Friday, August 7, 2009

Long Songs: Longing for More Edition

The Poozies: Ma Plaid/ Freya Dances


Ma Plaid is a traditional Scottish tune which, as recorded by The Poozies, comes in at about six minutes. But the group placed it in a medley with an original instrumental, Freya Dances, which brings the whole thing in at 7:07. It is a tribute to Mary MacMaster, who wrote Freya Dances, that it serves as the perfect coda to Ma Plaid; I cannot imagine hearing the one without the other. MacMaster and Patsy Seddon were the harp duo Sileas before joining The Poozies, and this one sounds very much like a fuller arrangement of their work in that earlier group. Kate Rusby and Karen Tweed complete the lineup.

Ma Plaid, on its surface, appears to be nothing more than a love song to a man who has departed for distant shores, and who the narrator hopes will return to marry her. She keeps the plaid that he gave her to remember him by. But there may be more going on than that. She starts by singing, “this is not ma plaid”, and proceeds to describe her plaid for the rest of the song. But whose is the plaid at the beginning? It is possible that the object of her love may be Bonnie Prince Charlie. He led an unsuccessful uprising against the British rule of Scotland in 1745, and many apparent love songs from Scotland from that period are veiled references to a yearning for Scottish independence. The matter is not certain, but Ma Plaid may be one of these songs. In that case, the plaid at the beginning would represent British rule. Following the 1745 uprising, Bonnie Prince Charlie was exiled, which would account for the departure of the lover in the song to distant shores.

Joni Mitchell: Song for Sharon


Joni Mitchell began her exploration of jazz with the album Court and Spark, and continued with The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Hejira was the next step in the journey. On this album, Mitchell stripped down the arrangements. Most songs feature just guitar, bass, and drums. About half of the songs anticipate Mitchell’s future explorations, and these feature her first work with bassist Jaco Pastorius. The remaining songs either use no bass at all, or feature Max Bennett, who had been with Mitchell since Court and Spark. These songs represent a consolidation, as Mitchell sums up where she has been. Musically, Song For Sharon is one these “consolidation” songs. It breaks no new ground for her, but is a solid addition to her catalog.

The song comes in at just over 8 minutes, mostly because there are a lot of words. In this way, jazz freed up Mitchell; she could write the song without worrying about length, and say all that she had to say. I read the words this way: on a ride back to Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, Mitchell’s character thinks of Sharon, a friend from childhood. Mitchell’s character imagines a letter to Sharon, and her thoughts ramble through her day, life in New York City, and how different their lives turned out. The whole thing is a verbal improvisation, more jazz than the music that accompanies it. I am not sure the letter ever gets sent, or even written.

Traffic: The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys


The whole concept of jam bands tickles me. In the 1960s, every band I cared about jammed. It was a badge of honor, and essential to what performing live was all about. When I started hearing about bands who would try to recreate the sound of their albums in concert, I found the idea offensive. I still do. But The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys is something else. This is the purest attempt I know of by a band with roots in the sixties to recreate their live sound in a studio recording. Here are all the solos and mood changes one would expect in a live performance. The whole thing threatens to fall apart in several places, but never does. The result is a breathtaking listening experience.

So what is the song about? Well. Jim Capaldi of Traffic was in Morocco with actor Michael J Pollard, working on a movie that wound up never getting made. I’ll let Capaldi explain further:

“Pollard and I would sit around writing lyrics all day, talking about Bob Dylan and the Band, thinking up ridiculous plots for the movie. Before I left Morocco, Pollard wrote in my book 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.' For me, it summed him up. He had this tremendous rebel attitude. He walked around in his cowboy boots, his leather jacket. At the time he was a heavy little dude. It seemed to sum up all the people of that generation who were just rebels. The 'Low Spark,' for me, was the spirit, high-spirited. You know, standing on a street corner. The low rider. The 'Low Spark' meaning that strong undercurrent at the street level.”

blog comments powered by Disqus