Rob sent me some music that he and Sam had made yesterday. It was a version of “Straight Street” which they had heard on Ry Cooder’s last album. Rob’s vocals are more low key than they sometimes are but still very powerful. There are some lovely harmonies along with guitar, bass and drums. It got me listening to Ry Cooder’s version again which is also good. Not as good as Rob and Sam, obviously, but pretty good! I wondered where this song had come from and thanks to Wikipedia, I found that the song was composed by James W. Alexander and Jesse Whitaker. J. W. Alexander was a member of the Pilgrim Travelers and as an A&R man at Speciality Records was responsible for signing Sam Cooke’s first group The Soul Stirrers. This led me into exploring The Pilgrim Travelers version of “Straight Street” which is delivered as an authentic gospel song. YouTube also has a version of “Straight Street” sung by members of the Calvary Presbyterian Church which, to be honest, is so fundamentally religious as to be rather unsettling.
It is very interesting to me how different arrangements can completely transform a song. I’ve recently written about how The Unthanks versions of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons’ songs change excellent but slightly disconcerting songs into works of utter beauty. I wrote some time ago about how Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell’s version of “Hares On A Mountain” captivated Roo on first hearing. I have other versions of this song, notably by Dick Gaughan and that is fiercely authentic, as you would expect. It’s a good version of the song but it’s not lovely. Anais Mitchell released a song called “Clyde Waters” on “Child Ballads” and it took quite a few listens to this, with me saying ‘I’m sure I’ve heard this before’ until I realised that it’s a version of “The Drowned Lovers” by Kate Rusby. Bob Dylan has recorded different versions of many of his songs, most famously “I Don’t believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)” which is sung with an acoustic guitar on “Another Side Of Bob Dylan”. On one of the electric concerts he played with The Band, he played a few seconds on his harmonica and then announced ‘This is called “I Don’t Believe You”. It used to go like that. Now it goes like this” before launching into an unrecognisably loud version of the song. Luckily on “Bob Dylan The 1966 Recordings” I have 20 different live versions of this song. Of course, Bob Dylan’s concerts these days tend to have the audience turning to each other and asking what song it is that he’s playing because the arrangements are always so different.
In this song, the narrator goes out into the countryside on a midsummer morning. He sees an attractive young woman and asks her where she is going and why she is distressed. She tells him to go away and says he is false and deceitful. She says she will go to a desolate valley where no one will be able to find her. The opening line is “As I walked out one midsummer morning” which Laurie Lee purloined for his book of the same name.
In the version on “Our Bright Night”, Kirsty Merryn makes some changes to the lyrics but preserves the gender of the narrator. (It worked well enough for Ringo Starr on “Boys”). Interestingly she changes the first line to “As I walked out one darkened evening”. She has a great voice. Pure without being shrill, emotional yet clear. The arrangement is beautiful with an insistent but not overpowering piano, lovely touches from a fiddle (played by Phil Beer of Show Of Hands) and the occasional harmony.
The track that follows is called “Constantine” and is a love song to Constantine Bay, near Padstow in Cornwall. The track listing says that this song features Alex Alex which can’t possibly be someone’s name but I guess it’s him who gracefully sings one of the verses. It’s at a languid pace and contrasts nicely with “Mary” which follows. The “Folk Radio” website describes this song as follows: ‘The narrative of this song is set in a dystopian near climate-changed future where the suitor invites his lady to go walking on a seafront which has been tarmacked over, and the woods have been felled to make way for electricity pylons as he declares “‘I want you to see where the starlings once soared”.’
The title track follows and it’s utterly wonderful. It starts with just Kirsty and a long single note played on an organ. It exhorts courage from the nuns who were evicted from the monasteries when Henry VIII abolished them. A gentle piano is subtly introduced and her vocals soar powerfully.
I’m not going to write about every song. They are all brilliant. Roo saw the review in The Guardian last Friday and we’ve been playing it ever since. There’s much more detail on the Folk Radio website and The Guardian review.
The last three songs are as brilliant as any. “Thieves Of Whitehall” tells the story of a man travelling to London to try and restore his lost fortune. It’s more uptempo than some of the other songs and Kirsty’s piano playing is to the fore. As always, the melodic nature of her voice is a wonder to behold. The penultimate song, “The Wake” is much quieter with just a piano accompaniment as she sings a song to those friends that have died. “For as many days as I am granted here on earth, I will raise a glass to all who have gone ahead”. The last song is a short piano piece called “Dawn” which acts as a bookend with the opening “Twilight”.
I’m going to end with a quote from the review on “Folk Radio”: ‘A simple yet haunting album of emotional and musical depth that underscores both Merryn’s consummate musical craftsmanship and her articulacy of the heart, the night is indeed bright, illuminated by her shining star.’