Posts Tagged ‘traditional music’

Another long gap between posts. I have been elsewhere – physically, spiritually and otherwise – but I have finally found some blogging time.

This is not the continuation to the On conformity thread of posts I originally planned, but it does fit into the concept to some degree, so I thought I would write about it while things were fresh in my mind. The trigger for this post was attending a concert recently in Norwich by Dave Swarbrick. Swarb, in case you don’t know, is a fantastic fiddle player with a long performing history in the British folk and folk-rock scenes. After several years of acoustic performance, including as a duo with the equally fabulous Martin Carthy, he joined Fairport Convention in 1969 just as they were becoming serious about their project to electrify British traditional music.

Dave Swarbrick

Having stumbled across (and loved) the music of Richard and Linda Thompson in the late seventies, I “reversed” into listening to Fairport, as Richard had been a founder member of that band. The first time I saw Swarbrick play was in 1979 during Fairport’s as it happens inaccurately titled “Farewell, Farewell” tour …

I’ve seen him many times since – at Fairport reunions, in his own (now defunct) band Whippersnapper, and in duos with Carthy and with Fairport bandmate Simon Nicol. He is a fantastic player – both technically but also because of the fantastic emotion and energy of his playing. I love hearing him, and at the recent gig he was playing as well as ever.

In more recent years, he has faced (and overcome) a number of health problems, at one stage in 1999 waking up to read his own obituary in The Daily Telegraph! Seeing him now, nearly 32 years after I first saw him, led me to reflect on where my life was at at particular times when I happened to see him perform. For all the challenges I have faced, music has been a constant source of solace, joy and affirmation.

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This recent concert was the first time I have seen him entirely solo. I’ve seen him with Fairport many times, with his own band Whippersnapper, in duos with Carthy and Simon Nicol and so on. So I did reflect on the diverse life routes (i.e. his and mine) between first seeing him with Fairport in London in 1979 and seeing him in March 2011 in the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich.

As well as loving the music of performers one might loosely defined as folk/roots musicians (we could have a long discussion about what that means) I admired many of them as people. By comparison with the often pre-packaged world of pop, it seems to me to take a lot of determination and self-possession to carve out a career focussing on music that is not generally seen as fashionable and make a go of it. In my younger days I was very drawn to these musicians who seemed, to me, to have a strong sense of confidence and of who they were – two things I lacked, struggling with my own identity. So in a way I saw them as role models, but lacked (at the time) the confidence to follow their example.

Swarb has had an eventful and occasionally wild life (hence the erroneous 1999 obituary). The focus of much of my adolescent and adult life has been internal struggle, which used to stop me taking, or at least making the most of, life opportunities. But when I went to see Swarb play last week it was the first time as Natasha, and as he played so wonderfully I could reflect with pleasure that I had finally said “yes” to life, and I am now living it the way I want to. And I am grateful for how music sustained me in those critical times and perhaps, in some profound way, saved me from giving up as I struggled with my identity.

Traditional music no longer always travels down the traditional route. In the era before electronic communication became mainstream – records, radio, television – it was handed down and modified by communities and families. That happens much less now and our relationship to it is more complicated. I’m currently reading Rob Young’s amazing book Electric Eden which explores our evolving relationship to that music (I highly recommend it). As well as being a fantastic player, Swarb has a scholarly interest in the music, which he touched on at the gig in more detail than I’ve heard him do so before, dropping interesting tidbits as he talked. For example he loves baroque music, and mentioned that the word baroque means “rough pearl”, and that the music was originally thus labelled, he suggested, as an insult. Today, of course, it’s become a term of esteem.

That language mutates is not news, of course. But I would argue that while it usually does so “naturally”, sometimes it is in the interest of those in power to impose changes in language and ideas. So listening to Swarb’s between tunes comments I was struck by how meaning can change, and how language can be liberating but also constraining.

Those who control the language of power can use it to define and limit others. Like most trans people, I have transitioned later in life. There is a complex combination of reasons for that – in the UK even though more people are seeking medical help with transition that average age at which they do so, significantly, is not shifting much.

One of the key reasons for that is “othering” by society – as I grew up I realized that the dominant view about people like me was that we were “unacceptable”, weird, freakish, outside the norm. Realizing that’s how society thinks about how you is a hard way to grow up. But another consequence of that is that authorities – particularly in our case governments and the medical establishment – have tended to want to “deal with us” by forcing us into what are seen as the “normal” categories, to make us conform, sometimes by brutal medical intervention. I will say more about this another time.

The point I wanted to finish on, on this occasion, is that the way trans (and also intersex) people are treated in western countries now is still shaped by the history of earlier conceptions of what it was to be trans, of what the best treatment should be, and of social notions of “acceptability” and the need to move trans and intersex people towards perceived “norms” – physically, medically and socially.

There are all sorts of issues here – the power of words to label and limit,  the confusion of sex with gender, and of sexuality with gender expression; the initial conception of transness as a psychological illness; the conception of transness as wholly “in the head” and intersex as wholly “of the body”. Which puts psychiatrists in a dominant position for the treatment of trans people, and surgeons in the dominant position for the treament of intersex people. And also means that the medical establishment tends to think people are either trans or intersex, but cannot be both. And also that trans people want to move from one far end of the gender spectrum to the other. If people don’t fit that particular category, then as far as some medics and legislators are concerned, they don’t exist!

It seems to me that trans and intersex people need to be able to articulate their identities away from that history, and away from top-down definition by “authorities”. And also to recognize common cause with other groups in society who are oppressed or ignored. In future posts, I’ll write more about what I think needs to change.


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S– is my rock ‘n’ roll lodger. He only stays with me for slightly over a month but that month is a lot of fun. He is a friend of a friend of a friend. I mention to Christine (my Kensington Drama Club chum) that I am between lodgers, and she tells me about this Austrian musician who is coming to London to seek fame and fortune, and needs a place to stay while doing so. I am intrigued by the possibility and it means I don’t immediately have to seek another long-term lodger (all of whom, in their own way, prove stressful) so Christine passes my details up the line of communication and in due course the deal is done.

S– is tall and blond with the chiselled good looks and muscular build of an Austrian cross-country skier. I, at the time, am 5ft 3in tall and dumpy. We make an odd, but happy household. S– is determined to make it in pop music and is of the conviction, shared by many before and since, that London is the place to do it. He has made a demo tape and has come over for a month (in the end he stays for slightly longer) to hawk his tape round the capital’s record companies.

The eighties is known, among other things, for brittle electronic pop which trumpets its studio origins with high, but harsh production values. Many records of the time fit that description but they are mostly made by British, American or occasionally, thanks to Stock, Aitken and Waterman (if “thanks” is the word) Australian. The most notable European success in this arena is the Norwegian band a-ha. The immortal (in spirit but sadly not in fact) John Walters, then producer of John Peel’s radio programme, had a joke about how they got their name, to the effect that when they finished their first gig, a non-plussed and underwhelmed audience paused, and then said thoughtfully, “a-ha”. Anyway S– looks a bit like someone from a-ha, and his music is hi-energy pop, but with vocals delivered in a reasonably strong Austrian accent. Beth, on hearing a song of his which features the word “Hollywood” quite extensively opines that his vocal delivery makes this sound like “Holyrood”, which she finds consistenly amusing.

Anyway, it is a well-done demo – sounds professional and well-put together. The first thing S– does on arrival is to take his tape to a duplication house and get many copies made. In the ensuing weeks he delivers the tapes in person to pretty much every record company in London (in those days there are a lot of them) subsequently chasing them up by phone or in person.

We get on fine. He is a very nice chap, we have a shared interest in music, although possibly not the same music, but I play him the odd thing I like. After a few days we fall into a ritual of watching a movie each evening to keep him entertained. At the time I have one of the original laserdisc players, the height of  technological sophistication in the early eighties despite Philips designing it to resemb;e a top-loading washing machine. Laserdiscs, for our younger readers, were large videodiscs (the ancestor of DVD) which looked like 12-inch vinyl records with added silver bling. Vinyl records, for our younger readers … oh never mind.

Anyway, each evening we watch a movie – I choose them carefully and S– likes most of my choices. Initially this is just to keep him entertained, but as the month progresses, the record company rejections start to mount up, and the movies become increasingly a form of moral support – another crap day trying to break into the music biz, never mind, let’s watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Increasingly I find myself trying to bolster his flagging spirits.

It is during his stay that I have what will prove to be my last crossdressing adventure for many years. My colleague Elizabeth at QMW invites me to a fancy dress party. I ask if S– can come as well – a party to cheer him up. I have not crossdressed since entering my lodger era, but the prospect of this party makes me sorely tempted. In the end I shove some (rather glam) clothes and make-up in a bag, rather lamely suggesting to S– that they are some of  L–‘s which she has left behind. S– does not bother with a costume. When we get to the party I scurry off upstairs to get ready, leaving S–, I later discover, to fall heavily and hopelessly in love with Elizabeth (it is her boyfriend’s party apart from anything else). I then emerge dolled up and have a rather wonderful time – a lot of the girls at the party are cool about it and come and talk to me (although I still strenously deny any suggestion that I am a crossdresser). I generally have a wonderful time, apart from one drunken lout who keeps trying to grab my genitals.

As we return to Walthamstow, I talk with S– in the cab and it’s clear he knows I am trans and is cool about it – nonetheless I stil have to strenously deny it. Little do I suspect that, in any case, I am about to be forcefully shoved back into the closet by looming events.

S– gets glummer, and glummer. No record company shows any sign of biting. Rejection letters arrive regularly in the post. I show him movies and play him music. Unexpectedly, he really warms to Fairport Convention’s Heyday. This is a collection of Radio 1 sessions from the late sixties, many for John Peel. I first obtained it as a bootleg tape, but it subsequently gets a legitimate release. The songs dates mostly from Fairport’s early, pre folk-rock, West Coast-influenced days – there are covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Richard and Mimi Farina. Which is ironic, because …

Most of the rejection letters are form letters, but then one arrives that isn’t. It’s from Joe Boyd, sometime Floyd/Fairport/Thompson/McGarrigle producer, who at the time has his own independent record company called Hannibal Records on which many early, key world music releases appear. Boyd’s tone in the letter is both amused, and incredulous. He wonders whether S– has ever listened to any of the records he has produced. It’s an amusing,  slightly acid letter which concludes with the assertion that S–‘s tape is the single least appropriate demo (in terms of Boyd’s career and musical interests) that he has ever received. Given the tone of the letter, S– is reasonably philosophical.

Shortly afterwards, he returns to Austria, without a pop career, his romantic ambitions for Elizabeth sadly unfulfilled. Amidst all the other lodgers, his stay with me has been unadulterated good fun, and a brief respite from the very tough times which are starting to loom.

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… is the title of an “official bootleg” released on cassette many years ago, featuring the work of Richard Thompson, both with and without his former wife Linda and other collaborators. The choice is an ironic collusion between RT and the compilers, given that a lot of non-fans describe his music as depressing. And it’s true his lyrical content includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, bleak encounters below the Calvary Cross etc. But it’s also true that it’s informed by traditional music, whose lyrical content often includes war, death, failing relationships, jealousy, witchcraft and magical transformation, encounters with the Devil etc. On a personal level, his is the body of musical work which means the most to me. But I am not here to convert you. That either will or will not happen. 90% of those who sample his catalogue either hate what they hear or become complete converts … there seem to be very few non-committal responses. This post is not quite as much of a digression as some, as it’s about how, by the time all my chums were heading off to university and I wasn’t, music was becoming incredibly important to me.  Although I will drone on a bit about RT as well …

Earlier in my childhood it had always been important to me, but not in any thought out way … I just liked what I liked! I obsessively played records on our Decca Deccalian gramophone, with a red pickup for 33/45RPM records and a green one for 78. It looked a bit like this, only off-white. My grandmother also gave me a defunct wind-up gramophone, which I still have (keep meaning to get the spring replaced). Later, like many in the UK, we graduated to the fabulous Dansette, our model quite like this but pink with long, spindly detachable legs.

You may recall my dad scared me off pop music for a while around the age of nine. If you sampled my list of top tunes around that time it would have include a whole bumch of different stuff, including:

  • early Beatles;
  • the Monkees;
  • Sandy Nelson’s single Let There Be Drums (still fab);
  • a bit of Cliff Richard and the Shadows;
  • Beethoven’s Für Elise (heard a fellow pupil play it at school and was thrilled when I could play it myself);
  • Barry Gray’s stirring music for Gerry Anderson‘s TV puppet adventure shows;
  • Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop‘s electronic realisation of the Doctor Who theme, a legitimate work of genius hidden in plain sight on mainstream television. Strike that – actually a work of genius embedded in another work of genius (the programme itself);
  • and pretty much the full contents of Lonnie Donegan‘s A Golden Age of Donegan Volumes One and Two on Pye Golden Guinea.

A fairly mixed bunch of stuff – I just followed my ears. So there had always been stuff I liked, and I have described how I became a bit more interested in pop and rock in my early teens and had, by the fifth form one genuine musical obsession (The Beach Boys). At around that time I started to buy the music press – NME (New Musical Express) always and Melody Maker quite often – and was informing myself by listening around more widely and reading the NME, in particular writers such as Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray (CSM) and Mick Farren. If you weren’t reading it at the time, read Nick Kent’s book Apathy for the Devil to get a flavour. Punk was also just on the horizon – I’ll say more about that another time.

OK, this could become link city so I’ll try and calm things down. But it’s hard to understate how, feeling detached from my parents and confused about my identity, music became so important to me (an experience a lot of non-trans kids also have around that age of course). But also this “meta-discussion” about music from people who seemed to have informed opinions – the NME writers, John Peel on the radio, Bob Harris on the Old Grey Whistle Test – I devoured it all. From a fan perspective at the time both performers, writers and DJs seemed to reek of certainty and confidence. I think that’s one of the reasons I idolised them, because I felt so powerless and they seemed to be having enjoyable, mould-breaking lives. From an adult perspective I now know it wasn’t as simple as that, but then … also the notion that this music, or at least some of it, was important, that it meant something and stood for something. Equally though, Nick Kent and CSM were something like rock stars themselves, and a lot of what they liked I didn’t like at the time. I was looking for something to call my own …

Then two things happened very close together. Peel was a bit eclectic, but there were often even more aural surprises on BBC Radio London’s almost forgotten show Breakthrough, presented by a chap called Mike Sparrow. I had always been vaguely interested in good guitar players – as opposed to the ones who are either all technique or all sentiment. My school chum P– played guitar and was always trying to get me into Led Zeppelin, which was OK but, you know … Then while idly listening to Breakthrough one evening the most arresting guitar instrumental track I had ever heard wafted across the ether. I’d never heard playing like it, and my ears pricked up immediately. Afterwards Mike Sparrow said this was by somebody called Richard Thompson. I missed the title of the track but it was almost certainly The Pitfall/The Excursion, which is only to be found on a now long-unavailable compilation.

I had just also become a fan of the music magazine Zigzag, which hovered between fanzine and prozine (a place where I would find myself hovering, some years later!). A bit of a bad time to become a fan actually as its distinctive approach to seventies rock was about to be swept away when it was relaunched as a punk rock zine. And yes, I will still have something to say about punk later. Not today, reader …

The very last pre-punk issue of ZigZag cover-featured Richard Thompson. Inside was not an interview, but an article about the records he had made to this point, solo and with Linda, since leaving the band Fairport Convention. The description of them, and particularly their lyrical content and themes(I had only heard his guitar playing at this point) sounded so intriguing that I fairly rapidly acquired the five albums in question. After devouring Brian Wilson’s back catalogue in the mid-seventies, these records (all of which I found stunning in different ways) were another huge musical education. But obviously just saying that I cannot make them so for you – it was a particular time, place and experience.

Thompson has Scottish roots, but he grew up in North London, not far from where I lived as a child, and became a teenage musical prodigy in the sixties. I know a lot of obsessive fans from all over the world, but I wonder in some ways whether that slightly shared background gives my appreciation of his stuff a particular perspective. He grew up in same kind of suburbs I did, and in interviews has often talked about the importance of escaping them. So maybe that idea is a big part of it for me, because in the summer of 1977 I could see no way out of the ‘burbs for me, but his adventurous music perhaps represented that possibility of escape to me most of all.

Besotted with the Thompsons, I then worked backwards to Fairport. I noticed that the key Fairport albums were produced by a chap called Joe Boyd, and followed his name to albums by other (sometimes connected) artists … The Albion Band, John Martyn, Nick Drake (who I stumbled across in 1979, you latecomers). Boyd, an American, returned to the US in the mid-seventies to work for Warner Brothers and the end of the seventies found me following that further aural trail. That led me to Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Maria Muldaur. Great songs and great musicianship were the mark of a Joe Boyd record – I think he used to say his role as a producer was to get out of the way of the performance, so as much of it could make it onto vinyl as possible. And Warners had lots of other interesting artists not produced by Boyd – Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Little Feat, Loudon Wainwright (actually Loudon was on virtually every other label under the sun but I have to mention him) … and I just kept on exploring.

Many of those artists, as well as writing their own songs, were closely connected to the various strands of Anglo-Saxon (and sometimes Celtic) traditional music, an amazingly rich seam which English people in particular know very little about. But these are amazing songs, you should know about them. History is written by the victors they say, but folk songs are written by the rest of us. So from Fairport and the Albions off I went to those who mined the English tradition even more deeply … Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris.

This rich tapestry of inter-related artists and music means more to me than I can say. At my most isolated emotional time their stuff was all I had to hang on to. The Thompsons, Wainwright/McGarrigles and Waterson/Carthy are musical family dynasties within this wider group of musicians. Their own family lives have been rocky from time to time but another haunting element for me was the sense nonetheless from them of supportive family bonds, and what I felt as the absence of such bonds for me. As it happens Linda Thompson was the first professional musician I chatted to, in 1978. Tale for another time, but a lovely woman.

Full circle … a few weeks ago, as part of the fantastic Meltdown music festival in London which RT curated, I attended the concert staged in memory of Kate McGarrigle, who died last January. Many McGarrigles and Thompsons performed in all sorts of (sometimes very unexpected) combinations, as did Jenni Muldaur (Geoff and Maria’s daughter), and Emmylou Harris, and Nick Cave, and Neil Tennant, Lisa Hannigan and Krystle Warren … It was brilliantly performed but incredibly emotional for both artists and audience. You can sample a slight taste of the night thanks to fan videos here.

When I spoke to Linda in 1978, she was warm, and lovely and funny, and I was shy and starstruck, and little suspected how yet more difficult my life was to become. Since then I have seen Richard play many, many times. The two of them split up around 1982 but I have also been to some of her (relatively rare) solo concerts. But when I saw all those amazing performers at Meltdown in June, I was sitting in the Royal Festival Hall, proudly myself at last, blessed with a loving family and friends and the most at ease I have ever been, after all these intervening years. So that night held special resonance for me and I’m sure for lots in the audience in many different ways. Rarely can there have been such a direct emotional connection between those on stage and off. Tears were shed by almost all – you should have been there.

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