The Dark Song Blog


“Bruce Berry was a working man / He used to load that Econoline van. / A sparkle was in his eye / But his life was in his hands.”

So begins Tonight’s the Night, the title track of Neil Young’s harrowing 1975 masterpiece. It is dedicated to a roadie who died of an overdose while traveling with Young and his band.

There had been earlier references in Young’s songs to the cost of life on the road, most famously in The Needle and the Damage Done, but he had never explored the relationship between creativity and self-destructiveness at such depth. The thing about Berry that counts most to Young is his edgy intensity: “Well, late at night / When the people were gone / He used to pick up my guitar / And sing a song in a shaky voice / That was real as the day was long.” But Young also shudders at Berry’s death, placing the song on the edge between celebration and lament.

In spite of this shudder, Young has revisited and validated fiery intensity many times across his long career, perhaps most famously in the track that both opens and closes 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, first in an intimately acoustic version, then as an electric anthem of the kind only Young can pull off.

My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) seems at first glance like a simple celebration of rock ‘n’ roll’s ability to survive: “My my, hey hey / Rock and roll is here to stay.” The tension is clear in the next two lines, though: “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away …”

These lines have haunted the subsequent history of rock ‘n’ roll, particularly because of being quoted in Kurt Cobain’s famous suicide note – as if they could explain his decision to end his own life. Again, two verses further into the song, he sings: “It’s better to burn out / Than it is to rust …”

Less often remembered is another line from the same song: “And once you’re gone you can’t ever come back.” The message is clear: rock survives because it can reinvent itself, thus renewing the Protean, rebellious energy at its core. We, on the other hand, do not. Whether we are artists, listeners or both, life will be too much for us sooner or later.

Rock has always mythologised the brief, turbulent lives of its practitioners. These casualties serve as metaphors for intensity and suffering in the midst of an indifferent or hostile world. It is ironic in this context that Young, like Dylan, has survived and remained (though intermittently) a vital influence on the music of the generations that have succeeded him.

Of course such survival has its own risks – stagnation, nostalgia, the long twilight of mediocrity. But it also carries in it the potential of renewal against the odds, and Young’s career, with all its high and low points, stands as a testament to this. Long may he run.

The Dark Song Blog


There are songs that seem to make time stretch, stand still or even flow backwards. Mostly this is an effect of nostalgia, the way music can take you back to a time or place you have left behind. Now and then, though, a turn of phrase or the way a note bends can play tricks on the mind.

Van Morrison’s voice is an example of this, and never more so than on Madame George, from his groundbreaking Astral Weeks album. Morrison himself has said that he doesn’t know what it is about or who Madame George is, but it is clearly a song of goodbye – the word is repeated many times throughout.

In terms of its structure, Madame George is extremely simple: three chords repeat without variation, creating a backdrop against which Morrison’s voice soars and whispers, rises and falls, while the other instruments – strings, flute and occasional percussion – improvise. The listener is placed in a world of seemingly unconnected details (a soldier boy, kids out in the street and the mysterious Madame George herself “in a corner playing dominoes in drag.” The song uses the second person throughout, so that we feel personally involved in this world, and then it asks us to say goodbye to it before we have fully understood it: “And you know you gotta go / On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row / Throwing pennies at the bridges down below / And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow …”

It is as he realizes that this goodbye is inevitable that Morrison’s voice truly comes into its own, lingering over words, sometimes repeating a word or a phrase several times in the same line, as the music surges and fades like waves around it: “Say goodbye to Madame George / Dry your eye for Madame George / Wonder why for Madame George …”

There is a moment of piercing beauty as he goes: words are crammed into the song lines as if there is pressure for something significant to happen: “And as you leave the room is filled with music / Laughing, music, dancing, music all around the room / And all the little boys come around, walking away from it all / So cold …” The way his voice teases melodies out of this goodbye keeps postponing it, repeating it endlessly until it has gathered an incredible resonance around itself, as if it has to stand in for all the many goodbyes of a lifetime.

The music fades; it seems as if it has reached a resolution. All the instruments fade except the bass and Morrison’s simple three-chord guitar progression. Then, softly at first, Morrison begins to hum, and this melodic line is picked up by the strings as they re-enter the song, conjured by his voice. Once again we are caught up in the intensity of this moment, moving out from the intimacy of a room in spite of a voice calling us back: “Get on the train / Get on the train / Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye …”

These words are moving in themselves, but it is the way Morrison’s voice phrases them, stretching or clipping lines for emotional emphasis, that refuses to be forgotten. It hovers on the edge of what can be expressed in words, at the point when language collapses and only sound is left.

The Dark Song Blog


I think the first protest song I ever loved was Joan Baez’s version of Joe Hill. In it, a dead activist appears to the singer in a dream: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Alive as you or me / Said I, ‘but Joe, you’re ten years dead’ / ‘I never died’ said he.” By the end of the song Hill (who was a real person, executed in the state of Utah in 1915 for a murder he probably didn’t commit) has come to stand for all workers who defend their rights against seemingly impossible odds.

So when I heard Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine from 1967’s John Wesley Harding, I was immediately curious. Apart from the almost identical first line, St. Augustine has a very similar melody to the older song, and its stark accompaniment (Dylan’s guitar and harmonica with simple bass and percussion behind it) seemed to belong to the world of rousing folk songs I knew. But St. Augustine is a different kind of song altogether.

Whereas Joe Hill ends with a call for the downtrodden to organize, St. Augustine is haunted by anxiety and sorrow. He is a messenger from another time, “alive with fiery breath”, and his apparently futile mission is to search “for the very souls / Whom already have been sold.” His complaint is that “no martyr is amongst ye now / That you can call your own.” In the third and final verse the singer becomes one of the crowd “who put him out to death.”

The shift from Joe Hill’s simple protest is decisive: it is as if Dylan had turned the protest song inside out, training the light that had exposed injustice “out there” in the world in on the listener. If St. Augustine remains enigmatic, the response of the crowd that kills him is not. The song ends on a note of bewilderment: “Oh, I awoke in anger / So alone and terrified / I put my fingers against the glass / And bowed my head and cried.”

What distinguishes St. Augustine from the protest music of its time is the fact that the singer includes himself in the outrage that is expressed. There is no sense that things could be better if we could unite against a common enemy, because the enemy is inside us.

That same prophetic anxiety pervades All Along the Watchtower, the most famous song from the album, in which businessmen, jokers, thieves, princes and barefoot servants once again suggest a spilling over of ancient characters and values into the bedeviled present. But for me even that song doesn’t chill the spine and stir the blood like the uncanny St. Augustine.

I wonder what Joe Hill would have made of it.

The Dark Song Blog


It has happened so many times that I should be used to it by now. Barbara and I were driving to take the dogs for a walk, and I absent-mindedly turned the radio onto the Solid Gold Sunday show. We listened to three, four, five schmaltzy songs in a row, and I turned it off again. “Do you want to listen any more?” I asked her. “No,” she said.

When I was growing up in Worcester in the early 1980s the South African music scene was a sleepy place; the airwaves were littered with dull, sentimental love songs. Perhaps David Kramer was the first artist who showed my generation that local music could be challenging. There had been others before him – Roger Lucey and John Oakley-Smithto name two - but I only learned about them decades later.

I first encountered Kramer’s engaging Afrikaans persona at the age of seven or eight on an SABC talent show. I liked him – he could tell a story in song like no other Afrikaans singer I knew. Then my sisters, older and wiser than me, started to listen to this other music Kramer was making. For these songs, from his 1981 Bakgat album, his voice was rougher, and there was a fury in the songs. I could identify Kramer’s indignation before the words of his songs were intelligible to me. I understood nothing of this. Safe in a world of family, school and church, I could not fathom why anyone should be so angry. I think I worried about his soul.

By the end of the decade, when Shifty Records was releasing confrontational material by Koos Kombuis and Johannes Kerkorrel, I was experiencing a musical as well as a political awakening. There was a sense of euphoria: our imagination had been fired by singers who came from small towns like ours, who had measured the world of certainties in which we lived and had found it lacking in both truth and beauty. “Ons soek ‘n nuwe energie”, Kerkorrel’s call to arms from his Eet Kreef! Album, became ours also.

Twenty years down the line, with draconian sensorship a thing of the past, I listen in vain for the raw power of those songs. True, something of the energy has survived: one is much more likely to find a roaring rock ‘n’ roll party than two decades ago, and that is surely a good thing. But the unrest, the close observation of real people and situations, the sonic adventurousness - these are absent from the South African musical mainstream. But while alienation is absent from the music, listening to it is often alienating, as local artists try their best to sound like their overseas counterparts. In the end we’re down to sentimental love songs again. Where are the unsentimental love songs for us to sing along to?

If proof is needed that music of public and private unrest can be for the body as well as for the mind, listen to Bernoldus Niemand (that’s James Philips’ Afrikaans alter ego, if you didn’t know) sing his hilarious Hou My Vas, Korporaal. Because of its political (and possibly sexual) ambiguity, it wasn’t played on 1980s South African radio. Sometimes, only sometimes, I wonder what station would play it if it was released today.

The Dark Song Blog


When I go to a blues concert these days, what I hope for is something bold and strident, something defiant and electrifying in the style of Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf. But if I had to choose one blues track to take to a desert island, it would be Blind Willie Johnson’s Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.

Ry Cooder called it “the most spiritual, transcendent piece in all of American music”, and used it as the basis for his haunting Paris, Texas soundtrack, which is where I must have heard it first, though I didn’t know it then.

There are no words to the song. There is only his slide guitar, accompanied by his gravelly moans. Because of the way he bends the notes it is uncertain whether the song is in a major or minor key, but the longing at its centre is unmistakable.

In 1977 Carl Sagan was looking for samples of music to include on a Golden Disc that was to be sent out into space on the Voyager space craft, the idea being to represent to whatever life forms were out there as much of human experience as was possible. Sagan and his team chose Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground as an expression of human loneliness.

I like to think of Johnson’s dark music floating into space, defying gravity as it travels towards an unknowable destination. But there is something earthbound in the song, as its title suggests. One doesn’t have to refer to the meager biographical information we have about Johnson’s life. Listen to the slow way the notes bend: there is joy mixed in with the longing, but it takes a long time to reach them.

I have noticed the same tendency to slide into a note rather than hitting it directly in recordings of South African choral music. The effect is one of longing for something that is never specified, no matter how happy, even triumphant, the words may be.

A friend of mine, who had made many field recordings of such choral singing, had the good fortune to meet the great bluesman Taj Mahal in the US some years ago and expressed surprise at this similarity, as these rural South Africans would never have heard the blues. Taj Mahal answered that it isn’t necessary to hear the blues to understand them – you just need to have them.

In spite of the apparent resolution at the end of the song, a question hangs in the air each time it stops playing. Carl Sagan heard it, and associated it with the plight of all those who face the sunset without knowing where they will sleep that night. The closest we can come to Johnson’s own thoughts and feelings is through the body of his work. In one of his best-known songs he asks repeatedly: “Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can / Want somebody tell me what is the soul of a man.” This is the territory Johnson explores, bending those notes with his guitar and voice as if he wants to pluck everything life has to offer out of them.



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