Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land (1944)

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Artist: Woody Guthrie
Title: This Land Is Your Land
Description: recording; track This Land Is Your Land
Label: Folkways
Release date: (recorded) 1944; 1967
First heard: 1998

There are some entries on my insoluble identity crisis of a CV that I have no actual record of. One of them is a documentary for BBC Radio 4 that I presented in the year 2000 called Harry Smith and the Folk Anthology. Even typing the words, I wonder if perhaps it ever happened at all, and if it did, why was I selected to link such an august-sounding music programme? Some kind of administrative error? (I’ve looked it up at the BBC Genome archive and there it is, produced by David Morley: it aired on 7 September 2000 at 11.30am, repeated on 1 May 2001 at 1.30 in the afternoon.) I wish I had a copy, but this was an ancient time before the emailing of compressed sound files was commonplace. Harry Smith was one of those amazing, tireless cultural historians, an eccentric hippie in fact, who collected out-of-print field recordings from the 1920s and 30s of the folk music of the United States of America, made at an ancient time when its transmission was still essentially oral. (Many of the recordings were made at social gatherings, not even concerts.) The resulting, six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music was released in 1952. Its influence is in music’s very blood.

To be fair to myself, having been unfair to myself, I had announced myself as Billy Bragg’s official biographer by the fag-end of the century, and in the same year as the biography’s publication, 1998, he’d also announced himself as the living musical executor of Woody Guthrie’s legend, anointed by the Guthrie estate, via his daughter Nora, to bring a whole tranche of the leftist American folk icon’s lyrics to life, with the band Wilco, packaged as the Mermaid Avenue sessions. My link to Woody Guthrie may have been at one remove, but that was as close as I’d ever been. I channeled his limited extant repertoire while writing and researching my book via a 1993 compilation album The Very Best Of Woody Guthrie, and read Joe Klein’s definitive biography.

In the same way that the early recordings of Robert Johnson had captivated me from across the decades in the early 90s – I was driven to purchase after reading the early, inspirational chapters of Charles Shaar Murray’s Hendrix biography Crosstown Traffic, which traces Jimi’s place in the firmament back to Johnson at the crossroads – this scratchy stand-up-and-be-counted dustbowl folk quickly had its hooks in me. I usually risk the sin of generalisation and say that popular music doesn’t truly get going for me until the early 60s girl groups and the drone of garage rock, but that’s too exclusive. For a start, my favourite patch from around 80 years of recorded movie scores has to be the 1930s and 40s, the great age of Waxman, Korngold, Steiner and Newman. And This Land Is Your Land, for all of its elemental timelessness, anthemic credential and iron durability, is best known as a 1944 recording by Folkways boss Moses Asch of a song written in 1940 – to all intents and purposes the 1930s! – in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. I’m listening to it right now.

As a child raised on the sound of 8- and 16-track recordings who lived through the technological revolution of MIDI and Roland and Linn at a formative age, I was hardwired not to appreciate the sound of one man with a guitar on his knee in a booth singing folk songs in the year before D-Day. But Woody – and it feels perfectly OK to call him Woody – spoke to me.

The context helps: named after Democrat president Woodrow Wilson, he endured a childhood in pre-Depressed Oklahoma wrought with tragedy, hereditary illness and unfortunate circumstance, awoken by the blues, politicised on the road, he wrote ballads about the grim combination of bad land-management, bad weather and bad landowners that drove him out of the farmland. He wrote about what he knew, and balanced pop and politics in a way that would fundamentally speak to Billy Bragg, finding fame on the radio while writing a column for a Communist newspaper, and switching to anti-fascist songs once the Soviet Union had sided with Hitler, all the while adding university-of-life hillbilly verité to the more middle-class socialist scene he thrived in.

That he was laid low by the still-undiagnosed Huntington’s disease that saw his mother institutionalised when he was a boy (it’s something of a genetic lottery for the family line that carries it) lends his story a final and protracted tragic twist. He lived until 1967 but was isolated for a decade, difficult to get on with and unable to play his guitar.

This land was his land. He travelled the length and breadth of it, very often on the boxcars of myth, bound for glory but not driven by it. His songs did what folk music had been doing since Robin Hood times in this country and across the great continents of the world, and that’s tell stories. Woody’s were about economic hardship, being a migrant (how’s that going to find any resonance in the modern age?), bankers, boll weevils, oil, living conditions, Tom Joad and – why the hell not? – the Grand Coulee Dam, as commissioned by a federal hydroelectric power company, a totem of the Roosevelt New Deal. His song was called The Grand Coulee Dam.

Woody comes, as Billy says, “from the ballad tradition that goes back to Elizabethan England. If you want to find an American lyrical poet as powerful as Woody Guthrie, you’ve got to start at Walt Whitman.” He’s said to have written a thousand songs in his lifetime. None can touch This Land, adopted by some as an alternative national anthem (its original title was the slyly ironic God Blessed America), and never truer than it feels at the very moment in history that you hear it.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll, but you could start here. The lyric opens with this tour itinerary, and already you can hear the miles on its author’s clock. Rock music has always striven for authenticity, whatever that is, but no striving is required with Woody Guthrie. He picks out such poetic details as a “ribbon of highway”, the “endless skyway” and “the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” while he sums up a great nation in just a handful of verses, the “dust clouds rolling” a Yin to the Yang of those “wheat fields waving.” He may be a ramblin’ man, but he doesn’t ramble as a writer. Like Blake, he sees angels in a grain of sand, and discerns God in every golden valley (“all around me, a voice was sounding”). This song, which is your song, is as terrestrial as it is heavenly. There’s dangerous left-wing politics in a verse often omitted that tells of a “high wall” in the protagonist’s path, with a painted sign that said, “Private Property … But on the back side it didn’t say nothing.”

This land was made for you and me.

It’s the simplest song in The 143 – matched only by Blackbird, another unaccompanied snapshot of the world – but it goes on giving. Billy found Woody through Dylan (reading about him in Anthony Scaduto’s 1972 biography Dylan). I skipped Dylan, found Woody, then came back for Dylan. It really is the circle of life. An anthology in just over two minutes.

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The Shirelles, Baby It’s You (1961)

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Artist: The Shirelles
Title: Baby It’s You
Description: single; album track, Baby It’s You
Label: Scepter
Release date: 1961; 1962
First heard: circa 1970s

In 1985, Billy Bragg supported The Smiths on their first US tour. He told me when I was writing his biography that he’d had a “long conversation” with Morrissey on the tour bus about a subject that proved fertile common ground, the wonder of New Jersey girl group the Shirelles. Although Billy confessed he’d always mistakenly referred to them as The Shirlettes, having misread a sleeve. I sort of prefer it.

He wasn’t being so daft. The group was, after all, named after one of its founder members Shirley Owens, just customised to sound a bit more like the Chantels (the pioneering black female singing group from the Bronx). Shirley, Doris Coley, Addie “Micki” Harris and Beverly Lee had nascent local label boss Florence Greenberg to thank for their fortunes, and vice versa, as they gave Tiara Records its first hit in 1958 while still in their teens, I Met Him On A Sunday (licensed to Decca). After a period of uncertainty and musical chairs, the Shirelles found themselves back under Greenberg’s wing and signed to her next imprint, Scepter, with whom they’d have hits until 1963. But the Goffin-and-King-penned Will You Love Me Tomorrow in 1960 was the flame that lit the touchpaper and sent up the fireworks: it was the first Billboard number one for an African-American girl group. (They were women by then, of course, and historically not yet African-American either – I rather fear it would have been “coloured” at the time.)

Burt Bacharach was already a hitmaker in 1961 when he, regular partner Hal David’s brother Mack and the equally prolific Luther Dixon (who also produced) came up with Baby It’s You. The Beatles covered it on Please Please Me, and used the same arrangement, but let’s not pretend it holds a flame to the Shirelles’ original, which oozes heartache and all-the-girls-love-a-cad inevitability.

The backing is sublime, a potent cocktail of overstatement and understatement: the tambourine sounds like it’s the size of a dinner tray, while the backing “sha-la-la-la-la”s might be made of marshmallow, and the beat played with swizzle sticks. This is no wall of sound, more like a trellis, but what blossomy delights hang thereon. The addition of male backing singers hardens the sound once the intro has lured us in with its swooning incense, but Shirley Owens’ deftly modulated and surgically emotive lead vocal brings sweetness and light to this tale of manifest female destiny written by guys.

“It’s not the way you smile that touched my heart,” she confirms. “It’s not the way you kiss that tears me apart.” Either way, she is torn apart. “Uh-ho oh-ho,” she quivers, before letting us know that “many, many, many nights” roll by while she sits, typically, alone at home and cries over this bounder. “What can I do?” NB: not what can I do, but what can I do.

I can’t help myself
When baby it’s you
Baby, it’s you

Then the mood darkens. “You should hear what they say about you,” she trills, while her sisters intone, not that subliminally, “Cheat, cheat.” He’s not worth it, this guy. They say he’s “never, never, never been true,” and yet Shirlette is gonna love him any old way, despite what “they say.” (Cheat, cheat.) Begging ought not be her business, but beg she does: “Don’t leave me alone, please come home.” Baby, it’s him.

Their manager and label boss was a woman, a woman wrote the tune of their first number one, and they made giant steps for feminism just by their success, but like most girl groups, their words were often written by men trying to think like women. Like Crazy by Willie Nelson, Baby It’s You evidently works for either gender, but in a pre-liberation era, putting up with useless blokes was, lyrically, part of the patriarchal furniture. (See also: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” “Tonight the light of love is in your eyes, but will you still love me tomorrow?”, “But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,” and on and on.)

The singing is so affecting and true, the music appears not to have much to add, but Dixon’s arrangement pulls back at just the right moments, dropping out completely before “’Cause baby, it’s you” for maximum melodrama, and placing the “cheat, cheat” aside just far back enough in the mix to make it sound like the other Shirelles are talking behind Shirley’s back. I take issue with the organ break at one minute 40, so shrill and intrusive it threatens to blow a hole in the atmosphere, but if anything it makes Shirley’s return to the mic all the more of a relief.

It fades, as all 60s songs fade, but not until she’s implored, “Come on home.” I realise I have a soft spot the size of a dinner tray for music of this stripe and timbre from this golden age, but what can I do?

Faces, Ooh La La (1973)

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Artist: Faces
Title: Ooh La La
Description: album track, Ooh La La
Label: Warner Bros
Release date: 1973
First heard: 1997

Poor old Granddad, I laughed at all his words

This song came to me, belatedly, thanks to Billy Bragg. That it eventually became the theme tune to my first sitcom, Grass, links it to Simon Day. Two of what I always self-mockingly call my “close personal showbiz friends.” (When I turned 40, I still presented Round Table on 6 Music, and was indulged to the point where I chose “all three” of my close personal showbiz friends as guests on the programme: Billy, Simon and Stuart Maconie.) It’s a glorious, sunshiny, folksy ditty about the passage of time and I do wish that I knew what I know now when I was forty.

While researching Billy’s official biography in the year after I left my day job at Q – when I was still, in fact, a journalist he’d met him on a number of professional occasions and subsequently vetted for the job of “Billy Bragg’s Boswell” – I invested in a lot of music that helped put me in the right place for total immersion in my willing and generous subject. I already had the Bragg records, of course, but I augmented them as the soundtrack to toil in my garret with all sorts of tangential tunes that footnoted Billy’s 40 years: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, some fine, lefty folk from Dick Gaughan and Leon Rosselson, Ronnie Lane’s solo stuff and – you’re ahead of me – the Faces.

I’d grown up with Rod Stewart’s greatest hits, but had, at that point, never thought to excavate his past. At Chelsea, my friend Rob regaled me with Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake by the Small Faces and through it, I recognised the eccentric genius of Steve Marriott and by association Lane and Kenney Jones (who was on my radar as Keith Moon’s replacement due to a Tommy-led teenage yen for The Who). I know now, and I wish I’d known then, that the good ship Faces rose from the ashes of the Small Faces, with Rod at the prow. They had a good few years. And because Billy had grown up on them, I bought their third and fourth LPs, A Nod Is As Good As A Wink … To A Blind Horse and Ooh La La.

It was Ooh La La in its rather disturbing, pale sleeve that announced itself as an instant favourite, and the title track (and album closer) was its irresistible highlight. I assumed that Rod Stewart sang it, just as he sang most of the other tracks, and pictured him doing so for many years, until dissuaded of this notion by the facts. It’s not even Ronnie Lane, who wrote or co-wrote most of the album. It’s Ronnie Wood’s filter-tipped tones with “all the words”, which makes the song even more special.

The plucked guitar and gently weeping violin of the intro, followed by the penny whistle which joins in with the riff, root the song in a pastoral setting. You imagine a canal, or a gypsy caravan, on a dewy early morning somewhere far from the industrial revolution, and far from the psychedelic underground. The flavour of much of the rest of the album is honky-tonk barrelhouse; Borstal Boys is siren-accompanied pub rock. This is the Faces unplugged. And what a restful way to go out.

Wood rasps of a two-generation gap, in which “poor old Grandad” is revealed not to be a “bitter man” after all, but a wise one, whose knowledge of “women’s ways” turns out to be hard-won, but something that can’t be easily handed down. He tells his grandson: “There’s nothing I can say/You’ll have to learn, just like me/And that’s the hardest way.” It’s a delicious lyric, full of tobacco-stained nostalgia for the can-can, some backstage paddock and the twinkling stars, and it speaks of the infinite power of womankind (“When you want her lips, you get her cheek”, a line I choose to interpret as physiological). Lane was not yet 30 when he penned it, Wood 26 when he sang it. But these men were worldly before their years.

A few years after the book, Still Suitable For Miners, was published, I met Simon Day at a prearranged “blind date” in the BBC canteen. His musical palate was broader and more catholic than my own; it ran from the Wu Tang Clan, over whose oeuvre we immediately bonded, to Steely Dan and America, who I’d yet to catch up with. Grass, which we wrote together, was about Billy Bleach, a permed man in his 40s who was cast from the world he knew in South East London into the wilderness of East Anglia via the Witness Protection Programme. It was the first line that Simon had latched onto, about laughing at all the words of “poor old Grandad”, and it seemed to sync with our protagonist, who feigned knowledge a lot of the time (on The Fast Show, Billy had been thumbnailed as “the pub bore”), but had innate wisdom all the same. He, too, was misunderstood, especially by the younger generation.

When you’re planning and writing a television programme in an airless room, you fantasise about its soundtrack as a way of getting through the day, and Simon and I succeeded in having (Careful) Click Click by the Wu Tang Clan as the accompaniment to a paranoid scene in Episode One on a bus, although it had to be replaced on the DVD due to rights issues. The Faces’ version of Ooh La La was our preferred theme tune. We dug in. It came to pass. Few people watched Grass when it aired on the just-rebranded BBC3 and BBC2 in 2003 and 2004 in those dark days before social media and iPlayer, but I hope a few of those who did appreciated the music. Eddie Marsan sings Hold Me Close by David Essex in his pants in a hotel room in one scene. I wish that was on YouTube. It was Babooshka by Kate Bush in the script, but Simon was on-set and will have approved the Essex.

Ooh La La, which is my favourite Rod Stewart song without him actually on it, has also been used in the film Rushmore, and, on TV, in Blackpool, Californication and Entourage. But it’ll always be the Grass theme to me. And a select handful of others.

Don’t ever let it show …

Billy Bragg, Tank Park Salute (1991)

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Artist: Billy Bragg
Title: Tank Park Salute
Description: album track, Don’t Try This At Home
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book

I have not cried to that many songs in my lifetime. When I have, it’s likely I’ve been sad about something else and the song has induced tears that were already desperate to get out of their ducts. It’s stirring and miraculous that a series of chords and the deft rearrangement of the English language can do this.

I’ve willingly and perhaps even self-indulgently massaged my own doom and gloom downwards with doomy and gloomy music, especially during my difficult teenage years, and I still have a soft spot for melancholy and infinite sadness. Trust by The Cure is as good as on standby on my iPod for when clouds are gathering, the dry leaves are on the move, the darkness is drawing in, or if I just feel like being windswept and interesting on a deserted train platform. (It goes, “I love you more than I can say, why won’t you just believe?”, a chest-beating declamatory cry for help that has not literally applied to where I find myself in life for quite some time and yet it feels so cathartic to have Robert Smith wail it between my ears.)

I once sat in my office at home and put Tank Park Salute on repeat, almost unable to stop listening to it, and it brought me to tears. I can’t quite contextualise it. It was about seven or eight years ago. It guess I might have been feeling my mortality – and it’s definitely a song about mortality – and I had moved outside of London for the first time in my adult life and may have been experiencing a profound sense of disconnect, but I don’t recall any kind of slough of despond. I cried, in a private way, because the song is really, really sad, and moving. And it got me right here.

My relationship with Billy Bragg, as it well documented, began as a remote one, between artist and listener, then became professional when I had found my calling at the NME and we became artist and journalist. But out of that, through turning artist and biographer, we became friends. Man to man. We remain so. However, I have never stopped being a listener. I love the way his delivery has developed over the decades, and I ought to feel hard pressed to select one song to sum up my appreciation of Billy’s 30 years in rock’n’roll, but Tank Park Salute makes it easy. Its position within the brightly colour-coded Don’t Try This At Home, the forced “pop album” intended to shower Billy with chart success and mainstream acceptance (it didn’t), feels more poignant with every listen. Not that the album lacks depth or content among the hooks and breeze; just that the deep, personal near-existential melancholy of this delicate, haunting requiem seems courageously at odds.

It is essentially the point of view of an 18-year-old boy remembering his childhood while dealing with the debilitating illness and death of his father – namely Dennis Bragg, a tank driver in the war, who died of lung cancer in 1976, aged 52. Because Dennis was housebound for almost 18 months after being diagnosed, Billy described the period to me as “being in slow motion”, and hence, one assumes, the references in the lyric to “darkness” at “the top of the stairs” where once Dad had left the light on.

Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way. It’s not a new observation that his voice has matured, and Tank Park Salute was hardly the first time he demonstrated its halting delicacy, but the personal subject matter and the simple arrangement provide the perfect showcase for its emotional range.

It’s a very clever structure, sung to his father from three points in time: he regresses to childhood (“kiss me goodnight, and say my prayers”), then jump-cuts to the funeral (“I accepted the commiserations of all your friends and your relations”), and ends in the present day (“I offer up to you this tribute”), where “photographs of a sunny day” fill the adult narrator with nostalgia for childhood. The three ages of man, if you like (and there’s no doubt that his father’s early passing made the 18-year-old a man).

You don’t have to have lost a parent at an early age to feel the pain. You just need to have a parent, or to have had one. Or, let’s push the boat out, be one. Billy’s compassion lies at the heart of his politics (“socialism of the heart”), so to draw a line in the sand between his protest songs and his personal songs is reductive; blood pumps through them all. There’s some great pop on Don’t Try This At Home, too (You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, North Sea Bubble, Sexuality).

But Bernie was right: sad songs say so much.

Got something in my eye.

The Temptations, It’s Growing (1965)

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Artist: The Temptations
Title: It’s Growing
Description: single
Label: Motown
Release date: 1965
First heard: circa 1997

When I say that I first heard It’s Growing, a gem-like exhibition match from the Temptations’ David Ruffin-dominated purple patch between 1964 and 1967, in 1997, it’s entirely plausible that I heard it without identifying it at any stage via the infectious medium of radio between its release in the year I was born and the year I started to really sit down and take stock of the Temptations’ vocal genius. For some reason, I hooked into a fulsome Temptations greatest-hits around that time, when I had literally given up my day job and set about researching and writing my first book, Still Suitable For Miners. (There was something about immersing myself in Billy Bragg that called for a more Catholic listening palette, from classic soul, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and Phil Ochs, to militant modern folkies Leon Rosselson and Dick Gaughan, and the guvnor, Woody Guthrie.) In the acknowledgements of the book, I give thanks to the Temptations, along with Clipper tea and my asthma medication!

The music of whichever magical combination of Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, “Al” Bryant, David Ruffin and Dennis Edwards applies has remained a constant restorative balm. The two distinct phases of the Temptations’ career showcase the God-given songwriting and studio skills of Smokey Robinson, Bobby Rodgers and Ronnie White, then Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. It’s Growing – which rises to the top for me because of its audaciously clanky piano intro and a frankly ill-advised but unique production decision involving a pair of claves – comes from the first phase, written by Smokey and fellow Miracle Pete Moore and laid down by Robinson.

There are better known songs, some simply thrilling – Get Ready, The Way You Do The Things You Do, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, I Know I’m Losing You – others a bit schmaltzy for my tastes – My Girl, Just My Imagination – but this one starts better than any other song that rolled off Berry Gordy’s production line during that golden era, except perhaps Baby Love. That disarmingly simple, high-pitched piano signature, not a riff but a warm-up and picked out, it seems, on a pub upright by the Funk Brothers’ Earl Van Dyke (probably), topped by a rolling drum fill of the type that was sampled forever after from the 80s on, again probably Benny Benjamin or Uriel Jones. It fills my heart with gladness each time it comes on. The plangent brass helps.

The Temps are on fine vocal form, naturally, and if the verses weren’t the greatest they were ever given to wrap their ascendingly variegated tonsils around (“Like a snowball rolling down the side of a snow-covered hill” is a bit lazy with its double use of the word “snow”; “like the size of a fish that a man claims broke his reel” doesn’t even rhyme), the plain-speaking chorus is lovely: “My love for you just grows and grows … and where it’s going to stop, nobody knows.”

As for the ridiculously intrusive “clack” of those claves towards the climax of the song, it must have seemed like a whizzo idea at the time to pitch it so high in the mix. On headphones, it’s like a really precise woodpecker tapping the side of your skull; not the effect imagined by Smokey and Moore, we must assume. I used to love it when my colleague at Q, John Aizlewood, dismissed pretty much all music from the 50s and 60s because “it wasn’t produced properly.” I concede the claves decision in It’s Growing to his case for the prosecution, and yet, I love it so, “clack” and all.

Musically, it’s of a type with Dock Of The Bay (not yet written in 1965) – and Just My Imagination, less surprisingly – and has the same lazy gait as the later Otis classic, but no less soul. The age of the singer-songwriter had yet to take hold and it was no crime against authenticity for a gifted, chemically-balanced vocal group to translate the songs of an industrial writing unit. Any snobbery about artists who don’t write their own songs can be shot down with the word “Motown.” The fleet-footed ingenuity of musicians like Robinson, and later Barrett and Strong, runs through these classic pop songs without subtracting from the deft broadcasting skills of these angelic frontmen and women. The Temps line-up may have mutated (it’s growing) in the ensuing years – indeed, I think I’m right in saying that only Otis Williams survives in the current touring incarnation – but the body of work bespeaks longevity and immortality.

If you had to strip their output down to, say, half a dozen tunes, to the more obvious My Girl, Get Ready, Just My Imagination, Papa Was A Rolling Stone and Ball Of Confusion, I’d say the missing jigsaw piece was It’s Growing.