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Friday Song: Mary Gauthier, I DRINK

Everybody likes a drink. Everybody loves a drinker. There's nothing like booze to make life a little more colourful, fun and generally worth living. Right? Well, maybe not exactly. Most of us know that, like any other highs, alcohol has its lows. For some, it has the nasty habit of destroying lives. Yet it is a weird fact that, in our confused culture, booze gets some great PR. A public figure who drinks too much will tend to be affectionately and sympathetically portrayed in the press. Think of the journalist Jeffrey Bernard, or Shane MacGowan of The Pogues, or Oliver Reed: their work and lives may have suffered but, in terms of image, becoming an alcoholic was a sound career move. It gave them that whiff of outrageousness, that hint of tragedy, that we like to see in people whose lives provide entertainment for the rest of us. The booze...

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Friday Song: Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney, BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?, sung by Teddy Thompson

Has there ever been a song so widely covered, and so often ruined, as the astonishing 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?' Even though it is one of my very favourite songs, I have struggled to find a version that truly does it justice. Why is it so good? And why so badly interpreted, even by great musicians? I think that there is a link between those two questions. Written in 1930, it was commissioned for the 1932 Broadway review Americana. The man who largely put the show together EY 'Yip' Harburg, and wrote the lyrics for the song, is one of the greats of 20th century song. In the same year as Americana was running, he wrote 'It's Only a Paper Moon' with Harold Arlen with whom, a few years later, he wrote the score for The Wizard of Oz which include , of course, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'....

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Friday Song: Paolo Conte, VIA CON ME

Would Nigel Farage  enjoy this week's Friday Song? It would seem, on the face of it, unlikely. The great Italian songwriter Paolo Conte is sophisticated, arty, earthy and shamelessly foreign. He doesn't even speak English, for heaven's sake. He was once a lawyer - a gleam of hope for Nigel there - but gave it all up for jazz in the Sixties (he was born in 1937). And yet I find it impossible to imagine anyone not liking Conte. Within moments of those opening chords of his best known song  'Via Con Me', that lilting swing, the rasping, good-humoured voice, even old Nige would begin to loosen up and drift away from his grim blazer-and-loafers, meat-and-two-veg  fantasy-land into a dream of smoky bars, dangerous women and irresistible music. It is an embarrassment that Conte is not better known in Britain, but perhaps not that surprising. Like Georges Brassens, whose uncompromisingly...

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Friday Song: Janis Ian’s JESSE

A reliable indicator of songwriting talent is when a writer takes a hoary, overworked theme, one that has been mauled and murdered in countless second-rate songs, and makes it entirely new. Janis Ian, one of the great unsung heroes of the modern song, has done it several times in the half-century she has been writing. My Friday Song was originally going to be 'At Seventeen', her  huge 1975 hit about being a lonely, misunderstood teenager. 'I learned the truth at seventeen That love was meant for beauty queens And high school girls with clear skinned smiles Who married young and then retired.' Teenage angst: no theme has been more plundered by songwriters since the invention of the teenager in the 1950s to the new golden age of self-pity today, but this song, by being specific and hard-hitting ('those of us with ravaged faces/ Lacking in the social graces'), makes it...

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The Friday Song: Ry Cooder, SHINE (1910)

If there were ever a song that illustrates the muddle we are in about race, tolerance and offensiveness, it's my Friday Song this week, 'That's Why They Call Me "Shine"'.  The song has taken a peculiar journey over the past century which, as far as I (or, rather, Google) can see,  has never been recounted. It was written by Cecil Mack, born Richard C McPherson, with music by Ford Dabney, and released in 1910. Mack has an impressive list of credits, including 'Charleston' and - surely this one is due for a revival - 'I'm in the Right Church But the Wrong Pew' and Dabney was a former vaudeville performer and band-leader who worked with the famous showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Both Mack and Dabney were black and, at a time of grim racial prejudice, the song they wrote together courageously takes on the subject race hate but in a clever,...

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Friday Song: Gillian Welch’s ‘Dark Turn of Mind’

I was introduced to the extraordinary, unearthly music of Gillian Welch by the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in 2002. He was on Desert Island Discs  and his last choice of song was 'I'm Not Afraid To Die' from the 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. There comes a stage in our lives when vanishingly few songs immediately breach the walls of taste we build around ourselves, but this was love at first listen. In the years since then, Welch and Rawlings have become towering figures on the folk/Americana scene, their songs have won Academy Awards, and their sound and musical vibe has been imitated across the world. Yet they have remained utterly true to themselves, producing a small number of CDs, each stark and pared back in their deceptively simple acoustic sound. They complement one another perfectly. Their voices are similar, like the Louvin Brothers and the Everlys, but with the...

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The Friday Song: CW Stoneking, ‘Jungle Lullaby’

As every songwriter knows, one of the basic requirements of the job is to get the hell out of the leafy suburb of Clichéville, where everything is familiar and has been done before. The trick is to make it new. A few writers do that by creating their own peculiar imaginative universe, a parallel world which bears a resemblance to the reality we all know but is also different and strange. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings do that, as does Tom Waits. And this week's Friday songster CW Stoneking. Nothing about Stoneking is straightforward. He was born and raised in Australia but is steeped in American musical history. His songs and productions draw on early blues - his first love - but also hokum, ragtime, jazz and the yodelling country songs of Jimmy Rodgers. Born in 1974, Stoneking sounds as if he belongs in the 1920s and 1930s, with a...

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The Friday Song: Davy Graham, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Young Men’

I first heard 'The Ballad of the Sad Young Men' in the mid-1960s, sung by Davy Graham on his astonishing second album Folk, Blues and Beyond, and it has stayed with me ever since. I've always loved its opening lines, 'Sing a song of sad young men/ Glasses full of rye/ All the news is bad again/ Kiss your dreams goodbye.' (Those last two lines have been particularly resonant in recent weeks and months). The lyrics for the song were written by Fran Landesman, with music by Tommy Wolf, for their 1959 off-Broadway musical The Nervous Set. The story was set in the world of the Beat Generation, of which Fran Landesman was a part, courted by Kerouac and serenaded by Allen Ginsberg. Not many of those hip cats, it seems to me, wrote songs or stories about the subtle sadness of middle age. Like all great songs, 'The Ballad...

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The Friday Song – Randy Newman’s ‘I Miss You’

Embarrassment is a tricky emotion to convey in a song. And when it is used (I think Madness once had a song called 'Embarrassment'),  it tends to swamp everything else. It becomes shame. In Randy Newman's 'I Miss You', from his 1999 CD Bad Love, embarrassment is there, but so is regret, love, humour, guilt and much else. It is a musical picture taken from the complex palate of married life. Newman is an extraordinary genius. His songs are not musically various - he uses chords and melodies that are immediately recognisable  -  but the tunes he writes are often as heart-meltingly beautiful as his lyrics are complex, clear-eyed and funny. As songwriter, he seems to be able to do anything. He can inhabit the life and voice of a bigot, creating a character that's both appalling and sympathetic ('Rednecks', 'My Life Is Good' and countless others), or attach a...

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The Friday Song: Chaim Tannenbaum’s ‘London, Longing For Home’

I've had the idea of once a week celebrating a song which means a lot to me but which is perhaps less well-known than they should be. Like Chaim Tannenbaum's 'London, Longing For Home'. When I saw a rare solo performance by Tannenbaum at the London Palladium in 2016, have been introduced to his music quite recently by my friend Dillie Keane, he had the air of someone who was uneasy being in the spotlight. This song was introduced with particular diffidence. It's quite long and not exactly feel-good in spirit, but the more I've listened to it, the more I have come to admire the way it evokes a lost world of post-war London. Tannenbaum is an unlikely folk hero.  A Canadian, he has been part of the McGarrigles/Loudon Wainwright extended family since the 1960s. When, belatedly, he released his own CD in 2016, Wainwright described him as 'my...

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