Some thoughts on poetry, music and song

Recently the poet Anna Saunders recommended I listen to Madam Life, a CD by a band called Little Machine who specialise in setting poetry to music. She also mentioned that she didn’t know what music to listen to any more so I promised that, in return for letting me know about Little Machine, I’d send her some recommendations. Afterwards I rather wished I hadn’t.

It wasn’t that I begrudged Anna doing this, it’s more that I didn’t know what to recommend to a poet whose work I much admire but whose musical tastes are, I suspect from past conversations, very different to mine. (She is, not least, a whole generation younger than me).

Given her enthusiasm for Madam Life, which I too very much enjoyed, I initially thought I’d focus on what I assumed to be ‘poetic’ songs – songs by poets or, in some cases, poetry set to music (not quite the same thing). We had also talked about my fascination with old ballads – Tam Lin in particular – which she did not know and about listening to different versions of old ballads, so a number got onto my list. The songs I recommended were:

Yeats’ Sweet Dancer by The Waterboys from ‘An Appointment With Mr Yeats’, The Jeweller by Pearls Before Swine, Fairport Convention’s version of Tam Lin from ‘Liege & Lief’, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey by Joni Mitchell, Yeats’ Long-Legged Fly from Christine Tobin’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, Neko Case’s Magpie to the Morning from ‘Middle Cyclone’, the delicious You’ll do from Rachel Harrington’s ‘Celilo Falls’, Twenty Seven Strangers by Villagers from ‘Becoming A Jackal’, a second, very different version of Tam Lin from Pyewackett’s ‘The Man in the Moon Drinks Claret’, Nancy Elizabeth’s Coriander from her ‘Battle and Victory’, a version of Willie O’Winsbury by Meg Baird, Leonard Cohen’s Anthem, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds The Ship Song from ‘Boatman’s Call’, a third version of Tam Lin by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, White Dog from The Handsome Family’s ‘Twilight’, a fourth version of Tam Lin by Steeleye Span,  Venus by Anais Mitchell from ‘Young Man in America’,  Michael Marra And The Hazey Janes’s Mrs Gorrie, Emmy The Great’s Edward Is Dedward , Magpie from The Unthanks’ ‘Mount the Air’, Black-eyed Susan from Laura Veirs’ ‘Orphan Mae’, Furr by Blitzen Trapper, Salters Road from Karine Polwart’s ‘Traces’, The Rolling of the Stones by The Owl Service, Sally Go Round the Roses by Great Society, Your Ghost by Kristin Hersh, an interpretation of Hunter and Garcia’s  Row, Jimmy by Susan Kane, Cold Atlantic Ocean – which has my lyrics set to music by Gary Peters and is from our ‘Fish in the Flood’ project, the beautiful Child Amongst the Weeds by Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight, You Want That Picture from  Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s ‘Lie Down In The Light’, River Girls by Tanya Donelly from ‘This Hungry Life’, Alasdair Roberts’ wonderful version of The Cruel Mother from ‘No Earthly Man’, America from Laura Veirs’ ‘Warp & Weft’, Ticket Taker by The Low Anthem, Quit These Hills by the Pinetop Seven, Aberystwyth by Paper Aeroplanes, Laura Veirs’ Dorothy of the Island, a version ofLeonard Cohen’s First We Take Manhattan by Joe Cocker, Yr mother called them farm houses by Robin Holcomb, Washing By Hand from Jackie Leven’s ‘Creatures Of Light And Darkness’, The War On Love Song by A.L. Kennedy & Sons and Daughters, Bird Song by the Grateful Dead from a concert in New York in 1990 that features Branford Marsalis guesting on saxophone, Robin Holcomb’s Deliver me, Midnight singer from Laura Veirs’ ‘Troubled By The Fire’ Patti Smith’s version of Neil Young’s Helpless, Mairi Morrison  and Alasdair Roberts’ version of his The Whole House Is Singing from ‘Urstan’, and It’s Good to Know by A Weather from ‘Cove’.

Looking back at this list now I really wonder what on earth I was thinking? In terms of my attempt to find songs with poetic lyrics, how come there’s nothing by Bob Dylan? (Not so much maybe in his guise of bad-tempered ‘translator/updater’ of grumpy Old Testament sentiments, but as the lyrical writer of Visions Of JohannaTangled Up In Blue and Blind Willie McTell). I think the problem is that, despite my own brief attempts to write lyrics for the musician Garry Peters,  I’d somehow conflated the output of three overlapping but ultimately distinctly weighted entities – the poet, the musician and, ideally the perfect combination of the two, the lyricist. In recommending songs to a poet, that’s maybe bound to cause some concern.

In the first case – the poet – the lyric is clearly privileged. Yeats’ Sweet Dancer, Sailing to Byzantium and Long-Legged Fly, no matter how good their different musical settings, seem to remain poems first and foremost, although they may be enhanced to some degree by the quality of their setting. As the product of a poet, Leonard Cohen’s songs would seem to fall into this category. To some extent this is equally true of the vernacular poetry of ballads like Tam LinThe Rolling of the Stones, Willie O’Winsbury and The Cruel Mother. (Although if we’re interested in old ballads we’re likely to hear each of these with undercurrents of different versions as an additional resonance. (In much the same that orchestral interpretations of a piece of classical music are, I understand, heard in the context of other interpretations). Borderline cases here would be songs like Lal Waterson’s Child Amongst the Weed and Magpie from The Unthanks, both the product of sensibilities so saturated with traditions of vernacular song that they seem to be the product of that tradition of slow distillation and variation, rather than of an individual. The same can be said of the best (in my view) of Alasdair Roberts’ songs.

Then there are honest-to-goodness, through-and-through musicians, for whom the music is what it’s really all about and the lyrics just an afterthought. (I am still enamoured of the music produced by the Grateful Dead, but it’s no surprise to me that when Gerry Garcia wanted to produce songs, he worked with the poet Robert Hunter as a lyricist. A interesting recent example of this is the collaboration between the novelist A.L. Kennedy and the band Sons and Daughters, which produced The War On Love Song). My own sense is that very few of the songs I’ve chosen are by people who are primarily musicians in this sense. Examples of people in this category whose work I very much enjoy would include Bill Frisell, Rachael Grimes, and the Bristol-based band Spiro, whose CDs ‘Lightbox’, ‘Kaleidophonica’  and ‘Welcome Joy and Welcome’ use violin, viola, mandolin, accordion, acoustic guitar, and cello to produce a form of music that owes something to minimalist classical music and folk music, but remains largely unclassifiable none the less.

An interesting borderline case between the categories of poet and musician is, for me, Robin Holcomb. This American singer, songwriter, conductor, composer and pianist makes edgy ‘hybrid’ songs out of elements of jazz, minimalist chamber music, and both country and folk Americana elements. But her lyrics are also highly particular and, to my ear, deeply poetic in a way that echoes Emily Dickinson as much as the vernacular lyrics of the old hymns and Civil-War songs she admires. They are very much paired down, and she says of them that: “when I write poetry, I go for the fewest number of words that evoke a lot or let the readers connect the dots, or relate it to their own experience, and the same with music”. So, a poet/musician in the strong sense of both terms, maybe?

As my list suggests, I like and recommended songs with intelligent, witty, thoughtful, or otherwise engaging lyrics. I’ve nothing particular against songs like Cream’s I’m So Glad, The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, or Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls, but these are not songs that have me savouring the words or that prompt me to listen carefully, let alone inspire me to recommend them to a poet! This has nothing to do with content as such – listen to Rachel Harrington’s You’ll do for example  – but with the quality of the writing and a certain sense of the particular observed or evoked that draws me back to a song.

The bulk of the songs in my list are by people I would regard as good lyricists – that’s to say they have a way with both words and music. Some of these songs are clearly in the poetic narrative tradition of the vernacular ballads – Villagers’ haunting Twenty Seven Strangers, The Handsome Family’s White Dog, Blitzen Trapper’s Furr, The Low Anthem’s Ticket Taker and Karine Polwart’s Salters Road, to name just five very different approaches to drawing on that storytelling poetic. Others seem to owe much more to lyrical or love poetry –  Laura Veirs’ Midnight SingerAberystwyth by Paper Aeroplanes, The Jeweller by Pearls Before Swine, Jackie Leven’s Washing By Hand, Neko Case’s Magpie to the Morning, or Tanya Donelly’s River Girls, which got onto my list simply for the lines:

“… Some river girls make their way
To the sea
Some settle into the bed…”

Some of these songs, of course, simply belong to what might be called the modern vernacular tradition of urban popular music (‘Pop music’ for short?). Michael Marra and The Hazey Janes’s Mrs Gorrie, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds The Ship Song,  and Emmy The Great’s Edward Is Dedward being three obvious, if very different, gems in this category.

I have no idea what Anna Saunders made of my list. She hasn’t told me. What I do know is that she enjoyed the versions of Tam Lin sufficiently to be provoked into writing a poem based loosely on its narrative.

Maybe some day an enterprising musician will set it to music?


The day after I posted this I heard Emily Portman’s ‘Coracle’. Her lyrics are extraordinary, very clearly in the tradition of folk stories and vernacular songs, but somehow simultaneously utterly her own – a marvellous balance of a sense of the deeply personal and poetic and the down-to-earth eroticism, hardness and darkness I associate with the old quasi-pagan mentality that haunts the best old British vernacular songs. This seems to me another kind of poetic, almost mediumistic in quality. If Robin Holcomb’s aesthetic is finally inseparable from a certain stripped-down, Puritan element in vernacular North American culture (which is, of course, also the ultimate point of reference for Agnes Martin (her interest in Oriental philosophy notwithstanding), this resonates with something far older and stranger.