Week 280 – I saw the light

As a teenager – based on very little exposure to either genre – I had no time for Reggae or Country music. By the time I left university, however, I’d become a Reggae fan. This conversion was largely thanks to my friends Mike Eaton and Chris Taylor, and to certain specific records: Bob Marley and the Wailers ‘Lively up yourself’ (the Live at the Lyceum version), Desmond Dekker ‘The Israelites’, Capital Letters ‘Smoking my Ganja’ and, above all, Chris’ white-label 12 inch of ‘Give me’ by Earth and Fire.

Country music had to wait a little longer. Up until about 1983, if you’d asked me if I liked country music my answer would probably have been “No – of course not”. But slowly I came to realise that the folk = good / country = bad dichotomy was really not sustainable, particularly as in American music the line between folk and country was in no way clearly defined. I discovered Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in the Newcastle Polytechnic library in 1983 or 84. One of the 6 discs was missing, and at least one of the remaining sides was so scratched as to be unplayable. But what I could listen to provided a wonderful introduction to the variety and interconnectedness of American vernacular music: the Carter Family (folk or country?), Blind Lemon Jefferson, Buell Kazee, Dock Boggs, Clarence Ashley, Charlie Patton, and Henry Thomas, to name just a few.

Listening to John Peel and Radio 1 new boy Andy Kershaw also helped to open my ears. Peel was playing a lot of “cowpoke” bands such as the Boothill Foot-tappers (whose ‘Get your feet out of my shoes’ remains a perennial favourite) while much of what Kershaw played wasn’t folk, but was clearly influenced to some degree by American roots music.

It was a review by Maggie Holland that prompted me to seek out and listen to some Hank Williams. At least, that’s what I thought, but a little while ago I did some digging around on the fRoots website, and in my back copies of Southern RagFolk RootsfRoots, and it seems that the way I remember it is not how it actually happened. But what one remembers is often more important than what really happened…

My recollection is that Maggie reviewed this cheap and cheerful Hank Williams compilation, in Southern Rag or Folk Roots, along with a similar release featuring either Jimmie Rodgers or the Carter Family. And that the review started along these lines: “Many people say they don’t like Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, yet they’ve never listened to either of them”. I’d never specifically dissed either performer, but in all other particulars this described me, and I determined to do something about it.

Having now looked at the fRoots reviews indexes, I see that this particular album has never been reviewed in the magazine. Although a different Hank LP was reviewed in FR30. And compilations by both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family were reviewed in SR22. I suspect I may have conflated the two reviews. I’ve just read the one from SR22 – yes it was written by Maggie Holland – and it says something not entirely dissimilar to what I remembered. Annoyingly I can’t find the first couple of dozen Folk Roots – they must be in an as yet undiscovered box in the garage – so I can’t check the Hank Williams review.

Anyway, from the summer of 1984 I was working for Kent County Libraries – at an exciting time when the holdings of all the county’s major libraries were searchable via the new computerised catalogue. This enabled me to sit at my desk pretending to work, while seeking out and ordering up records from all over the county. I think I’d already checked out and really enjoyed Emmylou Harris’ LP Pieces of the Sky (I remembered the final track, ‘Queen of the Silver Dollar’ from my Radio Caroline listening days). But it was Hank that made the greatest impression. It was curiously familiar, yet at the same time like nothing I’d ever heard before. I suppose the Anthology of American Folk Music had started to accustom me to those desperate emotional voices of “the old weird America” and Hank’s singing was in a direct line from those earlier singers. Incredible to think that one man carried so much pain, and brought happiness to so many, in such a short life.

This song, first recorded in 1948, is an original Hank composition, but it fits seamlessly into the American country/folk gospel tradition.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Hank Williams publicity photo for WSM in 1951. From Wikipedia.

Joe and I recorded it at the end of a rehearsal last night. We were practising for a performance this coming Friday at Eclectic Cabaret, at Wootton near Oxford. It’s a free gig featuring, as the name suggests, performers from a variety of acoustic-ish musical styles. These days Joe can most often be found playing at Oxford’s various rock venues, with bands such as Junk Whale and Worry. However, of my three children, Joe is also the only one who spent their first wage packet on an old-timey 5-string banjo.

 

I saw the light

Andy Turner – vocal
Joe Turner – 5-string banjo, vocal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: