Category Archives: folk / folk-rock

Leonard Cohen 1934 – 2016

Canadians have a reputation for being rather quiet, polite and certainly not braggarts. It seems to be an inbred part of our culture. We have produced some of the most talented people involved in the arts but, we seem very surprised that their work becomes known outside of our own country. Luckily, the rest of the world has embraced such Canadian artists as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen.

It seemed quite fitting that within hours of his passing, the word that Leonard Cohen was gone appeared to make the news around the globe. His words and music appeared to resonate well beyond our Canadian borders.

Although he was a successful poet and novelist in his early years, Leonard wished to have a career with which he could actually afford to pay the bills. He was in his thirties by the time he began to set his words to music. Judy Collins and others began to cover his works and Cohen soon followed suit to begin his own recording career.

Both his dark voice and even darker lyrics seemed to make for an unlikely path to success. However, he became an unlikely “star” none the less. His worked garnered both love and respect from other artists and his audience.

As with any artists with such a lengthy career, his also included many ups and downs – musically, personally and financially. Through it all, he kept going and created a body of work which would keep his star shining right up until the end.

Those who thought that his music was a doom and gloom have missed the point on many occasions. There was often a great deal of humour hidden among the black thorns.

When I began playing his album Old Ideas upon its release back in 2012, I was soon laughing out loud. The song Going Home pretty well says it all.

Going Home (Leonard Cohen / Patrick Leonard)

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore

I’m going home
Without the sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

Broadsides at Chetham’s Library, Manchester

Last year, I heard an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4. It was hosted by British folk singer Eliza Carthy who was on the hunt for a new piece of music to record. Her search lead her to Chetham’s Library in the heart of Manchester. In recent years, my interest in British folk music has increased and a visit to the library was added to my to-do list for my recent trip to the UK.

Established in 1653, Chetham’s is the oldest public reference library in the UK. Amidst its vast rows of shelves are the contents of two impressive collections of folk music broadsides from Manchester and surrounding environs. These are the Holt Collection and the Axon Collection which both feature an impressive array of paperwork spanning the nineteenth century.

The Holt Ballad Sheets are affixed to the pages of a huge book. The book contains over 400 broadsides and over 900 individual works.

The Axon Ballad Collection contains 132 sheets and a total of 280 ballads. These are all on separate sheets stored in file folders in another room of the library.

Scholars are welcome to visit the library to view these works but, an appointment needs to be booked a day in advance. During my stay with friends in Sheffield, I called to book a viewing on Wednesday, August 31.

On the day, my friend Simon and I headed over to Manchester to visit the library. We were greeted by Fergus Wilde who has been on staff at the library for the past twenty years. The first location that we visited was the room where the Holt Collection was housed (see photo above). As previously mentioned, these sheets were glued into a large leather-bound volume by their original owner. One can actually see that the sheets cover the original text in the book as it is faintly visible underneath each broadside.

Following this viewing, we headed to another more modern room where the Axon Collection was situated. In this case, each broadside had been affixed to separate white pages in an effort to keep them from suffering damage as they were handled.

The songs contained in these incredible collections reveal a unique insight into the world of nineteenth century life in Manchester and surrounding areas. They reveal tales of daily life, social concerns and humorous insights. It is a fascinating tour into the past as related through the words of the songwriters of the day.

It is a testament to the people who collected these works as well as Chetham’s Library that these documents from the past are made available for us to enjoy and study in the twenty-first century.

If you are interested in seeing some of these pieces of history, please check out the link to the scans of the Axon Ballads Collection listed below.

Here are some links of interest:

BBC Radio 4 – “The Manchester Ballads” 

The Axon Ballads Collection

Chetham’s Library website

 

Sandy Denny: Remembered Again

SandyDenny-book-IveAlwaysKeptaUnicorn

Sandy Denny was one of the richest voices to come out of the British music scene during the 1960s and ’70s. She was a person who was much admired and respected within her area of folk and folk-rock music. Unfortunately, at the time of her death in 1978 at the age of 31, the promise of her hard work seemed to never be fully realized.

Mick Houghton’s new book about the late British singer brings together impressive amounts of information which help to gain an insight into the events which shaped her path through her musical career.

Many surviving members of her inner circle of friends and fellow performers have been interviewed to provide an insight into her rise and fall. These include people like Richard and Linda Thompson, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, John Renbourn and members of Fairport Convention. Archival interviews with many other people including her late parents are also mined for extra depth into her character.

Denny began singing in folk clubs when just barely into her mid-teens. She sang what were called floor spots. These were performances by young hopefuls whereby they could sing and play a few songs without having yet achieved the status of being a credited performer on the main stage. Eventually, she did move onto that stage where she succeeded in attracting the attention of the audience and other folk musicians.

The story traces her first recordings with other musicians such as Alex Campbell and Johnny Silvo to her move to join the Strawbs with Dave Cousins. Of course, the thing that may be of most interest to many people was her joining Fairport Convention as a replacement for singer Judy Dyble.

Her days in and out of Fairport are covered in lengthy detail and bring the experience to vivid life. This includes such events as the horrific van crash which took the life of drummer Martin Lamble and Richard Thompson’s then girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn. Fortunately, Denny was travelling in another van with Trevor Lucas and his bandmates from the group Eclection. However, that did not prevent her from feeling the scars of the tragic event.

Houghton artfully weaves the story dealing with Denny’s involvement with Fairport Convention, her departure to start her group Fotheringay and her time as a solo recording artist.

Her personal life and relationships are also covered in great detail. Both that personal life and her musical life were often victims to her own emotional ups and downs. Bouts of insecurity often seemed to derail her attempts to keep things both musical and personal on a steady track. The addition of heavy drinking and cocaine use also served to keep things off a productive path.

I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn (a line from Denny’s song entitled Solo) is a well documented and well paced book which helps to put Sandy Denny’s life and career into perspective nearly forty years after her death from a fall down the stairs.

This is essential reading for any fan of British folk music from that era.

(I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn by Mick Houghton is published by Faber & Faber, London) 

Essential Sounds – John Martyn

John Martyn (1948 – 2009) was one of the stand-out artists on the British folk / folk-rock scene for many years. Over that time, he produced a number of wonderful albums which varied from straight-ahead folk to folk infused with jazz elements.

He also pioneered the use of the acoustic guitar along with a number of electronic effects like delay and reverb which produced a unique sound.

For many people, Martyn’s 1973 LP entitled Solid Air is regarded as his classic release. The title track was written about his friend Nick Drake and its fluid bass and shimmering keyboards provide a superb backdrop to his acoustic guitar and sultry slurring vocal lines.

Martyn also has occasion to get a bit rocky with I’d Rather Be the Devil. It contrasts with more gentle folky numbers like Over the Hill and May You Never.

This is an album which I consider to be an essential addition to anybody’s record collection. It is currently available on vinyl via the Back to Black series.

Pictured below is a UK pressing of the album dating from around 1976.

JohnMartyn-SolidAir-Island-UK