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.
One record I can say for sure that Van Morrison’s dad owned is Lead Belly’s Last Sessions. (Though his name is often rendered, including on the cover of this record, as “Leadbelly,” the two-word version is apparently 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 I think was made by the Smithsonian Channel as part of a Black History Month series. Quoth the Man:
My father had several LPs… there was one of Lead Belly’s Last Sessions…. I identified with the sound, and the voice, and the songs. There was a wide range of songs. The voice, the sound of the voice, the guitar. (To) anyone interested in singing, it was very powerful stuff. I guess I was in the right place at the right time…. Lead Belly didn’t limit himself to blues. Or any genre. He did all the genres.
The Legend of Lead Belly is well worth a watch if you don’t mind giving Amazon $2.99 of your money. If you do, you can get the basic gist of it in the first seven minutes of this video:
His was a crazy life full of wild ups and downs, and it exemplified America at both its horrifying racist worst and its ever-evolving, possibility-filled best. These days, of course, Lead Belly is best known as the source of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” which Kurt Cobain turned into a haunting elegy for himself. That was what prompted me to buy a Lead Belly CD some years ago. I’ve never listened to it very much; it’s not fun like, say, Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters. More otherworldly. Not that all of his songs are downers — some are lighthearted, even goofy. But he was on a different wavelength.
Which reminds me, I wanted to share this great quote from the movie, in which musician Chris Thomas King drops some science about the oft-misunderstood true nature of the blues. On this note, I shall leave you to your evening.
What ended up getting lost in translation about our culture and our music, when it comes to folk and blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, or whatever… is that this music came out of Louisiana, and the blues is not the Oxford dictionary definition of melancholy, sad, depressed, all these kind of things… African-Americans in New Orleans, I mean, we did not invent the sad song. We did not invent the melancholy. We invented Saturday night.