Hillbilly Boogie - Stu Vincent
Welcome, dear readers, to the first blog article of 2018 from Hillbilly Boogie.
During Hillbilly Boogie I will mention how my mind often goes through a series of gambols and ‘knights moves’ when I am preparing (and sometimes when I am recording) Hillbilly Boogie; I am adding this as a preface to this blog article as such an experience brought me to decide upon the topic of this article.
In mid-January I included ‘Yup’ from David Rawlings’ ‘Poor David’s Almanack’ and after considering many songs to follow ‘Yup’, I chose ‘Stitch In Time’ by Martin Carthy from his ‘Right of Passage’; this, in turn, drew me to listen again to his powerful song ‘Dominion of the Sword’. While ‘Dominion of the Sword’ originated in the 17th century, Martin Carthy added verses that reflected the times in the 1980’s (when ‘Right of Passage’ was released) yet the essence of the song remains relevant today.
Growing up in the mid-60s my sister shared her love of folk music with my eager ears. Artists such as Peter, Paul & Mary gained popularity and found their way onto BBC Radio mainstays such as Family Favourites but it was listening to Joan Baez that very quickly led me to listening to Woody Guthrie and Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly). At that time, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were (probably) the most recognizable names of the ‘folk movement’ but I am forever grateful that my older sister should point my enquiring mind further back to the roots. As I stumbled awkwardly into my teenage years, and with a growing awareness of the civil rights movement in the USA, the harsh reality portrayed in Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’ made a lasting impression.
I recently read something by a fiddle player who is better known in the Americana and Progressive Bluegrass fields where he expressed an opinion of current events; some of the responses were extremely harsh and declaring that they would never listen to another note played by him. While the musician in question made a political point in print, there are people who will say that politics does not belong in music and many, much better writers than I, have written more in-depth articles on that subject but I would argue that, however you may perceive folk music, how can folk music ignore human experience and perceived injustice ?
One of the more interesting responses pointed out that people will generally be comfortable with politics in music when the politics reflect their own opinion. As with all things, there is a balance; I have seen musicians where the music has been almost secondary to their personal agenda yet to declare that musicians should never be able to speak out is – in my opinion – invalid.
One of the few singers that my parents enjoyed listening to was Paul Robeson, mainly for his renditions of Hoagy Carmichael songs though, as a youngster, I was drawn more to the soulful ‘River Stay ‘Way From My Door’; some years later, and through listening to Joan Baez (and – by now – going to folk clubs myself) I heard Joe Hill sung by Paul Robeson
Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s gave me some fantastic memories – seeing many very famous musicians play live at the BBC Gosta Green TV studios, being taken under the wing of the much older music-lovers who hung out in John Scrace’s record shop in Dover are a couple but such wonderful memories were tempered by the sight of the Life magazine cover reporting the horror of what happened at Kent State in Ohio.
As I draw this short article to a close, I know that some will disagree with my opinion that politics does belong in music and particularly in that almost-indefinable genre of ‘folk music’. As the years have gone by, we have seen Rock Against Racism, poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah and Michael Smith raising awareness, Billy Bragg come to the fore (and stay there!), bands such as The Levellers who are enduring favourites on tours and for their festival appearances but I know that – for some – this will mean little, so I will leave you with this….
When I started with the idea of writing about whether politics had a place in music, I pulled together a bunch of YouTube links - some of which I have shared with you in this article – then I had that ‘lightbulb’ moment where I knew that I could not write the article without sharing this particular video clip.
Earlier in the article I mentioned Martin Carthy’s ‘Dominion of the Sword’ having relevance to the 17th century when it was first written, to the 1980’s when Martin Carthy recorded his version and that it remains relevant today. In 1937, Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan) wrote a poem after seeing a photograph; two years later that poem was put to music and sung by Billie Holliday.
I started writing this article last week and I stopped after watching this video – which I warn you is harrowing – because I could not see my keyboard for tears. I wrote elsewhere, that if this does not make you cry or be angry or be defiant then we are made of different stuff. In the song and in the video, the message of abhorrence of racism is the starkest that one might ever see; so if anyone asks me if politics belongs in music, I would warn them (as I have warned you) and show then this video accompanying Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’.
Until next time,