1000 Years of Popular Music

This is a dvd & 2 Cd set by English guitarist/songwriter/ folkie Richard Thompson, with Judith Owen on vocals & keyboards and Debra Dobkin on percussion and vocals. It was inspired by Playboy magazine asking Thompson to provide a list of the 10 greatest songs of the millennium. As the ever iconoclastic Thompson writes :

“Ha! I thought, hypocrites, they don’t mean millennium, they mean 20 years – I’ll call their bluff and do a real thousand-year selection. My list was similar to the choiced here, starting in about 1068 and winding up to 2001. That they failed to print my list among others submitted by rock luminaries is but a slight wound – it gave me the idea for this show. The premise is that Popular Music comes in man forms, through many ages, and as older forms get superceded, sometimes the baby is thrown out with the bathwater – great ideas, tunes, rhythms, styles, get left in the dust of history, so let’s have a look at what’s back there and see if it still does the trick. I am unqualified to sing 98% of the material here, but me having a go could be considered part of the fun. Also, trying to render an Arthur Sullivan orchestration with acoustic guitar and snare drum is pretty desperate stuff, but may, at a stretch, be thought “charming”. The show is roughly chronological, with slight deviations for pacing, and the songs are the true stars. Climb aboard our magic steamroller of music, and hold very tight, please.”

His selection if songs is eclectic; some I know, others are a welcome discovery. As with all lists, it can be argued widely as to his choices, and they are heavily weighted in favour of recent history, but they are his, and the box set is a very interesting, worthwhile one.

Of the two formats, the dvd is better, as it includes Thompson’s banter which adds to the performance, and also, the trio’s entry to the venue, with Dobkin leading them in with her drum beating, and they segue into the first song. There is also a short interview in which Thompson explains why, despite his passion for doing things his own way, most of the songs are modern – he thinks even his audience has their limitations, so aims for somewhere between what he wants and what they can handle. He claims the project began in Southampton with 200 persons, but due to wastage and illness is now down to the present 3.

The first song is from c1260. Sumer is Icumen In, which he explains is English, though it is barely recognisable. It is sung in the round, showing us the range of voices, the soprano Owen and mezzo Dobkin with Thompson’s growling. It is about the arrival of cuckoos.

King Henry is a real find – one of the many songs which died out in Britain, but somehow survived abroad, which is odd considering its subject matter. It was collected in the 1930s in Cades Cove Tennessee. Thompson explains it is about Henry V, ‘but you know him as Henry IV part 2’. When the young Henry sends a messenger to France for tribute, the French King, holding the young English monarch as but a child, sends him a barrel of tennis balls instead of the expected gold. In the song this barrel becomes a mere three – both increasing the insult, but also tying it to the Christian obsession with the number 3. Henry had a lot of reasons for the invasion, but in the song, this is the clincher, threatening to ‘send some London balls to shake his court’. The Battle of Agincourt was his reply.

A surprising inclusion is So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo, from Italy, 16th century by Orazia Vecchi, of Modena famous for secular compositions. ‘There might be a bit of cuckolding going on in the lyric. There is a dance that goes with this’ but the band make no attempt at it. Wisely, probably. It is quite rowdy and Thompson includes a European joke, on the difference between heaven and hell as a restaurant. In heaven, you are greeted by the English, the cooking is French, entertainment by the Italians and organised by the Germans. Hell’s restaurant has French greeters, English cooks, German entertainment and Italian organisation.

Bonnie St. Johnstone is a traditional song from a Victorian collection, from the 17th century, the ‘cruel mother’ family of ballads. They were very popular at the time. It includes references to several places in Scotland, including the title, known – of at all for its underachieving football team.

O Fond Fancy was
written by Thomas Morley in 1590 who also composed the setting for ‘it was as Lover and his Lass’ in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It is a madrigal, which usually had at least 4 parts, but the range of voices of these three makes it hard to imagine it needing more.

Remember O Thou Man
is by or merely updated by Thomas Ravenscroft, in a collection of 1611. Another three parter which has the sense of doom that much music seems to share. It is said to have been the origin of the English national anthem, but I can’t see it.

Shenandoah is listed as a traditional early 19th century, allegedly a US cavalry song before it was a sea shanty. There are many variants, some of which include the love of an Indian maiden. To further confuse things, there are two towns of the name, in Misouri and Virginia. Thompson quipped to his San Francisco audience: ‘I love singing your culture back at you, like the Rolling Stones.’

Blackleg Miner is said to be from early 19th century, in the North of England, but as unions were not legal till decades later, this is wishful thinking. It is a rousing song by and for the working classes, with a rallying cry to join the union and none too veiled threats of violence against strike breakers. ‘Join the union while you may/don’t wait till your dying day/it may mot be far away….

I Live in Trafalgar Square is subtitled The Optimistic Outcast, a rousing music hall song from 1902 about a homeless man making the best of the hands dealt him,, pretending to be happier outdoors than in some posh hotel.

There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast is from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado and is a wonderful debate on getting married when well past your prime. The band have a lot of fun with this, and the absence of an orchestra is not worth noting.

Fast forward and another Atlantic crossing, we have Java Jive of 1940 by Milton Drake who wrote the music for films including For Whom the Bell tolls, and the lyrics for Maizy Doats. Ben Oakland played piano at Carnegie hall aged 9 and produced, wrote and directed shows for Josephine Baker and others. This song was made famous by the Ink Spots, previously The Riff Brothers and the Percolating Puppies.

Night and Day – 1932 – Cole Porter, allowing Owen to show off her jazz chops.

Orange Coloured Sky from 1950, as sung by Nat King Cole. This is a real belter, with the lines ‘I never knew love was so loud/ what a truly disturbing sound.’ Indeed.

Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee what a great title! Written by J Mayo Williams and Granville “Stick” McGhee who got his nickname from pushing his older brother , the disabled Blues legend Brownie, in a wagon with a stick. This version is based on Jerry Lee Lewis’s.

A-11 Written by Hank Cochran, in a teen duo The Cochran Brothers with Eddie, though they were not related. This was a hit for Buck Owens. He wrote a lot of country hits, including I Fall to Pieces for Patsy Cline. A real classic: a miserable cowboy refusing to allow one special song to be plaid on the jukebox. Thompson claims it comes from ‘the peak of Honky Tonk, 1957-8 by which time they had run out of lyrics – honkey tonk, bar stool, jukebox.’

See My Friends
– 1965 by Ray Davies, of The Kinks. Inspired by a stopover in Bombay in 1965 “Ray was moved by the droning song of the fishermen on the beach at dawn. Dave Davies cites an influence from Davey Graham. Usually considered the first ‘oriental’ pop song.

Friday on My Mind – 1965 by George Young and Harry Vanda. The dawn of Australian pop music, a huge hit at the time. The Easybeats were made up of 3 Brits and 2 Dutch nationals, several of whose younger brothers formed ACDC. A great song about the drudgery of work and escaping on the weekend.

Tempted – by Difford and Tilbrook, of Squeeze, a minor hit for the in the US but not in the UK.

OOps! I Did it Again – ‘Britney’s classic reveals its own navel.’ Thompson justifies this in terms of its sales but it also has elements of all popular music, as he demonstrates by doing part of it in 16th century time signature. Well, someone had to.

Cry Me A River – The only hit for composor Arthur Hamilton and singer Julie London. Yes, but Thompson seems to forget the barnstorming version by Joe Cocker & Leon Russell which did rather well.

1985 – a hit in 2004 by ‘that fine band, Bowling for Soup, self-styled drunk-rockers and fat guys, from Wichita Falls, Texas.’ His words.

And finally, Thompson goes a capella, growling and gurning with the audience joining in on this belter from 1830s music hall, Sam Hall. Popularised by singer W. G. Ross which seems to be based on an earlier song about Captain Kidd, the pirate. Thompson’s performance is brilliant, about a man heading for the scaffold, growling out ‘Damn your eyes!”

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