The Flow Of Music: An Interview With Paul Hertzog

Having composed music for films, such as Bloodsport and Kickboxer, composer and teacher Paul Hertzog reflects on his work and on writing music for film. He is in conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe.


Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Please tell us about the creative process that led you to compose those masterpieces that are “The Eagle Lands” and “Finals-Powder-Triumph.”

Paul Hertzog (PH): My greatest inspiration has always been the film itself, so I feel (strangely enough) that the action on screen told me what to do. Both of the cues you mention are final fights, the climax of each film. Since I like to compose in film order, these cues were also the last I wrote in each film. As a result, I already had melodies and rhythmic feels developed. All I had to do was find a way to fit them to picture. Since the emotions of each film had been building up to these climactic moments, I simply tried to tap into those emotions to find correspondence in music. This may not sound logical, but that’s the point. Logic has nothing to do with it.

When I compose, I have to shut off the logical part of my brain and let my emotions find the music that underpins the scene. I think, also, I was helped by the fact that the villains (Chong Li and Tong Po) in both films were so well portrayed. They gave me the opportunity to develop the conflict between good and evil that creates that emotional tension in my music.

GC: Your soundtracks for those scenes in Kickboxer in which Kurt Sloane (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is training in ruins haunted by the ghosts of ancient warriors, while an eagle is watching him, are full of spirituality. How did you find this mystical inspiration?

PH: Again, I must reiterate that the source of my inspiration was the film itself. I watched those scenes over and over until I felt (and I do mean “felt” rather than “understood”) the emotions that needed to be conveyed by the music. I’m not sure I can truly explain the source of musical inspiration, but, as I have already said, for me it is not a logical process. I have to shut off my conscious thinking and let the music flow as if it were pure emotion. That’s when I write my best music. Does this process involve spirituality or mysticism? I don’t know. We humans often try to explain the inexplicable with these terms, but I don’t worry about explanations. I simply go with the creative flow.

Paul Hertzog.

GC: As a musician, do you share the Pythagorean belief that the proportions ruling the distances between the celestial bodies are a sort of music?

PH: In a word, no. This seems like a rather spurious analogy to me, an attempt to ascribe logic to a process that is, as I have already said, not logical at all.

GC: Let us speak about Waking the Dragon. What does the creature that is the dragon mean to you? What is the plot, universe, you wanted to convey though this musical work?

PH: The dragon is a part of me, the part of me that is a composer. After I left film and music behind in 1991 to pursue a career as a teacher (due to a number of setbacks in my career, in my financial state, in my mental state), the composer part of me essentially went to sleep.

I attempted to wake up that aspect of my character nearly 20 years into my teaching career by writing the music of this project. I worked on it during vacation times since I didn’t have time while teaching. I also had obligations to my family, so I couldn’t immerse myself in it completely. It took probably 4-5 years to complete, and even now I’m not sure that it is fully satisfying to me, but it’s something I needed to do to get my juices flowing again. And now, in 2022, nearly 3 years since I retired as a teacher, I am writing music constantly, and some of it is the best I’ve ever done.

And, yes, I also had a story in mind when I wrote this project. I envisioned a typical martial arts sort of plot. A corrupt and evil faction has taken over a city, a province, a region, a country, whatever you’d like, and the forces of good that might countermand that corrupt faction are essentially asleep. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, an ancient master of the martial arts is retired and quiet. However, a young admirer of the ancient master finds him and attempts to enlist his help in regrouping the forces of good. In other words, he wakes the dragon. The rest of the story should be fairly obvious.

GC: I was wondering. What do you think of David Bowie’s music, especially his albums in Berlin? As you know, his Berlin album Low inspired a symphony by Philipp Glass.

PH: I listened to Bowie some in the 1980s but not since, as I am more likely to listen to classical music these days. I am not familiar with the Berlin albums, though I may have heard some back in the day. I remember liking what I heard.

GC: Thank you for your time. Please tell us about your ongoing projects.

PH: I am currently in discussion with people about scoring two new martial arts films. Both projects want the sort of music I composed for Bloodsport and Kickboxer. However, in this time of international pandemic, getting the films made has been challenging. All I would say is to keep an eye on my website or on Facebook for any news.

Additionally, I am planning to release some new music soon, starting with a long composition entitled, “Legends.” When you hear it, you will know who the legends are. Also, Perseverance Records has just released my score for Breathing Fire, the final film I scored before leaving the business. It is available as a CD or download on Amazon.

Girls, Girls, Girls: A Celebration Of Women Singers Of The Popular Idiom—Part II

Dr. Stocker hereby concludes his magisterial survey of favoured women singers…


Riding high in the same Top Ten of January 1964 that included Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours from Tulsa,” whence my interest in pop music all started, was Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to be with You.” Though I wasn’t at all pro-girls at that stage in my almost eight-year-old existence—indeed thoroughly relieved to be at an all-boys’ school even if Mary Broad was no longer there to tie my shoe-laces—I nonetheless really liked both the song and the singer. With my discernment even then, I appreciated Dusty’s infinite superiority to Petula Clark’s contemporaneous, simpering, goody two-shoes “Thank You.” It’s cruel, I know, to put them head-to-head but history has utterly vindicated me:

Dusty posed a dilemma to me in this essay because, like Michelangelo, there is very little new or special you can say about her, but omitting her from my pantheon of girl singers would be unthinkable. So, it’s “Dusty definitely,” to quote an album title. She was arguably a more interesting character than her smarter, sassier contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. A white, middle-class British Catholic girl whose prime love was American black music—and whose voice sounded convincingly black—perhaps had a more fraught struggle to be understood and appreciated than those born in blue-collar Detroit into that ethnicity.

Dusty Springfield.

Franklin and Ross were/are emphatically establishment figures, tough to the point of ruthlessness and totally focussed. “There was only room for one Aretha” is a standout line in the film 20 Feet from Stardom, while Ross, probably not as naturally gifted as her fellow Supreme, Florence Ballard, made up for it by being an alpha female. Dusty by contrast had deep self-doubt, almost amounting to an imposter syndrome, together with a fiddly recording perfectionism that required her already remarkable voice to sound superb.

There were further paradoxes: she was by definition a public performer crippled with shyness, a sex symbol who was lesbian, a natural brunette whose stage persona and public image was a (dyed) blonde bombshell. People who don’t bother to look beyond her hairstyle write her off as being “fluffy”—which is precisely what they are. Dusty’s lengthy period in the US (1972–85) was mostly a tragic write-off; a Guardian writer mourned the “lethargy, paranoia, and drink and drug-soaked self-destruction that blighted her later years.” I for one was not convinced by her late-career resurgence aided by the Pet Shop Boys, though it cheered many sentimental hearts.

The best Dusty comes from the period spanning 1963 and 1969, culminating with her poorly-selling but now iconic album “Dusty in Memphis.” Not all of her many hits during this time were great songs (“Little by Little” endlessly repeated was little better than Lulu’s execrable “I’m a Tiger,” and it sounded like “Litterbug” to me). There were songs that I admired more than liked: “You don’t have to say you love me,” her sole British number one, to me always had a slightly dreary, Eurovision quality to it. But several were stand-outs: “Losing You” sounds as fresh as it did nearly 60 years ago; there’s the pretty, soulful “Wishing and Hoping” and “Going Back;” the more dramatic “My Colouring Book;” and above all “I Close my Eyes and Count to Ten”:

Its relatively complex melody requires several listens and accompanies a complexity of emotions. Dusty tells us what the object of her love is not: “It isn’t the way that you look/ It isn’t the way that you talk,” accounted for in a lower range. Rising up the octave, she explains: “It’s the way you make me feel/ The moment I am close to you/ It’s a feeling so unreal/ Somehow I can’t believe it’s true.” It’s as if Dusty feels she doesn’t quite deserve her lover, and when we link this to her dismaying lack of self-confidence and self-belief, the pathos is all the greater.

That voice! In 1978 she was in the midst of her American period decline and the nadir of her reputation but you’d never guess when she opens her mouth to sing a charming little trifle with her friend Rod McKuen, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”:

The gay Rod is an unlikely seducer of the protesting, lesbian Dusty: what a hoot! And they were well aware of it, touchingly at ease in each other’s company and companionship.

When I was fourteen and we had a pleasantly laissez-faire maths teacher, Mr (“Randy”) Andy Funnell, yours truly and my friend Jeremy (not Black, he was no singer and was in Set 1 anyway) would not infrequently sing duets in the middle of lessons. The intention was to goad the prog rock or heavy metal-loving contingents in the class and it rarely failed. We were also, of course, budding humanities intellectuals: our tomfoolery could retrospectively be hailed as an ironising postmodern jeu d’esprit, avant la lettre, right?

When we got a bit too operatic, Mr Funnell would tell us in bored tones to cut it out but it was good fun while it lasted. Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You” were among our favourites. Elvis (at least in this song) I can now happily discard, but I’m still in love with ‘Close to you’. It’s a gorgeously melodic Burt Bacharach song, and when I first heard it, sung so faultlessly and with such perfect enunciation by Karen Carpenter, I knew this ushered in a fabulous new star:

Yet I still remain faintly irritated by the special ‘You’ that Karen feels close to: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?/ Just like me, they long to be close to you.” A kind of Hitchcock in reverse, absurdly improbable, plausible with cats, dogs and even horses, but birds? Ducks, kestrels and swallows, hello! But I’m being literal-minded as ever, and everything else about the song and singer I forgive.

The Carpenters, 1974.

Karen and Richard Carpenter risked looking like a duo of goodie-goodies; with their wholesome appearance and wholesome musicianship, you’d swear that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But time and again, the singers and the songs had the last word. Their choice of material was impeccable: the nostalgic and pensively sad “Yesterday Once More” (shooby-doo-lang-lang), the obviously happier “On Top of the World,” and the lovely Tim Hardin song, thoroughly Carpenterised, “Reason to Believe” are cases in point. Slightly more daring was the cosmic “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” If you were such an occupant, then Karen and Richard would make thoroughly civilised earthlings to meet and greet you; indeed, Karen was at pains to assert in the song “We are your friends”:

Their music trod a tightrope between the charming and the sentimentally banal, but negotiated this masterfully, aided by their technical excellence. Richard, the marginalised male arranger and keyboard player, deserves considerable credit here.

Understandably, the Carpenters didn’t move too far out of an utterly pleasing, easy-listening genre. You wouldn’t expect Karen to suddenly start imitating John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) on her drum-kit. She was a ‘good girl’ in the way that Patti Smith, Suzi Quattro and the underrated all-girl band Fanny were exhilaratingly bad. But she and Richard did once memorably depart from the tried and tested formula, shocking their conservative fans in the process. This was with the melancholy ballad “Goodbye to Love,” when Karen’s vocals yield to the almost Bach-like fuzz guitar solo of Tony Peluso. It’s truly groovy, and it excitingly bridged easy listening with the power pop genre of Badfinger and the Raspberries:

I’d really like to think Karen and Richard showed a sense of humour in their totally anti-climactic, indeed inane, follow-up ‘Sing a song’. “Ah! That’s the carpentry we want!” their core fans would have exclaimed.

Of Karen Carpenter’s appallingly brief life and dreadful death of anorexia nervosa, the less said here the better. Ars longa, vita brevis: Karen, thank you for being you. Oh dear, this sounds worryingly like a Carpenters’ song title, but I mean it!

Linda Lewis is a far lesser known singer than Dusty or Karen but is the obvious bridge to Nina Hagen with her fantastic multi-octave vocal range. Here she’s surely the closest Cockney-Jamaican equivalent of the US one-hit wonder Minnie Ripperton (“Loving You [is easy ’cos you’re beautiful”]). Only Linda is infinitely less irritating, as she wisely refrains from imitating warbling birds. I admire her transition from precocious teenager to established (minor) star—the album title and content “Not a Little Girl Any More” says it all—and then to an amiable veteran/trooper at the Glastonbury Festival. Everything indicates that she has a regular, likeable and grounded personality: I envisage her in a late model Vauxhall, not a private jet and she may even vote Conservative.

Linda Lewis.

It puzzles me, just as it does with Colin Blunstone, as to why Linda isn’t as big as she deserves to be. She’s nothing if not versatile: her first hit, “Rock-a-doodle doo,” which dates from her late teens, somehow combined the funky with the quirky, and I have to say rather annoyed me, clever though it was. I prefer the catchily retro “It’s in His Kiss” (her biggest hit, from 1975). I like her even more when her vocal pyrotechnics are intelligently utilised in “My Friend the Sun,” a cover of Family’s Prog Rock hit. I believe she was the then girlfriend of a member of that band (though not the barbed-wire vocalist Roger Chapman, that couple would have been altogether de trop):

She delivers Andrew Lloyd Webber with panache in “I’ll be surprisingly good for you” from Evita, and you believe her. But best of all is when she sings Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Moon and I” from The Mikado: try playing this end-to-end with Kate Bush’s near contemporaneous “Wuthering Heights” and I guarantee it will do your head in:

You see what I mean about versatility? I don’t think Linda did anything punk, so she has her limits. I suspect she was simply too accomplished to want to de-skill and regress, which is what that egregious genre demands.

Astute readers of these articles will have noticed that I always look for a consonance between melody and meaning in songs, and how I prize qualities of emotional generosity in the lyrics and delivery. I like this capacity in people (sadly, it’s not that common in academics) and I like it in music. The Linda Lewis song which best embodies this is the soulful “This Time I’ll be Sweeter”:

It’s very feminine, charming and manipulative: pleading and probably irresistible. Linda asks entreatingly: “Darling, can’t you see/ What losing you has done to me?” and then goes on to reassure him:

I'm not the same girl I used to be
Have a change of heart
Don't leave me standing in the dark
Don't let confusion keep us apart
Come back to me and I’ll guarantee
All the tenderness and love you'll ever need.

This time I’ll be sweeter
Our love will run deeper
I won't mess around
I won't let you let down
Have faith in me…

And “Darling” surely does!

If the reader has detected a certain dislike of punk rock in my writings, let me correct them. A lot of it is horrid, and frankly aims to be precisely that. But its derivatives in not a few instances are terrific. Azure flowers emanated from the punk dung-hill: the Jam, the Clash, the Stranglers and particularly Squeeze (oh Glenn Tilbrook, you are Paul McCartney reincarnated). But the most remarkable punk and post-punk of them all is without doubt the German singer Nina Hagen. You can divide humanity into two categories: those who haven’t heard of her and look blank, and those who have—and who promptly grin and say “You would like her!” Like her? I’d do anything she asked me to do. I’d be like Anthony Powell’s horrible, obsequious Widmerpool and thank her if she stomped on me with her fish-netted legs and metal toe-capped Doc Martens!

Nina Hagen stands alone amongst all the singers I’ve examined so far in having exerted political influence—emphatically for the good. If the Berlin Wall crumbled, it was partly because Nina kicked it with those Docs. Her first hit as a teenager, “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen/ You Forgot the Colour Film.” was a sly dig, mocking the sterile black and white communist state.

Nina Hagen.

Her family were clearly too hot to handle for the authorities—her stepfather, the dissident singer Wolf Biermann, was paid the ultimate compliment of not being allowed to return to East Germany after a concert tour. In turn, the authorities did nothing to prevent Nina (and Mum) from joining him in Cologne, particularly after Nina threatened to become “the next Wolf Biermann” if they made her stay. Herr Honecker groaned: “We’ll be out of power in a month if we let her, and we can’t count on those trusty Soviet tanks!” (I made that up).

The nine-year-old Nina had been hailed as an opera prodigy and consider the year she went west, 1976: this marked the stunning advent of punk. Given its essential foundation of talentlessness, Nina ripped through punk like a knife through hot butter. Even the British, pioneers of punk and eccentricity alike, couldn’t quite believe what they saw when she took to the stage. Nina Hagen in her pomp was flamboyant, excessive, outrageous and courageous alike. Sometimes, just rolling her eyes, her ‘r’s or, ahem, her ass, she could transform herself within seconds from a Valkyrie Vampire or a Cruella to a clown—and back again.

If I stood any chance and could have Nina on my interviewer’s or analyst’s couch, baring her innermost thoughts and feelings, I would ask her this question: “Fraulein Hagen, underneath your lioness’s mane, your layers of punk makeup, all your velvets, leathers and frilly panties, isn’t there quite a shy girl lurking? Isn’t there a cashmere cardigan, string of pearls and a knee-length tweed skirt of a well-bred Bavarian Frau of ca. 1965 [Editor: exciting thought!] wanting to come out? Isn’t all your excess a carapace, a protection, from a diffident, introverted, softer and vulnerable Nina within? Don’t you in your heart of hearts wish you were recording beautiful songs like Joan Baez or Judy Collins?”

“Nein!” she would scream back, “Folk off, Herr Doktor!”

Now, let’s focus on the music—and unlike the largely prehistoric artists addressed so far, videos are integral to Nina’s appeal. Her choice of material, as you might expect, is scattergun, terribly hit and miss, probably numerically miss. And then you really need to get Nina in one of her relatively rare, subdued moods, not when she is showing off and wailing like a banshee, which is most of the time. She was not at her best when performing live by the recently toppled Berlin Wall in 1989, though we can readily forgive her glee. She’s far better when she’s acknowledging the very few sentient beings superior to Nina in her world view, e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary:

If you played Mario Lanza’s impeccably sung version of “Ave Maria” immediately afterwards, it would appear a vapid, sanitised, 1950s anti-climax, underlying the cultural and historical need for Nina.

Her fans are split over “Hold Me”: some punk purists despise it as a sell-out to commercialism. I adore it. It’s a cover of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s song. Listening to them sequentially underlines Jackson’s decent, boring worthiness, whereas Nina electrifies the song. I’d like to think of the Lord chuckling indulgently and a little nervously at her. In the very funny accompanying video she responds to an invitation from “Mother Mahalia” to perform her version and is aghast: “I can’t sing a [sic] gospel, I’m a white chick!” But she does:

And in her appearance Nina in 1989 resembles for all the world another Jackson: Michael. Can we rewrite history and posit the thesis that Jacko underwent all that cosmetic surgery in a doomed attempt to look like Nina Hagen? I know he was weird, but this is plain ridiculous…

Hagen’s humour resurfaces in the electro-punk of “So Bad” (1993). Sometimes she’s a bit worrying, a little too environmentalist/leftie/proto-woke for many readers. But here we should forgive her everything, especially when she rolls out all the baddies/bad things: “diet soda… user friendly… Helmut Kohl… the Yugoslavian rape”:

This is surely Chateaubriand’s romantic mal du siècle, 200 years on: go, Nina!


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Girls, Girls, Girls: A Celebration Of Women Singers Of The Popular Idiom—Part I

This first part of Mark Stocker’s fiercely intelligent celebration focuses on four singers, one famous, two obscure and one middling—but tragic. Common to each one of them is, surprise, surprise, an ability to sing…


There really was a time mid-century when a kind of infantile sexism prevailed in the popular music scene. We were supposed to thank heaven for “leetle girls” according to the creepy Maurice Chevalier. Accordingly, grown women were expected to record cute novelty records or, if they were more ambitious, inanely catchy ones. And then there were Christmas hits (shudder, Scrooge was right). I’m thinking of “How much is that doggie in the window?” (Patti Page) and “Me and my teddy bear” (Rosemary Clooney).

Rosemary Clooney, 1954.

We can turn over the Page quite easily, but Rosemary Clooney—best known today for being George’s aunty—was a massive vocal talent. Her career had stops and starts and nearly came to premature ruin in the 1960s. Five children, the wandering paws of José Ferrer whom she married and divorced twice, alcoholism (Rosemary was probably pickled in the womb), and the capitalistic pressures of recording contracts and stardom (think Judy Garland) made Rosemary a remarkable, admirable survivor. She ultimately did it her way. I find her voice just as attractive as her legendary near contemporary Peggy Lee, and reckon she’s underrated in comparison. Give Rosemary the right material (almost anything by Rogers and Hart for a start) and you’re in for a treat. Ella and Sarah alike would have admired her—I just know it!

There are some 1950s goodies interspersing the trivia. Who can resist her duet with Marlene Dietrich, “Too old?” And there’s the tenderly sung “Tenderly”:

But Rosemary attained astonishing heights in what has become a cult album, the inanely titled “Love” (1963), where the impeccably curated material, superlatively delivered, nails it time and again. It’s the dream ticket, the sensuous orchestra of Nelson Riddle (with whom she was then conducting an illicit affair, just the conductor, mind, not the instrumentalists), which surely gives several songs their edge, and Clooney’s vocals: breath, pitch and phrasing to die for. Though recorded on the eve of Beatlemania, the record is 1950s in feel, which probably didn’t help its negligible commercial success.

The plus side of being conservative is that these songs exude repression and sublimation, and possess none of the “let it all hang out” vulgarity that still gives the 1960s a bad name. Some of the melodies are genuinely complex: am I alone in thinking that Marc Blitzstein’s “I wish it so” is possibly the finest popular song before “Eleanor Rigby?”

“Find the way” is very nearly as good, and if you like Rosemary at her more conventional, then Rogers and Hart’s “Yours sincerely” hits the spot too. Oh, you people, ‘Love’ should have been reciprocated but it was simply too good for you, you bought into the frothy Rosemary and spurned the one that had sheer class. Sometimes it is a case in music of “vox pop, vox dei” and stuff the snobby critics (early Beatles, Abba and Queen are prime examples), but here the populi still need consciousness-raising.

A long and horrible hiatus followed in Rosemary’s career: relationship and personal breakdowns, paranoia and barbiturate addiction, etc. But then, mirabili dictu, she emerged—in what was little short of the Clooney Renaissance—as a remarkably adroit, fully-fledged jazz singer, her deeper voice enhanced by her committed packet a day smoking. (Clooney’s voice and the tragic impotence of a snooker player while your opponent piles on the breaks are the two justifications I can think of for cigarettes).

Almost anything from about 1978 to 1998 in Clooney’s repertoire is worth listening to: her tributes to Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and of course, Rogers, Hart & Hammerstein. The first two tracks of RH&H, “Oh what a beautiful morning” and the witty duet “People will say we’re in love” (with fabulous trumpet AND vocals from the Louis Armstrong soundalike Jack Sheldon), make this probably the most awesome start to any album I’ve heard, and the rest doesn’t disappoint either:

Rosemary, I salute you. Yours sincerely (groan!), Dr. Stocker.

My next two singers, Lana Bittencourt and Miss Toni Fisher, are more minor stars but all the reason to resurrect them and share my guilty pleasures. As in art history, I relish the obscure. Lana who? Well, she was Brazil’s biggest female vocal star in the late 1950s, and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her voice was big in the truest sense, and there was no point in resisting it.

Aldous Huxley divided the female sex into egg whisks and chests-of-drawers in the brilliant Point Counter Point, and Lana was emphatically an egg-whisk.

Lana Bittencourt, 1957.

One Valentine’s Day, I sent a number of select fair-sexed friends her biggest hit, the passionate cover of “Little Darling” and their response was one of startled pleasure and perhaps affectionate reproach: how come I haven’t heard of her, “Little Darling” indeed!, etc. Listen and yield to Lana:

Her versatility is demonstrated in this clip from the eminently forgettable B-movie Jeca Tatu, about an endearing, lazy simpleton who has his property threatened by an unscrupulous landowner, and we all know how that will turn out. In the god-fearing society of that day in these rural parts, everything naturally stops with the Angelus bell. Note the guest appearance by Frida Kahlo (I know, I’m kidding), irritated by a fly:

Lana Bittencourt recorded admirable cover versions of “I will follow him” and, particularly, the impassioned “Johnny Guitar,” the title track of a Nicholas Ray film marginally superior to Jeca Tatu. You don’t need to translate from the Portuguese—in fact it’s a lot less risible than Lana’s hopeless English accent. Indeed, it’s a worthy rival of Peggy Lee’s far more famous version:

I’m looking for a culture anywhere on Earth that respects and preserves its sense of history, but it’s proving a vain search. My heart sank into my Doc Martens when I saw that the Israeli government hadn’t intervened to buy the archive of the “Roaring Lion” sculptor, Abraham Melnikoff, passed in at auction. Lana Bittencourt’s obscurity in Brazil today is almost as saddening. She’s approaching 90, and just a few years ago, was still bravely, albeit croakily, singing away…

Miss Toni Fisher (omitting her title is a no-no) had a brief but glorious recording career and it would not be ungenerous to pigeonhole her as a “two hit wonder.” But ‘wonder’ is the operative word. If Bittencourt’s voice is big, then Miss Fisher’s can break a Waterford decanter at 50 paces.

Miss Toni Fisher, 1959.

Her sole major US hit was “The Big Hurt” (1959). This is an irresistible combination of Miss Fisher’s vocals, pioneering electronic phasing sound effects and a winning melody. Not surprisingly, it became highly influential and was frequently covered, lending itself perfectly to big ballad treatment by Scott Walker, and exhilarating Northern Soul by the two Susans (Rafey and Farrar). But as often happens, the original version is the best:

Miss Fisher’s follow-up hit “West of the Wall” is a fascinating phenomenon, a rarity: a convincingly politicised song, recorded at a time of great international tension, the construction of the Berlin Wall. It’s on the side of angels:

A few “useful idiots” doubtless condemned it as anti-Soviet—which of course it rightly was. The singer’s passion matches the political indignation that millions felt. Possibly it wasn’t a big hit in the US because inane radio stations didn’t want music and politics to mix. This can, admittedly, be heavy-handed and irritatingly preachy (sorry, I’m no fan of John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but hardly applies here. Unlike so much noise that passes for music over the past half-century, Miss Fisher makes sure you hear and digest every word of her message:

West of the wall I'll wait for you
West of the wall our dreams can all come true
Though we're apart a little while
My heart will wait until we both can smile
That wall built of our sorrow
We know must have an end
Till then dream of tomorrow
When we meet again.

Tomorrow would only come in 1989.

Imagine either the sex-symbol Jayne Mansfield, or her voluptuous British counterpart, Diana Dors, magically transformed from an actress into a singer. The result would surely have been Kathy Kirby (1938–2011). Tragedy is common to all three, the first two dying prematurely: Mansfield in a car accident and Dors of breast cancer, causing her grieving husband to commit suicide.

Kirby’s fate was if anything even crueller: a prolonged, squalid, impoverished forty-year coda to her relatively brief period of stardom. The Petula Clark hit “Don’t sleep in the subway, darling” inevitably comes to mind, and the ruined latter-day KK did just that. Or somebody’s doorstep.

Kathy Kirby, 1965.

But let’s focus for the while on the buoyant and radiating optimism that characterises the heyday of her recording career. The teenage, convent-educated (like Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull) Kathy stood at the crossroads: she took singing lessons with view to becoming an opera singer, but fate intervened when she was discovered by band leader Bert Ambrose in 1956. She remained with Ambrose’s band for three years and he in turn remained her manager, mentor and lover until his death on stage in Leeds in 1971.

Like the previous two chanteuses, KK boasted a considerable vocal presence. Her material certainly lacks profundity (the early 1960s were shallow times, what with superstars like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee and Bobby Rydell in their pomp), but it hits the spot in joie-de-vivre and catchiness. “Dance on” was kept at the top of the charts for a month by those unsophisticated Australians across the pond; then there’s “Let me go, lover;” and KK’s admirable cover of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”:

Later KK verges on the dramatically camp, particularly the theme song for “Adam Adamant,” a nutty BBC series proposing that an adventurer born in 1867 and who had vanished in 1902 had been revived from hibernation in 1966. It provided a satirical look at life in the 1960s through the eyes of an Edwardian. Touché, Dame Shirley Bassey!

The fact that KK had a far grander voice than the younger and trendier Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw unfortunately failed to stand her in good stead. She was in her element in variety shows, not the Swinging Sixties, and by the later years of that decade had become rather “square.” Is it a sexist observation to say that wearing a dress below the knee in 1966 contributed to her fate?

While KK was regularly claimed to be the highest-paid female singer in Britain, behind the scenes things were falling apart. Her alleged affair with game show host Bruce Forsyth caused Ambrose to erupt into fits of jealousy. Kirby also realised that Ambrose, a compulsive gambler, had lost almost all her money. When he died she was both bereft and skint. I hate to say it, but like a number of far more celebrated stars (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson to name but two), I fear KK just wasn’t very bright, and this when the playing-field was unquestionably tilted against women…

Turbulent affairs with both sexes ensued, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and survived on state benefits and meagre royalties for many years. She became a Garbo-like recluse before being moved to a nursing retirement home for entertainment professionals. This was at the behest of her niece, Sarah, wife of Margaret Thatcher’s son, the distinguished rally driver and Equatorial Africa coup leader, Sir Mark. A rare act of Thatcherite charity?! Lest I raise the hackles of some readers, I will soothe them with a lovely Kathy Kirby song, another standard (famously recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dalida, etc.), “I wish you love”:

Listen to her, be touched by the generous spirits that this song conveys in spades, and posthumously wish Kathy blue-birds in the spring…


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

Guilty Pleasures: More Blokes: Farlowe, McKuen, Blunstone And Ward

Chris Farlowe, Rod McKuen, Colin Blunstone and Clifford T. Ward aren’t exactly celebrities; the sole exception is McKuen who nonetheless died relatively obscure and unjustly patronised. The first three have remarkable voices in utterly different ways, whilst the fourth was a singer/songwriter of minor genius.

McKuen was a later discovery for me – he was never particularly big in Britain, and is probably the guiltiest of these pleasures. Only Farlowe had a Number One, a record that remains, alongside “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “Dancing Queen” and “(Too-Rye-Ay) Come on Eileen” (but not “Hey Jude”), one of my favourite tops of the pops.

This happened the week that England won the 1966 football World Cup, to the delight of Mr and Mrs Broadbridge, teaching Germany another lesson lest they forgot. The song in question was “Out of time,” a Jagger/Richards composition which from the opening strings playing those stirring chords, you know would be a winner.

The lyrics address a tiresome ex-girlfriend who needs to be told she’s so last year:

You don't know what's going on
You've been away for far too long
You can't come back and think you are still mine.
You're out of touch, my baby
My poor old-fashioned, baby
I said, baby, baby, baby, you're out of time.

Poor thing! Farlowe has been labelled a one-hit wonder but several singles made the lower chart reaches and the album “The Art of Chris Farlowe” (and it was art) sold respectably. “Ride on baby,” which had nothing to do with lawnmowers, was too much of a carbon copy to succeed, but an earlier Jagger/Richards song, “Think,” should have been a lot bigger.

Farlowe is white, but he definitely sounds black. His voice tends towards the rasping and gritty, it’s tough, it makes no attempt whatsoever to endear or charm, which is part of his integrity but does nothing for his popularity. Nor is Farlowe’s stage presence or appearance heart-warming: with his narrow set eyes and long nose, he looks like a lean 1960s London gang leader who would either have beaten up Francis Bacon, or would have been requested to do so with cash inducements.

Farlowe later got into strife for selling Nazi regalia in his antique shop, compounding the image problem, and yet when you see him on rare video footage sharing the stage with his idol, Otis Redding, he commendably holds his own. He’s a good match for the Father of Soul James Brown himself in his rendition of “It’s a man’s world.” But the title: can you see the problem? He doesn’t shake hands with our heart, so much as stomp on it. “We’re doing fine” drips with relationship tensions:

Everybody wants to know
If everything's alright
I guess they thought by now
We'd had a great big fight
No no no no no…

Farlowe protests too loudly. The grim way he sings it suggests that a rather horrible fight had indeed taken place, or else was highly likely to do so. Years later (1988) guitarist and Pre-Raphaelite art collector extraordinary, Jimmy Page, plucked Farlowe out of relative obscurity to sing several tracks on his album “Night Rider.” Page has always had impeccable taste and knew what he was doing. “Hummingbird,” a Leon Russell cover far superior to the original, shows that Farlowe had lost none of his old tricks:

The gulf between Chris Farlowe and Rod McKuen is akin to blue cheese bordering on rancid, and strawberries and cream. Rod is an old flirt, a cardigan clad charmer, at least in his now rather excruciating TV specials which were hugely popular in North America half a century ago. Yet his songs about love and loss are something else: melancholy, sometimes even bitter. Oh, that husky, raspy voice! Technically it is god-awful, and came about after Rod had irreparably wrecked his vocal chords in 1961. But like our friend Bacon painting the backs of his canvases, Rod shrewdly made a virtue out of this.

If you like the overpraised Tom Waits, you can’t credibly dislike Rod, and I would even say much the same about Leonard Cohen. Yet Rod seems destined to go down in history as “the king of kitsch” and it was a sad reflection on today’s philistinism that his vast personal archive was scattered and sold, rather than acquired by the Harry Ransom Center…

Rod McKuen.

You “Rodophobes” should look at yourselves. You people would protest, but you’re the victims of left-liberal genre and cultural snobbery. You can’t even claim the high moral political ground, for Rod’s liberalism was impeccable and his fight for gay equality utterly laudable. He famously combined his composing and performing with poetic aspirations, and the slim volumes which now turn up in car-boot sales, perhaps accompanied by their late owners’ lava lamps and kaftans, once sold in millions.

Many people’s minds—and I would venture to say not a few ageing academics’ minds—were opened up to poetry thanks to Rod, but he has received singularly little thanks for this. He’s a bit too homespun, predictable and lower middlebrow, a wannabe Charles Bukowski. Posterity, as I say, has been ungrateful, but a poetic sensibility unquestionably infuses Rod’s many memorable songs.

Some of the best are tributes to Rod’s Belgian mentor and friend Jacques Brel, which he translated. The much-recorded ‘If you go away’ is something of a signature song, surpassing almost every other cover version (no thanks, Neil Diamond):

If you go away on this summer day
Then you might as well take the sun away
All the birds that flew in a summer sky
When our love was new and our hearts were high
When the day was young and the night was long
And the moon stood still for the night bird’s song
If you go away, If you go away, If you go away…

I know, I know. My personal favourite is “Seasons in the Sun,” the reflections of a dying man. Please ignore that Canadian Terry Jacks’s icky and cheesy cover, and instead appreciate Rod’s mordant and angry rendition. Its poignancy is accentuated by the barest of acoustic guitar accompaniment and you don’t forgive or forget the cheating Françoise easily:

Rod could of course write (and perform) no shortage of admirable songs in his own right. Frank Sinatra knew what he was doing in recording “A Man Alone,” an album entirely based on McKuen, and not unusually it is rated far more highly by popular opinion than by jaded critics. “Love’s been good to me” is the standout track and Rod’s version holds its own against the infinitely greater formal perfection of Sinatra’s singing. Rod may have gone away, but his brittle talent and charm live on for me at least:

Like many people, I sometimes fantasise about singers, what they might be like and what their intellectual pursuits might be. With the late Robert Palmer, so studied, stylish, sophisticated, suave, witty and ever experimental, I felt that he must have enjoyed the fiction of Sterne, Thackeray and possibly Gide. No such luck: he was evidently at his happiest getting up at night and working on his Airfix model aircraft kits (just as Rod Stewart famously loves his train set). Perhaps my illusions would be likewise shattered by any putative meeting with Colin Blunstone.

Colin Blunstone at the CBS launch of Ennismore, 1972.

When I listen to his singing, I feel he is incapable of the common, vulgar, unrefined or uncouth. This is a voice which, before it broke, would have surely made him head chorister at the local St Albans Cathedral or even one’s alma mater, King’s College, Cambridge. The same adult voice was an integral part of the appeal of the Zombies, those pioneers of Prog, whose breathily beautiful “She’s not there” and “Time of the season” were surprising but deserved chart toppers in the US. American audiences are far less familiar with, but would surely not be disappointed by, Colin’s solo career from the early 1970s onwards. Here, Prog yields to superior, sensitive pop. I remember one of my contemporaries in the sixth form (11th grade) describing how he had been reduced to tears by “Caroline goodbye”:

Saw your picture in the paper
My, you're looking pretty good
Looks like you're gonna make it in a big way
Oh, I always knew you would
But I should have known better, yeah
And I should’ve seen sooner.
There's no use pretending
I've known for a long time your love is ending
Caroline goodbye
Caroline goodbye.

It’s that emotional generosity moving me (and my mate), perfectly meshed with that perfect sounding tenor. How could anyone in their right minds chuck Colin, who is as good looking as that voice? And it would be Caroline (a classy name half a century ago), rather than Sharon or Tracey: Colin, you are middle-class Home Counties and I like you very much for that.

Colin’s biggest hit was a cover of Denny Laine’s lovely song “Say you don’t mind” (I remember a music critic remarking how he would immediately smile whenever he heard it playing). Colin’s tenor attained powerful falsetto heights, corresponding yet again to the emotional… tenor. Oh, and those strings!

I realise that I've been in your eye some kind of fool
What I do, what I did, stupid fish I drank the pool
I've been doing some dying
Now I'm doing some trying
So say you don't mind, you don't mind
You'll let me off this time.

I forgive you anytime, Colin, but I can’t speak for Caroline. The voice is perfect, the songs likewise, and sometimes quite complex (“How can we dare to be wrong?”) and I continue to remain as baffled as I was half a century ago as to why he wasn’t a megastar:

How could people “fail to see” as Colin rhetorically asks in this song? But I get the strong impression that Colin is relaxed and contented with the recognition that he does get, and again he has my admiration. In fact, I feel a fan letter coming on:

Dear Mr Blunstone,
I’m in my 60s and average looking. I like church architecture and Prog Rock and like you grew up near St Albans. Well, I’d like to tell you that for many years, I’ve just loved your singing and your songs…

Next singer, please!

As one of Clifford T. Ward’s obituarists has observed, his best songs—and there were a fair few—synthesised a fine grasp of pop melody with genuine poetic sensibility. An awful lot of English art before those ghastly, self-advertising Young British Artists, and a comparable amount of literature, celebrated the homely, the domestic, the everyday and the low-key. Woe betide anyone who mistakes this for insipidity.

Clifford T. Ward.

Ward epitomised these qualities. He first hit the charts as a Worcestershire schoolteacher with “Gaye,” which enchanted me as a sensitive and uncertain 17-year-old, and no, it is not about liberation of one’s sexuality. But my personal favourite has to be “Scullery.” North American readers perhaps need to be told that this is an offshoot of the kitchen in an English home, where you wash your smalls or dirtier pans. Clifford T’s perfect enunciation perhaps makes any reproduction of his lyrics otiose, but I hope you too marvel at how he makes the humdrum poetic:

You're my picture, by Picasso
Lighting up our scullery
With your pans and pots and hot-plates
You'd brighten up any gallery
If I could paint a different picture
Leafy lanes and flower scenes
Buttermilk, your cooking mixture
You still have ingredients that make you shine
And when you take your apron off I know you're mine…

This was inspired by his wife, Pat, whom he knew from their schooldays. One would love to create an idyll around them and their four children living in a picture-postcard ivy-clad cottage, but the reality was far sadder. Clifford T. was diagnosed in his early forties with multiple sclerosis, and took many years to die.

From his stage persona, he seems the very embodiment of sensitivity and sweetness, but a tell-all biography sadly blew that image to smithereens and though this was surely aggravated by pain, he emerges as hectoring and self-centred. Yet, to quote Prog Rock band the Nice, ars longa vita brevis, and there remains much to cherish in Clifford T’s songs. “Home thoughts from Abroad,” itself of course a quotation from Robert Browning’s famous poem, and the gorgeous “The best is yet to come,” are both cases in point:

Obviously, Clifford T. had no truck with punk rock, and the feeling was mutual.

Truly, he could be deemed a cult figure: his shyness meant that he loathed live performance, and yet he and Pat were legendary for making fans cups of tea if they called round. This was utterly in character with the aforementioned domesticity and decency. I’d like to think the same fans would go on to do brass rubbings in a local church on the same trip, but I fantasise.

People who matter in music jolly well knew he was special: these included Elton John (“Your song” is very Clifford T), Paul McCartney, whom historian Dominic Sandbrook rightly lauds as the greatest Beatle, while Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Art Garfunkel and Judy Collins all recorded cover versions of his songs. Clifford T. died aged 57 in 2001 and I am pressing for his inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.


Featured image: “Colin Blunstone-The Zombies,” by Thomas Leparskas, 2020.

Guilty Pleasures: Gene Pitney, Scott Walker And Cliff Richard

Me And Pop

No, the articles by Mark Stocker that will dominate 2022 and surely represent the highlight of the Postil Magazine to its more discerning readership, are not about the author and the generally benign relationship he enjoyed with his much loved, late father.

Pop was a square about Pop—his idea of a great number one hit was the theme from The Third Man—I ask you—and his comprehension of heavy metal was minimal. That said, Oliver Stocker could be quite shrewd. Watching Mick Jagger on our Bush black and white television, a masterpiece of c. 1960 cabinetry, he pronounced: “That young man is interesting looking and has real presence. I predict a big future for him.”

I was a little disconcerted, for what right had someone of the older generation to comment in any shape or form upon “my” Mick? Such was my admiration for him that when I read in Fabulous magazine that he disliked tomatoes, I too boycotted them for a couple of weeks.

All this testifies to the place that music of the popular idiom had in my formative years. I am indeed “Talking about my generation” to quote Pete Townsend. I entered my picture of his group (as they were then called) The Who in the 9-12 year old section in the 1966 Window magazine art competition for children of civil servants at the Department of Social Security (where Oliver Stocker worked in the Legal Office) and attained second prize: a proud line in my CV. I think some messily painted family dog beat me to it, but I feel remarkably little bitterness. More to the point, pop music exuded from my every breath and pore….

As I pen these columns, memories are brought back and I feel the corresponding need to share them with my devoted readers. The undertaking is both profoundly intellectual (this can be easily inferred through my multiple literary and historical allusions), and unashamedly emotional. Indeed, I think of Carpenter (Karen, not Edward, you clot) when she reminisces:

When I was young
I'd listen to the radio
Waitin’ for my favourite songs
When they played I’d sing along
It made me smile.
Those were such happy times
And not so long ago
How I wondered where they’d gone
But they’re back again
Just like a long lost friend
All the songs I loved so well.
Every Sha-la-la-la
Every Wo-o-wo-o
Still shines
Every shing-a-ling-a-ling
That they’re startin’ to sing’s
So fine.

Pure poetry, and beautifully enunciated singing. Reader, I will take you on a journey through “Every Sha-la-la-la/ Every Wo-o-wo-o” in these columns in the months ahead, and I thank you in anticipation for joining me. I prefer to keep the contents a closely-guarded secret, and the editor agrees, but I promise to explore a diversity of genres (I’m very PC, you see). Sometimes an arresting theme transcending them, such as “Pop and politics” and “Pop art,” will be my focus.

Throughout, I must acknowledge with warm thanks the patient and sagacious comments and corrections of Emeritus Associate Professor Robert G. H. Burns, a bass-guitarist’s bass guitarist and author of Experiencing Progressive Rock: A Listener’s Companion (2018). Impressed? I am, for starters. Well, without further ado, let us commence.


In this inaugural article, I consider three solo male singers who came to the fore in the 1960s, all of whom had an impact on me. Read on, and—aided by Youtube—appreciate how and why, and see if you feel similarly…

Let’s start with Gene Pitney, who was in the British Top Ten when I became instantly hooked on pop aged nearly eight. My moment of epiphany dates from the first ever episode of Top of the Pops, January 1964, presented by the egregious Jimmy Saville. I remained a TOTP addict up to its 500th edition (1973) but David Cassidy’s nauseating “Daydreamer/ The Puppy Song” was the limit, and I never watched a single episode thereafter. Gene’s current hit marked his British breakthrough, the splendid Bacharach-penned “24 Hours from Tulsa”:

It wasn’t so much a song as a short story. Gene was one day away from the arms of his girlfriend when he met this smashing babe, you see, and this is his confessional. What impressed me was the perfect consonance between the tone and timbre of his unusual tenor voice and his guilt-ridden state. A lot of Gene Pitney is pretty emotional stuff, dim critics would say faux melodramatic, on the verge of operatic, with a tenor that sometime barked with angst.

The tragedies of love central to the Pitney iconography were belied by what was evidently a happy, if sadly shortened, life: his wholesome looks, his invariably gentlemanly nature shown to what must have been many limited and irritating fans, his unaffected Anglophilia and his regular family life (marrying his high school sweetheart after briefly dallying with Marianne Faithfull, a fortunate escape). What clinched it for me, though, was the teenage Gene (and I hope beyond) as a keen coin and fossil collector. A punk rocker would doubtless deem Pitney a fossil, but that’s rude.

Once when I saw Henry Moore being interviewed on TV, I was initially irritated by, then suddenly grasped, why he appeared to be fidgeting all the time: he’d much rather be in the studio, modelling material than being browbeaten by some art historian. With Gene you get a comparable impression: he’d much rather be singing than doing anything else. Exploring his repertoire on YouTube shows something far wider than anything I had expected: put the phone book in front of him and Gene would happily sing it. My favourite songs are often the very early ones: a teen Gene (well, barely out of them) was perfectly cast with Dimitri Tiomkin’s eerie “Town without pity”:

He’s almost as impressive with the upbeat Jagger/Richards “That girl belongs to yesterday.” He’s typically moody in the anthemic “I’m gonna be strong,” which certainly made big girls cry. He sings a shampoo commercial in “She lets her hair down.” With “24 Sycamore,” he glories in unglamorous British semi-detached mock Tudor suburbia. But he’s utterly captivating—and if I may say so, totally Stocker-like—when, relatively late in life, he turned to singing John Betjeman’s poem, “Myfanwy at Oxford”:

Pink may, double may, dead laburnum
Shedding an Anglo-Jackson Shade,
Shall we ever, my staunch Myfanwy,
Bicycle down to North Parade?
Kant on the handle-bars, Marx in the saddlebag,
Light my touch on your shoulder-blade.

This is 24 light years from Tulsa but it’s the same irrepressible Pitney. After she’d written her superb double biography of John and Myfanwy Piper, I drew Frances Spalding’s attention to this recording and her response was “I just don’t believe this!”

Scott Walker: an act of sheer class, and he damn well knew it. Calling his first four albums Scott 1, Scott 2, etc. shows that he had no false modesty. He had a musical depth and refinement that I recognise the more amiable Gene lacked, and, not surprisingly, enjoyed a more respectful critical press.

Scott Walter, ca. 1968.

Pseuds particularly admire the experimental Scott Walker of the last 20-30 years of his career; but these impenetrable records sold pathetically and their titles say it all: “Track Three” (akin to the modernist “Untitled”) and “Bish bosch”—give me a break! But much earlier he had the nous, and indeed the talent, to forsake the heart-throb status of his first incarnation as lead singer of the Walker Brothers, who were in their heyday between 1965 and 1967. What I loved about their hits was not just their melodies, impeccable delivery and powerful orchestration, but their emotional generosity. The first verse of “Love her” reads thus:

Love her
and tell her each day
that girl needs to know
tell her so, tell her everything I couldn't say
Like she's warm, and she's sweet and she’s fine,
Oh love her like I should have done.

From beginning to end (the Ronettes’ cover, “Walking in the Rain”), the Walker Brothers were something special. But Scott was bursting to break free, to go up-market. It was a golden time, before the cult of the singer-songwriter which did untold damage to pop and rock (can you imagine Enrico Caruso or Kiri Te Kanawa as composers?) and when an artist was given free rein to choose their own material and not kowtow to mega-capitalist labels and ghastly managerial suits. Scott’s selection of songs has impeccable taste and deftly straddles genres. With the big ballad “Angelica,” he makes a fascinating comparison with Pitney:

Scott’s version is richer and more classically perfect but Gene wins the contest emotionally. Yet Scott made a dear friend (now sadly dead) cry when I sent her “Best of both worlds.” He can do a great Jacques Brel in “Jackie,” and a comparably impressive Tim Hardin in “Black Sheep Boy” and “The Lady Came from Baltimore”:

Yes, a bit soundalike those two, but gorgeously melodic and they don’t outstay their two-minute welcome. With “The Big Hurt,” Scott veers towards soul, but you’d never find him being danced to on the talced floor of the Wigan Casino.

“Scott 4,” alas, flopped and this setback set him on a new path of becoming ever more relentlessly experimental. It was brave but—unlike Philip Guston in painting—ultimately regrettable. Battling with his later material, I felt like screaming, “Oh Scott! Have you changed your name to Scotthausen?”

Cliff Richard, the “Peter Pan” of British pop, who never really made it in the US, is hard to write about. I champion him partly because he has long been the object of vicious, sneering, sniping criticism by critics and journalists with intellectual pretensions. I ask them this: isn’t his Christ-centred life (not one I’d choose, but…) a saner, better role model than that followed by his tragic near contemporaries Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, as well as by improbable survivors like his dissolute near namesake Keith Richards?

Yes, there’s a lot of light-weight froth in Cliff’s vast repertoire and—good god—he has suffered for this (“Goodbye Sam, Hello Samantha” is an especially toe-curling example). At the same time, there’s also a fair bit that’s good, occasionally damn good. Cliff is so old, he long predates this recent pensioner, and I have to delve back to my pre-Top of the Pops infancy for some of his best songs: it’s hard to get past “Living Doll,” written in 10 minutes by Lionel Bart:

Then there’s the irrepressibly catchy “The Young Ones,” “Summer Holiday” and “Bachelor Boy.” A measure of Cliff’s appeal was when I was in a supermarket fairly recently and their canned music system was playing his early, and still spiritedly rocking, “Please don’t tease.” A little boy was shopping nearby and asked “Mum, what’s that song called?”

“Congratulations,” cheated by an unholy fascist alliance of Spain and Portugal out of winning the 1968 Eurovision Contest by a song that repeats “La-la-la-la” no less than 138 times, remains the YouTube number I send to friends who attain high places or have grandchildren. They seem to approve. You need stronger nerves to cope with Cliff’s remarkable 1999 “Millennium Prayer,” which infuriated his snobbish atheistic critics by setting the Lord’s Prayer to the song of “Auld Lang Syne”:

It was cheeky, it was naff, but you have to hand the concept to its composer, and it is nothing if not a conviction performance by Cliff. He enjoyed the last laugh over the knockers, as the great British public promptly sent it to Number One, the fourteenth in his phenomenal career.

And then, rather too rarely, Cliff records songs that are to my untutored ear, lovely standards. I’m a soft touch for his European composed ballads—the wistful and tender “Constantly” and the melodic “All my love”:

“When in Rome” is a remarkably good and as ever, critically underrated album of the mid-1960s. He goes reggae in a sentimental but effective cover of Harry Belafonte’s “Scarlet Ribbons” (avoid the tacky video, however), and is impressively Country in “Wind me up” and “The minute you’re gone,” recorded in Nashville. Cliff won the reluctant admiration of some of his sharpest critics with his so-called “Renaissance” phase (the early to mid-1970s hadn’t been particularly kind to him), with “Devil Woman,” “We Don’t Talk Anymore” and, particularly, “Carrie”:

Written by B.A. Robertson, a very different kind of artist, “Carrie” was justly admired by AllMusic pundit Dave Thompson as “an enthrallingly atmospheric number. One of the most electrifying of all Cliff Richard’s recordings.” Cliff is no social commentator, but this came closest to nailing the increasing anomie and alienation of British society in the early Thatcher era. He is trying to track down the young woman of the title, but is told:

Cliff Richard, ca. 1975.
Carrie doesn’t live here anymore
Carrie used to room on the second floor
Sorry that she left no forwarding address
That was known to me.

So, Carrie doesn’t live here anymore
You could always ask at the corner store
Carrie had a date with her own kind of fate
It's plain to see.

Another missing person
One of many we assume
The young wear their freedom
Like cheap perfume.

This is an unhappy real-life situation, really rather banal and almost certainly one of underlying tragedy, but the whole point is we can at once hear it and identify with it. Cliff’s quest culminates in a helpless, inarticulate, despairing “Carrie!” I love the muffled sound effects of the unhelpful information line. Don’t bother listening to Cliff Richard if you seek anything profound, but do so if you want a singer who—perhaps despite yourself and your Guardian-reading proclivities—can and indeed should sometimes move you.


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.


Featured image: a portrait of Gene Pitney by James Wilkinson, ca. 1980s.

Chopin And His Followers. A Very Brief History Of The Chopin Competition In Warsaw

The final auditions of the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition ended on 20 October 2021, and the winner was the Canadian pianist Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, who was also given the sobriquet, “Bruce Lee of the piano.”

The Chopin Competition is one of the most prestigious piano tournaments in the world. It has promoted many world famous artists, such as Krystian Zimerman and Martha Argerich. Held in Warsaw every five years, the competition generates great excitement and young pianists are cheered by music lovers from all over the world.

The very first Chopin Competition was held in 1927, when Chopin’s music was not yet as well known around the world as it is today. Poland, having just regained independence in 1918, had little cultural influence on the international stage and the idea of organizing a Chopin competition was without question a political matter. The Competition was like a sports tournament, in that the process of the competition was inspired by the emotions that only sports events evoked in young people. Twenty-six candidates from seven European countries applied for the first edition. The twelve-member jury was then composed solely of Poles, who, rightly or wrongly, at that time were still convinced that Poles understood Chopin’s music best. This soon changed and today’s jury is international. The first winner was Lev Oborin from the USSR.

The competition quickly gained in stature and fame, and five years later, in 1932, representatives of seventeen countries came to Warsaw. In this competition (the jury was already international), the judges included not only outstanding pianists of the time but also music critics and even a literary man. Karol Szymanowski himself was a member of the competition’s Organising Committee. There were eighty-nine pianists competing for the main prize, so the duration of the competition was extended to eighteen days. The participants were expected to be perfectly prepared: If one of them did not seem good enough from the very beginning, the chairman of the jury would interrupt his playing by ringing a bell. The winner was Kiev-born Alexander Uninsky, who at that time claimed to be stateless (he later became a citizen of the United States).

As many as 250 candidates from Europe, America and Asia applied to take part in the third competition; after preliminary selection rounds, seventy-none contestants remained. Thirty judges from a dozen countries sat on the jury, among them Wilhelm Backhaus and Emil von Sauer, Franz Liszt’s last living pupil. All stages of the competition were held with the participation of the audience, who – just like in a sports competition – placed bets on their favorites. When the results were announced, the lack of a prize for the audience’s favourite, the Japanese pianist Chieko Hara, caused great excitement. The first and second prizes went to representatives of the USSR: Jakov Zak and Rosa Tamarkina, while the third prize went to the Polish pianist Witold Malcuzynski, a pupil of Ignacy Paderewski.

On 26 September 1939, the Warsaw Philharmonic building, where the competition auditions took place, was completely destroyed by Nazi bombs. The next edition of the competition, planned for 1942, did not take place – World War II was raging all around. It was in 1949 that the competition once again organized and was held in the Roma Theater, because there was no philharmonic hall in which the performances could be held. Putting together the competition was very difficult – there were no pianos for the participants; there were no hotels where they could sleep. However, the organizers managed to cope with these problems and fifty-four young pianists started the competition. Travelling around the world was very difficult at that time, yet representatives from France, England, Italy, Austria, and even Brazil, the USA and Mexico came to Poland. The international jury included Lev Oborin, the winner of the first competition. Since then, the participation of former laureates in the jury has become the norm. A novelty in this competition was that the judges listened to the pianists from behind blinds, without seeing the participants. This was to prevent unfair judgments. This idea was abandoned in subsequent competitions, as the pianist’s posture at the piano is an important part of his playing. The first prize was won for the first time by a Pole, Halina Czerny-Stefańska.

The next competition took place in the new Philharmonic building. Its construction was completed in 1955, and so the fifth edition of the competition was organized after six years, not after the usual five years. The jury consisted of thirty people, including the eminent Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. The Executive Committee of the Competition was headed by the outstanding Polish writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. The competition was attended by seventy-seven pianists from twenty-five countries around the world, including Chile, Ecuador, South Africa, China, Japan, Mexico, and Ceylon.

The first three prizes were awarded to pianists who went on to have dazzling careers: The Pole Adam Harasiewicz (who won First Prize) is still a member of the competition jury today; the Soviet candidate Vladimir Ashkenazy (who won Second Prize), and the Chinese pianist Fuo Ts’ong (who won Third Prize). The Chinese representative also received a special prize for the best performance of the mazurkas, for it had always been said that only a Pole could play them well. The scores were calculated by a mathematical machine. The audience did not fully agree with the jury’s verdict – in their opinion, the first prize should have gone to the fourth place winner, the Frenchman Bernard Ringessen. The crowd showed its enthusiasm for the pianist before his departure – by tossing him up in the air along with the car.

The next competition was held in 1960, the 150th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. In the same year, Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne completed an edition of the composer’s Complete Works edited by I.J. Paderewski – this edition is still played by pianists today. The jury was composed of eminent persons. The session was chaired by Artur Rubinstein, who was known for his weakness for doughnuts made by A. Blikle, a famous Warsaw confectioner. Apparently, the pianist could eat eleven of them during jury deliberations! The vice-president of the jury was Nadia Boulanger, French composer and teacher of Wojciech Kilar, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass and Aaron Copland. Among the participants for the first time were pianists from Australia, India, Israel and Turkey. The jubilee competition enjoyed an unprecedented turnout – not only Poles, but also many foreign listeners came. The Philharmonic Hall was full, and music lovers, who did not manage to get in, jammed the doors. One evening, they managed to break through the door and force their way into the hall! This edition of the competition was unusual in one more respect – for the first time, the jury’s verdict met with the approval of the critics and the audience. The winner was the Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini.

After victories by Slavs in previous editions, Pollini’s triumph initiated prizes for representatives of other nations. The first prize in 1965 went to Argentine Martha Argerich (who sat on the jury of subsequent competitions), who in addition to the main prize received several others, including the Polish Radio Award for best mazurka performance. The winner of the next edition of the competition in 1970 was the American Garrick Ohlsson, the Second Prize went to the Japanese Mitsuko Uchida, the Third to the Pole Piotr Paleczny and the Fourth to the American Eugen Indjic. All these names are of great importance to world piano playing today. The Polish winner of the Sixth Prize, Janusz Olejniczak, who is considered one of the most outstanding interpreters of Chopin’s music, has also made an international career. But the winners did not include Jeffrey Swann and Diane Walsh, both talented American pianists, which was met with outrage by critics and audience alike.

A special change came at the 8th edition of the competition, when it was held in autumn (when the composer died), rather than on the composer’s birthday. The reason? Frequent illnesses of foreign participants, not used to the Polish climate. And it was not only the foreigners who fell ill; the winter-spring period is a time of colds in Poland – critics still remember how Zbigniew Drzewiecki, the chairman of the jury in 1965, could not stop coughing during the auditions. Since then, it has tradition and all editions of the competition are now held in autumn.

Along with the prestige of the competition, its popularity grew – there were more and more people willing to buy audition tickets. In 1975, during the 9th edition, a situation developed when the audience blocked the entrance to the philharmonic because of a lack of tickets. Only the intervention of security services resolved things. The competition was won – as the youngest in its history – by an 18-year-old Polish candidate, Krystian Zimerman, who also received prizes for best performance of the mazurkas, polonaise and sonata.

As many as 216 pianists from six continents applied for the 10th jubilee competition, and as many as 149 were admitted to the competition. The large number of candidates made the jury face a difficult task. This, of course, was not without its scandals. Before the final, Martha Argerich left the jury as a protest – the reason was the rejection of the Yugoslavian candidate Ivo Pogorelic in the third stage. The eccentric pianist became a darling of critics and audiences alike, and his “big loss” ultimately helped him develop a stunning career. The First Prize in the competition was then won by the Vietnamese pianist, Dang Thai Son, who was the only winner in the history of the competition to perform the Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor in the final, which is considered unlucky – all others won with Concerto No. 1 in E minor.

The winners of the 11th and 14th competitions were Russian Stanislav Bunin (1985) and Chinese Yundi Li (2000). And what happened in-between? At the 12th and 13th contests, the main prizes were simply not awarded. In 1990, at the first competition in free Poland after the Round Table Agreement, the winner of the second prize was the American Kevin Kenner, who, according to critics, deserved the first prize. Five years later, the second place ex aequo went to the Frenchman Philippe Giusano and the Russian Alexei Sultanov. The Russian pianist, who saw himself as the winner, was outraged by the jury’s decision – and did not perform at the winners’ concert. Nelson Goerner, an eminent pianist and Chopin interpreter, also participated in this competition – but at that time the jury did not even admit him to the final.

After 30 years of waiting, the Polish team experienced its triumph in 2005, when Rafał Blechacz won the competition. His victory was unquestionable; apart from the main prize he received all the special awards. The advantage of the Polish pianist was so great that the jury did not award the second prize. This competition was unusual also because it was the first time it was broadcast via the Internet.

Five years later, at the Chopin Jubilee Competition on the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, the jury’s decision caused great excitement – the winner was Yulianna Avdeeva from Russia. The audience’s favourite was the Austrian Ingolf Wunder, who won Second Prize ex aequo with the Russian/Latvian Lukas Geniušas.The 17th competition ended with the triumph of candidates from overseas: Korean Seong-Jin-Cho (First Prize), Canadian Charles Richard Hamelin (Second Prize) and American Kate Liu (Third Prize). This edition of the competition had an unprecedented reach – the broadcast reached 31 million listeners who commented on the auditions in real time. Never before had such heated discussions about classical music been recorded on the Internet.

The recently concluded edition of the competition (postponed by a year due to a pandemic) was also very emotional. From a record number of 500 applications 87 pianists were selected to participate in the competition. The jury assessed the level of the candidates as the highest in history and therefore admitted as many as twelve people to the final! (The rules stipulate 10.) The winner was Canadian representative Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu. The number of awards was also greater than usual – the second and fourth prizes were awarded twice. What will the jury surprise us with in four years time?


Dr. Magdalena Bartnikowska-Biernat is an editor in PWM (Polish Musical Publishing House) and author of works on music and literature.


The featured image shows, “Chopin concert,” by Henryk Siemiradzki; painted in 1887.

Guilty Pleasures: Reggae

I know that my childhood and youth would have been a lot less pleasant had I been deprived of reggae. My love of it is admittedly superficial but strong – the insanely compelling reggae beat, the equally compelling melodies and – something all too rare in rock and even in mainstream pop – a frequently wacky sense of humour that is charming and disarming. A sheltered youth, I never went to a proper reggae concert, the sole exception being the King’s College, Cambridge downmarket version of a May Ball, where the star act was the stellar Desmond Dekker. He played most of the big hits pretty damn well. Who can forget the a capella opening of “The Israelite:”

Get up in the morning slaving for bread, sir
So that every mouth can be fed…

Not much humour there, I admit. But Desmond could also produce something maddeningly catchy in “Sing a little song:”

When your heart is filled with sorrow
Sing a little song, sing a little song
When you’re worried and feel heavy-laden
Sing a little song, sing a little song.

What good advice. It’s like a secular variant on Cardinal Basil Hume saying – and I paraphrase – “If someone or something has angered you, don’t answer back. Instead, bite your tongue and just say, ‘Thanks be to God!’” I’m not much of a religious believer, but that really moved me. Of course, reggae itself can be religious, and why not? The lovely voice of John Holt is made for non-Rastafarian Christ-centred (or maybe Baby Jesus-centred) songs of praise. Once I found myself in a crowded bus in Samoa, wedged into a tiny seat by a generously proportioned Samoan lady, couldn’t reach my water bottle and thus in some discomfort, but was enchanted by the blaring sound system playing a succession of reggae Christmas carols – in August!

Who are my reggae favourites? Relatively conventional chart-orientated acts I suppose, which is hardly surprising for someone whose main idea of intellectual television when growing up was “Top of the Pops.” I’ve never been a huge fan of Bob Marley, though I immensely like his “One love,” and sometimes style myself, – never having quite reached the summit of academe – as “Robert Marley Professor of Rastafarian Studies, University of Oxford.” It would probably not go down particularly well in these woke days. In a pre-woke culture, white artists could happily record reggae and apart from a few far left white spoilsports, there were smiles all around. Sometimes the results could be woeful – the British singer Paul Nicholas was one such example with his fairly big hit “Reggae like it used to be.” But even here the following lyrics delighted me:

I had a reggae-pneumonia, I went to my doctor
He said “I got just what you need
Three times a day, a little reggae like it used to be”
We got reggae, we got reggae, we got reggae…

Yes, reggae is a fabulous cure for pneumonia and other ailments. While many people go for “I shot the sheriff” by Eric Clapton as the all-time white reggae classic, I beg to differ. For me it’s Led Zeppelin’s “D’yer mak’er.” The title itself a dreadful pun. It’s been said that people who dislike much of Led Zepp nonetheless adore this song, and I’m no exception. It takes courage to record a great cover version of it, but Sheryl Crow did so with panache. And, of course, a lot of reggae itself is by definition reggaefied covers of standard classics: few, I think, are more beautiful than Ken Boothe’s version of the David Gates/ Bread “Everything I own,” and the great British public thought so too in 1974, sending it to a deserved number 1.

The ageless Cliff Richard, a favourite of our friend Mrs Broadbridge, cut a reggae beat version of the Harry Belafonte classic “Scarlet Ribbons,” and excellent it is too. A very obscure white tribute to reggae came from the outstanding Johnny Arthey, conductor and composer, revered in his time by everyone in the British music business but very little known to the masses. Through his string arrangements, added to Jamaican recordings, he helped reggae artists such as The Pioneers trying to force a breakthrough on the British market.

Surely the best “wacky” reggae performer is Pluto Shervington, who notched up a number of hits while failing to attain the stardom that he richly deserved. One of his biggest hits, “Dat,” is about the tragic predicament of a Rastafarian trying to sell pork (without naming it aloud), contrary to his faith so that he can afford some ganja. In another song, the same fellow also fell prey to indigestion and worse following a curry derived from an illicitly obtained ram goat:

Well I pop two belch and I make a sigh
I tek a walk go outta street
But while I waitin down di road, fi bum a ride
I feel a gripe and I start feel very weak…

There’s a deeply conservative moral in this, of course.

Then there are reggae songs which, on first hearing, you knew would be huge and deserved hits. One such was the late Johnny Nash’s “I can see clearly now,” a song of wonderful optimism and a mite profounder than “Sing a little song.” So far I have been a reggae sexist (well, it can be quite a macho culture), so a tribute to reggae’s “Queens” is in order.

One is relatively obscure – Cynthia Richards who has a lovely voice and whose version of Cilla Black’s “Conversations” is great but lacked the expensive orchestration (hardly Cynthia’s fault) that money could have bought. Sadly, she never got the break via Johnny Arthey or anyone else to make it big outside Jamaica.

Someone who made it bigger was Susan Cadogan, whose raunchy and delectable “Hurt so good” (I will spare readers the lyrics) was a big hit in Britain in 1975. I was delighted to note that in later life Ms Cadogan became a respected university librarian, and I impudently suggested to a few not-so-young women in that profession that it was never too late to do a Susan Cadogan in reverse. This was received with watery smiles. And of course there’s Marcia Griffiths, one half of Bob and Marcia, of “Young, gifted and black” fame.

Ah, Wordsworthian happy, aspirational days, so unlike today… but I write as somebody who is ageing, talentless and white. I need cheering up. I know what, I think I’ll play myself some reggae on my tape-deck…


Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident classical and late Baroque music critic for the Postil Magazine.

More Guilty Pleasures: Northern Soul

Flash back to the mid-1970s. Was Britain’s intellectual nerve centre the Cambridge of Stephen Hawking and his black holes? No! Or Margaret Thatcher boning up on her Chicago economics? Warmer but no. Dear reader, ’twas the dancefloors of Northern and Midlands England where it was all happening: the rule of Northern Soul (hence the name). Its epicentre was the Wigan Casino – which was not a casino, while the Twisted Wheel in nearby Manchester was another Northern Soul mecca, as was the Torch Club at Tunstall, one of Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns and where I would now hang out at the Wedgwood Museum.

On those legendary soul “all-nighters,” talc was shaken on the floor to facilitate the glissando of the extraordinary dancers, an integral part of the Northern Soul aesthetic experience that complemented its aural delights and which anticipated the better-known break-dancing of a later era. And lest I put the cart before the horse, the music matched the dancers.

So, where did the music come from? Lonely Northern soul connoisseurs who could afford the airfares would go on quests to grungy US record stores and perhaps car boot sales to snap up rare vinyl, songs then going for a song but now often worth serious money, by the likes of Garrett Saunders and Susan Rafey.

Who? If you ask that, you haven’t lived… Well, to continue my story, the aforementioned connoisseurs would bring back their precious cargo and it would be played till it snapped, crackled and popped, to the delight of the Casino or Twisted Wheel regulars. They danced till the stars came home – or perhaps till the arrival of HM’s constabulary, no doubt in search of minute quantities of cannabis, not in itself particularly conducive to dance-floor aestheticism or athleticism.

I consider these Northern Soul connoisseurs the equivalents, nay, the superiors, of, say, Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino, hunting down their priceless classical texts 500 years earlier. And their patrons weren’t poncy Renaissance princelings in tights like Lorenzo the Magnificent, but the white working-class heroes and heroines who took to the talced floor and, as I say, danced away the heartaches of their humdrum lives. This cultural appropriation of obscure vinyl was surely akin to Palladianism, that distinctively English take on a great Northern Italian architect, but whereas Palladianism is posh (like Lorenzo), and formed part of one’s liberal education, Northern Soul is triumphantly proletarian and regrettably did not.

I was a gormless, liberally-educated posh boy when it was in its pomp; I had barely heard of Wigan Casino and nearly 50 years on I bitterly rue one of life’s missed cultural opportunities. But an “all-nighter” would have finished me off – I would have wanted my cocoa by midnight, or 1 a.m. most definitely. And it would have been a logistical nightmare: getting to Wigan from Cambridge would have probably taken over 6 hours, involved numerous changes of train and bus, and left me with little change from £20, which sustained me for almost a week in those days. I would have had to ask a suspicious mater and pater for more, when I should have been writing my next essay. Stocker the swotter. Shucks!

Old American records that matched the genre but had flopped commercially ten years earlier, their singers long retired and now probably cleaning houses like Darlene Love at her lowest ebb, suddenly became gold dust. As for the bemused artists – well, I certainly hope they were chuffed. To be a Northern Soul star, it positively helped to be a miffed miss and a slipped disk and not, pray, a chart hit. Northern Soul eschewed the mainstream: it studiously avoided the cloyingly commercial, such as “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand” by Diana Ross. As the author Anthony Burgess memorably replied, “I’d rather not.”

Diana just didn’t get it when she dissed Northern Soul as not being very good in the first place. It was uneven, sure, but it had an emotional generosity that transcended any shortcomings in musicianship. And sometimes its production values, perforce very economical, can make the outcome all the more moving. Give me the kitchen utensil percussion of Susan Rafey’s “The Big Hurt” any day in preference to a slickly professional Motown production of c. 1970.

Yet there were some Northern Soul chart hits, and I love many of them. Probably the best known is (the white Jewish) Len Barry’s gorgeous “1-2-3.” I still feel a thrill when I hear the recitative – and philosophy – of Len to the accompaniment merely of drums:

Baby, there’s nothin’ hard about love
Basic’ly, it’s as easy as pie
The hard part is livin’ without love
Without your love, baby, I would die!

A more minor hit-maker was Donnie Elbert; his version of the Four Tops’ “I can’t help myself” is exhilarating, his desperate tenor matching the emotional tenor – he sure cannot help himself, o sugar pie, honey bunch!

Then there was the slightly bigger R. Dean Taylor, a white Canadian(!) artist, whose “Gotta see Jane” is – like a lot of the genre – disturbingly obsessive, even menacing, and sounds as it’s been sung through a megaphone as Taylor relentlessly motors through wind and rain, destination wrongly forsaken lady love. The same singer’s hit “There’s a ghost in my house” with its stop-start rhythm would make the vast dance floor cast of Northern Soulsters go collectively bonkers.

But, I repeat, most Northern Soul worth its salt was “top of the flops” territory, as in the delectable girl group The Poppies’ “There’s a pain in my heart” (a nice juxtaposition with “There’s a ghost in my house”) which sadly failed to match the stunning chart success of its predecessor, “He’s ready” (Billboard #106).

A pain in my heart. Yes, even an up-tempo number like this reveals the emotional scarring and tragedy that is the sine qua non of so much Northern Soul, love’s agonies, not its ecstasies. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big-voiced Garrett Saunders blew his brains out after singing “In a day or two,” by which time shallow friends try and reassure him he will have recovered from disappointment in love.

Women singers could pile on the agony superbly: I think of Lorraine Ellison’s powerfully imploring “Stay with me, baby,” an anaemic cover version of which was cut by the normally admirable Walker Brothers. Then there’s the tragic Linda Jones, who died of diabetes aged 27 after failing to take her insulin. Her big hit (#74) “For Your Precious Love” scales alpine emotional heights and is justly esteemed by anyone with aspirations to Northern soulfulness.
Yet Northern soul can be happy, silly and sometimes today profoundly politically incorrect. Take “Girls, girls, girls,” when Chuck Jackson philosophises with a series of rhetorical questions, after confiding, speaking not singing, “Let me ask you something, fellas…”

What’s warm when the fire glows with glitter?
What’s sweet when all else seems so bitter?
What’s cold when your dreams start to wither?
And gives strength when you feel like a quitter?
Look to your heart when the trouble starts!
It’s girls this thing that I’m describing
Girls that make a man keep striving
Many shapes and sizes
Man’s greatest prize
Is girls! (girls) Girls! (girls)

Tell me, how many red-blooded fellows would not concur with Chuck’s sentiments? (Sorry, girls, I mean women…). Another, rather less loaded but joyous and celebratory Northern Soul classic is Robert Knight’s “The Power of Love,” which cheekily borrows its melody from Tchaikovsky’s “Marche Slave.” The Toys’ “Lover’s Concerto” – a bit too prettily successful for my liking – flagrantly borrows in turn from Bach’s Minuet in G major, which I was playing for my Grade II piano at the very time the girl-group were high in the charts.
But it’s the Toys’ less successful follow-up “Attack” that is far more Northern Soulful. Its changes of key and still more its lyrics, are unforgettable. I’ll treat you to the first couple of verses, and the plot thickens:

Once I walked beside you, so in love were we then
It had always been that way since we were children
Then one day she saw you, lied and flirted for you
Helplessly I watched her take your love away.
While she’s not with you she cheats and she enjoys to
How can I sit by and cry while she destroys you?
Though you may not want me, my heart keeps repeating
Onward, onward, time to stop retreating
Attack! Attack!

Awesome stuff, Northern Soul as emotional revenge. I wish Frankie Valli had recorded a cover with his famed falsetto.

Indeed, the genre is more than music, more than dance, more than a provincial British working-class cultural movement and, if you dare condemn it for colonialist appropriation, I can but pity you.

In its heyday and in its ageing aficionados’ hearts, it was something fundamental, a way of life, a faith. Lest we forget, its celebrated logo – itself a cheeky appropriation of the Black Power clenched fist – exhorts us to “Keep the faith.” Well, I’m a believer!


Dr. Mark Stocker is the resident Greek and Renaissance dance critic for the Postil Magazine.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Our Life In Pop Culture

A simple song, but it contains a good thought…
(Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady, Part IV)

I should warn my readers at the outset that the topic of this piece is not my area of expertise. I am not an avid fan of Queen, and my knowledge of rock and roll is no different from others of my generation and those who spent their youth enjoying this type of music. I also haven’t seen Brian Singer’s 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, and I am unlikely to have time to see it anytime soon.

Although it was never more than just fun for me, two friends whom I played football with after school in the 1970s later became well-known music journalists in Poland. My friends would meet in the evening at one of the student clubs in Krakow, and listen to records together. One of the two, who later became a music specialist, received these records from an uncle in London – they would come in packages that contained clothes for the family and other items that were hard to get in a socialist country. Sending such packages was also typical of post-war immigrants.

It so happens that I also had an uncle who helped us, and who invited me to Hanover in 1979. At that first trip out from behind the Iron Curtain, I brought back three CDs that were not available in our country. One of them was Queen’s double album, Queen Live Killers, with many hits that were hugely popular at the time. Over subsequent years, Polish Radio began to broadcast this type of music in programs for young listeners. These programs were highly popular. And, I can still remember the first appearance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Polish Radio and even the comment of the journalist who hosted the program, who said that the “new, little known” band Queen is “very skilled vocally.”

This truth was confirmed in the following years, when Freddie Mercury and his bandmates celebrated their greatest triumphs, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” won numerous accolades from listeners around the globe. This song, known to everyone, recently came back into my head again by accident. I was preparing a lecture on romantic ballads for my students at the Jagiellonian University, and it occurred to me that the words of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” especially the opening part of the song, correspond exactly to one of the most popular traditional folk ballad patterns. The hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury) complains to his mother that he has shot someone, so if he’s “not home tomorrow,” she should “carry on.” His life “had just begun,” and now he’s gone and thrown it all away.” He then speaks of “shivers down my spine” and his “body aching all the time.” He says goodbye to his friends because he has to “face the truth,” alone. And although he “doesn’t want to die,” he sometimes wishes he’d “never been born at all.”

Even for the listener who knows that the subject of crime and punishment constantly appears in ballads of all eras and in all countries (from the Polish Romantic poems of Adam Mickiewicz to the songs of the American Johnny Cash), Freddie Mercury’s lamentation sticks in our heads, hitting us hard; the piano keyboard sounds surprisingly serious.

Even stranger thoughts come to mind, if you listen to the lyrics of the middle section of the song, a quartet sung by all the band members. This quartet breaks the continuity of the ballad story with a monumental scene of judgment over the hero’s soul in the afterlife. The operatic associations suggested appear not only in the musical layer, but also in the text, in which individual Italian words stand out (“Figaro,” “magnifico,” and others). But this is not just a reference to Italian as the language of opera. It is also a trace of Catholic religiosity. The “Galileo” that Freddie asks to “let him go” is not Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) the famous physicist persecuted by the Church and the hero of the progressive education we received in the 1970s. He is the “Galilean” – Jesus Christ, whom the hero asks for freedom from this monstrosity, accompanied by a choir asking angels for his release (“Let him go, let him go, let him go…”).

Similarly, the “mama” Freddie invokes when he cries out “Mama mia” – after the chorus of Hell spirits declare, “We will not let you go” — is also not the mother of the protagonist from the first part of the song, but the Mother of God, whom Freddie calls in his hour of death, as does every Catholic. Of course, with these terms (“Galileo,” “mama mia”), the entire religious morality play is camouflaged and parodied here. Freddie plays to his judges for pity, complaining that he is only a “poor boy” and the backing choir adds that he is “a poor boy from a poor family” – as if hoping that “Galileo” will give him credibility points for his humble origin. However, mixing seriousness with irony in this part does not change the essence of the outcome: the punishment of the hero is condemnation – “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me ….”

And at this point, in the transition to the third and final part, the ballad convention is finally broken. In ballads, crime is always accompanied by punishment. This “law” is accepted by everyone, including the punished hero, because these are the moral foundations of traditional society and ancient popular culture. Meanwhile, in its dynamic ending, “Bohemian Rhapsody” expresses a vehement rejection of this judgment. The soloist breaks the bonds that had bound him thus far (during the performance of the song, Freddie Mercury emphasized this with appropriate behavior on stage) and throws out – against God – rebellious, well-known Promethean accusations:

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye,
So you think you can love me and leave me to die.
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby…

Addressing God as “baby” is a special idea. I don’t know (although perhaps it should be checked) if Shelley and Byron came up with something similar. So now by freeing himself from his guilt, from reproach, from the Last Judgment and by throwing his accusations back on his Judge, the hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” becomes both the modern Prometheus and Don Juan. Since judgment no longer has any authority for him, the difference between good and evil ceases to matter. The phrase “nothing really matters” changes its traditional meaning, as expressed in the first part of the song. Now it means the state of ataraxia promoted by libertine philosophers: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters… to me.”

A strange song. Sweet and bitter; simple but full of hidden allusions, mixing buffoonery with seriousness, and seriousness with irony and mockery. Cheap? Pretentious? And is this important, since the song has conquered the world? The story told in “Bohemian Rhapsody” corresponds to that of Don Juan from Mozart’s opera. Only that Molière and Mozart showed in their works the horror of sin and the justice of the punishment that befell Don Juan. But the sinner condemned in our song, the self-pitying “poor boy” in the end becomes a rebel against harsh moral law. He declaims a manifesto of self-liberation from the shackles of religious morality and gives others a model to follow.

We couldn’t understand all of this as teenagers. We swayed to the beat of the song, glad that the words were sonorous and matched the music. Music that released our youthful emotions and provided a sweet purification from the fear of life awaiting us. Now that we have more experience, in the seemingly nonsensical flow of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we find something from our later experiences and thoughts. Something that was already in the song from the beginning and which is probably not at odds with maturity. Undoubtedly, 40 years ago Freddie Mercury knew much more about serious matters than we could have imagined then as teenagers.

Today we are no longer “poor boys from poor families,” as we used to be. We may not be completely innocent either; but that doesn’t bother us too much, since we have rejected the religious superstition that Galileo will judge us someday for all that we have done. Anyway, even if he could judge us, he would have to show us that he has the right to do so. Isn’t that the moral history of the entire modern West, especially the West in the age of pop culture? It may not be that “nothing really matters” to us – but certainly nothing matters to us the way it used to. Unfortunately.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Dan Sproul, 2019.

Labor History Through Song – Part II

Music – The Left’s Dilemma: Ethics Or Ideology?

With the 1917 revolutions in Russia the international Left was flush with victory. Marx’s stages of history were seemingly vindicated and the capitalists were on the back foot. Then the purges, displacements, and reprisals began. In their moment of greatest victory, the workers’ movement, long in the neighborhood of the Left, was faced with a choice between ethics and ideology. Both sides would take to song.

The Internationale became one of the obvious rallying cries for the supporters of the new, scientifically managed, workers’ state. Written by laborer Eugène Pottier in June 1871, following the Paris Commune, the Soviet Union chose the song for its anthem in 1944. Its choice shows that not only Christians are interested in apostolic succession. The Bolsheviks were eager to claim not just the support of the majority of Russians – “bolsheviki” means majority, a dubious appellation for Lenin’s party in 1917 – but also the mantle of the entire Leftist cause, going back to Pottier’s day and before.

With the devil-may-care boldness of a new regime in power, and with the proper modifications of the future into the present tense, the Soviet Internationale thunders belief in its self-sufficiency: “Stand up, ones who are branded by the curse/ All the world’s starving and enslaved!/ Our outraged minds are boiling/ Ready to lead us into a deadly fight/ We will destroy this world of violence/ Down to the foundations, and then/ We will build our new world/ He who was nothing will become everything!”

At the other end of the story, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Leon Rosselson’s Song of the Old Communist encapsulates the ultimately pro-Bolshevik stance of one communist painfully aware of the crimes of the USSR, yet doggedly in support of the movement still. Addressing smug post-Cold War Western capitalism, the chorus repeats, “You who have nothing at all to believe in/ You whose motto is ‘money comes first’/ Who are you to tell us that our lives have been wasted/ And all that we fought for has turned into dust?”

Anarchists, of course, were less enthused by Lenin-cum-Stalin’s Soviet Union. Alistair Hulett’s song, Ethel On the Airwaves is about the young Scottish broadcaster Ethel McDonald who traveled to Civil War Spain. The self-induced Republican collapse is referenced with the word, “Isolated and poorly armed, the revolution starts to fail/ Moscow gave the order, ‘Put the anarchists in jail.’” It continues, “Change the flag from black to red, the tide of revolution changed.” With friends of the Left like the Soviets, who needs enemies?

The Other Side Of The Story?

As mentioned before, capital’s corpus of song is absolutely silent when it comes to the labor struggle, or rather their anti-labor struggle. It is not as if businessmen have proven bereft of the artistic touch. They’ve long kept songwriters busy churning out doggerel for all manner of kitsch. From diamonds and cars, to frying pans and beds, the bosses can be creative when they want. Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, what a relief it is!

The commercials of commercialism can rise to genuinely moving heights. We recall a spot from the late Super Bowl. Lasting all of a minute, it delineated the varieties of “love” known to men. The commercial probably contained more erudition, and it certainly contained more Greek, than modern church-goers hear all year. We viewers are near to tearing up until we come to the spot’s climax: it’s an insurance ad. Yes, indeed, moneymen have proven numinous when they want to be.

Clanking prison doors and cracking billy-clubs are all the “music” bosses have left for posterity. Yet we still want to know the other side of the story. Left to itself labor music is one-sided. Like any social group, labor plays up its triumphs and keeps mum on defeats.

If we don’t have the opportunity of hearing musical composition from one entire side of our story, the owners, we must look at what we do have. We must look between the lines of labor songs themselves. Where and when have they been silent? What significant events in labor history have songsters not written about? Three come to mind. One is the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers’ strike; another is the slow bleed of union membership these last 50 years; and the last is the chronic infighting which has sapped labor over the last century. These are vital events in the story of labor, and pointed musical omissions.

Masculinity

Which Side Are You On? has doubtless secured its place in the canon of organizing music. Written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a union leader, the song is an example of shame being used in the musical arsenal of labor. Like many a folk song, the piece uses a local event to extrapolate on a larger theme. Which Side was written during the Harlan County War (1931-32) in the very hours following a police raid on Reece’s Kentucky home. With the earnest tenor of the wronged, the wife-narrator declares, “You’ll either be a union man/ Or a thug for J. H. Blair.” And she pointedly asks, “Will you be a lousy scab/ Or will you be a man?” In a decidedly masculine job such as coal mining these are biting questions. The bone-weary work and obviously inequitable power balance leave little for miners to take pride in other than their masculinity.

The unfortunate narrator of Bloody Harlan informs us that he, “Was a full-grown man when I was 12 years old, got me a job mining coal.” In this song Harlan’s infamous “bloody” adjective is interpreted in a personal light. The circumstances are narrated, much of it related to the singer’s limited means, which led to his imprisonment.

Bloody Harlan opens a whole vista of commentary on the nature of society, since the Industrial Revolution and its bifurcation of life into “public” and “private.” He says, “From dawn to dusk is a miner’s life/ My darling grew tired of being a coal haulers’ wife/ This kind of life didn’t suit her plans/ So she ran off with another man.” Imprisoned for 33 years since killing his wife and her lover, the narrator is a worker ‘til the end. When he dies, he requests that we, the listeners, “Carry me back, and let me body lie/ In the mines of Harlan, bloody Harlan.” This is a fine crossover between the personal and the political. Masculine honor asserts itself as soon on the picket line as in amorous slights.

Going back to Reece’s song, we also see the concept of generational continuity. For whatever reason, songs with industrial speakers and factory men, and particularly folk songs about coal mining, take an extraordinary pride in grandfathers and fathers and sons participating in the same occupation. Reese’s piece begins, “My daddy was a miner/ And I’m a miner’s son.” This is an interesting expression to an active auditor, since we are as soon aware as the narrator that coalmining is an extremely undesirable occupation.

Britain’s Dalesman’s Litany bluntly states, “I’ve walked at night through Sheffield lanes/ T’was just like being in hell/ Where furnaces thrust out tongues of fire/ And roared like the wind on the fell/ I’ve sammed up coals in Barnsley pit with muck up to my knee.” I hate this job, I hope and pray that my kid doesn’t get stuck here, but I’m proud to keep the family legacy alive. Such are the contradictions of song, and such are the contradictions of men.

Atlantic Crossover

In Banks of Marble, we look at the cross-Atlantic journey of labor music. The American version written by New York apple-farmer Les Rice declares, “But the banks are made of marble/ With a guard at every door/ And the vaults are stuffed with silver/ That the farmer sweated for.” Joining a most happy exodus, Banks became part of a long tradition of American music which has given expression to Irish topics. The U.S. contribution to Irish music is larger than commonly thought. For every Daniel O’Donnell or Seamus Moore keeping the 1990s honky-tonk flame burning strong in 2020’s Dublin, there are dozens more irenic influences to atone for Achy Breaky Heart sung with an Irish brogue.

When Banks of Marble was recorded by the Irish Brigade band during The Troubles (1968-98), the civil rights movement-turned-insurgency-turned – thanks to MI5 – sectarian-killing-hamster wheel, Rice’s song took on a more militant flavor.

Leftist labor consciousness was brought to the fore in 1969. That year the IRA split between the nationalist Provisionals and the communist Officials (pejoratively called, “the Red IRA”). The Irish version of Banks of Marble now declared, “Let’s rise up and take our country/ Let’s rise up and take our land/ Let us all rise together/ For together we must stand.” In case a listener was unclear on the song’s sharpened teeth, the piece concludes, “We’ll blow-up the banks of marble/ With the guards on every door/ And share out the vaults of silver/ That the worker sweated for.” Tougher stuff this, as compared to the original.

Reinvention

In Solidarity Forever, we see a piece of endless reinvention. It also distinctly contains the “obligatory positive verse,” as singer Shannon Murray calls it, which is so customary in the folk tradition. Like the men and women who inspired it, labor folk has had to keep its spirits up in the face of setbacks and difficulties. Solidarity closes with, “In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold/ Greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand-fold/ We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old for/ The union makes us strong!”

Melodic Pedigree

While it needn’t be a 1:1 match, as evident in the dynamic we discussed between labor and religion, the tunes which a movement adopts for its material do matter. If you think this is a tenuous point, imagine a Sunday morning service praising God with the Internationale, or a Liberal prime minister entering parliament to the Horst Wessel Lied.

Solidarity Forever is set to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Battle Hymn is possibly the weirdest song to come out of the American Civil War. It’s hardly a labor song in the sense we’ve been using the term, but the two pieces have similarities worth considering. Julia Ward Howe’s song was written in 1861. It was at a time when the Civil War was underway, but at a stage before the real bloodletting began. The real work remained to be done, and everyone knew it.

Likewise Solidarity Forever. By its 1911 composition, the labor struggle was well underway. Events like the Haymarket Riots (1886) and the Shirtwaist Fire (1911) had attracted attention and sympathy to the workers’ cause, yet when Solidarity was written the big fights were still to come. Solidarity came into the world before the Left was presented with the Soviet decision, before the General Strike of 1926, and before labor faced a whole new level of cant and co-option in the Postwar decades.

Ralph Chapin, Solidarity Forever’s composer, knew the herculean efforts needed just to bring labor to negotiating parity with capital, let alone to achieve enduring success. As a boy he saw a union man shot dead by police. In Mexico, Chapin heard the firing squads of technocrat and Freemason Porfirio Diaz. Steeled by these experiences, steeled by the size of the struggle to come, the songs defiantly asks, “Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite/ Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might/ Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?” The struggle can’t be indefinite, however. As many an activist has learned, there must be a silver lining to strive for.

Updates

In the best tradition of folk music, Solidarity Forever’s lyrics also have proven plastic and elastic, as labor allocations have shifted, since its composition during the Second Industrial Revolution (c.1850-1950). The original song obviously is designed with agricultural and manual laborers in mind (“It is we who plowed prairies, built the cities where they trade/ Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid”). However, as such situations became less the experience of modern workers, the website of the I.W.W. proudly notes a number of updates which have been made over the last decades.

Women’s concerns are noted in the Wobblies’ Hungarian versions, “It is we who wash dishes, scrub the floors, and clean the dirt/ Feed the kids and send them off to school – and then we go to work/ Where we work for half men’s wages for a boss who likes to flirt/ But the union makes us strong!”

Racial concerns find their way into Canada’s Solidarity, “When racism in all of us is finally out and gone/ Then the union movement will be twice as powerful and strong/ For equality for everyone will move the cause along/ For the union makes us strong!”

The flagging labor participation which so defined the cause since 1973 Oil Crisis is addressed with this stanza, “They say our day is over; they say our time is through/ They say you need no union if your collar isn’t blue/ Well that is just another lie the boss is telling you/ For the Union makes us strong!”

All God’s creatures got a place in the choir, and educationalists find theirs with the words, “The schools were underfunded and the teachers got no supplies/ The district hoarded money and fed us a bunch of lies/ The union finally responded to the working people’s cries/ So the teachers joined as one.” Oddly enough, this addition to Solidarity Forever is difficult to sing without alterations. For a profession which is endearingly punctilious in their protest signage, this particular composition doesn’t quite fit the metre.

Folk Mythology

This essay is a celebration of labor music. Even in setbacks and outright defeats, we’ve seen how music celebrates this enduring aspect of life. We turn now to the most playful and sincere subgenre in labor folk: the mythologization of workers into folk heroes. The cynicism so characteristic of the 20th-century sours us to this topic. After all, Lei Feng and Alexey Starhonov are two phony, party-made characters whom millions were encouraged to emulate. They may have lived, they may even have done impressive deeds, but whatever truth there once was to them is long gone by the time party apparatchiks were through. The world was well along in humorless modernity by the 19th-century, but not so far gone as to fake folk heroes like those of a century later.

In Ewan McColl’s Big Hewer, our narrator was fit for work from day one. He says, “In a cradle of coal in the darkness I was laid, go down/ Down in the dirt and darkness I was raised, go down/ Cut me teeth on a five-foot timber/ Held up the roof with my little finger/ Started me time away in the mine, go down.”

In The Ballad of John Henry, we meet a like peculiar infant, “John Henry was about three days old/ Sittin’ on his papa’s knee/ He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel/ Said, ‘Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord/ Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.’”

Paul Bunyan meshes Canadian and American logging tales in a mythos pleasant to both peoples. He is sufficiently obsessive in his work ethic to appeal to Americans, yet his trade is bucolic enough to appeal to Canadians as well. Like the endearing Henry, Bunyan boasts remarkable strength and size. Danny Mack’s Ballad of Paul Bunyan states that he was, “Taller than a Maine pine tree, bigger than King Kong in that old movie.” Many a son of many a mother has wondered his paternity, but not our Paul. “I’ll tell you how he came to be/ The son of a great white oak was he.”

If you blink you’ll miss the giantism which affects not only Bunyan himself, but also his surroundings. “His father,” we hear in the song Paul Bunyan, “was a redwood tree/ From out in California…. That western Minnesota.” Again, “He took Arizona in his hand, and made a line in the sand/ He made a canyon and called it grand/… in southern Minnesota.” And once more, “The silt began to rock one morning/ All the folk knew Paul was born/ And ships were wrecked going ‘round the Horn [of Africa]/…. In southern Minnesota.” Giant states for giant men.

A darker take on North American’s most famous lumberjack is Hick’ry Hawkins’ song, also disarmingly named The Ballad of Paul Bunyan. Hawkin’s go is less a story fit for Disney and more apt for a cheesy B movie. The song contains the ominous refrain, “The sins of the fathers will be paid for by the sons.” Bunyan is imagined as a horrible vagrant which the town is afraid of discussing.

The appearance in Midwestern newspapers of various Bunyan tales around 1900 is a phenomenon historians have actually written about. Hawkins’ scary song sets the record straight. You see, the mortified townsmen, “Told a fancy legend so the logger camps would stay.” But the city fathers only had themselves to blame since, “A boy into a monster took the whole damn town to raise/ Cut and beat and chained up, they buried him away.” Who knew the lovable figure reared in our minds by the New Christy Minstrels, and, alas inevitably, by Walt’s animation Kingdom, had such a rough childhood!

Hawkins’ imaginative take goes to show that once a figure enters the folk mind there’s no telling where he will end up. And if your avocation requires an ax, you’re almost certainly destined for the likes of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

Workplace Safety

From the revelry of Industrial Revolution mythology to safety on the factory floor, tragedy in American history has also been memorialized in song. The Triangle Shirtwaist, March 25, 1911, was a remarkable event for both labor safety and organization. Shirtwaists are Edwardian blouses, and on that date 145 workers horrifically died making them. Their bosses were in the habit of locking the workers in, so most workers jumped to their deaths.

One song which addresses this is Ruthie Rublin’s Ballad of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. It says, “Then on that fateful day, dear God, most terrible of days/ When that fire broke out it grew into a mighty blaze/ In that firetrap way up there, with but a single door/ So many innocent working girls burned to live no more.” It might be rash to blame the company owners for something as uncontrollable as a fire, except that a year later they were caught locking once again the exit doors of their new factory!

Long a favorite of hard-wintered Anglosphere lands, coal mining songs haven’t stopped short of addressing the hazards of the profession. Big Coal Don’t Like This Man At All brings our story to the present day. It is about Charles Scott Howard, his court fights for miner safety, and the opprobrium organizers perennially get for their humanitarian efforts. The narrator says, “It’s safety versus profits, Howard has no doubt/ When miners are endangered, he knows he must speak out/ They’ve fired him and fined him, tried to put him in his place/ But the courts just reinstate him. He always wins his case.” Like many a reformer before him, however, bosses resent the new cost of safe working spaces. The song continues, “Fighting for miners’ safety causes stress and strain/ Last summer working underground, there was an injury to his brain/ He was found slumped unconscious in his mining car/ He still has no memories of that incident so far.”

2020: Atomized And Gentrified But Still Singing

Digitization, automation, and union busting have not stymied the throats of workingmen. David Rovic is a repeat guest on my show and he occasionally highlights Apocatastasis’ seasonal educational events. He sings in Living On the Streets of LA, “So many mansions overlooking the sea/ Stretch limos, Rolls Royces, and movie stars all over Los Angeles County/ It’s 2019, and one thing I know it that most people wish we could rewind to a couple of decades ago/ Before the rents tripled folks began to move out into their cars, into their tents, where drivers look on however loudly you shout.” The wealth disparity of our age is brought home as the song continues, “It’s 2019, but in a black and white photo it could be 1929 wherever you go/ In every single neighborhood hungry people wonder why/ Some make billions on a blockbuster why so many are left out to die.” With the late Coronavirus labor disruptions, Rovics’ association to 1929 may be most apropos.

Conclusion

Labor is intimate. It is who we are. Not in a capitalist or communist sense do I say this, not in the tone that one’s social worth consists in being a worker. I say we are laborers in the perennial tradition of long-downtrodden, much-forgotten Christendom. The drive to work is the drive to create. It is one of the theopneustic echoes which remind us of our origin and end.

Perennially under the threat of swindling, menacing, and outright violence, the working man continues to agitate, organize, and sing. He sings of his frustrations, and his struggles, and his history, and his myths, and, most important, his resolve. This resolve is as encouraging as to the state of the workers’ struggle, as it is to the state of humanity.

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at its website.

The image shows, “Song of the Lark,” by Jules Breton, painted in 1884.