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“The world is in an uproar…”

Sad and lonely, all the time

That’s because I’ve got a worried mind

You know the world is in an uproar

The danger zone is everywhere, everywhere

When Ray Charles recorded Percy Mayfield’s “The Danger Zone” in New York on the afternoon of the 4th of July, 1961, a few hours before a gig in Atlantic City, the world was indeed in an uproar. In the Congo, Patrice Lumumba had just been assassinated. Paris’s two commercial airports had recently been closed for fear of airborne attacks by Algerian rebels. In Cuba, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion had failed to topple the Castro regime. Black and white “freedom riders” had been attacked by racists in Montgomery, Alabama. The anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem had won a presidential election in South Vietnam, where the US government was planning to send thousands more “military advisers”. Rhodesia had just refused to give blacks a bigger say in government. A month later, the Berlin Wall would go up overnight.

I have a long list of favourite Ray Charles records, and “The Danger Zone”, with its perfectly judged vocal and gorgeous small-band arrangement, might just be first among equals. I encountered it on the B-side of “Hit the Road, Jack”, recorded that same afternoon. The words of Mayfield, a great writer, lose no power as the decades go by, and they came to mind yesterday when a track from Leonard Cohen’s forthcoming album, Popular Problems, appeared on YouTube.

I was guided to it by an item on my friend Martin Colyer’s excellent blog, Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week. It’s called “Almost Like the Blues”, and here it is. An unadorned 12-bar sequence, a simple bass-guitar, ticking hand-drums, discreet acoustic and electric keys, a female chorale, a sudden wash of synthetic strings, a distant horn section, and this, delivered as a semi-recitative by a man nearing the end of his 80th year on earth:

I saw some people starving, there was murder, there was rape

Their villages were burning, they were trying to escape

I couldn’t meet their glances, I was staring at my shoes

It was acid, it was tragic, it was almost like the blues

Like the poet Mayfield, the poet Cohen is doing what a poet does: blending the personal and the universal, the great and the small, for an audience waking up each day to the news from Iraq and Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, and Ferguson, Missouri. He doesn’t try to make sense of it. No one could do that. But he leaves us thinking.

There is no god in heaven and there is no hell below

So says the great professor of all there is to know

But I’ve had the invitation that a sinner can’t refuse

And it’s almost like salvation, it’s almost like the blues…


5 Comments Post a comment
  1. John Pritchard #

    Was it ever thus Richard, its just that we have the chaos and terror of our shared Earth thrust in our faces instantly now. Can you imagine the furore if the casualties from the Western Front had arrived home daily filmed live on Sky News, or selfies were taken at your local witch burnings. Good piece though.
    We have many shared interests by the way and I have long admired your work. I found your blog through the Hidden Legends site and my enquiry about the Jess Roden anthology. I grew up in Kidderminster in the 60’s and Jess and Bronco were our local heroes. Subsequently me and my mates were into all the Island artists to one degree or another – and you lived in the studios! My heroes were John Martyn, the Fairports, the timeline of bands through Skip Bifferty, Arc and Graham Bell to the Blockheads. And John Cale in particular. I’ve got to know John through a mutual friend over the years – a great bloke and what a band that was with Spedding in it. We have a mutual friend too, Andrew Swift who runs the superb gallery in Stoke – another one of those generous souls who gives me some hope for this crazy planet.

    Best Regards John Pritchard

    August 21, 2014
  2. Thanks for this, Richard. I posted it on Facebook with acknowledgements to you and Martin Colyer, to whose blog I am now a subscriber.

    August 21, 2014
  3. Richard Harris #

    Very strange! A friend said to me about a week ago at the peak of the Gaza obscenity, “what a mess this world is in” and Ray’s “Danger Zone” flashed through my mind. Gorgeous track that like you I bought on the 45 on release. Arranged by Hank Crawford? And one not often picked up in the usual Charles anthologies. Joe Turner’s “World of Trouble” would also fit.

    August 21, 2014
  4. “The Danger Zone” was my first exposure to Ray Charles, when I was 8 years old. I’ve been a devotee ever since. My dad bought the single “Hit the Road, Jack” and the Spotlight “best of” album, which features a great selection of early work by Ray and his trio, back home to Lincolnshire after a six-month secondment to North Carolina in 1963. I still perform “The Danger Zone” occasionally on solo gigs should I judge it to be apt. The lyrics have never lost their relevance. I’m so glad you posted this piece and in doing so also drew my attention to Cohen’s forthcoming album. It always brightens my day when notice of a new Blue Moment post arrives in my inbox. Many thanks for a great blog. By the way – and please excuse the blatant self-promotion – Martin Colyer was kind enough to give my band a couple of good reviews on his blog: and . With best wishes, Grahame Painting

    August 21, 2014
  5. Charlie Banks #

    In like vein, I turn to Joe Higgs’ “World Upside Down”. It’s resigned and a little jaunty at the same time:
    “They say the world is spinning around
    I say the world is upside down
    They say the world is spinning around

    I say the world is upside down
    Oh yeah, all right

    Looking at the world today
    I am implored to say
    So much war and poverty
    While few enjoy prosperity”
    Etc, etc

    I think all 3 songs illustrate – turmoil, disregard for life always was with us and always will be, sadly

    August 22, 2014

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