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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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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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