Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Andrew Sisters - Apple Blossom Time

July, 2012: In Echuca for the Winter Blues Festival, the challenge was: how to avoid paying the tourist premium?*  In a restaurant, I ordered fettucine with veal meatballs, the second cheapest main-meal (which reminds me, the most popular coffin is the second cheapest in the catalogue) and the waiter pressed me strongly to order the veal shanks instead, $10 dearer.  Finally I said, "Why?  Is there something wrong with the meatballs?"  
But Andy scored a bargain at the Moama markets: eight pieces of sheet-music, 50c each.  The Stephen Foster songbook promises nights of entertainment, but it was Begin The Beguine (a song that even Cole Porter, who wrote it, couldn't play without the music in front of him) that led us back to the Andrew Sisters.  I hadn't heard the Andrew Sisters since childhood - Errol had a best-of I'd listened to almost as much as the Supremes.  APPLE BLOSSOM TIME was my favourite back then.  Andy looked it up in 1001 Pop Songs, and hearing it again, I understood why I'd loved it.  The first line: "I'll be with you in apple blossom time" - in my mind's-eye, I see masses of soft, white petals, bees buzzing, grown-up me in a white dress, veil floating on a sunny breeze...It is a happily-ever-after fantasy with all the stops pulled out.  But children like a hint of darkness in their art, because they know it's there, out in the wide world, and in their own bedrooms as soon as the light goes out.  The minor chords of APPLE BLOSSOM TIME, the unexpected twists and turns in the melody, the weird intervals (which, as we discovered, make for difficult harmonising), give it a piquancy I would have responded to as a child.  Now, of course, I hear it as a war-time song, and the piquancy is even sharper: the longing for peace and tranquility, fruitful life and love, while in a world of turmoil.
*It is worth paying the tourist premium just to see, and perhaps step foot on, the Echuca paddle-steamers.  Was anything made by man more lovable than an old paddle-steamer?  Seeing the steam of the approaching PS Emmylou rising above the red-gums, hearing the 'plash-plash' of her paddle, then the sound of Andy's fiddle (a three-hour engagement on a Murray River cruise), was very exciting.  I uncharacteristically took more than one photo.

Vera Lynn's version of APPLE BLOSSOM TIME is the most beautiful:


Amazingly enough, here is a clip of the Supremes and the Andrew Sisters singing each other's songs on a TV show:


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Dusty Rankin

May, 2012: One of my most oft-played purchases from Athol Colemane has turned out to be a Columbia compilation, The History Of Australian Country Music, Vol I.  The cover was missing (Athol, being meticulous, kept it in a white sleeve with his neat writing on it) so I got it half-price for $1.  On this comp, I first heard Shirley Thoms, though of course I'd heard of her - Shirley's mysterious, sweet, ageless voice, as clear-ringing as a bell-bird, struck me immediately.  But the song that sent me to the record-player - who is this? who wrote this? and what the hell is that word he keeps singing? - was CURRABUBULA, sung by Dusty Rankin, written by someone whose surname is Hawthorne.  I tried to "check it out on the Google" (best wishes, Jimmy Little, wherever you are), but didn't get far.  
It's a song about the good old days, when this "sleepy little hollow" just south of Tamworth was a thriving centre.  This theme can be grossly sentimental, and worse - it can be a wallowing in the trait that afflicts a lot of us as we get older, namely, the refusal to accept change and find good in it; it also often smacks of the 'good old days' when non-whites and women knew their place.  At the same time, it's interesting and poignant that many of these decrepit, shrunken towns we drive through (or in the case of this song, catch a train through) were once lively and full of potential, and it would be a shame to avoid this theme out of fear of stepping into one of its booby traps. Several things save CURRABUBULA from being repugnant, nostalgic Australiana.  For a start, there's its craftsmanship and literariness - Hawthorne clearly put a lot of effort into this song, while many country songwriters go to great pains to create songs out of plain words, plain, old clichĂ©s, and to eschew anything that can remotely be considered poetic or intellectual.  Hawthorne even goes so far as to refer (without contempt) to a more literary era: "In the days of books and letters" (so unexpected was this line, I first heard it as "boots and leathers").  He uses metaphor, imagery: "But you couldn't say that this lonely place/ Was all peace and quiet, made of silk and lace."  Another of this song's charms is its rhyming scheme, which has just about every word you could think of to rhyme with Currabubula - railway car, Shangri-la, church bazaar, near and far, blood and scar.  Even the repetition of 'Currabubula', an outrageous word to put in a song, let alone about a dozen times, makes the listener smile.  And there are the two extra-long lines that the otherwise steady rhythm has to accommodate with a little skip (thereby showing the priority that the words, the meaning, has over the form).  These might sound like insignificant touches, but when you listen to a lot of country music, poetry like this stands out.  
Dusty Rankin sings it in his warm, low, dusty voice, adding (only once, more's the pity) that rare thing: a soothing yodel.

Here it is:


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Elvis Presley

March, 2012: I revisited a wallet of CDs I used to carry around with me during a certain rootless, homeless period of my life.  Most of them were burns from Nic's vast collection, and comps of favourites put together by him or Galea.  I'd listened to them heavily, drawing comfort from them.  Revisiting them was a bit scary - would these CDs suck me back into that sad time?  Music is magic, and I wouldn't dare underestimate it.  
Among the CDs I revisited was one of Elvis's, Rhythm And Country.  It's a burn, so I don't have the liner notes, but it's a late-90s release of a session he did in Memphis in 1973, including heads and tails where Elvis is warming up and mucking up.  Not that I had any doubt, but it proves his consummate skill as a singer.  The song I fell profoundly and permanently in love with, back in 2003, was Danny O'Keefe's 'Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues'; this time, it was 'YOUR LOVE'S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING'.  There's nothing to this song, so it seems; it's built in a loose and slap-dash way around that one line: "Baby, your love's been a long time coming."  Next comes: "Baby, your love's got a hold on me/ Baby, your love's sure got me humming/ Baby, your love's been a long time coming."  I can picture a few songwriters (some internetting has yielded up three authors: Carmol Taylor, Norris D. Wilson and R. Bourke) whipping it up in five minutes - "Hey, what rhymes with 'coming'?"  "Bumming, gumming?  Humming?"  And I can see Elvis singing the lyric straight off the page, accidentally skipping over a verse, adding a second chorus to make up for it, (it goes: verse, another verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus), the session players adeptly following him.  To me, it sounds like the work of experts, the sort of perfection people can throw off only after years of slaving over their craft.  "I felt a feeling, such a wonderful feeling, that I never felt before" - I would never be game to write such a line!  Then to repeat similar waffle in the bridge, "Deep in my heart there's a feeling I never knew."  But somehow it all binds together, melody, lyric, performance, capturing a specific emotion.  If you are ever at a point in your life when, after untold number of romantic disappointments, you finally find someone who really loves you (and vice versa), this is the song you'll be singing.

This is a bit more produced (the backing vocals are a bit excessive) than the version I was listening to, but it's still good:


Sunday, January 1, 2012

Shirley Thoms

January, 2012: Athol Colemane has given me a glimpse into a network of country music collectors.  Because I tend to be a bit fuzzy (or fictional) when it comes to facts, these collectors have become mythical figures: such as the one who keeps 80,000 78s in several air-conditioned shipping containers.  And there's the one - I won't say in which country town -  who sells bootleg CDs of early Australian country 78s.  Athol's collection didn't include any Shirley Thoms, 'Australia's Yodelling Sweetheart', but he put me in touch with the bootlegger, whose did.  I put $25 in an envelope and promptly received a beautifully-recorded CD of early Shirley.  
Shirley Thoms has been on my list of music-I-should-hear since Archer of Daylesford, the protogĂ©e (posthumously) of Tex Morton, recommended her to me.  "Can you yodel?" asked Archer.  I will never be able to yodel like Shirley, but I can learn a thing or two by trying my best to imitate her.  She has a perfect voice.  It's almost inhuman in its sweetness and purity.  It has a smile in it, like Billie Holiday's.  I learnt HAPPY COWGIRL (not to be confused with Joan Ridgway's 'Yodelling Cowgirl' or June Holm's 'Happy Yodelling Cowgirl') partly because Andy had given me a difficult brief for song lyrics: "nothing sad please".  So I felt the need to research happy songs.  There aren't many of them.  HAPPY COWGIRL is a hard song, not because of the yodel, but because the words are plain, generic and repetitive, and it's easy to get them mixed around - "The air is full of light and the world is all right" in verse one, becomes "The world is all right 'cause your arms hold me tight" in verse four.  And the rising sun shines o'er the prairie, then it shines at noon o'er the prairie, then it sinks at last, then the stars sparkle bright o'er the prairie.  But it's fun to sing.  When I busked in Tamworth this year, I played for 25 minutes on Brisbane Street without earning a cent; then, on Peel Street, I found a bit of quiet that lasted long enough to sing HAPPY COWGIRL and half of 'Century Too Late'.  The lull ended when a yodeller equipped with a PA let rip on the opposite side of the road, and I had to close up shop.  I was counting my earnings when Sophie came out of the Post Office - in the time it had taken Sophie to buy a stamp, Shirley had earned me $9.

Listen to her here:


Thursday, December 1, 2011

John Hartford

December, 2011: I played with Oh Willie Dear at the Town & Country in St Peters, a pub "immortalised by Slim Dusty" in one of his inane beer songs.  I sang Henry Lawson instead of Slim Dusty.  Naturally I stayed on to hear Oh WIllie Dear, who are Daniele and Daniel from the Maladies (a duo slowly accruing more players: Jenny Shimmin on banjo, a double-basser, and now a fiddler, too) playing bluegrass classics.  When I first saw the Maladies, although sometimes too rock-'n'-rolly for me, I was arrested by Daniele's voice and his way of singing.  He lets a song completely possess him - his whole body goes into producing the note.  Lots of singers aim for this, but can't get there; maybe they're trying too hard.  I was impressed when I heard that the two Dans had started a bluegrass duo; it seemed like a creative, robust response to the woeful bands-in-pubs-in-Sydney situation; also, it was an exciting prospect: Daniele's voice, Daniel's picking, applied to bluegrass!
I don't love bluegrass as much as I used to.  Sometimes a whole set of bluegrass start to feel like someone tapping a spoon rapidly on my head.  And maybe I've seen too much bad bluegrass; what springs to mind is a session I strayed through at the Illawarra Folk Festival in January, where about twenty-five people clutching auto-harps, mainly the same brand-new model, were sitting in a circle of plastic chairs playing 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken'.  I watched the song out, completely divided over whether it was good for my soul, or bad for it.  It was similar to the feeling I get when I'm in Target, on a mission for undies, super-glue and a plug, and I end up at the back in the garden section - it's good for my soul to see something leafy, alive (ish), and from the natural world, and yet it's ghastly and wrong to find it at the back of Target in plastic pots.
Seeing Oh Willie Dear, it was the unbluegrass songs I liked best.  Patsy Cline's 'If You've Got Leaving On Your Mind' was just beautiful: unfurling note-by-note in Daniele's voice, conveying emotion, not aspiring to perfection.  At the end of the set, I asked about 'Almost Persuaded', which somehow I'd never heard before, and "the one about the business man going to work in tall buildings".  I went home and looked up John Hartford's 'TALL BUILDINGS'.  I've never been a fan of his other hit, 'Gentle On My Mind' (I'm offended by that ideal of the undemanding woman who waits patiently at home while her man has untold adventures in the wide world) but I fell in love with 'TALL BUILDINGS'.  
It's a remarkably simple song - a descending chord pattern is repeated without variation over two short verses and a chorus, with a lyric consisting of language a six-year-old might use: "Goodbye to the sunshine, goodbye to the dew/ Goodbye to flowers and goodbye to you," and, "Someday, my baby, when I am a man/ And other have taught me the best they can."  Yet it manages to span a man's whole life, and to be heart-breaking without saying anything particularly sad.  It's a great example of understatement.  All the complexity occurs in what is left unsaid: for example, in the first verse, he's anticipating going off to work in the city, and by the second verse, he is already about to retire, and vaguely wondering what happened "betwixt and between".  There's sadness in the man's life being over and done with in just two verses, the bulk of his life spent off-screen in that consuming, distracting, ultimately meaningless fug of work.  In the last chorus, I suppose he's an old man farewelling the sunshine and dew for the last time.  But to sing (rather than pore over) it's sweet and pretty, a bit wistful - then it makes me want to go outside and look at the clouds.  Maybe I should revisit 'Gentle On My Mind'.

The film clip is pretty sweet.  I miss the hippie days.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

Loretta Lynn via Jean Stafford

September, 2011:  I was browsing the classifieds in the Cowra Guardian when I saw a small ad in the 'FOR SALE' column: "1000s LPs EPs singles $5-$1 Country R&B and more".  I thought, "I bet Mr. Colemane of Colemane's Country Music Museum has decided to sell off his records!"
My hunch was right.  I walked down the road that goes by the river and the overgrown, grassy railway until I got to Colemane's Country Corner, with the wishing well in the garden, and the hand-painted sign, "Don't be shy!  Come inside!  Surprise yourself!"  Athol Colemane sat me down with his ledger, in which his entire collection (circa twenty-thousand) of country records is catalogued in his elegant hand-writing.  I wrote a sub-list of records I'd like to look at - Kitty Wells, Tex Morton, Steve Earle (of course), Steve Young, Johnny Darrell, Jean Stafford, I mean, Jean Shepard, oh, what the hell, how about both of them?  A large proportion of Athol's collection is Australian country music - singers I've never heard of, let alone heard.  It's a bit daunting, and some of my stabs in the dark have been unrewarding - I don't think I'll listen twice to Mary Schneider's yodelling record (I love yodelling, but this was yodelling to be played as background music in a shopping mall; oh, maybe I am being unkind, maybe I should give it a second go), nor Arthur Blanch, with his tight jeans and generic American-style songs.
I ended up liking Jean Stafford, who is innocent and Australian (the record I bought is named Flowers For Mama), distinct from Jean Shepard, who is American and more worldly.  I was happily listening to Stafford when a line caught my ear: "What kind of a girl do you think I am?"  Then: "What kind of a girl would do those things you're asking me to without wedding rings?"  I couldn't tell if the tone of the song was suggestively smutty or virtuously outraged; it really could have been either.  I went into the living-room and moved the needle back so I could listen again.  "Is that what you have to do to prove you're a man?"  and "What kind of a girl do you want for a wife?  Do you want a girl who knows that much about life?"  Jean Stafford was definitely singing it virtuously; but I couldn't help but suspect that the songwriter had managed to slip in some smut right under the noses of her puritanical audience.  I went to the record-player again to check the songwriter credit.  It all became clear.  It was Lynn/Wilburn.  That is, it was written by Loretta Lynn, with a chunk of its royalties unjustly snatched away from her by Teddy Wilburn.  The equivocal tone was now accounted for - there's no one who can tangle up smut and humour and virtue the way Loretta Lynn does (Dolly Parton comes close - such as her song 'If I Lose My Mind' where the young wife runs back to Mama, crying that her swinger husband "...made me watch him love another woman, and he tried to make me love another man").  I even looked the song up on You Tube (I don't, very often), and saw Loretta sitting on a haybale (oh, I might have made up that detail - aren't they all sitting on haybales in those black-and-white tv clips?) singing 'WHAT KIND OF A GIRL DO YOU THINK I AM' with a fierce and virtuously-outraged frown.  But she wasn't fooling me!  

On looking up the clip a few months later, I see she is not sitting on a haybale, but in front of a fake tree in a fake garden:


Friday, July 1, 2011

Gillian Welch

July, 2011: Towards the end of July, I was feeling on'ry.  I used to think that word meant 'horny', but now I think it means "grr".  I don't know whether to blame my on'ritude on a certain long-cherished man-dream that fell flat on its face about that time (Mumma, if you ever read this, that's a reference to the ostriches, or was it the alpacas?), or, a more likely cause, my novel - after eight years of writing and rewriting it, I was feeling like a prisoner doing a sentence of an indefinite number of years, and for a crime I knew not what.  During the week, as I wrote, I fantasised about having a weekend of unfettered freedom, unfettered solitude.  On Friday night, I cooked four sausages and an extra lot of tofu-and-vegies, and gathered together some bottles of water, a sleeping bag and my tucker-bag, threw in some matches, and a bit of toilet paper for a taste of luxury.  Helen dropped me and my bike (Debbie's bike) at my grandparents' old place.  "I should move out there, where the sky is open wide, and my grandmother's buried on a lonely hillside."  I didn't bring my guitar, as I didn't trust myself to concurrently ride bicycle and carry guitar.  This was the only night in about eight years when I haven't had a guitar at hand.  
I had prepared myself for this deprivation by cram-learning the new Gillian Welch song that had just begun to obsess me - HARD TIMES, from her new album 'The Harrow And The Harvest'.  Being on'ry, or perhaps the true description of my state of mind would be "fragile, with depression threatening", I clung to this song as if it were a torch (the torch that I had decided not to bring).  I sang it over and over, as I rootled through my grandparents' house in search of the least rat-pooey-pissy bedding and cooking utensils, and I sang it as I loaded myself up and walked over the hill, across the paddock, across the first creek.  I made a little camp for myself, choosing a spot least likely to be a thoroughfare for the wild horses or the kangaroos, as I didn't want to be trampled on while in my sleeping bag.  I went for a walk in the bush.  I sat in the limb of a tree, near where my grandmother had been buried (but no longer), watching the little birds and the last of the sunlight, and singing: "When the day got long, as it does about now, I'd hear him singing to his mule as he ploughed."  I think the actual lyric is "singing to his mule-cow", but as that animal is unknown to me, I had to alter it.  I sang, "Singing, 'Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more!'"  
It was a strangely scary, exhilarating experience, sleeping by myself in that bush I've known all my life.  I felt myself "fall through layers of fear" - that's how it felt.  It was an experience that was either going to kill or cure me.  The light faded.  I thought, "Night's coming!"  I wanted it to hurry up and come, to get it over with, but of course it came in its own sweet time.  Somehow, it was like life ending.  I still (a month later) don't understand.  I lit a fire, and spent the evening moving away from the smoke, putting on another branch, staring, listening, uneasy, restless, excited, despairing, but starting to feel calmer.  I heard the screaming woman bird (AKA the barking owl), which I was rather dreading.  But, for a woman with her throat cut, she was moving very fast.  And in the distance, another woman with her throat cut returned her ghastly call.  I also heard a couple of those great subterranean "booms"; the next day, my uncle told me these are known as 'desert noises', and were heard long before industrialisation.  I lay in my sleeping-bag within a sleeping-bag - it is cold in mid-winter in the central-west - and watched the stars slowly slide over the world.  I'd never quite realised how friendly stars are.
I sang HARD TIMES as I cycled along the dirt roads the next day, my thirty-seventh birthday.  I'm connected to that country by little threads of blood and of passed-down recollections.  "But that Camptown man, he doesn't plough no more.  I see him walking down to the cigarette store.  Guess he lost that knack, he forgot that song, woke up one morning and that mule was gone."  I don't want to forget that song! - that simple happiness, that simple way of easing a heavy heart.  And I want to develop that knack - of fending for myself - while there are still people alive who can teach it to me.  "See, it's a mean old world, heavy and mean.  That big machine is just picking up steam [she sings "speed"].  We're supping on tears, supping on wine [well, not teetotaller me], I'll get to heaven in my own sweet time."  It took Gillian Welch eight years to make a new album, due to, according to her, "Quality control."  It makes me love her all the more that she didn't play along with the 'two-to-three years between albums' schedule.  Quality-of-life control, perhaps.

Here's a live track of Gillian and David Rawlings singing HARD TIMES: