The first in a series of blogs reflecting on tracks from my latest album, “Sketches From Memory“.
Guitar on a Train
Over recent years, my work has involved frequent train journeys to London. And on these journeys, I would often reflect on those who had gone before me … aspiring musicians heading towards their Mecca.
These four pieces pay homage to all those guitarists in the 1960s and 70s who took the train to London, seeking fame and fortune.
I am thinking of musicians such as Bert Jansch and John Martyn travelling down from Glasgow, and Davy Graham joining the train as it passes through Leicestershire. Michael Chapman setting off from Leeds and Nick Drake climbing aboard in the West Midlands. Meanwhile natives such as John Renbourn and Richard Thompson hop on the local buses to the city centre as Martin Carthy hitches a lift in from Hatfield…
For them, it’s time to move on from months spent hunched over their Dansettes, painstaking unpicking musical ideas from the scratchy recordings of the great American blues guitar players such as Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, Skip James etc. Because music is more than just the notes – there is the important social element, connecting with fellow musicians and audiences. They headed down to London – not just for performing and recording opportunities, but to learn from each other in the various cafes, clubs and bedsits. These musicians, in turn, would spread the fruits of these collaborations across the UK – hopping again onto trains to share their musical wisdom across the burgeoning folk club scene and in universities and colleges. And the music they were creating wasn’t just a slavish copy of American blues. Other influences were thrown into the melting pot – renaissance music, the folk music of Eastern Europe, music hall, country music, modern jazz explorations, the musics of India and North Africa…
So my pieces pay homage to these musicians and what we can now justifiably refer to as their remarkable legacy. We rightly acknowledge the seismic importance of British rock and pop music from 1950s onwards – but the troubadours travelling on trains also had a profound and lasting influence. The fascinating fusions and crossovers we are seeing in much 21stC, music making had their origins here. Sadly, many of these pioneers are no longer with us, but their music lives on through some fabulous recordings. And if you want a quick flavour of what I’m talking about, check out this YouTube clip of Renbourn and Jansch jamming informally: https://youtu.be/L6Q_M6aTUbs
So here is some background on my four pieces on the album ”Sketches from Memory”
In the Watch of the Night– the driving, relentless rhythm of the train is evoked by playing along the strings rather than across them – as though the strings were railway tracks. A straightahead blues pausing only briefly for a more reflective jazzy interlude, before pressing on to Euston.
More than You Had Hoped For– many guitarists play ragtime too fast. They should listen to Scott Joplin or even better the guitar legend John Fahey. With his music, you have time to savour the subtle dissonances, when strings ring on beyond their allotted time to create textures with unintended but pleasurable consequences. Chromatic mischiefs creeping into ostensibly rigid diatonic frameworks. Subtle but significant musical rebellions…
Whispers Wake No Clocks– ticks along quite innocuously and proudly acknowledges its influences; echoes of Davy Graham and Bert Jansch, underpinned by so much absorbed from the work of John Renbourn.
Going Anywhere But Here– for many of us self taught musicians trapped by the three chord trick, the songs of the Music Hall tradition were a source of considerable harmonic fascination, providing us with refreshing new ways to string sequences of chords together. The magic of modulation and the glories of the diminished chord which could safely take you in any number of directions. In the middle section, buffs will hear echoes of Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom which sums up the times beautifully – and provides me with a most apt title for this piece.