Tuesday, 2 December 2014

a new old desire

There's never any highway when you're looking for the past
The land becomes a memory and it happens way too fast
The money's all in Nashville but the light's inside my head
So I'm goin' down to Florence just to learn to love that thread

author as ghost 
Just before we left Philadelphia in the Summer, I rushed up to Barnes and Noble to get the latest issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine knowing that we're a month behind in the UK. On the flight home I read the interview with John Doe who, I must admit, is a songwriter that hasn't particularly bothered me over the years. However, the "former punk" writer who turned 60 this year said this:

. . . I don't want to be unhappy. At the end of the last record (sic) I felt, this is a bummer. I don't want to be a sad sack. So things turned around and I had to think how to write songs that were relevant to what's going on now.

This started me thinking and has finally led me to the here and now. What do older songwriters actually write about? Where's the relevance? What keeps them writing? What have they got to say?

We now have a generation of writers and performers who are documenting their progression into both the Autumns and Winters of their lives. Songwriters in the past were, of course, younger and writing about things that younger people want to hear about. Usually love - or to be more precise, unrequited love. Occasionally a Thompson or Randy Newman would write a story-song. How about this:

As I was walking homeward in the early morning light
Leaving far behind the prison where I'd spent the night
With no idea of what I'd done or why they'd punished me
But feeling nonetheless relieved and grateful to be free

Story songs did become popular for a while and for many of us, still are. RT has made them a major part of his modern songwriting - try 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, Beeswing and Johnny's Far Away as examples. 

More recently, Rodney Crowell seems to have been writing his autobiography in song with candid honesty about his youth, John Hiatt has taken the themes of getting older and finding romance again after the kids have moved out whilst others chart the ways of the World. I have yet to listen to Jackson Browne's latest who certainly falls into that category. Neil Young continues to grow old disgracefully and, to be honest, it's a long time since I cared about what Bob Dylan writes about. As for Robert Plant, the mushrooms seem to have kicked in. One writer who has made one of the strongest albums of the year is Roseanne Cash. That's The Man in Black's daughter, of course. The River and The Thread is a concept album (in this day and age?) about the South. That's the Southern States of the USA, not Bournemouth or Southampton. 

Cash and her husband John Leventhal have created a beautiful soundscape for this album - it's all Fogerty-like twangy guitars and moody. There's even an electric sitar (cf Steely Dan's Do It Again for reference). The songs range over swampy blues, Stax soul, mountain ballads with some gorgeous melodies. But what are the songs about?

The songs seem to roam over a mythical Southern landscape featuring ghosts from the past and present imagery whilst bringing in her own childhood - and her father's poor upbringing - in to the picture. She and Leventhal speak about the album in painterly terms. On Modern Blue she talks about travelling around the World but always heading home and elsewhere the word "blue" turns up several times and certainly there are shades of blue in the music. Overall, this is like a gothic blues album, if there is such a thing. It's about a land where the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Bobbie Gentry walk off into the sunset to that haunting electric sitar.

So, it appears that as songwriters age they start to find meanings away from their earlier spheres of operation. Back in 1999 at the grand old age of fifty Richard Thompson's album Mock Tudor seemed to be a concept album haunted by the past only with London as it's mythical landscape. I'm not sure if Mick Jagger or Pete Townshend are still actively writing. I have a feeling that if they are, I won't be very interested.

This blog post looks mostly at American songwriters. Part two will concentrate on a particularly British take of what old writers might write about.


Zouk Delors said...

"As I was walking homeward" etc

The Curse of Anna's Stare, Jonathan Kelly, from Twice around the houses.

Having seen him live, I can confirm that Kelly suffered from crippling shyness, which meant he was unable to sustain a career as a performing singer-songwriter.

"Nobody makes it through this wood
Coming out as they went in"

Dave Leeke said...

Hi Zouk,

Indeed it was Mr Kelly. Rob used to sing that and "Madelaine". I saw him a few times too.

Evidently he had a long battle with drugs but the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated as he seems to have released a new album in 2013.