Waking for charity with Melanie

We’ve been out walking, 10km (not miles, that’s the way it is these days), for ‘Walk the Wards’, a charity event to raise money for local hospitals in the Cheltenham area. (My partner, Hazel, is a volunteer on the oncology ward at Cheltenham Hospital.)

There’s something wonderfully positive about such events. I’ve run marathons for charity, but this was more laid-back, more focused – one charity, not many, and walking, so time to think, and no crowds to cheer you on, just mud (too much rain overnight) and a sense of common purpose.

The mood continues into the afternoon, this afternoon, Sunday afternoon. It’s drizzling outside.

It was drizzling – raining – at Woodstock in 1969, when the singer Melanie came on stage for her first-ever performance to a big crowd. The audience were lighting candles to beat back the rain. (We had imagination in those days!) She came away, as she said, a celebrity, and with the chorus of ‘(Lay Down) Candles in the Rain’ in her head. ‘I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.’

Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown./Lay down, lay down, lay it all down…let your white birds smile/at the ones who stand and frown.

We were so close, there was no room, we bled inside each /other’s wounds.

We all had caught the same disease..and we all sang, the songs /of peace.

I wasn’t at Woodstock, but I listened and lived it back in 1969. Listening to Melanie singing Ruby Tuesday (in the bath, after the walk!), and that catch in her voice – something of the old optimism came back to me.

Today’s walk, ‘Walk the wards’, did a little bit of the same. Brought back the optimism.

In this overly negative, too often backward-looking era, with Barack Obama a memory (though still an inspiration), we have to hang on to the ‘can-do’, make it new, share it with our kids and their kids.

Another Melanie song, ‘Peace will Come’:

And my feet are swimming in all of the waters /All of the rivers are givers to the ocean /According to plan, according to man …

Oh there’s a chance peace will come /In your life

Each generation feels the push-back, each new generation has to push forward, all progress is slow, but if the older generations can find it in them to join with the younger, as I did with my two children, very grown-up children, last year, opposing Brexit in Trafalgar Square, then there is hope…

And yet… a mention of Brexit slips in. Many walking today will be Brexit supporters. Nothing is ever simple.

Troubadours for our time

Leonard Cohen and Victor Jara 

Troubadour, two definitions : 1) medieval lyric poet/musician; 2) a singer, especially of folk songs. (Merriam Webster) It’s the first definition I like.

The death of Leonard Cohen set me to thinking. Who might be the troubadours of our own time? Troubadours for our time?

I tried in an early version of this post to characterise Leonard Cohen as somehow in that medieval tradition. As a poet of love, even courtly love. He was inspired and tormented by his muse, and his audience connected and were inspired in turn. But I’m foolish to try and say more than that. The more I listen to his songs the more in awe I am. There’s a fine piece by Edward Doxx connecting Cohen to John Donne. It gets closer than I ever could. He quotes Cohen:  ‘So come, my friends, be not afraid/We are so lightly here/It is in love that we are made/in love we disappear.’

Cohen didn’t take up the cudgels against violence and injustice, as Dylan once did.  Nor did he understand ‘the other side’ quite as Woody Guthrie did: ‘As I went walking I saw a sign there/And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”/But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/That side was made for you and me.’

But he did write and sing ‘Democracy’, which lays bare a dysfunctional USA, but in the midst of it all just about finds reason for optimism. ‘It’s coming to America first,/the cradle of the best and of the worst./It’s here they got the range/and the machinery for change/and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.’ 

Asked two years ago if songs can offer solutions to political problems, he replied, ‘I think the song itself is a kind of solution.’

Dylan back in the 60s confronted the ‘masters of war’ and racists: ‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll,/with a gun that he twirled around his diamond ring finger.’ There was a rawness about Dylan back then, just voice and guitar and a language we’d never heard. There’s something about a troubadour who carries his guitar and gathers an audience around him wherever he might be. (Once or twice I did just that!) No band in sight.

Dylan put overt protest behind him, took on another persona,  many personas – but he’s still the troubadour.

As for others …..Buffy Sainte-Marie has long been a favourite of mine. ‘Welcome welcome emigrante,’ words for our own time as much as hers. Pete Seeger and Euan MacColl were at the political coal-face: amazingly MacColl also wrote ‘The first time ever I saw your face’. Joan Baez has never lost her touch or her commitment, or her ability to inspire. She was the first for me, back over fifty years ago.

Bruce Springsteen, a man with a guitar, and a rock band. A different kind of troubadour. As for Steve Earle, ‘hardcore troubadour’, Springsteen may have been the ‘consummate chronicler of welfare-line blues, but Steve had lived the life’. (Lauren St John).

There’s another , who I’ve just re-discovered, playing my old vinyls. Someone who maybe I should have put first, ahead even of Cohen, Guthrie, Dylan. I’m thinking of Victor Jara, a Chilean troubadour who died for his songs, his poetry, his guitar, his beliefs, his hands first broken, and then murdered in the stadium in Santiago on 1973, when Pinochet with CIA backing overthrew the Allende regime. His songs have a purity and a magic, and a simple beauty, and they stop me in my tracks.

Yes, my guitar is a worker/shining and smelling of spring/my guitar is not for killers/greedy for money and power/but for the people who labour/so that the future may flower. (His last poem, which could never be a song, written in the stadium.)

The Beatles could have been troubadours, if they’d followed the direction taken by Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby. Ralph McTell (Streets of London) was memorable, though sentimental. Billy Bragg never sentimental, stridently political, a street singer. But in truth he never inspired me. One song that did was Peter Gabriel’s lament for Steve Biko, which is searing, searching, and angry.

Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand… chanteurs/chanteuses, troubadours. There’s a Gallic intensity we Brits and Americans find hard to match. They’ve inspired me, but they’re not my focus here.

For I’ve a question. For anyone who reads this, for my children, for generations born in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, even the noughties.

Who are your troubadours?

Singers and poets for whom words matter, for whom stories matter, for whom love matters, and above all – injustice. Who sing to be heard, and to be understood. Who sing with passion and with anger.

Back in the 60s the civil rights movement galvanised us, in the UK as well as the USA. Apartheid likewise. We’d a sense that history was on our side, justice and social justice would prevail. Now, in 2016, post Brexit and the Trump election we’re on the defensive. Nativist, racist and sexist attitudes find favour. Trump somehow finds the rule of law and torture compatible.

(Trump and torture reminded me of Victor Jara. Pinochet’s soldiers thought torture and death legitimate. Once hatred in engendered anything is possible.)

Who is singing for us, writing songs, wanting to be heard? Who will be singing?

Maybe we’ve been listening to the music too much in recent decades, and we’ve forgotten the song.

Back to the world after ten days of silence 

I posted the message below on Facebook last Sunday. I wanted to put my feelings down while they were raw. Time inevitably anaesthetises, and I didn’t want to lose the impact of those morning hours. 

I’ve been out of all communication on a silent retreat in Herefordshire for ten days. (Why – another story and not for now!) I knew I’d be missing the American election but I had confidence. This morning a message from my daughter, Rozi, apologising for all the dreadful things that had happened in the world in my absence from it, concerned I might want to head back to my retreat and never come out again. That’s when I realised, 7.30 Sunday morning, that Trump had won.

Returning to the world after so long and so quiet away is emotional anyway. The Herefordshire countryside, the Black Mountains a high ridge out to the west, and the mist still lying in frosty fields, music on the radio… I was coping, just.

Back in Cranham – I learnt that Leonard Cohen has died. And that finally did bring out the tears.

I first sang Suzanne in a folk club in Oxford maybe fifty years ago, and I sang it again at an open mic evening just two week ago in Cranham. A few weeks before I’d sung That’s no way to say goodbye … And there was that wonderful radio programme recently about Marianne, and how they were in touch again shortly before she died.

‘It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah,’ in Cohen’s own words.

I and my generation have lost a hero. And there are new villains to fight. But there’s a new generation taking up the good fight and, thank God, my own children are out there among them.

All Hallows

Yesterday was All Hallows’ Eve, which makes today All Saints’ Day. Yesterday was also in warm and brilliant sunshine the last day of autumn (by my calculations anyway!) – the autumn colours burnt in the sun as I’ve rarely seen them, a multitude of shades, with their own luminescence – as if they didn’t need the sun to make them glow. Today is the first day of winter – the cloud is down on the hills, there’s a chill, the fire must be lit soon, and the leaves are thick on the ground. I raked them in the sunshine yesterday, but they’ve returned, and if I rake again, this time in the damp and gloom, they will return again, until the last one has fallen and I can put the rake away.

Yes, there’s an elegiac quality to all this. I listened to the adagio from the Elgar violin concerto driving back along the A419 heading toward the Cotswolds yesterday. That caught the mood. I knew this was the last day, the last of autumn, and there were not two hours till sunset.

The day before I’d listened to David Mellor on Classic FM, playing music from the Philharmonia under Otto Klemperer. A recording of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony when the great conductor was already in his 80s. He took it slowly. About the same time the recording was made I was, I remember, at a party at Professor Gombrich’s house. Ernst Gombrich was my professor at the Warburg Institute. Frau Gombrich mentioned they were going to hear Otto the following day. Otto being Klemperer. All with Viennese Jewish backgrounds, and the connections were still strong.

Klemperer had been recommended sixty  years before by Gustav Mahler (also that Jewish connection) to an orchestral position, and I felt my own connection listening to the final ecstatic bars of the symphony to Klemperer and Mahler. Almost a laying on of hands. Ridiculous in its way, but the music took me to another level. Triumphant – but also elegiac, and intensely moving.

Mahler died young, and two world wars had to work themselves out before Klemperer stood before the Philharmonia in the late 1960s.

I’ve felt betrayed by events this year – my values betrayed, values by which I’ve conducted by life over almost seventy years. The autumn leaves, the music, a sense of loss I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge. But I did this time, this once, just this once.

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Singing your way along the Camino

Many of the songs I’ve sung to myself on the Camino have travel in there somewhere. And, curiously, a sense of losing someone, and looking back. They aren’t songs of triumph – look I’ve made it! But they do tell stories.

What, I wonder, do other peregrinos sing on the Camino? To keep themselves company, for sheer joy and pleasure, or just because they match the rhythm of their step…. A few have headphones and listen to music from downloads, not from memory, and that puzzles me. Singing may be a performance of one, but you’re pro-active, as surely you want to be on the Camino, and not re-active. (Wear headphones and you also miss birdsong, the rush and babble of streams and brooks, the sound of the wind in the grass and trees.)

There’s a sense of re-engaging when you recall an old favourite. And you may be taken by surprise, by something old and long-forgotten. The rhythms of the Camino can take you surprising places.

For me, Kris Kristofferson for starters: ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,/Bobby shared the secrets of my soul….

Leonard Cohen has travelled with Suzanne for fifty years, as I have too (almost!) – I’ve been singing this legendary song since I was 19! On the Camino it was like meeting up with an old friend.  Susanne takes you down to a place by the river/you can see the boats go by,  you can spend the night beside her…

As for the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, ‘she would never say where she came from/… ‘There’s no time to lose I heard her say…’

Not sentiments you’d expect from a peregrino. Though how many of us are getting over, or moving beyond, an event that’s troubling us, that’s turned our life on its head? And we peregrinos – we do tell each other where we’ve come from – and hopefully, we have time to lose. We can go slow.

I’ve sung the blues along the way. But not travelling blues. Or Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin’: I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin I thought you knowed…’  And I’ve not been riding the blinds – leaping and hanging on to passing trains!

One moment I remember (somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes on the Camino Portugues), singing Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’. (Give me a spoonful of coffee…) After each of three repetitions of ‘that spoonful ‘ a cock crowed. He and I struck up a rhythm together. I tried a fourth time – but he’d lost interest. I carried on of course.

One other song, with no travelling connection at all, but when you sing it you bounce along, and that’s ‘Light my fire’. I love the original Doors version, but try singing it like Jose Feliciano, with a Latin, syncopated rhythm, and, well, not surprisingly, you’re almost dancing. So maybe don’t walk that way with too many other people around.

Singin’ the blues

I’ve long been a fan of Melanie, ever since I first heard her sing Ruby Tuesday back in the early 70s – way better than the original Stones version, which – thought I could never say this about Jagger – seems lacklustre by comparison.

I’ve been singing one of two old blues numbers at a local pub, on Open Mic evenings, and it’s been fun, and I’ve enjoyed it, and I hope – I think – one or two locals have too. Helps if you get everyone singing along with something like Mojo (‘I got my mojo workin’) and an old Son House field holler, John the Revelator. (I saw Son House once, in Hammersmith, with the wonderfully named Sleepy John Estes, and that was a few decades ago!)

However, I see that Melanie on her brand-new album, Ragamuffin, has a song with the following lines:

I can’t take no more, there ain’t no use /Can’t keep on doin’ what it is you think I do /And the words that I’ve been listening to /Are as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues /I know we’re through

‘… as honest as a white man sounds when he sings the blues’

Well, I guess I know what she means.

I sure ain’t no Hoochie Coochie Man (Muddy Waters) – I’ve not had much success ‘making pretty women jump and shout’ … I’ve never been part of a team building railroads (Linin’ track, not very romantic, as sung by Leadbelly) … I’ve largely kept my mojo to myself (Muddy again)… and I wouldn’t want the hurt and I don’t think I’ve ever reached that place which Howlin Wolf sings about in Smokestack Lightnin…

Whoa-oh, tell me, baby,/Where did you stay last night?/Why don’t ya hear me cryin’?

So, if I ever sing the blues to you, be very wary. I’m white and if Melanie’s right I may just not be quite as honest as you think!

Mind you, there’s a difference between blues and the old R&B – rhythm and blues. R&B -you’re out there in the world, doing your stuff. It’s urban, urgent, driven, assertive. That’s Mojo, that’s Hoochie Coochie Man. You’d know where you stand with that kind of guy.

Smokestack Lightnin is the bridge between the old blues, which carry the hurt of ages, the hurt of slavery and subjugation, the blues of the old South, the cotton fields – and R&B. Howlin Wolf sings a hurt that’s palpable, tears him, and the singer, apart.

The old blues – From four till late/I was wringin’ my hands and cryin (Robert Johnson) – has no resolution. The hurt won’t go away. In Smokestack Lightnin I don’t know about the hurt, that doesn’t go away – but the girl, come the last verse she’s out, and scorned. He’s found himself again.

And the white man – he’s simply not been there – he can’t understand the depth of those emotions. They come from somewhere else, where he simply hasn’t been. He may try as I do to sing the blues. I leave it to you to decide if you trust him…