Sunday, March 25, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: Crazy Man Michael

Three Quarter Ale: Crazy Man Michael


Richard Ruane: Crazy Man Michael


So here we are in a week of Richard Thompson covers, and the first song is Crazy Man Michael. Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, isn’t that a traditional tune?” And my answer is, not anymore. The melody certainly reflects Fairport Convention’s devotion to the traditional music of Britain, and the text shows just how well steeped in traditional lore Richard Thompson was in 1969. But what happened was this. Fairport was always on the lookout for interesting songs, and Thompson was inspired to create a new lyric to a traditional melody. That lyric was the one you hear in this post. But, when Thompson brought the resulting song to the band, David Swarbrick thought the song needed a new melody, and that is the song we hear now. So, born of a traditional melody, Crazy Man Michael wound up being an entirely original work.

The next question is, “is Michael really crazy?” A literal reading of the lyric would seem to indicate as much, but there is a suggestion of sorcery. Perhaps, Michael is under a spell, or perhaps his lover is. The words of the raven would seem to belong to a third party, a vengeful sorceror or a wronged goddess perhaps. I’m sure Richard Thompson knew the lore of ravens when he wrote the lyric; the raven in British lore represents a goddess or spirit who collects the spirits of warriors slain in battle. These ambiguous elements in the lyric probably explain the song’s appeal to other artists. Three Quarter Ale performs it in a way that emphasizes the magical elements, and brings a dark fairy tale quality to the song. Nature, in this reading, is an emotional funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting the intent of the human heart. Richard Ruane, who now leads the band Bread and Bones, focuses on Michael’s state of mind. At times, the background vocal and the bass line seem almost out of synch with the rest of the song, as Michael’s sanity waxes and wanes. Ruane also perfectly captures the haunted quality of both the lyric and the melody.

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