Thursday, 30 July 2015


Image result for barrett strong tamla records

Been reading two books about music both of which are recommended.
AMERICA OVER THE WATER by Shirley Collins is an autobiography written by English folk singer, Shirley Collins. Never heard of her? Most people familiar with English folk music, Carthy, Nic Jones, Steeleye, June Tabor or Richard Thompson will know her name but may not know her work. So, if you haven’t been immersed in English folk, you may not have heard of her. I’m not sure how old she is seventy-plus I would think. She was one of the singers in Ashley Hutchings Albion Band. Checks on Google: no, she was born in 1935 so she is eighty. Anyway, she wrote this biography about her travels in America’s deep south in 1959-60 with collector and academic, Alan Lomax. 

What was happening in American music in 1960? Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Polka Dot Bikini was top of the Billboard 100 and the great, the great Barrett Strong had seen his single Money get to number six on the R&B Chart; it’s on Anna but most people regard it as the first Tamla-Motown single. Gil Evans was collaborating with Miles.

The book is never going to win the Booker but she has a compelling story to tell and for anyone even mildly interested in authentic American roots music, honestly it’s a must-read. They meet country blues singers, gospel choirs, banjo maestro’s, preachers , shape-note singers and they record them all. She seems to be more than a little in love with Alan, at that time a married man with a family, some twenty years older than herself but it’s the music and the down-home deep south traditional people they meet along the way that makes this great. Sometimes it’s pretty scary, at one point they are told about a community of fanatics who keep rattlesnakes in their homes. Sometimes it is a little like Deliverance and by the end you can see she is desperate to get home to Brighton. Strong recommend; even if you only read about the man that walks out of the forest you will be thrilled.

EMINENT HIPSTERS by Donald Fagen not an autobiography exactly but more a selection of reminisces, this book is written by the lead singer/front man of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen. Born in New Jersey in 1947, Jewish [I didn’t realise] he seems to have gravitated to jazz very much against the grain. The grain being Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Polka Dot Bikini and Money.  Even as a young teenager, he finds himself the only white youth in the New York jazz clubs and he seems to have been present at many of the great gigs; he saw Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane and Mingus when they were still discovering themselves. His mother seems to have been the influence here and his chapter on the Boswell Sisters of whom I had only vaguely heard is one of the best essays in the book.

This is the nature of the writing: a series of essays on subjects that have interested or influenced him. Sci-fi books and magazines; jazz; television programmes that are meaningless to me because I wasn’t around in fifties America. Cars; the usual. You can see where the lyrics and chords of My Old School came from. It’s completely different to the closely detailed writing of Knausggaard that I blogged about a few weeks ago. He doesn’t attempt to examine his younger self or his friends and feelings. If his father almost twisted his ear off, he isn’t going to address the issue now. On the other hand, he is sixty-eight . . .  maybe he doesn’t remember.

If you are interested in this period of American music or how these major players became the original musicians they seemed to be at the time, then give it a go. It helps if you actually like Steely Dan because he is a little acerbic and as a reader I found myself frequently giving him a lot of latitude. Fortunately, I am a fan so it was an interesting read for me although his American hipster vernacular [‘I don’t want to be no jive turkey’ – eek!]became hard to take after a bit. 

Quick postscript: I saw them live once; got the Steely Dan t-shirt to prove it.

Quick postscript: the cover of my copy has the genuflecting, This book is a piece of pure bliss – GUARDIAN on the cover which is absolutely hilarious since as everyone knows, the Guardian music department notoriously loathes and detests Steel Dan and all their works. Obviously the books department doesn’t talk to the music department.

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