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Posts from the ‘Folk music’ Category

Greenwich Village, February 1963

Don HunsteinThe man who took the photograph that appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan died on March 18, aged 88. Don Hunstein’s obituary in the New York Times tells us that he bought a Leica while serving with the US Air Force in England, and attended classes at the Central School of Art and Design. After returning home he eventually became a staff photographer at Columbia Records, at a time when that meant working with Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Glenn Gould, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein and many others.

He was in Columbia’s studios when Davis recorded Kind of Blue and Holiday recorded Lady in Satin. But no image of his turned out to have greater cultural resonance than the one he took in a Greenwich Village street on a cold February day in 1963. He had already taken the picture for the cover of Dylan’s debut album (which the art department had flipped, so that Dylan’s guitar looks to be strung for a left-handed player and his coat buttons are on the wrong side). For the second session, Hunstein turned up at the singer’s top-floor apartment at 161 West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s 19-year-old girlfriend, was present, and a few photographs were taken indoors before the three of them stepped out into the slush-lined streets. Dylan, thinking of his image, put on a thin suede jerkin over his denim shirt. Rotolo sensibly opted for a warm dark-green belted coat. On a nearby side street, Hunstein got them to walk towards him, arm in arm, and started snapping away.

When I interviewed Suze at the time of the publication of her excellent autobiography (A Freewheelin’ Time) in 2008, she told me of a recent conversation with the photographer in which they had disagreed about the precise location of the shot that ended up on the cover. Hunstein said it was on Cornelia Street. She insisted it was Jones Street, a bit further up West 4th. “So that’s going to have to remain a mystery for all those Dylanologists,” she chuckled.

I liked her enormously. When I asked her how it felt to listen now to all those songs written when she and Dylan were together (“Don’t Think Twice”, “Boots of Spanish Leather” and so on), she responded to the sort of crass journalistic question she’d been avoiding for four and a half decades with words that I found very moving. “I can recognise things,” she said. “It’s like looking at a diary. It brings it all back. And what’s hard is that you remember being unsure of how life was going to go — his, mine, anybody’s. So, from the perspective of an older person looking back, you enjoy them, but also think of them as the pain of youth, the loneliness and struggle that youth is, or can be.”

She died in 2011. She and Dylan had stayed in intermittent touch, she told me. A few years after their painful breakup he helped her out when her apartment was destroyed by fire. Among her lost possessions were the coat she had worn that day in 1963, and one of his Gibson guitars.

The Judas thing

Bob Dylan 1966I suppose I’ve always thought of the man who shouted “Judas!” at Bob Dylan in Manchester in 1966 as a dull-witted denier of truth and progress. To my astonishment, however, after spending the last couple of months listening, on and off, to the 36-disc box of the surviving music from that tour, I’ve come to see things a little differently.

According to researches by Andy Kershaw and C. P. Lee, the Judas man was a Manchester law student named John Cordwell. His interjection was the most prominent and celebrated of the many voiced in disapproval of Dylan’s alliance with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Mickey Jones during the second half of each show, most of which featured a between-songs commentary of grumbles and shouts and whistles, occasionally luring the singer into responses that ranged from the wry to the exasperated.

Of course, the music they played after the interval was head-spinning, earth-shaking and world-changing, fuelled to a greater and greater extent as the tour went on by anger at the pincer attack from a combative Fleet Street on the one hand and outraged folk purists on the other. But after listening to many of these concerts, it’s hard to avoid the somewhat heretical conclusion that the finest and most enduring music came in the first half.

If he was feeling impatient to get to the second half and the revolutionary music he’d been concocting with his new friends, it never shows. The seven songs making up the basic acoustic set — “She Belongs to Me”, “Fourth Time Around”, “Visions of Johanna”, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”, “Desolation Row”, “Just Like a Woman” and “Mr Tambourine Man” — receive a high degree of care and attention. The approach each night depends on the condition in which Dylan takes the stage, but the performances are never less than nuanced and fascinatingly varied. I could listen to every one of these versions of “Visions of Johanna” end to end without wearying of the experience. And apart from the voice, there’s the harmonica: which, in 1965/66, he was playing with a much underrated inventiveness and a powerful interest in developing the architecture of a solo.

Some of these concerts — like those at the Sheffield Gaumont and Birmingham Odeon, or the first Albert Hall show — find him in pristine form, honouring these songs with great concentration and spellbinding delicacy. Elsewhere his altered consciousness, shall we say, makes itself evident in a looser approach to the songs’ contours and details, producing results sometimes even more compelling than the more faithful treatments. The Olympia music hall in Paris and the second Albert Hall concert are particularly striking examples.

By no coincidence at all, these are the shows on which he spends most time responding to the audience. When he’s whistled for taking forever to tune his guitar before “Desolation Row” in Paris, for instance: “I’m doing this (tuning up) for you. I don’t care. If you want to hear it that way, I’ll play it that way.” And, as the noises of restlessness continue: “You just can’t wait. You have to go to work at 10 o’clock? Oh, it’s a drag for me, too, y’know. But that’s folk music for you. Folk music, it does this all the time.” And then: “Oh, come on now, I wouldn’t behave like this if I came to see you…” (It’s his 25th birthday, and Françoise Hardy is in the audience.)

It seems to me that the record company has made a mistake by issuing the first Albert Hall show as a stand-alone two-CD set. It’s beautiful, of course, and relatively unblemished by the sounds of a disputatious audience. But the second London concert was what the legend of this tour was all about: full-on music, full-on conflict, everything on the brink of falling apart, Dylan stoned to the gills and taking a last chance to harangue the dissenters during the final date of a psychologically gruelling tour, During a four-minute monologue between “Tell Me Momma” and “I Don’t Believe You”, he says this:

I love England, I like it a lot (sniggers), but we did all this in the States from September on, and we’ve all been playing this music since we were 10 years old, and folk music just happens to be a thing which interrupted … which was very useful, you know … but frankly the rock and roll thing in the United States was (sniggers) … forgive me … forgive me … Anything I sing now, don’t hold against me … I realise it’s loud music and all that kind of thing, but if you don’t like it, that’s fine. If you’ve got some improvements you could make on it, that’s great. But the thing is, it is not English music you’re listening to. It’s a shame that we’re here now and it might sound like English music to you, if you haven’t really heard American music before, but the music is-a, is-a, is-a … (laughter) … I would never venture to say what it is. 

Quite. But I find myself thinking about people listening to Bob Dylan in, say, 50 years’ time, and wondering what it is they’ll be listening to, which of the many Dylans will have survived the years. The one who sang “Like a Rolling Stone”, no doubt. But maybe the acoustic songs, where his wisdom and subtlety as a writer and performer are most in evidence, are the ones that will turn out to have the real staying power: “Johanna”, “Tambourine Man”, “Baby Blue”, “Don’t Think Twice”, “Desolation Row”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the rest (among which we’d have to include “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Shelter From the Storm”).

The tumultuous music he made with the Hawks in 1966 enriched the culture and was perfect for its historical moment. But perhaps that shout of “Judas!” was not quite as wrong-headed as it seemed.

* Please don’t mistake this for a review of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings. Somebody else can take that on. The photograph is a still from the unreleased film of the tour shot by D. A. Pennebaker.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

Bob Dylan and Barbara Allen

bob-dylan-1962-2Not surprisingly, I’ve spent more than the usual amount of time over the last two or three days listening to Bob Dylan, although it wasn’t because I needed to persuade myself that he deserved the Nobel committee’s 2016 prize for literature. Funnily enough, the track I’ve ended up playing constantly is one that he didn’t write: the Anglo-Scottish ballad “Barbara Allen”, which dates back to the mid-17th century. It is said to have been a staple of his repertoire in his early days in the Greenwich Village folk clubs, and he has credited it as one of the traditional ballads which taught him that songs could be more than three minutes long. In that sense it played a part in the creation of “Desolation Row”, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, “Tangled up in Blue”, “Isis”, “Brownsville Girl”, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” and his other epics.

A live performance of the song from his apprentice years is included on Live at the Gaslight 1962, taped in the MacDougal Street basement in October that year, while he was in the middle of recording Freewheelin’. There are three things that give it a prominent place in my list of secret Dylan favourites (alongside “House Carpenter”, “Yeah Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, “Going, Going, Gone”, “Changing of the Guard” and the live version of “Queen Jane Approximately” with the Grateful Dead).

The first and most obvious is his tone, for which only the word “tender” will do, and which is perfectly suited to a tale that ends with the entwining of a red rose and a briar growing out of the graves of the two protagonists. As so often from his performances in this period, you can only wonder at the depth of feeling with which the 21-year-old imbues the song. The second is the artful way he handles the song’s cadences, using his voice and guitar to create tension by stretching and releasing the lines in the way that would become an important factor in some of his best songs (e.g. “It’s Alright, Ma”).

The third is tiny but, to me at least, significant. Most people singing this ballad, including Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, begin with the lines “Twas in the merry month of May / When the green buds all were swelling / Sweet William on his death bed lay / For love of Barbara Allen.” Dylan prefers an alternative version, which was also known before the song made its Atlantic crossing, and which usually goes thus: “In Scarlet Town, not far from here, / There was a fair maid dwelling / And her name was known both far and near / And her name was Barbara Allen.” Then he sings the verse with which others open it. I like his way of opening it better: it’s more direct, more compelling.

But he does something else. He changes “Scarlet Town” — which apparently may originally have been a play on the name of the English town of Reading — to “Charlottetown”. It turns out that there are only two places of that name recorded in the Times Atlas of the World. One is in Guyana. The other is on Prince Edward Island in Canada, which turns out to be on the same latitude — just a little above the 46th parallel — as Duluth, Minnesota, Dylan’s birthplace.

They’re 1,350 miles apart, as the black crow flies, but unless somebody can tell me that other singers before Dylan made the same substitution, I’m going to think of it as a conscious choice with an intention behind it. To me, it’s an early example of how he was starting to construct his own songs by reassembling, reshaping and repurposing existing materials, a modus operandi sustained from “Hard Rain” to “Early Roman Kings”. For that reason, I find it unusually moving. And after all, more than 50 years later, on Tempest, his most recent album of his own songs, he included a piece which began “In Scarlet Town, where I was born…”

* The photograph above was taken in 1962 by Joe Alper, whose other images of Dylan can be found at http://www.wallofsoundgallery.com.

 

A glimpse of Anne Briggs

Folk singers

It was my good fortune to see and hear the great folk singer Anne Briggs in her youthful prime, before she turned away from public performance, leaving only a handful of recordings and an indelible influence on the likes of Sandy Denny, June Tabor and Kate Rusby. A fine half-hour programme about her on BBC Radio 4 last week, titled The Voices of Annie Briggs, written and presented by Alan Hall, brought that precious memory springing back to life.

She would have been not yet 20 when I saw her at the Nottingham Folk Workshop, close to the old Lace Market (at a time when it still contained a few surviving lace manufacturers). That was where she had encountered Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, who heard her sing one night in 1961 and took her off to join Centre 42, their travelling folk-arts festival. She was 17 then, so I must have heard her a year or two later on a return visit to her native city; by then she would have learnt “Blackwaterside” from A.L. Lloyd and hooked up with Bert Jansch, who became first her boyfriend and then her lifelong pal.

I don’t remember exactly what she sang that night in 1962 or ’63 — although I’m pretty sure her short set included “She Moved Through the Fair”  — but I do remember, very vividly, the impression she made: she looked like the girl you wanted to run away with, and she had a voice that you’d have followed anywhere.

But she resisted any attempt to turn her into a commodity, and her nature seems to have resisted stability on someone else’s terms. As she tells Hall in the radio programme: “You must remember that in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I think it was hoped that I might become a nurse, for instance, or a hairdresser, and that I’d marry and have children and become quietly domesticated. I’m a bit feral, perhaps.”

Hall interviewed her at her home in the west of Scotland, where she lives alongside nature and beside running water, which seem to provide all the music she needs. The last time she sang was when she put her infant grandson in a sling and took him for a walk by the river. “It seemed to soothe him,” she says.

* The photograph of Anne Briggs was taken by Brian Shuel in Hampstead, North London, in 1962.

Finding Bob Campbell, photographer

Robert Campbell Son House John HammondIt’s 14 years since Jessica Ferber, who had just graduated in sociology and photography from the University of Vermont, was handed a few boxes of photographic prints and negatives and other bits and pieces left by a recently deceased resident of a homeless shelter. She was asked if she wanted to do something with them. They would occupy much of her time for the next decade as she sorted through the material, began the painstaking process of restoration, and then raised funds via Kickstarter to complete the work and to secure publication in book form.

The battered prints, negs, postcards, receipts, letters, cassette tapes and a journal were all that remained of the life of Robert James Campbell, who had died at the age of 65 of accumulated symptoms, including heart and kidney disease, more than 30 years after his career as a photographer had petered out. But what Ferber saw convinced her that here was something worth preserving.

Bob Campbell was born in New York into a wealthy family, and grew up in homes in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Burlington, Vermont. He was interested in cameras from an early age, and he also played the double bass. He dropped out of college after a year and his first photographs of jazz musicians seem to have been taken when he served in the US Army in the 1950s. When he moved to New York on his 25th birthday in 1961, taking a studio in the West Village, he gravitated towards clubs like the Village Vanguard.

Rebirth of the Cool is the product of Ferber’s 10-year obsession, a handsome large-format book that chronicles not just Campbell’s work but his life, mainly through family photographs from his childhood. It includes impressive black and white studies of many important musicians, among them Bud Powell (at the recording session for The Return of Bud Powell in 1964), Elvin Jones, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, the MJQ (shot during a trip to Germany in 1958), Tommy Turrentine, Philly Joe Jones, the Adderley brothers, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, and Warne Marsh with Lee Konitz.

Campbell was also taken with Bob Dylan; although there are no shots to document that specific interest, his involvement in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk and blues scene is reflected in photographs of Son House with the great A&R man John Hammond (see above), Mississippi John Hurt, Miriam Makeba (with Sivuca, the Brazilian accordionist), Richie Havens, Bill Monroe, the Staple Singers and the duo Jim & Jean — Jim Glover and Jean Ray (below), the models for the characters played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis.

Robert Campbell Jim and Jean

The influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson is pretty clear in these photographs, particularly when Campbell moves outside to shoot scenes in Washington Square and the streets of the Village. He didn’t make stylised images of smoke-wreathed musicians, as Herman Leonard had done. He was after the informality of an emerging counterculture, more in the manner of Carole Reiff or Ed van der Elsken. One shot from a party in a Village apartment is so cool that it makes me wish it were 1964 all over again. He seems to have tried fashion work, but he needed to take other jobs, such as building sets for theatre companies, to keep going.

I’d come across him once before, in the pages of Blue Melody, the excellent memoir of Tim Buckley by Lee Underwood, Buckley’s friend and guitarist. Campbell met Buckley and Underwood at the Tin Angel, a Village club, and moved with them to California in 1967 before drifting out of sight. “Bob was in his early thirties, bearded, very bright, well-read, a musically literate fellow who did not graduate from college,” Underwood writes. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘I like books and I read a lot, but I don’t study. When reading becomes work, a task, then that’s it. My seventh- and eighth-grade guidance counsellor accused me of learning by osmosis. My mother got burned up at my motto in the yearbook: I’m not lazy, I’m just tired.'”

Underwood records Campbell as having turned up at Buckley’s funeral in Santa Monica in 1975. “One true and trusted friend,” he calls him. By that time the photography was over and the set-building was how he earned his money. Ferber reconstructs the story of his last years from minimal evidence, telling us that in the early 1980s he returned to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he inherited the family home on his mother’s death in 1987. But it all disappeared, and so did he until 1995, when he was taken in by a homeless charity in Burlington until his death seven years later.

He wasn’t a genius, but the photographs show that there was certainly a measure of poetry in his soul, and Ferber’s devotion to the surviving fragments of his life adds an extra layer of it to this fine book.

* Rebirth of the Cool by Jessica Ferber, with a foreword by Marc Myers, is published by powerHouse Books of Brooklyn, NY. Blue Melody by Lee Underwood was published by Backbeat Books of San Francisco in 2002.

The story of Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny & Rhiannon GiddensI’ve been listening to Rhiannon Giddens’ new solo album, Tomorrow Is My Turn, while reading Mick Houghton’s just-published biography of Sandy Denny, I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn. Not at the same time, you understand, but it’s an interesting and salutary juxtaposition.

Tomorrow Is My Turn is almost scary in the perfection of its settings for Giddens’ treatment of blues, folk, country and gospel songs. As a producer of this kind of material, T Bone Burnett offers a guarantee of empathy: a mandolin here, a fiddle there, a banjo where needed, a touch of horns, a subtle wash of strings, all applied with the greatest sensitivity to an exquisite choice of material. It’s one of the year’s essential purchases, a huge step forward for a singer whose work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops had already established her credentials as an interpreter of roots music. She’s a very fine singer, and she deserves this treatment. You find yourself nodding your head in admiration as she copes so elegantly with the various idioms (even French chanson: check the poised understatement of her version of the Charles Aznavour song that gives the album its title).

Sandy Denny, however, was not merely a fine singer: she was a great one. Not only were her tone and phrasing lovely and distinctive, but she sang from the inside of a song and she had the gift of slowing your heartbeat to match the pulse of her music. What she didn’t possess were the attributes that seem to be propelling Giddens to a higher plane: a powerful sense of focus, a rock-solid self-confidence, and the right team around her at the right time.

I knew Sandy a little, and even 37 years after her death I found reading I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn an extremely distressing experience. Mick Houghton is not a dramatic writer, but he doesn’t need to be: he just needs to stitch together, with quiet diligence and the aid of fresh testimony from many of her surviving friends and colleagues, the story of how Alexandra Elene MacLean Denny, born in Wimbledon in 1947, achieved recognition without managing to build the sort of career that everyone expected her to have, and then fell so fast and so conclusively that she was dead at 31.

Two linked episodes — the aftermath of Fairport Convention’s motorway tragedy and the saga of Fotheringay — stand out as pivotal. One night in May 1969 the van carrying members of Fairport Convention back to London from a gig in Birmingham crashed down an embankment on the M1, killing Martin Lamble, their drummer, and Jeannie Franklyn, the girlfriend of Richard Thompson, their lead guitarist. The traumatised band recruited a new drummer, Dave Mattacks, and a fiddler, Dave Swarbrick, and threw themselves into a different kind of project: the album Liege and Lief, in which they applied rock-band techniques to traditional material. It was released in December of that year, and its instant critical acceptance as a benchmark in the evolution of folk-rock diverted them from the musical path they would surely have followed had the accident never happened and the fast-evolving songwriting of Sandy and Richard remained the core of their activity.

Eventually the pair left in frustration, both keen to stretch their wings. Sandy put together the five-piece Fotheringay in 1970 with her new boyfriend, the Australian singer/guitarist Trevor Lucas. Joe Boyd, who had mentored and produced the Fairports, firmly believed that Sandy’s future was as a solo artist, not as a member of another group — particularly not one organised, as she insisted, along strictly democratic and non-hierarchical lines. He distrusted the charismatic but headstrong Lucas, and he was appalled by the way the record company’s large advance — originally predicated on a solo album — was being blown on such things as an oversized PA system and a Bentley in which they made their way to gigs.

But although Fotheringay’s first album, and their uncompleted second effort, may have been recorded under Boyd’s disapproving gaze, out of those sessions came the finest moment of Sandy’s career. Within the highly original and starkly dramatic arrangement of “Banks of the Nile”, a traditional ballad telling the story of the reaction of a young girl to the imminent departure of her soldier lover, Sandy seems to summon centuries of English history. As the singer Dick Gaughan said on the subject, in an eloquent note in the booklet accompanying A Boxful of Treasures, the five-CD anthology released by Fledg’ling Records in 2004: “The raw, aching agony which she brings to her reading of it makes it impossible not to feel the fear and grief of the young woman at the separation from her loved one and the uncertainty of his return from the horrors of war . . . It is the supreme example of the craft of interpreting traditional song and is the standard every singer should be aiming for.”

Sandy didn’t write “Banks of the Nile”, but she did write “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, “Late November”, “John the Gun”, “It’ll Take a Long Time” and other songs that showed her gift for taking a sudden but invariably graceful left turn with a melody or finessing an unexpected chord change with perfect logic, and for lyrics that often contained affectionate but clear-eyed portraits of friends and fellow musicians (Anne Briggs in “The Pond and the Stream”, for example, or Richard Thompson in “Nothing More”). But “Banks of the Nile” indicates most clearly what might have been, had a combination of internal and external pressures not provoked the disintegration of Fotheringay after less than a year, thus denying her the chance to remain a member of a sympathetic and settled unit whose collective musical ambition matched her own.

Chronic insecurities were beginning to hinder her career, particularly after the rupture with Boyd, which removed a provider of support and decisiveness. The biggest blow to Fotheringay was dealt by the Royal Albert Hall concert of October 1970. Disastrously, they invited Elton John to open the show, at the very moment when his career was taking off. He hadn’t yet grown into his full on-stage flamboyance, but his performance was powerful enough to put his hosts in the shade. When they came out after the intermission, it was somehow like the colour on a TV set had been suddenly turned off — and the audience, which had come to acclaim Sandy and her band, found themselves present at an epic anti-climax. Three months later, demoralised by that event and by the unsatisfactory sessions for their projected second album, the band broke up — thanks largely to a simple misunderstanding between Sandy and Joe Boyd over the terms on which he would produce her first solo effort.

In fact Boyd never produced her in the studio again, and the four solo albums released between 1971 and 1977 chronicle a diminishing ability to identify and present the essence of who she really was. The overproduced (by Lucas) cover version of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” on the final album, Rendezvous, represented some sort of nadir. The record company — Island — did its best, which too often turned out to be not so good. She found herself agreeing to be photographed by David Bailey, to be dressed up in a 1930s costume, and to be airbrushed and wind-machined in an effort to create an image more superficially glamorous than that represented by her own true self. As Island grew too quickly and had its head turned by success, her career became, to some extent, collateral damage.

When she was voted Britain’s top female singer by the readers of the Melody Maker not once but twice, in 1970 and 1971, it was assumed that commercial success would take care of itself. But after Boyd, she didn’t get much constructive help — for which, now, I must partially blame myself, since I was running Island’s A&R department between 1973 and 1976. But the artists inherited from Boyd’s Witchseason stable were somehow thought to be a law unto themselves in terms of musical direction, and although Sandy was loved within the company for her warmth of her personality as well as for her artistry, she was not biddable. Nor, in those days, were real artists supposed to be.

Houghton doesn’t slow up the narrative by spending much time describing the music, but he does make some discreetly perceptive observations. He remarks that Sandy’s first solo release, The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, is “the only album on which Sandy steadfastly stands her ground — usually by the seashore or the riverbank — and invites her audience to come to her.” And he writes of Trevor Lucas, five years later, working on the production of the ill-starred Rendezvous, “doing such protracted overdubs that it was almost as if he was subconsciously trying to bury the sentiments of the songs.”

Although delving deep into her turbulent love-match with Lucas and the increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol that accompanied her decline, he treads lightly when it comes to other, deeper-lying factors that might be held partially responsible for her unhappiness, such as an enduring fretfulness about her looks (particularly her weight) and an apparent history of abortions and miscarriages. Some readers may feel that the significance of these matters looms larger than the author allows himself to suggest. Eventually, in 1977, she would have a child with Lucas, a girl whom the father found it necessary to kidnap and take off to Australia less than a year later, as Sandy’s problems worsened. Four days after their unannounced departure she was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs at a friend’s flat in Barnes, and died in hospital a further four days later.

It’s a shock to realise that someone you knew has now been dead for longer than they were alive. Had she lived, she would have turned 68 a few weeks ago. Perhaps in that time she’d have encountered another manager, producer or A&R person capable of earning her trust, focusing her talent, nurturing the elements that made her unique, and presenting them to the world in the right package — the kind of package that Rhiannon Giddens seems to have been granted in 2015. Who knows how much great music was left in her? I like to think of Sandy coaxing Anne Briggs out of seclusion and inviting Kate Rusby to join them both on stage.

Houghton’s scrupulously fair account of her life makes it clear that she could be difficult and destructive, but allows those who knew her well to remember another side. The drummer Bruce Rowland — who had replaced Dave Mattacks in the Fairports by the time she recorded a last album, Rising for the Moon, with the band in 1975 — touchingly calls her “endlessly forgivable”. Her old folk-club mate Ralph McTell tells Houghton: “She would provoke — push people to the very limit at times, which sounds like she was a nasty person, but she wasn’t. People would take it because they loved her. I don’t know anyone who didn’t love her.” And you didn’t have to know her to love her. You only had to listen to “Banks of the Nile”.

* I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn is published by Faber & Faber. Tomorrow Is My Turn is released on the Nonesuch label.

 

Snowed in with Emily Barker

Emily Barker : Vena PortaeThe first time I met Emily Barker, eight or nine years ago, she was working behind the counter at Brill in Exmouth Market, a small but perfectly formed Clerkenwell coffee-and-CDs shop. She’d come over from Australia a couple of years earlier, and soon she was recording an album and playing gigs with her band, Red Clay Halo (including one memorable performance to about 50 people crammed into the shop). A stroke of deserved luck arrived when “Nostalgia”, a track from her second album, was used as the title music for the BBC’s remake of Wallander, winning her a BAFTA award.

Her latest project is an album by a trio with Dom Coyote and Ruben Engzell, called Vena Portae. They recorded it in a temporary studio in  Mölnbo, a small town in Sweden, while snowed in during the winter before last: a kind of Scandinavian Big Pink. It came out a few weeks ago on the Humble Soul label. Here’s the lead-off track, “Summer Kills”: listen out for the subtle touches of saxophones and bass clarinet (all played by Magic Gunnarsson) behind Emily’s lovely voice.

She and Red Clay Halo — Anna Jenkins (violin, viola), Jo Silverston (cello, bass, banjo, saw) and Gill Sandell (accordion, piano, flute) — are on tour in Britain next month. I’m going to try and catch them at St James’s Church in Piccadilly. Meanwhere here are a couple of video clips: first at the Union Chapel in Islington two years ago, performing “Nostalgia”, and then in the studio this month with a quite heartbreakingly beautiful cover of Tom Waits’s “Day After Tomorrow”.

* The photograph is from the jacket of Vena Portae and was taken by Johan Bergmark.

Inside Dave Turner

Dave TurnerJoel and Ethan Coen do a good job of catching a pivotal moment in the history of contemporary music in Inside Llewyn Davis, which opens in the UK next weekend. I’ve seen it a couple of times and was impressed by the faithful portrayal of the Greenwich Village folk scene as it prepared for the transition from Pete Seeger to Bob Dylan (although, as a friend pointed out, nobody tied a scarf with a loop in the way Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, does until about 10 years ago).

I’m not going to spoil the fun by describing the moment — a quite subtle and very telling one — at which Dylan makes his appearance in a film based on Dave Van Ronk’s entertaining Village memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (and my recent Guardian piece on that is here). Until then, however, Dylan’s unseen presence is enough to make him the principal supporting actor — even more crucial than Ulysses, the ginger tom inserted by the Coens in order to provide the film with something resembling a narrative.

The film is set in the early weeks of 1961. It would be a year before Dylan’s influence began to make itself felt, initially when Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary began performing and recording his songs.  Dylan’s own versions of those songs represented a completely different experience, one that introduced a generation to a notion of authenticity in voice, language and looks, but it took a while until, at the beginning of 1965, he suddenly achieved a kind of pop-star status in Britain. On the eve of his second UK tour, the title track of The Times They Are a-Changin’, first released a year earlier, shot into the top 10. A few weeks later it would be followed by “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, taken from his new album, Bringing It All Back Home.

I remember that little period of Dylanmania very clearly. At the time I was in a rhythm and blues band, playing clubs and pubs and other venues in and around Nottingham. A five-piece, we relied on the standard repertoire: Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and so on. We borrowed our name — the Junco Partners — from a song recorded by the Texas-born bluesman James Wayne (as, unbeknown to us, did a band in Newcastle upon Tyne, later resident at the celebrated Club A Go-Go).

One of our two guitarists had come to us from the local folk scene. His name was Dave Turner and he also sang and played harmonica; in the folk clubs, his broad sense of humour and gift for mimicry enabled him to perform a wicked parody of early Dylan. So at a moment when demand for solo acoustic Dylan clearly outstripped that for Chicago-style R&B, we let him loose on our audiences. I have a vivid memory of a night at the Dungeon Club in Nottingham when the rest of us — lead guitarist Mick Dale, electric pianist Ian Taylor, bass-guitarist and singer Rae Drewery (later to become the father of Swing Out Sister’s Corinne Drewery) and me — sat in the dressing room and listened rather glumly to the cheers as Dave went through a more or less straight-faced impersonation of the hero of the hour. His “All I Really Want To Do”, with a lascivious spin, went down particularly well. Eventually we returned to the stage and the audience went back to dancing. I seem to remember that happening quite a few times.

We played together for the best part of a year but called it a day that summer, when real life beckoned. It’s fair to say that we left no trace. I’m pretty sure that our last gig was at the Elizabethan Rooms in Nottingham, supporting Tom Jones. “It’s Not Unusual” was still in the charts, and he was still backed by the Squires. When I next saw him it was in Las Vegas about 40 years later and he was in excellent form, but in the meantime he’d nicked our repertoire: it was Howlin’ Wolf pretty much all the way.

The five of us lost touch but I know that Dave returned to the Midlands folk circuit, where his mixture of traditional songs and broad humour is said to have influenced Billy Connolly, Mike Harding, Jasper Carrott, Fred Wedlock and others. He died in 2008, aged 66. Here he is in full comedy-folk guise, performing a song he wrote in the Sixties called “The Ballad of Cosmic Ray”, incorporating bits of “Freight Train” (with a reminder of his Dylan parody) and “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey”, and some fantastic finger-picking. And here’s a complete 40-minute set of his full-frontal ribaldry, recorded at a Coventry folk club in the 1970s (warning: contains mentions of Woodbine cigarettes and bodily functions).

* The photograph of Dave Turner was taken in 1965, during his time with the Junco Partners. It was our only publicity shot but to save embarrassment I’ve cropped the rest of us out of it.