Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Enormous Yes

Back in Tennessee where I learned the songs I sing, the singin' bees were just courtin' bees. The boys and the girls would meet 'round at the neighbors' houses and sing in between the courtin'. The one who knew the most songs was always the most popular.
-- Mrs. Minta Morgan

"This is a mighty sorrowful soundin' song ," said Mrs Alice Williams of Ashland, Kentucky, "but I like it. It's the one that Canas used to sing when he came over the mountain a-courtin' me. He made it sound as mournful as he could so's to make me pity him."
"Did you pity him?"
"Well, I reckon so; I been married to him thirty year."

Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads, collected and compiled by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax. (1941)

Some quick thoughts on Townes Van Zandt, aided by my friends PSUDOEPHEDRINE HYDROCHLORIDE 30mg, PARACETAMOL 500mg and CODEINE PHOSPHATE 6mg. Dig has an interview with the director of Be Here To Love Me, the Townes doco which screened recently at the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals.

When someone says "music to commit suicide by" of, say, Leonard Cohen or cracks tedious about Bobby's "whine" I reach for my gun, and this quote from Philip Larkin's homage to saxophone legend Sidney Bechet,

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.

The enormous yes, three words which never exhaust interpretation or application and (in my appropriation of it anyway) its the reason that songs about death and pain and heartbreak and all that stuff hurt so good. Why is it that Mariah Carey perfect pitch on the radio drains the life out of a room, but John Prine's sandpaper squeal makes you glad to be alive? Bugger perfection, I want human. Although the rambling, gambling Texas troubadour and the gloriously misanthropic, Tory librarian jazz snob could hardly be less similar in many ways, both while writing the most superficially "depressing" lines in fact make you catch your breath with its beauty and truth, its essential yes-ness.

The other thing about Townes is the way his lyrics combine the earthiest of emotions and actions with a delicate, courtly langauge. While the original courtly balladeers idealised the woman who could not be had because of marriage or status, in the proper twangy way now it's the highway that comes between us.

My lover comes to me with a rose on her bosom
The moon's dancin' purple

All through her black hair

And a ladies-in-waiting she stands 'neath my window
And the sun will rise soon on the false and the fair

Dylan usually attracts the laboured comparisons with the Canon, but I bet there's a grant in it for someone to take on "Townes and the Literary Tradition."

Salvation sat and crossed herself
Called the devil partner
Wisdom burned upon a shelf
Who’ll kill the raging cancer
Seal the river at it’s mouth
Take the water prisoner
Fill the sky with screams and cries
Bathe in fiery answers

To bring it closer to our purpose here nothing is so reminiscent of TVZ than the folk songs collected by the Lomaxes (which of course go back to that tradition anyway). Of course the Hank parallels are seductive but the links never seem to go further than that which is a shame.

Anyway, enough of this rot. Here's the music, dammit. The first three are from Flop Eared Mule's Officialy Certified Desert Island Disc, Rear View Mirror, the third from Live and Obscure.

Waitin' Round to Die (2.9mb)
Lungs (2.4mb)
For the Sake of the Song (4.2mb) (Is there a more moving song? Anyone?)
Many A Fine Lady (3.4mb)

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