Friday, July 01, 2016

From O. Reader


Last year at the Cambridge Folk Festival the main headliner was Joan Baez. In her heyday in the early 60s I wasn’t too fussed. For me her voice was pure, mannered and irritating. She used to give what I would call a “custard pie” performance. Imagine an old Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle movie. Someone putting on airs appears, and a custard pie would sail out of the wings. Splat! Right in the kisser. So, so satisfying.

But as Joan got older and her voice got more “lived in” she improved drastically in my estimation. Her performance at Cambridge won me over, and when I saw they were issuing a live concert recording - 2 CDs and 1 DVD - of her 75th birthday bash, I bought it. A host of ageing folkish luminaries appeared with her, Emmylou Harris, Judy Collins (a big rival in the 60s), Paul Simon without his cap for once, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter (who we will be seeing at Cambridge this year) but I’ll desist, because the reader will either have never heard of them, or if they have, will probably know all about the album anyway.

So what songs have stood out for me from first hearing? One was a belting version of House of the Rising Sun. This was made world famous by the Animals back in the days of yesteryear, who pinched their arrangement from Bob Dylan’s first solo album. However, it is actually a woman’s song. Of a woman gone wrong. In the usual way. A lament. Let ‘em have it, Joan. She did.

Paul Simon joined her to sing the Boxer, with Richard Thompson playing back-up guitar. They slipped in an extra verse that brought the house down.

Now the years are rolling by me
They are rocking easily,
And I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be
- But that’s not unusual...
Nor is it strange,
After changes, all the changes
We are more or less the same;
After changes
We are more or less the same.

My daughter grew up as a Simon and Garfunkel fan. We used to call them Simon and 
Garbage-Uncle and wind her up something rotten, as parents sort of do. Well, these parents anyway. In her teens she wrote an arrangement for her school choir of The Only Living Boy in New York. She probably got her love of S and G from her mother, rather than me, but I did enjoy Simon’s first solo album recorded in the UK before he hit the big time. Yup - and Here’s To You too, Mrs Robinson... And don’t get me started on Anne Bancroft in the Graduate...

There was a merciless parody of S and G by a British double act Hale and Pace, which you can catch on You Tube if you have a mind to. Fortunately my daughter laughed too...

Joan’s patter had a dig at Bob Dylan claiming to write a traditional folk song, with quite a nice vocal impersonation, but of course he and Joan had been an item for a while. She was the megastar, he was just the harmonica player for Caroline Hester who pinched an old folk tune No More Auction Block and turned it into Blowing in the Wind. But Bob latched onto Joan’s star and to some degree eclipsed her. And then, because folk was just a vehicle, and at heart he probably wanted to be rock star, he went electric, to the dismay of his original core audience. This was completely irrational, because blues players had been electric for years. Anyhow, back to the show - Joan did Dylan’s bitchiest of “get lost” songs Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright, which rumor has it was originally written with her in mind. Ah me - the trivial things we used to take so seriously all those years ago...

She did Freight Train, which I first bought on a 78rpm shellac disc back in the Precambrian era. It was written by Elizabeth Cotten, who had been a maid for the Seeger family. (Yes, the extended Pete Seeger family, who had been quite well-to-do. Pete of course “dropped out” as all good radical folk singers do, but he did drop out of Harvard). The Seegers heard Elizabeth sing her own song and supported her on her way as a folk singer. There is some footage of her on YouTube as an old lady singing Freight Train and playing a guitar left-handedly. But not re-strung, just played upside down. It gave new meaning to the expression “cotton picking”. So Joan belted that one out.

Some of her biggest hits over the decades of course appeared - There But For a Fortune (written by Phil Ochs), Diamonds and Rust, Gracias a La Vida, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and - very appropriate to finish on - Forever Young.

There are lots of folk performers from the 60s who still sing, and frankly shouldn’t. Knowing when to stop is a judgment that many fail to make in all walks of life, and singing is a prime example. Not just folk singers - anyone remember Pavarotti’s last appearances? And rock singers. I saw Little Richard in his heyday - fantastic” - but also well into his 70s - hilarious - but for all the wrong reasons.

But Joan really did well. There was no need to make any concessions or allowances.

Play it again, Sam.

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