Friday, May 03, 2024

Bright Lights

It's hard enough for me to wrap my head around the idea that a record I first listened to when I was in my twenties is now fifty years old, and even more remarkable that the people who were responsible for it are still around to reminisce about its creation. Richard and Linda Thompson's album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight was released on April 30, 1974. Though the recording process, which had taken place a year earlier, had been a breeze, relatively speaking, Island Records was unenthusiastic with the result and it took a change of management to get the album out of the can. When it did come out it failed to sell. A decade or so later (about the time I discovered it) critics began to talk it up and by now it's widely considered a milestone.

One of the finest electric guitar players of his generation, Richard was a veteran of the British folk-rock combo Fairport Convention and had produced one quirky solo album, Henry the Human Fly, which also initially failed to find an audience. Linda Pettifer had some experience doing musical odd jobs and had recorded a few singles. They met, eventually married, and began performing as a duo. Richard was developing his songwriting gifts (hers would lie dormant until much later, after they split up); Linda was the better singer. He played the primary instrumental parts and wrote out most of the rest. Corporate involvement in artistic decisions appears to have been nil. What suit, after all, would have approved a record that featured a guitar solo imitating a bagpipe, that made use of an eclectic array of instruments including krummhorns, a dulcimer, and a silver band, that boasted not a single love song, and that ended with an instrumental part lifted from Erik Satie? Or that began a lullaby with lyrics like the following?
I feel for you, you little horror
Safe at your mother's breast
No lucky break for you around the corner
'Cos your father is a bully
And he thinks that you're a pest
And you sister she's no better than a whore
The album's few relatively upbeat songs include one about looking forward to death, another about heading out to a dive to watch drunks get into fights, and this cheeky, in-your-face ditty sung by a one-legged panhandler:
I've been down to London
I've been up to Crewe
I travel far and wide
To do the work that I do
Cause I love taking money
Off a snob like you
For I'm only a poor little beggar girl
All of this grimness and despondency would be insufferable if it wasn't simultaneously funny. The witty, unsparing lyrics draw on the repertoire of the British music hall and other national vernacular song traditions, but it's only superficially a "folk" record. It's a mature, nuanced artistic statement about life from a couple who, incredibly, were still in their mid-twenties. There isn't a bad song in the lot.

The Thompsons made five more albums together and had three children before their marriage went up in flames. (They are now on friendly terms.) Richard still performs and records regularly. Linda eventually had to give up singing because of dysphonia but she has remained involved as a songwriter, most recently by means of a record entitled Proxy Music, on which friends and family handle the vocals. The website Life of the Record has put together an hour-long program devoted to Bright Lights; it features extended commentary by Richard and briefer remarks by Linda (read by their daughter Kami). Other fiftieth-anniversary appreciations can be found below:

Pop Matters
New Statesman

Monday, April 22, 2024


The traditional ballad heard here is at least three hundred years old but doesn't seem to have run out of steam. This lovely, fairly recent rendition is credited to a group called Hurray for the Riff Raff; the singer (who, as it happens, is Puerto Rican) is Alynda Segarra.

I'm not sure when I heard "Black Jack Davey" the first time, though I do remember sitting in a university music library in the 1970s listening to a version on LP that was sung by a woman who may or may not have been Almeda Riddle. There are countless renditions under various names — "Gypsy Davey," "The Raggle-Taggle Gypsy," and so on. (I've seen it argued, convincingly or not, that in the Appalachians it became "Black Jack Davey" because there weren't any Gypsies in the Appalachians.)

The outline of the story, in all the versions, is simple: a woman runs off with a Gypsy or outlaw, her husband discovers her flight and catches up to her, he points out to her all she'll be giving up if she doesn't come back, but she throws it all in his face and refuses to come home.
Last night I slept on a warm featherbed
beside my husband and baby
Tonight I sleep on the cold, cold ground
Beside the Black Jack Davey
Pretty little Black Jack Davey
In some versions the husband then slays either or both of the lovers (as in the ballad known variously as "Little Musgrave" or "Matty Groves"), but the song seems more satisying when that's left out. In the Riff Raff version the husband's role has dwindled away to almost nothing. The music critic Nick Tosches linked the song to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. And why not?

Sunday, March 24, 2024


My father's namesake in a photo taken in September 1897, when he would have been about six. According to the inscription on the back, part of which is not legible, the location is Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth Street in N. Y. City, by which I assume Manhattan is meant. I would like to think that the object he's holding in his hand is a pencil box.

The boy later served in the First World War and received a Distinguished Service Cross, which I still have, for his actions at Meurcy Farm on August 1, 1918. The award was posthumous, as he died in battle on October 15th of the same year. The Army chaplain Father Francis P. Duffy decribed him as "one of the best liked youths in the regiment."

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Escaping the Waters (Defoe / Dante)

I have no idea whether Defoe read Dante, but there is a possible echo of the Inferno in a 1706 pamphlet devoted to the question of the proposed Union between England and Scotland. Commenting on how much relief such a Union would bring to the two countries, Defoe writes:
As a Man that is safely landed on a firm and high Rock, out of the Reach of the insulting Waves, by which he was in Danger of Shipwreck, surveys the distant Dangers with Inexpressible Satisfaction, from both the Sence of his own Security, and the more clear Discovery of the Reality of the Hazards he had run, which did not perfectly see before.

So it will not only be an inexpressible Pleasure to us to look back, and see the Dangers we shall be delivered from in both Nations, when this happy Union shall once be obtained; but we shall then, with Astonishment, see plainly such Rocks, such Shelves, and such inevitable Gulphs of Destruction avoided, as our keenest Understanding will not permit us now to imagine possible.

An Essay on Removing National Prejudices against a Union with Scotland (emphasis in original)
The relevant passage from Canto I of the Inferno is as follows, first in Italian and then in the Mandelbaum translation:
E come quei che con lena affannata
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata,

così l’animo mio, ch’ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.

And just as he who, with exhausted breath,
having escaped from sea to shore, turns back
to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,

so did my spirit, still a fugitive,
turn back to look intently at the pass
that never has let any man survive.
In his biography, Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions, Maximillian E. Novak doesn't suggest any connection (nor does Dante's name appear in the index), but he states that the scene Defoe describes was "a favorite of Dutch painters during the seventeenth century." He also notes the affinity of the passage with Defoe's most famous work, Robinson Crusoe, the writing of which still lay more than a decade in the future.

Saturday, March 02, 2024


Since it's in Lithuania there's virtually no chance that I will ever visit it, but it cheers me no end to know that there is now an entire museum devoted to the work of the artist Stasys Eidrigevičius. Perhaps there will be a catalog someday.

The museum's website observes, "It must be fate, but did you notice the initials of Stasys Eidrigevičius embedded in the word MUS.E.UM?"

Monday, February 19, 2024

Prickly issues

The poet Donald Hall was born and raised in suburban Connecticut, but he spent many of his summers at his maternal grandparents' farm in New Hampshire in the 1930s and '40s, an experience he recollected in a memoir entitled String Too Short to Be Saved. Though he was capturing a disappearing way of life, and remembering it fondly, he largely avoided the lure of nostalgia. There are golden afternoons spent haying and tending chickens in the book, but there is also alcoholism, mental illness, and suicide among the neighbors. He would later own up to embellishing a bit; in a reprint he confessed that the abandoned railroad on Ragged Mountain that he described didn't actually exist. It was another passage in the book, though, that initially perplexed me. Hall describes a day on the farm in the company of his grandfather:
We walked slowly uphill to the barn, which looked like a rocky ledge of Ragged in the gray light. When we were nearly to the milk shed, he suddenly pointed upward at the branches of the great maple next to the old outhouse. "Look!" he said. "There's a hedgehog!" I followed the angle of his finger and saw what resembled a bird's nest at a fork in the branches, indistinct in the late light. "Let's see how you are with a shotgun these days," he said.
The animal is dispatched, not by Hall, who misses four times, but by his grandfather. In a later chapter, when the grandfather is dead, Hall returns to the farm, spots three more "hedgehogs" in the trees, and brings them down.

As any naturalist can tell you, there are no wild hedgehogs in New England or anywhere in the Americas, nor do they readily climb trees (pace Maurice Sendak), nor are they considered agricultural pests (though they were once popularly thought to suckle milk from cows). There are, of course, porcupines, but no one who had grown up in New England (and was later educated in part in the UK, where there are hedgehogs), would be likely to confuse the two. So what gives?

As it turns out, Hall was simply following vernacular tradition. Although "porcupine" (unlike "opossum" and "skunk") is a European word dating to the Middle Ages, few English colonists to New England would have ever seen an Old World porcupine, as the closest ones live in Italy, and faced with a spiny creature they simply borrowed the familiar name "hedgehog." The usage was common enough to have been written into law; as late as the early twentieth century the state of New Hampshire was paying bounties for killing "hedgehogs." The bounty was repealed in 1979, by which time the word had been corrected to "porcupines."

Another word for hedgehog is "urchin," from Latin ericius (see Spanish erizo, French hérisson). Today that word refers to a street waif, but its original meaning is preserved in the name for the spiny echinoderms known as "sea urchins."

Image: "Hans My Hedgehog," from The Juniper Tree.

Monday, February 05, 2024

Who was Rará?

Cortázar's short story "Carta a una señorita en París" (Letter to a Young Lady in Paris) is narrated by a man who has a peculiar propensity to spontaneously regurgitating a baby rabbit from time to time. A little musicological puzzle has popped up in it. In the first paragraph, the narrator moves into a borrowed Buenos Aires apartment, where he is reluctant to disturb (though he will) its "closed order, constructed even in the finest networks of air, networks that in your house preserve the music of lavender, the fluttering of a powder puff, the interplay of the violin and viola in the 'cuarteto de Rará'," whatever that last phrase may refer to. That's my rough translation; the word translated as "powder puff" is cisne, which literally means "swan," hence the "fluttering." Paul Blackburn's version, published in End of The Game and Other Stories, reads as follows:
... it offends me to intrude on a compact order, built even to the finest nets of air, networks that in your environment conserve the music in the lavender, the heavy fluff of the powder puff in the talcum, the play between the violin and the viola in Ravel’s quartet.
Ravel? Why Ravel? For that matter, what was the "Rará quartet" or the "quartet by Rará" alluded to in the original. The allusion has baffled several commentators ("I have obtained no reference to this musical piece, if it exists" — Descifrando a Cortázar), and only one critic seems to have hazarded an explanation. Monica Kanne, in her thesis Estrategias de la traducción: Un estudio de estrategias de traducción y su aplicación práctica glosses it as "una pieza musical (del año 1949) del compositor italiano de música clásica contemporánea Sylvano Busotti (1931-)," that is, "a musical piece (from 1949) by the contemporary Italian classical music composer Sylvano Busotti" (actually Sylvano Bussotti, who has since died).

At first glance, this seems plausible. Although I haven't been able to trace a Rara Quartet by Bussotti, he did compose a Rara Requiem and direct an art film entitled Rara. He would have been only in his teens when Cortázar's story was first published (in his collection Bestiario) in 1951, but he was in fact precocious; the IRCAM database of contemporary music lists compositions as early as 1937 (when he was six!), though I find no record of an early string quartet. Still, it's a bit of a stretch that Cortázar, living in Buenos Aires at that time, would have had any exposure to the work of a teenaged Italian composer. As it happens, though, there's a simpler explanation: Blackburn's translation is correct, because "Rara" was a nickname of Maurice Ravel. (Per biographer Benjamin Ivry, "Ravel was known in his own circle as Rara.") Blackburn may have known that already, or Cortázar may have explained the reference (the two conducted a long correspondence). Author or translator or editor (or all three) decided that the allusion was too obscure and clarified it. Ravel's String Quartet in F Major is easy enough to find:

There are even excerpts of a version for ondes Martentot, a kind of precursor of the theremin: