Mary O’ Hara’s Music Speaks Louder than Words (1978) is the first album that I can remember identifying as something that I liked for myself. I must have been around three or four years old at the time. I couldn’t quite manage to say her name, so I called her “auntie”, much to the amusement of my parents.
I now suspect that I was more interested in the photographs of O’Hara on the album cover than I was in the music. I had begun to realise that I was supposed to grow up to be a “lady”, as the people around me said in the sexist language of the time, and here was a “lady” that looked quite appealing to me. We had fields full of buttercups like the one she’s sitting in on the front cover and I was fascinated by the dress she’s wearing on the back.
I didn’t know anything about her, so I looked her up and found that she’s a very influential Irish singer and harpist. She’s had a pretty interesting life, which includes a period spent as a Benedictine nun.
This album has a lot of covers, so I think it must have been aimed at a more mainstream audience, but it’s her traditional Irish folk recordings seem to have had the staying power.
My favourite tracks when I was a child were the covers, ‘Music Speaks Louder than Words’, and ‘Annie’s Song’. As an adult, my top track is ‘Dust in the Wind’. I can’t find O’ Hara’s anywhere, but here’s a great version by Melanie.
I felt I should include one of her performances in this post, so here’s Óró Mo Bháidín which seems to be a favourite and has the most listens on Spotify.
We spent last week in rural Mid Wales. There was a crispness on the air and the scent of wood smoke as the local pubs started lighting up their fires. You could feel winter moving in.
Time to break out the folk and Americana.
- Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Strange form of Life
- First Aid Kit, Wolf
- Nina Nastasia, Bird of Cuzco
- Mariee Sioux, Two Tongues
- Gillian Welch, Look at Miss Ohio
- Johnny Cash, Highway Patrolman
- Joan Baez, Money for Floods
- Cris Williamson, Fringe
- Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere
- Bob Dylan, Not Dark Yet
One of my ambitions in life is to have amazing grey hair. I stopped dyeing my hair three years ago, but the result cannot yet be called “amazing”. It’s …. on a journey I guess, an interesting one which I would like to write more about at some point.
When I feel insecure about it, I’m going to look at this picture of Natalie Merchant from the cover of her retrospective collection.
This is everything and I’ll be happy if I can get my hair to look half as good.
Gillian Welch’s hair is looking awesome these days too
The last couple of months have been quite challenging, as well as cold and dark, so I’ve been looking for music to accompany cups of tea and introspection.
I love Joan Baez’s Gone from Danger (1997). All except one of the songs were written by younger artists (Dar Williams, Sinead Lohan) and Baez brings a rich maturity to the material. As you’d expect, there’s a political undercurrent, with songs about immigration, child abuse and environmental issues, but it’s all comforting somehow. The collector’s edition features a live bonus CD of performances in which Baez is joined by some of the songwriters.
I’ve never really been into Dar Williams. This may be a British thing, but the extreme earnestness of her lyrics makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. However, I’m getting beyond that and Promised Land (2008) is growing on me. Apparently this is one of her more poppy albums and frowned on by some fans of her earlier, more acoustic sound. I have no opinion on that at this time.
Johnny Cash’s American Recordings (1994) is perfect music for dark, winter evenings. It’s a comeback record that marks the beginning of Cash’s immensely creative partnership with Rick Rubin. I think it’s worth getting for the cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird on a Wire’ alone. Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues (2000) is an all-round brilliant folk album, featuring a diverse range of songs with an Irish-American flavour. Neil Young’s triple album compilation, Decade (1977) is just a sublime retrospective and contains some of my favourite Young songs, such as ‘Expecting to Fly’, ‘Helpless’ and ‘Winterlong’. What’s even more amazing is that this retrospective was produced so early in his career.
Thea Gilmore’s Songs from the Gutter (2002) is not her most consistent work, but a great showcase of her talents, with catchy protest songs, soaring ballads and some excellent covers, perhaps most notably the version of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine’. Ani DiFranco may finally be growing on me. I really like her upbeat last album, Which Side are you on? and the song ‘Red Letter Year’ was my New Year track. PJ Harvey’s ‘Peel Session’ recordings (1991 – 2004) offer stripped down, intimate versions of her songs, some of which I prefer to the original album versions (‘You Came Through’ and ‘Victory’ are my favourites). Kristin Hersh’s sixth solo album, The Grotto (2003), is the one that I listen to the least, not because I dislike it, but because there’s a vulnerability to it that I find a little too intense and raw. It feels like the older and sadder sister of 1994’s Hips and Makers
I’ve been listening to a lot of folk music this autumn. I borrowed the McGarrigle Sisters’ early album, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (1975) from the library. Although they’re very different artists, something about the sound and the song structures reminds me of Leonard Cohen, who also hails from French Canada. Also in 1970s female folk singers I’ve been listening to Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust (1975) a lot. It’s just a really bittersweet album and the title song about her relationship with Bob Dylan is so brilliantly cutting – surely one of the best break-up songs of all time.
I’ve never been much into Dar Williams, but my partner is and I liked Cry Cry Cry. Williams is extremely earnest, but Promised Land (2008) has grown on me since I decided just to go with it, accept the earnestness for what it is, and enjoy the tunes. Thea Gilmore, meanwhile, is a British pop/folk singer who specialises in two kinds of songs: upbeat/catchy and reflective/melodic. Her album Liejacker (2008) mainly consists of the latter and is in some ways her most serious and mature album (if not her most enjoyable), addressing themes such as depression and becoming a parent.
How much Leonard Cohen have I been listening to recently? So much, that I seem to have fairly well spanned his career, starting with Songs of Love and Hate (1970) and ending with his latest album, Old Ideas. My mother says that Songs of Love and Hate is “just groaning”, but for me this is an album so miserable that it manages to cross the line into cathartic and even strangely uplifting. 1974’s New Skin for the Old Ceremony has a bitter, accusatory edge in songs like ‘Is this what you wanted?’ and ‘A Singer Must Die’, but there’s also the exhilarating repetitiveness of ‘Lover, Lover, Lover’ and the poignant ‘Who by Fire?’ The most famous song on the album is ‘Chelsea Hotel’ which Cohen wrote about his brief affair with Janis Joplin. He later said he regretted writing the song, but I find it quite touching, especially the line “We may be ugly, but we have the music”. I actually have a T-shirt with the album cover on it, which I’m not allowed to wear very often because it’s a bit rude. Recent Songs (1979) is a jazzier, more chilled out and funky affair. I think these songs actually come across better on the live recording of the 1979 tour. Still, the album contains one of my favourite Cohen songs, the deeply unfeminist but gorgeous, ‘The Traitor’. I haven’t really got to know the new album yet, but on one listen I found it melodic and melancholic, with Cohen’s worn-out voice making it all the more moving somehow.