Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Notes: Deep Blues by Robert Palmer

“The Blues”: few phrases within the lexicon of musical terminology are as loaded with intrigue, mystery, myth, legend, iconic imagery and folklore. While much of this is no doubt rooted more deeply in marketing than reality, that particular current in the history of popular music still remains enormously influential, and the formative influence on all manner of subsequent music making. In all corners of the world today, singers can be heard delivering lines like, “Blues fell like rain”, or “I believe I’ll dust my broom” – singing the music of the impoverished Black underclass of the Mississippi Delta from around the time of the First World War. That extraordinary fact in itself is a story worth telling.

American musicologist and social historian Robert Palmer hit the road during the 1970s to research a book on the music he loved: The Blues. He travelled the length of the United States, visiting the farms and plantations where the Blues was born, interviewing those who were there (or their immediate successors), travelled the migration routes on which African Americans fled Northwards, and explored Chicago’s Black community from where it was first electrified, then popularised and then globalised.

The book, although 'academic' in its depth of research, is pleasantly easy reading. It brilliantly weaves the sound of the music onto the backdrop of the social history that produced it, bringing fascinating insights into the political, religious, economic and geographical landscape which not only shaped the sound but also the experiences and lyrics of the bluesmen. Palmer’s foray’s into music-theory are also written so straightforwardly that they are generally comprehensible to the non-technical reader like myself. Most fascinatingly are his descriptions of the similarities between the micro-tonal shadings of master vocalists like Muddy Waters (much imitated, seldom equalled), and some West African languages. Likewise his comparisons of African drum rhythms with the polyrhythmic explorations of early Delta Bluesmen like Charley Patton are absorbing reading.

Levee camps, floods, cotton, railroads, migration, depression, racism, the black-church, the cross-currents of different musical traditions, prison, bootlegged alcohol, juke-joints, share-cropping all form part of the detailed and fascinating picture of Delta life that Palmer describes at the start of the book. Palmer set out to trace thee roots of The Blues, and talked to collaborators of seminal figures such as Son House, Robert Johnson, visiting the estates where they grew-up and learned their music. The earliest figures he points to as players of what might be called Blues, are Charley Patton and his teacher the mysterious Henry Sloan.

Unlike many other books which seem to treat The Blues as a undifferentiated monolithic body of work, Palmer’s book is written like a family tree of the genre, demonstrating the different currents and influences that run through different types of Blues. One of the rare weaknesses of the book is Palmer’s overwhelming preference for guitar over piano blues, perhaps not doing justice to that aspect of the Blues. Nevertheless, he neatly describes the various patterns, and who influenced who, and who took Blues in new directions in its critical years between 1920 and 1960. The index reads like a who’s who of recorded American Blues! His real love is clearly the early Delta Blues of Patton, and Johnson, preserved, developed and marketed by followers such as Elmore James and Muddy Waters – what Muddy called “Deep Blues”. Muddy Waters’ many contributions to this book are worth this price in and of themselves.

For anyone who loves the Blues – this is essential reading.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My son, "Boris" got a new cricket jumper from the club this week. It's a very nice cricket jumper too. The only strange thing about it was the label (left), which along with the exciting information about the properties of the fabric also contained the curious warning, "Do Not Eat".

I must confess that until I read that, I hadn't actually considered tucking into the cricket jumper next time I fancied a snack, or couldn't be bothered walking to the shops when the fridge looked a little bare. To be honest, 'Boris' would have been furious when it came to match day and he couldn't find his jumper and I would have had to admit, "Sorry son, I've eaten it".

I suppose it might be more reasonable to consider eating his old cricket jumper, after all its nice and woolly and he has outgrown it - but even this hadn't occurred until I read Kookaburra's helpful advice label. It did make me wonder though, do people actually eat sports equipment? Are there people who would genuinely consume sit down and consume and article of clothing as part of a balanced diet, and do they walk amongst us? How scared should we be?

Of course, I had never contemplated having a munch on his cricket kit. But having read the stern prohibition printed on the label, every time I see it now, I fancy sinking my teeth into its delicious looking fibres. But, I suppose, such has always been the effect of the law!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Monday, May 09, 2011

Eden on the Feugh

The River Feugh, is the closest thing I have seen to the images my young mind conjured up when I was first told the story of the Garden of Eden. Gentle hills sweep down to fertile plains, which give way to grassy banks and soft meadows through which the gentle river drifts. The only ripples on the surface of the deep silence here, are the sounds of moving water, birdsong and jumping fish.
Sitting alone in sinking light by the Feugh, everything appeared to be still - as if all but the river itself was frozen in time. But my impression did not reflect reality, but rather, showed how insensitive the usual bustle and drama had made me to the subtlety of the millions of movements of life. For the Feugh and its' banks were teeming with, brimming with, life. It's not just that I habitually take for granted the 'slow-life' of the great trees that line the banks of the river - great, grand hardwood structures which have been drawing life from the river for generations. No, there was more than that.
First there was a splash, and then another, and then more. Each one the tiny leap of a salmon, breaking the surface of the water to snatch a fly. And there they were, millions of insects darting everywhere, or resting on the water to tempt the fish to leap. Like a flash of tin-foil, the sun caught the scales of a fish as it broke the surface - too fast for cameras, and almost too fast for the human eye - and was gone. Despite the three-fold predations of man, otters and birds of prey, the river was bursting with fish.
Small birds appeared, dafting about, following incomprehensibly chaotic flight-plans and calling to each other in tumbling waterfalls of notes. A Heron glided down to the river, and perched quietly on a rock - waiting for the right moment to spear a fish. A great tree appeared to become a hologram for a moment, to allow a great owl to fly straight through its' dense branches without touching it, or making a sound. Rabbits lolloped on the grassy banks, while hares sprinted through fields and deer wandered down to the river to nervously inspect the scene - before taking fright (at who knows what), and bolting for cover in the woods.
I walked for a long time by the trees in this achingly beautiful paradise and thought how profoundly odd it is that while I was standing there in Eden, this world is riven by war, and evil. The thought even occurred that while I was standing admiring a particularly stunning tree - somewhere somebody was being tortured, and bearing unspeakable pain. I contemplated my own faults and errors too, and realised that the Garden of Eden story of a good world spoiled; isn't a curious tale from pre-history, but a commentary on contemporary life.
One of the last photos I took that night was of this row of rocks which lie across the river, in front of the cottage, where I was given permission to stay for the weekend. I went to bed thinking about a possible angle for writing about my trip, contrasting the bleak, rugged, wild reaches of the Upper Dee, where I had been hillwalking over the weekend, with these soft, tender, gentle and fruitful landscapes, lower down the river-system. Such writing plans were obliterated by the roaring sound with which I was greeted as I awoke. Overnight rain had turned the Feugh from a gentle river into a seething, boiling torrent. Where the night before it had played with the rocks, almost flirtatiously - now it scoured and assaulted the landscape. It's song was replaced by thunder. The following photo is of the same spot on the river, only hours later.
Up and up the river rose, bursting its banks and encroaching on the gardens, while carrying a great weight of mud, silt, branches, trees and fenceposts. Only myself and two clearly deranged ducks stood in the driving rain to observe the spectacle, all sensible life-forms and sentient beings hid inside their homes and lit warm fires.
This spectacle and show of power was as overwhelming as it was spectacular. I fail to see how anyone could not be deeply affected by nature in its various states like this. Anyone, like me, who thinks that the beauty of all this is not simply chance, random or unplanned - but all flows ultimately from a creator who set the processes of life running with this deliberate end in view; has reason to be doubly awe-inspired by it. The overwhelming glory of everything around me, was not the point of it all - rather it was there in order to reflect, to a degree, the glory and wonder of the mind in whom it all originated.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Beinn Bhrotain & Monadh Mor

The road from Braemar doubles-back on itself at the Linn of Dee, just before the large car park provided to allow walkers and cyclists access to the great heart of the Cairngorms National Park. Over the last few years I have come to know the track Northwards from here to Derry Lodge and Glen Lui, very well indeed. However, just at the point that the road turns back on itself and crosses the River Dee, there is another track which heads due Westwards out into wild and inhospitable territory. I have long wondered where this track went, what it was like, and what sort of adventures might lie down its path - but until yesterday had always driven on past to the familiar Derry Lodge route.

By eleven o' clock the early morning rain-storms were dying away and so I took the bike off the car roof and peddled Westwards. The map indicates that the track follows the path of the Dee, until its fork with the Geldie Burn and the first landmark of the day - The White Bridge (so called, presumably because it isn't white). A cyclable path continues on the South bank of the Dee for some miles after this, only interrupted by regular drainage cuttings which required careful handling of the bike. I passed the 'chest of Dee', with the dark shapes of cloud-enshrouded mountains beckoning me forward. At the foot of Cam Flach Beag I abandoned the bike by a little cairn. By this stage the path was so rough, I was quicker on foot. Soon the great view of the high Cairngorm peaks, and the Lairig Ghru, that great scar through the mountains came into view, so I stopped and took the photo (above). It's only a snap taken with my phone - but it does capture the grandeur and excitement of approaching the mountains!

The ascent up Beinn Bhrotain is straightforward. A maintained path splits of from the North-South track and heads Eastwards into the mountain, following the Coachan Roibidh burn. This path only climbs for a few hundred feet before disappearing into the damp heather. Nevertheless, a feint path - marked by the impressions of hundred of hill-boots basically follows the path of the stream to the broad, multi-cairned summit. Hot, humid, hungry and thirsty, I sat down and rested - basking in the broad views of Cairn-Toul and the Devil's Peak. It was here that I had to make a route-decision. Time was against me, because of my late start, however Monadh Mor looked inviting, almost tantalisingly close, and perhaps too good to resist. I had my timings worked out though, and I knew that I could not possibly manage to complete the route in the book, descending Northwards off Monadh Mor to the bealach between it and Cairn Toul, before walking back round the whole mountain. I reckoned that there was time to go onto Monadh Mor if it was possible to descend the steep corrie between these two Munros, the Coire Cath nam Fionn. A brief exploration suggested that a descend that way would indeed be possible, if a small band of ice at the top could be negotiated.

The walk to Monadh Mor proved to be longer, steeper and harder work than it had first appeared. The views across mountains in all directions, and Glen Geusachan far below were tremendous however and gave inspiration to my now-flagging limbs. The descent down the Coire Cath nam Fionn, was exceptionally steep at first, but soon gave way to more forgiving terrain, and a path appeared far sooner that the map suggested.

By the time I regained the Dee, I was struggling. Tired, dehydrated, and aching - the trek to the bike seemed endless. I usually love every minute I spend in the outdoors - but for about half an hour at this point even my insatiable enthusiasm began to wane. Climbing a hill is usually an undiluted pleasure - this one was rapidly being downgraded to an 'achievement'. Driven on by the fact that I had a deadline with sunset to meet - and therefore no opportunity to rest, I pushed my protesting limbs ever-harder. Once on the bike, it got no easier, first a headwind blew-up, which was then accompanied by driving rain. I don't think I have ever been so pleased to see my car as I was when I arrived back at the Linn of Dee almost nine hours after I had set off. Full route details of this 27mile/2 Munro route can be seen by clicking on the map (below) to enlarge it. I'm still aching..