of the power of the memories we accumulate as we move through a life.

Memories of our communities, our families, our friends and lovers, our contempories and the times we were together in. Inevitably, recollections of victories and defeats, of love we held onto and love we threw away.

He had the will and the artistry to closely examine those memories and to clothe them in story songs illuminated by powerful sensory images. Listening to the best of his songs is a rich immersive experience which can feel like a dream that stays with you long after you have woken up and which you know will reurn to haunt you.

My favourite Jesse Winchester song is, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ a wonderful almost archaeologically rich presentation of the sights, sounds and ambience of life in the rural heartland of the real and mythological state of Mississippi.

Like all the great Jesse Winchester songs this song does not shout at you, rather it beckons you to lean forward and listen to a master storyteller. A master who is so relaxed he seems to be singing the song while rocking back and forth on his front porch with a glass of bourbon at hand.

The instrumentation is simple – plucked guitar, atmospheric shimmer piano, stirring strings and a swelling vocal chorus supporting Jesse’s sweet, molasses filled vocal. The song paints a swooning picture of an unhurried life lived in a cotton country backwater.

You are made aware both by the lyric and the melody of the humidity of the south, of the sun that blazes from the sky wrapping everyone in an angry oven heat.

This is a land that has seen times of plenty – when the price of cotton was high. It is also a land that has felt the disdainful stamp of an invading army, neglect following painful defeat and economic depression.

Jesse Winchester paints in the details which make a scene come alive – the rusted barbed wire fence, the lazy creek, the tar paper shack. This is a land where one crop was king so you see the field specked with dirty cotton lint and in the background the characteristic sound of a John Deere tractor.

Meanwhile the air is suffused with the cloying smell of the honeysuckle vine, the barks of hungry dogs and the rustle of grasshoppers.

Only the snakes coiled up in the thick weeds and the old men are asleep. ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind’ is a loving recreation of a physical and emotional home place, a lullaby and a love letter to the past. The song is touched with greatness.

The land described in the song is at one level Mississippi – on another level it is of course the land of childhood; that Eden we all ache to recover but never can except through the alchemy of art.

It is the land of lost content which Houseman once memorialised as the blue remembered hills. In the song Jesse Winchester has brought this land to poignant shining life.

Jesse Winchester had a good heart and pursued his vocation as a songwriter and singer with all the resources at his considerable command. He leaves an enduring legacy. May he rest in peace.

Recommended listening:

‘Jesse Winchester’ his superb debut album containing stand out songs such as the wistful, ‘Yankee Lady’, the ruminative, ‘Biloxi’ and the transcendent, ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’

His second album, ‘Third Down 110 To Go’ (often available as a twofer with the above) has two classics in the gospel drenched, ‘Isn’t That So’ and the quiet wisdom of ‘Dangerous Fun’ which contains the immortal couplet:

‘It takes patience to walk and spirit to run
But nothing to pity yourself
But it’s dangerous fun’

The twofer of, ‘Learn To Love It’ and, ‘Let The Rough Side Drag’ in addition to the masterpiece of, ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind” has the maturely romantic, ‘Every Word You Say’, the lazy swooning ‘Defying Gravity’, the philosophical, ‘How Far To The Horizon’ and a brilliant take on the Amazing Rhythm Aces country pop classic ‘Third Rate Romance’.

All the rest of his output has sprinklings of glorious songcraft and winning vocals. Look out in particular for the songs, ‘Bowling Green’, ‘A Showman’s Life’ and the emotionally overwhelming, ‘Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding’ which only a songwriter with a full heart and a steady head could bring off (see the YouTube clip below of his appearance on Elvis Costello’s TV show ‘Spectacles’ which demonstrates the effect he could have on his peers).

A trawl through his catalogue will find you arguing that I have missed out many of your favourites.

The Ultimate Irish Ballad & The Kingdom of Kerry for St Patrick’s Day!

Happy St Patrick’s Day!

La Fheile Padraig Sona Daoibh!

‘Being a Kerryman, in my opinion, is the greatest gift that God can bestow on any man. When you belong to Kerry you know you have a head start on the other fellow.

In belonging to Kerry you belong to the elements, to the spheres spinning in the Heavens. You belong to History and Language and Romance and Ancient Song. It is almost unbearable being a Kerryman and it is an awesome responsibility.’  (John B Keane)

‘And sleeping time or waking time ’tis there I long to be

To walk again that kindly street, the place I grew a man

With the boys of Barr na Sraide who hunted for the wran’  (Sigerson Clifford)

 

 

There are 32 Counties on the Island of Ireland.

Each fiercely proud of their own distinctive landscape and culture.

There are 4 ancient provinces : Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster each with a storied history.

But, there is only one Kingdom.

Only one Kingdom.

The Kingdom of Kerry.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Mountains and Lakes and the Sea.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Poets and Playwrights.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Soldiers, mystic Monks and Polar Explorers.

 

Kerry is a Kingdom of Horsemen and the greatest Gaelic Footballers who have ever laced a boot.

Kerry is a Kingdom of Brosnans, McElligotts, O’Sullivans, Kellihers, Foleys and Fitzgeralds.

Kerry is a Kingdom of breathtaking beauty which nurtures dreaming souls.

Dreaming souls like the poet Sigerson Clifford who wrote one of the most heart-piercing ballads in the canon of Irish song, ‘The Boys of Barr na Sraide’.

A song which reminds us of those halycon days, now cherished in the memory, when our lives had no print or plan.

Days, long passed now, spent with the Anam Cara of youth.

Now, like chaff in the wind, The Boys of Barr na Sride, have scattered to the streets of London or Boston or Sydney with the Home Place of Cahirciveen visited in their sleeping time or in waking time reverie.

And, as they dream, they will harmonise with the wonderful Kerry tones of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh as along with her companions in Danu she takes us, once again to the top of the street where the boys gather to set the world to rights before they set off to hunt for the Wran on St Stephen’s Day.

For the Home Place of Kerry now may lie miles and miles and years and years away from where you stand today but its landscapes, the richness of its language, the romance of its history and the lilt of its song will always, always, lie deep in the heart as long as there are spheres spinning in the heavens.

Our Painting today is by Paul Henry (1876 to 1958). His engagement with the Irish landscape, its seas and its coast have left an indelible mark on the Irish imagination.

 

 

This post dedicated to all the living O’Sullivans, Foleys, Fitzgeralds, Kellihers, Brosnans and McElligotts and to all of those sleeping in Kerry’s green fields.

In memory of Joan O’Sullivan Hickey, proud native of Killorglin in Kerry, who I will meet again when the wheel of life runs down and peace comes over me.

 

 

Photos in descending order:

Carrantuohill Mountain at 3,046 Feet the highest in Ireland.

One of my proudest accomplishments is to have climbed it early one morning after a night of intensive training with my cousin Michael in Falvey’s Bar in Killorglin.

Killarney lakes at sunrise as seen from ‘Ladies View’

Slea Head, Dingle.

Brendan Kennelly (born 1936). Poet and Professor Emeritus at Trinity College. His collection, ‘The Man Made of Rain’ is never far from my reach.

John B Keane (1928 to 2002) Playwright, Publican, Storyteller of genius.

Monastic Settlement Skellig Michael – The home of a monastery for a dozen monks from the 6th to the 12th Century. A World Heritage Site and a liminal place between worlds.

Tom Crean (1877 to 1938) Polar Explorer with Scott and Shackleton and a Homeric Hero.

Bryan Cooper (born 1992) A Jockey I have sometimes entrusted my shirt to. His 3 winners at Cheltenham in 2013 allowed me to lay in a grand store of fine shirts for many a year.

Mick O’Connell (born 1937) in Valentia. A natural aristocrat in his bearing. Legendary Gaelic Footballer for Kerry. Selected for the GAA’s All Ireland Team of The Century. My uncle Joe (RIP) said he was the greatest player who ever lived and I never argued with my Uncle Joe.

Sigerson Clifford (1913 to 1985) Poet and Playwright. Reared in Cahirciveen. His, ‘Ballads of a Bogman’ has added many treasures to the Kerry Word Hoard.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (born 1978) is a superlative singer in her native Irish and in English. All her recordings with Danu and solo come unreservedly recommended.

 

Christy Moore, Jack B Yeats – Posts for St Patrick 2

 

The Home Place.

Never more real and vivid than when recollected in the imagination.

We are our memories.

And, our memories, particularly those which carry the most emotional charge, are constantly being selected, edited and recast.

The stream of memory is never stilled.

The genesis of a song, a poem, a story or a painting begins in an insistent whisper from the memory.

A whisper which cannot be ignored.

Such a whisper was heard in the 1930s by Jack McAuliffe from Lixnaw in County Kerry as he sat sat in a cottage near Dooneen Point.

In response he wrote a poem that became the ballad, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’.

 

The key duty of an creative artist is to closely attend to those whispers and make them real in words on the page, notes in the air or brush marks on the canvas.

And, the truth of the song or the poem or the painting is the truth of the imagination and cannot be reduced to the mundane metric of exact measurement.

You may not be able to see Kilrush and Kilkee form the Cliffs of Dooneen with the naked eye but I defy anyone alive not to see them, clear as the light of dawn, in the mind’s eye when conjured up with lyrical tenderness by Christy Moore and Planxty (featuring the heart piercing piping of Liam O’Flynn)

So too the trembling hare and the lofty pheasants making homes for their young.

And, whoever you are, wherever you are, however far you have traveled from your own native home far away from the mountains and away over the foam you will have within you memories of all the kind people you have left behind.

In the quiet watches of your dreams you will bathe in the streams and the meadows of your youth.

And, when you hear, ‘The Cliffs of Dooneen’ you will find yourself singing along with a full heart and tears in your eyes.

‘You may travel far far from your own native home

Far away o’er the mountains far away o’er the foam

But of all the fine places that I’ve ever seen,

There’s none to compare with The Cliffs of Dooneen

Take a view o’er the water fine sights you’ll see there

You’ll see the high rocky slopes on the West coast of Clare

The towns of Kilrush and Kilkee can be seen

From the high rocky slopes at The Cliffs of Dooneen

Its a nice place to be on a fine Summer’s day

Watching all the wild flowers that ne’er do decay

The hare and lofty pheasant are plain to be seen

Making homes for their young round The Cliffs of Dooneen

Fare thee well to Dooneen fare thee well for a while

And to all the fine people I’m leaving behind

To the streams and the meadows where late I have been

And the high rocky slopes of The Cliffs of Dooneen’

 

The featured Painter today is Jack B Yeats (1871 to 1957)

We return to the theme of The Horse in Irish culture.

I have seen many thousands of horses in my life yet I have never seen a horse so thrillingly, mystically, alive as the horse in Jack B Yeats painting above.

 

 

Paul Brady, Liam O’Flynn, Basil Blackshaw: Posts for St Patrick 1

Christmas. New Years Day. Spring Solstice. Lent.

Easter. Midsummer Day. First leaf fall. First fall of snow.

Way markers of the passing year.

As the shadows lengthen, as they do for us all, you appreciate all the more the opportunity to celebrate with those dear to you now and remember those vanished like the melting snow so dear in the memory.

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

If you are Irish, or of Irish stock, St Patrick’s Day is a true red letter 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.

So, as I did last year (checkout those posts later) in the run up to St Patrick’s Day on the 17th I’m going to feature some favourite Irish songs, singers and musicians.

As a bonus this time each post will also feature the work of a distinctive Irish Painter/Artist.

The theme for the songs this year is Place. Landscape.

Ireland is a country where there is a deep and abiding attachment to place.

Especially the Home Place.

The Irish, wherever they may travel (and they have traveled all around the globe) never forget the Home Place.

 

The place where their family had its roots.

The landscape they knew so intimately which glows bright in their dreams even if they haven’t seen it with their waking eyes for decades.

Sometimes the Home Place was left to foster ambition.

Sometimes the Home Place was left because of poverty.

No one ever left without a backward glance.

Returning no one spies the coast from the air or from the rail of a ship without a salmon leap of the heart.

Today’s song, ‘The Rocks Of Bawn’ is sung by Paul Brady previously the subject of an extensive profile on The Immortal Jukebox.

No apologies for featuring him again.

Great traditional songs require a singer to bring great gifts of empathy and relaxed concentration to them.

Paul Brady is such a singer.

His style is not to impose himself upon the song but rather to surrender to the soul of the song.

To centre himself in the heart of a song and let its wonders bloom.

Here he is joined by the great Uilleann Piper, Liam O’Flynn, who carries on the tradition of masters like Willie Clancy and Seamus Ennis.

I can think of no instrument more haunting than the Uilleann Pipes.

Together they produce a performance which stills the heart and which will linger long in the spirit.

No live is so  charmed that it will be without some thankless ploughing.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing brings the Home Place so vividly to mind as a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing will set tears a flowing more readily than a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

Nothing will remind you more of the longing child within you still than a song you heard in your youth.

‘And you never will be able for to plough The Rocks Of Bawn’.

 

 

The Artist featured today is the late Basil Blackshaw (1932 to 2016)

Born in Glengormley Antrim and reared in Boardmills County Down.

His paintings both his portraits and his evocations of country life and sports throb with life and colour.

Ireland loves The Horse.

There are few pleasures more sovereign for an Irishman than to cheer home to victory an Irish Horse, schooled by an Irish Trainer and ridden by an Irish Jockey to victory in The Gold Cup or The Grand National.

There are few silences so companionable as those spent watching would be champions exercising on the gallops in the breaking light of a winter morning.

Basil Blackshaw brings such a scene tenderly to life in his, ‘Morning Exercise’

 

 

 

Seth Lakeman: ‘Solomon Browne’ – Cornwall, Lifeboats, Life, Death, Pride & Heroism

‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (Gospel of Saint John)

‘The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.’ (Lt Cdr Russell Smith US Navy Pilot)

‘Now, never had a lifeboat fought in vain
She could have made a dash for port but she tried again
All sixteen perished in that mighty wave
It tossed them overboard into a watery grave.’  (Seth Lakeman)

mousehole-cornwall-uk-memorial-to-the-crew-of-the-penlee-life-boat-cp0jt0

This past week I have been taking time off in the far, far West of England.

Actually, just about as far west as the land extends before it cedes to the dominion of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Cornwall. Kernow.

Kernow a’gas dynergh. Welcome to Cornwall.

A land. A proud Kingdom.

A Kingdom with a language and proud history of its own.

A Kingdom of capes and jagged rocky shores.

A Kingdom of Celtic crosses and Celtic saints.

A land of of standing stones, barrows, carns, quoits, fougos, healing wells and martial forts.

A wild Kingdom where even the all conquering Roman Army feared to tread.

A Kingdom where for centuries men dug deep into the earth and under the sea to mine Tin.

A Kingdom where for centuries men put to sea in all weathers to bring Fish back to Harbour.

A Kingdom where for centuries smugglers under cover of darkness outwitted the Excise Men.

A Kingdom surrounded by and held in the spell of the Ocean.

A spell that can enchant. But, also a spell that can lead to doom.

So, in Cornwall the Ocean is celebrated, feared and respected.

For every time mankind leaves the land to voyage upon the ocean safety is being exchanged for peril.

For the Ocean has ancient power beyond power.

For the Ocean is restless and relentless.

And wholly indifferent to the fate of puny man and all the arts of seamanship.

So, before venturing out on the pitiless Ocean and while voyaging on that Ocean it is wise to be forewarned as to what lies in store by listening to, ‘The Shipping Forecast’.

The Shipping Forecast is a BBC radio programme which every day at 00.48, 05.20, 12.01 and 17.54 hrs broadcasts weather reports and forecasts for the 31 sea areas around the coast of the British Isles.

For many, like me, listening to the Shipping Forecast at 00.48 has become a form of meditation.

First with the lullaby of Ronald Binge’s, ‘Sailing By’ musical theme then with the comforting, familiar litany of:

Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties,

Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger,

Fisher, German Bight, Humber,

Thames, Dover, Wight, Portland, Plymouth,

Biscay, Trafalgar, Finisterre, 

Sole, Lundy, Fastnet, Irish Sea, Shannon,

Rockall, Malin, Hebrides, Bailey,

Fair Isle, Faeroes, Southeast Iceland.

The clip below lasts for 13 minutes so you may want to dip in for just a few minutes to get the idea (though I’m sure many of you will find yourself in thrall to to its poetic rhythm and listen to the end).

 

For some though, playthings of the wanton Wind and Ocean, the message of the Shipping Forecast foretells peril and doom.

Life in terror and horror giving way to watery death.

So it was on 19 December 1981 with 60 foot waves whipped up by hurricane force winds of up to 100 miles per hour that the RNLI Penlee Lifeboat, from Mousehole, launched to attempt a rescue of the crew and passengers of the stricken MV Union Star as it was blown helplessly across Mount’s Bay towards the rocks of Boscawen Cove.

Rescue by helicopter in such treacherous conditions had proved impossible.

So the call went out to the Penlee Lifeboat Station where it was answered by an 8 man volunteer crew of the Solomon Browne.

Answered by experienced seamen who knew in their stout hearts that to launch on such a night was to stare death squarely in the face.

Answered by Lifeboat Men who conscious of the extreme conditions still chose, not for gain or glory, to risk their own lives for those unknown to them who were in peril on the sea.

There were 8 crew and passengers on the MV Union Star and 8 crew aboard the Solomon Browne that fateful night. And, before the sun rose again over Mount’s Bay 16 lives had been lost – swallowed whole in the insatiable maw of the Atlantic Ocean.

Such a tale of tragedy and heroism cries out to be commemorated and honoured in a folk ballad.

Seth Lakeman writing and performing with a steady head, a full heart and all the energy at his command has given us a superb ballad which has the rare combination of narrative drive and emotional empathy. It can be found on his excellent record, ‘Poor Man’s Heaven’.

 

The crew of the Solomon Browne, under the command of coxswain Trevelyan Richards, despite the ferocity of the conditions repeatedly went alongside the MV Union Star.

It appears from the last radio contact that they had succeeded in getting 4 people off but that all were lost in the attempt to rescue the other 4 aboard the coaster.

May they all rest in peace.

There are dark days and black nights when all of us may be tempted to despair at the tawdry and selfish nature of much of modern life.

Yet, the life, death and courage of the crew of the Solomon Browne should serve to remind us that the best of us are capable of awesome courage and that there are still those prepared to risk their own lives for others.

Within a day of the loss of the Solomon Browne enough people from Mousehole had volunteered to form a new Lifeboat crew.

Despair is an indulgence.

If we have courage. If we have faith. If we have love we can voyage through the darkest night and the stormiest seas.

‘That lifeboat thundered through an angry sea was called Solomon Brown and her company’.

May their tale be told for ever more.

 

Dedicated to the memory of the crew of the Solomon Browne:

Trevelyan Richards (Coxswain, Trawler skipper)

Stephen Madron (Second Coxswain, Ships Pilot)

Nigel Brockman (Assistant Mechanic, Fisherman, fish Auctioneer)

John Blewett (Emergency Mechanic, Telephone Engineer)

Kevin Smith (Crewman, Merchant Seaman)

Barrie Torrie (Crewman, Fisherman)

Charlie Greenhaugh (Crewman, Landlord of the Ship Inn)

Gary Wallis (Crewman, Fisherman)

and to those who lost their lives on the MV Union Star :

Henry Morton (Captain)

James Whittaker (Mate)

George Sedgwick (Engineer)

Anghostino Verressimo (Crewman)

Manuel Lopes (Crewman)

Dawn Morton 

Sharon Morton

Deanne Morton

Every day and night the crews of RNLI Lifeboats stand ready in all weathers to come to the rescue of those in peril on the Sea.

Please support them with a donation if you can.

With thanks to Gerry and Sue for so generously providing a wonderful home away from home in Cornwall.

 

Rosanne Cash, Eric Bibb, John Phillips and Scott McKenzie sing Hedy West : 500 Miles

‘We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there’  (Pascal Mercier)

‘The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be a point of intersection of all the lines drawn though all the stars, to be the constellation- maker and the center of the world, that center called love.’ (Rebecca Solnit)

‘You can’t go home again.’ (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’ (Hedy West)

Much meaning can be expressed in so few letters of the alphabet

Just four will do.

Good. Evil. Luck. Fate. Time. Fear. Hope. Hate. Womb. Tomb. Life. Love.

And one four letter word might contain them all.

Home. Home.

The home you were born in; the home you grew up in, the home that was your shelter and refuge.

The home you left with tears in your eyes.

The home that lives forever in your heart and your mind’s eye.

The home that was your prison.

The home you left without a backward look.

The home you’ll never go back to now you’ve made a home of your own.

Home, home, home.

Should you write a true song evoking the longing for home when the tides of time have taken you far away you’ll find singers to sing that song for evermore.

Hedy West wrote such a song, ‘500 Miles’

 

Crystal clear. Mountain dew.

Banjo, voice, Presence, centuries of the ballad tradition.

Fiddle tunes and songs called Rueben’s Train, The Railroader’s Lament and 900 Miles all swirl in the imagination of a young woman growing up in a home suffused with tunes and stories and songs.

Great Uncle Gus plays the fiddle, Gradma Lillie plays the Banjo and has a bottomless well of ballads and laments that seem to float on the breezes all around.

Dad, Don West, is a poet (‘Clods of Southern Earth’), a labor organiser, a civil rights activist, an oral historian and inspiration.

west_don_photo

Hedy has a voice. She plays the Banjo in her own style.

She has the austere gravitas of a classical bard.

When she sings the room stills. When she sings she has something to say.

She has a calling.

A calling to tell the stories of the disregarded rural poor.

A calling to tell their stories in songs that express, and more honour, the depth of their struggles and the fullness of their humanity.

In a career of more than five decades taking her from folk contests in her native Georgia to Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall, London and venues all over the globe it’s a calling she fulfills with steadfast hope, faith and love.

In the 1950s folk world a song as true and singable as 500 Miles scorches across the continent like a raging forest fire.

It instantly becomes a folk standard with each group or artist adapting the lyric and instrumentation to suit their own style and the image of home they carry with them.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As far as I can tell the first notable recording of the song is by The Journeymen in 1961.

Now, you’d have to be a scholar of the American Folk Revival to sagely nod once their name is mentioned. Yet, almost all of us came to know the members of the group through their later careers.

journeymen

John Phillips became the leader of prolific hit makers The Mamas & the Papas, Scott McKenzie had a whole generation singing, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) while Dick Weissman achieved eminence as a banjo picking musicologist and folklorist.

 

Listening to this time suspending version in soft sift black and white dreams I drift through the home of my own childhood.

Streetlights glow the palest yellow as they struggle to penetrate the blanket like London Fog of the 1950s.

Spectral trolley buses are boarded by attentively following their clanging sound until they suddenly loom up before you.

Snow surrounds market stalls piled high with cheap goods sold as wondrous bargains you must not be without – ‘Buy now Mrs! When they’re gone they’re gone!’

Cocooned in a two room first floor flat a young boy, certain in his bones that he is the constellation-maker and centre of the world, learns to read, ‘Treasure Island’ and dreaming of wooden ships, wooden legs, parrots, pirates and buried plunder begins to dream stories of his own.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As we have seen from the previous post here on The Jukebox when it comes to recognising an American standard Johnny Cash is your go to man.

Johnny took his curatorial role so seriously that he drew up, ‘The List’ – a compendium of great songs he entrusted to his daughter Rosanne.

Following her father’s death Rosanne returned over and over again to The List and the result was a luminously beautiful record featuring haunting tracks like Dylan’s , ‘Girl from the North Country’, ‘Long Black Veil’, Motherless Children’ and, ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’.

The one I come back to the most though is her devoutly heartfelt take on 500 Miles.

Johnny sure would have been proud.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

Great songs call out across the miles, across genres and cultures and across time.

The veteran Acapella group The Persuasions uncover the longing, the loss, the mourning and the journey to the farther shore that awaits us all.

Their Gospel and Spiritual version of 500 Miles makes a congregation of us all.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

500 Miles is a song that speaks from and to the bonds of familial love.

I’ll conclude with a blessed version by a father and son, Leon and Eric Bibb, which has the quality of a foot sore pilgrimage concluding in longed for peace and reconciliation.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

 

We are all pilgrims.

May we all find peace reconciliation and the home we seek.

Notes:

I love every record made by Hedy West.

Seek out her CDs on the Vanguard, Topic and Bear Family labels for a lifetime of inspirational listening.

The only CD I can find by The Journeymen is, ‘New Directions In Folk Music’ on Collectors Choice from 2010 which is a nice collection of thistledown folk.

Eric and Leon Bibb’s, ‘A Family Affair’ hard to find is a gem well worth the search.