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FRIDAY SONG, George Harrison, BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA (Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, 1931)

Some songs are so great that they survive and thrive down the years in a form that is pretty much unchanged. Who could think of messing around too much with the melody, shape and general vibe of, say, Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust (lyrics by Mitchell Parish) or Arlen and Harburg's Over the Rainbow? There's another kind of great song. Lithe and adaptable, it can be re-invented with every generation, changing in all sorts of startling ways and yet remaining the same essential song. Listen to the 1932 foxtrot original of 'Try a Little Tenderness' (Campbell, Connelly and Woods) by the Ray Noble Orchestra and then Otis Redding's 1966 version and you'll see what I mean. This week's Friday Song is one of those - a pop song that has moved with the times. The melody was written by Harold Arlen, about ten years before he wrote the great songs for The...

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FRIDAY SONG: Laylam, CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN (James Allan Bland, 1878)

For me, this is a perfect little folk song. It has a happy little tune, an irresistibly singalong chorus, and tells a sweet story of love and generations. Best of all it conjures up that joyful sight - chickens in the garden. This will be a short blog, because the fascinating story of this song  - also known as 'The Farmer's Daughter', ' All the The Little Chickens in the Garden' and 'Treat Me Daughter Kindly - is told on this Mainly Norfolk website. For the seriously nerdish, there are different versions of, and more information about, in a chatroom on the great Mudcat website. What I love about the chequered history of this song is that it blows a mighty hole in arguments about what is or isn't authentic in folk music. It has been 'collected' here and there throughout the 20th century: when the Watersons made it popular...

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FRIDAY SONG: Willie Nelson, RED HEADED STRANGER (Carl Stutz – Edith Calisch, 1954)

Just now and then, as you're growing up, an album comes along that shakes and re-orders your musical landscape like an earthquake. For me, as for many others, Highway 61  had that effect, as did the Beatles' White Album and The Paul Simon Songbook.  Less obviously, there was The Band and Davey Graham's Folk, Blues and Beyond. A bit later, Willie Nelson's strange and haunting album The Red Headed Stranger came along, sending me westward-ho with a new love of country music. I had, from the Everly Brothers onwards, enjoyed the country sound, but this was different. It was spare, personal. The fancy production and rhinestone glitter. There was no trace of a pedal-steel guitar or even backing vocals. There was just musical story-telling of mesmeric quality. The Red Headed Stranger was, I suppose, a concept album, but in 1975, when it was released, that term had become a bit embarrassing.....

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The Anno Domini Rag – the story of a song

One of my favourite tracks on Playing For Time is 'The Anno Domini Rag'. When I arrived in southern Italy last autumn to record some of the tracks for the new album, it was one of the songs that produced the most memorable session in the Maurizio Sarnicola's Goldmine Studio. This week I posted a video for the song, showing my friends  Domenico de Marco (drums), Giovanni Crescenzi (bass), Hartmut Saam (accordion) and Fortunata Monzo (vocals) playing and singing along with me, each of them locked down in different parts of Italy. I'm happy to say that the video has been very popular on Facebook. Several people have told me that it has cheered them up at a gloomy time. Someone said it made them feel like dancing. Like many songs and stories, it took shape in an unexpected way, with different ideas and influences coming together and bumping against...

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FRIDAY SONG: Chuck Berry, YOU NEVER CAN TELL (1964)

For pity's sake, let's have a happy Friday Song - something sunny, celebratory, about being young, about getting out and having fun. Here's an idea: what better than one of those great songs written between 1955 and 1964 by the strange, shining genius that was Chuck Berry? There are a few problems in writing about Chuck  - life problems,  sex problems, personality problems - so maybe we should keep this simple. This is the Friday Song: we'll concentrate on the music. Preparing to write about this week's song has been an utter joy but, such is startling brilliance and originality of the Chuck Berry songs of this period, that it has been almost impossible to choose one above the rest. Should it be 'Maybellene', his first release in 1955, which brought story-telling to rock 'n' roll? Chuck came to the Chess studios with the idea of doing a rock version...

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PLAYING FOR TIME, the new album, is now launched!

When I started recording the songs on my new album called PLAYING FOR TIME last autumn, first in southern Italy and then at David Booth's recording studio in Suffolk, the world felt a bit odd (the UK and the EU were involved in a messy divorce) but basically normal. 27th March 2020 seemed a good time to launch it. There would be time to get a bit of publicity, to ensure the radio stations had it, maybe some reviews. It hasn't turned out quite like that. The world has more urgent concerns right now than twelve new songs from me. Even if one half of our collective brain is telling us that we need diversion, the other half is obsessed by just one thing. No one is thinking straight. All the same, it's here. The weather is always rough when a little boat of songs is launched but there's a...

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FRIDAY SONG: Fred Astaire, LET’S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE (Irving Berlin, 1936)

Here is  a song that has been part of our lives for so long that it has become easy to forget how odd and unusual it is. That problem has been compounded by the countless woeful interpretations down the years - Frank Sinatra and Robbie Williams top a long list of singers who have robbed the song of its essential danger. It takes a moment like this, when there is menace and fear in the air, to remind us how perfectly and economically Irving Berlin's 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' captures the fragility of our world and we puny humans who inhabit it. Written in 1935 and published the following year when it was part of the score for the film Follow the Fleet, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it is widely thought to be a song which picked up on the sound of the distant drums of...

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FRIDAY SONG: Chas & Dave, AIN’T NO PLEASING YOU (Chas Hodges, 1982)

When, a few days ago, the BBC showed a music documentary, there was a sniffy online reaction from a  resident of Twittertown. 'What is it that bothers me about this? Am I a music snob, an art snob, a massive something else snob? Culture snob? Dunno. I just don't see this as a BBC Four kind of programme. I shall avoid it like a plague of flying pickets. Or crickets.' The documentary in question was about Chas & Dave. The obvious answer to her questions was 'Yes to all of the above', but none of her followers posed it. In fact several of them agreed with her.  Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock are not quite our class, darling. Culturally speaking, they're below stairs. Not for the first time, the duo had prompted  a peculiarly English form of snobbery. If they were traditional bluegrass players from Appalachian Mountains or a musette...

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FRIDAY SONG: Yves Montand, LES FEUILLES MORTES (Jacques Prévert and Joseph Kosma, 1946)

If you want to see the difference between a great lyric and a moderately good one,  here's a place to start  -  compare and contrast Jacques Prévert's 1946 song 'Les Feuilles Mortes'  to the later American version,by Johnny Mercer, released in 1950. One tells a story; the other expresses a general feeling. One feels original and heartfelt, the other is professionally written schmaltz. One feels like like a song, the other is life. They share the melody, or at least the melody of the chorus, written by Joseph Kosma, who took Prévert's poem  and adapted it for the film Les Portes de la Nuit (1946). Crucially, the poem and the French version of the song open with a verse which cuts across the sweetness of the chorus. Oh, je voudrais tant que tu souviens Les jours heureux où nous étions amis En ce temps-là la vie était plus belle Et...

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Adios, auf wiedersehen, Europa, Mein Amour – a song for Europe

A few months ago, I went to Maurizio Sarnicola's Goldmine studio two hours south of Naples and, with my German friend, the accordionist Hartmut Saam, and new Italian friends Fortunata Monzo (vocals), Giovanni Rago (guitar), Domenice de Marco (drums), Gianni Crescenzi (bass) and Mario Perazzi (engineer), we recorded this song. It was a happy international co-operation which somehow made the song even sadder. 'Europa, Mein Amour' is released this week and can be downloaded on CD Baby and Bandcamp. 'Some people claim I'm not quite the same Since I became European...' https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfBAxGXALKc  

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