Friday, 20 January 2012

Woke Up This Morning

In Ann Charters’ Portable Sixties Reader there are appearances from many of the expected literary stars of the period. Everyone from Susan Sontag to Timothy Leary, Diane di Prima to Charles Bukowski and Gary Snyder to Norman Mailer. In addition there are contributions from a few singer songwriters, notably Country Joe McDonald and Bob Dylan. All too often such songwriters have been excluded from similar compilations on the grounds that they are inappropriate and somehow unliterary or, more likely, because the copyright holders of their music simply want to charge too much. Seeing Dylan in here, a man who you’d imagine certainly might want to charge given his universal fame, fills me with hope. It’s in such marked contrast, for example, to Rita Dove’s exclusions for copyright fee reasons of several greats from her Penguin Anthology of American verse.

The singer songwriter back in the sixties was the harbinger of song writing’s rehabilitation. Suddenly we wanted to listen to what music was telling us again. Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil, Marc Cohn and many others became as much a part of the literary backdrop as WH Auden, Allen Ginsberg, RS Thomas and Sylvia Plath once had been. I seem to remember the Merthyr poet Mike Jenkins quoting Captain Beef heart as one of his main literary influences. That’s the kind of thing that would have had earlier generations spinning. Stuff no longer entirely in its box. Music and writing on the merge.

It’s a tradition that has stuck. We’ve a load of great contemporary examples writing out there. Have a look at the work of Mark E Smith for a start. The tradition is just as strong in Wales. Gorky’s set it flowing. Richard James, Gwyneth Glyn, Euros Childs, Gruff Rhys and others carry it on.

My early attempts to join in were singularly unsuccessful. First up I began writing blues lyrics. I’d heard Bob Dylan but not really understood what he was attempting. Things that began “Woke up this morning” seemed much easier. I typed mine up on small bits of paper and usually carried a bunch of them around with me in my inside pocket. When I made it in the mid-sixties to Bristol’s Colston Hall to hear the great American Folk Blues tour featuring Howlin Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Sleepy John Estes I found myself hovering around the stage door. Willie Dixon, bass player and record producer, emerged, cigar in hand. Mr Dixon, I shouted, chancing my arm, have a look at these songs I’ve written. I shoved a few woke up this mornings and big legged mama’s into his pudgy hands. He smiled, grunted, folded the papers without looking at them into a pocket of his saggy suit, said something that sounded like thank you boy and then went back inside. I never heard from him again.

Down at the Greyhound, the scrumpy pub for down and outs and winos, on Cardiff’s Bridge Street, I was the resident singer. This was my decision, I had not been invited. Hell, in that place no one would. I sat there in the corner with bottle caps clasped to my shoes with rubber bands, a guitar on my lap, capo in place, and a harmonica harness holding a Horner Super Vamper in C and a kazoo round my neck. I played the one twelve bar thing I knew how to, mumbled a few lyrics into the space in front of me and then blew a few bits on the kazoo. The can’t play his instruments one man band. Voice so out of tune the windows rattled. What was I doing?

I got requests. Play Nellie Deane. I don’t know it. Bloody useless you are. Can you play anything else? No. Sod off then. After a few more desultory wails on the harmonica I decided that maybe I wasn’t the new south Wales Dylan after all and left.

I’ve no idea what happened to the guitar after that but the harmonica and the kazoo are still in a box up in the loft. I found my blues lyrics file the other day, too, a book into which I’d pasted hundreds of the things. At its end is an entry which reads “No more book but I’m not stopping”. God, the things you write when you are young.


Anonymous said...

I also do feel that some of Alanis Morissette's song lyrics, notably on "Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie" album would stand up as poetry. And I would have to mention Donovan. Most song lyrics are just that, however. It is a different art, writing song lyrics and writing poetry. And spoken word poetry - veering into rap at times (Benjamin Zephaniah, etc) - is also an art form in its own right. But there is an overlap, definitely. This blog post is well worth reading, and the subject is one that interests me. - Paula Puddephatt

Anonymous said...

This cheered me up Peter. Came aross Captain Beefheart among Chris' CDs. Books-we have found have no value-even a Writers 'Library of 40 years acquisition. When books are pulped by booksellers where do writers ft in? - Sou Moules

Anonymous said...

I always found it strange that some folks can't deal with poetry unless it is song format...... - Chris Vine

Anonymous said...

You're right there, Peter. I've just read the Leonard Cohen article+interview in today's G2.
Success is survival, he says. - Nicholas Whitehead

johndavies said...

Read your blog with interest Peter. If you remember, the subject of my last book "Lyrics and Limericks" was the relationship between song lyrics and poetry.
John Davies

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more and the works of Tom Waits, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan et al. are indisputable, though for the works of unknown songwriters it's a very hard sell... John Morgan

'ö-Dzin Tridral said...

I was very glad to see mention of Gwyneth Glyn. We went to see her and Catrin Herbert at Acapela in Pentyrch. (Pic:

I'd like to add Meinir Gwilym, Fflur Dafydd and Elin Fflur to your list. And Bob Delyn, of course, to go alongside Bob Dylan