A Song For The Week: The Sea

The Sea

When Fotheringay’s self-titled album was released in 1970, Sandy Denny was already arguably the pre-eminent British folk singer of the time. Denny had spent the best part of the last three years with Fairport Convention, contributing to some of the finest folk music ever recorded. Their albums ‘Unhalfbricking’ and ‘Liege and Lief’, both from 1969, are benchmarks in folk rock that have few equals.

By the time Liege and Lief was completed, Denny had felt it was time to move on from Fairport Convention. Liege and Lief featured more traditional tunes than previous albums, and while Sandy loved these songs, she had spent the last five years singing other people’s songs and was keen to explore new territory. Denny had already shown glimpses of her burgeoning songwriting skills, in particular the exquisite and oft-covered ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’. A solo career beckoned, but Denny wasn’t quite finished with life in a band.

The band Fotheringay was named after Denny’s song of the same name on Fairport Convention’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’ album, which was in itself inspired by Fotheringay Castle. The band was made up of Denny, Trevor Lucas, Gerry Conway, Jerry Donahue and Pat Donaldson. While a genuine band, Fotheringay was very much Denny’s vehicle, and as such she contributes four of the eight tracks on their debut (and only) album. She also co-wrote ‘Peace in the End’ with Trevor Lucas.

‘Fotheringay’ is a stunning album and a great leap forward for Sandy Denny as a songwriter. Two tracks stand out amongst the albums many gems, both written by Denny. ‘Nothing More’ is one of the best songs Sandy would ever write, but for me it is ‘The Sea’ that remains Fotheringay’s crowning achievement.

Fotheringay

Photo: Linda Fitzgerald-Moore

For the most part, ‘The Sea’ conveys a sense of raw and beautiful power, the ocean as an enigmatic but undeniable force. Denny wrote the song in the first person, so the singer becomes the sea, embodying its mysterious nature. The words often tease, test and taunt us:

“Do you ever wonder? You don’t know

You’ll never follow and I’ll never show”

And later:

“You laugh at me on funny days, but mine’s the sleight of hand

Don’t you know I’m a joker, a deceiver”

Sandy’s songs often have a distinctly autumnal tone, warm remembrances of the best of times, but always an awareness of how happiness can be fleeting and often elusive.

This autumnal quality is best heard in Sandy Denny’s voice. Sandy’s voice had a strength and purity that would overflow with such life-affirming joy, and at the same time expressed a vulnerability that could be heartbreaking but was always extraordinarily touching.

We see both of these sides of Sandy in ‘The Sea’:

“Time? What is that? I’ve no time to care.

I’ve lived for a long while nearly everywhere”

Sandy sings of time as if she has the wisdom of one who has an eternity of memories to call upon, and the joy and abandon of one who constantly lives in the moment. In the next line we are reminded of the inevitability of our own mortality:

“You will be taken, everyone

All you ladies and you gentlemen”

What could have been a dark and damning portent is transformed by Denny’s voice – she sings of ‘you ladies and you gentlemen’ with a warmth and gentleness that is calming beyond measure.

We see these counterpoints throughout the song, an ebb and flow that reflects the mystery of the sea and how it can overwhelm us whilst cradling us to its heart at the same time.

I feel I should also highlight Jerry Donahue’s wonderful guitar on this recording. His playing complements Denny’s voice with a wonderful clarity.

Here is Sandy speaking of the song to Melody Maker in 1970:

“Whenever I sing The Sea I think about a particular beach in Wales where I sat late at night, rather sad, a long time ago when I was about 18. It was almost like watching Cinerama as the sun went down.

“I began to think how powerful the sea was, and I even got a little morbid, thinking about what it would be like to swim out and just drown.

“The sea seemed to become a sort of person, like a mind, and that’s what I have tried to convey, the power of the sea.”

As sad as this memory is, I understand the sentiment. For so many of us, modern life acts to distance us from nature. When we are lucky enough to experience moments where we do feel connected to the natural world, it can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. I think that is what Sandy experienced that day and later expressed in her song. We know that such beauty and power can be destructive, but we are drawn to it nonetheless, seeking a connection to something elemental and even spiritual in essence.

There is a timeless quality to ‘The Sea’ which I think is apparent in so much of Sandy’s music. The song is now 43 years old, but it sounds like it could have been written yesterday, or a hundred years ago. I still listen to the song a lot, and I sometimes imagine Sandy sitting on that beach in Wales all those years ago. She is sometimes smiling or laughing and often sad, but always, always singing.

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More Than Boys – Luke Jackson

Photograph by Sean Hardy

Photograph by Sean Hardy

Luke Jackson is a young singer-songwriter from Canterbury, England. “More Than Boys” is his debut album, released in August last year.

I first came across Luke Jackson via Bob Meyer’s weekly Folk show on Radio Wey. He first released an EP (Run and Hide) and since then has been busy performing while continuing to write, steadily building an impressive repertoire of songs. As a consequence, More Than Boys arrives as something far more accomplished than anyone would have the right to expect from an 18 year old.

First albums are often given the tag ‘promising debut’, which has always seemed to me to be a backhanded compliment, as if promising is the best we can expect from a newcomer. More Than Boys stands on its own merit as an outstanding album, one that Jackson can be justly proud of.

Jackson and his producer (highly regarded Welsh musician Martyn Joseph) have shown astute judgement in the album’s production, stripping the songs to their bare bones. There is always an inherent risk when presenting songs this way. Any flaws will be exposed, and the songwriter really has nowhere to hide. Thankfully however, Jackson clearly knows his songs inside out and in his hands the simplicity of his songs are a strength, giving them a solidity and grounding which offsets nicely the gentle tone of his lyrics.

For the most part it is just Luke’s voice and his acoustic guitar, showing off impressive technique and a touch of colour to his playing. Jackson has a warm but strong voice which he keeps in check for most of the album, in keeping with the understated arrangements.

Jackson clearly has a natural feel for songwriting, but he is clever with it too. Many young writers try to tackle life’s big subjects before they have really experienced any of them, and ultimately their words don’t ring true. Most of the songs on More Than Boys focus on Jackson’s childhood and the uncertain transition from boy to man. You can forgive the often wistful, nostalgic feel to songs like “Baker’s Woods”, “Big Hill”, “Kitchener Road” and “More Than Boys”. These are tales of the carefree days of youth when responsibility is something for others to worry about. It is sometimes comforting to look back on these moments before embarking into the unknown world of adulthood:

“Hours in our hideout, safe from the winter breeze

Yes and I, well I wonder if it’s still standing up there, at the top of old wives lees

And it’s where we’d talk about our first loves, with our hearts worn on our sleeves

It turned out we were far too young, to really know what any of that means

 

But now it seems like all my childhood songs have been sung

And it feels like all my childhood dreams are now, they’re all done

 

The things that I have done and the places I have seen

Will help me to become, the person I will be

And it’s already begun, I’m starting to see, the man in me

The man in me”

From “Big Hill”

More Than Boys will appeal to fans of folk and roots music, although you can definitely sense a real pop sensibility from Jackson, something he may choose to explore on future releases. With a little more experience and some well earned confidence, we may well see some more ambitious compositions from Luke in the future, along with some fuller accompaniment and arrangements to suit.

None of that is necessary on More Than Boys, which is just fine as it is. Very fine indeed.

For more information on Luke and info on buying the album, check out his official website:

http://www.lukepauljackson.com/

Luke also has a Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/lukepauljacksonmusic

This is a live rendition of one of my favourite tracks from More Than Boys, the infectious “Let It All Out”. It is a performance from one of the Rugby Roots series of concerts:

A Song For the Week: I Hate To See You Cry

For those of you unfamiliar with the name Alan Hull, you might recognise him as a member of the legendary Newcastle band, Lindisfarne. The group experienced significant commercial and critical success for a few years in the early Seventies, after which they recorded occasionally while maintaining a consistent presence as one of the best live bands in the country. Hull sang lead on many of their songs and was the band’s principal songwriter. He wrote such standards as Lady Eleanor, We Can Swing Together and their paean to their home town of Newcastle, Fog on the Tyne.

From 1973 until his death in 1995, Hull recorded several solo albums. The first of these was called “Pipedream” and was released in 1973, at a time when Lindisfarne’s future was far from certain.

Although Hull had Lindisfarne colleagues Ray Laidlaw and Ray Jackson on board to help record the album, the sound of Pipedream is slightly removed from that of a typical Lindisfarne record. It is typical of Hull, however, with plenty of humour, pathos and sharp social commentary.

There are several standout tracks, but I want to focus on the album’s final song, the elegiac “I Hate to See You Cry”.

Alan Hull always had a tremendous spirit of empathy – witness one of his best Lindisfarne songs, “Winter Song” – and on this song, it is full to overflowing.

Songs like this are often labelled spare, with few lyrics and minimal instrumentation. This is somewhat of a disservice to Hull, as there is a depth and fullness here that is striking to say the least, and for me it is utterly compelling.

There is no real chorus, but the same key lines run through the song, expressing a growing sense of helplessness. At the same time, the repetition almost acts as a mantra, as if in repeating these lines the writer might see the answer hidden within them:

I hate to see you cry, makes the sun desert the sky
Makes my dreams all run dry, can’t tell you why.”

It would be easy to interpret the song as the tale of a fragile relationship, or of one in decline.

To me however, it is simply someone offering a hand or heart to another in desperate need. It doesn’t really matter who that is, or why, only that we hear the cry for help and the genuinely human, compassionate response.

At times the lyrics are truly heartbreaking:

“Lying still and white, your face illuminates the night
Your tears are crying out for light
Everything will be, everything will be alright.”

Hull worked for a time as a nurse in a mental hospital, and although it was never confirmed by Hull, one could easily see a reference here to an anguished soul being comforted and reassured of an end to their pain.

Hull sings the song simply and with minimal accompaniment, the piano sounding like something played in some long forgotten parlour or corner pub. Alan Hull had one of those imperfect voices that could make you laugh one moment and break your heart the next. He never had the range of a Richard Manuel, but like Manuel he seemed almost to pour his heart and soul into every note. Nothing was left in reserve. When Hull’s voice breaks singing the word “sun” one can almost imagine him sitting there playing and singing directly to his subject. There is a touch of grace and humanity in his voice that is truly uplifting, and moving beyond words.

Hull was a truly gifted musician and he deserves wider recognition for his immense talent. I hope that if, like me, you make a connection with this song, then you’ll be tempted to explore his music a little further. Trust me – you won’t be disappointed.

My Friend, The Wayfaring Stranger

Listening the other day to Ed Sheeran singing Wayfaring Stranger, I got to thinking about how familiar this song has become to me. I’ve lost count of the number of renditions I’ve heard over the years, most of them good, some exceptional.

Thinking on it a little further, I realised that the song has acted as a kind of musical marker for me.

Over the years I have found that in discovering my favourite musicians, I have also found a version of this song hidden away in their repertoire. A great number of these are live recordings, which goes to show what a great concert showpiece it can be.

A number of my favourite musicians have recorded this beautiful American Spiritual, too many to list here. Instead, I thought I’d share my five favourite renditions:

#5 Alison Krauss

I heard this version on an album called “Masters of the Folk Violin”. Alison was still pretty young at the time; in fact, she was probably still a teenager. I love her singing on this, but really, it’s all about the violin for me. As a fiddler, she has few peers. This recording is a live performance from around the same time.

#4 Emmylou Harris

I’d been an Emmylou fan for some time before I heard this song on her “Roses in the Snow” album. I guess it takes a while to find some albums, you’re meant to find them when you do. I love the album, and this is one of the standouts. Again, this is a live performance from around the time of the album’s release in 1980.

#3 Eva Cassidy

As well as having an extraordinary voice, Eva Cassidy’s interpretative skills were seemingly boundless. Her version on the album “Eva by Heart” is a faster, less traditional take, but retains the spiritual fervour of the song.  I have a particular soft spot for this version, as it was my introduction to Wayfaring Stranger. This is the album cut.

#2 Tim Buckley

This one is very close to my favourite, and it is certainly my favourite vocal. This is the only recording I have heard of Buckley singing Wayfaring Stranger, but if anyone knows of any others, I’d love to know. This performance from Queen Elizabeth Hall, London in 1968 was released posthumously on the album “Dream Letter”. The whole album is a gift for Buckley fans. Buckley pours his soul into the song, challenging the listener to walk in the stranger’s shoes, just as Buckley does. As always, Tim puts everything on the line. It blows me away every time, without fail.

#1 Roy Buchanan

Roy recorded this as “Wayfaring Pilgrim”. I know, it’s an instrumental. For me, the point of all music is to express a feeling or emotion, whatever that may be. In this case, that emotion is overwhelmingly spiritual. In my opinion Roy does that better than anyone else on this song. He connects so completely with the song and the listener that you forget that you’re not listening to any words. You don’t need them. For me, it’s that good.

This performance is the best, in my humble opinion. It’s from his 1974 album “In the Beginning” (known as “Rescue Me” outside of the USA).

There are so many beautiful renditions of this song, my selection doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. I’d be very interested to hear of anyone else’s personal favourites, especially any rare recordings or unusual arrangements.

I’ve always felt that deeply personal songs like Wayfaring Stranger deserve a personal response, so thanks for taking the time to listen to mine.