Friday, March 07, 2008


Matthew's dad died a few days ago. He had cancer. His ashes will be buried in England in the family plot. I never met him but Matthew talked about him a few times. He was a botanist and taught at the University of Otago.

I thought of 'Farewell, Farewell' because Matthew opened my ears to Fairport Convention, and Adam happened to have lent me the CD of Liege & Lief a few days before Matthew broadcast e-mailed the sad news to some of his friends. The subject title of the message was just 'Dad'.

My listening has become so fleeting over the last few years that in the past few weeks I've made an effort to listen to albums through and through and give them more of a chance. Patience and less skittishness, I promise myself. In practice, the exhausting weeks around the beginning of a new academic year have meant less time to fiddle about with tunes. So it's stick the CD on and listen or forget that you're listening while you work on the computer or the books.

'Farewell, Farewell'
is my favourite track on the record. I can't believe it, but a song like this makes me proud to be British, something I never say, even in whispers to myself. And this about a song from an album that has pictures of morris dancing with it. Exclamation mark. I'm dying to hear more of Sandy Denny's voice. She has mixed reviews for some of her records and I don't know too much about her 'troubled' (auto)biography. And what about Richard Thompson's lyrics? And will you never cut the cloth or drink the light to be? No wonder he went down the sufi path. You lonely travellers all. He looks like the kind of guy my parents might have known in the 70s when they were moving from Krishnamurti and Gurdjieff on their way to the sufis. Someone who taught pottery at the local art college.

The song is so short yet so delicately developed. I just keep playing it again and again. I love how the guitar takes you to that jangly indie place in the way that Lou Reed does on the Velvets' 'quiet' songs (particularly the ones on their third album). Recently hearing the VU's demos on their box set Peel Slowly and See, I became aware of just how folky the Velvets really were. It's kind of obvious really since that's what half of Indie is all about. Belle and Sebastian, Aztec Camera, The Pastels etc. Well, Scottish indie, anyway. I wonder if the Fairports and Velvets knew (each other). The Velvet Underground and Liege & Lief were not recorded far apart in 1968 or 69. There are some major differences though. Dave Swarbrick's viola is woodier and thicker with lamentation than the avant-garde dissonance and raga drone of most of John Cale's playing with The VU. And in any case, Cale had gone by the time the Velvets recorded that relatively quiet and more 'sentimental' album. The other difference is that Fairport's archaeology of that 'old weird Britain' (or is it just England?) -- to transatlantically transplant Greil Marcus for a moment --is quite a distinct project from giving voice to New York bohemia. But I guess Fairport were inspired by the folk revivalists and the folk rockers from the US, like Bob Dylan. And so was Lou Reed's bubblegum sensibility.

Swings and roundabouts, as is appropriate with English folksiness. God, you'll have me extolling the Cotswolds next and the magic of lay lines (sorry, ley lines). I've never bought that Blake-ish Arcadian Englandism very much, but found the lineage from the English revolutions and the frenzied print and proselytizing culture around religion, social and political movement --a kind of 'pre-history' of left politics -- more compelling. I guess it was exposure to Christopher Hill's history and then loads of Puritan marxism in American Studies at Nottingham uni with Douggie Tallack that did it. And the 1984 miner's strike about the same time. In the 90s, JD reminded me of that legacy with his teaching and writing about alternative/radical media, rebellious communication and social movements. There happens to be a traditional song on Liege & Lief called 'The Deserter'.

The mix of 'Farewell, Farewell' is so crisp, warm and enveloping too. Matthew had also directed me to producer Joe Boyd's memoir which was quite enlightening about putting on gigs in the 1960s, the Blues and Folk revivalism, the early Pink Floyd, cups of tea with Nick Drake, and Dylan pissing off the acoustics at Newport. It's a beautifully written book, though it is a bit of a boy's story and didn't have that much about the process of music production as I expected. There must be some good cover versions of 'Farewell, Farewell' out there somewhere, just as a bunch of artists have recorded the VU's 'Pale Blue Eyes'. Incidentally, the booklet accompanying The Complete Hank Williams (to which I've been listening for the last few days, 10 CDs!) opens with Patti Smith saying that Lou Reed wrote 'Pale Blue Eyes' about Hank Williams' death on New Year's Day 1953. Though of course there are other stories about that song.

FAIRPORT CONVENTION - Farewell, Farewell

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travellers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call

And will you never return to see
Your bruised and beaten sons?
"Oh, I would, I would, if welcome I were
For they love me, every one"

And will you never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be?
And can you never swear a year
To anyone of we?

"No, I will never cut the cloth
Or drink the light to be
But I'll swear a year to one who lies
Asleep along side of me"

Farewell, farewell to you who would hear
You lonely travellers all
The cold north wind will blow again
The winding road does call

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