Tuesday, August 9, 2011

When folk goes digital - Roy Harper

I am a self confessed vinyl freak and my displeasure at the world of digital downloads reached a new level this week. I had been reading a recent issue of the Wire and become fascinated by the Roy Harper interview, especially as the music seemed something like what my dad would like. Since I didn’t send him a birthday present in April, I decided that I would get him some Roy Harper music to try. Following my lead from the article, I dutifully headed to his official website where I paid for a digital download of his latest retrospective collection “Songs of Love and Loss”. That the files I obtained where high quality FLAC may be lost on my father since he will receive only the two CDs I burned for him (had I sent him the FLACs I am sure he wouldn’t have been able to convert them or burn them either!). The strangeness of the gift was that there was nothing to see or even to “have” and even the gesture of giving something paid for and lovingly searched out felt somehow meaningless, even if it is the thought that counts. “Happy Birthday dad, here are your data files”. I know that I probably could have obtained the material by illegal download, but since it was my father and a late present at that, I did not feel like denying Mr Harper a little bit of income, especially as he has been on hard times and is in his seventies. One curiosity of all this as well is that digital folk music sounds like a strange contradiction. Afterall, everone remembers when Bob Dylan went electric, but who remembers when he went digital?

However, I must confess to also stealing some of Mr Harper’s music. One thing in the interview that attracted me was a little dialogue about a song he wrote called “When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease”. Being Australian and something of a cricket fan (perhaps not as much as my father) it was too much to not search out at least this track. Its exclusion from the collection was that it was not technically a love song, although perhaps a love song about cricket and not cricketers. I had the added inspiration that, since my father is a good guitar player and often jamming with friends and doing little concerts here and there, it seemed that he might even be able to learn the cricket song as part of his repertoire. I did encourage him to change the names in the lyric

“And it could be Geoff and it could be John, with a new ball sting in his tail”

to commemorate Australian players, rather than the English players Geoff Boycott and John Snow to whom they refer.

Perhaps the most outstanding lyric of this track is the line

“The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days.”

which holds resonance for much more than cricket of course.

The collection “Songs of Love and Loss” was a fascinating and surprising trawl through some of Harper’s works. Thankfully there was not too much of the harmonica-folk style of some early Dylan that gets overbearing very quickly. Similarly, while rich in poetry and rivalling some of the words of Leonard Cohen, Harper’s voice and musical ability are often more rewarding than some of Cohen’s droll delivery.

For example, the short track “Francesca” from the album “Flat Baroque and Berserk” resembles Cohen’s style, but is delivered with a real delicacy that emphasises the lyric “thanks for being free” and gives it sincerity, without a hint of sarcasm, despite the fact that Francesca has left him.

“Hey Francesca
You gave me no warning
Hey Francesca
Tiptoes in the morning
Thanks for leaving the sunshine
Thanks for leaving me
Thanks for being all mine
Thanks for being free
Hey Francesca”

Sadly there is no audio or video material I can find for the track “All you need is” from the 1967 album “Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith” which would seem to reference the Beatles track “All you need is love” from the same year. Harper’s elegant lyrics add a lot more to the Beatles sentiment of love at the peak of the hippie movement.

“I gave my love a daisy, a third eye in my mind
We turned the crazy day around, to see what we could find
And went onto a journey
Reflecting us so deep and wide
That we could see the other side
Of knowing nothing matters in the everything surrounding us
Surrounding everything itself

The emphasis on “surrounding” is also beautifully embedded in the arrangement of the music as the line is delivered.

Since my father is a guitar player I also fixated on the playing on the opening track “Black Clouds” which is perhaps the most complicated of the collection, contrasting different picking techniques to emphasise discordance. The way Harper’s voice sings across the music is also effective in contrasting his smooth blue sky-voice with the menace of rain and darkness in the trickling and pointillist playing.

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