I’ll be launching my book The Sound of Nonsense at Blackwell’s in Newcastle upon Tyne on Wednesday 7 February. It’s free but needs booking via https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/richard-elliott-the-sound-of-nonsense-tickets-42589627723.
Following the audio trailer I posted for my new book The Sound of Nonsense, I’ve now made a video trailer too. This uses different examples from the audio taster but with the same aim of bringing together sources from literature, sound poetry, nonsense writing and pop music.
My new book is called The Sound of Nonsense and it’s published by Bloomsbury Academic today. To mark the publication, I’m posting an illustrated version of the book’s introduction below.
‘Watch the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves’; so says the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.[i] But can we be so sure of this? The Duchess, like her creator Lewis Carroll, seems to put more emphasis on the sound of words than their sense. This aspect of her character that has been much remarked upon, not least by those interested in the role that sound plays in creating meaning and nonsense.[ii] As some of Carroll’s readers would have known, he himself was playing with sound when he placed these words in the Duchess’s mouth; her ‘moral’ is based on the English proverb ‘take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves’. It is only one of many instances in Carroll’s work where the work of nonsense – what Marnie Parsons has called ‘nonsense strategies’ – relies on sound to do its business.[iii] This book responds to that reliance by highlighting the importance of sound in understanding the nonsense of writers such as Carroll and Edward Lear, as well as James Joyce, before connecting this noisy writing to works which engage more directly with sound, including sound poetry, experimental music and pop. By emphasising sonic factors, I try to amplify the connections between a wide range of artistic examples and to build a case for the importance of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting meaning.
Nonsense literature, particularly that associated with the English tradition made famous by Carroll and Lear, has generated a rich and varied body of study in a variety of disciplines, including literature, linguistics, art history, philosophy and psychology. Much of this exegesis has focussed on questions of meaning and the ‘logic of sense’ or on questions of normality and abnormality. Invariably focussed on words and sentences as they appear on the page, few studies of nonsense take sound as their primary analytical perspective. I take this gap as my starting point and, while engaging with many of the other things that have been said about my chosen examples, I hinge my study on the sonic dimensions of nonsense. The first chapter offers an overview of some of the ways in which nonsense has been approached, noting the difficulties in defining terms and agreeing on boundaries. By way of my own definitions I suggest types of nonsense that bind the diverse examples to be found through the rest of the book. I also start to offer observations on the role of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting sense.
The second chapter is focussed on the resonance of the page and, in addition to nonsense literature, includes discussion of modernist literature. More work has been done in recent years on the role of sound in modernist writing – particularly James Joyce – and my aim here is to highlight sounds which are pertinent to a discussion of nonsense and to set up connections with music, for example by considering how the work of writers such as Carroll and Joyce has been auralised or musicalised.
Having established the importance of sound on the written page, the book moves to work that more directly challenged the written dimension of literature by engaging with sound as a primary text; examples include artists and theorists associated with a variety of European art ‘movements’ (futurism, Dada, surrealism), sound poets such as Hugo Ball, Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing, and the audiovisual cut-up experiments of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Here I’m interested in sonic challenges, be they chopped audio or sonic palimpsests, and the efforts required to get at meaning.
One of the aims of the book is to show connections between modernist, avant-garde or experimental artists and those more associated with popular culture, so, in keeping with a starting point of Carroll and Lear, the project also investigates the importance of nonsense sounds in popular music. Chapter 4 – the longest – is devoted to popular music and the importance of nonsense in popular song, taking in scat singing, vocalese, doo wop, early rock ’n’ roll, yodelling, hip hop, singer-songwriters and artists who have created their own languages in which to sing. The relationships between words, sense and music are important here. One suggestion is that the shift from words to music is – from a linguistic perspective – often accompanied by a shift to nonsense, but that this linguistic nonsense becomes subject to another kind of musicalised sense-making. The process can also be witnessed in reverse; vocal sounds used to emulate musical instruments (e.g. in scat, doo wop or other mouth music) can be heard as proto-words and the point at which they are heard as such is what I call the nonsense moment. Nonsense functions in these instances as the overlapping territory between non-semantic vocables and clearly understood, meaningful words.
In tracing this trajectory, I am interested in how written, spoken and sung linguistic elements – predominantly words, parts of words and elements of phrases – create nonsense moments that rely on sound in one form or another. To make the kind of connections I am making between written and sonic texts requires an acceptance of the interrelationships between what Don Ihde calls ‘the word as soundful’ and ‘sounds as meaningful’:
The philosopher, concerned with comprehensiveness, must eventually call for attention to the word as soundful. On the other side, the sciences that attend to the soundful, from phonetics to acoustics, do so as if the sound were bare and empty of significance in a physics of the soundful. And the philosopher, concerned with the roots of reflection in human experience, must eventually also listen to the sounds as meaningful.[iv]
Like Ihde, I am interested in sound as it is experienced phenomenologically, although I mix this approach with awareness of intertextuality and intermediality. For me, the knowledge of a text’s precursors – and this includes one’s lack of, or partial, knowledge of them – are part of the phenomena available to the perceiving subject. This awareness, which I see as a grasping after meaning by a sometimes bewildered subject, is also what makes up the nonsense moment. This is the moment in perception when one is beyond, between or ahead of the moment of ascertaining sense. It is a glitch moment, a temporary period of blurring, the point in the process of code-switching where the codes are muddled.
Hopefully, the examples provided throughout the book will help clarify what I mean by this. I flag it up here, however, to anticipate some potential issues that readers may have regarding my definitions of nonsense, the ambitious scope of this short book, and the connections I am making between my various examples. I approach the issue of definitions and typologies of nonsense more fully in the next chapter. For now, it’s important to note that this is a book about nonsense, not solely about nonsense literature, though nonsense literature is a recurring presence. When it comes to nonsense and music, some may well take exception to scat, doo-wop or vocalese being referred to as nonsense because these vocal techniques have been categorised for musicology as musical, not verbal practices. My response here is to challenge such absolutist definitions of these musical processes and to ask instead why so many other people before me have made similar connections to mine. Were such listeners ‘wrong’ to do so? There is no hard and fast boundary between nonsense syllables used for musical effect and those same syllables used as words in a lyric. When Gene Vincent sings ‘Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby’, or when The Edsels sing ‘I got a girl named Rama Lama, Rama Lama Ding Dong’, how can we know if they are imitating instruments or referring to nicknames? The syntax of such utterances hangs in the balance.
Having given several spoken presentations on this project, I have been heartened by not only my audiences’ willingness to recognise many of the connections I am trying to make, but also the enthusiasm with which further examples have been offered. Given that I have had to severely edit the mass of examples I had already collected, it has been difficult to make space for many of these additions, but their existence reassures me that the concepts with which I’m dealing have resonance for others. If my selection of nonsense writers, sound poets and pop musicians is necessarily restricted to particular eras and genres, I trust that the points I am making can be applied by readers to other examples. I hope too that, just because there are many other examples from the history of literature and music that could be defined as nonsense according to my usage, my omission of them does not weaken my arguments.
When considering the scope of my project and the wide net I am casting, I have attempted to stay true to the objectives of the series in which it appears. One of these is to use a single concept to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of sound studies. In my case, that single concept is nonsense but the perspectives and examples through which I approach the concept are designed to encourage interdisciplinarity. Another way of putting this is to say that I have attempted to make the book short but provocative, not seeking to answer all the questions it poses nor to lock down discussion of any of the areas it touches on. This is not a license to vagueness or lack of rigour, but rather a recognition that this book series sets out to offer something different to longer, specialist monographs.
I have wanted to respond to the vitality of nonsense and to revel in connections. Again, this may suggest a potential lack of historical or other contextual specificity to the examples cited. It may be felt, for example, that I enjoy listening for similarities at the expense of adequately exploring differences. I must admit to an enjoyment of staging my own Mad Hatters party, perhaps sitting Edward Lear next to Little Richard, Hugo Ball next to David Byrne, and Lewis Carroll next to Bob Cobbing and Ivor Cutler. But while I wish to at least imply a levelling process regarding the cultural provenance of my examples, I am never suggesting outright equivalency. As with many comparative methods, it is more about asking what light can be cast – what sound can be projected – by placing together the products of seemingly disparate cultural worlds. The artist Christian Marclay, responding to a question about the equivalence of objects placed together in some of his projects even when those objects have little relation to each other, makes the following observation:
But the reason they are together is to offer a third reading, totally disconnected from their initial usage. They tell a beautiful story together. Like if you’re writing poetry, you put together two words that rhyme or off-rhyme, and even though they may be unrelated, that rhyme is going to give the phrase a different weight. It kind of forces them together.[v]
Similar notions have been expressed through some of the other artistic processes I discuss in this book, such as the cut-ups of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, the plunderphonics of John Oswald, and the ‘rhyming’ of doo-wop, country music and sound poetry undertaken by Paul Dutton. The idea is there, too, in the practices carried out by a whole host of DJs and other composers whose mixings, matchings and mismatchings provide the ideal soundtrack to mad tea parties.
[i] Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass, Definitive Edition, illus. John Tenniel, ed. Martin Gardner (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 92.
[ii] Mladen Dolar notes that the Duchess’s words seem to be inverted, for her pronouncements, like many proverbs, ‘make more sound than sense’; Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006), 147. Marnie Parsons begins her exploration of ‘nonsense and sound’ by quoting the Duchess and suggesting she ‘was wrong, or partly wrong’; Marnie Parsons, Touch Monkeys: Nonsense Strategies for Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994), 120.
[iii] Parsons, Touch Monkeys.
[iv] Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, second edn (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 4.
[v] Christian Marclay, ‘Music I’ve Seen: In Conversation with Frances Richard’, in On & By Christian Marclay, edited by Jean-Pierre Criqui (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2014) 85.
Here is an audio taster of my new book The Sound of Nonsense, published on 28 December.
I have contributed to a programme on the song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, part of Radio 4’s series Soul Music. The programme airs at 9:00am on Wednesday 14 June, then again at 9:30pm the same evening; it will also be available to download on the Radio 4 website.
The song was written by Sandy Denny, who recorded it with The Strawbs, Fairport Convention and as a solo artist. It was made famous by Judy Collins’s 1968 cover and has been covered by scores of artists since. I first attempted to write about it when researching the music of Nina Simone, who recorded a haunting version in 1969. Hearing Simone’s rendition helped formulate my thoughts about the representation of time, age and experience. I included a comparison of the Fairport and Simone versions in my book Nina Simone. I then ended up writing about ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ again as an essay for Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton’s collection Gender, Age and Musical Creativity, this time taking a slightly different perspective and also including discussion of Judy Collins’s version. Later, the song became the starting point for The Late Voice, my longest attempt to deal with the time/age/experience nexus.
It’s one of my favourite songs and I think about it differently each time I take the time to reflect on it again. So it was when I sat down in Newcastle’s BBC Studio to record my contribition to Soul Music, where I found myself emphasising aspects of the sound I’d never really tried to articulate before, such as the absolute vitality of Richard Thompson’s guitar in the Fairport version on Unhalfbricking, which I always heard as important but now hear as being an equal lead voice to Denny’s on that timeless recording. Now, as I write these words and think again about the song, I dwell on the way that the song itself models the passing of time (which admittedly, I’ve written quite extensively on before) and how that is best exemplfied in the way that the refrain’s most obvious rhyming words (‘knows’ and ‘goes’) are preceded by one and three words respectively, making an uneven and therefore memorable rhythm.
Perhaps finding something different to think about each time I reflect on the song maps onto the experience of time more generally: the recurrence of the familiar enhanced by the emergence of the hitherto unknown, or at least unformulated.
My article ‘Species of Sonic Spaces’ has been published in the new issue of Literary Geographies. This is a themed issue on the work of Georges Perec, inspired particularly by his classic 1974 text Species of Spaces.
Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces (1974) offers the author’s most explicit and extensive meditation on space understood as both everyday reality and source for speculation. The book is organised according to a ‘visualist’ logic and does not address sound as a way of understanding our environment. This article takes Species of Spaces as an invitation to consider ‘species of sonic space’, a variety of related chunks of the sonic environment we share. It asks how we might explore the sonic environment by way of Perec’s text and through consideration of other spaces which Perec does not discuss. It reflects on existing attempts to think of sonic spaces and on the differences between describing sonic, visual and other felt spaces. Aspects of Perec’s text lend themselves to comparison with other writers’ attempts to bring sound and space together: his analysis of domestic spaces can be usefully placed alongside Gaston Bachelard’s work on ‘the poetics of space’; his descriptions of urban rhythms can be compared to those of Henri Lefebvre; his attention to interiority can be considered in light of Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘microspherology’; and his division of space into species find a potentially productive aural analogue in Brandon LaBelle’s account of ‘acoustic territories’. These and other thinkers are considered here as ways of setting up an ‘auralisation’ of Species of Spaces. The role of sound in Perec’s A Man Asleep (1967), An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010) and Life a User’s Manual (1978) is also discussed. These works, it is argued, extend, develop, anticipate or reverberate with Species of Spaces in ways that are useful for auralising that text.
The paperback edition of my book The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music has been published. In the eighteen months since the publication of the hardback edition, two of my major case studies have died (Ralph Stanley and Leonard Cohen), as well as two artists whose work had a profound influence on the book (Merle Haggard and Guy Clark). Given this and the outpouring of public grief for these and other lost musicians during 2016, I added a short preface to the new edition. The new text is reproduced below; some of it has previously been published on this website.
Late Thoughts on Late Singers: A Preface to the Paperback Edition
There’s a line in the first verse of Jerry Jeff Walker’s song ‘Mr Bojangles’ in which the titular figure is described as seeming like ‘the eyes of age’. The words capture what it means to recognise the passage of time and experience in another’s body, as both evidence of that passage for anyone looking in and as a reminder of what the person behind the eyes has witnessed in the course of their life. The one who observes the eyes of age, who recognises them as different enough from their own to take note of them, marks a gap in experience, an awareness and an anticipation of what the other knows and of what the self might yet discover. Walker’s song gives agency to Bojangles, far more so than the old people described in John Prine’s ‘Hello in There’, a song quoted in the ages of this book and which, on reflection, does not provide the empathetic reading of later life that I once thought I heard in it. Walker’s singer-songwriter-storyteller recognises himself (his present down-and-out self and his future self) in his old cell mate and realises that he too may come to know what it is to know life from the other side of the eyes of age. It’s Walker, too, who gives Bojangles a legacy in this popular song that has been performed by countless later singers, from Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr to Nina Simone and Whitney Houston.
I would often think of that line about the eyes of age when I thought of Ralph Stanley, and I’d supplement it with a similar term: ‘the voice of age’. Stanley wasn’t the first artist to set me to thinking about the late voice, but once I started to develop the ideas into a book project I knew that I wanted to try and write about him. For the reasons I explain in Chapter 2, Stanley epitomised for me, as for many others, an ancient voice in terms of timbre, texture and text, bringing a chilling temporality to both the act and the content of sung words, the enunciation and the enunciated. To witness Stanley singing was to witness age itself, and with it the passage of a life spent communicating messages that were even older than the man expressing them. The voice itself seemed older than its owner, something acknowledged by Stanley himself when he joked, in his eighties, that he would be able to catch up with his voice if he were given a couple more decades. To do that, of course, the voice would have to stay still, to not change. But that was part of what I wanted to try and get at in The Late Voice; that the voice might change with age, but that lateness might also already reside within it, even from our earliest days. Lateness was not only about later stages of life, but also about an experience of life, or rather a series of experiences that could be recognised at flashpoint moments throughout the life course.
If lateness was to be only partly about later life, it was also only ever partly to be about the lateness of the recently departed. When The Late Voice went to press in 2015, I had been researching and writing about late voices that, in the case of all but one of my major case studies, belonged to still living singers. Even when I did consider lateness in relation to the recently lost, I was mainly working with the idea that recorded voices are always dead voices, temporarily reanimated in playback. Now, however, at the start of 2017, I write with the knowledge that two of the major case studies – Ralph Stanley and Leonard Cohen – have died since the publication of the hardback edition in October 2015. 2016 also saw the deaths of Merle Haggard and Guy Clark, two artists whose work deeply informed my thinking about the late voice, even if they are only mentioned relatively briefly in the book’s pages. These were only four names among many more musicians who died in 2016, a phenomenon that became increasingly discussed in the media as the year wore on. From David Bowie’s passing in January to George Michael’s in December, it seemed as if each week brought another high-profile obituary, leading to numerous end-of-year reviews under headlines such as ‘The Year the Music Died’.
The attention given to musicians who died in 2016 is notable for many reasons, but in terms of its relevance to The Late Voice I was interested not only because of the loss of some of those I had written about, but also because the voices of those who reacted to the many losses that year – whether in professional media outlets or on social media – reinforced for me the sense in which music and musicians act as conduits to understandings of time, age and experience. While it may be a commonplace to talk of music, and especially the kind of popular songs I tend to discuss, as ‘the soundtrack to our lives’, the ways in which those soundtracks reflect, challenge and meld with our lived experience still deserve further philosophical exploration. Many of the responses I read in the wake of the lost musicians of 2016 brought this home to me in narratives whose eloquence, emotion, honesty and sense of collective connection were often overwhelming. In telling the stories of what their favourite musicians had meant to them, thousands of people went beyond the copy and paste hackwork of celebrity biography to trace instead the arcs of their own lives. In 2016, pop’s audience wrote its autobiography like never before.
As for the recently-deceased who make an appearance in this book, their passing does not fundamentally alter what I wanted to say about them originally, though the use the of present tense in the chapters that follow may occasionally seem strange. Death has brought to a close some of the narratives left open in the text, though of course there are still new narratives to add to these artists and their music, new discoveries to be made and new life experiences to be soundtracked by the work they left behind. I offer here a few additional facts and thoughts to supplement the stories told in the book.
Ralph Stanley died on 23 June 2016 at the age of 89. In the final footnote to Chapter 2, I note an announcement given in 2013 that Stanley was to embark on a ‘farewell tour’ that would run until December 2014. Evidently, retirement did not suit the veteran bluegrass musician and in 2015 further concert dates were announced running into 2016. In the last two years of his life Stanley received an honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Yale University (his second honorary degree – he had been known as ‘Dr Ralph’ since receiving his first from Lincoln Memorial University in 1976) and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. An addition to the extensive Stanley discography also arrived in 2015 in the form of a series of solo songs and duets (with artists including Elvis Costello, Del McCoury, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Robert Plant, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Lee Ann Womack) under the appropriate, if inevitable, title of Man of Constant Sorrow. Against these foils, Dr Ralph sounded, as ever, like the voice of age.
Leonard Cohen died on 7 November 2016 at the age of 82. He had recently released the album You Want It Darker, which, as with so much of his work, dwelled on themes of love, mortality and religion. If he sounded even older and more broken on this record, it was no doubt due to the illness he had endured while making it. Listening to the title track, particularly the parts where Cohen sings ‘hineni hineni’, I developed the fancy that perhaps the singer would continue to live until his voice became so deep it could no longer be perceived by humans. Cohen would disappear into the depths of his own voice. In the end that wasn’t to be, but he got a lot of the way there. Cohen always sounded older than his years, even when, early in his career, the only way he sounded was through the pages of his poetry and prose. Making the move to music in the late 1960s, he was notably older than many of his peers in the singer-songwriter world. He became uniquely gifted at channelling that maturity into songs that showed that wisdom has a place in everyday culture, that lives lived can be lives shared through the medium of popular song. As listeners, we believed him because he seemed so genuine, so human, so attuned to the dialectic of joy and melancholy that constitutes the human experience. When I started to think about trying to communicate my ideas about late voice in book form, I knew I would have to include Cohen. In the end, I decided to place him alongside Frank Sinatra, a connection that worked in my mind but one which I’m not sure others would feel comfortable with. The results can be found in this book and the connection between the poet and the crooner still works for me, though I find myself wondering whether I should have given Cohen a chapter to himself. There is certainly much more to be said about his particular form of lateness.
Guy Clark died on 17 May 2016 at the age of 74. He lived long enough to be able to ‘run his fingers through seventy years of living’, as he so memorably wrote of the old-timer memorialised in his song ‘Desperados Waiting for the Train’. That song, like Walker’s ‘Mr Bojangles’, showed an ability to make connections between youth and old age and to offer the kind of empathetic maturity and anticipated experience that I refer to in the pages of this book as ‘early late voice’ (Walker, appropriately, wrote the liner notes for Clark’s first album and helped to popularise some of his songs). Clark was a fabulous songwriter – for me, one of the very best – and a great singer and guitarist to boot. His writing, singing and playing voices came together in a united front suited brilliantly to the soundtracking of lives, his and those of others. His work sounded forever attuned to the ways that time, age and experience are written into the bodies, words and actions of the people we meet along the way, including those seemingly stable, but really ever-changing selves we see in the mirror, what Proust called that ‘sequence of selves which die one after another’.
Merle Haggard died on 6 April 2016 at the age of 79. In a year already rife with notable deaths in the music industry, I felt this one deeply, for reasons both objective and subjective. Objectively, Haggard was a colossal figure in country music, as a singer, songwriter, hitmaker and soundmaker (by which I mean there is particular country sound that is distinctive to him and those who’ve been influenced by him). Subjectively, I’d been a fan of Haggard’s music for around two and a half decades, with a steady rise in my appreciation of his work during that time. But adding to these reasons, and perhaps combining them, Haggard had played an important role in my work as an academic and writer, and I was aware that I hadn’t yet managed to repay the debt I owe him by writing about him properly. I’d wanted to do so for many years. I still have extensive notes filed in various places about him and his music that remain undeveloped, waiting for their ideal opportunity. When embarking on writing The Late Voice, I thought I’d finally get around to writing about him, for if anyone fitted the bill of a late voice singer-songwriter, it was Haggard. And indeed, my original plan for the book contained a chapter on country music that aimed to discuss Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. It was always going to be a crowded, and hence potentially lengthy, chapter and perhaps that’s why I felt I had to abandon it as the book took shape and I started to worry about cohesion and word count.
But perhaps there were other reasons. Perhaps, even though I continue to deny, against the claims by those who place anti-intellectualism amongst the primary responses to artistic creation, that studying the things you love somehow spoils them, even though I have never believed this, I still have found it difficult to turn that study into writing that communicates what I have heard, learned and felt when listening across the years to particular artists. It wasn’t until The Late Voice that I attempted to write about Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, two artists who have provided my life’s soundtrack since I first started to comprehend, in my late teens, what I later came to refer to as ‘anticipated experience’. What I ended up writing about them barely scratches the surface of what I want to say, but it’s a start at least. The same goes for Van Morrison, whose work I have started to explore in writing only very recently, since the publication of The Late Voice. I still long for, but simultaneously dread, the time I finally try to get down at length what Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have meant to me over the years, what they continue to mean to me.
With Haggard, though, it should have been a bit easier. I had the notes and I had written a little about him before. When I decided to write my Masters thesis on country music and hip hop, I focussed my account on place, race, experience and authenticity; Haggard was one of my main country examples and a major influence on the work more generally. I listened closely to the Legacy CD reissue of his 1981 album Big City and was also engrossed in his then-recent album for the Anti label, If I Could Only Fly. Songs from these albums became my main examples, songs such as ‘My Favorite Memory’, ‘Big City’, ‘Are the Good Times Really Over’, ‘Wishing All These Old Things Were New’, ‘If I Could Only Fly’, ‘Bareback’, ‘Leavin’s Getting Harder’ and ‘Thanks To Uncle John’. Some of the songs were Haggard originals and some, such as his version of Blaze Foley’s ‘If I Could Only Fly’, were brilliant takes on the work of other fascinating singer-songwriters.
As news of Haggard’s passing was spreading around the internet, Noah Berlatsky wrote an excellent assessment of If Could Only Fly for The Guardian, focussing in particular on the album’s title track and how this late, sparse version of Foley’s song eclipsed earlier versions (Haggard had been performing it since at least the mid-80s). Where earlier renditions proved that Haggard was more than capable of mastering the song, the 2000 version, for Berlatsky, ‘feels as though the grief is clotting around him, and he’s trying to dig out’. I agree with Berlatsky’s assessment of an album that was so central to my early attempts to write about popular music as an academic. But, for me, the album was also an invitation, at the height of the critical obsession with ‘alt. country’, to take a retrospective look at Haggard’s career and venture into areas of country music that I, along with other fans of alternative or progressive country, had been avoiding for various reasons. The most obvious of these was a lingering sense of unease about some of Haggard’s more notorious material, such as ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me’. I already knew there was more to Haggard than this and had done since at least the purchase of my first Haggard album, Serving 190 Proof. As has often happened in my record -buying career, I hadn’t started with the definitive work but with what was available one day when, intrigued at a market stall or car boot sale, I’d taken a plunge on an artist I’d heard of but whose work I didn’t know well. As it goes, Serving 190 Proof wasn’t a bad place to start at all, especially as an introduction to Haggard’s late voice. The opening trio of ‘Footlights’, ‘Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)’ and ‘Heaven Was a Drink of Wine’ are fine examples of Haggard’s more melancholy, even self-pitying, side; all contain great lines and vocal performances.
I’d had a generally overlooked but fascinating album as my introduction to Haggard, back around the time I was first getting into Willie Nelson and the 1970s progressive country artists. Later, as I wanted to delve deeper, there was still my resistance to ‘Okie’ and ‘Fightin’ Side’ to get over. I’m not sure I ever did get over that – and I still tend to avoid playing those songs – but I came to realise that there was so much more to Haggard’s story and to his songwriting. I also realised that those songs, regardless of what I might personally think of them, had to be part of that story and could, as in David Cantwell’s masterful account in Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, be convincingly placed into historical, cultural and personal contexts. But by then those songs had started to stop mattering to me as I discovered the gems to be found across Haggard’s massive back catalogue. At some point during the research for The Late Voice, Haggard overtook Neil Young to become the most represented artist in my record collection. I have a silly amount of Haggard albums, yet they all seem essential, with each album containing at least a few masterful, earcatching examples of songwriting or revelatory versions of other people’s songs.
Pretty high on the list for me would be one of the many duets Haggard recorded with his running mate Willie Nelson, a leisurely, beautifully paced version of David Lynn Jones’s ‘When Times Were Good’ which the pair included on their 1987 album Seashores of Old Mexico (an album that also includes their duet of ‘If I could Only Fly’). It’s a critically unloved album, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it, and ‘When Times Were Good’ is one of the main reasons. Nelson starts the song wonderfully, with a stark vocal accompanied by minimal guitar. He sets the pace and manages the dramatic development as the band instrumentation gradually builds the song towards a chorus which Nelson attacks in his highest, lonesomest register. For me, though, the standout has always been the moment more than three and a half minutes into the song when, following a relaxed instrumental break, Haggard’s voice takes up the narrative. In two drawn-out lines – ‘There’s a Golden Eagle rollin’ out of Memphis / And a country singer still lost between the lines’ – we get to ride the rolling slopes of Haggard’s voice, its breaking highs and creaking lows, the moments where the voice dips or drops out momentarily, just enough of a catch in the throat for us to get the sense of weariness the singer is carrying, his almost paralysing burden of memory, loss and nostalgia.
I’ve tried and failed to write about Haggard on a number of occasions and he only makes very fleeting appearances in the main body of this book. Even the thoughts gathered in this new preface are as much thoughts about me as they are about Haggard or the other musicians I mention. I’ve been driven once more by my reaction to musicians whose work has moved me and has invited me to supplement my listening with attempts to write about what I have loved and learned, even if that means occasionally losing my way through the corridors of memory. But perhaps that’s what our connection with our favourite musicians always brings, an opportunity to learn about ourselves through what we feel they’ve taught us. That was true of the collective autobiography that accompanied the loss of all those musicians in 2016, and I hope it is true of this book. The Late Voice was written as a way of formalising some of those lessons we learn from popular music. It was also written as a celebration of the living spirit of that music and of the living artists in whose eyes and voices of age we become aware of our changing selves.
I have recently sent off two pieces of writing; one is the manuscript of a short book and the other is an essay for a forthcoming Research Companion. As they go through the review process I find myself in the normal stage of not being able to look at them. Whenever I submit a text I feel simultaneously smarter than normal and much stupider. The feeling of smartness comes from the realisation that, against all odds, you have managed to make the seemingly incoherent into something coherent enough to share with another person. The feeling of stupidity comes from the crushing compromises you had to make to do this, from the frustration that the ideas which sparked off in the brain never quite made it into the final text in the way you’d imagined them. The dazzling connections no longer seem dazzling, the gasp of recognition has been lost in the drone of explanation.
Leonard Cohen’s death has been announced. Cohen is the second of the musicians I wrote about in The Late Voice to have died this year. When Ralph Stanley passed away in June, we were reeling from the results of the EU Referendum. Cohen’s passing was announced in the wake of the catastrophic election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. Bad news follows bad news. Cohen had long reflected on the bad times of the present and the bad times to come (‘I’ve seen the future brother, it is murder’), so perhaps there is some poetic sense in his leaving us this week. But that doesn’t make it any easier. His loss is felt deeply by many. Some comfort is provided by the wisdom we are reminded of as we are encouraged to revisit the poetic trumphs of his career.
Making my weekly long drive south on Thursday, one of the last albums I listened to, as night thickened around the London Orbital, was Cohen’s very recent You Want It Darker. Listening to the title track, particularly the parts where Cohen sings ‘hineni hineni’, I developed the fancy that perhaps Cohen would continue to live until his voice became so deep we humans could no longer perceive it. He would disappear into the depths of his own voice. In the end that wasn’t to be, but he got a lot of the way there.
Cohen always sounded older than his years, even when the only way he sounded was through the pages of his poetry and prose. Making the move to music in the late 1960s, he was notably older than many of his peers in the singer-songwriter world. It has always been his gift to channel that maturity into songs that showed that wisdom has a place in everyday culture, that lives lived can be lives shared through the medium of popular song. And we always believed him because he seemed so genuine, so human, so attuned to the dialectic of joy and melancholy that constitutes the human experience. When I started to think about trying to communicate my ideas about late voice in book form, I knew I would have to include Cohen. In the end, I decided to place him alongside Frank Sinatra, a connection that worked in my mind but one which I’m not sure others would feel comfortable with. The results are what they are and I don’t know whether this was the right way to approach Cohen. Perhaps I should have given him a chapter to himself – there was certainly much more to be said.
Today, I’ve made the pre-publication draft of that chapter available here in celebration of Cohen’s life and work. The material on Cohen kicks in towards the end of p. 26.
In July of this year I had the honour and pleasure of participating in the University of Sussex graduation ceremony at which the great English folk singer Shirley Collins was awarded an honorary doctorate. In the days leading up to the ceremony, as I prepared the speech I had been asked to give ahead of the award, I spent a long time listening to Shirley Collins’s music, often while driving around the beautiful South Downs. I found myself thinking a lot about the relationship between song and place and also about we forge, maintain and sometimes lose connections with the places in which we live and work and through which we travel. I was feeling this keenly at the time as I was preparing to move to the other end of the country to begin a new job.
In the days surrounding the graduation ceremony I posted a series of reflections on Facebook. I’m compiling them here in celebration of the release, today, of Shirley Collins’s first new album in 38 years.
17 July. Shirley Collins & Davy Draham, ‘Nottamun Town’.
This week the University of Sussex will award an honorary doctorate to the wonderful, influential English folk singer, folklorist and writer Shirley Collins. In celebration of this happy event, I plan to post some favourite Collins tracks throughout the week. I want to start with this interpretation of ‘Nottamun Town’, from Shirley’s boundary-pushing 1964 album with Davy Graham, Folk Roots, New Routes. Graham was the globetrotting, finger-picking composer of 60s guitar standard ‘Anji’. Collins was the Hastings-born, London-based folk singer with the clear, unaffected style that had drawn praise from the likes of Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax, with whom she’d toured the American south in the late 1950s, collecting songs from Bessie Jones, Mississippi Fred McDowell and many more. ‘Nottamun Town’ (Roud #1044) was an old hard-times song – possibly referring to Nottingham – that would be revived by Bert Jansch and Fairport Convention and used as the basis for Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’. This version perfectly showcases Davy’s alternately ringing and pinched, swinging, blues-inflected style alongside Shirley’s crystal clear enunciation of the doomy lyric. On one level, a cold blankness that lets you know that this is a straightforward story, truthfully told; on another, an eerie beauty and a rhythmic pull that draws the listener in to the well of old weird Anglicana.
18 July. Shirley Collins, ‘The False Bride’
This comes from Shirley’s first record for the legendary Topic Records, an EP from 1963 entitled ‘Heroes in Love’. A note on the rear sleeve informs the listener, ‘These songs are not about folk-heroes in any epic sense; just ordinary young men transformed by love’. That phrase ‘transformed by love’ seems to me to encapsulate so many of the magical, tragic, sometimes farcical mutations that are related in the multilayered folk tradition.
‘The False Bride’ (Roud #154), also known as ‘The Week Before Easter’ and with variants as ‘I Once Loved a Lass’ and ‘I Courted a Wee Girl’, narrates a typically doomed transformation, as a young man reflects, increasingly despairingly and suicidally, upon the nature of love. Or is it perhaps just his own inexperience and inadequacy, twisted through solipsistic narrative into a woman-blaming fatalism? Shirley sings it in her unblaming, neutral tone, at service as always to the telling of the tale. As she would explain many years later in a wonderful interview with Michael Berkeley, the ways these songs should be sung is ‘straightforward, not necessarily unadorned but very lightly adorned, and you’re not selling the song, you’re just singing it. It;s just straightforward, plain, simple but subtle.’
Shirley accompanies herself here on 5-string banjo, another simple and subtle device that echoes the techniques used by many of the American folksingers she and Alan Lomax had recorded in the late 1950s. This version of the song is also inspired by a Lomax-related recording of the great Sussex singer and custodian Bob Copper, included in the LP series The Folk Songs of Britain. One of the song’s verses would also provide the title for No Roses, the classic 1971 folk-rock album Shirley recorded with the Albion Country Band: ‘I went down to the forest to gather fine flowers / But the forest won’t yield me no roses’.
As well as the stark simplicity of this recording, I love the record sleeve of the EP, with Shirley looking up and to the side at the words ‘of Sussex’.
19 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘Geordie’
This recording of ‘Geordie’ (Roud #90) comes from Love, Death & The Lady (1970), the second album that Shirley recorded with her sister Dolly for the Harvest label (the first being the classic Anthems in Eden). It’s a melancholy record, as most attest, with many tales of doomed romance and class conflict. ‘Geordie’ is a great example of the latter, the tale of a man condemned to hang for wanting to feed his family. As related on the Mainly Norfolk website, this was the third time Shirley had recorded the song. This rendition is notable for the addition of Early Music instrumentation, present throughout the album and its predecessor. The cool, unruffled vocal cuts its straight course through the sad story while the various instruments weave in and out of the arrangement, occasionally threatening to sail off in rebellious counter directions, but ultimately staying true to the thrust of the song. There have been many great renditions of ‘Geordie’ (or ‘Georgie’, as it also appears) captured on record and video. This is one of them.
21 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘The Sweet Primeroses’
Yesterday, during the University of Sussex graduation ceremony at which she was awarded an honorary degree, Shirley Collins spoke movingly of a life spent in song: as listener, folklorist, custodian, singer. From humble beginnings in Hastings as a daughter of working class, left-wing art lovers and granddaughter of keepers of the oral tradition, to travels in the American South in search of musicians and songs, to her career as singer and writer, the life story unfolded like a compelling ballad. But, modest and mindful of the other graduands receiving their awards, she closed with notes of congratulations and a message of hope for her young listeners. Connecting her life story to theirs, she said ‘I hope you find a passion that sustains you and brings happiness and fulfilment in a more peaceful world. And if things go awry from time to time, just remember these lines from a Sussex folk song: “There’s many a dark and cloudy morning turns out to be a most sunshiny day”‘.
Those lines come from ‘The Sweet Primeroses’, a song associated with the Copper family of Sussex. It became the title of Shirley’s 1967 album, a work described by David Suff as ‘a landmark recording of the English folk-song revival’. It’s a gorgeous rendition, given extra poignancy by the accompaniment of Dolly Collins on portative pipe-organ. In her speech, Shirley stated her wish to share the honorary degree with her late sister.
In her 1967 liner note to The Sweet Primeroses album, Shirley wrote of the title track: ‘A last song from the Copper family, whose songs sound to me like national anthems – or like national anthems should sound. All the Southern countryside is here, with a grave, stylised account of a formal meeting on a particular midsummer’s morning, the heartbreak of parting tempered with a stoical optimism. Dolly’s arrangement has some of the Coppers’ spirit and some of “the pretty little small birds too”.’
On a personal note, it was an absolute joy to meet Shirley and her family and guests and to spend a good part of the day in their wonderful, welcoming company. And I’m proud of my university for honouring such a deserving person.
22 July. Shirley & Dolly Collins, ‘A Leavetaking: Pleasant and Delightful’
This week I’ve been posting music clips by Shirley Collins in celebration of her honorary doctorate from my university. I’m concluding this series with a track from Anthems in Eden, the classic 1969 album by Shirley and her sister Dolly, accompanied by the Early Music Consort directed by David Munrow. The early music instrumentation – including rebec, crumhorn, harpsichord, viols, bells, rackett – was an innovation that proved influential on other experimental folk musicians of the period, including Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, albeit that they opted to use rock instruments.
This track, which bears the double title of ‘A Leavetaking’ (‘Leaving-taking’ on some copies of the album) and ‘Pleasant and Delightful’, is typical of the musical melange of Anthems in Eden. It includes several repeated lines featuring a male chorus, such as ‘And the larks they sang melodious’ (my personal favourite).
It’s a song of leaving and possible return, a departure taken on an otherwise glorious day.
Recently I’ve been listening to Shirley Collins’s music while driving around the Sussex countryside and I’ve been made aware of the constant connections between singer, song and place. Wonderful coincidences would happen, such as the day I drove past the Eight Bells pub in Jevington while playing Anthems in Eden, then, on arriving at my office and opening a Copper Family CD booklet to check some Collins-Copper connections, I saw a picture of Jim and Bob Copper singing outside the Eight Bells in 1950.
Listening to Sussex music and moving through the Sussex countryside, song would echo place and vice versa. Shirley caught this beautifully in her liner note to The Sweet Primeroses album, when she wrote ‘Through these songs I get the same leap in the heart as when I catch sight of a hill figure like the Long Man of Wilmington, or Stonehenge, or the Malvern Hills. Wherever I go in Britain, history seems to press through train windows, and the songs I love best help to celebrate it.’
I’ve been thinking about this as I prepare my own leave-taking from Sussex. In September I’ll be taking up a new post at Newcastle University. I’m excited by the possibilities of reconnecting with former colleagues and friends, but I’ll also be sad to leave Sussex, my home for the past four years. The University of Sussex is a superb place to work, with wonderful, supportive colleagues, and the county of Sussex is beautiful. This week the university celebrated a wonderful daughter of the county, and I’m happy that I was able to be part of that story. It has been pleasant and delightful.