Solitary bird in flight

There are times, here on Planet Vinyl, when inclusiveness is a challenge. Manuel’s syrupy strings. The testosterone-soaked roar of heavy metal. Not my thing, really – but all music is good music if it brings people joy, whether to millions of people or even only to the musician creating it. But yes, it is nice when the randomiser turns up something I love, and think the world should know about. I can just be the fanboy for a bit.

fiddleLong term readers already know that folk music, especially Irish and Scots folk, was my first love. Although I have broadened my horizons, Celtic folk still has a special place in my heart. One of the artists I most admired in my teens was Scottish fiddler and singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean. It was his songs which first drew me in, but this LP, Fiddle, is almost entirely instrumental. It uses the fiddle to explore an extraordinary range of tempos and emotions. All the compositions are original, though many sit squarely in the folk tradition.

There is one track, The Ferry, on which MacLean sings. It is only for a few lines, towards the end of the piece, which itself is well into the second side.

The boatman is waiting to take me away
And these aching hands have worked me through another day

These quiet lyrics almost shock the listener, coming as they do without warning. It is masterful touch, and such subtlety and restraint are key to MacLean’s art.

But it another track that I want to share, The Osprey. It is the album’s opening track, and it is as beautiful an evocation of a solitary bird in flight as I know.

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The osprey became extinct in Britain in 1916, but has since been reintroduced. The bird’s main stronghold is the Scottish highlands. Image: Earth Times

Dougie is still with us, so if you like what you hear I urge you to visit his website, where this and a dozen other records can be purchased. But first, just listen!

  • Artist: Dougie MacLean
  • Album: Fiddle
  • Track: A1 The Osprey
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dunkeld
  • Made in: Scotland
  • Catalogue: DUN004
  • Year: 1984

Something wonderful grew

Joseph Shabalala had a dream. He was to create a male voice choir which would sing with heavenly harmony and bring change to his land and to the world. All of which, for a black man in Apartheid South Africa in 1964, was preposterous. But Shabalala did form his choir, and though it took a long time, he did help bring change to his country, and to the world.

black miners

Black South African miners, c. 1960. Image: South African History Online

The music of the group later called Ladysmith Black Mambazo had its origins in South Africa’s mines. To support their families, many black men had to spend much of the year far from their homes and families, living in single-sex barracks near the mines. Their wives and children were forced to remain in designated “homelands”. Conditions for the miners were appalling: South Africa’s mines are so deep that they are heated by the Earth’s core – temperatures at the face can exceed 40 degrees. Safety gear scarcely existed.

From this hardship and loneliness and exploitation, something wonderful grew. The men, exhausted and far from home, formed choirs, and developed a style of singing which fused the traditions of miners from different regions, along with western church music.

Joseph Shabalala and his choirs (there were different ensembles and names over time) mastered this music, especially the styles known as mbube and isicathamiya. Mbube is a brasher style—the name means “lion” in the Zulu language—while isicathamiya is gentler, more subtle. Both incorporate a call-and-response pattern, with complex shifts in rhythm and extraordinary many-part harmonies.

Shabalala

Joseph Shabalala in 2010. Image: World Music Central.org

Like most people outside Africa, I first heard Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. The group, already huge in their native land, toured the world and became symbolic of the struggle against Apartheid. White minority rule came to an end, more peacefully than anyone could have dreamed, in 1993

The journey since has been hard. As I write, South Africa is at a crossroads. The African National Congress, the one-time hero of the liberation struggle, is struggling to reform itself. Since the end of Apartheid, the ANC has continually been in power. As happens when any group stays in power for a long time, greed and corruption and mismanagement have crept in. But every revolution passes through growing pains, disappointment and reversal. Better days will come.

In politics, no one ever achieves harmony in the way Ladysmith Black Mambazo does in music. But such beauty, borne of such hardship, remains inspiring, a symbol of the best in humanity. Just listen!

  • Artist: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Album: Homeless (compilation)
  • Track: A5 “Baleka Mfana” (roughly translated, ‘run away, boy!’)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Dino Music
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: DIN 084
  • Year: Unknown (compilation late 1980s)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and more than one thousand others, are for sale via Discogs

Tough love

The Beatles throw a long shadow, such that other parts of the rich musical tradition of Liverpool can get a bit lost. Like many other ports and industrial centres, Liverpool drew waves of migrants in search of work. Each community brought their own music, and the result was a melting pot of influences from all over Britain and Ireland and beyond. This is not to gloss over the poverty, discrimination and sheer hard grind Scousers often faced, but there was creativity, solidarity and humour as well.

spinners guardian

The Spinners. Image: The Guardian

One face of Liverpool as the Singing City was the Spinners, a folk group (not to be confused with the Detroit soul outfit of the same name) which formed in 1958. The Spinners became a fixture on the folk scene, and then took their music to wider audiences. Their repertoire was a mix of their own original material, traditional songs, and the work of other songwriters. This is one, “Liverpool Lullaby”, written by fellow Scouser, Stan Kelly-Bootle. It is a song of tough love, and is funny, dark and tender, all at the same time.

Just listen.

  • Artist: The Spinners
  • Album: The Singing City
  • Track: B1 Liverpool Lullaby
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Philips
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: 6382 002
  • Year: Unknown (early 1970s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

When the boat comes in

If you were around in the 1970s you are likely to remember When the Boat Comes In, a television drama set in a working-class British town in the years after the First World War. It was a drama about disillusion. The men who returned from “the war to end all wars” struggled to deal with their personal trauma, and the poverty and injustice they faced as workers.

wtbci

James Bolam and Susan Jameson in the TV series When The Boat Comes In, 1976. Image: Newcastle Chronicle

The theme to the show, “Dance Ti Thi Daddy”, became an unlikely hit. A traditional song from the Newcastle region, it is a bold and skillfully executed piece of music – a semi-funny, semi-dark traditional song, sung in full Geordie, with an ingenious arrangement, incorporating the sounds of a brass “works band”. It is wonderful.

The singer was a man called Alex Glasgow. I didn’t even know the name, though I remember the song well. A native of Newcastle-on-Tyne, he absorbed the musical heritage of that city: a mix of music-hall comedy, folk traditions, union songs, church music, and pub singalongs. Glasgow was a singer and songwriter of great versatility, and his music drew from all those sources. He was a political man: a working-class warrior. But what is most impressive is the maturity and depth of his songs. He was on the side of the union, but he was awake to the bullshit that unionists and progressives often spin.

“I Shall Cry Again” is a lament, sharp-edged and honest, of a true believer whose beliefs are being tested. Just listen.

  • Artist: Alex Glasgow
  • Album: Now & Then: Tyneside Songs Old & New
  • Tracks: A1 Dance Ti Thi Daddy; B5 I Shall Cry Again
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label:    MWM Records
  • Made in: UK
  • Catalogue: MWM 1011
  • Year: 1976

Marking time

It is marking season at the university where I work. I love my job, but not this bit of it. I once wrote a song about it:

The unmarked essays pile high
I start to scan with dread
The words of those who cannot write
‘Bout books they have not read

To make the task more bearable, I listen to records. An LP by Gordon Lightfoot, the great Canadian singer songwriter, is on the turntable now. GL DQ

Don Quixote was released in 1972, and it is one of those albums they call “solid”. A critic opined: “The album contains little innovation on Lightfoot’s trademark folk sound”. Maybe so, but it is a good collection of songs, well performed and produced, and it is cheering my day. As a caffeine addict, I can particularly relate to this song.

I’m on my second cup of coffee and I still can’t face the day

Yup. Been there. Now, back to the marking.

  • Artist: Gordon Lightfoot
  • LP Title: Don Quixote
  • Side 2, Track 2: “Second Cup of Coffee”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Reprise
  • Catalogue: MS 2056
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Year: 1972

Many of the records featured on Planet Vinyl are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

Sun filtering though curtains

She was a southern belle with big hair and a husky voice, and for a short time she was the biggest thing in country music. Born in Mississippi in 1944 to dirt-poor farmers, Roberta Lee Streeter managed to get to college, where she studied philosophy and music. She was good at both, and adopting the stage name Bobbie Gentry, she had a smash hit in 1967 with the swamp-gothic story song “Ode to Billie Joe”.

Bobbie_Gentry_1970

Bobbie Gentry. Picture: NBC  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Later she went more mainstream, recording covers albums and duets with Glenn Campbell, hosted some fairly bland television shows, then retired from performing. But in between, she recorded an album, The Delta Sweete which was, writes Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian, “her second record and her masterpiece: a multi-faceted quasi-concept album about Gentry’s Mississippi delta roots”.

I discovered this astonishing work via one of the singles released from it. The A-side is a vivacious version of the Doug Kershaw song “Louisiana Man”: Gentry’s take leaps out at the listener, fresh as a kicking catfish. But it is the B-side, “Courtyard” which dazzles, even on the scratchy disc I found. A Scots folk ballad meets Astral Weeks in a graveyard on a sticky summer’s day: understated, lovely, chilling.

Lynskey again:

most of The Delta Sweete‘s innovative, sophisticated sound is down to Gentry herself, who played piano, guitar, banjo, bass and vibes. Swampy southern grooves mingle with the latest Nashville trends, blue-eyed soul [and] whispered intimations of psychedelia … each track blurs, dream-like, into the next … the earlier tracks chime with her public image as a husky, sensual southern belle but [elsewhere] her voice enters … like sun filtering though curtains.

And he is right. The LP sank with little trace at the time. This single peaked at 100 on the US charts, and did not even register elsewhere. The Planet Vinyl manifesto declares:

We are archaeologists of sound, at a dig. We value the pot shards and door knobs and belt buckles, and we sometimes find riches unimagined.

Bobbie Gentry’s The Delta Sweete is one of those.

“Louisiana Man”

“Courtyard”

  • Artist: Bobbie Gentry
  • Single Title: Louisiana Man
  • Tracks: A “Louisiana Man”; B “Courtyard”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Capitol Records
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: CP-8325
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain music

The things I know about Nepal can be put in dot points:

  • Mountains (generally, and one very big mountain in particular)
  • Sherpas (who help rich westerners climb said mountains)
  • Kathmandu (the city, not the clothing franchise)
  • A Maoist insurgency
  • Yaks

That’s about it.

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Two of the things I know about Nepal. Image: travelwayoflifeFlickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

Of the music of the people of Nepal, I had never heard any until this random op-shop LP came my way. In the 1970s, a man called Stefano Castelli visited Nepal with a microphone and tape recorder, and captured the music of the people of the mountains. I can learn nothing about Castelli, except that he was probably Italian (the LP was first issued in Italy). The LP does not have much in the way of notes, and I know nothing of the Nepali language (or, probably, languages).

Even so, the sounds Castelli recorded are fascinating, absorbing.

Some are obviously religious ceremonials. Others are folk songs, and even in a strange tongue you can tell that they are telling a story. It is one of these which I want to share. It is titled “Soldier’s Letter”.

The LP sleeve tells us nothing else: not even the name of the singer, or where or when it was recorded. So I’m just guessing, but to me it sounds as if the song is about a soldier writing home. Could be an ANZAC in France, or a GI in Vietnam, or a Roman soldier on Hadrian’s wall: the message is the same.  He is enduring danger and boredom and physical hardship, but worse than that is his yearning for home, for his wife and children. Will he ever see them again?

  • Artist: ‎Unknown (Field Recordings – Stefano Castelli)
  • LP Title: Folk Songs of Nepal
  • Track: A5 “Soldier’s Letter”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, stereo
  • Label: Lyrichord
  • Manufactured in: United States
  • Catalogue: LLST 7330
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1977)