Thursday, 9 April 2015

the banks of sweet primroses

As I walked out on a midsummer's morning,
For to view the fields and to take the air,
Down by the banks of the sweet primroses,
There I beheld a most lovely fair.

Three short steps, I stepped up to her,
Not knowing her as she passed me by,
I stepped up to her, thinking for to view her,
She appeared to be like some virtuous bride.

I says, "Fair maid, where are you going?
And what's the occasion of all your grief?
I’ll make you as happy as any lady,
If you will grant to me one small relief."

"Stand off, stand off, you're a false deceiver!
You are a false deceitful man, I know
'Tis you that has caused my poor heart to wander
And in your comfort lies no refrain."

So I'll go down to some lonesome valley,
Where no man on earth shall there me find,
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices,
And every moment blows blusterous wind.

So come all young men who go a-sailing,
Pray pay attention to what I say,
For there's many a dark and a cloudy morning,
Turns out to be a sunshiny day.
                                          (From the English Book of Penguin Folk Songs)

I think Richard Thompson added the second and last verses for the Fairport Convention live recording from 1970. The Penguin book loses a definite article, hence the title of the blog post.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

it's alright ma, it's only witchcraft

"What if it should really bleed? And what if the witch came out of it and ran after us?"

The young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree which local superstition has it that if cut, the tree would bleed real blood. They had taken a knife along to test it. Afterwards, Laura asks her mother if there are still any witches:

"No. They seem to have all died out. There haven't been any in my time; but when I was your age there were plenty of old people alive who had known or even been ill-advised by one. And, of course," she added as an afterthought, "we know there were witches. We read about them in the Bible." That settled it. Anything the Bible said must be true. (Lark Rise to Candleford, 1939, p267 Penguin edition)

During the original run of the Keith Dewhurst's version of Lark Rise to Candleford at the National Theatre, the young Laura and her brother Edmund look up at the Elder tree with the Albion Band playing this. It was an electrifying moment in what was a fantastic production. I can still remember that moment some 36 years later.

The young Flora Thompson was writing as the World was plunged into another devastating war and she looked back to the changes of modernisation on rural communities. Laura, as Flora called herself, and her brother were fascinated with witches. And in those prelapsarian times they could easily believe that an ugly old woman being chased by men and boys with pitchforks could change herself into a tree. Evidently witches can't cross running water, so as she came to the brook she turned herself into an Elder tree to avoid her pursuers. And, like children have for centuries, Laura and Edmund lived in fear of them.

Quite possibly we have Shakespeare to thank for creating a vivid image in words of witches. Laura's mother thought witches had died out but they hadn't. They never disappeared. Perhaps after centuries of persecution they hid like unicorns and other fantastical creatures - away from mankind's malevolent gaze and need to destroy anything they don't understand.

Driving back from Heathrow on Monday my thoughts had turned to witches for some reason. It was probably because that ridiculous song The Witch by The Rattles came on but somewhere in the back of my head a thought grew about the amount of songs that were written about witches particularly in the late 1960s/early 1970s. And then last night, I came across Richard Thompson's version of Donovan's Season of the Witch purely through synchronicity, or perhaps by magic. Who knows? Evidently RT's version is played over the opening credits of a TV programme I've never heard of called Crossing Jordan. Anyway he adds his own magic to it and it could just as easily be one of his own songs from his most recent albums. Donovan released his version way back in 1966 and it has had many cover versions. Since then witches have become popular characters to write songs about.

You can probably Google lists of songs about witches because some people have nothing better to do than make lists. However, I'll mention a few notable ones. Donovan was a bit of an old fart by the time I was getting into music at the cusp of the sixties turning into the seventies. After all the fey wispy away-with-the-fairies stuff, someone decided to beef up his sound. By putting him in a studio with the Jeff Beck group, Donovan had a major hit with the barking mad gobbledygook of  Goo Goo Barabajagal and a great appearance on Top of the Pops. It was, I think, the first single I bought on my own. It was 1969 and I bought it from W.H. Smiths in Stevenage Town Centre - I can remember the lovely Caroline Scott serving me to this very day. Another case of unrequited love -  we spoke often but all she used to say was, "That'll be eight shillings, please," and usually, "ta" after fumbling over the change. She was quite a beguiling witch, I can assure you. Still, standing there as a gawky 13 year old trying to say, "have you got Goo Goo Barabajagal?" probably wasn't the most romantic chat up line I could have mustered. And she was a lot older than me.

The song itself was very silly but gave a beefier sound to the subject of witches than Mr Leitch himself or that other little elf that warbled on about witches and wizards, Marc Bolan. They were complete twaddle of course but Bolan picked up a white Fender Stratocaster and spent an eternity fighting the neck and the electrickery itself running through Tyrannosaurus Rex's Elemental Child. He then realised a name change by shortening it to T. Rex and only spending 2 minutes on Ride a White Swan could change his life forever. Meantime, Jethro Tull had turned up on TOTP looking totally freaky with The Witch's Promise which was another single I had to rush out to buy. I think the fragrant Miss Scott had moved on to better things by then. Jethro Tull had started mixing a more acoustic sound into their music with the flute and mellotron that were the early sound of Prog. The wildness of the amped up distorted guitars of Jeff Beck and the late 1960s blues rock players was being given a pastoral makeover.

The early 1970s saw a rise in songs about witches in the American Indian band Redbone's Witch Queen of New Orleans, Santana updated Peter Green's Black Magic Woman and the Eagles told us about a Witchy Woman. Meantime, electric folk rockers such as Fairport and Steeleye Span were adding electric riffs in a more aggressive manner to old songs of magick like Tam Lin and Alison Gross (the ugliest witch in the North country, evidently). Another barking mad songwriter, Stevie Nicks, became her alter ego in Rhiannon in 1975. Probably Fleetwood Mac's best performance post-Peter Green. Of course, his swansong The Green Manalishi had been a sizeable hit too. Another spooky mystical song that nobody knew what the hell he talking about.

There seemed to be so many songs through these times about witches, wizards and magic that there must have been more than just fluoride in the water. Bands like the awful Uriah Heep (a Stevenage connection there) and Black Widow released albums exploring such subject matter. Black Widow, as I've mentioned before, featured a mock Sabbath sacrifice on-stage. I know that as young teenagers we were interested in all this stuff. Dennis Wheatley books such as The Devil Rides Out - we were too young to see the film - the weekly magazine collection Man, Myth and Magic told us about a whole netherworld of arcane happenings. Catweazle was on Saturdat evening tv and The News of the World informed us about the daily goings on of Vicars getting mixed up in covens . . . er, I think I might have made that bit up. Somehow, though, witches themselves seem to be wonderful muses for songwriters.

Witches are part of a huge literary culture and over the second half of the last century, due to films, they played a huge role in populating our dreams and nightmares. The warty-nosed witch offering an apple to Snow White in Disney's best movie probably still plays on young children's minds and haunts them. Mind you, not as much as those bloody scary trees!

If I have any theory as to why witches inhabit so many songs - and I've only touched on a tiny amount - it is possibly linked to those childish fears. The music of the era I've been talking about was mostly produced by fairly young people. The managers and money-spinners were older and jaded and couldn't care less what the songs were about. The kids buying records like me had grown up reading about this whole otherworld where we knew wolves could become men and trees could bleed if cut. We wanted to be transported to such far off times and lands full of Rackhamesque trees and black cats. Ultimately, they were just more intriguing and exciting and the new music of pop and the Underground bands that grew into Prog just tapped into those childhood memories. Looking around for something more than"I love her but she doesn't love me" ideas for lyrics, songwriters turned to the stories of their childhood.

There are witches out there in the real World but they aren't warty-nosed and flying about on broomsticks. They are everyday people like the rest of us who have a different belief system. They have their ceremonies sky-clad and cast spells. It's only, as Laura's mother said, because the Bible says they exist that Christians assumed they were evil. In Witchfinder General, there are no real witches. The evil is there in Hopkins and his desire to make money out of the stupidity of the rural yokels who believe what they're told. As Bill Caddick sang about those other mystical secretive creatures Unicorns:

We never went away,
You always knew we were near,
Remember how to look for us,
You'll see we were always here.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

no news is good news

Bad news, bad news
Come to me where I sleep
Turn, turn, turn again
Sayin’ one of your friends
Is in trouble deep
Turn, turn to the rain
And the wind

It's been an interesting week. Well, for me it has - I've been out of the country and have absolutely no idea what's going on in the World beyond Joni Mitchell being ill. Obviously the most important story of the week got through because some intermittent posts on Twitter filtered through. Otherwise, I didn't see an English newspaper, read a news article or see/hear a tv or radio. Having returned and bought a copy of The Observer I don't think I've missed much really.

Anyway, this excellent turn of events helped make the annual ski trip a lot more than bearable. Absolutely nothing about the Election, boring 'Slebs*, sporting events (other than England/Italy football match in a bar but no tries scored: I think that's right?!) or anything much. Quite blissful really.

Once or twice the wifi internet connection was so poor where we were in Savoie, France, that I almost gave up bothering to check emails and Twitter. A few messages and Tweets took so long to try to send that I gave up as the moment had well passed - by a day on two occasions. This reminded me of how easy it is to become addicted to the little mobile device. I now use mine for so many different things that I was beginning to wonder what I'd do without it. But of course, I would just go back to the natural order of the pre-technological world. The one I grew up in.

As all my fellow travellers were gathering through yesterday waiting for the long coach journey home everywhere you tried to walk in the chalets and bar was a potential trap: the amount of electronic devices being charged up was unbelievable. there were iPads, iPods, phones, laptops and just about any other device you could name. The amount of wires and lights flashing looked like a scene from Terry Gilliam's Brazil. And, as I said, the wifi connection had the same future/retro quality to it as well. Now, it may be because of the weather conditions that we were so badly served, I'm not sure really. As you can see from the photo that there was still plenty of snow around. In fact, it snowed most days and nights so we had fantastic ski conditions generally. This is in complete contrast to last year when we were stomping around in full ski gear in baking hot sun with lizards skittering around. So, no suntans this year and no sitting around drinking Stella Artois in the sunshine.

It's all very well having instant access and emails, messaging and such stuff but it can be a distraction at times. Sitting around in the evenings with the only entertainment available is watching people trying to get their devices to connect to the internet. Watch the frustration. However, of course despite what I've said, it's been an important development too. I've mentioned before that when I was a youngster my parents had no idea where I was or what I was up to. When I first started going abroad as a naïve young man my parents would have to assume everything was okay as there was no instant contact then. I think my first trips out were to France and then in 1978 to Israel. We had just got our first land-line phone. I certainly didn't bother to let them know whether I was all right or not. Given the fact that I was so ill in Israel that they'd had worried like hell and wondered what to do, I'm quite glad even to this day that they didn't know how ill I was.

For us this year, setting off for the trip last Friday was caused some anxiety in that we couldn't be around to ensure that third born got up the following morning to catch a 6:30 train to get to Heathrow and catch his flight out to see his sister in Mexico. We were more concerned about this that my packing for the trip was, shall we say, a little, er . . .lax. I managed to forget to pack several useful items such as ski gloves, hat, scarf and a belt - being skinny I need one to keep my salopettes up. At least I packed my iPod and bluetooth Bose speakers. You know, it's all about priorities.

It all worked out well in the end as one might assume: I found a belt and bought some gloves, our son got to Mexico without a hitch. The reason we know he did is because of the technology - Mrs Dave checked that he was at the airport via the phone and first born used various social networking ways to keep us up-to-date with how their time together went. All through the luxuries that modern technology gives us. 

So, along with waiting for a few friends to Tweet me and for me to a) eventually get the message and b) for a response to gradually seep out, it's been a slow week for news and such-like.In the meantime, it's nice to be home with English beer and decent wifi.

Never thought I'd say that about TalkTalk.

Action Man's younger, skinnier brother

*I believe it means "Celebrities" M'Lud.