Thoughts on Merle Haggard

Merle Haggard has died. 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’ve 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 has played an important role in my work as an academic and writer, even if I’ve not yet managed to repay the debt I owe him by writing about him properly.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about Haggard. I have extensive notes filed in various places about him and his music that remain undeveloped, waiting for their ideal opportunity. When embarking on my book 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, the original book proposal 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 started to explore in writing only very recently. I still long for, but simultaneously dread, the time I finally try to get down in writing what Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt have meant to me over the years, what they continue to mean to me.

With Merle, though, it should have been a bit easier. I had the notes and I had written a little bit about him before. When I decided to write my Masters thesis on country music and hip hop (having discovered via the Open Univeristy that it was possible to study what I’d previously considered a hobby), 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 as a whole. I’d recently bought 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 (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)’, ‘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 I Could Only Fly, 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.

So 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 of Haggard’s work, 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 stone cold brilliant examples of songwriting or incredible versions of other people’s songs. I’ve never made a Top 10 or Top 20, though I might at some point, especially now I’m seeing such things appear online (this one in the Guardian isn’t bad). When I needed to hear something after reading the news yesterday, I instinctively went for ‘If I Could Only Fly’, then the track I’d played for my students just the day before Haggard’s death, ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive‘, then ‘Silver Wings‘.

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 the 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 included a paragraph about this recording in my PhD thesis, another time I tried to write about Haggard but didn’t end up saying much (looking back now, I see I emphasised Nelson’s contribution slightly more, even though it’s always been Haggard’s entry halfway through this long country song that has captured me). And I tried once more when giving a presentation on country music called ‘The House of Memory’, its title taken from a Merle Haggard song.

Since then, I’ve tried and failed to write about Haggard. I can’t say for certain that I’ll get around to it now that he’s gone, but I just might. As for these ‘thoughts about Merle Haggard’, I realise they’re really thoughts about me, and about my various attempts to write about music over the last fifteen years, rambling in no clear order 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.

New essay on Robert Wyatt published

Wyatt_OldRottenhatMy essay ‘“Words Take the Place of Meaning”: Sound, Sense and Politics in the Music of Robert Wyatt’ has been published in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place, edited by Isabelle Marc and Stuart Green (Routledge).

ABSTRACT: When we speak of singer-songwriters we tend to consider voice as both literary tool and musical instrument, and of the resulting persona(s) of an author and a vocalist. In the case of British musician Robert Wyatt, both writing style and vocal instrument are utterly distinctive and this combined ‘voice’ has served to mediate, and occasionally muddy, the already playful relationship between words and music in Wyatt’s work. Much of his own songwriting, with its predilections for nonsense and the absurd, is articulated via a childlike sense of wonder at the world and a desire to cling to domestic comforts. This is supplemented by a more explicitly political body of work, reflecting Wyatt’s engagement with left wing politics and an ever-increasing geo-political outlook. This political work takes the form of both self-written material and cover versions of work by international singer-songwriters, a process which contributes to a global network of committed music.

This chapter discusses songs from both these sides of Wyatt’s repertoire to explore the relationships between the cultural geographies of singer-songwriters and protest as articulated via words and sound. I begin by considering Wyatt in light of dominant definitions of the singer-songwriter, particularly those that seek some kind of transparent mediation between the artist’s life and their work. Wyatt challenges such notions through his use of word games, coded lyrics or languages that are foreign to him and which arguably lack the sense of authenticity required for the direct address of the confessional singer-songwriter or the protest singer. Furthermore, Wyatt’s art has been as much about sound in general as about music (and in ways that challenge rather than reinforce distinctions between these terms) and, to this end, I include a brief discussion of sound poetry as a way of considering the sometimes problematic relationship between sound and sense. I link this discussion to one of Wyatt’s political songs, ‘Gharbzadegi’, which takes its name from an Iranian term meaning ‘Westernitis’ or ‘infected by the West’ but which Wyatt’s non-Iranian listeners are unlikely to make sense of without additional guidance. I argue there is a tension between language terms and their meanings which is of interest to discussions of confessional or political singer-songwriters, where we would probably expect there to be a more transparent sense of meaning in the words being sung.

More information about the book: The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place.

New article on Van Morrison published

It-S-Too-Late-To-Stop-Now-Re-Issue-CD2-coverMy article ‘My Tongue Gets t-t-t-: Words, Sense, and Vocal Presence in Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now‘ has been published in a special issue of the journal Twentieth-Century Music on ‘Voice’.

ABSTRACT: Van Morrison’s live version of his song ‘Cyprus Avenue’ on the 1974 album It’s Too Late to Stop Now provides an example of the authority of the singer’s voice and of how it leads and demands submission from musicians, songs, and audience. Morrison’s voice constantly suggests that it is reflecting important experience and can be understood both as an attempt to capture something and as a post-hoc witnessing or testimony. Through the example of Morrison’s work, and of It’s Too Late to Stop Now in particular, this article explores the location of the voice in terms of the body and of particular places and histories. It then proceeds to a reflection on the relationship between the performing voice as producer of sound, noise, and music and the poetic voice that provides the words and visions upon which the performing voice goes to work. It concludes by focusing on a moment within ‘Cyprus Avenue’ where Morrison performs the act of being tongue-tied, discussing this as an example of ‘aesthetic stutter’. Throughout, attention is also paid to how other voices (particularly those of rock critics) connect to Morrison’s voice by attempting to describe it, re-perform it, or explain it..

Link to ‘My Tongue Gets t-t-t-‘.

Upcoming presentation: Be-bop-sh-boom-a-langa-langa-doo-wop: Pop’s Love of Nonsense

I will be presenting my current research at the University of York on Wednesday 27 January as part of the Music Department’s research seminar series. My talk is entitled ‘Be-bop-sh-boom-a-langa-langa-doo-wop: Pop’s Love of Nonsense’ and it relates to my current research project ‘The Sound of Nonsense’. Abstract below.

In this paper I explore popular music’s obsession with nonsense, focussing on the relationship between words, voice, sounds and sense. I discuss scat singing, vocalese, doo wop, early rock n roll, yodelling, sampling, hip hop, ‘arty’ popular singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Robert Wyatt, David Byrne), and artists such as Magma and Sigur Rós who have created their own languages in which to sing. Pop’s fondness for self-reflexivity, parody and wordplay is considered via the work of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, in particular his song ‘Bob’, which offers a parody of Bob Dylan’s already nonsensical ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ consisting entirely of palindromes. This presentation draws upon research undertaken for my current research project ‘The Sound of Nonsense’ and I will explain how this specifically pop-focussed element connects to the broader exploration of nonsense literature, experimental writing, sound poetry, comedy and music.

New article on Patti Smith published

Patti.Smith.Outside.CoverMy essay ‘Words from the New World: Adventure and Memory in Patti Smith’s Late Voice’ has been published in the book Patti Smith: Outside, edited by Claude Chastagner (Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2015).

ABSTRACT: Patti Smith’s late work is invariably connected by critics and fans to the work of her ‘classic’ era (the 1970s punk scene) and the extent to which recent work lives up to, develops or exceeds that on which the artist’s reputation was based. Smith herself has been no stranger to such memory work, via her involvement in biographical projects such as her book Just Kids and the film Dream of Life. Her musical output since the 1990s has been characterized by memory work, not least in a number of pieces written in response to the passing of friends and family. Yet this work is complemented by an embrace of new beginnings and adventure, often achieved by returning to places, themes and styles Smith has explored before but looking for fresh angles and new perspectives. This essay explores the dynamic of adventure and memory via analysis of Smith’s 2012 album Banga, in which this dynamic is played out in informative ways. I focus on the music of Banga too, and on the different voices utilised by Smith. In the second part of the essay, I consider the canonisation of Smith and her work in light of what I term ‘late chronicles’, a series of documents and events over the past fifteen years that have seen Smith’s work fixed into the rock canon and have provided further context to situate her work and her many cultural reference points. I finish with some further observations on Banga, filtered through the knowledge we have of Smith from the late chronicles that preceded it.

The book is part of the series ‘Profils américains’ – more information available at the PULM website.

Patti Smith: Outside contents

Upcoming presentation: ‘All You See Is Glory’: The Burden of Stardom and the Tragedy of Nina Simone

I will be presenting a paper at the IASPM Australia New Zealand Branch Conference at the Australian National University, Canberra, on 5 December. My paper is entitled ‘”All You See Is Glory”: The Burden of Stardom and the Tragedy of Nina Simone’ and the abstract is below.

Although most often remembered as an icon of the civil rights era, Nina Simone enjoyed (and occasionally endured) a long career during which the bulk of the songs she performed dealt with the politics, pains and precariousness of the self. Her work—always suffused with longing, sensuality and the passion of being—took on, in her later career, what might be termed a ‘defiant melancholy’ as she used her songs and live performances to navigate the burden of her past. As much as she had been a movement intellectual in the 1960s, Simone had been a star and the sense of loss of both political possibility (signalled by the ‘failure’ of the civil rights movement in the USA) and stardom (signalled by the decline in her popularity) flavoured much of the material she produced from the mid-1970s onwards.

In this paper, I explore Simone’s extraordinary performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, and in particular her rendition of Janis Ian’s song ‘Stars’. I begin by reflecting on Ian’s own experience of celebrity and the way she articulated it in ‘Stars’, then I move on to compare Simone’s version, analysing it in the context of the festival appearance in which it appeared and in the longer text of Simone’s life as an artist and celebrity. Drawing on scholarship connected to celebrity, authorship and liveness, I read the song as exemplifying and challenging narratives of fame and artistic biography. I also reflect on cover versions as modes of authorship, authentication and experience and as live performance as an interface for stars and their audiences.

‘Pop pollution’ as ‘pornography’? I can’t even

Last week, the philosopher Roger Scruton used a 10-minute talk on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Point of View’ programme to rail, once more, against popular culture. His talk, entitled ‘The Tyranny of Pop’, attacked what he sees as the denigration of culture, social interaction and education by the ‘banal melodies’, ‘mechanical rhythms’ and general ubiquity of ‘vacuous’ popular music. In what has become his typical style, Scruton blamed the ills of society on pop music, demonstrating little understanding of popular culture but rather extolling a monolithic notion of what ‘Music’ is.

The first part of the talk concerned the ubiquity of popular music in public places and the ‘banal’ noise ‘disgorged’ from hidden speakers. The resulting chaos has led to a situation, apparently, where human interaction is no longer possible and public space has been conquered by inhuman sound. Ignoring the fact that all the disastrous developments he finds abhorrent are the result of human interaction and invention, Scruton posits a timeless notion of the ‘human’ that has been destroyed by an inhuman ‘them’ (‘they’ are left unnamed except for a reference to the now-defunct Muzak company).

‘Anybody with the slightest feeling for music’, argued Scruton, is now driven to distraction when undertaking a visit to the pub or restaurant and has to struggle to endure the torture afflicting their ears. The problem, apparently, stems from the invention of the phonograph in the 1870s and the subsequent decline in musical understanding throughout the twentieth century as new technologies were accompanied by new cultures of listening and performance.

There are problems with this chronology, however. The idea that (annoying) noise is an invention of the twentieth century shows little historical awareness of sound in society. As Emily Cockayne has shown in her wonderful book Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England 1600-1770, early modern English cities were constant sources of assault on the senses. And, as numerous other studies from the disciplines of musicology, history, literature and sound studies have also shown, sonic and other sensory nuisances are not restricted to urban centres. Societies are noisy things and have been, it seems, for as long as people have been making critical noises about them.

But Scruton is not really interested in sound in this sense. Instead, social noise is used as the Trojan horse from which he can build, yet again, a set of elitist views on music, its culture and values. Pop music’s melodies, rhythms and recycled ‘stock harmonies’ signal ‘the eclipse of the musical ear’. Pop doesn’t need to be listened to because it has nothing serious to communicate. Rather, it has become the cause of, and not just one of a long historical line of ingredients in, the contemporary hubbub.

Scruton also used his talk to attack the language and culture of young people, citing the over-use of the word ‘like’ as an example and claiming that this inarticulacy of today’s youth was due to listening to pop. As the extremity of his views escalated, he stated that ‘pop pollution has an effect on musical appreciation comparable to pornography on sex’ and that ‘pop addicts lose the capacity for genuine musical experience’. Classical music is no longer a ‘universal resource’ and younger generations are left impoverished by this. There is no question here of whether, or where or for whom, classical music was a ‘universal music’, no recognition that there could be anything of musical value outside the Western European world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a timeless ‘Music’, for Scruton, just as there is a timeless ‘Human’.

As Scruton’s attack on noise, pop and young people reached its midpoint in one rapid reactionary point after another, my mind switched to a phrase a younger generation has adopted to articulate a sudden onset of shocking, unpleasant, scary or otherwise alarming information: ‘I can’t even’. While this may seem like proof of Scruton’s points – a signal of a real inability to process ideas – ‘I can’t even’ can also be seen as a witty and self-aware status and place marker posted temporarily while its user prepares a more time-consuming response. I also thought of how Scruton’s attacks showed so little contemplation on or awareness of the ways language evolves. Far from being the death of language, young people’s communication practices are products of, responses to and new inventions of the multiform possibilities allowed by language. When David Crystal wrote a piece for The Guardian some years ago in which he defended text messaging against accusations of linguistic degeneracy, he showed how the accumulation of knowledge gained from a lifetime’s study of a discipline can and must be allied with a sympathetic understanding of contemporary, cross-generational society. Unlike Crystal, however, Scruton would seemingly have us all stuck permanently in a cultural nineteenth century.

Since at least the 1960s we have witnessed an often brilliant succession of critical responses to rock and pop music in popular magazines, newspapers, books and digital media platforms, work that has shown the vitality of the music and the culture from which it emerges. As an academic discipline, popular music studies has grown over the last few decades into a vibrant international forum of ideas, approaches and discoveries. Pop music does not emerge from such analysis unscathed or uncriticised, but it does show itself to be an object worthy of serious, informed discussion.

Given the success of such endeavours, it may seem unnecessary to rise to the bait of a talk clearly designed to stir, albeit from the fairly safe environs of a Radio 4 morning slot, a bit of controversy. After all, not only is Scruton entitled to his ‘point of view’, but there will doubtless be a large number of listeners for whom he is speaking good sense. But my concern lies not only with the fact that Scruton’s views serve to undermine the work of fans, critics and scholars who are trying to take popular culture seriously. I worry too that there are residual, often dominant, forces within the academic and critical community who are unable or unwilling to take popular culture seriously even in late 2015 and who are shaping the cultural understanding of culture and the educational environment in which it is understood.

As a self-confessed ‘pop addict’, I may, of course, have lost ‘the capacity for genuine musical appreciation’. Even so, I take some comfort from the knowledge that – as pop fans have always known and as pop criticism and cultural musicology attempt to reinforce – pop can be a launching pad for thinking every bit as ‘erudite’ as Scruton’s but of a richer, more relevant and more inclusive sort. Hopefully those voices can ignore the moral and intellectual bullying propounded in attacks on what they hold to be valuable and make themselves heard as part of, not above or beyond, the hubbub.

New book: The Late Voice

LateVoice-coverThis week sees the publication of my third book, The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music. The book is being published by Bloomsbury Academic initially in a hardback edition. A cheaper paperback edition will be published at a later date.

From the book’s blurb: “Popular music artists, as performers in the public eye, offer a privileged site for the witnessing and analysis of ageing and its mediation. The Late Voice undertakes such an analysis by considering issues of time, age, memory, innocence and experience in modern popular song. At the heart of the study are six extended case studies of singers and songwriters – Ralph Stanley, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell – whose work is discussed in relation to particular performance traditions and the articulation of lateness in various forms.”

I’ll be posting excerpts from the book on this site, along with additional material and links to audiovisual material related to the book’s main topics and case studies. In the meantime, more information and a preview of the book can be found here.

Upcoming presentation: ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’

I will be presenting a paper at the 18th biennial IASPM conference in Campinas, Brazil, on 30 June. My paper is entitled ‘Excavating “Coimbra”: Genealogy, Nostalgia, and the Material Life of a Portuguese popular song’ and the abstract is below.

This paper uses the story of a particular song, the Portuguese fado ‘Coimbra’, as a way of exploring the relationship between representational distance, ‘prescribed’ or ‘instant’ nostalgia and history. ‘Coimbra’ began its life as a musical representation of a city but later became, as ‘April in Portugal’, an international representation of a country and of a more general sense of nostalgic longing. Telling this story chronologically will encourage a focus on the twists, turns and mutations that occur during the life of a much-performed song, tracing in particular the way in which this song’s inherent representational distance grows into ever more distanced , displaced and distorted configurations. This journey will travel from Portugal to Brazil, from France to the USA, as well as many points in between. The second part of the paper reverses this historical chronology by focusing on the chronology of the research process, on the unearthing, excavation and genealogic processes involved in historical song studies. What can be understood from having all of these ‘Coimbras’ available to us, not least on digital platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and iTunes? Here, notions of the archive, of media archaeology and of the material life of music become paramount and impact on the questions of nostalgia and temporal displacement with which this panel is engaged.

New publication: “Across the Evening Sky”: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone

My essay ‘Across the Evening Sky: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone’ has been published in the book Gender, Age and Musical Creativity, edited by Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton (Ashgate, 2015). GenderAgeMusicalCreativity

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores the work of three female musicians – Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone – who offer valuable insights into the interplay of history, biography and memory. It focuses specifically on the representation of innocence and experience via the “late voice”. “Lateness”, a concept exemplified by these artists but which extends to a broad range of modern (post mid-twentieth century) popular musics, refers to five primary issues: chronology (the stage in an artist’s career); the vocal act (the ability to convincingly portray experience); afterlife (posthumous careers made possible by phonography); retrospection (how voices “look back” or anticipate looking back); and the writing of age, experience, lateness and loss into song texts. The main case study of the chapter is the song ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, written by Denny and later performed by Collins and Simone. The song is analysed in terms of its representation of time and experience and in relation to the lives and works of its interpreters.

More information about the book here.