Sleepless by Kate Rusby


My hip has been sore for a number of weeks now. I was told this time last year that I may need a hip replacement but the pressure on the NHS has meant that any progress has been deferred. It’s causing me to limp around the streets and it’s often keeping me awake at night so more than two hours unbroken sleep is rare.

It’s my belief that all unhappiness and disagreements are caused by mismatched expectations. If I expected a pupil at school to work and they expected to chat to their friends, conflict ensued. If I expect politicians to tell the truth and I see lies plastered on the side of a bus, I’m going to be angry. I expected my retirement to be all the good bits of my previous life without having to get up early and without the marking. I expected that a typical week would involve watching live sport, playing snooker, a couple of evenings in a pub, meeting friends for coffee and cake and a couple of Samaritans shifts. Occasionally, I would meet up with friends that don’t live close. Every couple of months, Roo and I would go away.

I expected that as I got older, I would gradually see fewer of these activities to the point where, if I lived into my Eighties, I would spend most days at home reading, writing, watching TV and listening to music. Retirement in my Eighties would involve keeping in touch on the phone, walking the dog and having daytime naps. This is what I would have expected and a gradual change to this way of life would be easy to cope with.

A year ago, I was teaching. A year later, I’m experiencing the life of a sleepless eighty year old retiree. Like everybody else on the planet, I’m finding it hard. In most ways I’m very very lucky but my expectations are not being met. To anybody else reading this, I’m not writing this with the expectation that you feel sorry for me, more in the possibility that I can express what you, too, are experiencing.

“Sleepless” is the second Kate Rusby album and was nominated for the Mercury prize which is no surprise as it’s spectacular – one of her best. What makes these early Kate Rusby albums so good? Her voice is very pure; six of the songs are traditional songs which bring with them a timeless quality; there’s a wonderful cover of one of my favourite songs; the arrangements are beautiful and the production is wonderfully understated and subtle; the musicians are excellent – especially Ian Carr on acoustic guitar, Andy Cutting on accordion and, especially, John McCusker on fiddle.

“Our Town” was written by Iris DeMent and appears on her first album, “Infamous Angel”. It is about someone who has lived in the same town for 40 years which has seen better times. The town is in decay and she is leaving. She points out her old haunts – where she bought a car, where her parents are buried and where she fell in love. “Can’t you see the sun’s going down on our town“. Kate Rusby’s voice shines through, strong and brave in spite of the sadness and regret of everything that’s been lost – where her heart has died. Iris DeMent’s version is truly sad and Kate Rusby’s version is beautiful.

Apparently, sea shanties have suddenly become popular on the internet with TikTok giving people the opportunity to join in other peoples’ singing. I heard an explanation for this today on “A Word In Your Ear” which stated that sea shanties were meant to lift the spirits of sailors embarked on a long arduous journey and this is how some (many? most?) people are regarding the current lockdown. A long arduous journey. An example of a beautiful sea shanty is “The Wild Goose” which Kate Rusby sings on “Sleepless”. The fiddle playing by John McCusker is especially wonderful. 17th Century Irish patriots who fled Ireland to serve with foreign kings were sometimes referred to as the wild geese and this would explain the lyrics which describe wild geese sailing on the ocean after a heartbreaking story about a boy being rejected by a pretty girl. The structure of the song includes a response after every line “Ranzo my boys o Ranzo Ray” An American song called “Huckleberry Hunting” includes similar phrases “I’m shantyman or the Wild Goose nation” and “An’ sing Hilo, me Ranzo Ray!” but the full meaning of “Ranzo my boys o Ranzo Ray” appears to be evasive.

Child Ballad 78 is “The Unquiet Grave” in which a man is weeping over the death of his one true love. She complains that his mourning won’t give her peace and so he says he will join her in death. Unusually, Kate Rusby plays piano on this song and the effect, along with Andy Cutting’s sympathetic accordion, Michael McGoldrick’s whistle and John McCusker’s fiddle is haunting.

“The Fairest Of All Yarrow” is more up tempo but no more cheerful in lyrical content. It’s another Child ballad (215) and is Roud 206. It has many different versions including “Willie’s Rare” by Isla Cameron, “Willie Drowned in Ero” by Eva Bigrow, “Willie’s Drowned in Yarrow” by Alex Campbell, “Rare Willie Drowned in Yarrow” by Almeda Riddle, “Willie Drowned in Ero”” by Margaret Christl, Willie’s Fair and Rare” by Patsy Seddon and “Rare Willie” by June Tabor. The clip below was recorded in 2020 with her husband Damien O’Kane. The homespun Yorkshire cute persona is either irritating or a shining beacon of light in a dark world. I can’t make out which.

The whole album is excellent. It’s calm and gentle and is perfect for turning my daytime reveries into a deep restful sleep.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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