Chuck Berry RIP : Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Chuck Berry has died. May he rest in peace.

 

I will write an extensive tribute later.

He was a Founding Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

He was a Rock ‘n’ Roll Prophet and The Rock ‘n’ Roll Poet.

He was a writer with the immediate understanding of a top class journalist, the widescreen vision of an historian and the timing of a comedian on the stage.

He is one of the greatest chroniclers of American Life.

Hail, Hail, Hail Chuck Berry!

Here he is with a special favourite of mine, ‘School Days’

‘Up in the mornin’ and out to school
The teacher is teachin’ the Golden Rule
American history and practical math
You study’ em hard and hopin’ to pass
Workin’ your fingers right down to the bone
And the guy behind you won’t leave you alone

Ring ring goes the bell
The cook in the lunchroom’s ready to sell
You’re lucky if you can find a seat
You’re fortunate if you have time to eat
Back in the classroom open you books
Gee but the teacher don’t know
How mean she looks

Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books, get out of your seat

Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and ’round the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in

Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot

Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot

Hail, hail rock’n’roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock’n’roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock’n’roll
The feelin’ is there body and soul’

The lyric above is the best teaching aide anyone could ever have if they wanted an example of great Rock ‘n’Roll Songwriting.

Consider the rhythmic flow of the words and music.

Consider the sociological acuity of the observations.

‘The guy behind you won’t leave you alone‘. Don’t you just know that guy!

‘Gee but the teacher don’t know How mean she looks’. 

Teachers never do, never do!

‘Down the halls and into the street
Up to the corner and ’round the bend
Right to the juke joint you go in
Drop the coin right into the slot
You gotta hear something that’s really hot’

Now that’s writing! A whole generation and way of life captured perfectly.

‘With the one you love you’re makin’ romance
All day long you been
Wantin’ to dance
Feelin’ the music from head to toe
‘Round and ’round and ’round you go’

All day long you been wantin’ to dance. All day long!

Rock ‘n’ Roll swept The World because it did make you feel the music from head to toe and because what in the world could possible beat the feeling of makin’ romance with the one you love!

Round and round and round you go!

Chuck Berry set The World spinning and some of us are spinning still!

‘Hail, hail rock’n’roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock’n’roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock rock rock’n’roll
The feelin’ is there body and soul’

And that Baby is Rock ‘n’ Roll!

With his thrilling guitar, his poetic words and his sleek charisma Chuck did indeed deliver us from the days of old.

Thank you Chuck for the feeling – body and soul.

 

Phil Everly Remembered

 

Phil Everly’s physical voice was stilled three years ago.

 

Yet his voice on record and in the hearts of generations of listeners now and to come will surely never be stilled.

The keen in his and Don’s voices cuts deep. And deeper with the years.

So, its a rare week when I don’t find myself humming an Everly Brother’s song as I go about my daily life.

Phil and Don’s divine harmonies continue to strike chords in my heart.

Today, in his honour, a Reblog of one of the earliest posts on The Immortal Jukebox.

One where I felt my own voice called by Phil’s.

I hope I have done him justice.

There is a magical moment during the Everly Brothers celebrated and triumphant reunion concert at The Albert Hall in 1983 which goes some way to explaining the source of their enduring appeal.

After opening with a heart warming , ‘Bye Bye Love, a rocking Claudette, the magesterial, ‘Walk Right Back’  a forlorn, stately, ‘I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain and the knock-out punch of, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ the band, which featured England’s guitar legend Albert Lee, took a momentary breather.

The two brothers briefly smiled at each other knowing now that a decade apart had in no sense diminished their power as performers.  Reassured, they leaned their heads close together and began to sing acapella, ‘These are the words of a frontier lad who lost his love when he went bad.’

The opening lines of, ‘Take A Message to Mary’.  As their two voices entwined in a rich fraternal harmony of heartbreakingly vulnerable perfection you can feel the whole audience catch their breath as countless personal memories are evoked.

Memories of the passing years with all their freight of love, joy and loss.  Memories of friends, lovers and family happily present and memories of those now separated by distance, time and mortality.

Looking around the auditorium it was clear that few popular music figures have ever burrowed so deep into their fans emotional core or repaid that loyalty and affection with such tender grace.

Simply put the Everly Brothers were the greatest duet singers and brother act in the history of popular music.

It will remain a mystery as to why the sibling relationship and consanguinity combined to supercharge the emotional resonance of Phil and Don’s harmony vocals and how this mysterious power could survive and endure for virtually all their lifetimes as brothers – whatever the state of their personal relationship.

It was surely a mystery to them as much as to anyone else.

Phil Everly’s life began in Chicago but he was in every other sense a son of the South.  His parents were Kentuckians and musicians.  From the age of six he was singing on the radio with elder brother Don and his parents.

The songs they sang were country songs or those weird and wonderful folk songs as Dylan put it about, ‘Roses growing out of people’s heads’.

From the get-go it was clear that these two brothers, influenced by other brother acts like the Delmores and Blue Sky Boys, had a uniquely potent mystical chemistry that made their arousing and keening singing able to thrill and also to pierce the hardest heart.

As they grew older the cute boys became handsome young men, accomplished guitar players and confident performers.  They were thus in prime position in the late 1950’s to shoulder their jet black Gibson guitars ready to ride and help drive the runaway rock ‘n’ roll train as far as it could go.

Settling into their recording career at Cadence Records and supplied with a string of classic teenage angst songs by the likes of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’) the Everly’s took up residence in the hearts and memories of a generation.

Phil himself wrote one of their signature teenage classics, ‘When Will I Be Loved’.  Up until the advent of the Beatles led British invasion the Everlys were reigning rock ‘n’ roll royalty enjoying massive chart success and the esteem of their fellow artists.

They were also enormously influential – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies and The Beach Boys all freely acknowledged their admiration and desire to emulate the wonder of the brothers’ harmony singing.

Of the two brothers Phil was by all accounts the more outgoing, sensible and grounded of the two.  Though the younger brother it seemed that he was the one looking out for the more mercurial and vulnerable Don.

Don, whose voice seems able to cleave your ribs and pull your heart apart generally took the lead part while Phil intently, watchfully, with a brother’s love and care, held everything together with poignant poised harmony.

Together they made a sound that has rarely been matched for longevity of emotional impact.

Phil had some notable successes as a solo artist including recording the excellent, ‘Star Spangled Springer’ album (1973) which contains the wonderful tracks, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘Snowflake Bombadier’.

He also worked fruitfully on the soundtracks of the Clint Eastwood  movies, ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and, ‘Any Which Way You Can’.

Genuine though these successes were they are minor in comparison to the luminous body of work he created with his elder brother.

They were great country singers, great rock ‘n’ roll singers and great pop singers.

Their body of work is sure to provide emotional sustenance and solace long into the forseeable future.  For people will always fall in and out of love and always carry the scars of past hurts even as they embrace new hope.

There will always be an Everly Brothers song to turn to.

Fare Thee Well Muhammad Ali – Fare Thee Well Champ

Regular readers of The Jukebox will know of my lifelong love and admiration for Muhammad Ali.

Tens of millions of words will be written about his legendary life and career. Below is the heartfelt, unfiltered, outpouring of a devotee whose life was immeasurably enriched by the great man’s life.


As usual the music I have chosen speaks with a purity of emotion and eloquence which my writing can never hope to match.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Pursue your dream with all the energy at your command, all your talent and every ounce of your will.

Wake up in the morning and work every day to make your dream one day nearer to coming true.

You will stall. You will stumble. You will have setbacks and disasters.

Don’t let your dream be dashed. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

And, when you need inspiration (we all need inspiration) look to Muhammad Ali.

Look up into the night sky. That’s his star shining brilliant and true. Follow the star.

Dare to dream. Dare to dream. Dare to dream.

Muhammad Ali was a skinny Black kid from Louisville Kentucky who dared to dream.

He dared to dream on stepping into his local gym that he would become the best fighter it would ever see.

He dared to dream that he would be a Golden Gloves Champion.

He dared to dream that he would win an Olympic Gold Medal.

He dared to dream that he would beat the terrifying, unbeatable Sonny Liston and become the Heavyweight Champion of the whole wide World!

He dared to dream that he could invent a style of boxing beyond the imaginations of anyone who had ever fought before – float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. No jive you’ll go in five.


He dared to dream that little educated as he was he could charm paupers and peasants and kings and have all of them laugh with love and recognise a true monarch of life.

He dared to dream that he could stand up proud before the might of the state and say, ‘I won’t fight in a war I don’t believe in’.

He dared to dream when they took his title away that one day he would win it back.

He dared to dream when he lost for the first time in his career to the great Joe Frazier that he would beat him the next time and the time after that.

He dared to dream that he could beat the unbeatable colossus that was George Foreman.

He dared to dream that he could break all the rules of boxing and win the title by laying back on the ropes while the hardest puncher in the world whaled on him for all he was worth.


He dared to dream that when he was cruelly stricken by illness that he would find peace of mind and heart and spirit in the love of his family and God.

He dared to dream that a skinny Black kid from Louisville would become the best known man in the whole wide world.

He dared to dream that he would become the greatest fighter who ever lived.

He dared to dream that he would become the greatest and most significant sportsman who ever lived.

He dared to dream that his life would uplift and inspire dreamers all over the world.

He fulfilled all of his dreams and launched millions and millions of others because he pursued his dream with all the energy at his command, all of his vast talent and every ounce of his will.

He woke up every morning and worked as hard as he could to bring his dream one more day nearer to coming true.

Though he sometimes stalled, sometimes stumbled and endured setbacks and disasters he never allowed his dreams to be dashed. He always, always dared to dream.

He was Muhammad Ali. He was exactly what he said he was – The Greatest of All Time.

Thank you Muhammad for all the outrageous boasts. Thank you for all the giddy glory. Thank you for all the thrills and all the good hearted laughter.

May all your tears be dried. May flights of angels sing you to your well deserved rest.

Good Night Champ and may God bless and keep you always.

RIP Dave Mackay: The noblest Hotspur of them all!

‘To each his day is given. Beyond recall man’s little time runs by: but to prolong life’s glory by great deeds is virtue’s power’. (Virgil, The Aeneid)

‘Nor have I seen a mightier man at arms on this earth .. He is truly noble. This is no mere hanger-on in a hero’s armour’. (Beowulf)

‘If he had served in a war he would have been the first man into action – he would have won the Victoria Cross’. (Bill Nicholson)

Dave Mackay who has died at the age of 80 was by acclamation the finest player ever to play for Spurs, the finest player ever to play for his first club, Hearts and he would be certain to be selected as a member of Scotland’s best ever team. He was an inaugural inductee to the English and Scottish Football Halls of Fame, a Footballer of the Year and he rightfully graces one of her Majesty’s postage stamps! Yet no recitation of the many honours he won can serve to capture what made him such an admirable player and man. For that you have to consider his granite character.

I have reached the age when the heroes of my youth are becoming fixtures on the Obituary pages and all too often I reluctantly realise that perhaps those heroes, for all their accomplishments, had, like most of us, feet of clay. Yet, with Dave Mackay it is clear that the term hero is entirely justified. He really did fill every unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run and anyone examining his career and wider life will have to agree that here indeed was a man in full. Dave Mackay’s qualities of bravery, modesty, loyalty and honesty applied under the glare of public pressure show manhood at its best.

Dave Mackay as a player combined complete physical and mental commitment with extravagant skill. With Hearts his pre-match party piece was to run out into the centre circle and then to back-heel the ball into the net on the half volley. At Spurs he would volley ball high into the stratosphere as he came out and then nonchalantly perfectly trap it as it came back to earth. Once the game started it was a very foolish opponent who imagined that they could intimidate Dave who could tackle with the force of a JCB. Once the ball was won with his head up and barrel chest out he could see the pass that would open up the opposition and then deliver it with casual aplomb.

As a captain he led by example – Dave Mackay never left the pitch without having given every ounce of effort possible and he demanded nothing less from his team mates. But, his leadership was not merely a matter of fist shaking exhortation: his greatest attribute as a captain was that all the players he played with wanted his good opinion. To have Dave Mackay pat you on the back and for him to say well done as he lifted a glass with you after the game was treasure far beyond the roar of the crowd.

Dave was a footballer’s footballer the canniest judges of a players worth, his fellow professionals, all knew that he was a very special player. All time great players such as George Best, Eusabio and Spurs own Jimmy Greaves all spoke with head-shaking wonder about Dave’s range of football talents and the physical presence and impact he brought to the game. To be on his team made you feel inches taller while to see him leading your opponents out was a sure signal that today your mettle was really going to be tested!

Dave Mackay was a winner. With Hearts in the 1950s he won the League title, the Cup and the League Cup. With Spurs he was a member of the immortal 60/61 double winning side which set a standard for thrilling excellence that has rarely, if ever, been matched in English football. A team which included the sublime skills of John White, the canny, pulling the strings of the game intelligence of Danny Blanchflower, the blistering pace of Cliff Jones and the battering ram belligerence of Bobby Smith made for an irresistible attacking force.

What Dave Mackay added was tempered steel as well as silky skill. Any team with Dave Mackay in it would never lack for heart and there could be no such thing as a lost cause while the final whistle was yet to be blown. With the addition of the genius of Jimmy Greaves Spurs became a team of all talents. FA Cups and the first European trophy for a British side filled the White Hart Lane Trophy cabinet and the memories of the glory of that side will never tarnish.

Though Mackay faced broken legs and the frailties of increasing age as the 60s ended he took the opportunity offered by Brian Clough with Derby County to show that his football brain and charisma made him the perfect mentor for a team filled with youthful burgeoning talent. Roy McFarland and his colleagues were treated to master classes in what it meant to be a footballer in every training session and in every game they learned under Dave’s watchful eye how to apply those lessons in the heat of battle.

Dave later won a league title as a manger with Derby and that team reflected his continuing belief that football was a Man’s game to be played skilfully with whole-hearted commitment .

Dave Mackay through his talent, his character and his achievements gave dignity and honour to the profession of football. He knew that he was blessed to play the game he loved at the very highest levels and he repayed those blessings in the fullest measure. We shall not see his like again.

Christmas, A Clarinet And Acker Bilk (RIP)

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Christmas is coming.

I know that for certain because following much deliberation and discussion my son has composed his 2014 letter to Santa Claus. We sealed the envelope with due ceremony and in his best handwriting addressed it to Santa’s North Pole headquarters. We cycled down to the local postbox/mailbox and very carefully sent the vital message on its way.

What he wants, and what we are all sure he will receive curtesy of the elves and Santa’s crack reindeer delivery team (led by Rudolph) is a clarinet.

Why a clarinet? Because over the last year listening to CDs in the car Tom has become a fanatical fan of British ‘Trad Jazz’ from the 1950s and 1960s. This was led by young men aflame with passion who had discovered in the shiny shellac of imported American Jazz records a doorway to a new world of rhythmic joy and wonder. Many of them then started journeys and careers that would sustain them for the rest of their lives through obscure internecine culture wars, improbable transatlantic popular successes and long periods playing to small audiences in draughty halls and smoky pub back rooms.

Prominent among these was a clarinettist from Somerset named Bernard Stanley Bilk who rejoiced in a schoolboy nickname he would ever after be known by, ‘Acker’. Though Tom has time for the pure vision of the incorruptible Ken Colyer, the urbane style of the aristocratic Humphrey Lyttleton and the gusto of the Chris Barber and Kenny Ball bands his unquestioned favourite is Acker who has just died at the age of 85.

Acker came from England’s West Country where the accents, the cheese, the cider and the characters all have a distinctive flavoursome tang. This distinctiveness is reflected in the instantly recognisable sound and tone of Acker’s clarinet playing. There is an immensely charming open hearted generosity and vibrato vigour in his sound. Once Acker announced his beckoning presence you just naturally relax and lean in confident that you will be moved, entertained and uplifted.

Acker also developed a signature look – bowler hat, waistcoat and goatee beard that amounted to the kind of winning brand that ‘image consultants’ would now charge you a couple of limbs to devise. There was an element of the Edwardian dandy in this but also a sense that a canny countryman was both celebrating and mocking the whole show business cavalcade – a witty wink to the wise.

At the dawn of the 1960s Acker hit his musical stride and issued a string of records that would become hits and and cement his place forever in the national consciousness. Let’s kick off with a top 10 hit from 1961, ‘That’s My Home’ which nicely demonstrates Acker’s relaxed take on traditional jazz.

Later that same year Acker composed a tune he called, ‘Jenny’ after his daughter. Retitled ‘Stranger On The Shore’ when it was used as the theme tune of a BBC TV show it became Acker’s calling card, his old age pension and a world wide hit selling millions of copies. Billed as by, ‘ Mr Acker Bilk And His Paramount Jazz Band’ Stranger took up residence in the UK charts for more than a year and became almost unbelievably a US number one record in May 1962. There was a ritual at Acker concerts whereby he laid his bowler hat on the piano when taking the stage – donning the hat near the end of the concert was the rapturously received signal that he was about to play Stranger: the tune be would always be known by.

Stranger must be one of the most evocative instrumentals ever recorded. Acker’s clarinet seems to drift into our minds like an enveloping sea mist. For the duration of the record we are cast into a reverie where our everyday cares are dissolved and memories of landscapes, seascapes and times past swirl deliciously in our thoughts. Turn down the lights, lie back and prepare to be transported!

Acker was a major draw in Britain and you might be surprised to see who was below him on the in June 1963 – none other than The Beatles!

In 1964 Acker cut a particularly charming single which showed that he was open to new influences and that he was a more versatile musician than often supposed. ‘Dream Ska’ is one of those records that sets me grinning wildly and assaying a series of lurching dance moves best executed in private.

In Britain the baby boomer generation grew up with Acker as a fixture on our radios and TV screens. He was one of those rare artists that everybody recognised and who was universally regarded with affection. This embrace extended to some of the titans of the music world who turned to Acker when they wanted a clarinet sound that was poignant and nostalgic. If you can find it look out for Acker joining forces with the great Van Morrison to bring before us the shades of Avalon. Acker is reported to have described Van as a nice guy and expressed some surprise that when Van offered him a lift home to the West Country after a recording session it was by private plane rather than by car!

My last musical selection to showcase Acker’s gifts is a wonderfully romantic song by the sadly lost siren of English folk music – the incomparable Sandy Denny. It would be hard to beat this record for an example of distilled English melancholy.

Acker Bilk was a hard working musician who never stopped making records and performing for his loyal audience. He played his heart out every time he lifted his clarinet and he leaves a marvellous legacy of recordings filled with humanity and joy which will always find an audience.

Acker Bilk born on January 28 1929 died on November 2 2014 (Ar dheis De go raibh a anam)

This post dedicated to my son Tom: avid music fan, Acker Bilk devotee and a proper chip off the old block.

Post Christmas update!

For those of you who were concerned about whether Tom would receive his clarinet I am happy to report that Santa’s Sleigh made a pin point landing in the meadow near our house so that when Tom woke up on Christmas morning a clarinet was indeed poking out of his stocking! We are getting used to Tom’s version of Stranger On The Shore – which is somewhat more free form than Acker Bilk’s version!

Muhammad Ali : The Supporting Cast – Tunney Hunsaker

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…. Tunney Hunsaker!!

Muhammad Ali is a sporting and cultural star to outshine Sirius. He has become a totemic figure occupying significant space in the global collective consciousness and our dreams. Many of us have measured out our youth, maturity and now old age following and being inspired by his legendary deeds and the generosity of talent, heart and spirit he has expended in his regal life.

In the brilliance of his life and career the lives of many others from an extraordinarily diverse range of backgrounds have been illuminated. The Supporting Cast series of posts will spotlight some of these lives.

David Remnick in his excellent book on Muhammad Ali calls him the King Of The World which seems entirely appropriate to me. And, like Kings from time immemorial Ali has had inner and outer courts seeking and competing for his attention, his financial largesse and his affection. Beyond the courts there have been multitudes who have witnessed his reign and interacted with him directly and indirectly as bitter enemies, flag waving supporters, sceptical observers and head shaking in wonder historians. Again, like a King he has had to face internal dissension and threats to his crown from dangerous outside and foreign sources – opponents within the boxing ring and from society at large. He has had his trusted advisers, his jesters and his nay saying doubters. He has survived it all and not without heavy cost triumphed against all these forces to end his days in seemingly serene repose.

Enter in Act 1 aged 30 from Fayetville West Virginia weighing 192 pounds, Tunney Hunsaker! The date was October 29th 1960 when Eisenhower was in the last dwindling days of his presidency and the seemingly endless promise of JFK’s new frontier was about to begin. The venue was Ali’s home town of Louisville Kentucky. Some 6000 souls can say they were present at Ali’s professional boxing debut and Tunney Hunsaker’s cameo role in his legendary career.

Hunsaker was by then already an air force veteran and the serving Police Hunsaker was by then already an air force veteran and the serving Police Chief of Fayetville. He had turned Pro in 1952 and following a promising early start, winning ten of his first dozen bouts, he had taken a long lay off between the middle of 1953 and 1958.

On his return he was coming off a series of 6 straight losses including one against Ernie Terrell when he laced on the gloves to fight Ali. Ali’s management team like all those wanting to ease a serious prospect into his career wanted a match that would teach the young cub something about the pro game but not one that would place him in any serious danger of defeat. Hunsaker was there to be a literal and metaphorical range finder. He was an honest and durable fighter but not one blessed with outstanding talents.

Ali was starting his professional life after a stellar amateur history. He had over a hundred contests under his belt and he was just back from Rome with a gold medal around his neck. He was also the proud owner of a hatful of golden gloves titles – all these triumphs attained while still a teenager. His early trainers, Joe Martin and Fred Stoner, knew he was something special but how far could he go? Tunney Hunsaker was the first step on
the unfolding story which would answer that question.

As Tunney stood in his corner looking across the ring the young Ali he saw was a superb physical specimen. Six foot three in height and weighing 186 pounds with the sheen of youthful fitness and condition. More than that he had a personal aura, a glow that said this is somebody who will make a mark on the world. Hunsaker’s hope would have been the knowledge that frequently lions of amateur boxing do not deliver on their promise in the brutal mans world of pro boxing. Most of them will not become contenders let alone champions. Did this jive talking flashy pink Cadillac kid from Louisville have a true fighting heart? Could he take a heavyweight punch and recover?

Hunsaker was not to know that Ali, at this stage of his career, virtually lived in the gym spending long sweat soaked hours forging the fighting skills that he would so thrillingly display in the decades ahead. Or that he had a fighter’s heart as big as his imagination which was virtually limitless.

The six rounds of the bout were an education for both fighters. Ali learned that a heavyweight punch did hurt but that he coud handle the pain and not let it distract him from his work. Hunsaker learned that the kid was much faster with his jab, his movement and his thought than any boxer he had ever faced. All his old pro tricks, the holding and pushing and feints were to no avail against an opponent who had talent and fitness to burn. Tunney Hundaker became the first pro to learn the hard way how Ali’s lightning jab and the slashing combinations of punches that followed could sap the body’s strength and befuddle the mind. At the end of the fight Hunsaker was bloodied and well beaten and Ali elated and looking forward to a future as a champion of champions. Hunsaker with typical honesty admitted that Ali was just too good and predicted that he would become heavyweight champion of the world.

We all know what happened later for Muhammad – tales of impossible glory, triumph and tragedy celebrated in story, song and myth. But what became of Tunney Hunsaker after he had banked the three hundred dollars he got for the fight and the caravan moved on?

Well, he had six more fights winning two before he faced his final opponent in the ring, Joe Shelton, in his home state on April 6th 1962. He lost this fight when he was knocked out in the tenth and then faced the toughest battle of his life as he lapsed into a coma from which he did not emerge for nine days. His fighting heart and devoted medical care pulled him through and he returned to Fayetville to resume his role as a community cop for decades after. He was inducted into the law enforcement hall of fame and was thrice awarded the title of Sunday School teacher of the year.

Tunney Hunsaker died on April 27th 2005. There is a bridge named after him crossing the New River Gorge. He served his sport and his community with steadfast courage and loyalty and won their respect and affection.

That’s an epitaph any one of us would be proud of.

This post dedicated on Father’s Day to my Dad, Wally Hickey, with whom I spent many happy times discussing the life and lore of Muhammad Ali.

Jesse Winchester 1944 – 2014

Jesse Winchester died at the age of 69 in April 2014. I first heard him in the mid 1970s on Charlie Gillet’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.