As John Bagnall sees it…
Original position in magazine: pp 54-57
Contents: The Listening Post; Olivier Messiaen
The Listening Post
Vinyl Excavations by John Bagnall
Does Folk Music exist? I’m not even sure if CD chain-stores use the category any more. More likely they shunt those shiny jewel-cases under the wider banner ‘World Music’, which begs the obvious dumb question – what is the origin of the remaining stock? Martian? How about Venusian? If we really were heading for a day-glo Jetsons future the thought would be kinda thrilling…
I suppose the purist definition of Folk is music which comes from a popular ethnic tradition rather than serious art music, which is the creation of the high-brow composer artist. Let’s side-step that music which is folk-based (and could include anything from Lonnie Donegan to The Incredible String Band) to dally with the purely traditional. If you’re English these might be the songs some rustic forefather way back down your mouldy family tree might’ve passed onto his son while they went a-harvest-gathering. It’s certainly very English to look back and romanticise about Samuel Palmer moons over pre-mechanised farms. What could be more ‘rootsy’ than jerkin-clad yokels singing ‘Bushes and Briars’ in a thatched tavern? But that’s history and the tradition has died. We all know George Michael or The Spice Girls will be blaring from today’s tractor-cab radio.
But there must be some corners of this planet untouched by the levelling grip of global musical communication? Go to some isolated Breton village and you might hear the squeel of an ancient bagpipe. Hitch a ride to Tibet and you could be lucky enough to encounter an authentic devotional chant. Snowshoe it up North for an Inuit fishing song. Record labels like Folkways and Topic have earnestly captured such obscure sounds for years. There they are in their cute hessian-colour sleeves. You don’t really have to travel any further than a specialist record store.
Music today is generally a commodity we buy; and if much purely traditional music seems to belong to dusty archives, doesn’t that make Folk just another (rather fossilised) consumer option? Peter Stampfel, Greenwich Village folkie and member of The Holy Modal Rounders, wrote perceptively in 1964:
“If I were a banjo player sixty years ago I would’ve played the music from my neighbourhood. All of everything that I knew about music would be what I learned from the people around me. Now it’s different. My frame of reference is not my neighbourhood but the whole world and all of history. Mass communication means that almost everyone today has heard more music than almost anyone sixty years ago. Mass communications will soon link the world together…and a worldwide popular music is going to happen sooner than you think.”
I’ve found myself in folk clubs just two times. It was the obvious place to find that funny subculture who buy into a lifestyle which exalts the non-electric, and whose preferred drug is the warm slop they call Real Ale. The first venue was a disappointment. Xeroxed song sheets, of carefully word-processed lyrics, were handed out. Two student-types led the hearty communal singing as they bashed away at Yamaha acoustic guitars like third-rate buskers. The repertoire was an odd mix of overfamiliar beery ‘classics’ like ‘The Jug of Punch’, the schlock social observation of ‘Streets of London’ and some Everly Brothers numbers. Wait a minute, the Everly Brothers? It didn’t take a Greil Marcus to note this wasn’t the real Folk Thing. The second club felt like stumbling into an assembly of initiates without an invitation. A bearded giant stood at the bar and sang, unaccompanied and eyes shut. His brethren and sistren joined in the choruses. A sparrow-like girl intoned a tragic ballad to hushed respect, then left. Some people were drinking from pewter tankards. Others smoked drooping Sherlock Holmes pipes. A ruddy faced old timer offered a tune that had something to do with seafaring and death. None of the songs were familiar and certainly none were written in the last fifty years. 500 yards down the street sweaty-faced youths sucked on American beer bottles and stared at video jukebox screens.
Visiting this club was quite an experience, but not one that impelled me to search out Martin Carthy LPs in the second hand racks. I have a fair share of folk-rock on used vinyl, but folk-rock is a different kettle of suede fringe-sleeved jackets altogether. Ever since Bob Dylan and The Band plugged in their unholy crackling amp-stacks at one Newport Folk Festival, the course of folk-rock had more to do with Beatlesque pop-star status than the faithful rendering of wayfarer ballads. Folk-rock is a hybrid and, like much of today’s cross-fertilising ‘world’ genres, this implies development. Anyhow, the usual selection of Folk at record fairs hasn’t exactly been mouth-watering. The Chieftains? Julie Felix? The Corries? Excuse me, isn’t that a rare Velvets bootleg I spy in a box over there?
Elektra Records’ Folk Sampler 5 was however a must-have find which fits snugly into the narrow scope of these ramblings. This beautiful American artefact dates from 1958 and is tightly housed in a cardboard sleeve so sturdy you could eat your dinner off it. A guitar plucking jack-in-the-box is framed by miniature album jackets from which the sampler makes its selection. Ah look, The Shanty Boys, banjoes aloft, are standing next to a colonial potbelly stove. That must be Cynthia Gooding, sitting on a Mexican rug with a Spanish bullfight poster on her wall. Theodore Bikel sports a long black overcoat and leans on his guitar case in a highly-staged mockup of NY’s Jewish quarter. The inner booklet, a gorgeous piece of olive, turquoise and black 50s design, offers further information on the featured folksters.
The sampler was clearly a proud compendium of the staggeringly worldwide folk music Jac Holzman’s Elektra label was releasing at the time. This was Elektra long before they signed leather- panted buffoons like Jim Morrison or the Neanderthal electric catharsis of The Stooges. Each selection, whatever the style or ethnic origin, is played perfectly straight. At this point in the 50s any stylistic hybrid or individual interpretation was breaking the purist rules. So what you get might be Bulerias’ Spanish Flamenco, followed by a 19th century railroad song, followed by Gene and Francesca’s revival of an old French children’s ditty. At times the serious effort to faithfully recreate centuries-old music can become unwittingly funny. The Randolph Singers’ 17th century tavern song is chanted in accents so Queen’s-English proper and with a tempo so stiff that a Restoration drinkery is the furthest thing from your mind. Conversely Theodore Bikel’s Jewish songs benefit from the solemn approach. ‘Kum Aher du Folozof’ exalts the miraculous qualities of a celebrated rabbi in gravely beautiful Yiddish intonation.
The rediscovery of traditional folk happened long before liberal hepsters began buying up albums on cool labels like Elektra. Serious composers, instead of turning up their noses at peasant music, found a return to the source tunage of their own countries both romantic and rich in melody. Bela Bartok was open-eared enough to incorporate his native Hungarian folk tunes into orchestral works. In this century Americans like Aaron Copland dug up old Shaker Community hymns, and maverick genius Charles Ives quoted and deconstructed similar material. In merrie England, Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp scoured rural areas with historical fervour for fast disappearing tunes. English visionary composer Ralph Vaughan Williams made contact with these songs and became an activist in collecting the vernacular sounds of his heritage. By the first decade of this century he was hunting out the last generation of shepherd and blacksmith singers and notating songs from their septuagenarian lips.
Chancing upon EMI’s As I Walked Out: Folk Song arrangements by Vaughan Williams from 1978 wasn’t the discovery of a rarity. The composer is justly feted by the mainstream so I’m sure there must be a similar collection still in CD print. But here was an opportunity to hear ten traditional songs and carols, not just from leafy Wessex and East Anglia, but also from France and windswept Newfoundland. The crediting of tenor vocalist, pianist and violinist reminds the listener that while the texts are original these are arrangements by a classical artist. Some sympathy may lie with a Dorset labourer who said of Vaughan Williams’ arrangements ‘It’s nice for him to have the piano, but it does make it sound awkward for the listener.’ But Vaughan Williams knew that folk songs came from the peasantry, a class which no longer existed and one to which English composers certainly didn’t belong. Those devotees of folk clubs who dress up as yokels for the night might feel their music has here been hijacked by portly professionals in white tie and tails. If inverted snobbery is your bag I guess this is the wrong record to hear.
As the burgundy EMI label begins to spin, the strength of the sparely accompanied material reveals itself. Agrarian themes of doomed romance and simple piety set a tone of grave contemplation and reticent beauty. Even the carols evoke dour stony chapels under sleet-lashed elms. Vaughan Williams seems to have been most strongly attracted to the darker bracken-tangled corners of his folk heritage. Jolly revels round the village Maypole are eschewed in favour of a more universally understood human yearning and sufferance.
The album’s pacing skilfully leads the listener from short, lighter pieces to the lengthier and more profound, and finally to the chilling majesty of the last three songs, the only to feature violin and piano together. ‘How cold the wind doth blow’ (or ‘The Unquiet Grave’) is described in the sleeve notes as ‘one of the greatest and most harrowing tunes in the world’. It’s certainly hard to hold back the tears on first hearing. A love which desires to transcend the problems of one partner being in the grave may, in cold print, seem over-gothic and lugubrious, especially when the corpse speaks of how cold his lips will be to kiss. Yet the melancholic sweep of the tune and its slow-building, aching accompaniment transfigures the subject into one of the most beautiful noises you’ll ever hear. Nick Cave would kill to write such an overpowering tragedy. It surely proves how the resuscitation of Folk Song can be of more than historical or marginal appeal. The day I find a busker forego ‘Streets of London’ in favour of ‘How cold the wind doth blow’, he will merit a pot of gold in his guitar case.
In Future Listening Posts:
Written Out of Rock History: The mellotronic threat of Prog
Gregorian Chant on CD: Relaxation therapy for the Godless
The Organ Music of Olivier Messiaen
Messiaen : Messe de la PentecÃ´te
DECCA CD 436 400-2
Arch French hi-brow Olivier Messiaen (1908-92) never shirked from musical innovation and appears to’ve spent his earthly span resolutely ploughing further and yet further into the realm of ‘difficult’ composition. The notation of birdsong, Hindu rhythms and the ascetic modes of plainchant were among his obsessions. I could throw in some relevant jargon like “non retrogradable rhythms’ or ‘modes of limited transposition’ but I honestly don’t know what the heck they mean. (If you are up on that stuff then you’ll dribble into your vest over this CD’s hefty booklet).
But if the thought of such music is enough to send you whining back to your cosy rock collection, please don’t. Messiaen’s formal strangeness never abandons you on a barren plateau of sound-for-sound’s sake intellectuality. A devout and heavy duty Roman Catholic, this visionary composer employed his individual avant-garde language in the service of what was obviously an intensely felt faith. So the listener can enjoy these great monolithic hunks of sound on a gut (or even soul) level, much as some greasy stripling might become enveloped in the sheer tangible ecstatic volume and dynamic of his/her preferred guitar god. Although, naturally, there’s no six-string within spitting distance here, that analogy isn’t stretching things too much: if you want power-chords Messiaen’s got ’em (but go easy, they can be bowel scouring).
All of these pieces are church organ works cut in ’93 by Thomas Trotter at Eglise CollÃ©giale Sant Pierre de Douai, France, and the selection spans from 1930 to 1950. Capable of furious eardrum-blowing sustain and angels spinning on a pinhead heavenliness the organ in Messiaen’s work evokes the thunderbolt authority of the Roman Magisterium, and the composer’s own exultant interpretation of the Christian mythos. The effect is, to say the least, dizzying.
As you might’ve guessed there’s not even an inch allowed here for traditional Baroque organ trills. The booklet righteously states ‘Messiaen was the only composer capable of liberating the organ from its halo of incense so as to make it a crucible for modern thought’. This purging of familiar ‘churchy’ sound-patterns liberates every one of these compositions, especially the monumental head-clearing 26 minutes that is ‘Messe de la PentecÃ´te’. The listener is drawn in and lifted up to a fearless spiritual unknown.
Certainly a faultless place to dip in, this CD may even whet your appetite for Gillian Weir’s multi-disc set of Messiaen’s organ works. These are musical miracles, one-hour of Messiaen and you’ll either run back to Mom or else be thirsting for Catholic Catechesis!