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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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How many books really ‘spark joy’? Damned few….

It has been clear-out time. I have been off the booze, filing the accumulated correspondence of the past three years, tidying up anything within reach. I have become a crashing bore, in fact. And it will be worth it, this great purge of the house with a January enema (anyone who thinks this metaphor is excessive hasn't seen my office). At first it was grim but soon, as my recycling bin fills with paper (as do, at the dead of night, those of my neighbours - don't tell), a sort of manic joy has kicked in. It was at that moment that I read a remark by the so-called 'tidiness guru', Marie Kondo. She said  that we should only have possessions which serve a practical purpose or 'spark joy'. There was for example absolutely no need, Marie continued, to have more than 30 books. All hell broke loose online and...

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Five Kiwi pieces

As I sat in Wellington Airport, waiting for my flight - the first of three long flights home  -  a small earthquake occurred. The terminal building shivered for about 30 seconds. I looked around me. People continued chatting and checking their mobile phones. Moments later, following the sound of a gong over the intercom, there was recorded announcement. 'ATTENTION. EARTHQUAKE. DROP TO THE FLOOR AND COVER YOUR HEAD WITH YOUR HANDS.' One or two people around me smiled, shook their heads in amusement, then continued what they had been doing. I decided not to drop to the floor or cover my head, but it did occur that the warning could be serious. I had heard of aftershocks; presumably there is such a thing a as beforeshock. During my stay in New Zealand, I had been told several times  - always rather cheerfully  -  that earthquakes over the fault on the...

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Springtime in New Zealand – and I’m on my way

Tuner? Check. Spare strings? Check. Knockout pill for the flight? Check. It's the final countdown before my first tour of New Zealand. I'll be playing, and doing workshops, at the Wellington Folk Festival, and then travelling the North Island (with one day on the South Island) to play theatres, folk clubs and house concerts from Napier down to Dunedin. It's spring in New Zealand and I'm refusing to listen to those who warn me that the Wellyfest is named not after the town where  it takes place but what we'll have to wear on our feet. There will be sun, flowers, albatrosses  soaring happily over our heads -  and lots of music. It's going to be fun. A list of my New Zealand gigs can be found here.  

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When the flower children grew old…

One of the pleasures of watching a CD go out into the world is seeing which songs, if any,  are noticed enough to strike a tiny, distant note in the prevailing noise of the world. Of the songs on Enough About Me, I was always fond of 'An English Love Song', which was also the co-producer Jon Loomes's favourite, and I thought that 'I Can't Call My Baby "Baby"' might appeal to people. I enjoyed writing 'Marriage Song #1'  but, apart from a nice note in the Sunday Times,  the reviews have often ignored or, more annoyingly, misunderstood it ('the resignation of a middle-aged cuckold,' sniffed one reviewer, firmly grasping the wrong end of the stick). Here's a video of the one song that seems to have caught on, earning requests for repeats, particularly on Rodney Collins' Offshore Music Radio where it was third in the most-requested lists behind  Frank Sinatra...

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Dogs: the enemies of creativity

Occasionally when I look at my dog Ruby, I remember a conversation I had in about 2005 with my friend, neighbour and fellow-author Roger Deakin. I told Roger that, after years of living with cats, I was thinking of getting a dog. My partner Angela's old cat Dodger had just died.  A new cat would cut a wide swathe through the local songbirds. And the bantams left a bit to be desired when it came to interaction with humans.  A dog would be interesting, fun  -  good exercise. It took a lot to shock Roger, but this did. 'A dog?' he said, with genuine disgust. Yes, a dog. Why not? Roger muttered something about environmental damage. I replied that, if I were a water vole living around his moat and was offered the choice of sharing the garden with a dog or a cat, I knew which I would choose. Sadly,...

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It’s official – there’s nothing particularly normal about me

To be any good, a song or story has to come from a personal place. It is, however well-disguised, a report from the tiny, little-known country of Me. That makes being reviewed an odd process. It's not just the work being assessed, it is you - your quaking little soul. Early in a career, this can be heady or distressing, depending on the verdict, but  soon enough any professional  who wants to survive will develop a thicker hide. If you can't take the knocks, you probably shouldn't be in the game. Over time, I've concluded that people either get what I write and sing, or they don't. If they like it, that's great; if they don't, there's nothing I can say, do or be which will change their opinion. As the Australian novelist David Malouf put it, 'You come to realize that you can't please everybody. If a book is...

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‘Twas in the merry month of May, I went to a folk club down m’way…’

When I first started writing songs, about ten years ago, I took them around to folk clubs. One, I discovered too late, took a hard-line, faintly Stalinist, approach to any music that did not belong to what is reverently described as 'the Tradition'. The song I sang was mildly rude and, apparently, not part of the tradition. Scarred by the experience, I wrote a song called Hearts of Oak which I have videoed for Songs from the van #8. Here are the lyrics, followed by the video: ‘Twas in the merry month of May I went to a folk club down me way I’d written a song,  it was slightly rude, I thought it couldn’t be misconstrued. With just a touch of the ambigued. Tarum-de-um-de-tiddley-ay, foldy-ay-de-ay   The club they met in a village hall The sign at the door said ‘Welcome all’ They asked me if I could sing...

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