A #SaturdaySong Reprise

Do you use Facebook? If so, do you follow your favourite musicians on there? Unsurprisingly, for someone who posts a lot of music, I can answer ‘yes’ to both of those questions, and in some cases I am a member of that artist’s Facebook fan group page as well. If you haven’t tried this, they are pages where people share their love of the music: they are warm, welcoming places, and we can all use those, especially nowadays.

One of the groups to which I belong is the one for Mary Chapin Carpenter, which probably won’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with my posts, and the other evening someone shared a video for one of my favourites of hers. Watching it again I was transported back many years, as the song has always had a special meaning for me, and this reminded me that I had featured it in my earlier series of #SaturdaySongs. When I looked back, I was slightly taken aback to see that this was well over four years ago, and it struck me that many current readers won’t have seen this post or the series. I’ve never shared this one again, either, despite extensive trawling through my back catalogue, so I thought I’d do it now, as the story is important to me.

The post was originally published on 5 November 2016. Here it is, and I’ll return at the end to round things up:

#SaturdaySongs No.3 – Halley Came To Jackson

Week 3 of #SaturdaySongs and I’ve managed to keep it going this far! Having gone back to the 1970s and 1960s for my first two choices today’s song is much more modern. Well, the 1990s anyway. It is song with a very special, personal meaning for me, although it had not actually been released at the time it always makes me think of. Does that sound weird? Let me explain.

Today’s song is Halley Came To Jackson, by Mary Chapin Carpenter. This song is featured on MCC’s third album, Shooting Straight In The Dark, which was released in October 1990.  She is one of those artists who, during a career which has been thriving since her first album (Hometown Girl) in 1987, has been a conundrum for those who like to pigeonhole their music. Early associations with Nashville meant that she was seen as a country musician, and her albums have enjoyed much more success in the country charts than the mainstream ones, but if you look at Apple Music they seem to put her in a different category every time she releases a new album! To me, she is the writer of classy, intelligent lyrics, which are woven into beautifully crafted songs, all sung with her lovely warm voice. I had the great pleasure of seeing her play live several years ago, and the whole evening was an absolute delight: not only was the music fantastic, but her words between the songs were charming and witty. I’d have expected nothing less of her, to be honest. This is today’s song:

As you can tell from the lyrics, the song relates to the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910, and was inspired by the writings of a lady called Eudora Welty, who told a story like this about her own childhood in Jackson, Mississippi. MCC also turned the song into a book for children, and several of the pictures in the video are taken from that. Halley’s Comet is only visible from Earth every 75 or 76 years, so the next appearance was in 1986 – as indeed the song tells us. Realising that I would have to live to 108 to see its next scheduled appearance in 2061, I didn’t want to miss my chance in 1986, even though it was only going to be possible to see it at some unholy hour.

The due date was 9 February 1986, which was five weeks before my first daughter was born. Not wanting to wake my pregnant wife – who needed her sleep! – I stayed downstairs until the time we had been told was most likely for viewing, then crept upstairs into the second bedroom, hoping to see the Comet. This was the bedroom that we had prepared as the nursery, for when our baby came, and was already decorated as such, complete with cot and other baby stuff. Standing in the darkness by the window, I could look round at the room, once my eyes had adjusted, and I felt an enormous sense of excitement and nervous anticipation about the imminent change in our lives, as we brought a new little person into the world.

I stayed there for quite some time, enjoying the tranquillity and silence of the early hours, waiting patiently for the Comet to appear. Several times I saw something vaguely bright in the sky – were these going to be my moment? Sadly, no! These were, apparently, the worst conditions in 2,000 years for viewing Halley from Earth, as they were on opposite sides of the Sun, a mere 39 million miles apart. In those days we lived quite near Stansted Airport, so it was much more likely that what I could see were distant planes. Oh well, it was a nice try, and I did feel a sense of something spiritual taking place, a kind of pre-bonding with my unborn child.

Then, four years later, along came this song. It tells a beautiful little story, and I could relate to the father holding his baby to see the Comet, as that is what I would have been doing if birth date and viewing conditions had allowed. From that moment on, every time I hear this I’m instantly transported back to 9th February 1986 and to what for me was a magical night, even if the two stars (Halley and Katy) hadn’t made an appearance. This is one of my favourite MCC songs, and one of the best narrative songs I know, so I’ve listened to it a great many times. I relive that moment, and feel that special bond again, every time.

That unborn baby of mine is now 30, and had her first book published yesterday. How times change! I hope that by 2061 she will be a mother and there will be a grandchild of mine sharing the next viewing with her. Maybe I’ll be there too, who can tell? 🙂

*********************

And this is me back again today. I’ve often thought that music is an essential part of our memories, and this song certainly holds that place in my heart. The original post prompted one of my favourite comments fields, too – the post and those comments can be found here if you’d like to see them. Life has, of course, moved on since then. In the intervening four and a half years, my daughter Katy has had three further publications (co-editor and contributor status) and has risen to the ranks of a Senior Lecturer at one of the better known UK universities. Prior to the pandemic she was a regular presenter at conferences, though that has all stopped for now: she has been working from home and providing all of her tuition via Zoom! Sometimes, however, she has been distracted by my granddaughter, who has joined the family since I wrote the post, and who will be three in June. By my reckoning, that will make her around 43 the next time Halley (hopefully) makes an appearance, so maybe she and her Mum will be sharing a moment like mine with a child or children of her own, as I pondered?

This song will be around seventy years old by then: I wonder if people will still be listening to it? I hope they will, as it is a perfect distillation into three minutes of the important things that make our lives so fulfilling: love, children and family. These will, I hope, remain important for us forever. For myself, I am happy to have a song that reminds me of this whenever I listen to it.

A Special Centenary

My Mum has appeared by proxy in several of my Tuesday Tunes posts, as I have referred to her musical tastes and how they differed from mine, yet occasionally coincided. Mum passed on 15th May 2008, at the age of 87, but if she had lived today would have been her 100th birthday. Although nearly thirteen years have gone by I think about her often, and my series of Tuesday posts on the music of the Sixties and Seventies brought back many memories for me. So I thought I’d do something to mark the date, with a few snippets about Mum and some of the other events of that year apart from her birth, to show what life was like back then.

This is Mum, probably in her late 30s (which places it around 1960ish):

Also in the photo are my Dad – still with us, and going strong at 93 – my cousin Sheila (top left), me, and my little sister, Heather. The photo was taken at a family gathering, though I’ve cropped a lot of others out. Those were the days when the gents still wore a suit to family events that weren’t weddings, christenings or funerals!

1921 was three years after the end of WW1, and a lot of the political events of the year were to do with the rebuilding from that, along with the settlement of reparations from Germany: this took place on 5th May, and required the payment of 132 billion gold marks, in annual instalments of 2.5 billion. That sounds a lot, even now! A couple of months later, on 2nd July, US President Warren Harding signed a Congressional order declaring an end to hostilities with Germany, Austria and Hungary: I’ve no idea why it took nearly three years, but, as that was the start of their habit of being late to join world wars I guess they were just keeping in character.

A look at the significant dates of 1921 reveals many which were related to wars and conflicts. There were a number involving the Soviet Union and neighbouring states, and also China. Here in the UK we had been fighting the Irish Republican Army (IRA) until a truce was signed on 9th July, paving the way for the official creation of the Irish Free State in December. Students of history will know that the ‘Irish problem’ wasn’t resolved by this, with the renewal of hostilities in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, which were only finally put to rest by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It is to be hoped that the aftermath of Brexit doesn’t screw this agreement. My point in mentioning these conflicts is that there is nothing new, and we seem to be doomed to continue making the same mistakes rather than learning from them. One of the scariest 1921 dates for me, which is almost lost in the mix, is 4th November: after a speech by Adolf Hitler in the Hofbräuhaus (the Bavarian State Brewery) in Munich, members of the Sturmabteilung (“brownshirts”) physically assaulted his opposition. Given the number of occasions that journalists and political opponents have been physically assaulted at Trump rallies, and the events of 6 January at the Capitol, there are some frightening similarities here.

There were numerous other acts of political violence and assassination that year, including in Spain, Portugal and Persia (as it was then) but I don’t want to dwell on the less pleasant events of 1921. They were different times in many ways, from those that we are accustomed to in our days of widespread social media and access to global news on an instant basis. It was five years before John Logie Baird gave what is now regarded as the first public demonstration of what became ‘television,’ and a full thirty years before the medium became widely available, albeit often in grainy monochrome images. So, apart from creating large families, what did the good people of 1921 do for entertainment?  These were the early days of commercial movie theatres, when silent monochrome films were the height of sophistication. In this year, the Charlie Chaplin film The Kid was released. Here is a brief sample:

That is charming, but it isn’t exactly what would encourage us to swarm to the cinema these days if we were allowed to, is it? But if that has whetted your appetite, the whole movie can be found on YouTube here – it is just over an hour long,  a little short by modern day standards!

Another famous movie star of that era also released a new one in 1921 – Rudolph Valentino, in The Sheik. Again, the full movie is on YouTube here but this brief clip will give you a feel for it:

At 1 hr 26 mins that is a little longer, almost up to the length of shorter movies today. I love that clip, and I imagine there was much fun to be had in the captioning room with lines that had to be deleted, especially in response to Agnes Ayres’ “why have you brought me here?” question. Tragically, Valentino died just five years later of peritonitis, at the age of 31, causing mass hysteria amongst his fans: the ‘Latin Lover’ was no more, but his early death sealed his status as an icon of the cinema, in much the same way that later happened for James Dean.

As I mentioned, mass tv broadcasting was still a long way off, but radio was in its infancy in 1921. The US had a plethora of locally based broadcasters, with no control, whilst the UK looked on sniffily and declared that it didn’t want to recreate the ‘chaos’ of radio in the US. As a result, it wasn’t until 1922 that the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) was established, becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1927 to mark its independence from either government or commercial management. This little clip gives some of the background to that US chaos:

There is mention in that of the radio broadcasting of baseball. Radio and, later, tv have been instrumental in bringing us huge volumes of sports coverage. In these pandemic times, when mass gatherings aren’t allowed, the television has been vital for those of us wanting our ‘fix.’ But, back in 1921, if you wanted to follow a game you had to be there. It was on 7th May that the lowest ever paying crowd for a game in the English Football League was assembled: all 13 of them, for the fixture between Stockport County and Leicester City, in what was then Division Two. The match was played at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, as Stockport’s ground was officially closed after some crowd trouble – yes, really, it happened back then too! The official attendance of 13 was the number of spectators who paid for entrance after Man Utd’s earlier game against Derby County had finished, but it is believed that around 2,000 stayed on after the first match to get their money’s worth. I’m not sure that they did, though, as Stockport vs Leicester was a 0-0 draw. But as far as I can tell there were no reports of crowd disturbances.

I’ve always thought of fashion as being one of the most vacuous of industries, but it seems like it was going strong back then too:

They took it seriously: no dresses made of meat or bras like traffic cones for them. I’m not sure those clothes would be too well received by most people today, though, given the use of animal fur as decoration. I wonder if it was a status symbol to boast that your clothes were trimmed with bits of monkeys?

As you may have noticed through my posts, I am interested in folk music and the traditions that go with it. This one is still going today, albeit after the occasional hiatus:

If you have come across that before it may well be by the better known name of the Floral Dance. The Helston event is the best known, though there are others. As you can imagine, it now bears little resemblance to earlier versions like this one. It takes place on 8th May each year, and is a celebration of the passing of winter and the arrival of spring. The folk song Hal-An-Tow is associated with the day – it mangles together bits of celebration from English history.

All reviews of bygone years make reference to those who were born and died. Births in 1921, as well as my Mum, included several from the entertainment world, among them Humphrey Lyttleton, Diana Barrymore, Peter Sallis, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Ustinov, Lana Turner, Jane Russell, and quite  a few sportspeople, including Stan Mortensen, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Kramer. The big sporting event of the year has to be this, though:

I accept that there *might* be an element of bias in sharing that one.

Among those who departed in 1921 were Bat Masterson, the US gunfighter, army scout, professional gambler, lawman and journalist; Engelbert Humperdinck, the German composer (not the Release Me guy – though Mum loved that one); the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns; and the microbiologist Julius Richard Petri, who invented a dish.

That’s just about it for 1921, but as this is her day it wouldn’t be right to finish this piece without including a couple of songs that my Mum liked. This is one that she bought, saving me the need to do so:

And this is her absolute favourite song by her absolute favourite singer:

That says it all, really. Happy celestial 100th, Mum.