Archive for March, 2010

The ‘new’ Gil Scott-Heron

20 March 2010

The first thing to say about Gil Scott-Heron’s latest record is that it is an astonishing piece of work; which is gratifying for those of us who think of him as one of black music’s great radical innovators. It could have been different. It’s his first record since he came out of jail (having fallen, he once said, into the same trap he had spent decades warning the black community about), and he could have easily just done a retread of some well-worn themes.

Instead, it has the air of a man who is intent on reaffirming his place in the history of black music, from the sample of Kanye West in the first and last tracks, or the channelling of Robert Johnson on Me and the Devil, or even the cover of a Brook Benton song. And his own musical and personal history, too: On Coming From A Broken Home confronts, over and over, easy categorisation of the black experience (“as every ‘ologist would certainly note, I had no strong male figure, right”) while also tipping a nod to his own ’80s song, Grandma’s Hands.

Even at 60, his voice is still deep and rich, the timing and phrasing pitch perfect, and the sentiment as tough and clear-eyed as any of his records from the Nixon and Reagan eras. The rapidfire wordplay around the notion of “running”, for example, on Running, is both witty and dark. Credit to his British producer Richard Russell, who also wrote the music for several songs. (It’s released on Russell’s XL label). Between them, they have created a sound which makes “I’m New Here” quite a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Indeed , it’s almost a rebuke to the ‘burn this’ culture of spotting the couple of best tracks. The sleeve notes exhort the buyer that “Buying a CD is an investment. To get the maximum you must LISTEN TO IT FOR THE FIRST TIME UNDER OPTIMUM CONDITIONS … LISTEN all the way through.”

“I’m New Here” repays that temporal investment over and over. Like he’s never been away.

Thanks to David Gunn for the tip about Kanye West.

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Scarborough fair

7 March 2010

One of the pleasures of Empire and Love, the recent record by The Imagined Village – in which producer Simon Emmerson collaborates with a number of fine folk musicians, among them Martin and Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood – is hearing Martin Carthy reclaim ‘Scarborough Fair’, the traditional English song which he taught to Paul Simon in the 1960s, and became one of Simon and Garfunkel’s most distinctive successes.

Simon and Garfunkel claimed authorship of the S&G version (which they combined with Canticle, an updating of an earlier S&G song), even though they would still have collected their publishing royalties had they used the more honest “Traditional, arranged by” credit. Carthy was so incensed that he didn’t talk to Simon for thirty years, though was eventually reconciled when Paul Simon invited him to duet the song in a London concert in 2000. The story is that the publishing company was to blame for the false credit.

Carthy’s original version already had the distinctive patterns which the Simon and Garfunkel turned into a rich filigree, and in turn The Imagined Village reclaim the Englishness of the song, but in an arrangement which is distinctively modern, from an England of the 21st century. (The Imagined Village’s version, with vocals by Chris Wood, is at the top of the post – Simon and Garfunkel’s can be found below).

The distinction between theft and hommage is always worth investigating. Dylan – who also learned the song from Carthy in the 1960s – uses a part of the lyric in the chorus of his song Girl From The North Country: “Remember me to one who lives there, she once was a true love of mine”. More famously, he took the whole tune from Nottamun Town for another song – but then did write a whole new lyric to create Masters of War. (If you want to compare the songs, Fairport’s version of Nottamun Town is also on Youtube.)

Girl From The North Country is clearly ‘fair use’, while Masters of War represents creative use of a traditional tune in the public domain. Indeed, any folk music historian would recognise this – new words, old tune – as a familiar pattern. (Dylan had some problems on Masters of War because the musical arrangement he used was associated with the singer Jean Ritchie).  And Scarborough Fair, the English ballad we know today, is almost certainly a reversioning of an earlier Scottish song, The Elfin Knight. As James Boyle explains in his chapter ‘I Got a Mashup‘, in The Public Domain, our culture develops and reinvents itself by borrowing.