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Friday Song: Carsie Blanton, BABY CAN DANCE (2009)

Soon after I became aware of the sparky brilliance of the New Orleans songwriter Carsie Blanton, I sent her one of my novels. She had announced on social media that she was, for reeasons I couldn't quite work out, prepared to barter one of her CDs  for goods rather money. If you sent her something that was important to you, she would send you a CD. So I sent off a copy of my 2013 novel The Twyning. With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now that a 500-page novel set in the gutters of Victorian London and narrated by a rat might not have been quite what Carsie was expecting.  I blame her songs -  as with many of the best songwriters, her work has  a friendly, confiding quality to it. Just as I had warmed to her musical stories of love, lust and politics, i thought she might...

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Friday Song: Nick Lucas, I’M LOOKING OVER A FOUR-LEAF CLOVER (Dixon-Woods, 1927)

I suffered a bad attack of the 1920s a few years ago, and have never completely recovered. It seemed to me then (and now) that there has never been such a glorious flowering of popular song, from Broadway to the blues, from vaudeville to country, as there was between the years of 1926 and 1931. This is not the place to speculate as to what combination of social, musical, technical and entrepreneurial factors caused that great, joyful explosion of song. Suffice it to say that for melody, wit and general exuberance, those years represent a glorious treasure-trove of song-writing brilliance. There were a number of unquestioned geniuses working in the music businesses at that time. Nick Lucas, 'The Crooning Troubadour', was not one of them. But there are few songs that Lucas recorded in the 1920s that do not make me smile. His voice captures the strange, slightly desperate optimism...

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Friday Song: Dr John, YOUR AVERAGE KIND OF GUY, written by Doc Pomus and Dr John

I had been looking forward to including something by Mac Rebennack , better known as Dr John, in this blog for two reasons - firstly, because his best songs are terrific and, secondly and less importantly, he was alive. It's a gloomy fact that many of my Friday Songs have been by people who are now playing the big gig in the sky. Too late. Last week, on 6th June, Dr John joined that chorus. He was 77, and that in itself was impressive. I saw him playing at a small venue in New York during the 1980s and he looked in bad shape then - apparently he kicked a heroin habit in 1989. In this 2010 interview for Time magazine, he looked considerably better than he had 25 years before. Until 1976, Dr John had for me been one of those great counter-culture figures I knew about  - his...

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Friday Song: Jesse Winchester, SHAM-A-LING-DONG-DING

It's rare to come across a piece of film that captures the moment when one song transforms a show, but Jesse Winchester's performance of 'Sham-a-Ling-Dong-Ding' on Elvis Costello's TV show Spectacle in 2010 does just that. When I found it online, I couldn't believe that I hadn't paid more attention to Winchester down the years. It's one of the best songs about the past and the present, youth an age, that I know. It certainly hit Elvis, his guests and audience pretty hard. From the moment  Winchester starts the song with a gentle 'Ooooh' intro to a lightly 1950s-ish chord sequence on his nylon-string guitar, it's as if the entire theatre is holding its breath. 'The boys were singing shing-a-ling The summer night we met You were tan and seventeen Oh, how could I forget? When every star from near and far Was watching from above Watching two teenagers fall...

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Friday Song: Oliver Mtukudzi, HEAR ME, LORD

When the daily news is a grim daily carnival of human inadequacy and ugliness, that's when we need music most. A rhythm, a tune, feeling - perhaps even a thought or two  - put to a melody can remind us of the good, the bright and the hopeful in human life And few songwriters do that better than Oliver 'Tuku' Mtukudzi, the great Zimbabwean musician  who wrote this week's Friday Song. I first heard Mtukudzi's unforgettable voice in Michael Raeburn's 1990 film Jit,. Set in Harare, the film was quirky and charming  - Time Out's critic thought it would do for Zimbabwe what The Harder They Come had done for Jamaica - and for me its stand-out moment was when the soundtrack reached  the opening chords of a great, joyful song called 'Under Pressure'. Depress- depression I'm under pressure... There is nothing about this song that doesn't work. Tuku's husky voice with its...

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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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