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.

The Young Rascals : Blissful Blue Eyed Summer Soul!

‘The Rascals are Coming! The Rascals are Coming!’ (Scoreboard announcement at The Beatles Shea Stadium concert)

‘My God, you guys really are white!’ (Otis Redding on encountering The Rascals in a neighbouring studio)

‘Some people may not realize it, but The Rascals were the first Rock Band in the world … okay over in England, some guys were making some noise. But in the real world, in the centre of the universe – New Jersey – The Rascals were the first band!’ (Steve Van Zandt speech for The Rascals Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction)

There’s always one.

One Summer of your youth that stays shimmering in your mind for evermore.

For me it was the long, once in a century, extraordinarily hot, Summer of 1976.

A Summer when I was not yet 21.

A Summer when my head and my entire being was aflame, aflame.

A Summer when the waters of The Cam glistened silver in the Summer sun.

A Summer when the Colleges of Cambridge never looked lovelier as I piloted (very inexpertly) down the River.

And, as always, a soundtrack in my head.

Summer Songs. Summer Songs.

And, there’s always one song that summons your shimmering Summer like no other.

For me, in the Summer of 1976, it was ‘Groovin’ a song of gossamer grace recorded by The Young Rascals in 1967.

Now, I don’t know about you but when I hear, ‘Groovin” the jazzments in my mind approach something like ecstasy!

Eddie Brigati, co-writer with Felix Cavaliere, of this miraculous song recalls that at the time they were living in a hotel right off Central Park in New York City.

Down the crowded avenue they would go on a Sunday afternoon doing anything they wanted to do!

When you’re in the prime of youth and the world is opening up for you to explore and conquer it’s indeed hard to imagine anything better than groovin’ on a sunny afternoon with the one closest to your heart.

You can just feel that life is getting better and better – endlesssly.

Let the future and responsibilities wait; for now smile, take a deep breath of fresh air and you’ll hear yourself saying, ‘Ah-ha-ha, Ah-ha-ha’ and you’ll remember those moments, those immortal moments, for the rest of your life wherever life takes you thereafter.

Groovin’ was an unstoppable Nunber One record that sat atop Billboard for four straight weeks.

Who wouldn’t be charmed by its relaxed groove? There’s a lazy Cuban feel to the recording emphasised by the presence of congas but not drums. The great Chuck Rainey on bass gives the song liquid momentum as does Michael Weinstein on harmonica.

The glory of the song though, as with all Rascals recordings, lies in the seductive beauty of their vocals.

Felix on lead with wonderful harmonic support from David Brigati (the Fifth Rascal).

Gene Cornish is there on guitar filling out the sound which is topped off with the birdsong!

Put that all together and you have, as Eddie Brigati said, ‘that simple little summer song that everybody knows’.

Amazingly, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records thought the song would not appeal as it was so different to the more boisterous R&B and Soul sounds Rascals fans had come to expect from them.

A clear case of underestimating the public taste!

Luckily, a figure seemingly ever present around the music scene in 60s New York, Disc Jockey Murray the K, bearded Jerry Wexler and argued with convincing force that Groovin’ was a sure fire Number One smash!

Now this wasn’t the first Number One The Rascals would achieve and it wouldn’t be their last.

Their debut at the summit of the charts in February 1966 was with one of the great rave-up records of all time, ‘Good Lovin’.

If you pair it with, ‘Gimme Some Lovin’ by the Spencer Davis Group featuring the teenage Steve Winwood you have one hell of a party going on!

You got the fever? Here’s the cure!

One, two, three!

Versions of the song had previously been recorded by Lemme B Good (Limmie Snell) and The Olympics (benefitting from the production smarts of Jerry Ragavoy).

However, neither of those worthy platters could match the joyous, adrenaline fuelled, ‘I may just die on the spot’ stairway to heaven rush of The Rascals version.

Tom Dowd, legendary producer and engineer at Atlantic, captured the attack of The Rascals live sound perfectly – you feel you’re in the middle of that party with them and you never want the song to end even though you can’t possibly keep dancing at this rate for more than another sixty seconds!

On drums Dino Danelli demonstrates what a wonderfully drivin’ sticksman he was while the transcendent Hammond Organ break by Felix is playing on a loop in my head since the first day I heard it.

Gene Cornish provides wonderfully scuzzy guitar licks that don’t let up throughout.

As for the let’s start in overdrive and then really put the hammer down vocals you can hear why Otis might have been surprised at their complexions!

The Rascals, 1940s Baby Boomers all, had grown up in the New York/New Jersey area and all had born again experiences when they heard the likes of Ray Charles, Little Richard and Fats Domino on the airwaves.

Also important in the development of their sound was the ethereal DooWop singing of The Harptones and The Moonglows.

Especially epiphanic for Felix would be discovering Jazzman Jimmy Smith and the awesome power of The Hammond Organ (the same lightning bolt would strike Steve Winwood, Georgie Fame and Ian McLagan over in England).

After serving apprenticeships in local bar bands they came together as members of Joey Dee and the Starliters (David Brigati bringing them in). Touring Europe playing, ‘Peppermint Twist’ for all they were worth they found themselves on a bill with The, then unknown in America, Beatles.

The dime dropped that they should be front men not side men!

Soon they were tearing up venues like Manhattan’s The Phone Booth and coming to the attention of Promoter Extraordinaire Sid Bernstein who got them signed to Atlantic (their first white act!).

The Rascals catalogue in their glory days, 1965 to 1968, gleams with musical treasure.

There was something about The Rascals that chimed with the times. This is reflected in their third and final Number One record from 1968, ‘People Got To Be Free’ which was a fervent and frank civil rights anthem.

Undeniably preachy and of its time. Yet, yet – wrapped in glorious vocals and a swirling magic carpet of guitars, percussion and horns. I’m always in favour of anthems you can really shake a tail feather to!

And, you know, looking around this mean old world, who can disagree that the train of freedom, for so many, is long, long overdue.

As with so many 60s Groups ‘Personal Differences’ and the relentless grind of searching for the next hit took their toll on The Rascals and it would not be until well into the 21st Century that all the original members got together (for a theatrical celebration of their career devised by über fan Steve Van Zandt).

Most of all I love The Rascals for the youthful Joie de Vivre of their sound.

There’s something enormously affecting in the blend of their voices and the reaching for the stars arrangements of their songs.

I’m going to leave you with a personal favourite that has a yearning and tremulous charm that never palls.

And, that’s surely something to celebrate in world that’s constantly changing.

Notes:

There’s an invaluable compilation of The Rascals work on Rhino Records. Tracks I return to over and over include, ‘I’ve Been Lonely Too Long’ ‘A Beautiful Morning’ ‘A Girl Like You’ and ‘Mustang Sally’.

Fans of the French Ye-Ye sound should check out Nicoletta’s version of ‘How Can I Be Sure’ which went out under the title, ‘Je Ne Pense Qu’a T’aimer’.

Big Joe Turner : Moving The Earth – Shake Rattle and Roll !

“Rock and roll would have never happened without him” – Doc Pomus

Auguries. Signs. Portents.

Beneath the stillness something is stirring.

Tectonic plates are shifting.

Magma is on the move.

In the sky above the birds describe strange patterns.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

The restless beasts of the field call out in distress.

The Moon turns blood red and the wick of The Sun threatens to gutter and die.

Still ponds spit and steam.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

Rivers run dry while the dreadful Sea rises higher and higher and higher.

The wolves and the tigers prowl quietly in the night.

Babes stir anxiously in their mother’s wombs.

Something is stirring. Something is stirring.

Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll. Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Enter Stage Left : Big Joe Turner – a man no bear would dare pursue.

Well Areet Banaza! Areet Banaza! Take me home Daddy! Take me home!

‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ is one of those records that has you exclaiming in the brief moments between its end and you hitting repeat, ‘Now that’s the greatest record ever made’.

And you don’t get no fighting talk from me about that.

Which is why, ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’ majestically takes its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A18

It was issued in April 1954 on Atlantic Records and took up residence in the R&B charts for the next 6 months.

It’s a landmark record that exploded in the consciousness of every audience that heard it.

You’re not so keen on the Foxtrot as soon as you’ve heard, ‘Shake Rattle and Roll’!

Big Joe had cut more than 50 singles, many of them magnificent, when he signed with Atlantic in 1951.

There he found a home where his immense ability was recognised, supported and promoted.

The hits flowed – ‘Chains of Love’, ‘Sweet Sixteen’, ‘Honey Hush’ and, ‘TV Mama’ captured his talent in full flow and turned new generations of the public and fellow artists on to the great man.

I have often heard Big Joe described as a, ‘Blues Shouter’ and up to a point Lord Copper that’s true.

At full volume it’s true that Big Joe’s voice could stop a speeding truck or leave a forest felled in its wake.

Yet, Big Joe was a lot more than just a shouter. He had immense power at his command but it was highly controlled power.

Big Joe could swing. Big Joe could stroll.

Big Joe could be seductive.

Big Joe could be salacious. Boy Howdy could he be salacious!

Big Joe could command a band and a bandstand.

Big Joe could sell a lyric.

Big Joe was a marvel who could do what the hell he pleased with a song!

Big Joe just kept getting better and better and sooner or later it was obvious that the world would catch up with him and realise that he was an American Master whose work would be inscribed in history for evermore.

Now, none of this would come as any surprise to the head honchos at Atlantic – Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Etregun.

They were savvy businessmen and deep dyed music fanatics who knew, just knew, that given the right material and surrounded by musicians of the right calibre Big Joe would make records that would be unstoppable.

Unstoppable.

So they assembled an A Team to guarantee Big Joe the success his mighty talent deserved.

First, a songwriter, musician and arranger who is one of the secret heroes of 20th Century music – Jesse Stone.

Jesse, was born in 1901, into a highly musical family and it was soon clear that Jesse had the dedication and the smarts to make a career in the music business.

Wherever there was a thriving music scene – Kansas City, Detroit, New York City, Jesse was there learning, listening and storing away ideas for songs and arrangements.

Pretty soon he became a go to guy if you wanted a sound that swung and perked up the ears of the audiences of the day.

Benny Goodman had a hit with his,’Idaho’. Louis Jordan took, ‘Cole Slaw’ up the charts.

Oh, and he also happened to write, ‘Smack Dab in the Middle’, ‘Money Honey’, ‘Losing Hand’ and, ‘Sh-Boom’!

But Jesse never wrote a song with more visceral impact than Shake Rattle and Roll. The lyric is a no holds barred celebration of the pleasures of the flesh yoked to a dynamite arrangement that just sweeps you away.

The glorious Sax solo comes courtesy of Sam ‘The Man’ Taylor who was everybody’s first choice when recording in NYC studios in the 1950s.

On Guitar the superb Mickey Baker (featured here earlier on the ‘Love is Strange post).

On Drums Connie Kay who later showed his sensitive side when playing with The Modern Jazz Quartet and his mystical side when he formed the rhythm section with Bassist Richard Davis for Van Morrison’s epochal, ‘Astral Weeks’ sessions.

Together with Big Joe front and centre they made a record that truly is earth shaking.

A record that you’ll believe to your very soul.

Your very soul.

How does it go?

It goes like this!

‘Shake, Rattle and Roll.’

Sing it Big Joe. Sing it!

Remembering George Jones : The greatest Country Music Singer who ever lived!

George Jones. The One and Only George Jones.

Four years ago the Silent Boatman, who comes for us all, carried George away.

He was, without any scintilla of doubt, the greatest singer Country Music has ever, or will ever, know.

He was born in Texas in 1931. From his dad he inherited a taste for the bottle and from his mother the hope of salvation.

The world and his own nature offered up the simultaneous allure and spectre of sin, guilt and damnation.

From some higher power he was blessed with a singing voice that could express with enormous authority and impact the whole damn bone and blood gamut of emotions we’re all forever chained and in thrall to throughout our lives.

A voice that was never unrestrained even when plumbing unfathomable depths of pain and loss.

George’s voice had to be controlled even under the most crushing spiritual and emotional pressure because it was his, and our, final defence against defeat, depression and madness.

Sing one for me George!

George could sing gospel with a repentant sinner’s fervour and in his youth with the tempo cranked up to hot rod levels he could almost sound like a rockabilly singer.

But, he lived and died as the greatest country honkytonk balladeer who ever lived.

If you want your heart pummelled and wrenched (and sooner or later we all do) no-one can perform emotional/emergency cardiac surgery like good ol’ George.

I won’t list all the hits – there are several fine compilations, easily available, where you can soak yourself in his genius for mining and assuaging in song the travails, tragedies and travesties of life, love and death.

What more do you want?

Take a few minutes now to listen to ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’.

 

 

When George recorded this he was a wreck of a man almost destroyed through drink and dissolution.

The writers, Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, gifted him a morbid son of a bitch of a song that needed a singer who could emotionally outstare the tragic story of a life stalled for decades because of lost chances and lost love.

A life only released from the stasis of loneliness and pain by the release of death.

George was more than equal to the challenge. He was well acquainted with loss and he knew what it was to be half crazy.

Knowing this as a man helped the artist to sing the song with startling tenderness.

He sings with the tone of a man who has been so blasted by the storms that have assailed him that he has surrendered all his rage.

Now, he accepts with humility the consolations of bare humanity.

Hear the dignity he gives to the wonderful line ‘All dressed up to go away’ describing the funeral bound body of the song’s protagonist.

Hear how he allows the swelling instrumentation of the chorus to lift him as he reveals with power but without undue drama why, finally, the man at the centre of the song has stopped loving her today.

Only the truly great artists can stop time.

George stops it for us by largeness of heart, force of will and depth of talent.

Now let’s hear another demonstration of George’s genius as a singer and his capacity to capture and reveal the emotional depths and complexities which can be contained in a ‘simple’ country song.

‘A Good Year for the Roses’ showcases George mining sadness, despair, anger, bitterness and weary resignation.

When George sings he makes fellow flawed pilgrims of us all.

On our pilgrimage we stumble. We fall. We fall again.

We can’t go on. Can’t go on. Yet we do. We go on.

With George’s voice beckoning us on. Step by step.

Step by stumbling step.

 

Not many really deserve to have angels sing them to their rest.

For the rest of us we could do no better than settle for the immortal tones of the sinner’s friend – George Jones.

You know I think the boatman might just have broken his vow of silence when he ferried George.

I can hear him saying, ‘Sing one for me George. Sing one for us all.’

George Jones died on April 26 2013 in his 82nd year.

God bless you George!

Carol King, James Taylor, Laura Nyro and The Drifters : Up on the Roof

 

Brooklyn 1962

Rooftop Thoughts: 

Billy Snr

When I get home I’m tired and beat. That’s why I come up here.

Up here, up on the roof where the air is fresh and sweet.

Up here it’s as quiet as Brooklyn gets.

A man can drop his shoulders and take a deep breath and let his mind roam free.

Last week I was forty four years old. Forty Four!

My folks married in ’17. A War wedding.

Dad said to Mom, ‘I won’t wait. The world won’t wait. Let’s get married now!’

I hop they had a sweet time in the short time they had together.

Dad never made it home from France. Never made it home.

Two things in life I’d like to do.

Take Kathleen and Mom with me to lay some flowers and say a prayer at Dad’s grave.

And see Billy Boy and Maureen go to College and make something of themselves.

Oh, and if I could turn back the hands of time I’d love to see The Dodgers play one more time at Ebbets Field.

One more Lucky and I’ll go back down.

Maureen (16)

Up here, up on the roof, the stars put on a show for free.

Which is just as well ’cause Mom and Dad ain’t exactly giving me a free pass to see any of the shows I’d like to see at The Fox or The Paramount.

They’d keep me out too late and I might meet the ‘wrong sort of boy’.

Of course anyone outside an apostle is the wrong sort of boy.

And, Jimmy would definitely be the wrong sort of boy.

Strike One – He ain’t Catholic.

Strike Two – He’s 21 and that according to them is way too old for me.

Strike Three – He’s a College Boy with too much money and not enough sense.

But, oh but, but, but Jimmy dances like a dream, he makes me laugh and he makes me feel like no one ever knew me before he met me.

I won’t be able to see him for two whole days.

So I come up here on the roof and turn the dial on the radio to WINS and when ‘Will you still love me tomorrow’ comes on I know that he will be singing along too just a few blocks away.

And the stars above are our stars and it’s our show.

Billy Boy (14)

Up here, Up on the roof you’re immune from all that rat race noise down in the street.

Two places in the world where I can be myself and let my thoughts roam free.

This rooftop and The Central Library.

You go in through those Bronze doors and you feel you are somebody and they got a million books.

A million books!

You read a book like ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ or ‘The Invisible Man’ and pretty soon you know that there’s a whole lot more to the world than a Brooklyn tenement.

I never had any interest in Baseball even when Dad took me to see The Dodgers play at Ebbets Field.

But, I liked it being just me and him together and I liked the names – Campanella, Snider, Reece, Robinson, Koufax.

Up here, up on the roof looking up at the stars I feel like I’m going to write my own stories one day.

Kathleen (35)

Up here, up on the roof it can seem as if my cares just drift right into space.

Thinking of Bill, Maureen and Billy Boy if only I could just wish and make their worlds trouble free.

I was only 16 when I met Bill. And he was all of 21.

He said I made him laugh and that when I danced with him for the first time he felt more alive than ever before.

And, he ain’t been anything but sweet to me since the day we met.

He misses the Dad he never knew.

Maybe I can persuade him to take that trip to France – what else are savings for?

Kathleen has grown up so fast. She’s almost as mature as she thinks she is.

Bill wants to shield her from the wicked world. I guess that’s Dad’s and Daughters.

Maybe it’s time we invited that boy round. You never know Bill might take to him.

Maureen says he’s a lifelong Dodgers fan.

And, Billy Boy. He’s so quiet. His nose never out of a book.

Other Moms got to worry about their boys and gangs.

All I got to worry about is how much time he spends at The Central Library!

Maybe I should encourage him to write stories of his own.

Somehow up here, up on the roof I feel everything is going to turn out all right.

Up here. Up on the roof.

 

 

In 1962 Carol King and Gerry Goffin, one of the greatest partnerships in songwriting history wrote, ‘Up on the Roof’ a song which, to this day, seems to whisper enchantments in the New York night air.

The recording by The Drifters with Rudy Lewis’ magical lead vocal is the very definition of romantic uptown Rhythm and Blues.

Such a song will always be sung.

For Carol’s enticing melody and for Gerry’s heartfelt, heart stirring lyric.

Carol and James Taylor provide contrasting meditations on a theme before the inimitable Laura Nyro lifts our hearts and souls into the empyrean beyond.

Right into space where it’s peaceful as can be.

 

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.

Leo Kottke – Jack gets up (and once in a while the wind blows)

I am writing this Post from a new home.

We have exchanged the woods and swooping Hills of Surrey for the heaths and lakes on the edge of the glorious South Downs.

New home. New School. Packing up. Moving on. Moving on up.

Actually 39 steps up.

Which seemed, when we first viewed the apartment, a good way to get the heart pumping and the blood pressure lowering each time those 39 steps were climbed.

But. But. Carrying 2200 books up those 39 steps proved a little more than a toning exercise.

Consider the equation.

2200 books times 39 steps equals one very tired hombre!

I’m not even contemplating the Vinyl issue.

I never have trouble sleeping.

But last night you’d have to measure the time between my head hitting the pillow and me lying in the arms of Morpheus in micro seconds.

A full fathom five sleep caressed by whispered dreams.

A sound spiralling and spiralling in and out of consciousness resolving at 6am into a name.

Jack. Jacques. Jack.

And, as always with me, a song.

Not take me right back to the track Jack.

Not you go back, Jack, do it again.

Not hey Jack Kerouac.

No,  the song Finnegan flowing through my dreaming mind was ‘Jack Gets Up’ by Guitar maestro Leo Kottke.

Oh, oh, oh .. you know just how I feel Leo!

‘Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And you crawl out of bed and you crawl out of bed
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed
And you look at the moon where the window is
And the stars shine, and the stars shine, and the stars shine
Everyday in the morning when you get up and you crawl out of bed

You crawl out. You crawl out. But the Moon and the Stars shine.

It’s another day of your life.  Fresh white paper to leave your impression on.

Leo Kottke has been places and seen things carrying his guitar all the while.

He has developed a masters command of his instrument playing with a rare combination of finesse and feeling. Now, when you’re trying to hold an audience with self composed instrumental music it helps if you can tell a few stories too.

As shaggy dog stories go it would be hard to beat, ‘Jack Gets Up’. It exercises a hypnotic hold on your imagination as your mind knots itself trying to disentangle meaning and meanings from the lyric.

The allusions and resonances will appeal to each of us according to our different characters and histories and our capacity for daytime dreaming.

Perhaps we are all asleep in the same dream. But, whose dream? Whose dream.

I know well that feeling of seeing your Father’s face in he mirror and the thin grin … the thin grin as you ready yourself for the challenges of the day ahead.

Every life has lots of lint in the pocket. You mean to clear it out but it builds up. It builds up.

And, where, oh where, are my car keys! Probably next to my glasses!

Life resolves down to a process of finding and losing, finding and losing – on every level from the most trivial to the most cosmically important.

Tears in the bank and the credit card we all know about.

Yet, and this is the glory of life; once in a while the wind blows and the heart winds and the heart winds.

The brown ground and the worms patiently wait for us all.

So today as you crawl out of bed leaving the snort fort behind remember that the stars are shining above you and the Moon will light your night as the Sun will light your day.

And, once in a while when the wind blows and your heart winds, your heart winds grant yourself a grateful wide grin.

May the wind blow for you today.

 

Hats off to Jack and Jacques:

It happens that, after Tom, Jack is my favourite male name.

So, I take this opportunity to thank  some of the Jacks and Jacques who have inspired and illuminated my life.

Jack Kennedy (you all know about him!)

Jacques Levy – Songwriter and Seer – ‘Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child.’

Jack Nicholson – a couple of tequilas to the good I sometimes act out some of my favourite Jack Nicholson lines.  My absolute favourite, from The Last Detail, being:

‘I am the motherfucking shore patrol, motherfucker! I am the motherfucking shore patrol! GIve this man a beer.’

Jacques Tourneur – Film Director. He directed troubling thrillers and heart stopping noirs like  I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People.

Always playing at The Immortal Drive In is his classic Out of The Past (build my gallows high baby!) starring an unmatchable Robert Mitchum and the most fatale of all femme fatales Jane Greer.

Jack Johnson – World Heavyweight Champion and iconic African American.

Jacques Prevert – Poet, Screenwriter. A very cool homme indeed. His, ‘Paroles’ travels everywhere with me (yes – up all those 39 steps)

 

 

Jack London – A writer whose hallucinatory gift for narrative grows more impressive the more I strive to tell stories.

Jacques Anquetil – He sure could ride a bike!

Jack Kellett – He plays a mean guitar.

Jack O’Toole – He sure did like a pint!

Jack Kerouac – the Beat goes on. And on. And on.

Jack Lord – Book ‘Em Danno.

Jack The Ripper (whose real identity was of course ……)

Jack Elam – as soon as you see Jack’s name in the credits you can relax. One fine Western coming up!

Father Jack – ‘Drink! Feck! Arse! Girls!’

Jacques Derrida – What was he on about?

Jack Bruce – a true musician. Check out his Sings for a Tailor immediately!

Jack Palance – Boxer, Actor – in certain lights (principally the light of my imagination) I have been mistaken for JP.

Jack Teagarden –  He played sublime Trombone and sang the Blues with deep feeling.

David ‘Jack’ Hayes – Father and Son, fine men both!

Jacques Tati – if you ever need cheering up …

Jack Nicklaus – If you wanted one Golfer to play a round for your life …

Oh and as we all know … ‘There was no actor anywhere better than the Jack of Hearts.’

 

By Public Demand more Jacks, Jacques, oh and while we’re at it 3 Jakes!

Many of my faithful readers have demanded favourite Jacks & Jacques to be added to the Jukebox Rollcall of Honour. So:

Thanks to Cincinnati Babyhead for ‘Jack’ the Dog from The Band’s classic The Weight.

Thanks to Beetley Pete for Jacques Brel, the great Chanson writer and famous Belgian (more on him later)

Thanks to Elmer Gantry for Jack Doyle fabled Irish Boxer.

While we’re on Boxers how could I have left out Jack Dempsey!

Jacques Cousteau dove pretty deep!

Jacques Rousseau knew a thing or too!

Jack Benny played the Violin (though not on Desolation Row)

Jack Reacher’s out there somewhere waiting for trouble to clear up.

Jake Thackray had wit and style and wrote songs like nobody else.

Jake LaMotta – boy could he take a punch!

And to wrap it all up – ‘Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.