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.

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

Christmas Eve – the other story

Christmas is a time for charity – but that doesn’t seem to go far when we think of all the violence in the world.

It’s been a year of refugees and displacement.

I listened to Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom earlier today and the words won’t leave me. (I’m only quoting here, not providing the full lyric.) The second line I’ve quoted remembers refugees. How could we, remembering the crisis at the end of World War II, have allowed it to happen again?

….Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight/ Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight/ An’ for each an’ ev’ry underdog soldier in the night …. /

….Tolling for the deaf an’ blind, tolling for the mute / For the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute/ For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased an’ cheated by pursuit …. 

…..Tolling for the aching 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.

There’s an editorial in the Christmas edition of The Week which argues that ‘people … aren’t that nice’, that Scrooge had a point. If we’re to like others, better they think as we do. Best just to come to terms with the fact, and get on with life.

That sounds all very reasonable, better not to seek the unattainable, we’ll do better if we understand our deficiencies.

But it’s precisely what we have to get beyond.

Compassion isn’t somehow a compromise with our selfish side, something which we engage in out of conscience and a mite reluctantly and find to our surprise that it’s quite rewarding. Compassion is where our true nature shows itself, and the rewards are immeasurable. Peace of mind, yes, but not peace because we seek it, but because it goes with the territory of caring for others. It’s the Buddhist message – our ‘original face’, and the Christian message – more than a pre-lapsarian state of grace, Adam and Eve in the garden – something that’s alive in the heart. And it’s the humanist message too, when we get beyond self.

Leonard Cohen sketches a wonderful, haggard and mournful face in his ‘Book of Longing’, literally sketches, and captions the sketch ‘a private gaze’, followed by the words

‘even though he was built to see the world this way, he was also built to disregard, to be free of the way he was built to see the world.’

I like that. We don’t have to resign ourselves to a selfish human nature. We are built to disregard. Dylan reminds us of a few of the million ways the world malfunctions. And we can do something about it.

A winter’s day in a deep and dark December

Paul Simon’s opening lines to ‘I am a rock’.

And there’s the fourth verse:

‘I have my books and my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me …’

I began the day in the Cotswolds.

The wind howled all night. The depressions keep rolling in. It’s way too warm, and the seasonal outbreaks of frozen hands and chilblains are in abeyance. We’ve still, though, got our winter fuel allowance, being over 65. Motorways are a mass of muck and spray, and trains are no doubt already overloaded. Christmas four days away.

First thing I ran down to the Painswick Stream, and up again across the common. I didn’t see a soul, only a few cows, to whom of course I said hello. The southerly wind was strong enough to feel chill, but tucked between hedgerows all was still, and as I began the climb back I could see the sun, just risen below the hill, touching the clouds a gentle pink and red. And yes, there was blue sky.

By mid-morning the storm was raging, and the trees bending before the wind. And I had the motorway ahead of me.

Back in my London flat another kind of peace, the steady hum of traffic on the main road below. Enough, I thought, and put on a new album of Bob Dylan songs recorded by other artists.

‘I am a rock/I am an island,’ is the refrain of Paul Simon’s song.

But the ocean, and the rain, is Bob Dylan’s:

‘Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall’