Writing about songs in The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff to Mississippi And Back, has set me on a search to find the songs which actually define my life and my times. If I went down on the sinking ship which ten songs would I want to hear the orchestra play?
Bob Dylan’s Dream
The master’s retread of Martin Carthy’s take on Lord Franklin. The original is a traditional song about explorer John Franklin’s failure to find the North West passage. Dylan’s version (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) recalls his time in Greenwich Village. But, unusual for Dylan, it’s not the words here that make it but the melody. It’s a reweaving of something old and, in true troubadour style, the making of it new again.
Down In The Bottom – Howlin’ Wolf
In a world populated by Cliff, Bobby, Billy and Bert how could anyone be called Howlin’? The Wolf’s searing take on the urban blues came out of the speaker of my front-room Dansette like a revolution. This was the first Chess single I’d ever owned. Released in the UK on the usually staid Pye label and bought by me in 1963 from a record store in City Road. The guitar soared while the Wolf’s voice took paint off our walls.
Angi – Davy Graham
or maybe the version by Bert Jansch or Paul Simon or any of the dozens of bohemian folkies populating Cardiff’s 1960s folk club scene. Angi was the solo guitar piece by which all standards were set. It’s an acoustic finger-styled slice of folk blues played with a capo on the second fret. The mystique surrounding it was and is intense. Its sheer difficulty is what makes it. Its sound is a complete thrill.
Boogie Chillen – John Lee Hooker
While we were all imagining we’d revolutionised the musical world in the sixties Hooker had actually done it in 1948 with this piece of guitar-driven, mumbling wonderment. The version I owned appeared on a compilation mix-sixties blues album. Here Hooker could be heard banging the studio walls and stamping his feet in time to his driving off-kilter boogie rhythm. Hooker put out at least six versions of the song using different titles and a range of aliases. Like all good bluesmen he never allowed a good tune to leave him. Do it once, do it again.
Man of Constant Sorrow – Stanley Brothers
This is where my love of the Appalachian high lonesome comes from. The Everly Brothers had a touch of it. So did Dylan in his version. But for a rising whine of sheer back of neck thrilling delight then it has to be the Stanleys. I discovered them late, witnessing Ralph, the elder and surviving brother, sing this song in North Carolina. Hearing it again in the film O Brother Where Art Thou cemented it into my consciousness.
Mystery Train – Elvis Presley
Sixteen coaches long, so it couldn’t be British. I came to it late, first imagining Elvis to consist entirely of overwrought RCA rock or post-Army service pap. But those early Sun sides, when I got to them in the 80s, are where the rocking goose laid its rocking egg. Scotty Moore’s echo-chambered guitar behind the King’s understated menace makes this one of the top rock and roll records of all time.
Runaround Sue – Dion
I made a will recently and they asked me what I’d like played at my funeral. I said this. Just right for rolling in box down the aisle. It’s infectious doo-wop-driven dance music from the tail end of rock and roll. Dion came to the Cardiff Capitol to perform it. All you have to do is to show people of a certain age the Top Rank record label on which the song first appeared and they’ll sing all the words.
Wonderful Land – Mike Oldfield
By the time the Shadows had got round to releasing this as a single most of the Welsh world was gearing itself up for the Beatles. I waited until the 1980s for guitar genius Mike Oldfield to put out his version. The song is all melody, uplifting, and utterly repeatable. I already own a CD containing 22 versions of the Shadow’s Apache. I’m waiting now for them to do the same thing with Wonderful Land.
Old Blue – Georgia Ruth
After Alan Stivell faded into old age it seemed that the harp, as a popular instrument, was heading for the dump. But then, post-Millennium, along came Georgia. Her memorable take on this nineteenth century minstrel song is both innovative and invigorating. It’s another melody that has been inside my head ever since the Byrds first put it there in 1969.
Electricity – Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
This is where the blues went when black men stopped singing them. Beefheart was a left-field innovator who added surrealism to the 12-bar tradition. I first heard him when John Peel played an entire Beefheart, song after song, on his programme. The Captain was the link between rock music, concrete poetry and dada experiment that I needed. I never looked back.
An earlier version of this post first appeared in The Western Mail on Saturday 9th January, 2016