I've had a great run of library books recently - Home Fire, Manhattan Beach - but this is one of the best, and it was a total surprise. I went down to pick up another book I'd ordered, and there on the shelves was Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run. chunky hardback weighing in at over 500 pages, but it's free so I give it a go. It's really good. Well-written, thoughtful and honest, he's worked really hard at trying to understand where he's got to and how he's changed. He seems very clear about his own shortcomings, and the effects they have on those around him, and he's great an conveying the excitement of playing in a band which seriously works to ensure that its fans have a good time. It's safe to say that I'll never go to a Springsteen concert now, but I'm clearer than I was that I've missed out, that there really is something special going on.
A glorious Tom Waits tribute on BBC4, featuring some fabulous clips, and knowledgeable comments from people who've played with him, as well as devoted fans who've spent a lot of time listening to him - Guy Garvey, Ian Rankin. I have one CD (though that may well change in the next few days) which I love taking on long car journeys, but there was a ton of stuff about his development and endless variety of styles which was new to me. But the icing on the cake, necessarily, was the man himself, who's a stunning incarnation of creative independence. Who else would look at an awards ceremony honouring his contribution to music, and pronounce: "I don't have any hits, and I'm difficult to work with - but they say that as though it's a bad thing." Maybe I am getting old, but I'm telling you, they don't make them like that any more.
Yes, it does. I was looking desperately, anywhere, for something to help me cope with Brexit, and an old remedy - from my busiest teaching days - came to mind. Buy some new music. Yes, I know. We fogies should be watching the pennies, not splashing out, but this was a serious crisis. and, I have to say, it's really helped. Every time i go back to think seriously about Brexit I'm still depressed and angry, but I do that less often than I did, partly because I'm getting a buzz - well, different kinds of buzz : gutsy country and western from Margo Price, subtle, witty jazz singing from Claire Martin, and a gorgeous set of standards from Brad Mehldau's twinkling piano. i'm lucky to be able to afford it, but the world's a cheerier place.
Way back in March, I went to hear Peggy Seeger at the Flatpack Festival, talking about the radio ballads. She was wonderful, and emphatic (Peggy is very formidable when she's emphatic) that the way to listen to them was in order. Being a retired person with leisure I went home, ordered the full set, read the book about making them, and then listened to all eight CDs, in order.
She's right. It's a fascinating development, watching these three very different people (Charles Parker, Ewan Maccoll and Seeger herself) develop as individuals and as a team, finding out how they can combine actuality (tape recorded interviews with people, not actors speaking their lines - revolutionary at the time) with folksong and music ( a wide range of instruments, more jazz then folk). Sometimes, as with the ones on teenagers and polio, the actuality is brilliant and the songs don't add much; sometimes - herrign fishing,or travellers - the subject matter produces brilliant songs that sound as if they've been around for ever.
And one of the great themes through the development is Seeger herself, starting as the girl who does the orchestration, but ten getting involved in the interviewing, and the actual scripting of the programmes. I'm so glad I did this. Strongly recommended.
For over six months now, I’ve been working with a couple of friends on an election show – two poets and a singer-songwriter, putting together 45 minutes of entertainment about the past, present and possible future of our democracy. Between us, we cover a variety of moods – satirical, whimsical, reflective and sombre. We look at the history of voting, take in Emmeline Pankhurst, Clem Attlee and Tony Blair, as well as Russell Brand and Al Murray. And yes, there’s stuff on Cameron and Miliband, on the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens. a lot of it’s light, but it’s not cheap or stupid, and we’ve worked really hard to put it together. We have scripted links and intros, no faffing around wondering what comes next, or that’s the right way to introduce this song…and as we do it, the hours of discussion and rehearsal are definitely worth it, and the packed audience at Eat Up seem to enjoy what they’ve heard. What’s that? Oh yes, you can still catch this show, but not for long. April 17 at Priory Hall Much Wenlock, and May 1 at Victoria Hall, Broseley. 7.30 for both, admission £2.00 – including refreshments.
So it’s back again to Birmingham, for our second visit to the amazing Flatpack Festival (yeah, OK, so my son runs it. But it is terrific). We get a golden ninety minutes of chat, featuring Peggy Seeger talking to Peter Cox (who’s written a book about the Radio Ballads). On her own admission, she’s a fluent talker – “I’m not getting off the subject. I’m just embroidering the edges.” She’s also knowledgeable, witty, warm and totally honest. No pretension or vanity, but a ton of lively detail about her own upbringing, her relationship with MacColl, and the process of making the programmes. Cox also had some terrific photos, and brief clips from the ballads, culminating in a duet between Seeger and MacColl which I’ve never heard before but have to own, even if it means buying the whole set. A great afternoon. Yet again, thank you, Flatpack.
It’s not a crime. I have this thing about female singers with a tang of country about them, and although I’ve recently acquired terrific CDs of Bobbie Gentry and Iris de Ment, I’m always happy to look for more. These days, it’s so easy. From reviews I’d gathered a list of eight possibles, and then I can trawl through Youtube and various websites, getting a taste of what they have to offer. Limiting myself to one purchase (such restraint) I’ve narrowed down to Patty Griffin’s American Kid – tough, tuneful and still great even after I’ve played it to death.
It would be hopelessly naive to suggest that singers work better for a taste of pain. And yet…K.T. Tunstall, having had her marriage break up and her father die, has produced an album way ahead of anything she’s done before. And the Civil Wars, having done one very good album, have now produced a second (and presumably last) which features beautiful harmonies, despite the fact that the two performers were barely speaking. The lyrics are almost too tough to take (shades of Rumours, or Shoot Out the Lights) but there’s a horrible, irresistible thrill about the power of what’s going on.
On Sunday, I half-notice an advert for Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, performing at Symphony Hall in May. By Wednesday I’ve got my act together, cut out the ad, and tried to get tickets. Far, far too late. All the real Emmylou fans dropped everything on Sunday to make sure they were there, so it’s only fair that they get to see her and I don’t. I shall take the lazy fogey route, buy the album and enjoy them both at home. Nobody else in my family agrees, but for me there’s not much that beats a quality country and western duet (Jones and Wynette, Parsons and Harris, Earle and de Ment…I could go on.)
Spookey, or what? Maybe it was the Guardian article about Delta Sweet, but I decided that I just had to have Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe in my collection, rather than just in my head. So I lazily order a greatest hits, and am pleasant suprised by the quality of the duets with Glen Campbell, as well as high class covers like Son of a Preacher Man.
Two days later, I meet up with my son on Birmingham, who presents me with her second album, Delta Sweet recently reissued. I was a whisker away from buying it for myself, we haven’t discussed any of this, but here it is. And gorgeous. Amazing that this could come out, and drop into oblivion for over thirty years. We are so lucky.