Archive for the ‘Ballads’ Category

Songs 2 & 3: Absent Friends

November 14, 2008

Poor Kirsty McColl. In life she was always overshadowed by her father, folk singer and songwriter Ewan. In death, she is remembered more than anything else for her duet with Shane McGowan on Fairytale of New York. Even in this post, she suffers the indignity of having to share space with another. Never mind, she produced so many jewels of the songwriting art that I’ll have plenty of material for a later post dedicated to her alone. Despite her roots, McColl wasn’t much of a folkie. One of the Pogues once joked that she had to learn the words to her father’s songs – it was only Beach Boys songs that she knew by heart. She specialised rather in witty, polished pop, sometimes shot through with melancholy. Her persona; smart, funny, nobody’s fool but hopelessly romantic, was in place right from her first single, the deathless “They Don’t Know”.

Though held in high critical esteem, her record as a commercial artist was consistently disappointing. Her 1985 single, “He’s On the Beach”, like most of her releases, was a flop.

“He was just a friend of mine I’d run into from time to time” it begins. The remainder of the song is devoted to how much she misses her old friend, now that he’s gone to Australia, maybe forever. It’s possible that he was more than just a friend, but I think that this doesn’t really matter. The sadness in the song is as much about missing one’s own lost youth and the days when “we used to share a taste for wine”, as about missing the person. The chorus, decked out in 80’s synthesizer finery, is thrilling, the refrain of “He says it’s brilliant there” managing the trick of being euphoric and sad at the same time. McColl finds the time over the song’s four minutes to muse on whether her friend is happy in Australia, and speculates that he might be lonely there, might not have found whatever it was he went looking for. To my ears, this is unconvincing, like her assertions that “he’s changed somehow, it’s in his postcards now”. All of this concern for his well-being feels like window-dressing for the fact that his leaving upset her more than she cares to admit. Maybe he was the one that got away, or maybe he’s just a reminder of the foreign adventures that the singer never got around to having; either way the sadness of knowing that “he’s out reach” is palpable, and lends an air of dreamy longing to the song’s closing.


Most people of my generation will acknowledge that for much of our childhoods, the best time to see music videos was on Sunday morning. The Beatbox held the slot for longest, but the original and best Sunday video show was Vincent Hanley’s MTUSA. Hanley presented the show from New York, and only played American videos, so you could usually be sure of seeing and hearing things that you just couldn’t get at home. One of the songs Hanley introduced to an Irish audience was “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked. The song was never a hit, and yet most people I mention it to remember it, so it seems likely we all heard it first on MTUSA. I remember liking it, but I had no very strong memories. Then, a few years ago I heard it on the radio, and it was…astonishing. It’s little wonder it didn’t leave that much a mark on my 12-year old self. Anchorage is a song for adults, more specifically for those around the age of 30.

Texan Michelle writes a letter to one of her old Dallas buddies, but the reply is postmarked Anchorage, Alaska. The rest of the song is the text of her friend’s reply. We all have old friends who live far away, and in our more sombre moments we wonder how many years it will be before we see them again. The line “Hey ‘Shelle, the last time I saw you was on Me and Leroy’s wedding day” will resonate with many of us. As much as a wedding is about starting a new life, it is often about leaving behind some of one’s past. In ways we’re not aware of on the day, it is sometimes a goodbye party. Michelle sang a love song that day; her friend can’t recall how it goes. Life speeds up when you’re far away, and changes that might have been considered earth-shattering – like moving to Alaska – can happen to friends without you even knowing about them. Michelle’s friend says she’s got a brand new baby girl, and notes that if she sounds like a housewife, it’s because that’s what she’s become.

We all make our choices for a reason, but part of us, like Kirsty McColl in “He’s on the Beach”, wonders what might have happened if we’d done otherwise. Such reflections bring with them reminders that we only get one life, and one youth, and they can’t but be bittersweet. Though happy enough in the chilly domesticity of Alaska, Michelle’s friend is envious of the different path taken by her musician friend, mumbling a half-spoken “New York City, imagine that?” in appreciation. Shocked is not unaware of the powerful symbolism of settling down in a city called “Anchorage”, and makes full use of it, repeating the phrase “Anchored down in Anchorage”, evoking security as well as an end to adventure – or a certain kind of adventure, at any rate. There’s an acknowledgment in her friend’s letter that her own wild days are behind her, but there’s no resentment of Michelle’s more footloose life, and the affection that Shocked puts into the line “Leroy says ‘Aaaw…keep on rockin’, girl’ ” is close to heartbreaking.


The world may seem smaller now, with friends never more than an email or Skype call away, but the brute facts of geography and time remain real, and these songs, though different in style, speak to our experiences of those realities. There can be few people over the age of 25 who don’t feel the truth of at least one of them. It’s sentimental to think that the roads we didn’t take must always have been better ones than those we did, and it’s unrealistic to think we can embrace the future without leaving some treasured things behind us on the way. But I think it’s only fair that we are allowed to occasionally feel sad about it.

Song 1: Frankie And Johnny

November 11, 2008

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts, that’s the way the story goes. Actually, the story often doesn’t go that way at all. Like so many of the best folk songs, the origins of Frankie and Johnnie are wrapped in mystery and ambiguity. Was the song a true story? Did Frankie actually kill Johnny? Were Frankie and Johnny even their names?

The song has taken on many forms, but the basic outline remains the same. Frankie and Johnny (or Frankie and Albert, or Frankie and Alan) were sweethearts. Johnny done Frankie wrong, with a girl named Nellie Bly (or Alice Bly, or Alice Fry, or Alice Pryor, or Mary Bley). So Frankie shot Johnny dead. Within that framework, anything can happen. Folk songs collect and cross-reference meaning over time, acquiring and shedding layers in a confused game of pass the parcel. Johnny Cash, though still in his dangerous, edgy prime, turned the song into a depressingly harmless morality tale, Johnny’s infidelity limited to a little flirting with Frankie’s sister, and his comeuppance amounting to no more than a slap in the face.


More often, Frankie is matter-of-fact and undistressed as she pops a cap in her man’s ass. She goes to the gallows unrepentant – after all, he was doing her wrong, what else is a girl supposed to do? Often, the judge agrees, and lets Frankie go free, with the suggestion that he and she might be meeting up after the trial.

This much we know. On Monday October 16th, 1899, in St. Louis Missouri, Frankie Baker shot and fatally wounded Allen (aka Albert) Britt after an argument over another woman, Nellie Bly. By the following night, local singer Bill Dooley had written a song about it, called “Frankie Killed Allen”. The number of versions spawned by that hastily written cash-in are estimated to number well over 300, from this Elvis Presley travesty to this hugely likeable rendition by Lindsey Lohan.

The definitive version is probably Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie”, a measured, almost amused rendition of the tale, accompanied by sprightly, complex guitar picking. Legend has it that classical guitar maestro Andrés Segovia heard this beautiful recording and was astounded to learn that the shower of splintering notes was the product of a single guitar.

Sam Cooke’s 1963 version is another thing altogether, though not without a share of the same fatalistic humour. Updated with references to nightclubs and sportscars, it had a Sinatra-esque swing, a mix of showtune and the Soul music Cooke was still only beginning to invent. Despite the jauntiness of his version, it remains a murder ballad, with all the bleak flatness of the genre. Psychology has no place in the folk song. People just do things, we don’t know or care why. We get no insight into Frankie’s thought process. She sees Johnnie’s arm around the waist of another woman, and that’s enough to send her into her handbag for her pistol. Without even demanding explanations, she puts three bullets into Johnny, right there on the dancefloor. Cooke was no stranger to seedy, occasionally violent nightclubs, nor to the fury of women betrayed by infidelity. As an artist it was his special genius take the simplest of material and imbue it with melody and romance. Thus, as Johnny falls to the floor, he delivers an aria of grovelling: “Frankie, you know that I love you… Frankie, I was telling her about you…” It is as beguiling as it is pathetic, the half-sincere pleading of a man so charming he believes his own bullshit. It almost seems too neat, too perfect that Cooke later died from a gun shot by a woman, but it remains true that the man’s beauty, charm, talent and irresponsibility, summed up in those dying moments of Frankie and Johnny, are also what got him into the kind of trouble which would eventually kill him.

If Cooke made Johnny a lovable rogue, while barely bothering with Frankie, Beth Orton turns the tables to haunting effect. A big hit with her first album about ten years ago, the English folk singer has delivered diminishing returns ever since, and dropped off the popular radar, but her “Frankie and Albert” is perhaps the finest version I’ve heard. Here, the key is not that Frankie shot Albert, but the fact, hammered home in refrain after refrain, that “He’s her man, and he was doing her wrong”. For Orton, the song is about Albert’s betrayal, nothing else. She doesn’t even try to argue that Frankie’s reaction was reasonable, it was simply what Frankie did, as if fated. He was doing her wrong, Orton repeats, as if that was all we needed to know. “Dark was night, cold was the ground”, sings Orton, echoing another great blues song, as Frankie goes to gallows. No explanation, no repentance. Frankie’s execution doesn’t even matter in Orton’s scheme of things. It’s not even the last verse. With the protagonists both dead, she revisits the scene of the real crime once more, repeating the verse where Frankie finds Albert with Alice Fry, as if it were a sin more profound than mere murder. By the time she’s finished, you’re almost inclined to agree with her.

How does this happen? How does the same story tug our sympathies this way and that, or not at all, depending on how it’s told? How does such a sparse framework support so much meaning? I’ve said that one will search a folk song in vain for evidence of the workings of reason.In Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, a film all about folk songs and the wisdom held therein, George Clooney says “It’s a fool as looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart.” So maybe it’s something to do with that.