Thursday, 11 December 2014

My favourite story songs, Part 2: from Creedence and Kassenetz-Katz to Sufjan Stevens and Fairport Convention

I generally don't pay much attention to pop song lyrics, mainly because they're mostly witless rubbish. I don't mind that: I'm not looking for wisdom or insights into the meaning of life from people who've spent most of their brief lives off their skulls on drugs and booze and indulging in sex at every available opportunity. But I make an exception for songs which supply a narrative of some description, and whose lyrics aren't essentially reducible to "Cor, baby - you don't half make me feel randy!" (Obviously, politics are out: if I want to be lectured by callow leftist morons I can always visit the Guardian's Comment is Free site.) As you'll see from the rest of the list, my definition of a story is rather loose. 

Country and folk music excel at stories. Here's The Byrds with a lovely version of the folk standard, "John Riley" - Mills & Boon with meltingly ethereal harmonies:

A commenter on my first story songs post suggested the bubblegum classic, "Quick Joey Small" by Kassenetz-Katz. I couldn't agree more:

The next song is more a series of memories than a straight story. I won't pretend that Sufjan Stevens is my kind of performer, or that I normally relish songs about 12-year old girls dying of cancer - but this is truly affecting:

Now a tale of roistering, rogering, rip-roaring, gun-toting, murdering chaps who wear chaps hunting Pancho Villa, courtesy of Texas singer-songwriter Tom Russell's "Tonight We Ride":

The commenter who suggested "Quick Joey Small" also mentioned the great swampist Tony Joe White's genuinely poignant race-relations tale, "Willie & Laura Mae Jones". As it's one of my all-time favourites, I'm happy to oblige:

Okay, I'm a bit embarrassed about including Grateful Dead's "Terrapin Station" from 1977. Not my kind of music at all (more of a Workingman's Dead and American Beauty man myself) and I'm not sure what's it's all about, but I've always loved it - even the silly electronic instruments:

Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho & Lefty" might just be the best-written song I know - simultaneously epic and intimate, every line and every image simply perfect. The lyrics are so brilliant, here they are (there's one couplet which always brings a tear to my eye - answer after the video):
Livin' on the road my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath as hard as kerosene
You weren't your momma's only boy, but her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams 
Pancho was a bandit boy, his horse was fast as polished steel
He wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know on the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dyin words, ah but that's the way it goes
All the Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him slip away, out of kindness I suppose
Lefty he can't sing the blues all night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty's mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low, Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go, there ain't nobody knows
The boys tell how old Pancho fell, and Lefty's livin in a cheap hotel
The desert's quiet and Cleveland's cold
And so the story ends we're told
Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too
He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old
A few gray Federales say, they could've had him any day
They only let him go so long, out of kindness I suppose

(The lachrymal lines are "Pancho needs your prayers it's true, but save a few for Lefty too/He only did what he had to do, and now he's growing old". Gets me every time.) 

I should despise everything about Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Wooden Ships". It's jazzy, it meanders and it's about the horrors of nuclear war: and yet it works.  That's possibly because of some arresting images: a survivor eating purple berries "for six or seven weeks now - haven't got sick once - probably keep us both alive", and of "silver people on the shoreline" (men in radiation suits, presumably). There are some embarrassingly hippyish lines - but hey man, it was, like, 1968, y'dig? 

I'll end with Fairport Convention's magnificent version of the traditional folk song, "Matty Groves", the best track from Liege & Lief, one of the best albums ever made. The tale of inter-class rumpy-pumpy involving Lord Donald's young wife and Mr. Groves - by all accounts, a diminutive sex-bomb - has satisfyingly tragic consequences: when Lord Donald finds out he's been cuckolded, he ices the rumpy-pumpers, and then orders that they be buried together, only with his wife "at the top, for she was of noble kin" (a remark which really wouldn't have gone down well in our somewhat more egalitarian era). It's a rollicking good story, and the quality of the musicianship is sublime - from Sandy Denny's gorgeous, pure, smoky voice and Richard Thompson's unique, blistering, twangy lead guitar runs to Dave Swarbrick's traditional fiddle playing and Dave Mattocks's Levon Helm-style backwoods drum sound. Glorious. 



  1. Enjoyed most of the music and all of your thoughtful commentary on it, thank you, Scott.

    I suspect that your jihad on cliche is of very long standing.

  2. Amazing band, the Byrds, with four outstanding singers and unrealised potential in the original line up. Crosby in particular is an outstanding harmony singer as you can hear on Wooden Ships. I always preferred those CSN tracks where Nash has been sent off to replenish the supply of stimulants or whatever and is nowhere near a microphone. He certainly struck it lucky when he found the other two.

    But…Sufjan Stevens? What were you thinking of? No sooner have you removed Coventry Pervmore from the bottom of the page than you dig out something even more mawkish to replace it. I had to go and listen to Tear Stained Letter by Richard Thompson to expunge the memory.

    1. What was I thinking of, Prefab Sprout enthusiast? I was thinking of being honest about my reactions - I was surprised myself.

      I largely agree about Graham Nash, of course - but then I've always been fond of "Marrakesh Express", and, obviously, "Teach Your Children" is one of the wisest songs I've ever... oh, hang on, I've forgotten to take my meds again.

  3. Hold on, Scott, In order to truly appreciate the wondrous message of "Teach Your Children", it must be heard while reading the foreword to Hilary Clinton's paean to platitudinous piffle, viz., "It Takes A Village" .

    Here's a simple story song, with an ending relating to the American Dream, from a time when Americans were naturally assumed to be a European Diaspora.

    1. Enjoyed the Johnny Cash, especially the acoustic guitar playing.

      Don't tell me you've actually read "It Takes a Village"! Brave man with a strong stomach.

      That's pretty much still my view of Americans - and many Americans feel the same way.

  4. No, Scott, I couldn't go through with it so I only picked up the Hilary Clinton book and read the foreword.

    At the time, I thought, no, it just takes two decent parents and not a village, especially an African one which was the model cited by Hilary Clinton.

    Apparently Hilary's final year college dissertation was an approving critique of 'Rules For Radicals' a Gramsci - style blueprint for a long march through US institutions via ' community organizing' by a Chicago - based Jewish Communist called Saul Alinsky.

    Come to think of it , Obama started his political career as a Chicago community organizer but found the going tough as he didn't speak Ebonics and was often perceived as acting White.

    1. Interesting, Colin G Finlay. When you decided to affix the 'Jewish' to your reference to Alinsky, what point were you intending to make?

      On what you say about community organising, there is a respectable argument to the effect that most of the important changes to US social policy in the 1960s and 70s as far as anti-discrimination was concerned were brought about through community action, not through Government initiative as was the case in the UK during the same period. Sadly to this Christian (as if it matters) conservative ( small c) most of this came from the left. Alinsky brought a touch of originality to organising mass protest, as in the synchronised occupation of all the male lavatories in Chicago O'Hare airport. Given the way in which Chicago at that time was run and policed on a Daley basis, it was an understandable tactic to decide to act outside the conventional political process and it proved highly effective. And very funny as long as you were not waiting to catch a plane after a few tins of Coors and a plate of Granma's spicy chicken wings.

      For all its many virtues, this blog tends to get a bit starry-eyed uncritical on most things American. If Alinsky was a Commie, as you suggest, as well as being Jewish, then he was at least partly responsible for bringing about much needed change in his country. I can see why Hillary found it an interesting subject for her dissertation. It's a shame she didn't learn from it by employing Alinsky-style direct action in dealing with her husband's trouser trouble.

    2. Sorry, ex-KCS, but I utterly despise the sort of stunts advocated by the likes of Alinsky, which seem to be aimed at disrupting the lives of ordinary working stiffs just so he and his enlightened pals can enjoy a good titter about how they got one over on "The Man". I also despise his rules for radicals, which are just a means of subverting democratic politics. I agree, however, that the Democratic Party politician, Mayor Daley, was an utter stinker - but, then, Chicago (a city I'm extremely fond of) appears to have been a political disgrace for most of its existence - and now the whole of America has the benefit of being run by a Chicago community organiser.

      Yes, this blog gives America a pretty easy ride. I still consider it the world's best hope, and I tend to take its side in most international disputes. I'm only too well aware that it often doesn't get things right, and it sometimes makes things worse by meddling - but on the whole, I prefer its no doubt naive vision of the world to those proferred by its many enemies. Would the world be a better, happier place without America as its one true superpower? I doubt it - but we'll probably get a chance to find out over the next fifty years or so (maybe quicker, if Hillary Clinton becomes president in 2016). I probably should be less "starry-eyed" but this blog is all about my own prejudices and preferences and has nothing to do with even-handedness or fairness.

  5. My view of Americans was similar to your own view, Scott, but sadly, the Thirdworldisation of the US has since bestowed its diversity - themed gifts :


  6. Usually, I attempt to spell names properly but in Hillary's case I failed.

  7. The point I was intending to make was that Jews appear in the promotion of Leftist causes in numbers very disproportionate to their small percentage of the US population.

    Here's an illuminating article from the Chicago Jewish News :

    1. Jews have also had a disproportionate effect on the American right - the neoconservative movement was pretty much invented by American Jews, and I suspect that was partly a result of Jewish leftists realising that modern leftism (which they also had a huge hand in creating) and many of the victim groups it supports had turned rabidly anti-Semitic. Let's face it, in any field where mental acuity, a fierce work ethic, a strong sense of the importance of the family, and organisational skills are a help, and where racial prejudice can't keep them down (or at least, not for long), Jews are always over-represented. As I'm decidely philo-Semitic, that's fine by me. Of course, the same is increasingly true of a small number of other races in a variety of fields in a whole host of countries, and I suspect the racism currently directed at high-achieving Jews will soon be directed at high-achieving Chinese and Indian immigrants - by exactly the same people who feel threatened by Jews.

      I've often despaired at the seeming inability of Jews - who are generally not slow on the uptake - to see that supporting left-wing parties doesn't make much sense for them these days, but there are definite signs that the worm is finally turning:

  8. I have no problem with Elites in general. The question is, Scott, does Jewish elitism militate against the ethnic/genetic interests of America's majority (for now) White Christian host people.

    In the area of US Middle East policy, it seems doubtful whether America's best interests are being served by the Jewish Lobby, as is argued in this academic paper by Harvard University's Professor Stephen Walt and the University of Chicago's Professor John Mearsheimer :

    1. The US "Jewish lobby" is the only subject over which I've had screaming rows with close friends in recent years - so it's a topic I try my best to keep away from in company. I'm only too aware of the arguments on both sides, but I'm certain that, if I were an American Jew, I'd be doing all I could to ensure that my government kept on supporting Israel against the tyrants and barbarians ranged against it. Is Israel always right? Probably not. Is support for Israel always in America's best interests? Again, probably not - but I'm convinced it's in the best interests of civilisation

  9. On a seasonal and lighter note, one of my favourite Jewish commentators, Dr Michael Levin, a Philosophy professor from City University of New York provides us with his view of the Dickens classic, 'A Christmas Carol'.

  10. As a counterpoint to Dr Levin's 'A Christmas Carol' critique, here's a seasonal song from 1975 :

    Merry Christmas.

    1. A guilty pleasure of mine, I'll admit. Thank God Ian Anderson didn't try that standing-on-one-leg thing he used to do in the early days of Jethro Tull.

  11. Point taken, Scott, re the Jewish Question. The Jewish people are, of course, to be admired for, inter alia, their dedication to their group ethnic/genetic interests.

    If Britain were permitted to emulate, mutatis mutandis, Israel's strict and selective immigration policy, such a move might improve the UK's dismal demographic outlook.

  12. A favourite song/story - teller of mine is Chuck Berry.

    Here's one of CB's played by a Swedish band ( plus an English guest) :