In just a few hours from now, a band will take the stage at a concert hall in London. One more show yet again from a band in the middle of yet another tour. While that may sound terribly routine, it is in fact anything but. For tonight marks 50 years to the day that Fairport Convention performed for the first time at another London concert hall way back in 1967. At this point I have written about Fairport Convention and many of its former members here several times, so I will not repeat myself, but I wanted to do my small part in celebrating this very special occasion. It certainly is not everyday that a band has a milestone such as this, but here we are.
It bears repeating though that tonight’s concert is by a group that have never had a number one hit. In fact they have never really been commercially successful. Band members have come and gone. They started off as an American sounding rock group but became the standard bearers for British Folk Rock. They have suffered the loss of band members over the years. After essentially disbanding in 1979 they realized at a reunion show the following year that more people had actually come than had to their ‘farewell’ gig. They used this idea to start and run their own very successful festival every year in the quiet little village of Cropredy which continues to this day.
Not resting on their laurels, this year saw the release of the album 50:50@50, a combination of live and studio recordings, old and new. It includes guest performances by longtime friends of the band Robert Plant and Jacqui McShee. The band also continues to tour steadily. Bass player Dave Pegg recently quipped that though other bands might be older, they probably have not played as many gigs as Fairport has in their lifetime. And he’s probably right about that!
So Happy Birthday Fairport Convention! Thank you for your music. Thank you for continuing on purely for the love of music and performing. In my 30 years of being a fan you have given me incalculable hours of joy. Fairport are just the type of band one stays loyal to. The type of band that the audience sings Happy Birthday to spontaneously. The type of band who appreciates their fans, always willing to pose for a photo or sign a program. The type of band who give a lot of time and support to a multitude of social causes. A band with a great sense of humor. They are just very special to me. Congratulations to all who have been a part of it! Here’s a song about the band written by their good friend Steve Tilston. It looks back to Fairport’s history while reminding us that good things can still come ‘over the next hill.’ Cheers! Pints will be raised tonight in your honor!
Dedicated to the memory of Martin Lamble, Sandy Denny, Trevor Lucas, Bruce Rowland, Roger Hill and Dave Swarbrick.
‘The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.’
So begins one of my most favorite books-Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson. Originally written as a trilogy in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s the three books were eventually unified as one title. What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the American prairie in her Little House On The Prairie series, what Lucy Maud Montgomery did for Prince Edward Island in Canada with Anne Of Green Gables, Flora Thompson did for her own little corner of England. Ironically, all three women were roughly contemporaries, and all three became known for writing about their own lives growing up. Wilder’s and Montgomery’s stories were originally marketed as successful children’s books (though plenty of adults still admire and read them to this day), Flora Thompson’s series however was probably more of a slow grower in terms of popularity and importance, and definitely not a children’s book.
Together the three parts of the book-Lark Rise, Over To Candleford, and Candleford Green describe life at the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth in a rural corner of England. Lark Rise being a small hamlet where the protagonist Laura Timmins and her family grew up. Candleford being the slightly larger village, and Candleford Green the market town. The names are fictionalized, but very much based on real places. Using the character of Laura, Thompson was able to weave much of her life growing up, from school and seasonal rituals, to her work as a postmistress in the area. The wonderful thing about this book is though the distance between the three places was not so great, Flora Thompson manages to convey instead a vast landscape, filled with flowers, trees and wildlife.
She also told the story of the people that lived in that area. From her own hardworking parents and her favorite brother Edmund to memorable characters such as Queenie, Twister, Cousin Dorcas and Zillah, Thompson imbued them all with the spirit of the era. What makes the books still so special today is that they are a living, breathing history of the time period. Flora Thompson wrote them later in life while thinking back on those years. Not purely for nostalgia, but also I think a fair bit of pride for how she and the other inhabitants of the area lived. When she described how a trip to the neighboring village required ‘more than turning over the leaves of a bus time-table’ I do not think of it as being a complaint in the difficulty of planning the excursion. Instead it was just how it was. Nothing more.
I think I have said on these pages before that there is the history that you read about in books, and the history of any given person during the same time. What the history books miss in the telling of general trends are the day to day lives of people. People scratching out a living however they could. As Thompson wrote- ‘Lark Rise must not be thought of as a slum set down in the country. The inhabitants lived an open-air life; the cottages were kept clean by much scrubbing with soap and water, and doors and windows stood wide open when the weather permitted.’ They sang songs throughout the year, went to church on Sunday, gossiped about one another, and talked politics at the pub. The charm of the book is in giving life to normal tasks such as the way the houses were decorated, the gardens and animals most households kept, or the archaic rules of children’s games. In Thompson’s world, these were the historical events, not what was going on in the world around them necessarily.
I could go on quoting many more passages from the book, but I will leave it to you to read for yourselves some day to discover its charms. Revisiting its pages over the last few days reminded me that as a photographer when I am looking for interesting things to take photos of, I sometimes stumble upon an artifact from the past. An old barn on a country road or a vintage sign for example. Rather than viewing it as a museum piece or antique, I often think about what that artifact has been witness to. Take the photo I am using in this post. I took it on the little farm my mother grew up on in Ireland. It is one half of a mowing machine and would have been pulled by a horse. It sits in the field, rusted but built so well one could almost imagine it working again.
Perhaps because it is not in a museum or in an antique shop, but was actually used by my grandfather, I felt more of a connection to it. Like the world Flora Thompson recounts in Lark Rise To Candleford, the machine feels relevant still because it represents part of a life that is gone, replaced instead by modern machinery. I think a large part of why Lark Rise is considered such a gem is that it did not lament the inevitable change. Thompson herself once remarked of desiring ‘a combination of old romance and modern machinery’. Lately with the world moving faster than ever, when I read the words of writers like Flora Thompson, or when I take a photograph of something I know to be very old, it is my way of linking to the past. Similarly, the world of traditional music has a hand in preserving the same life that Thompson recounted. Bands like The Albion Band did that quite well in fact.
When bass player Ashley Hutchings left Fairport Convention in 1969, he eventually formed the group Steeleye Span, and later The Albion Band. The Albions…as fans generally refer to them as owing to a bit of an open door musical policy were a true extension of Hutchings desire to explore the English folk traditions in full. Not just the traditional ballads, but also the various dance traditions encountered throughout the land. He has explored the work of folk song collector Cecil Sharp, he has performed both with very large groups of musicians and smaller acoustic based ones. He has done obscure concept albums, and more commercial sounding folk-rock.
In 1978, Hutchings and The Albion Band were asked to take part in a stage version of Lark Rise To Candleford. It was a theater in the round type of performance-actors became musicians and vice versa. Later, a studio album comprising some key moments was produced, which is where the music in this post comes from, two traditional songs very much in keeping with the themes of the book. This album was my introduction to Flora Thompson’s world. The play was perhaps the first real push to present her work as being special. Just a few years ago, a very popular BBC television series went on air, and Thompson’s work is now seemingly on par with those of her two contemporaries.
Inevitably, whenever I play The Albion Band’s album, I find myself pulling out my battered copy of Flora Thompson’s book. Something about the leisurely approach to her story, lends itself to opening up random passages to read at will. I began writing this post as a way of introducing people to the book, but now in conclusion I feel something else happened along the way, and it has to do with that same leisurely approach. I do sometimes fear that the times we are in now really do move too fast. Not only is the technology changing, but we are too. Flora Thompson’s own life was not completely idyllic and was certainly not without hardship. But later in life, she wanted to recount those times, the good and the bad. When musicians like The Albion Band perform old traditional songs they do so to present something similar. When I take a photo of something like an old piece of farm equipment I am doing the same thing. Three mediums keeping the past alive in the present. My fear is that in the fast paced world of today will we collectively recount our pasts the way Thompson did? Let me know in the comments below what your thoughts are!
Lemady/Arise & Pick A Posy-Traditional, Arranged By The Albion Band
I pressed play on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Close To You By Fairport Convention.
Like a lot of other people I suspect, I have always had a fascination with lighthouses. Tall ones, short ones, striped ones, whatever they look like it does not matter to me. It is the idea of lighthouses that has always appealed to me. Without sounding too nostalgic, they represent an older form of technology that is still relevant today, even in this high-tech era. Satellites and computers can fail, but the simple light reflected onto a Fresnel lens can be seen for miles at sea and remains the best way for a ship to know land is near. Like others, I have climbed to the top of many a lighthouse in my day, and taken many a photograph of them. It is hard to understand precisely why they have such a fascination. Could it be because they stand like sentinels in the harshest weather year in and year out? Could it be for the allure or romance of them in hundreds of books-the lonely lighthouse keeper, maintaining the beacon at all costs? Could it be because of some of the improbable feats of engineering used to build them in some of the most difficult and challenging terrain around the world? The answer for me would certainly be all of the above but there is one other reason that springs to mind in hearing this song by Fairport Convention.
The strength and resiliency of a lighthouse has also long been used as a sign of a relationship-be it a personal, or even a spiritual one. The same strong foundation, and shining light are often used as metaphors, as in this song. I have written about Fairport Convention before here, so I’ll let you backtrack about the band itself. The song was written by Chris Leslie, the multi-instrumentalist for the group. It is full of some beautiful imagery centered around a lighthouse theme and a lighthouse keeper yearning for his loved one (as Chris explains in the liner notes). The parallel between a relationship and the physical strength of a lighthouse as in this line-‘I turn my way, to the top of this sultry fortress, To light the way so others won’t come aground.’ Or this one- ‘And you know your smile is in this light, That I will send into the night’. I love a song that switches back and forth between the reality-a storm tossed ocean, ships sailing and seabirds flying set against the dreamy thoughts one has when you are away from your loved one and just want them near you. It is a beautiful song, and one that has been a favorite for me since it first appeared on The Wood & The Wire album some years back. My favorite band, and the subject matter of a lighthouse made it a perfect fit I suppose!
On a side note, I should mention two wonderful books about lighthouses I have read. One is called Guardians Of The Light-Stories of U.S. Light Keepers by Elinor DeWire. The second is The Lighthouse Stevensons By Bella Bathurst, which is about the building of Scottish lighthouses by the family of Robert Louis Stevenson. Both highly recommended.
As a teenager growing up in the 1980’s I had a lot of the usual influences-MTV for music, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars for movies, and TV shows like Hill Street Blues. In addition, appearing in newspapers (remember them?) starting in about 1980 was a comic strip called Bloom County written by Berkely Breathed that loomed large in my life at the time. The lovable but honest characters of a Mid-West town included the precocious Milo Bloom, his wishy-washy sidekick Michael Binkley, the loathsome Steve Dallas, the fun loving wheelchair bound Vietnam veteran Cutter John, but especially the naive, yet honest penguin Opus. I loved the strip for its often timely stories that were presented in a funny way. It poked fun at the major news-makers of the day, but was never truly vicious. Occasionally though, as an extension of Breathed’s pen, the characters captured the mood perfectly.
To anyone who especially read the early days of the strip ‘the meadow’ was a central location to the storyline. Quite often the characters would sit in the meadow, ruminating on various topics, or reciting silly poetry. There was always a punch line. But in one particular postthat has stuck with me long after my once prized editions of Bloom County books became relegated to the bottom of my bookshelf and scarcely looked at, the meadow served as a perfect analysis for something not so silly. It became a place of shutting off the interference and noise of society. Of bad news and violence. Of shouting and screaming. It became an all too brief moment of respite. The other day while walking the grounds of the Storm King Art Center, I came across a scene that reminded me once again of that strip, and just like the fictional characters in that Bloom County cartoon, I wanted to take a ‘Mass Dandelion Break’ too.
Hello and welcome to a new section of my blog! For those of you who have been reading my posts for awhile this is going to be a new topic, with the eventual aim of it becoming a book somewhere down the line. For those of you who may have landed here from a search or from another site, welcome to my music and photography blog! I hope you will have a look around at some of my other posts.
I’m not quite sure who it was in Celtic music circles who first stumbled on the joys of Scandinavian folk music several years ago. Being an aficionado of that music I soon noticed that alongside the more typical sets of jigs and reels soon came lots of polskas and waltzes originating from Scandinavia. And why not? The traditional music originating from the Scandinavian countries is similar in structure and tone to Celtic music. Eventually this led me to exploring the music from those countries specifically. Though there are some wonderful vocal groups and singers like Garmarna and Mari Boine, I became especially interested in the more instrumental heavy bands like Vasen, Harv, and Frigg. The tunes are by equal measure jaunty and atmospheric and the feel of that more isolated northern landscape comes across in them. I have not been to any of those countries yet myself, but one of the things I love about music is that it can capture the landscape and ‘feel’ of a place, even if you have never been there.
Gradually, as I started listening to more of the music, I felt there was something else familiar to me on some of the instrumental tunes. For some reason I could never quite place my finger on, certain tunes felt like something akin to American western music. As in lonesome prairies, and cowboys kind of western music. The kind of music that eventually became known as Country & Western or Western Swing, before the ‘western’ got dropped both in style and name eventually. Continue reading “The Scandinavian Cowboy”→
“I can’t help feeling it will always be, the story of the life inside of me”
Ever have one of those moments when you hear a new song and know instantly that it will forever have a special meaning for you? When the lyrics and the music conspire to trap you in some sort of emotional cage. But rather than feeling confined in that trap you welcome being there. It may pull at the proverbial heart strings, and cause a chill through your body and a tear to the eye. But you want those things. You need them to fill some emotional void. Maybe that song comes along exactly at a time you are feeling especially vulnerable and you latch on to it like a literal life preserver, clinging to it to help you through those times. Well all of those things happened to me the other day. And now just 3 days after hearing it, that song has become like a new best friend. Continue reading “The Story”→
I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Waterboy by Rhiannon Giddens.
A few weeks ago, my friend Adam and I went to a Folk Music In New York City exhibit at the Museum Of The City Of New York. It was actually the very last day of the exhibit but I am sure glad Adam persuaded me to go to see it. There was lots of great memorabilia from both the pre-WW II folk scene of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, through to the folk revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that introduced people like Bob Dylan and Odetta to the scene. I think I may have first encountered her name in my early days of music exploration in college, when she was mentioned in one of Maya Angelou’s books. At the museum exhibit her name cropped up repeatedly. In the full size glass cases there was memorabilia from people one might expect like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Leadbelly. But for some reason the case I stopped in front of and really took in was the one devoted to Odetta. There was just something about that fantastic outfit, and the beautiful wood paneled guitar together with that intense face of concentration in the photo that compelled me.
Even without knowing much from her catalog I have to admit, she had one of those voices that just stops you dead in your tracks when you hear it. Bob Dylan himself said that hearing her sing was the pivotal point in making him trade in his electric guitar for an acoustic. Others like Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte spoke highly of her as well. Martin Luther King Jr called her the “Queen of American Folk Music.” Odetta was also an actress and a key figure in the civil rights movement of the 60’s. So as I stood there in front of that museum case I thought for a few moments about what singers today carry on that sort of legacy. I am really happy this song came up on my Ipod shuffle because it reminded that the torch has indeed been passed on to singers like the wonderful Rhiannon Giddens. Continue reading “Photo Shuffle-Waterboy”→
I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…When One Door Opens (Another One Opens Wide) by Carrie Newcomer
For some peculiar reason, I love taking photographs of doors. I am not exactly sure why though. Sometimes it might be because I admire the architecture of a building or a house and the doorway inevitably finds its way into the shot. Other times it might be a color contrast. A bright red or green door contrasted against a neutral color house just screams to have its photo taken. It may also be that I love the rustic look of the door, quite often because it is in disrepair, such as in the photo above. Whatever type it is, there is something very ordered and symmetrical about a door. Photographers spend a lot of time trying to ‘frame’ their shots in a way that draws attention to the core element of the shot. So for me, when I find a door that I find interesting enough to take a photo of, it is always the ‘star’ of the shot.
But as it turns out, I am certainly not alone. Entire photography books and posters have been published about them, usually along the lines of “Doors Of London” or other cities around the world. It also is not surprising that writers and musicians have utilized them in their own works. There is good symbolism contained within the simple act of opening and closing a door so maybe it is not so peculiar that I take photos of them myself after all. One such artist that wrote a song utilizing the theme of a door is singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. If you have never heard the name before, Carrie has been writing and performing wonderfully crafted songs for close to thirty years now. So long in fact that I can’t recall exactly where I heard her music for the first time, but I knew that though lots of people can say they write songs, Carrie really writes songs. I have been a fan since. In addition to the music, Carrie has also written a book and has been a cultural ambassador, in addition to other humanitarian causes.
Before it came up on my Ipod shuffle today, it had been awhile since I played this song. I was reminded just how gifted a songwriter Carrie is. Those opening gospel flavored chords give way to a song teeming with thoughts built around the idea of opening and closing doors. My favorite are these lines-
There are windows and doors, you’re not finished with yet It’s not always getting what you want, but wanting what you get
Symbolism can be great, but there are times when speaking directly is the best approach. I think that is what I admire about this song especially. Of hopes and desires you may not even realize you have. Of looking for more. Of realizing that in those moments after the door has been slammed in your face that there is always another door starting to open. You just need to keep looking.
When One Door Opens (Another One Opens Wide)-Written By Carrie Newcomer
I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…Coffee And Roses By Thea Gilmore
Since I started this occasional Photo Shuffle series last month I realized that one of the best things about it was that I could feature more artists here. Often times in my regular blogs I am searching for a substantial theme, with lyrics that really match the photo, and a photo that really matches the lyrics. Though that is still the goal here, the brevity of these Photo Shuffle posts allows me to operate on a simpler level and make quicker decisions based on a lyric or even a song title. Therefore I was especially glad to see this song and artist come up when I hit the play button this morning for I have long wanted to feature the songs of Thea Gilmore on this blog but I could never figure out how to do it.
There are few better songwriters out there these days than Thea Gilmore, whom I first heard some 14 years or so (has it really been that long?). Right away I was impressed with her writing and over all these years the admiration has never waned. It is impossible in such a short space as this to dissect her lyrics which is the reason I have found it so hard to do a blog devoted to her up to now. Her words are by equal terms forthright, heartbreaking and vitriolic and full of startling observations. One of those songwriters whose seemingly simple reworking of a phrase hits you hard. In her canon of songs this happens quite often, from Juliet (Keep That In Mind) comes “Well I know you want to make the news but lately all you do is memorize the headlines.” From The Things We Never Said, “I’m pretty good at curtain calls, in fact I’ve been practicing my swan song”and from the song featured here Coffee And Roses, “I’m the architect of sorrow, the girl in in minor key disguise. Lyrical observations like this are why fans of her music include people like Joan Baez, Neil Gaiman, Mike Scott and Bruce Springsteen and why humble bloggers like myself look back in awe at what she does. How does she do it? I would need another separate blog devoted solely to her words to be even close to explaining it all.
Which leads me to the photo I have selected for this song, built simply around one word in the title-coffee. I don’t know what importance that magical elixir coffee might have on how Thea comes up with such wonderful lyrics, but I can attest to what it does for bloggers such as myself. The one thing you will find from looking around other blogs as much as I do is that love of coffee seems to be the one commonality shared between all of us who write them. In the ‘About’ pages for most of the bloggers I follow you will usually find some sort of devotion to this wonderful beverage and I add my name to the list for assisting me in getting these blogs to you. So go on, pour yourself a cup and listen to some Thea Gilmore. I promise both Thea’s music and the coffee will be satisfying!
I pressed ‘Play’ on my Ipod and this is what I heard…”When I Paint My Masterpiece” By The Band.
Today’s shuffle choice may have been the easiest one to pair with one of my photographs. Not because I consider this photo to be anything resembling a ‘masterpiece’ by any means. But after taking the photo several years ago while on vacation in Cape Cod, I realized it had an odd and unintentional similarity in some ways to something I do consider to be a masterpiece-Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World. You can view the painting here. Wyeth painted it in 1948 in Maine and it was exhibited for a short time before being purchased by the Museum Of Modern Art in New York. The painting is immediately striking to the eye. Big swaths of greenish-brown grass in a treeless landscape and the figure of the inspiration for the painting, Christina Olson lying on the ground stricken with polio. It says so much but shows so little in the stark landscape.
Volumes of books and blogs have been written about the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Though some day I may do one of my longer pieces about one of his songs, this Photo Shuffle series is meant to go easy on the analysis. Suffice it to say there is a lot going on in the song lyrically and though most Dylan fans would not proclaim it to be his masterpiece as a song, it has always intrigued me. It is interesting to note that The Band recorded this song even before Dylan did, and their breezy, accordion and mandolin driven take and those raspy Levon Helm vocals is thought of more highly of than Dylan’s own version by most. The one thing the song does for me when I hear it is makes me revisit in my mind the trips I have taken to art museums since I was in my teens. Early on I did not know what made a work of art a masterpiece but as I continued to explore I began to realize why certain works were more regarded than others. Personal preferences still mean a lot when it comes to art and music, but sometimes you really have to recognize why paintings like Wyeth’s really stand out over other works.
In terms of my own photography, I may never truly be satisfied enough to proclaim my ‘masterpiece.’ I tend to be my own harshest critic and find minor flaws with almost every photo I take. But it doesn’t keep me from continuing to try every time I press click! What is your own definition of masterpiece? What are your favorites?