The Cambridge Folk Festival kicks off tonight: what better excuse for our folk fans to put together a playlist?
Peggy Seeger – I’m Gonna Be An Engineer
Joan Baez – The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
One of the benefits of living in Cambridge is that one of the country’s best music festivals is on your doorstep (almost literally for those who live in Cherry Hinton). It’s a great event, well organised and even better supported, clean, gentle, family friendly – the sort of place you can lose a wallet (maybe even a child) and think, “Nevermind, I’ll start looking when this surprisingly moreish rock combo from Mali is done.”
There’s been some grumbling from purists over the years that the festival has extended its parameters to include lots of stuff that definitely isn’t folk, with country, world, gospel and even pop acts making an appearance. This year, however, it boasts two genuine legends of folk music: Peggy Seeger and Joan Baez.
I’m Gonna Be An Engineer is perhaps one of the finest pieces of feminist ranting ever, all wrapped up in a cheery folk tune (“I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that”), while Baez’s cover of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – one of the first songs I ever remember hearing – performs the excellent trick of taking a track from the 1960s and making it seem like it was written in the 1860s.
Have fun if you’re there.
Gretchen Peters – Independence Day
On stage, Gretchen Peters has a warm compelling voice and a presence so unassuming, you might not immediately realise that she is one of the finest songwriters in the world. She’s best known here for her song On a Bus to St Cloud, but mention her name in Nashville and they’ll rave about Independence Day, a massive hit for Martina McBride, which won Gretchen the Country Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year award for 1994.
Like all the best country songs, it’s a gem of a short story. A young girl – whose mother is in an abusive marriage – escapes and heads for town on Independence Day. As the fireworks light up the sky, her mother finally snaps and sets fire to the house – by implication, killing her husband. There’s a play on the words “independence day” and a bittersweet message about freedom.
Martina McBride is the perfect match for the song: a tiny woman with a big voice that has a core of steel in it. Like Bruce Springsteen’s similarly complex Born in the USA, it’s been misunderstood and misappropriated for patriotic purposes. But give it a listen: either Martina’s version or Gretchen’s own recording – it’s a song that manages to be both triumphant and chilling.
Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – Some Kind of Hero
Dr Feelgood – Roxette
Seminal music-film maker Julien Temple recently made a follow-up to his brilliant Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential called The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, and no sentiment could be better put.
As you’re probably aware, Canvey Island’s most celebrated export Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal/inoperable pancreatic cancer a few years ago and he took the news in the most amazing way.
He spent his last few precious months touring the arse off himself and off Britain. He recorded a new album. He made records with his heroes (the song for this playlist is from his 2014 album with Roger Daltrey, no less). Wilko said all his goodbyes, personal and public, in every way he wanted to. It was inspiring and uniting and everyone was weepy.
Then the most remarkable thing happened. He carried on living. An operation that took away half his insides and which gave only a 15% chance of survival caused him no fuss.
Wilko Johnson has been given a whole new lease of life in the very literal sense – far from being on borrowed time anymore, this guy is living a real-life Brucie Bonus. Imagine the elation of that. Sure, life is a rollercoaster, Ronan, and this bald-headed ride gets to go round again!
It’s a sad thing that modern culture is very much about missing what you had after it’s gone, celebrating people when they can no longer hear your tributes. Let’s all not make that mistake and make sure Wilko knows we love him now he’s here to stay.
Film spoiler: he doesn’t die in the end.
Josienne Clarke – Anyone But Me
If I know you, and I think I do, you’ll have been worrying who on earth the grande dame of folk will be when (if, yes, let’s say IF) Norma Waterson ever departs. It’s OK though, because the sublime Josienne Clarke is waiting patiently at the side of the stage.
Clarke is also the closest thing we have to Sandy Denny, without (I fervently hope) the substance abuse, car crashes and general emotional fuckuppery. On stage she’s restrained and unassuming but she pours enough misery into her songs for us to believe the ghost of Denny is always with us. Anyone But Me is pretty bleak, and it only gently pricks Clarke’s deliciously dark songwriting veins.
In case proof were needed, I’ll just pop this here: “Like a captive I would keep you chained / Keep every moment in every single day / And every person who’s ever meant a thing to you / I’d erase them that’s what I would do.” *backs away very slowly and doesn’t look her in the eye*
Martin Simpson – Never Any Good
It’s hard not to well up just writing about this song, a beautiful and honest tribute to Simpson’s father and a perfect biography in musical form. It starts with a pretty scathing account of a feckless, selfish, unemployed husband and dad. It takes us through the “mud and stink” of WWI, unemployment and desolation. Then it transforms and remains an affectionate memory of a beloved father: “You showed me how to use my eyes / When I was just a boy / And you taught me how to love a song / And all you knew of nature’s ways / The greatest gifts I have ever known / And I use them every day.” *something in my eye*
Simpson might be known as one of the greatest acoustic guitarists in the world but by god, he can write a song that makes you want to hug a pensioner.
Hazel Davis3255 Views
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