Trouble

When I saw that Van Morrison had mentioned Josh White among his early influences in that Guardian article, I decided it was time for a little research, after knowing of him in a very shallow way for three decades. This was two weeks ago now. It may go on for a while; his was an eventful life.

I first heard Josh White back in the early 90s, when I bought a compilation called The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and the Branches for my dad. I must confess that at times I have made it a habit to buy things I was curious about as presents for other people, then listen to them before passing them on to the intended recipient. This was such a case, and I ended up buying the CD for myself. (I think my dad got the cassette? He didn’t go digital until later, if memory serves.)

The Josh White song, “Trouble,” really stood out — partly because it is not in any sense a gospel song. In style it is a stripped down folk blues, with lyrics that have no religious content whatsoever. But mostly it was the sheer haunting beauty, with White’s sweet acoustic guitar accompanying his even sweeter voice:

“Trouble” is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of a viciously racist justice system, but also mordantly funny:

I went up to the walker and the head boss too
Said, “You big white folks, please see what you can do.”
Sheriff winked at the policeman, said, “I won’t forget you nohow,
You better come back and see me again, boy, about 40 years from now.”

Clearly, this is a work of sublime genius — but after that I didn’t really pursue the thread. I think it was one of those cases where a song is so fantastic you don’t want to risk being let down by the artist’s other work. It was a decade later before I heard another Josh White song; we’ll pick up the story there next time.

The Singing Brakeman

“I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers/In my lunch break.”
—Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”

“James Charles Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933) was an American singer-songwriter and musician who rose to popularity in the late 1920s. Widely regarded as ‘the Father of Country Music,’ he is best known for his distinctive rhythmic yodeling. Unusual for a music star of his era, Rodgers rose to prominence based upon his recordings, among country music’s earliest, rather than concert performances — which followed to similar public acclaim.
“He has been cited as an inspiration by many artists and inductees into various halls of fame across both country music and the blues, in which he was also a pioneer. Among his other popular nicknames are ‘The Singing Brakeman’ and ‘The Blue Yodeler.’”
—Wikipedia

Last Words of the Year

In these waning days of 2020, a great laziness has set in here at Philtration Central. Laziness is not unheard of in these parts, and often seems to grow especially acute at a year’s end. And if ever there was a year designed to grind one down, this was it. So no apologies; in time the fog will lift and normal activities will resume.

For now I would like to share with you a 2015 article from The Independent that I ran across recently. It is headlined thusly: “Van Morrison: ‘People who say others are difficult are usually difficult themselves.’” Seemingly keen to counter his own reputation for difficultness, Van comes across as thoroughly friendly and forthcoming, talking a lot about his influences and early career. It’s a good read and will serve you in good stead when the machine gets cranked up again in 2021.

Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night.

I’ll Take You Home Again, Danny Boy

“My mother sang and relatives would come around on a Saturday evening. They’d go to the club first and then come back and have a few drinks and sing songs. ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,’ ‘Danny Boy.’”
—Van Morrison

“The relationship between ostentatious displays of emotion, singing and drinking was established early on in Morrison’s mind. It was reinforced by his mother’s choice of songs, which ran the full gamut from sentimental to maudlin. Of the generation for whom the obviously trained singing of Irish tenor John McCormack represented the epitome of style, Violet [Morrison] would invariably by the first to suggest ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’ or ‘Danny Boy.’”
—Clinton Heylin

“OK, ‘the full gamut from sentimental to maudlin’ is a clever phrase. But I’ll thank you, sir, to avoid that sniffy tone in the future. Nobody likes a smug hipster.”
—Me

Kaw-Liga

“It all started back when I was two and a half years old. Ringo, my father’s friend, would bring over some Hank Williams records and sit on the stairs and listen to ‘Kawliga’ [sic]. My grandfather would keep an eye on me while my mother and father were at the movies, and I would make him play records over and over again.”
—Van Morrison, quoted in Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence

“In some part of his memory bank, Morrison may well believe that such was his instinctive love of music that he could enjoy Hank Williams singing about a tobacco-store Indian cigar-holder in love with an antique statue of an Indian maid when barely a bairn. But then, a serious collector like him must also know that he was eight years old when ‘Kawliga’ was released, on the death-ridden heels of that last, fateful ride.”
—Clinton Heylin

“Since you’re being so nitpicky, Clint, you ought to have noticed that it’s actually spelled ‘Kaw-Liga.’”
—Me

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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