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.