Mostly Concerning Music
It’s funny how a song will come into your mind. Laurence used to play a lovely version of Arthur McBride and the Sergeant on the guitar. He knew his stuff did Laurence and could play an awful lot better than he let on. He did several versions. I can’t remember the provenance of most but he spoke very highly of the one that Paul Brady had made popular. Laurence used to drop the tuning down to drop D and though this shouldn’t have been too difficult to follow it was enough to freeze my brain. I could imitate the melodic roll alright but I was beggered at remembering the adjustments I had to make for the chords.
Laurence has been dead for over a decade now which means (he was almost exactly ten years older than me when we met in Manchester) that I am now older than he ever managed to be. And I’m suddenly reminded of the song. Must be twenty five years since I even thought of it and there it is dancing its jig in my brain and demanding to be sung.
I’m a better guitar player now than I was then but I don’t practice enough. I play it til my fingers bleed alright, but if you don’t play too often that doesn’t always take long. And then I don’t play it again for a month or two.
I’ve taken to leaving the two guitars I play most often (I’ve acquired 8 over the years) in places where they invite me to pick them up and have a sing. In recent years I’ve added a ukelele, a mandolin and a bass guitar into the collection. When another singer comes round I’ll play them until bedtime. But I’ve been writing a lot recently and those Thursday night and Sunday morning sessions don’t happen anymore. I wait until David come home from University and then we sing like old timers. He’s coming back on Thursday for Easter. Maybe that is what put me in mind of a song.
I saw Paul Brady play. It was actually one of the most enjoyable concerts I’ve ever gone to. T and I went along to the Barnfield Theatre in Exeter and he gave us two hours of some of the best arranged songs I’d heard. It was during the mid eighties and he was borderline big time and was becoming as influenced by the over blown production techniques of the time as he was of traditional music and good old acoustic guitar singer song writing. He played an awful lot of very well made songs but he didn’t play Arthur McBride. I made up for the omission by singing a clumsy version before bedtime.
Youtube is a wonderful thing. You think of a song and then you think of a particular version of a song and then you think of a particular performance of a particular version of a particular song and you can watch and listen to it at the click of a button. Having been reminded of just how good Paul Brady is and of what a good version he sang I get out the guitar and try to emulate. It doesn’t work on drop D, but I start to get somewhere by simply playing around with how I play the chords up the neck. It’s a lovely mixture of musicianship and nostalgia. If I can be bothered (disciplined enough) to work on it for a day or two I’ll have a song worth playing. I print off a lyric sheet and take it downstairs where I expect the other guitar to be. It isn’t. No mystery. I’m at an age where things often surprise me by being where I left them. But the mandolin is there.
I only know a handful of mandolin chords but a simplified version of the song only has a handful itself. It is after all a folk song. The whole idea is that they were played and sung by people who played and sung for the pleasure not the cleverness. And I begin and, to cut the story short, it sounded fantastic.
The mandolin is brilliant for all of those rolling jigs and reels and the melody line plucked single (double) string stuff but it really comes alive when a strummer gets hold of it. Steve Earl on Copperhead Road, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Levon Helm bashing out the opening chords of Evangeline. There may be no guitar but I settle down to a session of solo playing accompanied only by alternate mandolin and ukelele. (If a guitar’s strings start to cut into tender, underused fingers, then a mandolin does times ten. No wonder some call them the cheese grater. The uke is nylon strung and is almost balm to the pads after a clatter through The Rolling Stones Out of Time. Mark Wallington wrote a lovely book a couple of years ago about a middle age frustrated rock and roller who goes on a wayward tour of Britain performing at open mic nights on the ukelele and bringing the house down with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Little Richard numbers. Not to be outdone on the frustrated middle aged bit at least I launch into a rather lovely ukelele version of Rave On. I have the undivided attention of a dog and a cat. The fact that it is feeding time doesn’t enter into it. You don’t come between a true musician and his audience.
The mandolin again and I think of trying Copperhead Road but give up after a few introductory chords and slip seamlessly into an impromptu version of My Old Friend the Blues. By the time I get the the higher register refrain I’m in seventh heaven.
The singing goes on. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s brilliant medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World requires me to run off chords and lyrics but as soon as I begin to intone the introduction (an octave lover than the original and nowhere near as sweet) I’m carried away by the arrangement.
And so the morning pans out. Tim and Jeff Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jake Thackray, Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now sung in the style of George Formby), George Harrison (himself a devoted advocate of the ukelele) all get the four (eight) string treatment. My fingers bleed, my voice goes hoarse. Once it goes hoarse I move onto Merle Haggard and George Jones.
It was unintended and improvised throughout but this was one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve had. Once we had two cats and a dog I had at least one cat to play ice hockey with the plectrums and to sprawl across the song sheets. David will be back home at the weekend and a good sing will be in order. I’ve got a few arrangements he may never have heard before.