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The process of digitalizing a life time of music keeps bringing rediscoveries. One of the recent rediscoveries is Michelle Shocked, who is not only still recording, but has also managed to regain control of her own music.

Shocked first became known in folk circles in the late 1980s with The Texas Campfire Tapes. The album was based on some casual recordings by a British music producer who misrepresented himself as a journalist, and produced an edited version of her music that, due to faltering batteries, recorded some of her music too slowly and made her voice sound higher than it was. Nobody has quite said so in as many words, but, from what is carefully not said, the impression is that the album was either released without her permission, or with permissions obtained under questionable pretenses.

The album launched her career, but its promotion also created an image of Shocked as a naive genius, despite the diverse influences, intelligent lyrics, and wry humor of many of the songs themselves. Considering the many changes of direction in her musical career, this image must have handicapped her career, with her record company trying to pigeon-hole her into a category that didn’t fit.

I didn’t know about all this back story when I bought a cassette of The Texas Campfire Tapes years ago. But, as the story surfaced, I felt more than a little guilty. I mean, the songs were worth hearing, yet wasn’t listening to the album a sign of disrespect to Shocked? Perhaps this guilt was one reason that, over the years, I stopped listening to Shocked, although I was vaguely aware that she had released other albums, and her second album, Short Sharp Shocked, was briefly one of my favorites.

Now, after a couple of decades of fighting with record companies, and Shocked has control over her own material again. A few years ago, she re-released her first album under the title of the Texas Campfire Takes, which I hurried to purchase as a download from her web site.

The Takes includes the original material played at the proper speed, as well as the raw material, complete with introductions and a few new songs, from which her first album was edited. In some cases, the edited versions of the songs sound more professional – or, at least, better produced – but the raw material, despite being uneven, is often more satisfying, and provides more context.

But the important thing is that now we can hear the music the way that Shocked prefers it. The result is a small victory of an artist over a recording company, and I’ve celebrated it in the only possibly way – by discarding the old cassette and replacing it in the music collection with the new download.

And somewhere deep inside, an old guilt seems to have quietly died. I’ve started listening to Shocked again, and I am slowly ordering her backlist an album or two at a time.

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For the past seven weeks, I’ve been using a USB turntable to digitalize our old vinyl records. So far, I’ve done 41 LPs, with about another sixty to go. We haven’t played the LPs for at least fifteen years, so the process is a rediscovery for me – and proof yet again of how, when the dominant recording medium changes, some things are left behind.

Looking through the list of albums on the music player (a Sansa clip, which, incidentally, is much better buy than an equivalent iPod), I’m fascinated at the glimpse of my past. When I started, I wondered whether my tastes would have changed, and whether I would find some of the music that (to paraphrase Frank Zappa) was the aural wallpaper of my youth would now seem callow or outdated.

But, to my relief and considerable satisfaction, the fear was largely unfounded. While songs that call for the freedom of Nelson Mandela, or refer to Solidarity in Poland obvious refer to specific time periods, on the whole the musical choices of my youth manage not to embarrass me, although I do think that my taste has broadened and expanded since I listened to this music regularly.

Part of the secret of its longevity is that intelligent lyrics tend to weather the years better than trendy musical styles. But the main reason, I think, was that when I was a young man, the folk music that formed the bulk of my listening was in the middle of a renaissance full of passion and the fusion of traditional and contemporary that produced innovative and exciting music.

In fact, far from being embarrassed, I wonder how I could ever have stopped listening to some of these albums. For instance, my music player is currently loaded with the last studio album by the Scottish super group Silly Wizard, Michelle Shocked’s “If love was a train” EP, two albums of klezmer music by Klezmorim, an album by Breton harp genius Alan Stivell, another by the Scottish harp duo Sileas, another by the Quebecois group Barde, Malcolm’s Interview’s great punk folk album “Breakfast in Bedlam,” early works by OysterBand, Pete Morton, live albums by the Corries and Steeleye Span – I could go on and on, but I think I already have. Treasures, all of them, although some are considered modern classics and others are entirely forgot.

But by sheer number, my greatest rediscovery has to be Leon Rosselson, a sort of farther-left version of Tom Lehrer, and his sometime fellow traveler Roy Bailey. Eleven of their albums, seven of them made together, are now on my music player, and I can still see why. Bailey, a gay leftist with a strong sense of activism and tradition has one of the great voices of British music, and his covers of songs like “The Hard Times of Old English” or “If They Come in the Morning” resonate in my memory with the least encouragement.

However, if anything, I appreciate Leon Rosselson’s savage wit even more (if that is possible). Even now, I can’t resist Rosselson in the persona of a British tabloid journalist who prides himself on decency and moderation, working himself up into a satirical frenzy ending with:
What we say is hang the muggers,
Deport the blacks, castrate the buggers,
Press the button, drop the bomb on
Peace campers at Greenham Common.

Similarly, after looking in the first person at the various people who would be involved in the decision to use nuclear weapons passing the buck, Rosselson concludes: “So if the end to all creation is global suicide / There’ll be no one who is responsible, ‘cuz no one will decide.” Or look at his parody of the British Labour Party’s song, written in the Sixties, but still appropriate today:
We will not cease from mental strife till every wrong is righted,
And all men are equal quite, and all our leaders knighted;
We are sure if we persist, to make the New Years’ Honours List,
Then every loyal Labour Peer will sing “The Red Flag” once a year.

But I think I like best “The World Turned Upside Down,” his history of the Diggers of the English Revolution and their declaration of freedom:
We work, we eat together, we need no swords
We will not bow to the masters or pay rent to the lords,
Still we are free, though we are poor,
You Diggers all stand up for glory, stand up now.

I remember the time when that song was an anthem for me, and, hearing it again in the original after enjoying covers by Billy Bragg and the Oysterband, I find that it becomes so again.

I know, I know. You haven’t heard of half these names, and most of the other half are mostly obscure to you. But that is my whole point. Just because something is old doesn’t make it worthless and justifiably discarded. Sometimes, things that are old are classics, or deserve to be.

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Do you get the sense of history repeating,
Have you made the same mistakes again?
Can’t you see me smiling in the bathroom mirror?
It’s a greeting from the beast within.
– Oysterband, “Walking Down the Road with You”

Over the years, Oysterband has provided some of my more memorable concert experiences. A few days after hearing their rocked-up version of an old Morris song, I heard them in a pack-to-the-limits concert at the Savoy. I’ve heard them shake the mirrors at the Commodore, and, on one especially memorable occasion with June Tabor at the Plaza of Nations, where they ended by covering the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” complete with dry ice. Having missed them last year when they were in town, I wasn’t about to miss them this year.

Saints are drawn to the desert,
Moths to the candle flame,
You know there’s going to be trouble,
But you go there just the same.
– Oysterband, “Meet you there”

Rock (so far as the term has any meaning any more) is supposed to be a young person’s music, but you wouldn’t know that by the band or the crowd. Bass player Chopper (who I persist in thinking of as the new member of the band although he has been playing in it for decades) is solidly into middle-age, and drummer Dil Davies, the real newcomer, is hardly into middle-age at all, but the three originals band members must each be hovering a year or two on either side of sixty. Guitar player Alan Prosser looks leaner than in earlier years, violinist Ian Telfer more like a bearded Scottish sailor than the Presbyterian elder or aging punk of previous visits, while John Jones looked like he dyes his hair, but all of them looked immensely fit and focused. As for the crowd, it varied from ten to seventy year olds, with the median age somewhere in the mid-fifties.

The spirit of a troubled life
Is all I have to give to you,
The simple curse of a wayward life
Is all that I can bring to you.
-Oysterband, “Over the Water”

The first half of the night was dedicated to recent albums. In fact, the first three or four songs songs were the opening tracks of Meet You There, the band’s latest album of new material, which is some of the strongest twenty minutes of folk rock I’ve heard in years. Starting with “Over the Water,” the band quickly moved on to “Meet You There,” “Walking Down the Road with You,” and “Here Comes the Flood,” which I’ve always thought was an apt summary of the band members’ generation of Brits, as well as their free-thinking leftist politics.

I haven’t prayed since God knows when,
My teeth are unAmerican,
Socialism’s orphan child,
Unimpressed, unreconciled,
Some people think I’m crazy, but I’m not:
Here comes the Flood.

– Oysterband, “Here Comes The Flood”

The rest of the fifty minutes was filled out with material from other recent albums, as well as John Jones’ signature song, “Native Son.”

For I was born to tell the truth and run,
Remember me, remember me,
It was all for love, the crazy things I’ve done,
Remember me, I’m still your native son.
-Oysterband, “Native Son”

People were dancing by the third song, and nine out of ten bands (if not ninety-nine of one hundred) would have counted the first set as a success. Oysterband never seems to have forgot that it started thirty years ago as a dance band, because it never fails to orchestrate its playlist, building the energy and alternating fast numbers with just the right number of slow ones, while encouraging the audience to sing the choruses (although, with last night’s partisan crowd, I suspect that the audience could have song all the songs with the band if given the chance).

Maybe we don’t know right from wrong,
Maybe we don’t know what we’re here for,
Maybe it’s time to sing along:
This is an uncommercial song.
-Oysterband, “Uncommercial Song”

However, the first set didn’t quite reach the highest level of energy that the Oysters are capable of, and I suspect that the band was aware of it and spent the interval overhauling its playlist. When the band took over the stage for the second set, its members had plainly come prepared to do battle with their own expectations of themselves. Without waiting to be announced, they launched into Meet You There’s “Dancing as Fast as I Can.”

You can trust in the power of music,
You can trust in the power of prayer,
But it’s only the white of your knuckles
That’s keeping this plane in the air.”
– Oysterband, “Dancing as Fast as I Can”

Then, barely leaving room for applause between songs, it dove into a history of its own career – one inspired, I suspect, by the recent re-recordings of some of its past songs to commemorate its thirtieth anniversary. Much of the material was political and social commentary, and all of it hard-driving musically. Audience participation, already high, rose even higher, orchestrated by a grinning John Jones.

In the middle of a good time,
Truth gave me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
All that way for this?
-Oysterband, “All That Way for This”

I seem to remember the energy at previous Oysterband concerts rising even higher than it did last night. But if the first set was more than most groups could aspire to, the second set was one that most couldn’t imagine. By the time the band returned for an acoustic version of “Put Out the Lights,” both the musicians and the crowd were happily exhausted, and more than content to call it a night.

Everywhere that I have been,
Leaves its message on my skin,
So many prophecies and signs,
So little time, so little time.
– Oysterband, “Put Out the Lights”

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I’m old enough to have live through four formats for home music: vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, and computers and portable devices (I’m excluding 8 Tracks, which I never used). With each change of formats, some of my music has been left behind, especially since much of my music collection is from small distributors, some of which no longer exist. That’s why I was delighted to buy a USB turntable recently. As I convert my old records to electronic formats, I’m rediscovering music I haven’t heard for years.

Of course, I could have dusted off our old turntable, and jacked it directly into the computer. But, as I wrote in a how-to article I submitted yesterday to Linux.com, a USB turntable has features that, twenty years ago, would have cost ten times what I paid now. The result is a vast improvement in sound-quality, including a reduction of all except the worst hisses and squawks from damaged vinyl.

On a personal level, my first recordings have been a sustained bout of nostalgia. Ordinarily, I regard nostalgia as a middle-aged disease to which I refuse to succumb, but what I’m recording is the music of my youth. If, as Frank Zappa said, the music that you listen to is aural wallpaper, then the first vinyl I’ve converted is a direct reflection of what I used to be.

The closest these first recordings come to Top 40 are several albums by Alain Stivell, the virtuoso Breton harpist, and some early releases by the folk rock-group Steeleye Span. Otherwise, most of them are by solo singer-songwriters. Most, too, have a more or less leftist political perspective, although it’s sometimes covert. They include, for instance, Pete Morton’s first album, Frivolous Love, a couple of albums by the Australian singer Eric Bogle, early albums from OysterBand when the group was still in the process of converting from a folk dance band to the more activist group it is today, and lots of satire and political commentary from the English songwriter Leon Rosselson.
I see several common threads running through this list. First, most of these artists pay a lot of attention to the words, something I still value in music today. Ditto the political perspective.

But the strongest influence on me, I think, is that all of these performers insist on never letting their convictions dominate. They aren’t just activists; the music is as important to them as their messages. Just as importantly, they deliver their message with a good deal of humor and wit. Looking back, I think that their example has been as important as any literary influence in determining the sort of writer I would like to be.

So far, I’m enjoying being re-introduced to my young self. I find him naive and short-sighted, but not entirely unlikable. I wonder what I’ll think a few hundred recordings later, when I finish converting all my old music?

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I don’t come from a musical family. One of my parents admits to being stone deaf, and the other never developed much musical taste beyond the musicals and popular songs of the Fifties and their latter day equivalents. As a result, most of what I know about music I’ve learned through trial and error on my own. And, as might be expected in a writer, my tastes show a strong preference for music that includes poetic and intelligent lyrics.

I certainly never learned much about music at school. In elementary school, the teacher was a semi-professional musician whom those with musical training adored. Unfortunately for me, he had no interest in teaching those of us who didn’t already have a musical background. Given a trombone to play because that was what my brother had used, I was put into the band class with no understanding of what I was supposed to do, and no one who was interested in showing me.

Predictably, I suffered as only a proud child can suffer. Bad enough that a solo passage for trombone in “More” was given to a friend who played the French horn because I was incapable of it, but, by the end of my penal servitude in band the teacher wouldn’t even bother to see if I was in tune. That I was good academically and athletically, and that these humiliations were very public, with an audience that included several girls on whom I had crushes only made the experience harder to endure.

But I’ve always been a whistler and a singer, and somehow I started discovering some musical tastes on my own. I started with Simon and Garfunkel, attracted by Paul Simon’s songwriting, and soon branched out into Bob Dylan, whose cryptic lyrics made my tastes an oddity in my neighborhood and generation.

Stumbling blindly and still not really knowing what a flat or a sharp was (since no one had ever bothered to show me), I kept on in the same vein, discovering singers like Roy Bailey, Leon Rosselson, Maddy Prior, Stan Rogers, and June Tabor, all of whom were either song-writers themselves or at least selected intelligent material. I didn’t completely neglect acoustic music, but the music that I’ve kept coming back to all my life has generally had strong lyrics.

Needless to say, it was definitely not Top 40. But Vancouver is full of small concert venues for those who have come to listen rather than mingle, and, at times, the greater part of my social life has been going out to concerts.

Neither was my taste classical. To this day, my knowledge of classical music is made up mostly of enthusiasms. I know enough that I can tell Chopin from Beethoven or Mozart, but my favorites are a haphazard lot: Vivaldi, a lot of romantics or eccentrics like Sibelius or Grieg, some Wagner overtures, and even Scriabin, whose complexities are intriguing even to my erratically trained ear.

My blue and jazz knowledge ditto, although it’s been broadening recently. As for opera – well, English isn’t the language of operas, is it? If there are words, I am half-maddened by not being able to understand them. And a little light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan goes a long way, rather like reading too many P.G. Wodehouses in succession; you start longing for something of substance.

Still, I’m not complaining – much. Considering my unpromising musical education, I’m surprised that I have any musical interest at all. The best use I found for my trombone was using its case as a sled after school, and, unsurprisingly, I used the transfer to high school as an excuse to drop band.

Mostly, I don’t think about my musical mis-education. But, when I do, I start to get angry, not just at remembered humiliation, but at how unnecessary my lack of musical direction was, and how easily it could have been corrected by a competent teacher. I know I have a reasonable if limited singing voice, because I’ve used it at parties with no one fleeing. Yet when I think how close I came to eliminating music altogether from my life, I’m still full of resentments.

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Last week, the BBC suddenly decided to censor The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, bleeping out the word “faggot.” It wasn’t the first time the group had been banned; its “Birmingham Six” song, which talks about the dangers of “being Irish at the wrong place and at the wrong time” was condemned as being little short of treasonous when first released, even though charges against the six were eventually quashed. However, it was undoubtedly the most ridiculous censorship of the group, done, I suspect by someone far more eager to appear virtuous than to do anything concrete. But it served to remind me that not only is “Fairytale” one of the few modern Christmas songs to have survived any length of time, but it is also one of the few modern ones of any artistic worth.

In fact, I can only think of one other modern Christmas song that has survived a couple of decades: John Lennon’s “So this is Christmas” — and that has always struck me as insipid in its sentiment and banal in its rhyme. I don’t think anyone could hear “A very merry Christmas and happy New Year / Let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear” and imagine that he was at the top of his game when he wrote it.

By contrast, “Fairytale of New York” is a compressed and moving story. It starts off, almost stereotypically for the Pogues with the announcement that it was “Christmas Eve … in the drunk tank,” but soon moves into talking about people’s hopes and aspirations. The narrator, who is apparently aging but still comparatively young, talks about his lucky win at the racetrack (which probably landed him in jail as he celebrated too alcoholically), and how he hopes it’s an omen for the new year. Meanwhile, an old man beside him, who doesn’t expect to see another Christmas, starts singing, as the narrator starts thinking about his lover.

Then the song moves into a contrast between the dreams the narrator shared with his lover when they were young and their present life. The contrast is carried in a duet between The Pogues’ lead singer Shane McGowan and Kristie McColl, who was brought in for the occasion. The two old people recall their younger days, fall to cursing each other (which is where “faggot” is used, along with “slut” — apparently, words demeaning to women are no longer censored), ending with the man admitting that “I built my dreams around you.” Despite the exchange of abuse, the implication is that the narrator and his lover are still essential to each other.

To me, this song, in all its ambiguity and understatement, is a perfect expression of the modern, secular holiday season. It’s not about the real meaning of Christmas (whatever that is), and the saccharine sentiments of movies like The Santa Clause are completely absent from it. Instead, it’s about people trying to get by, failing, yet finding a comfort in each other all the same, And if the rituals of the season are no longer Christian, they still seem to bring comfort, as the upbeat chorus suggests:

The boys of the NYPD choir
Still singing “Galway Bay”
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day.

It’s this painful ambiguity, I think, that has allowed “Fairytale” to survive where other modern carols don’t. However much some people might wish things otherwise, we don’t live in a Christian age, and any attempt to pretend that we do is only going to ring false and be soon forgotten. Unlike other modern carol writers, The Pogues aren’t afraid to admit that. And if they are brutal and exaggerated in their expression of the fact, they are at least honest – and that’s the starting point for any memorable art.

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After several years of online journalism, I thought I was inured to comments about my work. When you’re praised as an unsung genius and as pond scum for the same article a few times, you start to get cynical. But I admit that I was a little overwhelmed when my use of a quote by Ray Wylie Hubbard in my entry entitled “Sweat and grace” brought a friendly comment from Hubbard himself.

Somehow, when I quote somebody, I never consider the possibility that they might reply. The fact that the comment popped up in my inbox while I was listening to Hubbard’s “The Way of the Fallen” made the event all the synchronicitiously spooky.

Depending on your musical taste, that may not mean too much to you. But there are exactly three musical acts I’ve fallen for after hearing less than a single song. The first two were Stan Rogers and OysterBand. Ever since I first heard Hubbard at the Vancouver Folk Festival a few years ago, Hubbard has been the third. His CDs get a lot of play time around our house.

You want to know how much I like Hubbard’s music? Completely inappropriately, Hubbard’s music is filed under Country and Western in most stores. Around Vancouver, C&W still carries overtones of ignorant rednecks. Yet I have been known to search the C&W racks, without even a paperbag on my head to hide my shame, on the off chance of finding another Hubbard album.

That’s how much I like his music.

Hubbard is best known for “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers,” a humorous work he wrote in the early 1970s. It’s a song that he has since had the occasional regret about, although, as he says on a live album, when he wanders down to the mail box and gets a cheque for it, he feels pretty good about being responsible for the piece. And he has since written songs in much the same vein, such as “Screw You, We’re from Texas.”

But such songs represent only a small part of his range. Even his humor tends to be wryer and dryer these days, as in “Preacher,” when a sinner dumbfounds a minister who has called seeking his repentance points out his woman hanging clothes in the yard and tells him, “I ain’t missing nothing / When she stoop down low,” or in “Mississippi Flush,” a song named for the ultimate hand in poker: “A small revolver and any five cards.”

In a more serious vein, Hubbard is a storyteller, telling gritty stories of the American south with a strong strain of legend and the lore of the blues throughout. It’s no wonder that at least one of his songs, “This River Runs Red,” was partly inspired by a Flannery O’Connor story – there’s more than a little of the Southern Gothic in his work. In “Younger Son,” the narrator is a man with an unwelcome supernatural power; and, in more than one song, he refers to the crossroads where bluesmen like Robert Johnson struck a deal with the devil. And, even when the story is more mundane, there’s often a hint of desperation and long-endured pain in Hubbard’s songs.

If this atmosphere and collection of metaphors was all there was to Hubbard’s work, he would still be one of the great original song writers. But, within these confines, Hubbard manages to slip in a surprising amount of intellectual content and spirituality. In many other songwriters, these elements would seem self-conscious or trite, but Hubbard talks about the Aztec deities in “The Wild Gods of Mexico” or reincarnation in “Stolen Horses,” or the role of the writer in “Knives of Spain” and “The Ballad of the Crimson Kings,” or Rilke in “The Pilgrim” with such naturalness that it’s only afterwards that you do a double-take. Did Hubbard really write about those things in the genre of a popular song? But look at the liner notes, and you’ll see that he did. What’s more, he does so with such casualness that you know that they’ve become part of his thinking.

There’s also a note of what I can only call maturity in his work of the last ten years or so, which is all that is available from his career. I know nothing of Hubbard’s life, and I would hesitate to take references to cocaine and Alcoholics’ Anonymous as based on his personal experience without more details – after all, just because Hubbard writes about such things doesn’t mean they form a major part of his biography.

But unless all powers of observation fail me, I suspect that, somewhere along the line, Hubbard has been through some traumatic times. I also suspect that he has lived through them and developed an existential or stoic philosophy. Listening to Hubbard’s recent songs, you soon realize that they aren’t a young man’s songs – and how rare such perspectives are in popular music, and how much is lost when such voices are banished from one of our culture’s most popular art forms.

So far, I haven’t said much about Hubbard’s music. That’s partly because I’m a writer and tend to respond to words first, and partly because Hubbard is such a strong lyricist.

But I’d be only telling half the story if I didn’t at least mention that Hubbard’s music is as versatile as his words. It’s a little bit country, although far less than you might expect. What’s even more obvious are the strong shots of rock and roll and blues in his work. Some of the blues might be the influence of Gurf Morlix, Hubbard’s producer and sometimes collaborator, but, having listen to both of them working apart, I suspect that their alliance is more a meeting of like minds than a question of influence. And, wherever it comes from, Hubbard’s music is a carefully crafted fusion that is both consistent with its roots and something different than the sum of its parts.

In a just world, a singer-songwriter like Hubbard would have the reputation of a Woodie Guthrie or a Bob Dylan. But perhaps it’s a small consolation for those of us who dislike such unfairness that a corollary of the fact that Hubbard is currently only comfortably successful is that we can still hear him in relatively small settings, where we can properly appreciate his music.

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