And for the second of our Oysterband ‘Why I Love’ takeovers, fiddle player Ian telfer takes the chance to do something a bit different (not unlike the man he namechecks – Bob Dylan) as he explains why he loves what he loves….
I’ve heard people say things like “Ooh, Sam Cooke (e.g.), he could sing the telephone book and move you to tears.” And I suppose if someone organised a World Phonebook-Singing Championship, Sam Cooke would be one of the most bearable entrants. But tears? I don’t think so.
It’s not so much that phone books have no meaning, it’s that they have no attitude. They don’t propose any feeling for or against the world as described. Even “The Coke’s out in the icebox/ Popcorn’s on the table/ Me and my baby/ We’re out here on the floor” (Sam Cooke’s Having A Party) is proposing something, however innocent and corny. But then we come to another song Cooke wrote, A Change Is Gonna Come. Hard to believe the same man wrote both….this one’s a fabulous attempt to complex feelings in the plainest of words. It’s both sad and hopeful (more sad than hopeful, I’d say), but very interestingly it’s not angry. Cooke takes the familiar tropes of gospel singing – seeking help, seeking salvation – and makes them problematic by situating them unmistakeably in the now: “I go to the movie/ And I go downtown/ Somebody keep telling me/ Don’t hang around,” – still the experience of (especially black) urban youth 60 years later. Tears? Probably. I’m not sure Cooke was 100% clear in his own mind what he wanted to say, but he knew he wanted to say something about living with racism and the gorgeous, dignified vocal tune holds it all together.
The first single I ever bought (of three!) was Procul Harum’s A Whiter Shade Of Pale. I think what drew me to the song was not the words – even at 18 I could tell they were a pretty insipid try at surrealism – but the attitude contained in Matt Fisher’s quasi-Bach organ-playing, co-opting “classical music” in the service of narrative gobbledegook. That felt faintly radical. But a while later I discovered a song written a little earlier, one A Whiter Shade maybe owes a certain debt to: my third single, Bob Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man.
Dylan’s radicalism is wittier and wilder than Procul Harum’s. His song might benefit from being a verse or two shorter, but he doesn’t care, he’s got this killer line and he’s going to shovel it into the song come hell or high water: “There oughta be a law against you coming around/ You should be made to wear earphones”….olé!
But wait, what is Ballad Of A Thin Man about? Good question. Narratively, insofar as there is a sort of narrative, one that keeps starting but only ends in punch-lines, it might be about hipness/unhipness, not a very attractive subject really. But also it’s about how the song itself works, demolishing conventional thinking by demolishing meaning itself. I’m making it sound po-faced; actually, it’s very funny in an acid sort of way:
You raise up your head and you ask ‘Is this where it is?’
And somebody points to you and says ‘It’s his’
And you say ‘What’s mine?’ and somebody else says ’Well, what is?’
And you say ‘Oh my God, am I here all alone?’
Well, that’s one extreme of making a song out of an attitude. After that I had a great enthusiasm for the ironies of Randy Newman; some of them are less than subtle, but if you think for example that Rednecks is a satire on rednecks, you haven’t listened quite carefully enough. My favourite song of his though is Louisiana 1927, a ferocious onslaught sung in the patient, stoical voice of perhaps a flooded-out farm worker. Its ironies are pitch-perfect, and melodically beautiful to boot.
It’s at this point, where we might get curious about what it is that narrative does, that my interests in folksong and in authored song overlap and illuminate each other. And led eventually to the few better songs I’ve written and co-written in the last forty-something years.
Our thanks to Ian for his contribution and thoughts; always someone who likes to take an unusual path.
Here’s one of Ian most recent songs – The Time Is Now is from the Oysterband album Read The Sky:
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You can read more from our extensive archive of Why I Love pieces from a wide array of artists on an even wider array of subjects, here.
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