Better late than never: the Stranger ‘clarifies’ his thinking

Lizard – where has the time gone? It’s a year since we last corresponded—and, indeed, since anyone wrote anything here. I mentioned this to Simon and he replied with two T. S. Eliot quotes:

“The most important thing for poets to do is to write as little as possible”;

“And they write innumerable books; being too vain and distracted for silence, seeking every one after his own elevation, and dodging his emptiness.”

In other words, if you have nothing to say, say nothing. Now, for no particular reason other than the moment seems to have arrived, I find myself wanting to revisit our last communication (the three posts prior to this).

You were right to point out my muddy thinking. I should have made a clearer distinction between “history” as the version of events accepted by mainstream society to be its own story, and the “Alienation Theory of History”, which posits a broken relationship between that story and certain individuals who feel out of place in mainstream society. Such people look at the past and see no account of themselves there, but may instead see a reflection of their anxiety and sense of displacement. Without the convenience of history to give them an identity, they must try to invent themselves in the moment, and in each succeeding moment. This requires the creative capability I referred to, which can “cut across linear thinking in its search for truth”. “Truth”, here, can stand as an approximation of reality with which such people can feel comfortable.

So, the Alienation History of theory of history is not a version of history; it belongs instead in the broad field of creative thinking. I hope this clears up the confusion I inadvertently caused.

Cheers,

Stranger

The Stranger cops it sweet

Lizard – you’re right. There’s no logical segue between the two statements, and I’m as puzzled as you are as to why I appeared to think there was. Perhaps I was carried away by the idea that the Alienation Theory is, in its own way, a creative response to the human condition. Either that or some other, similar, subjective lapse. Anyway, I’m duly corrected (and chastened). As I hope to demonstrate in the not too distant future, the Alienation Theory and the creative act of faith are indeed quite distinct elements in the Esse conceptual framework. Before opening my mouth on this or any other topic, however, I will endeavour to ensure that my brain is in gear.

Cheers.

Stranger.

Lizard, somewhat bemused, replies to The Stranger…

Stranger – you’ve completely lost me. You interpret the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection as telling us that we have to think creatively – “That is, look for the truth outside history, or the external pattern of events”. And then you immediately say, “This, to me, seems to be consistent with the Alienation Theory of History, in which we are invited to look back over time to arrive at an understanding…” etc. These are completely contradictory statements. How can one possibly follow the other?

Awaiting your reply with interest.

Sincerely,

Lizard.

The Resurrection and the Alienation Theory of History

Dear Lizard – I’ve just read your post, in which you describe the resurrection of Christ as an anti-climax. I understand that you meant this as being in comparison to the resurrection, through Christ, of the human spirit in life. Even so, your comment prompted me to think about the Resurrection’s symbolic (as distinct from theological) importance and power. It could be said to represent a disruption of space and time. I am intrigued by the possibility that, in literature, the confusion, compression, inversion or any other form of distortion of space and time may stand as a proxy, conscious or otherwise, for the ability of the creative consciousness to cut across linear thinking in its search for truth. On this reading, it’s as though the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection are telling us, “If you want to understand this, you have to think creatively”. That is, look for the truth outside history, or the external pattern of events. This, to me, seems to be consistent with the Alienation Theory of History[1], in which we are invited to look back over time to arrive at an understanding of (or a version of) the human condition in which the inherent instability of the human personality is attributed to the asymmetry between humanity’s sense of primal connection to the land (or natural environment) and its actual, modern relationship to it—an interpretation which, I believe, can be supported by reference to the Eden myth and the Epic of Gilgamesh. According to this line of thinking, our primal connection to the land lives on in our DNA and—either as a result of this, or analogous to it—God is present in our consciousness in a real, evolutionary, sense, rather than as just a ghostly celestial spirit. To my way of thinking, this idea has a redemptive power of its own.

Caveat: Nobody owns the truth, but each of us can lay claim to some version of the truth as we see it, providing we see it to the best of our honesty and ability.

Best,

Stranger


[1] A component of the Esse “world view”.

Handel’s Messiah, a bird and the anti-climax of the Resurrection

On Sunday (28.3.21) went to see an amateur (local church) choir perform Messiah. Let’s just say the music shone through. When I was a child, it left me cold: all those twiddly bits. As I’ve matured, I’ve come to enjoy baroque music, if not fully to understand or appreciate it. Even so, it took an effort of historical imagination, while listening to the choir, to reconcile (to my satisfaction, at least) the exuberance of the music to the weight of the subject matter.

Handel: twiddly bits

I am, as usual, speculating from a position of ignorance, but it seems plausible to me that most 18th century listeners would not have noticed any incongruity. Handel and Jennens were men of faith writing in an age of faith: their composition was not an exploration of the human condition but a celebration of it, as redeemed through Christ. There’s no psychological dimension to the music, no exploration of human existential anxiety, because, in terms of the composer’s and librettist’s own cultural assumptions, such issues had already been resolved. This leaves the music free to explore its own possibilities, its autonomy lending no direct support to the weight or meaning of the words—which, in any case, are carried by a power of their own.

Jennens: weighty subject matter

And yet there is a sense in which the words and music do complement each other, if you can accept the (fanciful, or perhaps baroque?) idea that the music’s autonomy symbolizes the freedom that Christ’s sacrifice bought for humanity. It’s an idea that begs to be synthesized by an image: I think of a bird flying into a temple, darting hither and thither in the incense-infused half-light, singing freely over the sombre ritual below.

No, I don’t take the Bible literally, but I do try to relate to it in human terms. One consequence is that the Resurrection always strikes me as something of an anti-climax: Christ is never more fully alive in the Gospels than when he’s at the point of death. Yes, I understand the theological importance of the Resurrection and the idea that it gives us hope for eternal life. After Christ’s terrible suffering, however, it’s a gift I’m almost embarrassed to accept. More importantly, it eclipses what, for me, is Christ’s true gift: the possibility of resurrection in life. More than once the idea of an infinitely renewable relationship—God’s unconditional love, and our ability to receive it through repentance as a result of Christ’s sacrifice—has pulled me back from the edge.

Keats and Spontaneity: A Message for Our Times

Compared to all the better-written and more erudite articles that mark the bicentenary on February 23 of the death of John Keats (1795-1821), this probably rates as a back-of-the-fag-packet job. No matter. The aim is not to make a big impression on the literary world or the blogosphere, merely to record my personal appreciation of Keats and the pleasure his poems and letters have given me over the years, and continue to give me.

And to say why I think he’s still worth reading, particularly today.

John Keats by Charles Brown; copyright National Portrait Gallery

Much of the pleasure I take from Keats arises from his spontaneity, by which I mean the freshness and immediacy with which he engages with people and literature. As these qualities, by definition, don’t grow stale, they have helped to underpin his appeal to successive generations of readers.

They are more than incidental characteristics, however. As Keats matured, certain ideas became integral to the way he wrote and thought about poetry, and all can be linked in one way or another to the notion of spontaneity (not a term he used himself). It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that, for Keats, spontaneity, variously defined, became both a creative and intellectual principle.

This, for my money, is a key reason for reading Keats today. If, like me, you feel suffocated by the post-modern orthodoxies and sterile polarities that prevail in so much our public discourse, you may find his spontaneity to be just the antidote you need—creatively and intellectually.

A SENSE OF EXCITED DISCOVERY

Keats’ spontaneity was, of course, a natural attribute, but the extent to which it characterised his thought and behaviour may be explained by his background. The circumstances of his early life and education are well known, and I’m not going to rehearse them here, except to note that they marked him as an outsider in the eyes of polite society and inclined him (in a politically turbulent age) towards radical politics. He didn’t attend university but he had an excellent school educaion and was sufficiently familiar with, and inspired by, the classics to translate much of The Aeneid while still a pupil. The tone of his upbringing, however, was set by the world of trade and enterprise, rather than landed gentry or the professions.

He was not, in terms of his home life, the product of a literary culture. To that extent, he came to poetry raw. One of his earliest efforts was Imitation of Spenser, a stylistic impersonation of The Farie Queene by Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Keats wrote it in early 1814, when he was still 18. You can access the full poem here; I’m going to quote just one stanza:

There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
Vying with fish of brilliant dye below;
Whose silken fins, and golden scalès light
Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:
There saw the swan his neck of archèd snow,
And oared himself along with majesty;
Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony,
And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.

Compare this to a similarly early effort by one of Keats’ seniors in the English romantic movement, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Dura Navis, written as a school assignment when Coleridge was 15, warns against the dangers of a life at sea:

To tempt the dangerous deep, too venturous youth,
Why does thy breast with fondest wishes glow?
No tender parent there thy cares shall sooth,
No much-lov’d Friend shall share thy every woe.
Why does thy mind with hopes delusive burn?
Vain are thy Schemes by heated Fancy plann’d:
Thy promis’d joy thou’lt see to Sorrow turn
Exil’d from Bliss, and from thy native land.

Neither poem repays much critical scrutiny, but each illustrates a particular approach to learning the craft of verse-writing. An obvious difference is that Keats, the progeny of trade, models himself on a particular author while Coleridge, the son of a clergyman-schoolmaster, writes within a tradition. Coleridge’s effort is conventional and (for his age) accomplished while Keats, though imitative (he is channeling other Spenserian poets as well as Spenser himself), produces some vivid effects—notably, in the quoted stanza, the mimetic power of the line describing the swan’s movement and, in the last stanza of the full poem, the description of rose petals as “ruddy tears”. Even more impressive is the energy and engagement that Keats conveys: he has no filters, no literary self-consciousness. Compared to Coleridge he’s naïve, but his naivety results in a sense of excited discovery which is part of his poem’s appeal.

This combination of literary ingenuousness and keen, responsive intelligence was a constant in Keats’ poetic development. Progress, however, was uneven. He fell under the spell of the darkly charismatic poet and radical journalist Leigh Hunt, who spent two years in jail for libelling the Prince Regent. Hunt was not the best literary model, although he helped to advance Keats’ career. Charles Cowden Clarke, a teacher (and son of the headmaster) at Keats’ school, became a friend and, in many ways, a more positive influence than Hunt. He was responsible for the moment which, famously, became Keats’ literary epiphany:

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Keats wrote this in 1816, the morning after Clarke had introduced him to sections of the Iliad and Odyssey as translated by George Chapman (1559-1634). Here, the sense of excited discovery is an explicit theme. The Elizabethan’s vigorous English and clattering 14-syllable line renders Homer with a freshness and immediacy with which Keats could readily sympathise, and which are not found in the translations that Keats would have known already—those by Virgil and the Augustan poets John Dryden and Alexander Pope. Through Chapman, Keats experienced for the first time the imaginative power of Homer in a language and style which felt more like his own. In a striking example of spontaneity, Keats responded, almost instantly, by internalising some of this power and recreating it in his own poem. The planet swimming into his ken is not just Chapman or Chapman’s version of Homer but a new level of poetic consciousness—one that is fully evident in the structure and execution of his poem, which is rightly regarded as a milestone in Keats’ development and a minor classic of English romantic poetry.

From this point, imagination and various related ideas became significant themes in Keats’ poems and letters. It’s fascinating to trace their development in his poetry, but it’s easier in an article of this length to summarise them from his letters.

CHAMELEON POETS VS. VIRTUOUS PHILOSOPHERS

Below are passages selected from letters Keats wrote in 1817 and 1818, the years after he read Chapman’s Homer and before he wrote the six odes—to Psyche, on Indolence, to a Nightingale, on a Grecian Urn, on Melancholy and to Autumn—for which he is most famous:

“… Men of Genius are great as certain ethereal Chemicals operating on the Mass of neutral intellect—but they have not any individuality, any determined Character—I would call the top and head of those who have a proper self Men of Power…. I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not…. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, —he awoke and found it truth.” —to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

“…several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.”—to George and Thomas Keats, December 21, 1817

“What shocks the virtuous philosop[h}er delights the camelion Poet.” —To Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818

Keats’ letters discuss many ideas, but these extracts illustrate two of the most important: the nature of a poet and the relationship between imagination, beauty and truth. Each in its own way ties back to the notion of spontaneity.

In describing the nature of a poet, Keats might have been referring to the kind of poet he considered himself to be (or aspired to be); his comments may also be taken as saying something about the nature of the creative process. The key characteristic, ironically, is a negative one: impersonality (“they have not any individuality, any determined Character”). Poets (and other artists) have the “negative capability” of being able to immerse themselves in the creative moment, to give themselves over to the aesthetic and imaginative imperatives of their art, unperturbed by what their work might “mean” in terms of external, rationally-based appraisal. (The swipe at Coleridge, who became a philosopher, theologian and critic as well as a poet, echoes the contrast I posited earlier when comparing Keats’ and Coleridge’s juvenilia.)

The negatively-capable artist—who can merge chameleon-like into his or her work, without submitting to the kind of accountability typically required by intellectuals or ideologues—is free to follow the dictates of his or her creative conscience. Such freedom facilitates spontaneity, and spontaneity, although not named as such by Keats, appears to be the virtue he identifies as arising from negative capability: “…of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.

The second idea discussed in the quoted passages is more in the nature of a theory of poetics: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not…. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, —he awoke and found it truth.” In our relativistic and post-truth age we might ask, with Pilate, “What is truth?” Keats provides no explanation, probably because he was invoking Platonic concepts of truth and beauty which Bailey, his correspondent, would have recognised: absolutes which are intelligible to the rational mind as ideal forms.

Keats seems to be less concerned, here, with explaining than with describing, and what he describes is a process in which the imagination intermediates between beauty and truth. We might understand the process better if we see it an action; to do this, we need to turn back to the poetry.

THE MEANING IS IN THE (CREATIVE) PROCESS

Ode on a Grecian Urn, written in 1819, is one of the six odes, mentioned earlier, which are widely regarded as the peak of Keats’ achievement. All are, in different ways, reflections on the human condition (one of Keats’ brothers had died the previous year of tuberculosis, the same disease that would kill Keats when he was just 25). In Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats contemplates a scene depicted on an ancient artefact and contrasts the permanence of art to the fleetingness of life. It’s a very fine and intricate poem which is a pleasure to analyse in detail; it’s also an interesting guide as to how imagination, truth and beauty interact in Keats’ poetry. (If you’re not familiar with the poem, I suggest you read it here first, uninterrupted by my comments.)

The first stanza is a simple act of observation, in which Keats describes the urn’s physical characteristics. These are of sufficient appeal (beauty) to engage the poet’s interest, as evidenced by the succession of questions from the fifth line to the end of the stanza:

Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

The questions stimulate the imagination, which effectively takes over in the second stanza, where the poet moves from observation to revery (“heard melodies”) and the deeper reflections that begin at the fifth line—”Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave/Thy song…”. These reflections dominate the rest of the stanza and the whole of the third:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

They contrast the imagined permanence of the moment favourably with the transience of life lived through the senses, although they never lose sight of the fact that the urn, and the figures depicted on it, are inert (“Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss…”). The tone changes in the fourth stanza, in which the poet’s perspective reverts to prosaic observation…

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?

…and makes a curious imaginative leap:

What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

The town is not shown on the urn and Keats “imagines” it, not in direct response to what he sees, but as a matter of speculative logic—i.e. these people must have come from somewhere, and that place must now be deserted. This development, if it can be called such, feels contrived (the poem seems at this point to lose sight of what T.S. Eliot, in another context, called the “objective correlative”), but the sense of discontinuity prepares us for the jolt back to reality that follows in the final stanza:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Keats returns to the mode of simple observation with which the poem began but with the experience, this time, of having been “teased out of thought” by the urn’s beauty (“Fair attitude!”) into a moment of imaginative immersion comparable to the mental effects of contemplating eternity. The poet recognises that the urn will outlive successive generations, providing to each of them, through its aesthetic power, a means of imaginative release or transcendent inspiration. The full meaning of the experience, however, appears to be compressed in the two famous last lines, supposedly spoken by the urn:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

The “irritable reaching after fact & reason” among critics as to what these lines mean is extensive and interesting. Much of it focuses on “beauty” and “truth”. Let’s accept that Keats uses these words in the Platonic sense referred to earlier[1] and move on to the rest of the passage, the force of which is sometimes overlooked: “…that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. This statement about the limitations of our knowledge is at least as emphatic, in my view, as the axiom that precedes it, and suggests that we should be content with meaning that is conveyed by inference or intuition. Such a reading is, I believe, consistent with Keats’ thoughts on negative capability and the differences between poets and philosophers.

In Ode on a Grecian Urn—as in his letter to Bailey on imagination, beauty and truth discussed earlier—Keats’ method is to describe rather than explain, demonstrate rather than expound. The movement of the verse shows the poet’s imagination seizing upon the beauty of the urn and elaborating it into a meditation, and the meaning of that meditation—the permanence of art, brevity of life etc.—is the “truth” of the poem. Internally, that is.

There’s another possibility: that the process also applies externally. That is, the interaction between imagination and beauty in the poet’s mind leads to the creation of the poem itself—the objective reality, or truth, on the page in front of our eyes. This idea seems less fanciful when we recall Keats’ comparison of the imagination to Adam’s dream, the outcome of which was also objectively real—the creation of Eve: “…he awoke and found it truth”.

In summary, Keats appears to be saying that truth is revealed through a creative process initiated by the imagination’s response to beauty—a process in which beauty acquires the force of truth and truth appears to be inherently beautiful.

If that’s too vague and inconclusive for the modern, materialistic philisophical mind—the kind that unweaves rainbows[2] (and, I would add, manufactures fashionable ideologies)—so be it. The meaning is in the process: the commitment to engage imaginatively with our reality to deepen and enrich our humanity, our sense of beauty and our feeling for truth. It’s anti-philosophy but not unphilosophical: it is, I believe, a profound statement about the value of creativity and, implicit in that, the need for spontaneity.

HOW WE THINK IS IMPORTANT

I haven’t said much about the beauty of Keats’ poetry; enough has been said by others and will, I’m sure, continue to be said while people are free to read what they enjoy. In these troubled times, however, it seems to me worth emphasising his spontaneity for two reasons.

First, it reminds us that how we think is as important as what we think. This matters, because a perennially fresh and creative approach to interpreting our reality may help us maintain our intellectual independence and integrity, so that we can effectively challenge arguments and ideas before we accept or reject them (always helpful, for example, in sniffing out “fake news”).

Second, his conviction that men (and women) of genius lack character should be nailed to the forehead of every politician who, and above the lintel of every institution that, espouses identity politics, a pernicious ideology which is designed to oppress and imprison, not liberate. The idea that impersonality is integral to the creative process has the potential to challenge such orthodoxy.

There are many other, probably better, reasons for reading Keats but his spontaneity, to my mind, seems particularly relevant now.


[1] See Kellie Martin, Pepperdine University, April 1997.

[2] See Keats, Lamia, ll 229-238.

Epitaph for a generation: Nigel Philip Davies’ second album

Four years ago, when reviewing Nigel Philip Davies’ first album, Songs from a River, I tried to put my finger on what it meant, culturally (pretentious, I know, but I can’t help myself). More as a result of desperation than inspiration, I invented a genre for it, Old Wave music, and opined that it reflected “the reality of the ageing of the boomer generation: the generation that invented youth culture, now coming to terms with its own mortality”.

Having just listened to the Welsh singer/songwriter’s second album, Reflections, I’m allowing myself to feel that I wasn’t so wide of the mark after all.

Nigel Philip Davies: a moment in time

In fact, this collection of songs inclines me to double down on my original assertion. The more you listen to it, it feels less like an album and more like a moment in time: a generation (mine/ours) looking back on its era and putting its emotional affairs in order in preparation for what we know we’re all going to face in the not too distant future.

Not that this is album is all doom and gloom—far from it—and I stress that this interpretation is very much my own, no doubt coloured by our current reality of coronavirus lockdowns, social unrest and rising geopolitical tensions. I don’t know if Davies would agree with my take on the album, and I’m not even sure that he had an over-arching theme in mind when putting it together. But the songs, while covering a variety of styles and themes, have certain elements in common that point (in my mind, at least) to a sense of cohesion.

These elements are an historical perspective—both in a formal sense (one of the highlights is a song about the holocaust) and a personal one (the passage of time and its effect on relationships)—and a lightly-worn awareness on Davies’s part of where he and his songs fit into the traditions of post-war popular music. It’s this combination of the themes of ephemerality and cultural exceptionalism which makes me think of this album as a sort of living epitaph for one of history’s most privileged, wayward and creative generations.

All of which probably means nothing more than that I’m feeling my age. So, what about the songs?

SONGS THAT RESONATE

The opener, “I’ve Been to Berlin”, is one of two jazz-influenced numbers which are a throwback to a phase of Davies’ career that pre-dates his formation of (now dormant) folk-rock band Moongazer. The song celebrates Berlin’s glory as a bohemian metropolis but does so in a style reminiscent of the 1966 musical (and 1972 film) Cabaret, based on writer Christopher Isherwood’s pre-war experiences of the city. Whether or not the association is intentional, it does point up the fact that there’s a direct line of historical continuity between Berlin’s pre-war decadence and its post-modern edginess.

Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’

There’s a risk with this style of criticism (i.e. trying to see songs, albums etc. in a cultural/historical context) of reading too much into things. Having made that caveat, I’m now going to say that, for me, the song traces a perfect historical arc for both the baby-boomer generation and Berlin itself: the boomers, born out of the rubble of World War II, came of age in the late 1960s when Berlin, rebuilt on the ruins of Hitler’s bunker, began to experience a cultural renaissance (the contemporary-music component of which, for example, was led by Tangerine Dream, formed there in 1967). When a boomer writes a song about today’s Berlin, and does so in a way that evokes the city in the 1930s and 1940s, such inferences are hard to resist.

So the opening track, whether by accident or design, anchors the listener’s expectations in historical and cultural references that can resonate fairly strongly with the post-war generation.

“I Live Alone” reverts to Davies’ more familiar folk style with some nicely picked acoustic backed by ambient strings and piano, its melancholy standing in marked contrast to the man-of-the-world bravura of the first track. The theme is love and loss, but something else too: “I live alone with this heart of stone, since I laid down this traitor’s throne…for my sins I must atone.” There’s a sense of emotional and moral exhaustion, an old order giving way, self-doubt, guilt and an uneasy reckoning with destiny. Not the sort of song you want to listen to last thing before going to bed, unless you’re a very sound sleeper not given to pangs of conscience.

The title of the next track, “Good Times”, immediately brings to mind the 1967 song of the same name by The Animals and there are similarities, especially the idea of a pub sing-along chorus (the British beat band placed theirs in the middle of their song while Davies uses his as the outro). While The Animals’ number has a regretful tone (young man laments his life of sinning when he could have been winning etc.), Davies’ is a more positive exercise in nostalgia, the sense of lost youth redeemed, to some extent, by the power of memory to make far-away and long-ago friends seem present here and now. The song is carried along by electric piano but solos from a surging Hammond-style organ and distorted electric guitar—Davies plays everything—add a keen edge.

Dylan is the next musical influence to get a nod, on “A Lifetime Ago (Or Maybe Two)” and “Better in the Morning”, both of which feature the master’s tinny, dissonant harmonica style and some of his vocal phrasing and lyrical feel. In “Lifetime” the hommage is secondary to the sense of Davies’ own life experience, captured vividly in the opening lines: “A lifetime ago or maybe two, the first time I set eyes on you,/pushing through the party crowd, head held high and oh so proud;/ I was laid out in a daze but through the haze I felt amazed by you.” This sets the scene nicely for a tale about socially mismatched love (“Lady and the tramp, they said—you so slim, me just underfed”) but the song ends in something of an anti-climax as the relationship’s (inevitable) failure is dealt with in a vague and almost offhand way.

The great man is more to the fore in “Better in the Morning”—a phrase, according to the album notes, often used by Davies’ mother when he was young to encourage him to take a more optimistic view of life. It didn’t work, judging by the ironic contrast between the title and the song’s dystopian social commentary: “The rich are getting richer as the huddled mass looks on/and dances in tiny circles to a politician’s song,/and every step is choreographed from the selection box of life,/while in a cold apartment another valued voter dies,/another hopeless, hapless martyr to the god of free enterprise.” The song has all the characteristic bite of Davies’ satirical pieces but, in the final analysis, it struggles to rise above the depressing realisation that, since Dylan brought the protest genre to perfection in the 1960s, things haven’t changed much; indeed, they’re probably worse.

“Always on Your Side” is a more personal form of self-expression, with Davies himself rather than his influences centre-stage. This is a moving song about lost love and well executed: the emotion in Davies’ voice is complemented by the intimate vocal ambience achieved by the mix, and the instruments—two acoustic guitars, bass, synth strings and piano—work together seamlessly. He’s a deft lyricist, too. The last line of the chorus, the first couple of times he sings it, is: “If you know how hard I tried to save you from the pain that comes when two worlds collide.” The final time he sings it, “collide” is replaced by “divide”. It packs a subtle, but effective, emotional punch.

At first listen, “Won’t You Be Mine,” is pure throw-away pop: the upbeat tone and annoyingly infectious hooks recall the bubble gum music targeted at pre-teens during the late 1960s (“Mony Mony” by Tommy James and The Shondells and “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies spring immediately to mind). Hell, the lyrics even include the phrase, “I wanna be your man”! It seems to be nothing more than a sugar-coated invitation to have sex, but there’s more going on beneath the surface. In fact, Davies turns the subgenre on its head, replacing the sense of optimistic young love with a poignant awareness of mortality: “Life passes by in the blink of an eye, look away and your dreams fall behind…Life is a game that we won’t play again”. The goofy synth solo completes the inversion. It’s as though Davies travels back in time, abducts the musically formative years of a generation, then brings them back to the present, condensed into four minutes and 20 seconds of satire, irony, and sobering reality.

“1941” is the holocaust song referred to earlier. This, say the album notes, was part of a 27-minute magnum opus Davies performed with another pre-Moongazer project, prog-rock band The Vacant Chair. It would be interesting to hear the full cut, as the monumental theme and stadium-rock cadence of the chorus seem well-suited to a large-scale production. But this stripped-down version works well. The lyrics are a little stiff and formal as if, like pall bearers, they are conscious of the weight they bear, but they stay this side of bathos. Much of their emotional power comes from the way that the meaning of the chorus—“I’m still standing”—changes over the course of the song. When the first verse refers to the loading of the trains and the “flame of hope” being extinguished, the chorus sounds like survivor guilt; when the last verse alludes to the flame being rekindled by the fight for freedom, the chorus becomes a forceful testament of witness and memory.

“True to Yourself” is another strong track which sounds as though it would go down well with a big, live audience, based on the emotional warmth of the piano and synth cello arrangement, the rising chord progression and the lyrics’ potential to inspire. It strays a bit close at times to the kind of motivational messaging that pops up in your Facebook feed every day, but it has a big heart in the right place. One can imagine Davies singing it to his kids (and grandkids, too!) and, in the context of this album, there’s an engaging pathos in the idea of an older generation singing to a younger one. It’s basically Davies doing what his mother did when she told him that it would be “Better in The Morning”. What goes around comes around.

“Why Don’t You (Close Your Eyes When We Kiss)” takes us back to the relationships theme and the sinking feeling that the one you love no longer loves you. The song lands easily on the ear with a light, wistful melody and simple, understated lyrics. The simplicity is deceptive, however, as the overall impression—helped by the sparse, chiming instrumentation of piano and acoustic guitars—is that the song is as delicate and fragile as the relationship it describes. There’s also an unexpected chord change between the verse and the chorus which, while musically pleasant, leaves you feeling slightly off balance and conveys perfectly the singer-protagonist’s own mood and perspective.

Davies’s jazz past resurfaces in “Smile”, a jaunty singalong driven by piano and a nicely tripping (in the light-fantastic sense) bass which might be guitar or synth but sounds just like double bass (you can almost see the armbands and silk waistcoat).

This is meant to be a pick-you-up-when-you’re-feeling-down number, like the song of the same name first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1954 (based on a tune written by Charlie Chaplin for his 1936 movie Modern Times) and covered by innumerable others since. Coles’ song (and the scenes in Chaplin’s film that the music sound-tracked) offered an antidote to the general vicissitudes of life; Davies’ song, however, is about growing old—“The tide of doubt is rising, you think you’ve had your day, all the tunes you used to love now no-one seems to play…”—and is another example of what I consider to be the album’s demise-of-the-baby-boomer theme. (The song also echoes, in wit and spirit, “Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian movie—a more ‘boomerish’ cultural reference than Cole.)

And so to the final track, “Going Home”, a folk song in the “Wild Rover” tradition but more melancholic and reflective. It’s the perfect sign-off for this album, looking back on a full but not entirely satisfactory life and turning towards a horizon where home is not some romantic illusion or escape (no “green, green grass” here) but something more final, symbolized by the “western skies”. It’s been a long road and, as so often happens, the journey has turned out to be the destination: “I have sought salvation in a thousand bars where all men look the same and everyone is a friend of mine, no one knows my name…/ All the things I looked for, I thought would set me free, they were there the whole time through, lost inside of me.”

The song ends quietly, quickly, with no fuss, leaving the silence to echo in the listener’s mind.

PROUD IN THE INDIE TRADITION

Like its predecessor, this album stands proud in the DIY indie-music tradition. Its modest production values give the sound a raw edge which add to the sense, reflected in each song, of a man responding as honestly as he can to the curve-balls that life throws at him (and, by extension, us). In many other comparable recording artists, these factors might be limitations, but that’s not the case with Davies, whose range of interests as a songwriter and skills as a musician combine to make this album much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Fighting back against COVID-19: The Sidemen come out swinging

One of the few displays of kindness between public figures that we’ve seen during this shit-storm of a pandemic was Russell Crowe’s tweet to Victoria’s embattled premier, Dan Andrews: “If you find yourself going through hell, just keep going.” That seems to be the kind of spirit, and thinking, behind “Songs from Behind the Viral Curtain”, the debut EP by Steve Banks and The Sidemen.

As the title suggests, this is the band’s creative response to COVID-19 and the harsh reality of lockdown, which is more brutal for musicians (and other artists) than it is for many other segments of the population, for the simple reason that the necessarily free-flowing working lifestyles of creative people mean that they may not qualify for income support mechanisms like JobKeeper.

The Sidemen—five grizzled musicians whose careers date back to big-name acts of the 1960s[1]—have come out swinging, in every sense. Combining Banks’ humorous lyrics and soulful vocals with a musical authority that brooks no argument, this is a punchy, confident and highly accomplished EP made more remarkable by the fact that the musos recorded remotely from each other, in lockdown,

But the music is not their only way of pushing back against our current affliction: a share of the EP’s proceeds goes to music industry charity Support Act which provides, among other programmes, support specifically for musicians affected by COVID-19. Coming from veteran rockers who’ve probably seen every high and low of a musician’s life, the donation has a certain poignancy.

The EP, however, is significant for other reasons. When Banks launched The Sidemen as a live act in May 2019 the focus, understandably, was on each member’s musical life history and the famous acts and songs with which they will be forever associated. What’s interesting about the latest project is that it sees The Sidemen working with original material for the first time.

This opens up intriguing possibilities for the band’s future development, hints of which may (or may not) be present in each of the EP’s five songs.

SLIPPING EFFORTLESSLY BETWEEN STYLES

One of the great things about musicians with long careers behind them is the ease with which they can draw on so many different musical styles and traditions. The first track, “CV Blues”, is (as the sleeve notes acknowledge) a nod to Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and draws a neat parallel between Minnie’s bohemian loucherie and the pariah status acquired by a certain Chinese bat.

But while Calloway’s song is, in part, a celebration of hedonistic nightlife, “CV Blues” (again, as noted on the sleeve) evokes a New Orleans funeral march with master-of-ceremonies Banks providing a gothic-horror-comic oration: “Take a bat with attitude—let’s not have this misconstrued: that bat, well, he done us wrong, this ain’t his redemption song.”

The horns, arranged by Paul Williamson (like co-producer and guitarist Jeff Burstin, formerly of The Black Sorrows), pick the song up and carry it, helped by some great piano fills from Bruce Haymes (also co-producer) and beautiful backing vocals from Martine Monro who, although technically a guest artist, puts her stamp on every track and forms an integral part of the EP’s overall sound.

And I can’t help feeling the song makes another nod to musical precedent in the way that most of the instruments fade at the end, leaving the horns to themselves for a few moments of glorious, alley-cat cacophony. Decades ago The Band did something similar in the middle of a song called—wait for it—“Chest Fever”. If the similarity is intentional, it’s clever; if it’s accidental, it’s spooky.

The Sidemen slip effortlessly into country mode with “12 Steps”, an upbeat number with tasteful, melodic fills from Burstin and Haymes, light-but-tight bass and drums (Greg Lyon and Grant Gerathy respectively) and seamless harmonies between Banks and Monro. The mood is deceptive, however, because, lyrically, this is the most affecting song on the EP.

It’s about addiction—or, rather, the sense of vertigo that troubles a former addict when he or she feels at risk of slipping back into old, bad habits: “I’ve been on the 12 steps to survival, I think I’m going in reverse: don’t want to let you down, don’t want to go back there, I can’t tell you which one is worse…”. And how many of us, in lockdown, haven’t felt tempted to drink and/or smoke more?

Part of the song’s power comes from a surprisingly effective narrative device. The song begins with the protagonist “walking sideways down the alley” feeling “I made a terrible mistake”, but then he wakes up “safe and sound beside you”. Far from being an anti-climax, the fact that he dreams his fears underlines, rather than diminishes, the intensity of the addict’s psychological struggle.

The remaining songs are less tied to the COVID-19 theme but no less effective or enjoyable for that. “Secrets on the Darker Side” is a warm piece of romantic nostalgia (teenage love, anyone?) in which all the musical elements—especially the guitars of Burstin and Rick Fenn, Haymes’ piano, and a tantalising vocal breakout by Monro—combine to leave you feeling youthful and optimistic again.

“Father/Son/HG” (as in Holy Ghost) has Banks in reflective, even philosophical, mood, ruminating about religion and the meaning of life. The last time I heard Banks get this deep and meaningful was on “Me, Innit”, a candidly introspective song on his solo album “Ordinary Man” (also produced by Burstin). Both songs ask deep questions about life, but only one of them really works.

The problem (as I see it) with “Father/Son/HG” is that it elaborates an opinion, rather than a state of mind. And no matter how much you might agree with the opinion (“What we need is a basic code to navigate this rocky road, not one guy—you might call him God—firing up his lightning rod”) it lacks the emotional persuasiveness of “Me, Innit”, which is based on a real internal psychodrama.

And so to the closing track, “Rooster in the Hen House,” an out-and-out rocker in which the horns are back and Burstin and Fenn give Keith Richards and Ron Wood a run for their money. A tale about sexual infidelity sung from the point of view of the gleefully unrepentant co-respondent, it just makes you want to play the EP again. And again.

WHERE TO NEXT?

If the songs do provide a pointer to The Sidemen’s future development, it’s that it could be in any direction they damned well pleased. There’s no doubting the credibility, capability and versatility of musicians like these; the only question is where these attributes will take them, once they (and we) are free to live our normal lives again.

God knows what these guys will do when they finally get into a studio together….


[1] Steve Banks, vocals; Bruce Haymes (The Paul Kelly Band, worked with Renee Geyer and Archie Roach); Jeff Burstin (The Black Sorrows, Jo Jo Zep and The Falcons); Greg Lyon(The Hip Operation, Georgie Fame, Crossfire, Doug Parkinson and many more); Grant Gerathy (former drummer from John Butler Trio, has worked with Pete Murray); Rick Fenn (guitarist from 10cc, worked with Jack Bruce from Cream, Mike Oldfield, Peter Green); special guest vocalist Martine Monroe (Bodacious Cowboys).

The Clash of Minds Continues: Lizard Replies to Simon

Dear Simon – thanks for your robust reply way back when, in August 2018. I think you know why it’s taken me so long to come back to you: work, massive hailstorm in December 2018, then a year of hassling with the insurer to repair the damage, more work, then bush fires, work, floods, work, and now…coronavirus. Climate change and globalisation: the perfect storm. At least self-isolation is giving me some time to write. I hope you and yours are staying well.

You are quite right to refer to the alacrity with which I switched perspective from the subjective to the objective, the empirical to the synthetic, and to the fact that I paid no heed to the psychological-or-philosophical question. If I’m at fault, it’s not (I would argue) because I made a category mistake, but because I failed to acknowledge that I was switching from one mode to another, and to explain why I was doing so.

Let me rectify that now: I did so as a matter of creativity.

Perhaps…creativity is the key difference between a free mind and an imprisoned one

I make no apology for this. The Stranger, as you know, is fond of explaining, and defending, religion as a branch of human creativity. Creativity―and its most vital organ, imagination―can explain things that reason can’t and, crucially, it can help us solve problems or find answers when reason and logic appear to have run out of road. The core question is whether we, as individuals and as a society, are prepared to accord imagination the same status and respect that we give to reason. I am, of course, and I think society would function much better if it did so, too.

On that basis, I think it was perfectly legitimate for me to shift perspective to gain a rounded view of the question I was trying to discuss. You appear to object to the resulting synthesis―or, indeed, to any form of synthesis―as being somehow artificial. That’s fine in my book, where “artificial”, “synthetic” and “creative” are pretty much synonymous. It’s of a piece with Keats’ line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” (Eliot was surely being disingenuous when he claimed not to understand it).

The clincher, for me, is that I felt, when writing my piece, that I had gained some sort of insight. When I read your retort, all I could see was the complaint of someone bound by ideology to argue from a single, narrow perspective that seemed to deny all potential for growth or change. Perhaps, in the last analysis, creativity is the key difference between a free mind and an imprisoned one.

Pip-pip,

Lizard.

You Can’t Keep a Good Gal Down: Barbara Dane, Progress and Tradition

Two blues tracks—one New Orleans jazz-style, the other a hard-edged post-Chicago blues-rock sound—recorded 57 years apart. They’re the same song. One other thing they have in common: the singer.

Barbara Dane, ladies and gentlemen.

If you haven’t heard of her it’s probably because you grew up in the 1960s or later and you’ve been too busy listening to all the people—Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt are just two off the top of my head—who have been influenced by her extraordinary career of singing and activism.

At 92, she’s still with us, thank God, and still performing on special occasions. Let that sink in: born in 1927 and still singing the blues.

And how. Here’s her most recent recording of “Good Morning Blues”, with Cuban rocker Osamu Menendez and his band.

That was cut in 2014, when Barbara was 87. This is her first-ever recording of the song, with the sublime clarinettist George Lewis, in 1957:

“I sound so green I can hardly recognize myself,” Barbara says now of that earlier recording. You can see her point, but it’s not just the 57-year difference in her voice, it’s the contrast in the styles of music too.

In the George Lewis version, the music has the classic demeanour of an old bluesman, dogged and sweetly melancholic, while Barbara’s voice is strong and soulful in a wholesome way which, while sympathetic to the music, provides a contrasting sense of freshness.

Barbara Dane 1957

Barbara then…

But it’s not “green” in the sense that most people would use the word. It’s the voice of the “good gal feeling bad”, trying to hold everything (including her relationship with a cheating man) together through sheer strength of will and personality, with little hope and even less romantic illusion.

Wind the clock forward and we’re almost in post-apocalyptic territory, musically and visually. The overtly political video was posted—and presumably created—in 2017, three years after the audio was recorded. Timewise, they chart an arc that starts a year or so after the launch of the Black Lives Matter movement and ends the year that Trump came to power.

Put the video to one side for a moment, and just listen to the music. Osamu’s arrangement draws heavily on the old Lil’ Son Jackson/Muddy Waters “Rock Me” riff (that’s the sexually menacing one, not to be confused with B.B. King’s much silkier “Rock Me Baby”) and the band—led by Osamu’s seething guitar and a harmonica that howls like a junkyard dog—locks it down tight.

What’s surprising is how well Barbara’s voice—weathered and leathery at the edges, but still rich and gorgeous at the centre—suits the treatment. It’s far more at home in this dystopian soundscape than the voice of her 30-year-old self could ever be.

Barbara DAne 2014

…and now

How can a 92-year-old singer, with a career behind her that’s longer than most people’s lives, be so bang-on relevant today? Has Barbara evolved with the times, or have the times finally caught up with her? I suspect that the answer, if there is one, lies somewhere in her backstory.

AN INTERESTING TENSION

Barbara, first and foremost, has always been her own woman—one blessed with an outstanding voice and a passion for social justice. According to that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, “Out of high school, Dane began to sing regularly at demonstrations for racial equality and economic justice. While still in her teens, she sat in with bands around town and won the interest of local music promoters. She got an offer to tour with Alvino Rey’s band, but she turned it down in favour of singing at factory gates and in union halls.”

As that last sentence suggests, music and social justice have always been two sides of the same coin for Barbara. Her career as an activist has included travelling to Cuba in 1966 as the first US musician to tour there after Castro’s revolution, leading (while playing guitar and singing) civil rights marches and protests against the Vietnam war, touring and performing for anti-war GIs, campaigning for the environment and joining Pete Seeger in New York in 1978 in support of a miners’ strike.

In 1964, Bob Dylan wrote, in a letter to Broadside magazine, “The world needs more people like Barbara, someone who is willing to follow her conscience. She is, if the term must be used, a hero.”

Barbara Dane and Dylan

Dylan sits in with Barbara at a gig in 1963

In terms of her social activism, then, Barbara has been a leader and an agent of change, someone ahead of her times. There was, and continues to be, a natural affinity between her political views and the music she loves and plays, which is essentially the music of the underdog. But there’s an interesting tension in the fact that while Barbara is a political progressive she is, musically, steeped in tradition.

How does that tension resolve or contain itself? It comes back, I think, to the fact that Barbara is her own woman, artistically as well as politically. She is equally at home in, as well as adept in, folk, jazz and blues. Her musical achievements are the stuff of legend but all I can do here is list, in no particular order, some (and only some) of the people she’s played with: Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Clara Ward, Mama Yancey, Little Brother Montgomery, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Art Hodes, Roosevelt Sykes, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and Wilbur De Paris (Wikipedia). Not listed by Wikipedia, but two of my favourites, are Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Chambers Brothers.

Barbara Dane and Lightin Hopkins

Lightnin’ and Barbara

In 1961, she gave a uniquely personal expression to her commitment to music and social justice when she opened her own club in San Francisco to introduce the blues to a wider, white audience. In 1970 she founded her own record label to promote international protest music.

Her musical originality works in the same direction as her political singlemindedness: the fact that she sings beautifully and authentically across genres makes her, within her field, diverse and unclassifiable; her ability to reveal the universal spirituality that lies so deep in jazz and blues transcends the music’s racial origins (she was one of the first white female artists to be profiled by Ebony magazine[1]), and her selfless promotion of other artists created new audiences and new possibilities. In her music—particularly in the way she has interpreted and promoted it—she has always been ahead of her times.

In what sense, if any, has she evolved with them?

YES AND YES

Earlier, I contrasted the progressiveness of Barbara’s politics with the traditionalism of her music. I confess to being a little disingenuous there, as I implicitly associated the politics with some sort of dynamic quality and the music with a more static one. But, as we all know, traditions must live, breathe and change if they are to survive. It’s in that sense that I understand Barbara to have evolved, and I can’t think of a better way of illustrating what I mean than by going back to “Good Morning Blues”—both the history of the song, or part of the history, and her two versions.

Count Basie GMB

His Excellency

Count Basie is credited as the composer and his recording of it was issued in 1937, when Barbara was 10 (yes, I know it’s rude to harp on about a lady’s age but, hell, this is history). The lyrics, sung by Jimmy Rushing, were, one might say, a little on the light and frothy side:

Good morning blues, blues how do you do
Good morning blues, blues how do you do
Babe, I feel alright but I come to worry you
Baby, it’s Christmas time and I want to see Santa Claus
Baby, it’s Christmas time and I want to see Santa Claus
Don’t show me my pretty baby, I’ll break all of the laws
Santa Claus, Santa Claus, listen to my plea
Santa Claus, Santa Claus, listen to my plea

The next version I’ve come across was by Lead Belly, recorded in 1940 when Barbara was… nah, you work it out.

lead belly GMB

Lead Belly: bluesman and convicted killer

Now the song gets serious (the lines in italics are spoken):

Now this is the blues
There was a white man had the blues
Thought it was nothing to worry about
Now you lay down at night
You roll from one side of the bed to the other all
Night long
Ya can’t sleep, whats the matter; the blues has gotcha
Ya get up you sit on the side of the bed in the mornin’
May have a sister a mother a brother n a father around
But you don’t want no talk out of em
Whats the matter; the blues has gotcha
When you go in put your feet under the table look down
At ya plate got everything you wanna eat
But ya shake ya head you get up you say “Lord I can’t
Eat I can’t sleep whats the matter”
The blues gotcha
Why not talk to ya

Tell what you gotta tell it
Well, good morning blues, blues how do you do
Well, good morning blues, blues how do you do
I couldn’t sleep last night, I was turning from side to side
Oh Lord, I was turning from side to side
I wasn’t sad, I was just dissatisfied.
I couldn’t sleep last night, you know the blues walking
‘Round my bed,
Oh Lord, the blues walking ’round my bed
I went to eat my breakfast, the blues was in my bread.
Well good morning blues, blues how do you do.
Well, good morning blues, blues how do you do.
I’m doing all right, well, good morning how are you.

The blues evoked by Lead Belly are dark and sinister, in the tradition of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail”. Barbara, in her version with George Lewis, drinks from the same well, but with a difference:

Oh, good morning blues, blues how do you do
Oh, good morning blues, blues how do you do
Oh, I’m feeling mighty well baby how are you
I got up this morning the blues walking round my bed
I couldn’t sleep I got up this morning the blues walking round my bed
I went to eat my breakfast the blues was all in my bread
The blues ain’t nothing but a good girl feeling bad
The blues ain’t nothing but a good girl feeling bad
I lost my good man and every dime I ever had
I’m going down to the river and sit down on a log
Oh I’m going down to the river and sit down on a log
If I can’t be your woman I’m not gonna be your dog
I sent for you yesterday but you come walking today (24 hours late)
I sent for you yesterday but here you come walking today
Well, If you can’t do no better why don’t you just stay away, stay away.

By introducing the line, “The blues ain’t nothing but a good girl feeling bad,” Barbara manages to be traditional and innovative at the same time. It’s based on what is probably one of the most famous lines in blues music—“The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feeling bad”—from one of the first blues songs ever published, in 1912 (in a way which, by today’s standards, would be spectacularly politically incorrect). But, just as Barbara takes “Good Morning Blues” back to the origins of its genre, she updates the song by re-gendering it. She breaks with Basie and Lead Belly and makes it something new—a woman’s song. Her artistic initiative in this respect is distinctive and personal, but what she creates is historically significant for all women.

True, Barbara wouldn’t have been the first female blues singer to feminise a song, but “being first” isn’t the point. The re-gendering of songs is a tradition within the broader blues tradition, and Barbara makes an original—in the sense of distinctive and personally authentic—contribution to both. I’m familiar with only two other versions of “Good Morning Blues” by female singers, both of which post-date Barbara’s: Ella Fitzgerald’s (1960) and Della Reece’s (1999). Both are a world (in Fitzgerald’s case, a universe) away from Barbara’s sassy feminism.

The point seems to be that, even when she breaks new ground, Barbara affirms the tradition within which she works.

Osamu

In Japan, the name means “discipline, study”

Here are the lyrics of her version with Osamu:

Well, good morning blues, blues, blues how do you do
Good morning blues, blues, blues how do you do (looking pretty good)
Oh, I’m feeling mighty well but I want to know how good, partner, are you?
Let me say what happened to me last night
I lay down last night I was rolling from side to side
I lay down last night I was rolling from side to side
Do you know what, I was not sick honey I was just dissatisfied (you know what I’m talking about)
Well I rolled and I tumbled and cried the whole night long
Well I rolled and I cried, cried the whole night long
Now I had the blues so bad, I couldn’t tell right from wrong
Well I sent for you yesterday and you come walking today
You dragging them dogs and you come walking today
If you can’t do no better I’m going to throw your old number away
I’m going down to the river and sit down on a log
Oh I’m going down to the river and sit down on a log
If I can’t be your woman I’m not gonna be your dog

The delivery of these lines is certainly more knowing, and humorously so, than on the “green” 1957 version (incidentally, humour is very much part of Barbara’s style; check out “The Kugelsburg Bank” on her Throw It Away album—it’s hilarious). But, while Osamu’s urban rock places this interpretation by Barbara firmly in the early 21st century, Barbara draws once again from the early history of the blues by including lines (my italics) from “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”, first recorded in 1929, by Hambone Willie Newbern. It’s probably one of the most-recorded blues songs of all time (I first heard it on Big Joe Williams’ Classic Delta Blues album, released in 1964).

So, in answer to the question, “Has Barbara evolved with the times, or have the times finally caught up with her?”, the answer appears to be “Yes, and yes”. She’s as relevant today as she has always been because—by virtue of her fierce independence, originality and musical gifts—she has placed herself both at the leading edge of social change and at the living core of a self-replenishing tradition, the two—change and tradition—working together seamlessly.

Barbar Dane Livin with the Blues

Everything about this pic says “iconic”

From this perspective, I would argue that Barbara’s long life and career are best seen, not in terms of simple linear progression, but more as a continuous backtracking and moving forward, the effect of which has been to broaden and deepen her art and political commitment constantly, to the spiritual  enrichment and benefit of her audience and, from all accounts, those who have known and worked with her.

It’s quite a legacy, but that’s not all. A documentary about Barbara’s life is under way: true to Barbara’s principles, this is not a slick Hollywood production but relies mainly on donations, which you can make here. Better still, Barbara’s legacy won’t be confined to video, or audio, or the written word. It’s already alive and kicking in the next generation of impassioned musicians: Osamu is her grandson….

Barbara Dane Pablo Osamu

Music dynasty: Barbara, son Pablo and Osamu

[1] Downbeat.com