OVER THE WATER
“I’ll take you with me over the water, over the water when I go”
As I began this process of writing about songs that act as soundtracks for my photographs a few months ago now I came to a realization recently. Looking back, there were a number of years when I had a lot of muddled thoughts in my head. Not having a creative outlet kept them all inside I think. That eased up when I began getting a positive reaction to some of my photographs but it felt like there was something missing still. When I sat down in a coffee shop in October and scribbled down some notes about ideas for getting myself out of a personal and professional rut, the genesis of this blog somehow escaped that muddle. In recounting all of this to someone recently I thought about bands and singers that have been around for a long time and how for some the creative process dries up, or never returns from the heights of youth. Albums are released but without the excitement or effort that existed years before. Or in the case of some artists, they simply get better with age.
For this installment of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph I chose the music of the Oysterband and their song Over The Water, a song whose imagery made my job a lot easier to pair with my photographs. I say this because the lyrics themselves are actually very reminiscent of photographs. Little lyrical snapshots are what this blog is about in many ways and the way little vignettes pieced together become something more substantial. The seemingly sparse arrangement of the song at the beginning gives way to a complex array of textures, again much in the way that the depth of a good photograph is not immediately revealed upon first view. Thinking about this I came to another realization. Though some photographs I took a long time ago were decent even with the dubious cameras mentioned in the last installment, it has only been in the last few years that I have really felt a deeper connection to photography, along with greater personal satisfaction at the results. Now combined with this blog I have a true outlet for sharing them in a way that makes sense for me. Just like those photographs the music of the Oysterband has become more satisfying as the band has continued. Though there is over 30 years worth of great material to explore, they are a rarity amongst bands that have been around that long. For a new listener I would not hesitate to say to buy their latest album and work backwards. That is not at all what you say about most bands but then again, Oysterband are not most bands.
That latest album was just released as I finish writing this installment and my copy is crossing the ocean as we speak. Entitled Diamonds On The Water it promises to further continue that tradition of solid and challenging musicianship developed over 30 plus years together. But if Oysterband happen to read this, I hope they will forgive me for going back 7 years here to one of their best albums they have made to date (though from the snippets made available from Diamonds On the Water I am pretty sure my mind may change!). Released in 2007, the album Meet You There set off a whirlwind of activity for the band individually and collectively, with seldom a chance to catch a rest in between it seemed. Touring non-stop around that album brought them right up to their 30th Anniversary and then the recording of a retrospective in celebration of that milestone. That then gave way to various solo albums, which gave way to a powerful collaboration with June Tabor. Over 20 years ago, June Tabor along with the Oysterband had collaborated on the excellent album Freedom & Rain and 2011 brought a long awaited follow up- Ragged Kingdom, chosen by many in the press to be not just Folk album of the year, but one of the best albums for the year period. After the touring commitments with June were completed it was time for the band to think about a fresh collection of new Oysterband material, and Diamonds On The Water is the result. I do not feel bad about looking back here however at Meet You There because it still sounds fresh and relevant today. I have listened to it something like 974 times since its release and it has never lost its grip on me and the same goes for my wife and many of my friends I have played it for. It is just that damn good.
“We slid in silence through the dockyard, rusted cranes against the sky”
Because this blog is a new idea, I doubt that it will include too many brand new songs. I think as listeners we need more time for songs to absorb into our system. Having year’s worth of photographs to use as soundtracks, and thousands of songs to choose from, I think I can let the reviewers tackle the new material by artists while I focus on something more personal for me. Taking a page from the Oysterband themselves they have often said how sometimes the meaning or the feel of a song often does not reveal itself until some time has passed. To illustrate that point, twice now they have released retrospectives that rather than looking back, look forward instead with new arrangements of old songs. Often these new arrangements come to light after the song has been put to test on the road, so what was loud and aggressive has become quieter and introspective, and what was gentle becomes powerful and forthright. In fact there is one Oysterband song called The Oxford Girl which has been arranged 3 distinct ways at this point as an example!
Over The Water starts the Meet You There album off and it begins with a fade in of a mbira before the expressive vocals of John Jones joins in with a promise of taking us over the water where the wild winds blow. As the rest of the band then comes in with subtle accompaniment we realize that love has been discovered and though the reason for going over the water is not readily apparent, this verse certainly helps us understand why it may be necessary-
“The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you”
Over The Water is one of those songs whose musical arrangement seems to fill in more of the storyline than the words themselves do. The open arrangement and subtle percussion, sweeping violin and cello fulfill the romantic notions of travel, of going over the water in anticipation of what is on the other side. Somehow the nuance of the guitar parts played by Alan Prosser seem to act more as a counterpoint to me, almost making the journey sound more ominous or menacing. To me it seems like a reminder that going over the water may not solve that troubled life. Yet in the end the soaring vocals of John Jones swoop in and allay the darkness and fear. Going over the water might be all you have. It might be the only choice, and having a wide eyed girl to join you on the journey makes it much easier.
“Harbour lights across the water, we went dancing in the rain”
Well that is my interpretation of it anyway and one of the best things about music or the arts in general is that is encouraged. Everything is right and nothing is wrong generally speaking. I must admit that through the years the lyrics of the Oysterband have always had somewhat of a mysterious side for me. Some are clear and direct, particularly the no punches pulled politically inspired material they have always been known for, but others are like those pieced together snapshots I mentioned above. They are more elusive and thought provoking, and challenging to deconstruct meanings. There are some repeating themes the band has touched on through the years however and the photographs I am using here match what I feel Over The Water is about. Primarily there seems to be a certain amount of loneliness and desolation lyrically, with tinges of hopefulness and subversive humor mixed in for good measure. There also seems to be a number of songs with an element of industrial landscape, of urban sprawl and city streets and decay which have a type of desolation of another sort. It can be as easy to feel alone and alienated in a city of millions as it is in the most isolated corner of the world. Certainly at times I have felt that way. All of this probably explains why I key in on certain phrases in Oysterband lyrics, rather than the song as a whole. Doing so helps me find some connection with the song, much in the same way a simple photograph can evoke many feelings. In Over The Water it is that idea of the harbor as the impetus for the journey, it can be the point of departure, or the point of arrival. Anyway you look at it, it is a journey.
Over The Water is the second song I can think of by the Oysterband that mentions rusted cranes. Harbor lights, and oil fed rainbows on the water are also mentioned in the song, and anyone who has lived in a port city knows all about that sort of imagery. There is something about a harbor that is photographic on so many levels. In New York City we can see on a daily basis the bustle of activity between a cross section of commercial container ships, tug boats and barges, tankers interacting with massive cruise ships and ferries of every size, combined with pleasure boats darting around the harbor and under bridges. Then you have remnants of the old waterfront buildings or piers that once housed industry, now largely derelict or paved over with shiny new residential or commercial properties. Interspersed within all that, you can still find the occasional icon of the past such as cranes, or harbor walls or fortifications that have managed to survive for years. Because of all that activity and movement, I have always enjoyed walking around the waterfront here. It is a given that there will be something to photograph at any point throughout the day or night. The cranes and other mysterious shapes one sees become silhouettes in the fading light of dusk, and in the light of morning the reflections of sunlight on the harbor make everything glisten. All prime tools for a photographer of course to make use of.
Beyond the practical or business side of a harbor such as New York, there is of course a more romantic side going on as well. It is that romantic side that is on display in Over The Water, and indeed when the weather is nice there is nothing so wonderful as seeing the harbor lit up at night. Stars are seldom seen in the sky here, so I think we instead rely on the lights at waters edge or the ships in the harbor as our stars instead. It is comforting seeing the lights out on the dark waters of the harbor. Being in a city with so many immigrants, you are also inevitably reminded of the journeys many took to get here. Of how many people stood on a shore somewhere and thought about going ‘over the water’. The notion of over the water is a powerful one for it can mean something to everyone. It can mean for love, or emigration, or as a metaphor of change. Whenever I walk on the waterfront, camera in hand these are some of the things I think about. When I get home and review the photographs I have taken there is usually much to think about. No matter where I am while taking photos I like to think about why I took certain ones, what the appeal was. That can help to prevent future mistakes about lighting, perspective, and approach. That is often where the first thought creeps into my brain and says, this kind of reminds me of that song. As I have mentioned in previous entries, that can come from vastly different sources. But in the last few years whenever I take any type of harbor photo, be it of ships on the water or the sun setting on the harbor outside my office window, there is one song that pops into my head. So for the way it subtly speaks of love and hope, of uncertainty and promise, and most importantly of a journey, Over The Water by the Oysterband is this installments Soundtrack Of A Photograph.
“I’ll take you with me over the water, over the water when I go, I’ll take you with me over the water, over the water where the wild winds blow.”
In 1989, I had just heard the Oysterband for the first time in my exploration of anything folk music related as I mentioned in Part 1. Now thinking back, in March of that year when this video was filmed, I was almost assuredly in college in Massachusetts. It made me smile when I saw this video for the first time a few years ago for the traditional song New York Girls. To think all these years later that I would be writing about the Oysterband in my blog and have a video courtesy of them that shows what I am writing about!Namely, there the band are in New York Harbor, on the Staten Island Ferry, and…..as seen in a few places at one of my favorite places in the city, the South Street Seaport also as mentioned in Part 1. Not to mention the great old ship Peking, and a glimpse of the Wavertree at one point as well. Funny how these things work sometimes isn’t it?! Now why couldn’t I have been around when they filmed it!
Over The Water-Words and Music by Chopper/Jones/Partis/Prosser/Telfer
New York Girls-Traditional, arranged by Oysterband
All photographs by Robert P Doyle
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