Christmas Alphabet I for In The Bleak Midwinter : Shawn Colvin & Bert Jansch

We live, now, in a world where, at the flick of a switch, we can be bathed in brilliant light.

But, for millennia it was not so.

We lived in a world lit only by Fire.

Huddled in the darkness we looked with awe and supplication to the celestial lamps in the sky.

The Stars, The Moon and The Sun.

By observation and calculation we learned to predict the movements of these Heavenly Bodies (oft times believing them to be the actual bodies of the gods who bestowed the light upon us).

We came to know that there was a cosmic dance and that, magically, in December, out of the depths of darkness, the first light of the rising sun signalled rebirth for the land, the crops and for the people.

No matter how dark it gets there is hope, belief, that the light and the warmth it brings will always return.

At Newgrange, in Ireland, before Stonehenge or The Pyramids, the Ancients built a stone vault in honour of the return of the light.

In this vault, at exactly 8.58am each December 21st, the light penetrates to the furthest reaches where the souls of the dead abide.

The light comes once more to the dead.

Heaven and Earth are joined once again.

In the bleak midwinter the cosmic promise is fulfilled.

The sun shines along the passage floor into the inner chamber at newgrange during the 2013 Winter Solstice at Newgrange. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

‘First light like share-shine in a furrow

 Steadily deeper, farther available,

Creeping along the floor of the passage grave

To backstone and capstone, to hold its candle

Inside the cosmic hill. Who dares say ‘love’

At this cold coming? Who would dare not say it?’ (Seamus Heaney)

Though the frosty wind makes moan and earth stands hard as iron and though the snow falls snow on snow on snow there is an end to the bleak midwinter.

The light returns.

Hope returns.

Shawn Colvin with a tender version of Christina Rossetti’s great Christmas Carol.

Shawn lets the Mystery Be.

Now, Bert Jansch, has always been able to let the Mystery Be.

His plays the guitar in quest of the mysteries we all feel as we look up at those celestial lamps.

His genius is to conjure from six strings ancient knowings that cannot be expressed in words.

Surely among the tribe at Newgrange there were musicians and singers waiting, with bated breath, for that redemptive first light at all those years ago.

If they were able to hear Bert play now they would recognise, at once, a Brother.

The Alphabet Series continues on 13/15/17/19 and 21 December.

Don’t miss One!

 

Richard & Linda Thompson : Down Where The Drunkards Roll

Some of us move surefooted through this wicked world.

Insouciantly dodging the broken pavements, the hidden potholes and the disguised ditches.

Most of us get by more or less intact.

Sometimes tripping.

Sometimes stumbling.

Sometimes falling flat on our face.

Everybody, everybody, Falls.

We get by because we are uplifted, caught, by a net of love and affection laid down by  our family and friends.

The cuts and bruises, initially so dramatic, fade away and heal.

Barely limping we march on down life’s highway.

But, there are others among us for whom no net is spread or for whom no net is strong enough – so fast and surely do they Fall.

These afflicted Souls have always lived in some dark corner of every town, in every land, in every era.

You probably know where they congregate in your town.

Though you may pass by at speed you’ll know where The Drunkards Roll.

You may have been, in your days of youth, one of those regularly out walking, dressed up, gallant, cheerily passing, night after night, the keg of wine from hand to hand.

Except, for you, it was a spree you left behind which you now recall half with a smile, half with a shudder.

Not for you the DTs, the shakes and the horrors.

But one or more among you never returned to the broad highway.

One or more among you returned again and again to the dark end of town until it became their physical and spiritual address.

Where’s Bill these days?

Where’s Alice?

Whatever became of Phil?

You’ll never guess where I saw Mary!

Down where the Drunkards Roll.

Down where the Drunkards Roll.

Ah but every one of those Souls has a tale to tell you about how their fall, their particular fall, was so certain, so sure and now it seems so final.

Who will listen?

Who will listen to those tales and retell them with respect?

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Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – an orphan who though sent to, ‘A Home’  never, never, found a home and a family to love him and for him to love?

Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – a girl who learned at unbearable cost that some sacred trusts are betrayed and can never be spoken about out loud or sober?

Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – a priest who found he could just about bear the secrets he was told but who broke down because of the weight of the secrets of his own?

Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – a rain sodden, once ramrod straight soldier with medals flashing in the sun, who now after so many deaths, so much loss, shambles along shouting oaths to the winds in stained pants?

Who will hear these shouts, these blasted cries and curses and hear in them some echo of hymns and praises?

Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – the gambler who drew losing hand after losing hand until there was nothing left for her to lose?

Who will see and sing for this Drunkard – he sports a Sailor’s cap and in raddled talk he tells of exotic ports and tropical island girls he left behind; yet he knows and we know he never left dry land?

Maybe, only Lord Jesus will truly understand.

Who among us now will see and sing and try to understand?

Who among us will see, sing and tell their tale?

See, sing and tell their tale?

 

 

Richard and Linda Thompson from their stunning 1974 debut Album, ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’.

A radical, clear sighted, aching tenderness suffuses the whole record.

It’s present in every note of Richard’s limpid guitar.

It’s present in every syllable of Linda’s heart wrenching vocals.

In Down Where The Drunkards Roll they achieve a rare state of musical empathy and grace.

There is nothing voyeuristic or callous here nor any empty greetings card sentiment.

Richard Thompson accepts that the world can be a desolate place filled with dread.

Not shrinking from the fathomless cliffs of fall he yet conjures consolatory beauty.

He has heard and not shrunk from midnight’s broken toll.

Staring into the darkness with a steady heart he can write, sing and play songs that honour the Drunkards and the ‘confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse’.

Oh, and if you ask me, if you’re looking for Lord Jesus, I wouldn’t go looking on 5th Avenue or Bond Street, Passeig de Gracia or Arbat Street.

No.

No, I would cross to the far side of the tracks.

I would seek the alley where no lights shine.

The place filled with gamblers who never drew a hand.

With sailors who never left dry land.

I would look in the slums and the favelas.

I am as certain as certain can be you’ll find him Down Where The Drunkards Roll.

Down Where The Drunkards Roll.

And, if you need to fortify your Soul as you journey here’s a song to keep in your heart.

 

 

Notes :

I listened to many very fine versions of this song including solo live versions by Richard, The Thompson Family, Loudon & Rufus Wainwright, Jon Boden and Bellowhead.

They all have something to recommend them.

None however can match the plangent perfection of the original which also features Simon Nichol and Trevor Lucas.

John Martyn : May You Never

It’s a New World.

A New World.

Now, there’s a baby in the house.

The air is suffused with Love and Wonder and a daily sense that Miracles are all around us.

The Decibel Level sways between the extremes.

In the intermittent pools of perfect Peace there is time for reflection.

You find that your first and second thoughts are no longer about yourself but about the one dreaming those unknown snuffling dreams in the Crib.

You find a certain sense of repose overtakes you.

And, in that blessed state, out of the mysterious mental ether, the melodies and the words flow.

Melodies and words from a man, John Martyn, a musician and miracle worker, who lived ten large and generous lives in his bare three score years :

And may you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold

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Oh, please won’t you, please won’t you

Bear it in mind – Love is a lesson to learn in our time.

The version below, one of the most perfect recordings ever made, comes from John’s Immortal Album, ‘Solid Air’.

The story goes that John, knowing that this was a Song of Songs, felt every take wasn’t just right.

Producer John Wood, a key figure in so many great records, about to master the album, put his foot down – ‘.. For Christ’s sake, John, just go back in the studio and play it again and record it!’

And, so is History made.

May You Never takes up its place as A50 on The Immortal Jukebox.

 

John Martyn said there was a place between words and music and right there was where his voice lived and breathed.

As for his guitar on this song all I can say is that the mixture of attack and restraint, of power and tenderness has rarely if ever been matched.

Sometimes all the planets and stars are in perfect alignment and the music of the spheres comes through loud and clear.

Loud and clear.

May You Never is a Song I loved with a passion from the first time I heard it over 40 years ago and it has yielded vein after vein of treasure as I have listened to it many hundreds of times as the decades flowed by.

John Martyn, especially in the 1970s, was a sorcerer in live performance.

His Guitar playing achieves a level of duende that goes far beyond technical brilliance – it’s a revelation of the Soul.

Combined with his, ‘Come closer, I’m letting you in to a great secret’ vocals he set up an immensely attractive gravitational force that drew you in and captured your heart and soul.

 

 

There can be no denying that John Martyn through his immense appetite for Alcohol and other substances made mighty efforts to sabotage his enormous talents.

Yet, gifts such as he was given, though shadowed are rarely wholly extinguished.

Here’s a performance from his later years showing that the magic could still light up fellow musician and an audience.

In particular I want to draw your attention to the Bass playing of Danny Thompson who was virtually a brother to John Martyn.

When they had a night out on the town, trailing havoc in their wake, it was as if John Wayne and Victor McLaglen had been reincarnated as Master Musicians!

The lines about never losing your temper in a bar room fight were born of deep experience!

But, in the studio or on stage their soul friendship produced  music making of the very highest order.

Kathy Mattea and Dobro King Jerry Douglas add diamond decoration.

No wonder he liked that one.

Take it to Church John!

Take it to Church.

 

 

All that’s left to say is that I wish my granddaughter and all of you a warm hand to hold and   may we all bear in mind that Love is the lesson to learn in our time.

In Memory of John Martyn 1948 to 2009.

Notes:

I am going to write many more Posts on John Martyn.

For now I would urge you to purchase, ‘Solid Air’ as a matter of urgency

Into The Mystic : Michael Hartnett, The Gloaming – A Necklace of Wrens

 

Loyal readers of The Jukebox will know that as St Patrick’s Day approaches each March, honouring my heritage, I tip my hat to Irish Writers, Painters and Poets especially dear to my heart.

I had thought to include the Poet Michael Hartnett and Master Musicians The Gloaming in my St Patrick’s Parade 2019.

But, last week, I found the line, ‘Their talons left on me scars not healed yet.’ echoing through my night and daytime dreaming mind.

Scanning the Poetry section of my bookshelves I lighted upon Michael Hartnett’s Collected Poems and soon found his revelatory, ‘A Necklace of Wrens’ in both the English and Irish Language versions.

As the poem tells us Hartnett accepted a Mystic invitation into the Poet’s life

Initiation would bring both wound and blessing and gathering understanding that the craft demanded lifelong fidelity.

A necklet of feathers is yet a collar.

It is the Poet who, through the craft, makes us see the wet meadow, the otherness of the realighting birds and the sharpness of their talons.

Michael Hartnett had the precious gift of revealing to us the sharp wonder of the world all around us.

Now, let’s hear him read the Poem and tell the story of its genesis including his poignant relationship with his Grandmother.

 

 

A Necklace of Wrens
For Mícheál Ó Ciarmhaic, file

When I was very young
I found a nest
Its chirping young
were fully fledged.

They rose and re-alighted
around my neck,
Made in the wet meadow
a feather necklet.

To them I was not human
but a stone or tree:
I felt a sharp wonder
they could not feel.

That was when the craft came
which demands respect.
Their talons left on me
scars not healed yet.

Michael was a Poet in both Irish and English.

It seems to me that this Poem, deeply etches itself into the imagination with the simplicity and unsounded depths of an ancient fable.

This surely takes it’s inspiration from the Irish Bardic tradition.

There is a haunting yet spare music in his reading of the Poem in it’s native Irish form that will not leave you.

An Muince Dreoilíní
Do Mhícheál Ó Ciarmhaic, file

I mo bhuachaill óg, fadó fadó,
d’aimsíos nead.
Bhí na gearrcaigh clúmhtha, fásta,
is iad ag scread.

D’éirigh siad – is thuirling
arís ar m’ucht
Ormsa bhí muince clúimh
sa mhóinéar fliuch.

Níor dhuine mé ach géag crainn
nó carn cloch
ach bhí iontas crua nár bhraith said
ag bualadh faoi m’ucht.

B’in an lá ar thuirling ceird
a éilíonn ómós:
is d’fhág a n-ingne forba orm
nár leigheasadh fós.

The Irish musicians of The Gloaming also specialise in bringing us home to our sense of wonder.

Martin Hayes from County Clare plays the Fiddle, Dennis Cahill Chicago born with Kerry lineage plays the Guitar, Iarla O Lionáird from West Cork provides the Vocals, Dubliner Caoimhin O Raghallaigh plays the Fiddle and Thomas Bartlett from Vermont plays the Piano.

Together they open up the music of the heart’s core.

Sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night when dawn is not yet even promised I like to climb to the top of the ridge and shed the distractions of the electronic buzz and the timetable of planned activities.

At first it is hard to simply stand still and still the whirling mind.

Persevere and breathe.

Persevere and breathe.

At first the senses search for what’s not there – the bright light, the sounds of cars and conversation before adjusting to what is there – the hoot owl singing, the glimmer of the constellations, the beating of your own heart.

And then, only then, a vacancy waiting to be filled, can you hear the music of the night.

That’s what the music of The Gloaming sounds like to me.

 

Notes :

Michael Hartnett’s Collected Poems published by Gallery is one of the greatest achievements of modern Irish literature.

The Gloaming have released three CDs, ‘The Gloaming’, ‘Gloaming 2’ and ‘Live at the NCH (National Concert Hall’. I can not recommend them highly enough.

First Aid Kit : Wonderful homage to Emmylou Harris ‘Emmylou’

Some things we know to be true.

No life escapes the bitter wind.

Everybody wants to have a home and someone to come home to.

Like The Boss says : Don’t make no difference what nobody says –  Ain’t nobody like to be alone.

Two can easily do what’s so hard to be done by one.

Elizabeth and Darcy.

Tristan and Iseult.

Rochester and Jane.

Scott and Zelda.

Odysseus and Penelope.

Anne and Gilbert.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

Every wandering bark is in search of a guiding star.

And, once found, will sail, unafraid, even to the edge of doom.

Everyone yearns to find that voice they were meant to harmonise with.

Someone, a confidante,  who knows just where you keep your better side.

Someone who forgives your falters.

Mere speech cannot wield such matters.

Turn to Song.

To Harmony.

Find someone you can sing out loud with in your own true voice.

Oh, oh, Emmylou needs Gram.

Image result for gram parsons and emmylou harris images

And Johnny needs June.

Image result for johnny cash and june carter images

 

Sing Darling.

Sing with me.

Sing with me.

Sing with me.

 

 

Two Sisters.

Johanna and Klara Soderberg.

Voices entwined.

The mystery of unspoken sibling connection.

Other worldly gleanings.

Finding an alchemy unrevealed to the single voice.

A tribute to the voices that called their own.

At 14 and 16 discovering the longing and the keen in, ‘Love Hurts’ and, ‘Thousand Dollar Wedding’.

Gram and Emmylou.

Johnny and June.

Johanna and Klara.

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Everybody’s got a hungry heart.

Scarlett and Rhett.

Fred and Ginger.

Lancelot and Guinevere.

Beatrice and Benedict.

Nick and Nora.

Carol and Therese.

Hadrian and Antoninus.

Menakhem and Sheyne.

Boundless as the Sea.

Look, Love and Sigh.

Walking out among the ancient trees to lie down among the flowers.

Face to face with the sky.

Of the very instant that I saw you.

Everyone’s got a hungry heart.

Sing with Joy.

Find the Magic.

Things grow if you bless them with patience.

Fermina and Florentino.

Virginia and Vita.

Robert and Elizabeth.

Bogie and Bacall.

Rick and Ilsa.

Play it one Time.

Play it one Time.

Sing Darling.

Sing with me.

Sing with me.

Sing with me.

Sing this one for Emmylou.

Sing this one for the ghost of Gram.

Sing this one for Johnny and June.

Sing this one for Emmylou.

 

 

 

Steve Earle, Patty Loveless, The Proclaimers & Eddi Reader – My Old Friend The Blues

Lovers leave.

Friends will let you down.

You learn that as you fall in and out love and form friendships that flare bright before they fade away.

So, you’re left all alone with The Blues.

And, you can hug those blues close to get you through.

The Blues becomes your old and trusted friend.

But, remember, remember, sometimes you are the lover who walks away.

Remember, remember, sometimes you are the friend who’s doing the letting down.

So, don’t make The Blues your best and only friend.

We all get The Blues.

We all need The Blues to get through the lost loves and the failed friendships.

Loss and failure hurt.

But, they go with the territory.

Love and Friendship will be the treasures of your Life.

The Blues will see you through until you’re ready to face the joys and pains of Love and Friendship again.

Dont lean too long on your old friend The Blues.

Love again. Be a Friend again.

Meantime let’s have a hugely enjoyable wallow with our old friend The Blues courtesy of the young Steve Earle (this is a quintessential young man’s song).

Paradoxically it’s young hearts that feel the weariest.

Ah … a shiver of recognition and illicit pleasure in pain for all of us there!

Steve Earle, a natural songwriter, came out of San Antonio Texas fit to burst with energy and a desire to tell stories about the way the world was and the way it damn well should be.

‘Guitar Town’ from 1986 was his breakthrough record announcing him as a literate, rocking, rough, rowdy, romantic and righteous artist who was here to stay.

You could hear the influences of Folk Icon Woody Guthrie and Texas troubadours Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt

Add in a dash of on’ry ol Waylon Jennings and workshirt era Bob Dylan and you’ve got a very potent and occasionaly explosive mixture which near guaranteed a vesuvial flow of songs.

Steve Earle’s best songs have drama and impact and emotional reach.

Across the Atlantic in Scotland, ‘My Old Friend The Blues’ reached the tender heart of Eddi Reader who was surely born to sing room stilling ballads.

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Listen to her here bring the same focus and sensitivity she gives to the songs of Robert Burns to Steve Earl’s cancion Triste.

Eddi has a voice that can croon or keen.

A voice laden with ancient knowing.

A quiet voice that sounds loud in your heart.

A voice of balm for weary hearts wherever they may beat.

Staying in Scotland we now turn to twins Charlie and Craig Reid, The Proclaimers.

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Their Records are distinguished by the fierce commitment they bring to every song they sing.

Which, of course, brings even more allure to their tender moments.

The Proclaimers bring a stark echoing intensity to My Old Friend The Blues.

Patty Loveless is a blue Kentucky Girl – a State where lovelorn ballads are not exactly in short supply!

Patty made her mark at the same time as Steve Earle and like him she had done her fair share of hard traveling before she had the spotlight directed at her centre stage.

Playing small bars and clubs in nameless towns she learned a lot about lonely nights and weary hearts.

She also learned that if you have a voice shot through with plaintive grace you could offer a ray of hope to those battered hearts all around – including her own.

I’m showcasing a live version suffused with bluegrass duende.

 

Speaking of Duende, as we collect the glasses and turn out the lights let’s have one more take from Steve himself before we shut the doors.

Just when every ray of hope was gone ….

On those nights when sleep seems loath to appear and knot up ravelled care you can always turn to an old friend – The Blues.

Then, when dawn breaks, as it always miraculously does, take that weary heart of yours and go in search of love and friendship once again.

John Spillane : The Dance of The Cherry Trees (Homage to Spring)

To everything there is a Season.

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring.

A time to be born.

A time of juice and Joy.

A strain of Earth’s sweet being in the beginning.

A time to laugh and dance.

A time to embrace and love.

A time to rejoice and do good.

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To everything there is a Season.

Spring is a conflagration of green fires – a blaze of growing.

The bull-frogs are sounding!

The Swifts are back!

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All things flash and flare!

Scimitar upsweep.

Fireflies ascending.

Time is the fire in which we burn.

Time to throw open the doors and windows.

Go wherever your boot heels are ready to wander.

The Earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.

Hearts run over.

Run over with dateless expectancy, tongueless promise, indefinable desire.

Something gathers.

Gathers in the throat.

In the chest.

Something blinds the eyes.

The air is so clear and transparent you feel you might actually see the whole universe from end to end.

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There is a spirit of Youth in everything.

Everything.

May Violets.

Rough winds shaking the darling buds.

Buttercups unfold – glittering stars.

Something is being said.

Being said.

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

TIme to sing on wanton wing.

Believe in perpetual Spring.

Have faith there is a leaf to cure every hurt.

One good thing about this world – there are always sure to be more Springs.

More Springs.

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Cherry Blossom in the air.

Cherry Blossom on the street.

Cherry Blossom in your hair.

And a Blossom at your feet.

Let me tell you about the Cherry Trees.

They put on the most outrageous clothes.

They sing and dance around.

They seem to be saying :

You know we’ve travelled all around the Sun.

You know it’s taken us one whole year.

Well done everyone, Well Done.

Well Done!

Well Done!

 

 

This Post for Lilian Smith.

Lilian hosts the 6am to 8am Irish RTE Radio Show, ‘Weekend on One’ on Saturdays and Sundays.

Whether you listen in real time or later on line you will be rewarded by music chosen with intelligence and insight which will offer surprises, introductions and cherished memories.

Notes :

John Spillane who wrote, ‘Dance of The Cherry Trees’ is a songwriter who has mastered the very difficult art of saying truthful, complex things, with simplicity.

His songs both sensitive and steel strong arrest and hold the imagination.

John sings his songs with open hearted candour and fearlessness.

There is beauty, awe, humour and wonder in John’s songs.

He is Irish, a Cork native, who has the song of the River Lee in his soul.

Do yourself a favour and seek out his work.

Recommended Records :

The obvious starting point to explore John’s wonderful song catalogue is the compilation, ‘So Far So Good, Like’.

As for individual albums my favourites are:

‘All the Ways you Wander’ – a luminous acoustic collection.

‘Life In An Irish Town’ – Illuminating insights into life beyond the urban bubble.

‘My Dark Rosalien and the Island Of Dreams’ – heartfelt meditations on Ireland.

The more adventurous will also relish John’s Irish language records including the wonderful, ‘Irish Songs We Learned At School’

Before launching his solo career John was in a very fine group, ‘Nomos’. Their second CD, ‘Set You Free’ Features several excellent Spillane songs as well as superb instrumental playing.

You can learn more about John’s history and catalogue at

http://www.johnspillane.com

Thanks to :

Rainer Maria Rilke, Wendy Cope, L M Montgomery, Elizabeth Bishop, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ecclesiastes, D H Lawrence, Delmore Schwartz, Anne Stevenson, Thomas Wolfe, Anton Chekhov, Billy Collins, Philip Larkin, Amy Gerstler, Robert Burns, John Clare and Wild Bill Shakespeare for the open hearts, the poetry and the inspiration.