Restoring skiffle’s reputation…

170629Skiffle

Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking, shines the spotlight on skiffle in his latest book Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed The World.
This primitive music, with its tea chest bass, washboard and guitar, energised the lives of British teenagers in the 1950s; a mainly drab world where the shadow of World War Two loomed large with certain foodstuffs still on the ration.
Bragg, in this well-written and diligently-researched work of scholarship, argues that skiffle lies neglected in the dead ground of British pop culture. Yet skiffle was where the “pop royalty” of the 1960s learned their musical chops and paved the way for the British invasion of the US charts; as Beatles guitarist George Harrison once said: “If there was no Lead Belly, there would be no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles.”
Donegan was skiffle’s biggest star but his swift decline into novelty songs, such as the 1960 hit My Old Man’s A Dustman, tainted skiffle with an odour of embarrassment that still lingers.
Now Bragg believes the time is ripe to restore the genre’s reputation. He stresses skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history and he dedicates his book to “every kid who picked up a guitar after hearing Lonnie Donegan”.

Playing with words

170601SgtPepper

How did The Beatles graduate from callow boy band to sophisticated bohemian artists capable of creating a cultural masterpiece in only four years?
This was the question explored by sociologist Colin Campbell in an illustrated talk called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words where he examined the lyrics of selected songs from that seminal album.
His Festival Of Ideas lecture attracted a capacity audience at York University’s Ron Cooke Hub last night (June 15th). This attendance alone suggests the great British public is far from being “peppered out” by the mass media fanfare that has greeted the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The critic Kenneth Tynan has been mocked for describing the album, released on 1st June 1967, as “A decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation.” However, Campbell put Tynan’s ambitious claim in context by stating The Beatles were more than pop stars; they were artists who influenced millions of people throughout the world. Along with fellow musician Bob Dylan, they were the beating heart of 1960s counter culture.
They achieved this status with their songs. As boys, they played with words before they played the guitar. Being Scousers, they were addicted to puns; the band’s name, after all, is a pun. They also adored alliteration and instinctively used rhetorical forms, such as anaphora, epiphora, symploce and oronym.
Campbell defined good lyrics as being effortless, succinct, pleasing to the ear and original. The lyrics of The Beatles demonstrate these four characteristics. They put music in their lyrics through creative word play. They wrote songs, not just melody; strip away the lyrics from the music and you are left with something that’s vaguely dissatisfying.
Campbell added Lennon was the master of ambiguity, while Paul was the master of word sounds. All the while, curious George was learning the art of song writing by observing his band mates; Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun was, somewhat appropriately, revealed as Campbell’s favourite Beatles song.

A dignified protest

170608RegMeuross
Reg Meuross

Gifted singer-songwriter Reg Meuross gave an intimate concert at the Black Swan Folk Club this evening.
He sang about the Votes For Women martyr Emily Wilding Davison, the highwayman Dick Turpin, Dylan Thomas, Hank (Mr Lovesick Blues) Williams, the band leader’s violin that survived the Titanic disaster, Cicero, London, a hard-pressed NHS nurse and the young anti-Nazi martyr Sophie Scholl.
I left the York pub with the lyrics of his topical song England Green And England Grey still resounding in my head; which, I felt, was appropriate as millions of votes cast in today’s General Election were being counted:

England green and England grey
Look out on a summer’s day
To all things bright and fair and gay
To my home, my love, my England.

I believe in dignity, rich or poor we’re all born free.
Austerity and slavery, I thought they were behind us.
I don’t believe the BBC, monarchy or anarchy
Or an empire built on piracy, by our history you’ll find us

For years our women had no say no right to work or equal pay.
God help the crippled and the gay, the fragile flowers of England.
Shut the factories, shut the mines, punish those fell on hard times
While they honour them who do the crimes, the greedy men of England

How can a man respect a man who steals his house and sells his land
And takes the wages from his hand to pay his own expenses.
The NHS our England’s jewel is bartered by Westminster’s fool
To justify his public school and military defences

Sing the songs of old John Bull, Cecil Sharp and John and Paul
Come English folk, come one and all to the sweet songs of our England
Take my hand and walk with me down the back roads to the sea
In spite of all, we’ll both agree there is none so sweet as England.

Musical storytelling

170312FrankiePresto

What is it like to be a gifted musician? This question is explored by the bestselling author Mitch Albom in his novel The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto. It tells the story of a young orphan born into a Spain torn apart by civil war. The boy learns to play guitar and flees death and destruction to end up in the United States where he has encounters with Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Frankie eventually retreats from soulless fame and fortune to live a life of obscurity. But his legend refuses to wither and die – despite his best efforts.
What makes this novel memorable is its narrator: Music. Another of Albom’s creative coups was persuading the likes of Burt Bacharach, Roger McGuinn, Lyle Lovett, Tony Bennet and Paul Stanley, of the rock band Kiss, to bear witness to their part in Frankie’s incredible story – hinting at how his musicianship influenced theirs. The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto is an inspired work of fiction that strives to articulate the essence of music; its rigorous technique and potent emotion. The novel even has its own musical companion to enhance its atmospheric storytelling.

Bishop’s move

170220richardhollowayweb

Richard Holloway, the former head of the Anglican Church in Scotland who stopped believing in God, does not like being called an atheist because he “doesn’t do certainty”; if you must stick a label on him, he would suggest “expectant agnostic”.
He told a packed audience at York Explore Library last night (20/02/2017) he was fascinated by three questions that had taxed philosophers and theologians for centuries:

What are we?
Where do we come from?
Where are we going?

In promoting his latest book A Little History Of Religion, the former bishop argued there were four approaches those questions:

Strong Religion: Humankind’s encounter with God was all truthful, all actual, all real. This fundamentalist approach left no room for doubt.

Critical Realism: There was an encounter with God but, due to human fallibility, we must be modest about the claims we make. It adopted a fluid approach to history.

Post Religion: (non-realism): This approach was sympathetic to religion; it regarded it as a colossal work of the imagination that spoke to the human condition in the same way as great works of art, such as an opera, play or novel. You can be a religious belonger without being a religious believer; it can challenge you to be a better person.

No religion: These people don’t get religion. They ask the question: “Why waste your time with it?” Some in this camp were benign while others, such as Richard Dawkins, attacked religion with vigour and a certain amount of anger by adopting, ironically, a religious, evangelical approach.

Holloway ended his stimulating talk by referring to Yehudah Amichai’s poem:

The Ecology of Jerusalem

The air over Jerusalem is saturated with prayers and dreams
like the air over cities with heavy industry.
It’s hard to breathe.

And from time to time a new shipment of history arrives.
Houses and towers serve as packing materials
later thrown away and piled in heaps.

Sometimes candles come in place of people.
Then it’s quiet.
Sometimes people come in place of candles.
Then there’s noise.

Amid enclosed gardens, among jasmine bushes
replete with balsam, foreign consulates,
like wicked brides who were thrust aside

lie in wait for their moment.

What is happiness?

170216tonierdmann

Comedy is a serious business. Berlin director Maren Ade uses it in her acclaimed film Toni Erdmann to explore the relationship between a father and daughter.
“Toni Erdmann” is the scruffy alter ego of Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a music teacher in his late 60s who loves to play pranks, with wigs and false teeth being his props of choice. His thirtysomething daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a cold, calculating corporate consultant whose current contract has landed her in Bucharest. In a series of comic vignettes, “Erdmann” sets out to sabotage her career in a bid to convince her there’s more to life than bullet points, spreadsheets and presentations. This movie is a bitter-sweet German comedy that reflects on the notion of happiness. I watched it a York City Screen last night with Janice Olsen and my daughter Sophie Foster who is visiting the UK from Weimar, Germany, where she is studying for a masters degree in public art.

Manchester By The Sea

17012017manchesterbythesea

In the movie Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a man castrated by catastrophe. A family tragedy has left him seething with self-loathing, forcing him to flee his home town to work as a janitor in Boston where he snaps at tenants and gets involved in bar-room fights. Here’s a man with an atrophied heart in desperate need of hope. Redemption beckons when he’s named guardian to his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) and he returns to Manchester By The Sea. It’s a New England coastal town of fishing boats and timbered buildings in the grip of snow and ice; it remains an emotional wasteland to Lee for reasons that soon become apparent. But will the seed of family love take root in this frozen ground?
The ensemble acting is impressive, as is director Kenneth Lonergan’s use of classical music. The Pifa from Handel’s Messiah was particularly consoling for this viewer at York City Screen yesterday; perhaps it was consoling to poor, battered Lee as well.