Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, the original tambourine man

When he was about seven Little Boy Crotchety had a part in the school play. Sitting cross-legged on the floor he used an enormous silver cardboard needle to stitch some invisible cloth, while the narrator introduced him as the tailor. I don’t remember what the plot was or even why it required a tailor. I might have had a couple of lines, then again I might not. It certainly wasn’t a taxing part and I wasn’t the least bit nervous in that scene. The butterflies in the tummy had come earlier when, along with one of the girls, I had to open the play with a tambourine flourish. Yes, folks, on that occasion I was the very embodiment of Bob Dylan’s tambourine man.

Not that I’d heard of Bob Dylan then, no-one had in 1959. And, anyway, like most radio listeners I fell in love with The Byrds‘ version in 1965 long before I knew who wrote the song and many years before I heard it sung by Dylan himself.

Roger McGuinn’s jangly guitar arpeggios announce Mr. Tambourine Man like a solo glockenspiel in an approaching marching band. “They’re coming, Ma, I can hear them!”, cries an excited voice from behind us in the waiting crowd. And, sure enough, here they come. Three guitarists, one with a twelve-string, all of them singing, then a bass player striding along and a drummer keeping time at the back. “Hey, mister tambourine man”, they plead, “play a song for me”.

This is strange. Why would they call for the runt of the instrument litter? A tambourine doesn’t ring like a guitar string or bellow like an organ. It doesn’t croon like a clarinet or trill like a flute. It can’t blare like a trumpet and harmonies are out of the question. Surely a tambourine is not a proper instrument, it’s just a device to get bored and tone-deaf students involved in a music lesson. Isn’t it? Or is the tambourine man such a brilliant musician that he can make his humble wooden hoop with its goatskin membrane and bright brass jingly zils sing with the wind and crash with the thunder?

The Byrds don’t explain, they just keep singing, their harmonious voices asking for another encore from their idol entertainer.

Take me for a trip upon your magic swirling ship.
All my senses have been stripped
And my hands can’t feel to grip
And my toes too numb to step
Wait only for my boot heels to be wandering.

They must have been up all night. Their biological batteries are completely drained. They no longer have the energy to stumble forward but the Duracell Bunny is still going strong, hitting and shaking that tambourine as if he has an inexhaustible source of power.

the byrds

The Byrds‘ version of Mr. Tambourine Man was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It is regarded as the song that got the folk-rock genre started and it has been covered many times. Notable covers include those by: the late Glen Campbell (guitar instrumental), William Shatner (in one of his silly moods), Martin Simpson (a superb example of the folk guitarist’s art), Stevie Wonder, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie and Crowded House.

But to my mind the best of the rest is this pure folk one by Judy Collins. Her clear voice gives full expression to the words, the 12-string acoustic guitar harks back to the jingle-jangle of Roger McGuinn’s electric Rickenbacker and a double bass adds depth and warmth. (OK, the YouTube poster can’t spell ‘tambourine’ but let’s not get picky.)

Are any of the covers better than the Dylan original? Popular opinion puts The Byrds‘ version above that of the songwriter’s but in the end it’s all a matter of taste. In the sixties a one verse, 2 minute 29 second single got airplay, a five and a half minute album track did not. Nowadays we’d rather hear all four verses. Then again the electric guitars and the Bach-inspired arpeggios gave that first cover a new and exciting sound. It’s a close call, but the Crotchety vote goes with the majority on this one.

My final word on the tambourine man goes to a YouTube video with over 12 million views. At first glance it’s a 2013 recording of Mr. Tambourine Man by Dylan himself and it’s very good. Irritatingly, though, it’s another cover credited to Helio Sequence, “an American indie rock duo from Oregon”, but that information is hidden away in the fine print. Still, it sounds very much like the single Bob Dylan might have produced back in 1965. And 12 million hits ain’t bad!

Footnote

Bruce Langhorne, pictured at the top of this post, was a folk and session guitarist as well as a tambourine player. It is his electric guitar that we hear on Bob Dylan’s recording of Tambourine Man from the album Bringing It All Back Home. He died in April 2017.

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Autopsy

face

Why did our relationship die?

It’s almost exactly 50 years since Fairport Convention gave their first performance at St. Michael’s Church Hall, Golders Green, London on 27th May 1967. To commemorate that occasion the band called their recent half studio, half live album, 50:50@50. The album was released earlier this year and the band is on tour in the UK right now. Crotchety Man discovered too late that they will be at Lowdham just 25 minutes drive from the Crotchety mansion this coming Wednesday. Sadly, that is the only venue that is already sold out.

I swear I heard a newly remastered version of Fairport‘s 1968 single, Meet On The Ledge, the other day and I had planned to feature that as my Track of the Week. The thing is, I can’t now find any evidence of its existence. I suspect it was on the Radcliffe and Maconie show on BBC 6 Music but a search on the BBC radio website didn’t pick it up. It’s not on Spotify, either. So, instead, I’ve chosen another Fairport song, Autopsy, from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking.

The Crotchety ears first heard Autopsy, I think, on the John Peel show shortly after the Unhalfbricking album was released. I was fascinated by the off-kilter rhythm, captivated by Sandy Denny’s voice and gripped by some of the saddest lyrics you will ever hear.

The song starts in 5/4, ambling along slowly like a ladybird with a missing leg wandering through the leaf litter. The guitars of Simon Nichol and Richard Thompson build a mournful backdrop and Sand Denny’s clear, pure voice oozes the sadness of a failed attempt to resuscitate a relationship that has died.

You must philosophise,
But why must you bore me to tears?

Ashley Hutchings’ electric bass and Dave Mattacks’ drums push on, right through the missing beat, as if five feet was the most natural arrangement, not only for the song but for all the Earth’s myriad forms of crawling life.

The ladybird sings about her mate, now a desiccated husk of his former self, trapped in a slough of despondency.

You spend all your time crying,
Crying the hours into years¹.

Her song then slips into a different gait. The fifth leg is stowed away under the wing casing and the creature steps on in 4/4 time, singing sweetly that they can still be friends.

Come, lend your time to me

When you look at me,
Don’t think you’re owning what you see.

The sting of this message is eased by the dock leaf balm of a heaven-sent guitar break. And then the ladybird releases her fifth leg and repeats her reasons for breaking up in 5/4 time again. What they had is broken but, strangely, not incomplete.

the band

Fairport Convention ca. 1970

My brother and I listened to the John Peel show every week in the late sixties and recorded large chunks of it on our dad’s reel-to-reel tape recorder². For several weeks the 4 minute 20 second length of tape containing Autopsy passed the playback head as often as family protocols would allow.

This is one of my very favourite Fairport Convention songs. It deserves to be better known and better loved.

Notes

  1. A Google search for the lyrics throws up half a dozen sites, all with the same incorrect words for this line. The (presumably) correct lyrics are on this website, which is an homage to Sandy Denny, who wrote the song.
  2. On YouTube there’s a live session from John Peel’s radio show broadcast on 6th April 1969. This is probably the version I had on tape.

Magic

cards

I shall be away from the temptations of the blogging machine this weekend so, this week, the Crotchety notes will be published in advance of the usual Sunday date and may be somewhat staccato.

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For my Track of the Week I’ve chosen Magic by Bruce Springsteen. There’s no particular reason for this; it just struck me that an appreciation of “The Boss” is long overdue. Then again, I’m not the greatest Springsteen fan on this Earth. Although I’ve never heard a Springsteen track I didn’t like, his songs rarely ignite the flames of passion in me.

If the songs are not really that special what is it that makes Bruce Springsteen so popular? Well, for a start, he has gathered some fine musicians around him. He works hard, too. He has been writing songs, recording and gigging for more than 50 years. And a man who gives 4-hour concerts deserves our considerable respect. But, above all, he has an unparalleled rapport with his fans. He didn’t like being called The Boss at first; he was, and still is, just an ordinary Joe like you and me. What could be more endearing than that?

Springsteen’s success has given him many opportunities to influence public opinion and he has used them to promote a liberal political agenda both in his lyrics and in his ad hoc comments on stage. On the tour promoting the Magic album he introduced the title track like this:

We’re living in a sort of Orwellian time when what’s true can be made to seem like a lie and what’s a lie can be made to seem true. So the song’s really not about magic, it’s about tricks.”¹

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Magic has a simple folk song feel that appeals right across the spectrum of musical tastes. In the album version a violin and a mandolin add a bit of sparkle, too. There’s a subtle kind of magic in this song that grows on you the more you hear it. To the Crotchety ears it’s just as good as the singles on the album, Radio Nowhere and Girls In Their Summer Clothes. And that’s, surely, reason enough to air it here.

Notes

  1. You can hear that introduction in this YouTube video. That clip has some lovely violin playing but it ends far too abruptly.

All Flowers In Time

Sounddate: Tuesday, 26th January 2015

I heard All Flowers In Time for the first time yesterday on the RadMac afternoon show on BBC 6 Music. Curiously, it has never been released although, as you can see, it has escaped from the recording studio and is available on SoundCloud, YouTube and elsewhere.

All Flowers In Time Bend Towards the Sun, to give it it’s full title, was written by Jeff Buckley (around 1995 as far as I can tell). The version presented here is a demo recording; Jeff’s untimely death in a drowning accident in May 1997 meant that a finished version was never made.

The demo is a composition for two guitars and two voices. If it had been given a sparse arrangement it would be a simple folk song but, here, strummed acoustic and electric guitars provide a lush carpet of camomile and clover for us to walk upon. Liz Fraser’s dancing voice paints exotic flowers onto the bushes, and Jeff Buckley duets with her as she skips between the orchard trees. The two guitars pirouette around each other, butterflies in slow motion, while the voices mingle in exquisite harmony. For a rough cut this is an amazingly beautiful production.

Reliable information is hard to come by but it seems that Liz Fraser has always wanted the ‘unfinished’ All Flowers to remain unheard and Jeff Buckley’s mother, who manages his back catalogue, is of the opinion that Jeff and Elizabeth’s recording is “too personal” to be released. In spite of this there have been many calls from fans of both Buckley and Fraser to make it officially available.

As far as I can make out streaming and downloading this song is morally questionable and quite possibly unlawful. Yes, a polished version might have more light and shade but it’s hard to imagine another take with as much joy and spontaneity as this one. It shines like the sculpted face of Venus with laughter lines etched in. It deserves to be heard.

Crotchety Man has been naughty. He has downloaded All Flowers In Time but, if it is ever released, he hereby promises to pay for it.

Jazz coverhttps://open.spotify.com/track/53JnmsrMLoTzzqdWCZ8M0Y