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Posts Tagged ‘Pete Morton’

One night when I was 14, I was doing my homework at the desk in the downstairs basement of my parents’ house. My transistor radio was playing, but I wasn’t paying close attention. The radio station was playing far too much Chicago and Elton John, for my liking, and not nearly enough Eric Clapton or Bob Dylan.

Suddenly, guitars kicked in, and a woman started singing, her voice mildly eerie and like no vocal performance I had ever heard, “True Thomas sat on Huntleigh bank / When he espied a lady may.” I strained for the words for a few stanzas, and then a rock beat struck up in utter contrast, “Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer…”

At the time, I had never heard of Thomas of Ercildoune, aka Thomas the Rhymer, the Scottish prophet who met the Queen of Elfland and was carried off to her realm for seven years. I hadn’t even heard of Steeleye Span. But the arrangement and the words haunted me, and eventually – this being pre-Internet – I realized what I was hearing was a modern version of a seven hundred year old song.

This continuity of culture fascinated me. Folk purists claimed to be outraged by Steeleye Span’s efforts in this direction, but as am adolescent raised on stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood who was trying to reconcile these interests with modern politics, I was entranced. I became a lifelong fan of Steeleye Span, and to this day, songs that modernize old songs are among my favorites.

I remember, for example, just before twilight at the Vancouver Folk Festival hearing Oysterband doing a rocked up version of “Hal-an-tow,” the centuries old Morris dance. I played it for Paul Zimmer, one of the SCA founders, a few weeks later, and I remember him doubling over, his laughter ringing out like a cannon shot when he heard the refrain, “Summer is a-coming in / And winter’s gone away.” A harpist from Denver condemned it as sacrilege and an affront to her ears, which only made Paul and I laugh harder.

Years later, Oysterband, in its “Ragged Kingdom” collaboration with June Tabor, would do much the same with “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” converting the conversation between Napoleon’s son and widow about the dangers of England from a slow harp arrangementd into a magic altogether quicker and more electrified. Again it was condemned by the purists, and overwhelmed the open-minded.

Over the years, there have been other updated songs that have enticed me, among them: Pete Morton’s acapella, punk-tinged version of “Tam Lin,” Tom Lewis’s setting of Rudyard Kipling poems to music, and Loreena McKennitt’s similar treatments of “The Lady of Shallot,” “The Stolen Child” and “The Highwayman.” There was even the Corries’ tongue-in-cheek explanation of how they were restoring “Ghost Riders in the Sky” to its original Scottish form – which was really the story of a modern bar fight described as a Western brawl.

What all these songs have in common is the idea that the past is still alive, and still worth knowing. I am very far from a conservative, but in our era of throwaway culture, something pleases me about this assumption.

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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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