Monday, September 26, 2016

Three Strong Handshakes

Three Strong Handshakes

Though I am perfectly happy to sign copies of ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ on request (you too can get a signed copy by going to and shelling out the requisite spondulicks), I don’t go in for acquiring signed copies of books, CDs or works of art to any great extent myself.  The artefact itself is perfectly satisfactory in my estimation.  As a person who supplements his living by selling items on eBay I may possibly be shooting myself in the foot here, but it would seem pretty crass to me, getting a creator to sign his/her work simply to get a bigger return when I sell it on.

Now and again I end up with a signed copy, one way or another: work produced by friends of mine; items that arrive by mail order ready signed – that sort of thing.  Once, recently, I bought a CD after a show by a singer songwriter who I admire.  The sales person passed it on immediately to the artist to sign and I felt that if then asked him not to bother, I might just cause offence.

But instead, over the last couple of decades, I have become at least sporadically a collector of handshakes.  I thought this week I’d write a few words about three of the prize items in my collection.

The first took place in 1999..  Since I came across them back in the 1970s I have been passionately fond of the music of The Holy Modal Rounders.  Their acid culture soaked take on the songs they and many others first found in Harry Smith’s 1952 ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ reached me slowly, via the ‘Bird Song’ on the ‘Easy Rider’ soundtrack, and finally blowing me away with the wonderful ‘Alleged in Their Own Time’ album.  Rough edged and perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, that 1974 recording fills me with utter joi-de-vivre every time I hear it.

Sadly, I’ve never seen them perform live and probably never will since founder members Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel no longer work together (long story!).  Of the two, it was Stampfel who interested me the most.  Scratchy as sandpaper, coarse as a dog fight, his unique vocals, fiddle and banjo playing never failed to delight me.  That he turned out to be a witty, erudite man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music just confirmed my admiration.
In 1999, at a venue in Bristol, I got a chance to see him at last.  He had formed a short lived duo, the Du-Tels, with former Magic Band guitarist Gary Lucas and I guess they were loosely promoting their one and only album.  The show was no disappointment.  Between songs, Stampfel was affable and informative.  Performing, he frequently appeared utterly deranged – swinging his white fiddle about between bouts of playing with such abandon that at one point Lucas had to duck mid-solo.  It was nearing Christmas, and his (spontaneous?) near demented version of ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’ will live with me until death or brain decay take their toll.  Readers, you should have been there too.

Before the gig I’d already seen him talking cheerfully with fans in the hall, so confirmed that he was not a man with any airs and graces.  Post gig I approached him for a brief chat myself, and he was lovely – genuinely pleased, I think, to be appreciated.  I commiserated with him about the difficulty he was having at the time in finding a release for a third album by one of his bands – the Bottlecaps – and he told me the story at length.  But others were waiting to speak to him and it was time to move on.  He put out his hand and… so began my collection.  Bless you, Peter.

Next one to ‘put it there’ probably needs less by way of introduction.  I’m guessing that anyone who chooses to read this blog will likely be familiar with The Incredible String Band.  I never got to see them in concert until quite late in their career – the mid seventies, when they had all or mostly become somewhat steeped in Scientology.  Too far back for me to remember for sure, but I think the gig was pretty good.  Post show they made themselves available and I got an opportunity to talk with founder member Robin Williamson.  I asked him about Scientology and he subsequently wrote me a letter about it.  But I had recently read Cyril Vosper’s ‘The Mind Benders’ exposing the exploitative nature of the organisation.  I felt that Robin and the ISB were proselytising, and my interest in them waned as a result.

But sometime in the 80s, I think, Robin began to re-invent himself and I saw him do a solo gig at the College of Storytellers in London.  He told such wonderful tales, accompanying them with his harp playing and occasional songs, and all with such charm that I fell in love with him as a performer all over again.  I’ve seen him a good few times since, but one of the last occasions was in South Wales at the Pontardawe Arts Centre – a venue I often frequented.  They’d set up the night as a sort of mock medieval feast, with a group of young female harpists, a stew and dark bread meal at long tables, and Robin as the post-prandial bardic entertainer.  It was a good night and he excelled – his repertoire by then ranging widely from his own material, old and new, to blues and rock covers he’d appropriated and adapted.  At the end of the evening I felt a strong urge to say thank-you.  We spoke briefly (I didn’t ask him about Scientology this time) and closed with a hand shake.  Number two in my selection.

Number three took place just three days ago.  Me and the light of my life drove from my current home in Shaftesbury to Bridgewater for a performance by Peggy Seeger.  I’ve known of her, of course, for many, many years and knew she was worthy of respect, but had heard very little of her music beyond a few of her most well-known songs.  My good companion is more familiar with her work than I am.

So I wasn’t sure what to anticipate.  Peggy is 81 now, and like some older performers I’ve seen in recent years, I half expected her to be frail, wavery, and reliant on a supporting of a band of musicians for a short, safe set of songs.  How wrong I was.  From the moment she appeared on stage she was authoritative, yet warm and friendly.  She got the audience loving her, if they hadn't been that way inclined already, and doing whatever she wanted them to in the way of chorus singalongs, and ensuring there were no empty seats in the front rows.

I daresay she has her share of the problems which come with her years, but she seemed sprightly, dressed elegantly, and introduced her songs with measured commentary, crafted anecdotes, wry wit and warm humour.  She skilfully played a variety of instruments, guitar and piano mostly, but also button accordion (I think!), autoharp and an unusual looking banjo with a long neck.  Her singing was spot on, melodic and affecting with barely a trace of age in her voice.  She performed alone mostly, with occasional accompaniment by her support act – a young Virginian musician who complemented her pretty well.

Unfamiliar as I am with it, I’d guess she played selections from across her entire career.  Plenty of traditional material, including one fine unaccompanied song and one or two she learned from brother Pete, but also her own songs in various idioms.  Her politics were clearly expressed in a song aimed at climate change deniers and another based on the words of a character she encountered while participating at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, back in the 1980s.  A couple of songs were drawn from her long commitment to feminism, the second an interestingly nuanced take – concerning as it did a man who disagrees strongly with her views but remains a good friend.  She also read at intervals from a large folder of writings and clippings, containing a good deal of wisdom and insight.

Highlights for me were her banjo playing on a song which I think I recall she introduced simply as ‘Folk Blues’ (speedy, rippling runs, bar after bar, in the style you might hear on a record by Hobart Smith); a moving rendition of Ewan MacColl’s song ‘The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face’; and towards the end, back on that banjo, but with guitar accompaniment, a fine version of one of my favourite folk songs ‘The Cuckoo’.  At times she was playing, eyes closed, clearly in a sort of rapture.  So were we.

I bought myself a copy of her interesting new CD and intend fully to dip into her back catalogue when I can.  In the foyer, awaiting my companion who was making a necessary visit before our lengthy journey home, I saw Peggy sat at a table waiting to sign CDs.  There was, I guess, but a brief hiatus when no one was approaching her.  She sat, poised and ready to facilitate – though probably weary.  I took the opportunity to step over and thank her for a wonderful evening.  It wasn’t a conversation – she just thanked me as performers do for positive feedback – then put out her hand and gave me a firm handshake.  A handshake I’ll treasure.

As I do all three.  Hugs are great, of course.  But those handshakes, they mean a lot to me.

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