Bright Phoebus – Songs by Lal and Mike Waterson – A review


R-2047800-1260722169.jpegIt seems odd to review an L.p. first released in 1972, but hey, this is new to me, so it may be new to you too. Or you may have been trying to decide to get it or not since 1972 and this just might make up your mind.

I first ran into Lal and Mike Waterson’s own song writing and output as a result of listening to the Anne Briggs’s ‘classic’ L.p. ‘The Time Has Come’, which features a recorded version of ‘Fine Horseman’ by Lal Waterson. ‘Fine Horseman’ is a sublimely poetic song populated by Hardy’esque imagery and it had me intrigued in seconds. Then, when quite by chance I happened upon a re-release of ‘Bright Phoebus’ the 1972 L.p. by Lal and Mike Waterson (and others) which contained Lal singing her own version of this, the song she had penned, I just had to pick it up.

As a brief background, Anne Briggs was sometimes known as the honorary fifth Waterson of the Watersons, a British group of folks singers mostly (during its original tenure) from the same family, one that virtually defined traditional unaccompanied folk song tradition in the folk clubs of Great Britain during the British Folk Revival of the earlier 1960s. What many now lovingly refer to the ‘Wax on me finger’, or ‘Finger in the ear’ genre of folk. (Actually that’s a lie, but they might do for all its urgent self righteousness)

thetimehascome_64612The L.p. has already seen two or three re-issues on c.d. and vinyl and was for a time an underground classic, passed between devotees on ropey self duplicated tape cassettes. This issue from 2017 sees Domino Recording Co Ltd re-issue it on REWIGLP102 in a gatefold format with a good quality booklet and sleeve notes, telling the story of Lal and Mike’s development from members of the traditional singing group into songwriters, and the story of this L.p.’s recording.

The album initially gained rave reviews in much of the music press, but simultaneously alienated stick in the mud brigades of ‘don’t you mess with our traditional music’ fans (who had lots of wax stuck on their fingers, and fingers in ears), which slowed acceptance and sales. The L.p. crept into collective memory and slept on the back shelves of old dusty record stores. However it has since become a wonderful example of musical creation and invention and of the power of musical Art to conquer ears and stupidity over time.

In my mind the album links the Watersons traditionally bound unaccompanied singing style, and that school, with the development of Folk Rock by those such as Fairport Convention. I think it little surprise that Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, Dave Mattacks, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior are all helping out in various ways on ‘Bright Phoebus’, it makes perfect sense. Sticking the two together with guitar glue is Martin Carthy. Having redefined English Folk music by translating it to an instrument not traditionally used for it, he’s the all too important chain link in the album’s musical integrity I believe. Richard Thompson will I believe always be a Rock guitarist who got interested in Folk, not a Folk guitarist who has dabbled with Rock; and so it is Carthy that translates what Lal and Mike Waterson are trying to do here into something we can all ‘get’.

So I’ve alluded to some of the collective that combined to produce the music on this L.p., but what about the songs? As usual it’s such a personal thing, what a song means to any person that I am loathe to impose my opinion on you the potential listener and would much rather you shelled out your hard-earned moolah for a copy, and made your own mind up. However one thing is certain, they are dark in the main, mystery laden, intangible, phantom like songs. You expect the Hound of the Baskervilles to howl on backing vocals, you can hear the creak of the Reddle man’s wagon through the marsh mist rising from the ground as you drop the needle. The rain drizzles onto the stone Church’s boundary walls it dusts onto the heart’s tongue ferns and into the grooves of the record, hope dies, and in the morning sun, is reborn.

Bridget St John – Two Lps and A short introduction


Dandelion Days

It’s been over two years since I posted anything on this blog, shame on me!
More importantly it should be of some indication as to the esteem in which I hold this lady to get back to posting and to write something about her and her music.

So for a good long time I’ve been trying to find my female voice, my female singer. As a collector of records I have over the years realised that my collection is highly male centric, and it’s been a difficulty finding a female voice I really like. I’ve dabbled with Grace Jones, Marianne Faithful, Nico and those that just happened to come along; but just recently I stopped for a second to realise that it’s the English female folk voice I hold highest and went off to search further. Subsequently checking out Anne Briggs, Maddy Prior, June Tabor, Sandy Denny and more before alighting on Bridget St John.

Bridget initially appeared playing at Sheffield University, disappeared off to France for a bit, reappeared and hooked up with John Martyn; Martyn introduced her to John Peel and Dandelion Records the now famous (and highly collectable) Peel funded and often Peel produced label was formed initially to release her material. It released three Lps. She later did one more for Crysalis records, critical acclaim.. shorthand for didn’t make enough money for the label.

Later she gave it up or at least that’s how it reads to those that didn’t live a life, her life, she moved to Greenwich Village, and now happily gigs infrequently in the US and UK. Potted history. She does wonderful things like speak beautiful French to the French crowd that come to see and hear her play at the filmed gig I watched months ago on Youtube.

Sounds?

Like a deeper Nico, a velveteen female Nick Drake. A serious contender, passionate, mature, connected to nature, bound by cosmic debris, wistful, romantic, poetic, mystical, wonder-full, original, a one off, a superstar that didn’t superstar like Joni and thank goodness.

Lps?

Her Lps are not cheap to get in their original form, frankly you’ll probably have to spend over £100 for the first two and a little less on the third for the Dandelion Lps. For you will want to get them in decent and listenable condition. Worth doing as with quieter acoustic passages, you really don’t want too much snap crackle and pop. It detracts.

The first Lp – Ask Me No Questions

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So.. fairly standard fare as far as arrangements and instrumentation, but beautifully written songs with more than one featuring John Martyn too. The title track, I will admit made me uncontrollably boo my little manly eyes out, such was it’s love connectedness.

I love it and as with other Bridget St John Lps don’t expect to gain entry to it straight away, you get value for money with her output, it takes at least two listens, two concentrated listens where you aren’t distracted by the ironing or cooking something to feed your growling belly to get into it.. This is one of the things I do like about her, yes the original Vinyl may set you back (there are lots of reissues) but you get your money’s worth! Her guitar playing is subtle and understated, nothing is too ornamented, everything is there for good reason. It’s very much a debut Lp, feet finding, slightly bigger than baby steps for sure, but you get the feeling throughout that there’s something very grown up going to arrive in later career, and there is… the next Lp, which is one giant leap for mankind and a pretty giant leap for Bridget St John and popular music in general.

The second Lp – Songs For The Gentle Man

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This is the one I think, Ron Geesin takes the production credit and arranged much of the strings, Ron is the Dad of a friend of mine, I know Ron, he’s a bit of a genius, mad genius, but genius all the same and now I want to talk to him about making this Lp.

It’s actually a bit beyond description, there aren’t easy to pluck reference points to throw at you, happy little musical links with other people’s output, it’s too original for that, too special.
It’s going to perplex you a little, widen your ears a little, ask you to engage a little more than most, you may have to work a bit to absorb fully this Lp, but it’s worth it. It also has one of the most beautiful labels ever created, anywhere, ever, or at least one side of the record does. I’ll put it somewhere below for you to enjoy.

 

Dandelion Three

Bridget St John actually recorded three Lps for Dandelion, but look I’ll be honest here, I haven’t got the third Lp yet, sure I’ve heard bits and it sounds damn good, but I was so excited about the first two, I had to write this blog, while I’m saving up.. again.

Get all three!

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Review – Singing From The Floor – J.P. Bean


singingfromthefloorOn and off I’ve been part of the U.K. ‘Folk Scene’. I have both performed as a dancer and played and sung in a number of local clubs and I was interested to get a deeper insight into the clubs and players and singers who frequented them in the past.

If you take a passing interest you are going to be informed by the book and it features everyone living you could possibly expect to be in it, talking about their experiences; Ewan McColl, Peggy Seeger, Martin Carthy, Ian Campbell, The Watersons, the list goes on.

It is a collection of their views, little more than a vox pops, or transcriptions of their memories and opinions, spoken directly. Unfortunately I think it suffers from this and becomes repetitive and rather pointless. The book in and of itself doesn’t interpret, it makes no assumptions, there is no larger discussion. No digest of the interviewees views. Page after page of text doesn’t really tell you anything new. You knew McColl was controlling, you knew that folk music was linked wholeheartedly with the C.N.D. and with left-wing politics, there is very little of revelation in it.

Possibly the closest I got to a joyful discovery was that Ian Campbell’s sons are the leading lights of UB40, a predominantly white U.K. Reggae ‘supergroup’.

It only confirms the frustration I have always felt with the Folk scene; where traditionalists were only ever sold a different version of the same old story, the same sell, the same hype. Yet pompously they then defended it as immoveable God blessed historically accurate tradition and refused to be swayed by those who wished to create a living breathing self-sustaining musical world. The book confirms one thing, it was folk music that killed off folk music and there is more music of the people and by the people in one Beatles melody than 50 verses of some snoring dirge from the Outer Hebrides.

And yet I feel I’m being overly harsh, for those that were there or those that have surfed dangerously on the edges of folkdom it can be a rather cozy and self satisfying read. As a participant you may have met and talked to those in the book. When they speak you are standing listening; to Martin Carthy, Liza, Martin Simpson, and Ralph Rinzler in my case.

I don’t think the book would attract a newcomer, but it would comfort a past participant and perhaps it did. Maybe I’m just a little too close to the reality of enduring Tina’s performance of her ode to marine mammals ‘seal seal, how does it feel to be a seal‘ to ever fully recover an open mind when it comes to ‘folk music’. I have great difficulty even using the term. To me it’s redolent of homespun sheep’s wool pullovers, real ale, nice people being nice to one another, dishonest suppressions of performers egos, quiet one upmanship, corn dollys and cold nights of tented sleeping next to human repositories of beery methane.

I was kind of hoping that the book might persuade me that I’ve always been a bit wrong, a bit ugly and a bit cynical about the world of Folk, but in the end..

It’s just one of those books you read to the end because you think you should rather than because you really wanted to.

Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound – A review


Folkways Records: Moses Asch and Tony Olmsted’s yawningly un-brilliant book

It’s hard being honest, risky, troubling and you can’t help but be disappointed with yourself for being such a negative old bitch, but there you have it, there’s nothing quite like the ‘truth’ subjective though it will I hope be.

If you are interested in Folk music, then Folkways records is a name you will know and be interested to know more of. With its distinctive unforgiving Lps, bound beautifully, with odd yet engaging cover art, illustrating the musical brilliance of everything and everyone from Native American Indians to New York Jews and Woody Guthrie to Bahamian Gospel groups. All the brainchild of Moses Asch; a name as much part of the American Folk revival as Lomax or Dylan.

It follows that if you are interested in Folkways then you will be interested in an account of the man who created the label and the label itself. It follows that you might buy this book in that case. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow that you will get enjoyment, knowledge, or anything remotely at all worthwhile from this missed opportunity of a book.

Frankly it reads like a poorly proof read thesis by a second-rate musicology student.

Tony Olmsted with access to the Smithsonian’s archive on Asch has done little more than present the end of year accounts of Folkways, there are few stories to enjoy, little of interest to anyone but a bank manager. Someone wishing to go back in time having learnt from Asch’s business mistakes might use the information contained to start a Folk label in 40s and 50s New York; but seriously this book would be of more use to an accountant than someone interested in music.

Olmsted hasn’t got a clue how to write, how to engage or how to tell a story. I expect that 10 or so years after writing this book he’s changed professions and is now a health and safety officer with ‘special understanding of the risk of paper cuts in the workplace’ and has published an in-depth study of this risk and it’s ‘relationship to the stationary cupboard of mid-west America’.

Missed Opportunity

There are 8 typographical errors before the 40th page, and that will no doubt be as many as I find in this book, because it’s going to be where I stop reading it.

Yawn . . . .

Folkways Records: Moses Asch and His Encyclopedia of Sound

Alan Lomax Biography – Reviewed – The Man Who Recorded The World


The Man Who Recorded The World

Anyone interested in the history of American music should probably read this book.

Alan Lomax if you don’t know anything of him, was a music collector an ethnomusicologist and a lover of ‘Folk and Folksong’. His influence on American popular culture through his collecting of the ‘people’s’ music is unfathomable.

He virtually discovered Huddie Ledbetter, ‘Leadbelly’, in a Texas State Prison, he was key in the career and life of Woody Guthrie, and in so much as that is the case, Bob Dylan’s career too.

He recorded, archived, wrote about, translated, studied, transposed, annotated and spent his life creating a repository of knowledge about Folk Culture, mainly through that culture’s production of a musical history and heritage. Hence he was to be seen in the early days dragging heavy batteries and early recording equipment through the Appalachians, the Kentucky mining districts and the streets of New Orleans.

The book reveals his life’s history, through letters and first person accounts. The author John Szwed counted Alan Lomax as his friend and so we are treated to a knowing study of Lomax, not written in the first person, but edited so.

I learnt a great deal I didn’t know about the man, such as his difficult relationship with his father, the quality and depth of his education, the incredible level of collecting he did for the Library of Congress and the politically difficult negotiations and posturing required to be successful in a government department and to be able to continue the obsessive work of your life. I learnt of his doubts and worries, his whining and whingeing, his poor health and the singularity both of his character and of his purpose.

I learnt how involved he was with the early development of Radio as a creative and artistic genre in the 30s and 40s of pre, present and post war America, of his staunch defence of ‘the negro’ and of his political leanings and investigation by the USA’s federal forces. This included one scary moment when he is being frisked unknowingly by both the US and UK special forces at a concert he performed at for the English monarch!

The book can be somewhat dry at times and perhaps a little plodding, but given a basic knowledge of American Folk history you will find almost every step in the book exciting enough and certainly page turning.

His key involvement in the ‘movement’ towards an appreciation of America’s working people and their Folk music as Art of highest order makes this essential reading, and though you will wince at the innocence of early folk music posturing and middle class patronization of the working classes in America, you can forgive all that, because Alan Lomax virtually invented the terms we have now come to accept, albeit with some trepidation and turning of the collective stomach. He had to define styles, to grapple with the very nomenclature that we all require to describe something in order to begin to codify his subject of research and we therefore owe him a debt, if only for drawing the starting line in the sand, and once playing in a band with Jackson Pollock.