Contemplative Christmas 1

And breathe!

To initiate the contemplative mood I turn to the contemporary Estonian Composer, Arvo Part with his luminous, liminal setting of Mary’s eternal prayer, ‘The Magnificat’.

Part has been labelled a Minimalist and a retro Medievalist.

I prefer to think of him as having the gift to make time past, time present and time future bloom before us through his music.

When Kathleen Ferrier recorded, ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ the shadow of death was looming over her.

This is music making of the very highest order.

Here Kathleen Ferrier does not so much perform a song as become the song.

The rare emotional reach of her extraordinary voice bringing flesh and spirit to Mahler’s masterwork touches something very deep and unnameable within humanity.

Bill Evans was the supreme lyric poet of the piano.

Listening to Bill’s unique sense of musical time and weight I find my spirit awakened, refreshed and released.

‘Blue in Green’ showcases the amazing precision and delicacy of his touch as a musician.

He is always instantly recognisable – the hallmark of true greatness.

This version of what has become a Jazz standard is from the Christmas 1959 session issued as, ‘Portrait in Jazz’.

You have to believe in telepathy when you hear Bill Evans play with Scott LaFaro (bass) and Paul Motion (drums)

This trio remains the benchmark for all piano trios.

 

From the Hebrides.

The Christ Child’s Lullaby or Taladh Chriosda in Scots Gaelic is full to the brim with maternal feeling for the vulnerable new born.

Mother and child, once one, now two, create together a sacred space where love and mutual regard dwells.

The standing stone vocals of Mae McKenna and Mairi Macinnes, switching fluently between languages, supported by the pellucid instrumental playing of William Jackson and Tony McManus casts a timeless spell.

 

 

 

Now Heart stilling music composed by one of the most extraordinary figures of the Middle Ages (indeed of all Ages!).

Hildegard of Bingen was a Benedictine Abbess whose haunting compositions refelect her mystical experiences and her philosophical beliefs.

I vividly recall the first time I heard this music in Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus in London. As the gorgeous vocal lines enchanted me I knew, at once, that this record would be a life time companion. And so it has proved.

The majestic soprano Emma Kirkby wonderfully complemented by The Gothic Voices under the direction of Christopher Page takes us into mystical terrain where every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.

Terrain where Hildegard’s vision of herself as a feather on the breath of God makes perfect sense.

We are all feathers on the breath of God.

Christmas Alphabet : S for Staple Singers – Go Tell It!

 

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.

The hopes and fears of all the years.

If any group can evoke those hopes and fears, the silent stars, the light shining in the darkness and dreamless sleep it is The Staple Singers.

In 1962 in Chicago they recorded my all time favourite Christmas album, ‘The 25th Day of December’

Pop Staples on prophetic guitar and vocals.

Mavis Staples with vocals wholly worldly and wholly, shiveringly, supernatural.

Pervis and Yvonne provide the essential choral support.

Maceo Woods on Organ and Al Duncan on drums bind it all together.

 

 

When you have News – such glorious good News you just got to shout it out to the entire world.

Go tell it by the Rivers.

Go tell it on the Plains.

Go tell it in the deepest Forests.

Go tell it in the silent Steppes.

Go tell it to the Seven Oceans.

Go tell it in the squares of the Cities.

Go tell it in the sleepy Towns and Villages.

Go tell it in the high, lonesome Deserts.

Climb as high as you can.

As high as you can.

Go tell it on the Mountain!

Go tell it on the Mountain!

And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great Joy which Shall be to all people …

 

 

Silent Night. Holy Night. Dawn of redeeming Grace.

Dawn of redeeming Grace.

 

 

A mother looked in her baby’s eyes and saw her maker.

 

A reign of love begins.

That all may enter in.

That all may enter in.

 

Todays Post concludes The Christmas Alphabet Series.

If you have missesd a Letter catch up over your Christmas break!

There are still several Posts to come in the next week.

Stay tuned!

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.

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.

Guitar Visionary Kelly Joe Phelps plays Bob Dylan & Leadbelly

‘… Kelly Joe Phelps plays, sings, and writes the blues. HOLD UP before you lock that in – forget about songs in a twelve bar three chord progression with a two line repeat and answer rhyme structure – though he can certainly do that when he wants to.

I’m talking about a feeling, a smoky, lonesome, painful – yet somehow comforting groove that lets you know that you are not alone – even when you’re blue. Play on brother.’ (Steve Earle)

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‘I’ve heard Kelly Joe mention that he’s been inspired by people like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Dock Boggs, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and others. He seems to have absorbed all this (and all kinds of other stuff as well) and come back with something all his own.

Sounds like he’s coming from the inside out. The bottom up. He’s not just playing ‘AT’ the music or trying to recreate or imitate something that’s happened in the past. He seems to have tapped into the artery somehow. There’s a lot going on in between and behind the notes. Mystery. He’s been an inspiration to me.’  (Bill Frisell)

Modern music is saturated by the sound of you know what’s coming next, auto tuned, multi-tracked guitars.

Drowning in this aural tide you can forget that, in the right hands, the guitar can be a questing instrument; an instrument which can sound the depths of human emotions in this life of dust and shadows.

When Kelly Joe Phelps plays the guitar whether slide or finger picking what you hear is the sound of a musician who has indeed tapped into the artery.

I first encountered him more than two decades ago now at the tiny 12 Bar Club in London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street.

Standing a couple of feet away from him I was able to read, as he tuned up, the scrawled set list at his feet. It included:

‘Goodnight Irene’, ‘The House Carpenter’, ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’.

Fueled by my early evening libations I leaned towards him and said, ‘Wow, you’re going to have to be very good indeed to hold us with those songs without someone muttering every two seconds, ‘… Not as good as so and so’s version.’

Sensibly, he answered only with a wry smile before stilling the room in in the next hour with an astonishing display of instrumental virtuosity harnessed to a deep emotional understanding of both the Blues and the Gospel traditions.

Songs that were veritable foundation texts (in some hands museum pieces) came shockingly alive as Kelly Joe fearlessly explored the territory they opened up – voyaging wherever his heart and fertile musical imagination took him.

Listen now to his version of the canonical classic Leadbelly’s, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and marvel at the deliberate beauty and power of deep sea sway he brings to it.

Ever since I heard this take on Irene this is the one that plays in my dreams.

 

 

Born in the dwindling days of the 1950s Kelly Joe began his musical career as a bass player in modal and free Jazz combos where the ability to improvise and react to your fellow musicians was paramount.

At the same time, as an alert listener, he was immersing himself in the core deep works of artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Dock Boggs.

Artists who made singing in the blood music which still casts a profound spell. Taking the slide guitar as his vehicle to explore this universe he began to cast spells of his own.

Kelly Joe’s music is all about reaching, reaching, for the other shore.

Listening to Kelly Joe play James Milton Black’s 19th Century hymn, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’ there can be no doubt that we are brought in soul’s sight of that other shore.

Now, if you are a musician of Kelly Joe’s class and intuitive understanding of what makes the songs of the , ‘Old Weird America’ so profound and eternally relevant you will struggle to find such rich material in contemporary songbooks.

Happily, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, has laid down a storehouse of mystery filled dancing spells which musicians of spirit will always want and need to explore.

Bob once said that he saw himself a song and dance man. Kelly Joe takes him at his word here whirling, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ round a mystic Maypole.

As his career has progressed Kelly Joe has featured more original material. His own fine songs show how deep he has drunk at the well of the blues and gospel masters.

 

Kelly Joe’s music is filled with ancient lore and wholly alive in the here and now.

Surrender to his spell.

Notes:

There is a handy 2 CD Kelly Joe compilation, ‘Roll Away the Blues’ on the Nascente label which I highly recommend.

My own favourites in his excellent catalogue are:

‘Lead Me On’

‘Roll Away the Stone’

‘Shiny Eyed Mr Zen’

‘Beggar’s Oil’

‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’

Kelly Joe is a transfixing live performer. Seek out You tube for some wonderful clips.

Guitar buffs should seek out his finger picking tutorials.

 

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.