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I have almost all of Bob Dylan’s’ albums, can recognise and recall most of the lyrics from memory, and never tire of singing them. Without doubt he is the master of the genre and his work has so far never been eclipsed. In my book, he is the Shakespeare, the Beethoven, the Rembrandt of this art form – the English popular song. There are many fine singer/songwriters too, but none really come close. It isn’t surprising then that hundreds of books have been written about his songs and I guess all of it has been said before and better. But it is not only as a songwriter, but as a singer that he surpasses the rest. Many people have been fiercely critical of his singing voice, describing it as “one quaver short of an octave” or simply dismissed it by saying he can’t sing. But for the range (just try and sing some of the songs and you will find that), the expression and the timing, which alone is masterly, there is none like him. It is interesting that in his recent speech at MusiCares he asks why it is that so many singers like, Tom waits, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Dr John, Charley Patton, Robert Johnston and Muddy Waters sing like they are being dragged across gravel, twist and distort their voices, scream and scratch but he is the one who is singled out for the dismissive treatment. I have wondered about this for a long time.  Singing styles are, of course, very much a matter of taste, what is not in dispute is the standard of the songs.

The one which, in my opinion represents Bob Dylan’s finest work, is  “Tempest”,  the penultimate song from the album of the same name.  Since hearing it a year or so ago, I wanted to write about it, review it and, hopefully, draw it to the attention of others. I didn’t got round to that until now. It is in the tradition of many of his ballads that tell a story with just enough detail to let you in on what is happening.  Like “Hurricane” telling a contemporary story introduced like stage notes for a film or the “Across the green mountain” following an observer through the tragedy of the American Civil War to a funeral drum beat, in “Tempest”  he takes a well-known event and without the hint of moralising or preaching lays out the story and lets the hearer decide, with a melody that glides across the waves.  The forty four verses, without a chorus or musical break, paint a gigantic picture where every brush stroke counts, its crafted understated descriptions makes the disaster all the more realistic and terrible.  Like “Cross the green mountain” the narrator observes what is going on in every level of the ship, the individuals and groups and families caught in that moment when all they have lived for and loved is about to disappear. It is inevitable that reviewers, commentators and critics will see different things in the tale. I have read quite a few but the best comes from “the gardener is gone” weblog

It is a terrific allegory for our dogged embrace of everything that does not ultimately matter in the very moment of its not-mattering. Every snapshot of sacrifice, affection, betrayal, heroism, faith, doubt, even the reckless gamblers, is set ruthlessly against the glimpses of implacable destruction. The song’s melody has a patient, rocking feel, and Dylan begins most verses with a merciless delivery of each syllable like a fist pounding a podium, and ends with softer, milder tones. So the sound of the song is a pendulum:  sacrifice and doom; affection and doom; valour and doom; faith and doom.  The vignettes range from the stock moment of the Astors unaware that their days of luxury sight-seeing are over, to the clever and sort of ballsy choice of having Jim Dandy “come to the rescue” of a crippled boy, to the subtle irony of Davey’s whores getting their final command from a man in the form of being released to their deaths. The web of religion that runs through the song is viciously tangled against itself: Jim Dandy dies in peace amid a vision of the rising Eastern star; the bishop admits at the last that human can’t save human; disembodied love and pity send useless prayers; there are angels, and they turn aside; the captain reads of apocalypse and weeps–this here-and-now apocalypse occurring under and over him was his to prevent. At one point Dylan undoes whatever transcendence you may want to glean from his tale by blaming “the wizard’s curse.”

The artist gets it right: in a single moment Leo grasps the disaster, acts with altruistic reflex, and loses his mind.  It’s the truest moment in the song for me; he’s the central character for me. His doomed sketches would have given the glorious ship art’s eternal life.  He’s struck and undone by love just as his muse the ship is struck and undone.  And he is the opposite of the watchman for whom the calamity is the phantom of his sleep: Leo the artist sees the calamity for what it is, acts because the impulse to preserve life is irrepressible, and in that moment knows the full weight of an absurd universe and goes mad.

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Where I differ from the writer, is over the central character in the drama. For me is not Cleo but the watchman who, appears in regular stanzas through the song and who sleeps through it all. Even at the end he is sleeping in that dreadful line “He dreams the Titanic is sinking and he tries to tell someone”.  When you are dreaming you find you can’t run from the bear who is chasing you or from the building that is on fire. No matter how you try you just can’t move your legs.  The watchman can’t tell anyone, and this is the biggest tragedy, because he is fast asleep.  So in this apocalyptical scene the person who should have called out the warning is out for the count. If what is in the artists mind, and he is certainly not going to tell us, is the collapse of western civilisation, then the real tragedy is that no one foresaw and no alarm was given. If, what he sees is the final apocalypse, the end of time and the final judgement then the tragedy is that the ones who could have given the message, sounded the seven blast on the ships whistle, blown the trumpet, the prophets, the preachers, the churches, were silent and found sleeping at their post. This is a most sobering thought.

Crawford Mackenzie

How can it be?


We sang a new version of an old hymn last night. It was “How can it be” by Greg de Bliek of new Scottish hymns based on Charles Wesley’s “And can it be”.  In recent times there has been a growing appreciation of the real value of so many old hymns:  the clear theology and mind engaging words which often contrast with the often shallower themes of some contemporary praise songs. Many have reworked these for congregational singing with varying degrees of success. Inevitably personal taste comes in here and people are often unhappy about changes that do violence to what was for them a well-loved hymn but, in my opinion, this one really works.  I have to admit that I disliked the old hymn. The solid theology was lost on me because it was married to a light and almost frivolous tune (Sagina – Thomas Campbell), reminiscent of a Victorian foxtrot and belonging to the dance floor, It seemed completely incongruous and turned me off.  Greg de Bliek, on the other hand, has taken Charles Wesley’s words, almost as they are, with a few small changes, and with the simplest of tunes, an almost stark melody, allowed us to sing and think about what we are singing. He makes the last verse, the climax of the piece, into a chorus rising beautifully in the middle section and the whole is a very moving hymn. People will of course say “but I liked the old tune”  that may be true but it should not stop us thinking about the music, what it does,  what emotions it arouses, and whether it is appropriate or not. I think that what Greg de Bliek has done is not simply to dust down an old relic and make it a curiously but to open it up, bring it into the light and give us a hymn that is as relevant today as it was when it was written in the 18th century.

You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtmjMgsPImc but the YouTube video hardly does it justice. You need to hear a congregation singing it and you need to be in that congregation.

Crawford Mackenzie

The Failure of Men (looking for a model)

Since early days I had an interest and love of songs, song writing and the songwriters art. From David’s psalms where the tunes have been lost, to Bob Dylan, who epitomises the pinnacle in contemporary song writing and whose work has so far not yet been eclipsed.  Many people have written good songs but few have produced consistently good material. Many of the singer songwriters I have admired have been women. From the soft and lyrical, country voices caressing words to the biting snarl of pent up rage. Singer songwriters like:  Sinéad O’Connor, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Pat Benetar, Bebe,  Souad Massi, Coco Mbassi, Suzanne Vega, Charlott Dipande and others .  Many of these write and perform songs which often display their deep dissatisfaction with the men in their lives and with men in general. Sometimes it is wistful disappointment in “He never will need me” to the savage “Malo malo malo eres ”. I was always curios why I, as a man, should be drawn to this material.  Why would I choose to hear my gender mocked and savagely ridiculed?  Why would I be drawn in the way that some men are drawn to the strand of pornography which show men being humiliated by women in feminine dominant sadomasochism scenarios .  It took me some time to realise that I shared in this frustration in this disappointment with men and this inevitably meant with myself. I too was frustrated with the way we were and how far we fell short of what we should or could be.  But to have a sense of disappointment you must have a standard or a model you can aspire to. You must have a vision of something better.  What was it?

I had many male models to admire friends and colleagues and leaders in society and in the world. I had three older brothers who I looked up to and through whom I learned: the desire for exploration and finding out, the beauty of hard work and order and doing things well, the constant pushing beyond the obvious of what we were told to the other side of the argument, the cynics art of lifting the lid on pretentions and self-authority and, I had my father.  On the long walk homes from Cleadale in the dark after visiting a home with tea and scones he would tell stories, or round the Raeburn in a morning, when there was time, he would read from the bible and excite us with tales of David or Paul.  It was in the way he told the stories that I knew that he admired these men in their courage and commitment, despite all their obvious flaws.  In the same way as he was excited and drawn to the lives of these men, I was most affected not as much by what my father said, as by what he did. His commitment was all the way. Once set on the path He was never half hearted. Even when he insisted on praying publicly and giving thanks to God for a meal in a crowded fish and chip shop, to the embarrassment of his children,you could not but admire someone who was not afraid of ridicule or shame in the eyes of others.  He was not as the Scottish Paraphrase puts it “ashamed to own my lord or to defend his cause”.  I often sung that in church uncomfortably thinking that I would be a little ashamed at times. He didn’t ever seem to be. Later I discovered the character Job, specifically; when he describes the kind of role he had in his community. Reading this through a 21st century lens, with our twisted sense of humility, it might seem a little arrogant, but pride would have been furthest from him when he longed for the days past that had been taken from him so cruelly:

“When I went to the gate of the city
    and took my seat in the public square,
 the young men saw me and stepped aside
    and the old men rose to their feet;
 the chief men refrained from speaking
    and covered their mouths with their hands;
 the voices of the nobles were hushed,
    and their tongues stuck to the roof of their mouths.
 Whoever heard me spoke well of me,
    and those who saw me commended me,
 because I rescued the poor who cried for help,
    and the fatherless who had none to assist them.
The one who was dying blessed me;
    I made the widow’s heart sing.
 I put on righteousness as my clothing;
    justice was my robe and my turban.
 I was eyes to the blind
    and feet to the lame.
 I was a father to the needy;
    I took up the case of the stranger.
 I broke the fangs of the wicked
    and snatched the victims from their teeth.

Here I thought was an example, a model to follow. The respect he had was not because of his position or his wealth or his skills of gifts but because he rescued the poor cared for the orphans and promised the dying man that he would look after his widow. He took up the case of those who couldn’t and if this required boldness and firmness and necessary force against the wicked who caused the suffering he would not hesitate.  He was neither a macho misogynist nor a soft in the middle new man. His was a life to emulate. Here was model to follow.

Crawford Mackenzie

Desert Island Youtubes


I wonder if Roy Plomley  could have possibly imagined, when he devised his radio programme in 1942, that it would continue for 70 plus years and become a British institution. While LPs replaced gramophone records which, in turn, were replaced with CDs and MP3s the format of the programme has remained unchanged with an endless list of musicians, artist, writers, politicians, comedians and celebrities, all willing to share their life story in the context of a selection of music. I will never be a guest, so leaving out the life story and the potted psychology; this is my fantasy list of records, but, with a twist. When I land on this desert Island I have been able to salvage a pen drive with 8 YouTube videos and a solar operated device to play them on. This is my selection:

1 The Kinks  “You really got me” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2GmzyeeXnQ  As a young teenager I missed out on Elvis, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Jelly Lee Lewis and all the other early rockers. I couldn’t get fired up by Cliff Richard and even the early Beatles passed me bye.  I hated the adulation they received and when I was asked to give a talk in 2nd year English class, chose my dislike for the Beatles as the subject, explaining how I found their music simple, their words childish and how I much preferred to listen to Beethoven and Brahms on the radio. The teacher humorously offered me armed protection so that I could leave the room without being molested. But it was the Kinks who really got me.  I remember that lunchtime in the school gym where the prefects were allowed a record player and one of the singles, that the boys produced, touched a rhythmical nerve. It was that da-di-di-da-di—– da and the vocal a split second ahead of the riff.  I remember walking down the long corridor to class afterwards with the beat still thumbing away in my head, never to be forgotten.

2 Joe Cocker “Summer in the City” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Hxz6qJi-9kWhen the Loving Spoonful first came on the scene it was summer. It always seemed to be summer. There was something magically light and funny and joyful about their songs. It fitted with the long summer days outside on the grass, during exam breaks, or wrapped around the sports ground as other strained every muscle on the field. It was the expectation of a long holiday and the songs fitted the mood perfectly. None more so that ”Daydream”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9afV7h-XkU&list=RDBU8COHUrGi0&index=0 which John Sebastian could play solo without losing much from the sound of the full band. Summer in the city had an altogether different feel. The summer had moved from suburbia to the heart of the city, sticky and hot with the promise of the cool evening and endless parties. John Sebastian was interested in how Aaron Copeland used the orchestra to create city sounds and he decided to use real recordings of street traffic. This was taken one step further in the video made for Joe cocker’s version.

3 Bob Dylan  “Knocking on heaven’s door” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jPg2M1UYgUDespite its popularity with every strumming busker and street musician, for me  “Knocking on heaven’s door” has never been one of Bob Dylan’s greatest songs, by a long shot, but this performance with Tom Petty is very special.  The whole sense of the live sound is captured with a magnificent harmonica introduction almost interrupted with Stan lynch premature roll on the drums which Dylan stays with an outstretched hand. Benmont Tench does some fine work on the piano, but it is a whole.

4 Peter Paul and Mary  Early Morning Rain”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OCnHNk2Hac  Mary Travis, who like so many gifted singers, has sadly gone from us, provided the spark and tension to an otherwise plain Peter and Paul.  While Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey provide the solid base of the songs with tight clinical guitar work, flawless vocals and harmonies, it is Mary Travis who is the wild card. Standing often on the edge, to the side, she creeps into stir the song and creates an unnerving tension that is riveting. She moves dances and sings like an exotic bird with harmonies that makes your hair stand on end. This comes over so well in the video recordings of a “Tonight in person”. These include the republican “Rising of the moon”   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q_xacXFwq0  (long before the troubles) and the light hearted gospel Jane Jane https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgPjgQBHEeA. But it is Gordon Lightfoot’s “early morning rain” which for me is the pinnacle.   The song, itself, meant a lot to me, reminding me, as it did, of the time I missed the plane home from Glasgow Airport in the summer of 1967.    The line “she’ll be flying o’er my home in about three hours’ time” makes me choke a little.  Listening to how these three played together, recently, made me aware that our set up with “The Weather’s Hand” was much like this and perhaps there was something subconsciously going on there.

Bert Jansch “Blues run the Game”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MO_Xxq3LVw&list=RDtpBxDDwbzBk The first LP I purchased was Bert Jansh’s debut album recorded in 1965, on a reel to reel tape recorder with a borrowed guitar for which he was paid £100. I had to borrow a record player to listen to it. I could not believe that what I was hearing came from a single guitar, there seemed to be so much going on at the same time and I have spent a good part of 40+years trying to emulate the style. I saw Bert once live at a concert at the Lemon Tree and he was his characteristically unassuming self, on a simple stage, plugging in his guitar and fixing the microphone like he was a complete novice. Yet most guitarists will say that they owe most to him. He was shy about the limelight and said that he would rather be propping up some bar somewhere. Sadly he got that wish, drink all but destroyed him and possibly led to his premature death.  This is just one example of many.

6 Karen Matheson and  Paul Brady “Ae Fond Kiss”     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWzXTebD5X0 The transatlantic sessions produced some wonderful collaborations from musicians across the world and the filming of these, catches that wonderful sense of the players simply getting together in someone’s living room playing so beautifully and sensitively. To my mind some of these are almost perfect: Mary Black on Richard Thompson’s “farwell farewell” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B-tiGvMqpU8, with Michelle Wright, Iris DeMent and  Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh on “Will the circle be unbroken”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KB1-1zuDGJ0, but my favourite highlight is Karen Matheson and Paul Brady on Burn’s “Aye fond Kiss”. I was never a fan of Burns and hated this song as I associated it with the stilted formalised style of Kenneth McKellar and more recently Fiona Kennedy and Susan Boyle. The Corries tried to make it more folky, but that was less than convincing.  Micheal Marra, Dougie MacLean and Eddi Reader have added their own twist to it, to lots of acclaim, but they come nowhere near the authenticity of what Karen Matehson and Paul Brady’s do with the song. The balance and restraint of Donald Shaw’s piano, Aly Bain’s fiddle pulling it away and just a touch on Gerry Douglas steel guitar. The way the key descends and ascends to suit the voices matches the theme perfectly especially when they come together in harmony for the last two verses. When Paul Brady comes in with the whistle, behind the line, you know you are in on something special. It all sounds like it has just fallen together which belies the mastery of the musicians. The singing is so convincing you would think they were the lovers who the song was about.

7 Nanci Griffith “If these old walls could speak” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x44bwDKn0sg A friend introduced me to Nanci Griffith as the face of new country and her album “little love affairs”.  I was immediately a fan.  It was the combination of her song writing craft and her singing, in the way that she could caress the words as well as deliver them with a snarl that caught me.  I have had most of her albums and watched her in concert a number of times. She has the great gift of inhabiting a song, often material by others. Her versions of Julie Gold’s “From a distance”, which she made her own, and Stephen Foster’s “Hard times” are among some of the finest. But the song which haunts me is Amy Grants’ “If these walls could speak” (if you can ignore the strange and untypical fashion statement)

8 Marilyn Marshall “ Front Line Believer” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmuLFfNLeHs Marilyn recorded this, possibly one of her finest songs, in the last album by The Weavers Hand in1999. She had been moved by the stories she was reading of the Andean Christians who were caught in the crossfire during the civil war in Peru during the time of the “Shining Path” in the 80s and 90s. In this time pastors were specifically targeted and many were murdered. Sometime whole church congregations were massacred in the course of the revolutionary’s brutal aims. Christians in the Ayacucho province lived in constant fear, waiting on a knock on the door, in the dark of the night and this song captures this grim reality and the futility of the movement which was unable to see “The light of true salvation”   

Crawford Mackenzie