Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “music”

Memories of Pete Seeger

The news of the death of Pete Seeger was not surprising, but was sad nonetheless. since he was one of the first singers I ever became a fan of, though at first I never even knew his name.

When I was younger we lived on a smallholding at Sunningdale, just outside Johannesburg (the bit where we lived it has now been absorbed by the megalopolis, and has another name). Because it was outside the municipal area, there was no mains electricity or water, and so any music and records we played  we heard on an old wind-up gramophone. My parents had about 10 records, and the only ones I can remember were Ravel’s Bolero on a 12″ 78 record, and two 10″ ones with songs — Rum and Coca-Cola by the Andrews Sisters, and Old Paint by The Weavers.

I used to ride horses a lot in those days, and when I was about 11 or 12 years old I used to ride around singing Old Paint because I knew it was about a horse, even though I didn’t understand some of the words, like couleesdraw and hoolihan. I didn’t know then that Pete Seeger was one of the Weavers, but ten years later I certainly did, when I was a student in the 1960s, and in a way his were the songs that shaped our generation.

My mother worked for SARRAL, the South African Recording Rights Association, which kept track of musicians’ royalties, and then she was headhunted by Teal Records, who wanted her to sort out their copyright department, which was a mess. They used to get all sorts of samples from overseas record distributers, and Teal would decide whether to import them, or, if they were likely to be popular, to press and distribute them locally.

seegerMy mother picked up quite a lot of these samples, especially the ones that weren’t distibuted in South Africa. Pete Seeger’s We shall overcome album was one that was not distributed, not because Teal thought it wouldn’t sell, but because the Publications Control Board immediately banned it. My mother nicked the sample copy and brought it home.  By that time we lived in Johannesburg, had mains electricity, and so had upgraded our wind-up gramophone to an electric one that could play LPs.

And we played it so much that it almost wore out.

And thirty-five years years later, when our kids were about the same age as I was when I used to sing Old Paint they had most of the songs on the record word perfect, right down to the accent — “what was going on in Birmingham, with the daags….” and breaking into I ain’t scared of your jail ’cause I want my freedom, I want my freedom now.

Pete Seeger taught us to express our desire for freedom in song. May his memory be eternal!

Lily of the field (book review)

Lily of the FieldLily of the Field by John Lawton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the blurb, it seemed that this was a whodunit, with Scotland Yard Detective Frederick Troy as protagonist. But in the first hundred or so pages he had only made one very brief appearance. It also seemed to be a rather highbrow intellectual whodunit, aiming to be more a work of literature than a light read.

It is set in the pre-war Vienna of the 1930s, in the world of music and the arts, a young girl learning to play the cello in the shadow of the growing threat from Nazi Germany. There are a couple of shifts of scene to a British internment camp for enemy aliens at the beginning of the Second World War.

When the detective finally appears on the scene, he is a bit of a puzzle. There is clearly a backstory to this, and it turns out that Lily of the field is only the first of a series of novels with Inspector Troy as the main character. And, like many British fictional detectives, he has an unusual characteristic that distinguishes him from most of his colleagues. Like Inspector Morse, he is a Musical Policeman, and this enables him to solve a mystery that baffles his colleagues.

But it seems that it would probably be better to begin with one of the earlier novels in the series, as one learns who Inspector Troy is through allusions to them, which are not completely clear if you haven’t read the other books.

The book is set in the 1930s and the 1940s, and the author, John Lawton, seems to have been quite careful to avoid or explain anachronisms in the settings. There are a few, which I would never have noticed, yet he includes some rather interesting notes on them.

Unfortunately he does not seem to have been quite so careful about anachronisms in language, and he uses some expressions and turns of phrase that would not have been used in the 1940s. I spotted two on one page that I am fairly certain were anachonisms, and a couple more that may have been. On page 215 of my edition, it is said of someone that he “went ballistic”. “Ballistic” was a technical term used by military gunnery specialists, police forensic scientists and rocket scientists, but probably only entered the consciousness of the general public in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I. The most significant thing about Sputnik I, the media told us, was that it showed that the USSR could launch an ICBM — an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. And I’m sure it took a few more years before the term “went ballistic” was applied metaphorically to human beings.

The second such anachronism is where someone is described as “a scrounger living low on the food chain”. Again, while the food chain may have been a concept familiar to biologists, I don’t think that the general public became aware of it before environmental concerns came to the forefront in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and people began writing books with titles like Diet for a small planet.

Another possible anachronism, on the same page, is where someone speaks of “blows coppers away”. That one I’m not sure of, but I don’t think people would have used such an expression in the 1940s.

Lawton goes to some trouble to set the scene of the dreariness of postwar Britain, to remind readers who weren’t around then about things like rationing, almost making too much of it, but then spoils it somewhat by using language that seems out of place.

In spite of that, it’s still a good read, though the beginning promises more than the author actually delivers, and there are some poor patches, especially in the second part. But it whetted my appetite for more, and I’ll look for the first of the series to see if I can find out who Inspector Troy is, really.

View all my reviews

Will the real Lucy please stand up

Julian Lennon came home from school one day with a drawing that inspired his father to write the song Lucy in the sky with diamonds, but there seems to be some confusion about which Lucy inspired the original drawing. BBC NEWS | Beatles song ‘inspiration’ dies:

The woman who was said to have inspired the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds has died at the age of 46 of the immune system disease Lupus.

It was rumoured the song featured on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was about the drug LSD.

But Lennon insisted it was inspired by a drawing by his son Julian of Lucy, a classmate while they were at a nursery in Weybridge, Surrey in 1966.

But then there’s this Lucy Richardson (I) – Biography:

She was a few years older than Julian Lennon when he enrolled at the private Heath House School, in Weybridge, Surrey. However, because John Lennon and the other Beatles used to visit the Richardson family’s antique and jewellery shop, she knew Julian. So when he became homesick and unsettled she would be called out of class to sit with him while he drew pictures. One of those pictures was of Lucy. One day John Lennon came into the shop and said, ‘Hello, Lucy in the sky with diamonds’, but they thought it was just John being John. However, when a song with that same name appeared on 1967’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, the family began to wonder.

How many more claimants are there? Will the real Lucy please stand up.

Thank you for the music

I’ve had the TV wittering away in the background, waiting for some mention of the death of Mary Travers. Not a word. When Michael Jackson died there was no other news the whole day, and the same happened on the day of his funeral. I can’t recall a single song by Michael Jackson, but I can think of many sung by Mary Travers. I suppose it must be the generation gap.

Mary Travers: the singer who used pop stardom for the greater good:

Mary Travers, who has died from the side effects of chemotherapy aged 72, was the essence of the freewheeling Greenwich Village bohemian — even if Peter, Paul And Mary’s Puff The Magic Dragon may suggest otherwise. Singing protest songs with a strident glamour, a shock of blonde hair shaking to the sounds of righteousness as two bearded folkie types played guitar on either side of her, Travers was the ideal public face for New York’s beatnik scene. Prettier than Bob Dylan, less hectoring than Joan Baez, she made the idea of sipping overpriced coffee in a downtown dive, while a guitar player sang songs of freedom seem like the greatest thing in the world.

Hattie Carroll’s killer dies

In 1964 Bob Dylan released a record album, The times they are a-changin’ with the song The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, about a black barmaid who died after being assaulted by the son of a rich white farmer, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment for his role in her death. Now her killer has died, but his deed lives on in infamy.

William Zantzinger – Telegraph:

William Zantzinger, who died on January 3 aged 69, was the scion of a rich tobacco farming family in Maryland whose drunken, racist assault of a black waitress at a society ball in 1963 ended in her death. He would have subsequently sunk unmourned from view had the attack not come to the attention of a young folk singer, 22-year-old Bob Dylan. As it was he became a notorious and widely-loathed icon of bigotry just as America’s civil rights movement came to the boil.

‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger,’ Dylan sang in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The times they have a-changed, at least to some extent, and at least in part as a result of the songs of Bob Dylan.

Hattie Carroll’s killer dies

In 1964 Bob Dylan released a record album, The times they are a-changin’ with the song The lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, about a black barmaid who died after being assaulted by the son of a rich white farmer, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment for his role in her death. Now her killer has died, but his deed lives on in infamy.

William Zantzinger – Telegraph:

William Zantzinger, who died on January 3 aged 69, was the scion of a rich tobacco farming family in Maryland whose drunken, racist assault of a black waitress at a society ball in 1963 ended in her death. He would have subsequently sunk unmourned from view had the attack not come to the attention of a young folk singer, 22-year-old Bob Dylan. As it was he became a notorious and widely-loathed icon of bigotry just as America’s civil rights movement came to the boil.

‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll/With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger,’ Dylan sang in The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

The times they have a-changed, at least to some extent, and at least in part as a result of the songs of Bob Dylan.

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