Half Man Half Biscuit once sung that “there is nothing better in life than writing on the sole of your slipper in biro on a Saturday night instead of going to the pub”. They were wrong. There is nothing better in life than driving somewhere scenic with a good friend and listening to great music. I know that doesn’t scan as well as the poetry of HMHB but it’s more true. I have so many memories of driving – friends – music, some of which I’ve already written about. Highway 40 with Pete and Bob Dylan. The road from Coventry to Worcester with Paul and Sandy Denny. The A12 with John and Canned Heat. The road from Santa Fe to Las Vegas (NM) with Paddy and Townes Van Zandt. Twickenham to Brighton with Ben and Tom Petty. Cooksbridge to Canterbury with Peter and The Beatles.
Best of all, Zion National Park or The Fourteen Peak Trail in Colorado or The Isle of Skye or Snowdonia or Ireland with Roo and Kate Rusby. While Roo’s taste and mine aren’t quite synonymous, we do agree on Kate Rusby. Driving somewhere incredibly scenic and listening to Kate Rusby’s sanitised folk music is an experience of wondrous beauty. The word “sanitised” looks like an insult but it’s not meant to be. Whilst authentic folk music can be raw and challenging, the purity of Kate Rusby’s voice combined with the truly lovely arrangements and playing of her backing musicians make for a gorgeous listen.
Nikos Kazantzakis was a Greek writer who wrote many novels including “The Last Temptation”. (Peter Gabriel wrote a beautiful soundtrack for the film adaptation of this novel). He also wrote a memoir called “Report To Greco” and one of the sentences in this book is “I once saw a bee drown in honey and I understood”. This quote reminds me of yesterday afternoon when, having reached a fifty year personal best in weight, I decided to treat myself to a tub of ice cream. Although I didn’t start off with the intention of eating all of it in one sitting, ten minutes later it was all gone and I felt sick. Once I started, I just wanted to immerse, or drown, myself in the blissful moment of eating pleasure. I sometimes feel like listening to a lot of Kate Rusby whilst driving somewhere incredibly scenic is a bit like drowning in honey. There’s no stopping – the temptations are too great and why stop when further pleasure awaits?
Mark and I once went to see Dick Gaughan at The Komedia who was in a particularly grumpy mood although his singing and playing were as good as ever. He forced a heckler to leave which was satisfying for both performer and audience. The support group were a young couple playing perfectly acceptable folk music. Most of their set consisted of original material but they introduced one song like this. “We’d like to sing a cover version of a song that we heard on the last Kate Rusby album. We don’t know whether or not she wrote it or if it was written by someone else but it’s a lovely song. It’s called “Withered And Died”. In my head I shouted out “It’s only written by Britain’s greatest folk songwriter you idiots. Have you even heard of Richard Thompson?” In reality I said nothing and, by way of protest, refused to clap at the end of the song. “Withered And Died” is the third song on “Little Lights” and it’s a very nice version. It’s sweetly done, the melody is accentuated by Kate Rusby’s lovely pure voice and it’s beautifully played. It’s also devoid of any emotion. I have seen Kate Rusby in concert very frequently, probably between ten and fifteen times. She is a strange performer to watch. She sings happy songs, sad songs, silly songs, desperately tragic songs. She never seems to inhabit the songs and displays no emotion whilst singing them or afterwards. She keeps her eyes closed and her face impassive. By way of contrast, when Radie Peat of Lankum introduced “Katie Cruel” at The Komedia, the last thing she said before the song started was “see you on the other side”, as if she knew that she would be an emotional wreck by the time she finished.
Maybe I expect too much. I don’t really want my musical heroes to suffer for their art. But I suppose I think that Kate Rusby sanitises her songs so much that she squeezes all emotion out of them. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing but I think it makes her performances different in a fundamental way to lots of other artists I like. When Steve Earle finishes a song to the recently deceased Townes Van Zandt by saying “see you when I get there maestro” or when Mark Everett sings a song called “Agony”, I can hear the emotion pouring out of them. When I hear Linda Thompson sings”Withered And Died”, it’s a genuinely moving experience. When I hear Kate Rusby singing the same song, it’s really very lovely and, in many ways, perfect, but it is a bit like drowning in honey.
Back to driving. In 2006, Roo and I had a testing holiday in Ireland. We stayed in Galway and Cork, we did a lot of driving and it rained every day for fifteen days. We tired of the joke of asking each other how come Ireland was so green? One day we spent a few hours in Killarney. Roo was driving and looking for a car park, I was helpfully navigating and Kate Rusby was on the car stereo. I was also filming.
John has helpfully written a review of this clip.
Thanks John. Please can you be my publicity agent.
The song playing is “Matt Hyland”. Martin Carthy sung the song on the 1968 album “But Two Came By” which was a joint effort with Dave Swarbrick. Martin Carthy said “Matt Hyland is an Irish song which I first heard three or four years ago from a Scots girl singer Christine Stewart who had learned it from an Irish singer Al O’Donnell. Since that time I tried to find the words, but without success, until a singer at the Prestwick club in Scotland gave me the words at a ceilidh. In return I can’t even remember his name for which I am sorry, but thank him very much anyway.” As with every song on the album, the arrangements and playing are sublime. John McCusker’s fiddle playing is consistently superb. I wonder if one of the compelling aspects of her music is the contrast between the purity of her voice and the emotion of his playing? The song is a variation of “Matty Groves”. The Lord of the manor has a beautiful daughter and a poor servant. they fall in love but when her parents find out they threaten to transport him unless he leaves immediately. The last verse is heartbreaking. “They both sat down upon the bed just for the side of one half hour. Not a word did either speak but down their cheeks the tears did shower. She rests her head upon his breast and round his neck her arms entwined. ‘Not duke nor lord, nor earl I’ll wed I’ll wait for thee my own Matt Hyland‘” When Roo asks me in the video “Why are you doing that?”, she’s not asking why I’m crying at the desperation of the story but why I’m filming her ability to park a car. Which she does perfectly, of course.
Track 5 is a beautiful song written by Kate Rusby called “Let The Cold Wind Blow”. The story is a little confusing but I think it’s sung from the grave to a man’s loved one, who is now together with James Renald, a wealthy landowner. (The boy’s name is James Renald but it always sounds like James Reynolds who is a news reporter for the BBC.) I’ve never really studied the words until today because I’ve always felt aglow with the beauty of the song. John McCusker, who was married to Kate Rusby at the time, does a fantastic job of arranging all the instruments with immense subtlety and understatement. In particular, Andy Cutting’s accordion drifts in slowly to emphasise the sadness as the song progresses. At the climax of the song, just before the four minute mark, where the guitar, accordion and flute all combine, there is one gloriously sublime moment. The guitar playing of John Doyle is sensational throughout.
Track seven is “Some Tyrant”. Different versions of the song have been recorded by The Etchingham Steam Band, Steeleye Span, Eliza Carthy and others. This version is a variation of “The Americans Have Stolen My True Love Away” and “Some Rival Has Stolen My True Love Away” which was first published in 1898. Someone (a tyrant? a rival? an American?) has stolen his true love “so I in old England no longer can stay.” He will “swim the wide ocean” to her and, when they meet he’ll “welcome her kindly.” He offers health to anyone who is “loyal and just” but he offers confusion to anyone who cannot be trusted. Once again, John McCusker’s fiddle playing is wonderfully emotional and is in contrast to Kate Rusby’s perfect pitch.
There is a line in this song that I really can’t comprehend. The start of the third verse states “There’s Venus and Volum they are both joined as one.” Google keeps assuming I have misspelled volume. Annoying.
It’s very interesting to compare Kate Rusby’s version of this song with The Etchingham Steam Band’s version. Ashley Hutchings and Shirley Collins were much more committed to authentic folk music than Kate Rusby. Personally I prefer drowning in honey to wading through asparagus.
There is nothing better in life than listening to all this fantastic music.