Monday, December 28, 2015

Weepies - seven songs that make me cry

I can sometimes tell you when I first heard a song. I can always remember when I heard one that made me cry. 

You don't forget a singer or a piece of music that nails your heart right into the floor as you stand there. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Here are seven that have had that effect on me.

Nancy Wallace: Alice White

Picture a Sunday morning at an experimental music festival on the artier side of Birmingham, 2009. A large fountain has been drained to create a small sunken stage, and the first act on that day is a folk singer, Nancy Wallace. Practically pop, by the standards of the weekend, but no matter. 

Backed by her own acoustic guitar, she opens with Alice White, a song of the women who loved and followed the navvies who built the railways of Britain.

"And now I'm getting old, and grey before my time
With the work and the childbearing, as we trudged from line to line
I often think of poor Dandy Jack, lying so cold in his grave
He's the only one I loved of the navvies."

You can read the full lyric here - but more importantly check this recording of Nancy's version. It's a terribly bleak song, yet full of humanity, and I was in tears all the way through. Amidst a weekend of head music, it stood out as heart music.

For all their cliches, and in their own way they're every bit as stylised as modern pop music, blues, folk and country have a way of cutting through. I sometimes jokingly say that all good folk is about heartbreak and death. And while that's not stricly true, what traditional music does do very well is the conversion of lived or historic experience into tragedy.

Bill Withers: I Can't Write Left Handed

People wrote many songs about the Vietnam War - not all of them will last. Bill Withers' I Can't Write Left Handed is one that will. As Bill says in the introduction to this song - a lot of people write 'social, political things' and maybe generalisation can be the easy way out in art. It's much harder to put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary trooper with no political consciousness and sing their story.

All I know is that I can't even listen to I Can't Write, can't even explain that it takes the form of a letter from an invalided soldier back to his mother, pleading with her to get his younger brother out of the draft, without getting tearful.

"Tell the Reverend Harris to pray for me, lord, lord, lord
I ain't gonna live, I don't believe I'm going to live to get much older
Strange little man over here in Vietnam, I ain't never
Bless his heart I ain't never done nothin' to, he done shot me in my shoulder.

The Unthanks: Monday Morning

Like Nancy Wallace, The Unthanks were slighly incongrous mid-afternoon guests on the second stage at Lovebox in East London back in 2008, but they were great fun. Before they broke into the clog-dancing crowd-pleasers, though, they opened with this lament to a weekend's excesses and the tragedy of everyday life.

"Where is the weekend now?
Where is the whisky and beer I tasted?
Gone the same way as the pay I wasted
On a Monday morning."

Panopticon: Come All Ye Coal Miners 

Panopticon's Kentucky (2012) is one of those albums which defiantly spill out of the genre to which they have been assigned. Over 50 minutes, mainman Austin Lunn mixes black metal with bluegrass, traditional mining protest songs, ambient noise and spoken-word samples to tell a musical history of the rural backwaters of the state (my full review here).

Come All Ye Coal Miners is one of the protest songs - a companion piece to Alice White in its look at the personal impact of industrialisation, with added political consciousness. Lunn is no virtuoso singer, but the very simplicity of his tone makes the connection with the past all the easier. And the hope of a better future the song expresses - the idea, to paraphrase Stephen Donaldson, that the sacrifices of the past and present have meaning - makes it a tremendous gut punch of a tune if you choose to believe it, if only for the span of a few minutes.

"They take your very life's blood, they take our children's lives.
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won't you organize wherever you may be and make this land of freedom for workers like you and me."

Public Service Broadcasting: Sputnik

The sadness of a future which never fully materialised hangs over Come All Ye Coal Miners but also in a different way over much electronic music. Like Panopticon, Public Service Broadcasting make use of spoken-word samples - in this case to summon the optimistic spirit of the abandoned space race. 

Our family are passionate about science and space - so nostagia for what was for and what could have been caught me by the throat at Truck festival this year as PSB played Sputnik.*

"Will the bleep of the satellite bring people closer together in a common understanding?
Or as the Earth shrinks, the universe stretches forth its beckoning hand in a gesture to all mankind
To all mankind, to all mankind..."

* Fun fact - my dad had a cat called Sputnik growing up. 

Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing 

Warning: don't watch this video unless you're ready to cry. It's a beautiful piece of animation to accompany Steven Wilson's 2013 album, a song cycle of supernatural tales, also called The Raven That Refused To Sing

Steven Wilson's best known as bandleader for proggers The Porcupine Tree, but don't let the 'prog' tag put you off this, which isn't not a million miles away from Radiohead's ventures into brooding piano territory.

"Sister I lost you
When you were still a child
But I need you now
And I need our former life
I'm afraid to wake
I'm afraid to love

Josh Record: For Your Love

At last, a positive weepie, occupying a very special place in our hearts. It's is all about the power of a song to say what matters to two people.

We seem to have made a habit of seeing Josh in unusual venues - to date it's two libraries and one church. He is a lovely, friendly approachable guy and we'd definitely recommend catching him if you have the chance.

"Carry your story
Wherever I may go
'cause I know it will be mine
'till the end of time."

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