Nina Simone’s tribute to Martin Luther King – fifty years ago today

Martin Luther King Fifty years ago today, Nina Simone and her band performed at Westbury Music Fair in New York. Three days had passed since the murder of Martin Luther King and Simone used her concert to stage an act of collective mourning and outrage. Below is a re-post of a 2013 entry from my blog So Transported: Listening to Nina Simone, in which I reflect on three of the songs performed that day.

‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead’, Nina Simone’s haunting tribute to Martin Luther King, was one of a suite of songs performed by Simone and her band at the Westbury Music Fair in New York on Sunday 7th April 1968, shortly after King’s murder. Simone begins introduces ‘Sunday in Savannah’, the first song in what subsequently came to be known as “The Martin Luther King Suite”, by expressing surprise that her audience have turned up to the concert hall given the tragic events of recent days. “Happily surprised” that they have, however, she expresses hope that the evening’s performance can act as some sort of healing ritual, or working-through of the mourning process. An elegiac note is struck with the languid ‘Sunday in Savannah’, a song which bears no direct reference to King or his murder but rather imagines a peaceful continuation of everyday life in a religious community, a practice, it implies, which King should have been able to pursue instead of having to take up the fight against an unnecessary evil. The longing here is not for what was but for what might have been had historical circumstances been different, had humankind been more tolerant, or had the dream that King foretold come to pass into reality. The sense of harmonious continuity is emphasized in the musical accompaniment by the organ (played by Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon) and by the lightest of touches from piano, guitar and drums. Only at the song’s culmination do voice and piano become discordant and harsh, as Simone substitutes “Atlanta” for “Savannah”, invoking King’s home town and pointing out “it’s the same thing, same State, same feeling”.

‘Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)’ was a song written by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor in response to King’s assassination. As Simone says at the outset, the band had had just one day to learn it and the performance subsequently seems to veer between the rehearsed and the improvised. ‘Why?’ has made various appearances on record and CD, initially appearing in edited form on the RCA album ‘Nuff Said (1968) and later being partially restored to its original version as part of the “Martin Luther King Suite” on the compilations Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times and Sugar in My Bowl. The full, unedited version can be heard on the compilation Forever Young, Gifted & Black (2006) and begins in a quietly elegiac tone as Simone introduces the song. Taylor’s suitably epic opening – “Once upon this planet Earth” – sets the tone for a reverential account of King’s life, work and dreams. To begin with, Simone stays clear of militancy as she emphasizes King’s Christian message, the tragic sacrifice he was forced to pay and the possibility that he might have died in vain. Lateness is the song’s keynote: King’s lateness, Simone’s growing sense of lateness (which would transform itself into a perpetual process of mourning) and a general sense of lateness and loss for the civil rights movement. In one of the many unanswered questions of the song, Taylor and Simone ask “is it too late for us all?”

‘Why?’ can be heard as a motivated act of remembering, wondering and yearning. As remembrance the narrative is not inaccurate but, as with many elegies, accuracy is less important than the act of recalling a person’s life and its meaning for a wider congregation. ‘Why?’ acts as a song of wonder and yearning simply through its positing of childishly simple, yet difficult-to-answer, questions. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t things be different? The black female voice, which Farah Jasmine Griffin describes as one of the “founding sounds” of the USA, has often been called upon to provide solace in moments of historical rupture. It is also a voice that “expresses a quality of longing: longing for home, for love, for connection with God, for heaven, for freedom … a conduit between what and where we are and what and where we want to be”. As with the musical role models amd social movment spokespeople discussed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, it is clear that Simone needed to offer a response to the tragedy of April 4 and that those affected by the tragedy needed to hear from an artist of her stature, ability and socio-political position.

But ‘Why?’ does not consist solely of questions. To be sure, it manifests one of the commonly understood phases of mourning in its bewildered and uncomprehending ‘whys’, in its pain and numbness. But it also enacts another phase of mourning by showing anger and a refusal to accept what has happened. After seven minutes of Taylor’s elegiac gospel song (closer, perhaps, to the kind of “sorrow songs” discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk), Simone and the band start to raise the volume and the singer’s voice takes on a harder edge as she poses a new question: what will happen in the cities now that “our people are rising”? Utilizing some of the stop-start drama of her reading of ‘Pirate Jenny‘, Simone brings the searchlight of her voice to flash on “that moment that you know what life is”, a moment of decision – an event – where the attainment of a new, more meaningful subjectivity is recognized, a commitment and fidelity that can survive even death. To a dramatically rolling piano accompaniment, Simone testifies that “you know what freedom is, for one moment of your life”. As she returns to Taylor’s lyric – “what’s gonna happen / now that the King of Love is dead?” – the song takes on a new, less fatalistic, more assertive dimension, no longer a question raised to a cruel God, but rather a threat and prediction of “the fire next time“.

During the song, Simone also takes the time to reflect on the loss of other role models and cultural beacons: “Lorraine Hansberry left us … and then Langston Hughes left us, Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us. Who can go on? Do you realize how many we have lost? … We can’t afford any more losses. … They’re shooting us down one by one.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other incidents, not least the church bombing that had inspired the writing of the song. At one point she replaces “Tennessee” with “Memphis”, a reference to the city where King was shot; later, calling upon the audience to join her in song, Simone shouts “the time is too late now … the King is dead!” As if it were not clear that ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is delivering on the threats hinted at in ‘Why?’, Simone declares “I ain’t about to be nonviolent honey!” Unlike the version of the song immortalized on the In Concert album, here it is Simone who is laughing. Her laughter seems as strange and out of place as that of the audience in the earlier version but we should probably hear it as an illogical response to an illogical and impossible situation.

The Late Voice now available in paperback

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.

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 University 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 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

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 talk: A Dream Deferred

‘A Dream Deferred: Nina Simone and the Work of Mourning’

Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 16:15, Arts A155, University of Sussex

I’ll be giving a talk hosted by the Centre for American Studies, University of Sussex.
nina
This talk presents work from my recent book about the late singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. It focuses on Simone’s reaction to what she saw as the failure of the civil rights movement and how that reaction was played out in her work from the end of the 1960s onwards, blending into a personal but still critical nostalgia in her late work. The talk also makes reference to the recent commemoration of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Nina Simone’s response to King’s murder. It also acts as a commemoration of Simone and her legacy, with 2013 marking 80 years since her birth and 10 since her death.

Víctor Jara: 40 years

It’s forty years since the events that led to the murder of the Chilean singer, songwriter, theatre director and activist Víctor Jara (1932-1073). Here is a PDF of an article I wrote about Jara (and the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez) while researching my doctoral thesis. I was, and remain, as interested in Jara’s posthumous career as in the wonderful work he did during his life. In the years following Jara’s murder at the hands of the Chilean military – years which also witnessed the death and disappearance of thousands of civilians in Latin America’s southern cone – he became a powerful symbol of resistance against the continent’s military dictatorships. In my thesis I wrote about Jara’s ‘posthumous Che Guevara-like career as an icon on posters, T-shirts and murals’ and also discussed cover versions and other references to his work by other popular musicians within and beyond Latin America. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Jara remained a constant point of reference for Latin American musicians attempting to respond to the brutality of military regimes; examples include nueva canción (‘new song’) acts Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani, progressive rock band Los Jaivas and DJ Ricardo Villalobos, while other Latin American music cultures are represented by Silvio Rodríguez and the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Fuirthermore, artists from outside of Latin America – including Joan Baez, The Clash, Robert Wyatt and U2 – helped to constitute an international network or resistance and remembrance for Chile’s recent history via references to Jara and his work.

little holes in grief

I’ve always felt that there is that moment in your life, when you forget about something that is really terrible. For five minutes the sun is shining and everything is beautiful. Then all of a sudden you realize that the person you cared about is gone, and it all comes back. It is one of those horrible things about grief – one of those little holes in grief when it becomes even more painful.

Jake Holmes, Watertown

the quanta of the past

Grass has been growing over the entire past, which sudenly appears now to be leveled, no longer having any time value at all. Until – one usually discovers it with a blow – the displacement of the quanta of the past, which has continued to take place under the grass, becomes manifest: then the time of the war is no more tedious than the time after it, and what now appears as a mass of time, like a mountain, is perhaps just a few summer weeks, very far away, that brought with them an already half-forgotten love affair.

Améry, On Aging, 10