The Legend of Lead Belly

The timing of this project has now become a bit awkward, since in 2020 Van Morrison has finally decided to become political, and not in a good way. I haven’t heard his anti-masking (or anti-lockdown, or whatever) music yet, nor do I really want to, a certain morbid curiosity aside. One day I suppose I will be ambushed by it, and then I’ll find out what I think.

On the other hand, my intention in writing about Van has never been to rave about what a warm and wonderful human being he is. It’s not exactly news that he’s a difficult person, and that’s a part of what makes him interesting. An article I read a while back — which I will have to paraphrase since I’ve lost track of it — said that he is the one person on Earth who takes no pleasure in the music of Van Morrison. It is as if he is simply compelled to do it.

This fascinates me more than a person who makes music for the “right” reasons, who has a healthy relationship of mutual love and respect with his audience. What is it that makes such a miserable bastard aspire to, and sometimes reach, the highest heights of astral grace? This is the question that we will be… well, not answering, but at least exploring.

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One record I can say for sure that Van Morrison’s dad owned is Lead Belly’s Last Sessions. (Though is name is often rendered, including on the cover of this record, as “Leadbelly,” the two-word version is the correct one. Supposedly he got the name because he could drink any amount of any alcoholic beverage.) I know this because last night I watched a program called The Legend of Lead Belly, which apparently was made by the Smithsonian Channel as part of a Black History Month series. Quoth the Man:

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Hootin’ the Blues

One artist we know for sure that George Morrison Sr. exposed his son to was Sonny Terry, which almost certainly meant being exposed to Brownie McGhee, Terry’s longtime musical partner. Their catalog is a deep one about which I know little. I found this on YouTube, and it is, um, a hoot:

I don’t think they had anything like that in Belfast at the time. I’m sure they had some great music, but there is nothing in all the world to compare with the magnificent treasure of the music created by African-Americans. Everything that I love about music flows from that great river. Truly something to be thankful for.

Someday, perhaps, we will have true justice in this country, and some of the wrongs that have been done along the way will be redressed. I’m not holding my breath. But let’s keep trying.

This is a holiday, so I’ll keep it short. I hope everyone out there is having a safe and joyful day.

And because I love you, here’s something I found when I was searching for clips of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s appearance in The Jerk. I had never seen it before. Merry Christmas.

Choppin’ Wood

Sometime in the early Fifties — that seems to be as much as anyone knows — Van Morrison’s father, George Sr., moved to America. Specifically to Detroit. 40-some years later, his son wrote a song about it.

If I’m parsing this correctly, the idea seems to be that George intended to make it big in the colonies — maybe at an auto factory — and then send for the rest of the family. Instead, he returned home a broken man.

Well you came back home to Belfast
So you could be with us like
And you lived a life of quiet desperation on the side
Going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike

Well the spark was gone but you carried on
Well you did just the best that you could
You sent for us one time but everything fell through
But you still kept on choppin’ wood

And that must have been how it felt at the time, though I am told that George Sr. later owned a record store in Marin County, which hardly qualifies as a life of quiet desperation. I wonder, in fact, if he didn’t end up spending all the money he made in Detroit on records — because legend has it that he returned to Belfast with a gold mine of American R&B that would prove hugely influential on his son’s musical style.

What records exactly? I’m working on that. More in the days to come.

Song of Being a Child

I came across this song while listening to The Philosopher’s Stone the other day. Doing a little research, I learned that the words are actually taken from a poem by one Peter Handke, about whom I know nothing. To the Wikipedia!

Peter Handke is a Nobel laureate novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter from Austria. Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019. In the late 1960s, he was recognized for the play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) and the novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick).

So not exactly a lightweight. You can read the whole poem here. It is pretty great. It also figures heavily in Wings of Desire, which of course required me to have a screening last night. I think I saw this movie when it came out back in the Eighties, but in all honesty I remembered nothing about it. It is extremely German — high-minded, elegiac, pretentious, at times oddly hilarious. Nick Cave is in it. And Peter Falk, fucking Columbo, playing himself. And Bruno Ganz, who plays the angel at the center of the story, went on to play Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall — and thus be granted immortality in the form of a million YouTube clips. Somehow this joke never gets old; the latest one is a hoot:

So where am I going with this? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer. The brain is a bit scrambled today, but it seemed like time to post something. Go back to the top of the page and listen to Van’s song again; the real writing will resume in due time.

Kingdom Hall

As I continue to make my way at a snail’s pace through Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence,1I find myself wondering which biographical details might be important. For instance, Heylin makes much of the fact that Van Morrison’s father was an atheist, while his mother was (at least for a time) a Jehovah’s Witness, and points out that the same was true of Patti Smith (whose first well-known song was a cover of “Gloria”).

A big book could be written (maybe one has, I’m not sure) on the intersection between the Witnesses and popular music. Michael Jackson was brought into the church as a child and left it as an adult, while Prince was converted by Mighty Titan of Bass Larry Graham in the early 2000s and stayed in for the rest of his life. (Donald “Childish Gambino” Glover, Thelonious Monk, and metal legend Dave Mustaine were also raised as Witnesses.) Van Morrison attended meetings with his mom and even wrote a song about it, 1978’s “Kingdom Hall”:

In this portrayal the meetings sound fun, almost like services at a Black gospel church:

We can clear inhibition away
All our inhibitions
Throw them away
And when we dance like this
We will dance like we’ve never before

Oh, they were swingin’
Down at Kingdom Hall
Oh, bells were ringin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall
A choir was singin’
Down at the Kingdom Hall

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