andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Tag Archives: leonard cohen

Robert Burns and the Black Keys: or, The Clerk’s Revenge

Scottish Icons: Robert BurnsWarning: if you’re a big fan of Robert Burns, look away now

I’ve never really quite got Burns the way I think I should, as a Scotsman. It’s a bit like me and whisky (the two, of course, often go hand in hand): I understand the attraction in theory, and I’m really happy about the contribution to the Scottish export industry they make, but still. I don’t know.

I have tried to like Robert Burns  – and whisky for that matter. When I was in fourth year at secondary school I won a Latin speaking competition (I know! Rock and Roll!) and used my prize, a book token, to buy my own copy of  his Poems and Songs. I still have it: it’s a nice edition, in a kind of faux-leather binding.

Anyhoo, for the non-Scots and/or non-Burns fans amongst you, Rabbie (as he’s often called by his adherents) lived from 1759 – 1796, and packed a lot of stuff into those 36 and a bit years. He was, variously, labourer, farmer, father of several illegitimate children, exciseman (a kind of tax collector) Freemason, proto-socialist, proto-nationalist, and darling of Edinburgh society. He also found time to scribble down a few poems and songs. Ok, ok, a lot of them, some of which are classics. His birthday on 25th January is celebrated worldwide by Scots, Scots expats, and others (the Russians, in particular, are fans) by eating lots of haggis, drinking lots of whisky, and doing lots of speechifying about him.

No, I do like Burns. Honestly. Some of his stuff, anyway, like the long narrative poem ‘Tam O’ Shanter,’ which, when recited by the right performer, is simply stunning. I’ve always wanted to do a punk version of ‘Parcel of Rogues.’ Some of the rest of his work, frankly, I find over-sentimental, personally. I suppose the date I got Poems and Songs – 1978 – is significant: if you had to choose a year when the best of Old Rock was still around, locked in hand to hand combat with Punk and New Wave, it might well be that one. Burns’s poetry and music, by comparison, seemed to be the stuff of old men crying into their pint in the pub I wasn’t – technically at least – old enough to get into then.

All that said, there was one of his tunes – variously called ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ and ‘Banks o’ Doon’ that I always thought was just a great melody. Burns’s words,  a woman’s lament for a false lover set in agreeable scenery, not so much. Recently, though, the tune resurfaced in my subconscious, broke the surface of my conscious, and I wrote some alternative words to it, of which more presently. But then, doing a bit of research for this article, I came across something of a revelation. Robert Burns didn’t write the melody!

I suppose I’d always wondered whether the tune was a Burns original. Not unusually for the time, Rabbie used traditional ‘Scotch’ airs to set his words to; indeed, some of his songs’ lyrics are ‘trad, arr. Burns,’ as he took old sets of words, often cleaning them up for polite society in the same way that a lot of old blues songs had the sexual element toned down for wider publication. Nothing wrong with that. Looking at the text in my copy of Poems and Songs, I see that it says, ‘Tune: Caledonian Hunt’s Delight,‘ which probably gave me the idea that it was a traditional tune, perhaps hummed by be-kilted warriors to their tiny warrior children in the shieling as Edward I’s forces marched past to certain defeat at Bannockburn just down the road.

The truth, as so often, is a bit more complicated. The melody first came to general notice when it featured in Niel Gow’s collection of Reels. Gow, a contemporary of Burns (1727 – 1807) was  – and still is – considered one of the greatest folk music violinists, or fiddlers, of all time. But Gow didn’t write it either. In his collection, it’s attributed to ‘Mr Miller of Edinburgh.’ So who was he, then?

According to tunearch.org, he was James Miller, a ‘writer’ (in this historical context a lawyer specialising in property law) who was clerk in the Teind (obscure Scots property thing – don’t ask for more detail) Office in Edinburgh. Not a be-kilted warrior, or even a Mrs be-kilted warrior. Except maybe on the weekends.

Here’s where Burns steps in. History may be written by the victors, but musical history is, often, written by the celebs. Here’s Burns in a letter to his publisher, Thomson, as quoted on tunearch:

Do you know the history of the air—It is curious enough.—A good many yeas ago a Mr. Jas. Miller,… was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air.-Mr. Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air.-Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr. Miller produced the rudiments of a air, which Mr. Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question… [quoted in The Life and Works of Robert Burns, 1896, by Robert Burns].

Now, maybe it’s just my being a fellow property lawyer – and clerk, for that matter, although we did away with teinds, finally, a few years ago. But I smell snobbery here: the inverse snobbery of the rock and roll lifestyler for the humble plodder; and, worse still, musical snobbery. The sub-text seems to be: ‘here was this bozo, wanting to write a Scots tune, so my old mucker Clarkey tells him to use the black keys of the harpsichord! What a joker! Wouldn’t you know, kind of monkeys-with-typewriters thing happens, and this poor booby comes up with something half decent? Of course, the Clarkester needs to do quite a bit of tidying up, and there we go…’

Is it just me? Probably. But it’s significant that, from Miller getting sole authorship credits in Gow’s musical collection, a modern day site like tunearch credits the tune to ‘James Miller and Stephen Clarke.’

Well, I say, sod that. Miller’s my kind of bloke, and I reckon he should get the credit he deserves. Black keys, indeed! If it’s as I think it is, the black keys on the harpsichord correspond to those on the piano, and the only tune you could get out of them is the one for the Flake advert (try it out on a keyboard near you, if you don’t believe me). Jimmy Miller did it all by himself, and Burns and his organ-playing monkey can go and get raffled.

Which brings me to my lyrics, which, frankly, owe far more in inspiration to Mr L. Cohen, of Montreal, than Mr R. Burns, of Alloway. It may upset some traditionallists, so if I’m found, my innards carved up like a haggis, bearing the bruises of a blunt instrument like a faux-leather volume of poems, you know where to start looking.

But even if you don’t like the words, you can at least appreciate the violin playing of Ms J Kerr, of Kirkcaldy, my colleague, friend, and contemporary. Niel Gow, at least, would be pleased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Bet Burnsy didn’t have to put up with that on his blog.

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Musical Advent Calendar Day 18: Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

Ok, so I said I wouldn’t put this one in. I changed my mind. So, what can I say that’s new about the song that spawned a thousand cover versions and a million open-mic night travesties?

  • The origin of the word ‘hallelujah’: from Hebrew hallalu-yah “praise ye Jehovah,” from hallalu, plural imperative of hallel “to praise” also “song of praise,” from hillel “he praised,” of imitative origin, with primary sense being “to trill.” Second element is yah, shortened form of Yahweh, name of God. Other Abrahamic faiths are also available.
  • In Cohen’s native Montreal, the street sign for Marie-Anne Street got a makeover on his death (see above).
  • According to the same article in El Pais I nicked the photo from (yes, I’ve been doing my Spanish homework) Leonard used to buy his bagels at Bagel Etc (Saint-Laurent, 4320). There’s a whole walking tour industry around his old haunts now.
  • One of the writing sessions for the original 80 verses of the song took place at the Royalton hotel in New York, where he was reduced to sitting in his underwear, banging his head on the floor. The dent on the floor in room 113 is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Okay, so I made that second bit up.

…and yeah, I know all about the Buckley vs Burke version yada yada, but I’m sticking with Lenny. There’s a fine version on his late-period live album from London, but I’m going with this one which shows him giving it everything but the kitchen sink in San Sebastian in 1988. Vaya con los angeles, Leonard!

I‘ve finally got around after 18 days of preaching at the rest of you about it, to donating to the Red Cross Appeal for Myanmar. It only took a second. Here’s the link.

PS if you want a female singer’s version, kd lang can sing it a bit – an interview I saw with LC quoted this particular performance with approval:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rampant commercialisation may happen below here. If so, boo!

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Musical Advent Calendar – Day One

Image result for liberty advent calendar 2017

Liberty’s beauty one prompted people to queue for hours back in October. RRP was £175, but you can still get it on Ebay if you shell £450 or so. The Fortnum and Mason £125 wooden one with chocolates seems almost a snip in comparison; Edinburgh Gin has one with 25 miniatures (£100); Debenhams has a pork scratchings one, apparently. Hell, you can get one which gradually assembles a screwdriver set, or if you prefer, gives you a sex toys a day.

What on earth am I talking about? Advent calendars, of course, which have come a long, long way from my childhood, when we had the same cardboard effort come out of the loft every year, with the increasingly ajar doors revealing pictures of nativity type things like angels. Or shepherds. Or, on Christmas Eve, the Nativity, with our Redeemer in a manger surrounded by adoring adults and farm animals. Our Redeemer, mind. Not a sausage roll in a manger, Gregg’s the bakers! Bad Greggs.

Anyhoo. Here’s an advent calendar you don’t have to pay a thing for: in the lead up to Christmas, I’m going to put up a link to a song I like every day, and, if I have time, some sort of story about either its making or why it means something to me. Or both. They won’t all be the type of music you expect, and they sure as hell won’t be Christmas-related. Unless you count ‘Hallelujah’ (it’ll be the Cohen version, before you ask). And Springsteen’s cover of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ will be the Christmas Eve one, I’m telling you right now. I might even take requests!

To kick things off, here’s a well known track – predictable, perhaps, but still ranked by some polls as the greatest rock song ever. It reminds me, somewhat counterintuitively, of Birmingham, a place I’ve visited three times: once to see England beat the Aussies at Edgbaston; once for a science fiction convention (back when I was masquerading as an sf writer) but, the first time, to see Dylan.

1987, his so-called ‘Temples in Flames’ tour, when he was backed by the late, great, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Roger McGuinn came on first and did a so-so solo set; then Petty and the others emerged from the shadows and assisted him on a transcendent ‘Mr Tambourine Man.’ Then, after their own set, they provided a perfect foil to the wee man from Minnesota.

Dylan was still coming out of his Born Again phase, so we had a few Christian numbers to put up with. This version of Like A Rolling Stone made it all worthwhile though. I’ve seen Dylan three times, but I’ve never seen him better. This is from the Australian leg of the same tour.

Just before I go, here comes the money bit – instead of the Liberty calendar, you might want to think about giving some of your hard-earned to the Red Cross Myanmar appeal. I’m sure the politics of it is more complicated than the media’s portrayed, but bottom line is around 600,000 people are living in camps as winter closes in because of political, ethnic and/or religious differences. These guys are suffering, and could do with your help.

(Feel free to post your own thoughts and reflections on the song, His Bobness, or anything else you fancy)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here be monsters. Or at least WordPress-generated advertising. Which might not be all that monstrous, to be fair.

 

Looking for Leonard

So, as those of you who’ve already been bombed by my ultra-efficient (or not) publicity machine so far will know, I’m co-hosting a Leonard Cohen tribute night with the uber-talented Mr Norman Lamont, singer-songwriter of this parish (and NOTHING to do with Conservative economic policies in the 1980s – that’s the other one, that doesn’t know how to pronounce ‘Lamont’ the proper i.e. Scottish way).

Why Lenny? A previous post describes my long avoidance of his brilliance for the flimsiest of reasons, and my conversion at the hands of his utterly excellent 2012 album, ‘Old Ideas.’ Plus it means working with Norman, as well as a new venture for Isaac Brutal – an acoustic set! I’m really looking forward to working on the two songs we’ve gone for, both off ‘Old Ideas’ – ‘Going Home,’ and ‘Amen.’

Anyway, here’s the spiel:

Leonard Cohen, musician and sage, composer of ‘So Long Marianne’, ‘Suzanne’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and of course the ubiquitous ‘Hallelujah’, turned 80 in September.

Join us for a belated birthday celebration by Edinburgh’s singer-songwriter coven. The event is organised by songwriter Norman Lamont (following his two previous ‘Tip of the Hat’ events) and writer and musician Andrew C Ferguson, promoter of successful Dylan and Nick Cave events.

Expect a roster of some of the most talented local bands and songwriters, with their own take on Leonard’s mighty songbook, including Norman himself, Graeme Mearns, Ross Neilson and a host of others.

The gig is free but a collection will be taken for refugee charities and Scottish foodbanks.

A Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen, Friday 20th November, The Village, 16 South Fort Street, EH6 4DN 7.30 – 11.00 p.m.

 

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More Kantele Music

A more substantial blog, soon – but in the meantime, I’ve uploaded a track with the kantele I was telling you about in it (for those of you technically minded, I recorded the kantele part using a single Rode M2 mike, placed close to the middle strings – it’s absolutely dry: I’ve not added reverb or any other effect).

I’m still just mucking about with it, really – I don’t really know how to play it, but setting the song in A major gave the maximum opportunity for simple accompanying lines.

All the Time in Heaven: a (very brief) album review

I should, like all moral reviewers, start by declaring any interests. Norman Lamont has been on the bill of both gigs I’ve ever organised, namely Dylan Uncovered and Cry of the Cave People. He was recently an audience member at a Tribute to Venus Carmichael gig. He’s also, as it happens, just covered one of my songs, brilliantly so in my biased view, on Soundcloud: Somewhere You’re Out There.

However, I don’t owe him any actual money, and I don’t know him that well personally, just through music, as it were: I didn’t know, for example, that his daughter was in Nepal when the earthquake hit when I went on Saturday to see him at A Night for Nepal, at St Philip’s Church, Joppa, on Saturday. Norman read a (beautifully written) note from his daughter about her experience of the eathquake. It was a great night, with Nepalese dance, Bulgarian folk songs, blues harmonica, and custard filled pastries: Norman’s performance with his current band, The Heaven Sent, was the highlight though.

I also got the chance to buy a copy of his recent album, All the Time in Heaven, which showcases Norman’s songwriting and arranging skills perfectly. When I listen to stuff as good as this, I do wonder how, even in the cluttered landscape of music and musicians we all live in, guys like Norman aren’t better known than they are. Standouts so far on a limited amount of listens are the single, Not About to Fly, a jaunty story of childhood conspiracy theories; and Fingerpuppet, where the lyrics are counterpointed perfectly by the gorgeous acoustic guitars.

However, I’m thinking the opening track, The Monk From the Mountain of Sorrow, is one that will repay several listens – it’s complex, musically, with, again, rich lyrical underpinning: based loosely, I understand, on elements of Leonard Cohen’s life story.

But don’t just rely on what I say: have a listen. The link to Not About to Fly’s below. One other thing I didn’t know about Norman I take from that song: he’s from Ayrshire, the other end of the Central Belt coal seam from me in Fife. Maybe that’s why I feel an affinity!

Next up, I have the effrontery to answer my own interview questions. Plus musings on music and publishing business models, and some discoveries in an ex-Council Edinburgh flat.

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