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…

 

 

Keeping sane amid the chaos

How (if you’re me!) to keep measured and sane amid the chaos.

For starters, two reminders from a Buddhist meditation handbook:

‘…one shouldn’t have a great deal of desire… one must be content, which means whatever one has is fine and right.’ ‘Whatever one has is fine and right.’ (My italics.)

‘The place where we stay should be free from a lot of activity and a large number of people… (we should reduce) our involvement in too many activities.’  Now there’s a challenge.

Then there’s something I’ve loved since childhood – watching cricket. I enjoyed England’s decisive and exuberant victory over Pakistan in the second test match that ended yesterday. Always good to head out to Lords or the Oval, or stand on the boundary at Cranham cricket club … (A friend reminds me of the joke – ‘God gave cricket to the English so that they should have some sort of idea of eternity ‘ – that was certainly true of the first test match. I was there.)

And moving out beyond the cricket field – out further into the wild, and the wilderness, into the countryside, to the coast, to the mountains:

(‘What would the world be, once bereft /Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left…’)

walk (or run) in the meadows and beech woods

head off down to Cornwall and walk around Penwith from St Ives, via Zennor and Land’s End and Porthcurno, to Penzance (carrying a tent and heavy rucksack in the hot sun a small downside, likewise the heat exhaustion!)

puzzle over the wild flowers (betony abundant in Cornwall – a small sense of triumph identifying it!)

listen or watch, or maybe both…

– two buzzards wheeling above me on the coast path near Treryn Dinas just east of Porthcurno, piping much of the time, occasionally they come together and there’s a scurry of wings, and they resume their circling. The following morning, 7.30, I’ve struck camp, and I’m on my way, light rain, grey out to sea, and they’re back there, ahead of me, still slowly circling

– the owl which I disturbed in the woods later that morning – it took off maybe only two or three feet away from me, a vast and silent presence, and a powerful absence, disappearing into the light at the end of the green tunnel behind me

– the sound of a soprano, yes, a soprano, from the Britten opera being performed at the Minack theatre a mile away, it was 9pm, and I was tucked away in my tent, trying to sleep…

– a yellow snail (a ‘white-lipped banded snail’), and a red-winged fly – the small and surprising things, which puzzle, and take the mind down from the high and inflated places to the simple and beautiful

– and back in the Cotswolds, a lesser spotted woodpecker now a regular visitor to the bird feeder and the birdbath in the garden, and the goldfinches

– and the long warm summer evenings, the stillness, and the small party which headed out onto the common at midnight to look for glow-worms

There is hope for the world yet.

 

Good Friday

Good Friday. We all dash to the shops. The year’s extra bank holiday. Its purpose it seems all but forgotten. And yet the world fifty years ago (and for many centuries before of course) shut down on Good Friday. Today and Christmas Day were the quietest days of the year.

I will sit quietly at 3pm this afternoon, in a church somewhere – I don’t know where yet – taking part in a meditation on the crucifixion – traditionally celebrated at the ‘ninth hour’. It will be a time to think quietly about the Christian message at its very heart – release from all that bears us down and all the evil in the world. Whether we take it literally, as an act of supreme sacrifice, or not, the crucifixion is a remarkable symbol, and it connects God and man, the spiritual and the material, in a way that still strikes home for countless millions.

So it’s also a day not be cynical. Even if you’re a humanist or atheist.

Do we need symbols? you might ask. Reminders, connectors, pathways – they take us beyond the everyday. We all have our own private symbols. But the crucifixion is a worldwide symbol. We share it with the world, and at 3pm this afternoon (with a few allowances for timezone changes!) we will be sharing it at – almost- the same moment.

Superstition? – no – that sharing is powerful, and real.

How to combat the post-Camino blues…

My friend Sarah from the Camino put up a request on her Facebook page. As follows –

“….Do you remember those feelings of loss or low points when you got home from the Camino? …. What were your one or two tips or strategies for beating the Post-Camino blues?…”

I replied with more than one or two – Sarah’s question made me think!

Follow the rising and the setting of the sun and moon, and the passage of the day. They’re there for us now as they were on the Camino – Find quiet in all the quiet places, and the noisy places too – Give yourself space, and imagine, re-imagine – Call to mind the landscapes and your friends, and how wonderfully international it all is, important when there’s so much talk everywhere about closing borders – And keep walking: the Camino is magic, but there are wonderful walks within reach of all (I hope so anyway) of us – And sing as you walk: the songs you sang, and maybe even the hymns 

(I loved singing in the early morning, before the sun rose, and I was on my own, no-one in sight behind or ahead. ‘The King of Glory passes on his way,’ is a line from one favourite hymn – I just liked the idea of God walking – God walking with me. We think of God as sedentary. I prefer a peripatetic God!)

And how does all that leave me feeling?! Time for a local walk, the Surrey hills – corners of wilderness within sight, from Leith Hill, of big-city London. Time for a bigger walk – return to the Cornish coast path, or get back to the Lake District, and Helvellyn, and Scafell.

And… yes, time for a BIG walk – get back on the Camino – the Camino Portugues will take me from Porto to Santiago later this year – j’espere! And then on to Finisterre, that final three of four days, which will take me to the ocean.

For which, see my next post…

Good King Richard and his lass, and bad King Boris

I’m exploring my collection of LPs for my student days, and a favourite song (as sung by Shirley Collins) is Richie Story – King Richard leaves his throne and becomes a ‘serving man’ to a country lady who he falls in love with. In time she becomes queen,’and many a knight and many a squire stood there to welcome Richard’s lady’. It’s a smashing story, combining humility and love and joy. Humility was hardly an attribute of the real King Richard, but popular myth would have it otherwise. I don’t often find such simple happiness listening to a song – and I wondered why.

Tune and singer have something to do with it, and message. Humility too rarely wins out. Maybe I’ve just never got over fairy tales with happy endings.

And on the debit side – yesterday evening I also felt I had to listen to (some of!) Boris Johnson’s speech on Europe. Bad King Boris? No humility here. And a risk of a very unhappy ending. In the best Grimm tradition?

It seems we’d be negotiating a deal similar to the free trade agreement the EU has with Canada, should we leave (and Boris would probably by then be PM). We are twenty miles from France, and our history has been intertwined over millennia with the European mainland, and yet our relationship would be defined by a deal with a country 3000 miles way. We also had Boris insisting that trade would go on with Europe as before – as one of many examples, we export chocolate to France, and the French will continue to export their chocolate to us – so the world will continue as before. Maybe, maybe not – but I rather like the place we’ve got to with the EU as it stands. Why on earth leave? I still await a significant rational verifiable argument.

Beyond the fairy tale link I can’t really connect King Richard with the EU, or use him to back the arguments for staying in. He was an Englishman, archetypal we’d like to think, and a crusader, and he made it to Jerusalem. And he got imprisoned on the way back.

Keep out of gaol would be my message – what that gaol is I leave to you, the reader, to decide!

Obama chops Trump down

Lovely to see – to hear – Obama chopping Trump down. Being president is not about a being a talk show host, about marketing, about publicity, it’s about making difficult decisions, and some are unpopular, some will hurt people, and being well-briefed in your dealings with other world leaders – they too have ‘their own crowds back home’. That last point I especially liked – you, Donald, are not alone in this world.

There’s a piece in the Economist on American conservative talk radio, hosted by the semi-crazed (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck) who somehow in the rarefied air of the prairies don’t just to get a hearing but strike a few big chords – or a few bum notes. If bum notes are all you hear, would you recognise a chord?

Does it give joy to Trump to be supported by such people – how much of a conscious game is he playing with them – feeding them pap?

Ted Cruz is no better, but while you feel that for Trump it is a big game, and a big ego, for Ted Cruz it is deadly, evangelically serious. He also feeds the talk shows with great material. The trouble is – he believes it all, and he can express himself with a degree of coherence. And he is so sure he’s right that compromise and balance, which is what the American constitution requires, gets shown the door. And America becomes ungovernable, as it halfway is now.

What also bugs me is Cruz’s call on the Bible, and Jesus, to support him. He sure as hell – almost literally – wouldn’t get close to the pearly gates. America has always been too good – the prairies again – at creating its own religions.

Only one small pleasure in all this – a little bit of humour – Fox News almost the good guys. They do at least have a small idea that politics is about governing – and governing, as John Kasich the best of the Republican contenders has made clear, is a serious matter, about results and balanced budgets and not public platforms.

The UK is – to use totally the wrong expression – a different ballgame. But we also have the same populist right-wing nonsense to deal with and it’s big in the media – thank God we’re spared talk shows. But we do, sadly, have the Mail.

Obama mentions that one aspect of government is looking out for the underdog – ‘standing up for people who are vulnerable and don’t have some powerful political constituency’. And that is the ultimate litmus test of any politics.

To quote Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which I’ve done before:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse/ An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

New Year – Vienna comes to the Cotswolds

New Year’s Day, and I’m celebrating gently at this moment listening to Strauss waltzes, polkas and marches from the Musikverein in Vienna, always a wonderful way to start the year. Full of optimism, music with a spring in its step, an abundance of gold, not least the coffered and corniced and painted ceiling, everyone super-smart dressed, the secretary-general of the UN in the audience, ballet out at Schoenbrunn, and even the occasional touch of calculated lunacy in the orchestra.

Back when I was 10 years old my soon-to-be stepmother brought me back from Vienna an EP, which I still have, of the Vienna Boys’ Choir – children’s songs, including Trara die Post ist da, which I used to sing to my children. And there they are this morning, high above the orchestra, singing in that same crisp and mannered style, and looking terribly smart.

The whole occasion is a throwback to the high days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when emperor and court would attend such events. There’s a strange sadness interwoven with the exuberance, a sense of the old Vienna, in its heyday, one of the world’s great cities, full of self-belief, with no sense of a future which took out Hungary, the Alto Adige and more from the old empire and left only Austria, and a Vienna which had to suffer the Anschluss before reinventing itself post WW2. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the tell through one family quite brilliantly.

Should we lament this world, its elites and arrogance and gilded Baroque grandeur? Of course not. But … if you get carried along by the waltzes and the dance and the ambience you can imagine it as some kind of a lost paradise. Imagine it. A little bit of Ruritania, a world of childhood and make-believe fashioned for adults.

We can’t escape ambivalence. All that pleasure, and a touch of guilt. Somehow adds to the enjoyment.

And what of this New Year? It starts as always with a bounce and optimism, probably all too quickly undone. There will be celebration, it’s an Olympic year, and triumph, the human spirit proving itself in adversity – and new crises, and the old crises – refugees at this moment waiting to cross from Turkey to Greece, and IS still working its evil.

Will the world solve old problems more than create new ones? Shift the balance of the scale a little?

I will live in hope.

Last night, half-past midnight, I looked out across the valley, from our New Year’s party, hardly a light amidst the fields and woods, but above a half-moon, last-quarter, climbing the eastern sky, and to the south Orion, and the air cold and turning frosty – the first frost of the over-mild December just expired, and the first of the new January.

Come the morning, three hours ago, pulling the curtain back, all was grey, the east now delivering a chill wind as I ran along the lanes and across the common, ahead of the promised rain….

But, damn it, there is an extra spring in my step, then, and now, a few hours later, after a village walk and Christmas cake and mince pies.

I had literally waltzed in my heavy walking boots down the hill, humming the Blue Danube, and adapting the Radetsky March. Hazel, my partner, didn’t know what to make of it, or me. I didn’t get beyond two disastrous dancing lessons in my teens, but I almost floated this time, in a clumping sort of way.

I will probably clump my way through 2016, but I will aim to do so exuberantly.

That old collection of LPs

We’re rediscovering vinyl, or as once it was, LPs.

My daughter now has a turntable, as a Christmas present, and I want one. Boxing Day evening we sat down and played music, vinyls she’s just been given of War on Drugs and Tame Impala (band names, for the uninitiated) – and then some real oldies from my collection which haven’t seen a turntable for 20 years.

Sergeant Pepper for one. I’d bought the LP on 1st June 1967, its release date, and retired to my room on Oriel Street to listen. I can still remember a mild perplexity listening to the first track, to the band striking up.

And now? A Day in the Life, A Little Help from my Friends… I’ve listened to the CD in recent years, but the tracks all sound way better on vinyl. Maybe it’s just watching the rotation, being mesmerised, watching the needle. Maybe the sound is actually better. There’s an immediacy about vinyl that there isn’t about a CD which we slide into our music system, and the sound surrounds us, there’s no locus, or an MP3 file which even more is pure sound, all virtual, nothing else. Do we need some kind of focus for our musical attention? At least give me something tangible – give me a record sleeve. Remember all those wild Roger Dean album covers from the 60s and 70s!

I mention vinyls to friends and there’s a refrain I hear – ‘I chucked them out 20 years ago.’ A minor gloat – I didn’t, and there’s a whole world of discovery, re-discovery, awaiting me. And maybe they’re actually worth a bob or two!

We tried a recording of Tub Jug Washboard Band music, one those happy musical byways I explored in my Oxford days. ‘Catch another mule sleeping in my stall/mama, going to tear it down.’ Love the image. Wonderful, crazy – and obscure.

And then the second James Taylor album, which I’d bought when it came out in 1970. Nothing obscure here. He’s as popular today as back in 1970. ‘Country Roads’ accompanied Martin Sheen as he walked the Camino, or at least the soundtrack did!

Joni Mitchell – ‘Michael from mountains/go where you will go to/know that I will know you/someday I will know you very well.’ All sorts of resonances from the past, shared with Rozi, who loves America, and loves song, and connects to Joni Mitchell as I do. Will thirty years on the next generation connect to another great songwriter, and Rozi’s hero, Sufjan Stevens? Let’s hope so.

Rozi has her turntable. And I will shortly have mine, and I’ll play my old collection, 200, maybe 300, one by one, and dig out the memories and the associations each has. Blues and folk music – so much that I used to sing, and have almost forgotten.

Almost, but not quite.

Tonight there’s an Open Mic evening at the local pub, the Black Horse, and I might just sing one or two of the blues hollers and the folk songs that I used to sing in clubs either side of 1970. I don’t need to hit high notes… the old bass resonances are still there, and that’s what matters, I can still deafen myself and others, given half a chance.

I will report back…..

No go. Pub too crowded, no space for a newcomer! But for next time I have a holler or two (Red Cross Store – a place to be avoided, charity in 1920s America, with strings), and a few folk songs  (Euan McColl’s version of To the Beggin’ I Will Go – if you didn’t want to work the looms, you could take to the road). You can get a great driving rhythm going on both.

Christmas morning

My daughter Rozi introduced me to a favourite song over our Christmas breakfast of smoked salmon, mushrooms and scrambled egg. ‘A cliche to be cynical at Christmas,’ the song’s called (yes, that’s right), by a band called …. Half Man Half Biscuit.

I ran down to the river at 8.30 this Christmas morning, and said a big Happy Christmas to every one I saw – five people in all, three of them ladies walking dogs – happy smiles and hellos. And two grumpy men.

But not a time to be cynical.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year cynicism is an omelette…

That should have been ‘a complete’. Thank you spellcheck, that’s a beauty. Let’s try again.

Not just at Christmas but every minute of every day of every year an omelette is a complete waste of space.

Before we suspect another’s motives, question our own omelettes.

And that is quite enough of that.

I’d intended a serious point for this Christmas blog. But we all ended up laughing instead. 

One problem with writing blogs – you can be too b….. pompous.