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Singer of Tales

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Dear Mailing List,

This is hardly the ideal time for a newsletter, since there seem to be a plethora of blogs, sharings, essays, diaries, etc triggered by the lockdown. You’re probably tired of people saying you must have time on your hands, so I’ll come straight to the point.

Andrea and I produced an album last year with Damir Imamovic, a sevdah singer from Sarajevo; we’re very proud of it and think everyone should hear it. The release was scheduled for Friday, April 3 – today. We thought about postponing it, but talked it over with Damir and the label, Wrasse Records, and we all agreed to go full speed ahead, whatever that now means. If you aren’t in a mood to hear the backstory, you can click for a video of the album’s first track and you’ll know pretty quickly if it’s your cup of tea.

For those still with me, it all began five and a half years ago when Andrea and I found ourselves having a drink with Bosnian journalist and human rights activist Nidžara Ahmetasević at a deserted bar high above Sarajevo. The view over the city and its surrounding green hills was beautiful, though it was hard not to think of the stories of the siege she had just told us. Our mutual friend Ed Vulliamy had told her that I was in the music business, so Nidžara had invited along her singer friend, Damir. When he said there were no local music shows scheduled that weekend, we must have looked very disappointed; he made a few phone calls and the following night we all re-convened at a gallery space for a private concert with fifty of his friends.

What a way to be introduced to this music! Damir is from sevdah royalty, with a musician father and a legendary grandfather who was a Yugoslav radio star in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The word sevdah is derived from the same Arabic root – sawdah – that became saudade in Portuguese. I guess it makes sense that the original meaning – ‘black bile’ – could result in ‘sad nostalgia’ at one end of Europe and ‘the sorrow of love’ at the other. A century ago, this folk tradition (like so many around the world), made its way to the bars and brothels of the cities and was accused of being disreputable. But it also got formalized and recorded and, when Tito endorsed it after the war, sevdah entered its ‘Golden Age’. When the country splintered it fell into disfavour, but Damir is part of a new generation bringing it back to life. Not only does he perform and compose sevdah beautifully, but he also teaches it and has written the only history of the genre.

Fast forward a few years, during which Damir serenaded us at our wedding with a beautiful love song (track 3 on the new cd). The following autumn, Andrea and I (along with our Albanian friend Edit Pula) produced our first album together, “At Least Wave Your Handkerchief At Me” by Saz’iso. Eighteen months ago, we flew to Sarajevo for Damir’s 40th birthday concert, intrigued by the ensemble he had invited: violinist and frequent collaborator, Ivana Ðurić, the Turkish kemenche master from Istanbul, Derya Türkan, and Greg Cohen, an old friend of mine from New York, on bass. We wondered how the European and oriental bowed instruments would sound together, but that night the quartet (Damir’s own custom instrument has a guitar neck and a bowed back like a saz) blended so beautifully with his singing that we cornered Damir after the concert and said we ought to record it.

Greg’s own wonderful-sounding bass lives with him in Berlin and costs a lot to move plus Damir loves that city, so we booked a studio there for a week last March. Jerry Boys, an engineer I first worked with on Sandy Denny’s Fotheringay album half a century ago, joined us and we got started. Two days rehearsal in Greg’s flat, four days recording (all in one room, no overdubs) and three days mixing. Thanks to Damir and Andrea’s work selecting the repertoire, we were well-prepared. But not too well-prepared; arrangements were often improvised on the spot, tempi altered, experiments attempted. The classically-trained Ivana was a revelation, with her elegant embrace of Balkan gypsy and folk styles. Derya’s instrument is surprisingly small, but in his hands, its feline sound weaves in and out of the other instruments, providing the magic ingredient to create a blend like a string-quartet from a parallel universe. Greg has played with everyone from Tom Waits to Ornette Coleman and has often embarked on complex and abstract sonic adventures. His playing here might sound straightforward yet it’s full of feeling and, I think, transforms the recording. He and Derya bring their Western and Eastern sensibilities to sevdah but always remain in the service of the music; this is not ‘fusion’, it’s exploring a timeless form in joyful harmony with Damir and Ivana.

When we began looking for a label, Wrasse Records responded immediately. Owner Ian Ashbridge said that they almost never release anything that comes “over the transom”, but they loved this recording so much they wanted to release it. And so they have!

Until a few weeks ago, I was planning to alert all of you to the European tour booked for April and May, including May Day at the Barbican/St Luke’s in London, where we have such great memories of Saz’iso’s concert two and half years ago. You could have experienced up close what I have described. But Jerry Boys’ magic fingers and microphone placement mean you can get a vivid sonic picture of it on the cd. The album is called “Singer of Tales” in honour of a seminal book by ethnographer Albert Lord about musical storytelling in the Balkans. Lord makes the case that this art is ancient, perhaps providing a clue about how The Odyssey might have survived down the oral generations until they reached the pen of Homer. (Damir was surprised I knew the book, but I recall sweeping it onto the floor of my Harvard dorm room when Lord was my room-mate’s tutor and we were competing for time at the only desk.)

The stories and poetry contained in the lyrics are annotated and translated into English in the cd booklet. You can buy the physical or digital cd on all the usual platforms. (The vinyl will be coming later.) For now, it’s only available digitally in most territories outside Northern Europe, but cds can always be ordered directly from the label:

As for me, I go back and forth during this hibernation. Sometimes I love listening to music, familiar and new, or watching films. Often I prefer the silence. I’ve got a deadline from Faber & Faber for my book (still waiting for the perfect title) and I try to hypnotize myself into imagining the world might still be interested when it comes out in a couple of years. I sleep pretty well; the only things that keep me awake are the fate of the planet and imagining how much better some of the records I produced in the past might have been if I’d had Andrea with me as co-producer.

Be well and safe.


Amazing Grace

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Dear Mailing List,

Long time no see!

The subject of this newsletter is one of the reasons you haven’t heard from me lately. I don’t believe I’ve previously mentioned my involvement in Amazing Grace, the film of Aretha Franklin’s 1972 gospel recording sessions, but I’ve been working on it for some years, helping to get it into the theatres.

I trust Amazing Grace’s release is not news to most of you – it’s had a huge splash of press in the US (where it was released April 5) and the UK (it came out here last Friday). In the coming months it should reach every corner of the world. Finally seeing it with huge audiences at festivals in New York and Berlin over the past few months and reading critics’ and audiences’ reactions has been a gratifying coda to the years of frustration.

The story goes back to 1972 when I was living in LA and working for Warner Brothers Films as ‘Director of Music Services’. Parts of the job were really interesting, like helping Stanley Kubrick put together the music for Clockwork Orange or inviting a Greenwich Village folk-billy down to Georgia to record ‘Duelling Banjos’ for John Boorman’s Deliverance. Others not so much, like the endless stream of directors who rang me up two months before their film had to be ready for release begging me to get them ‘John Williams or someone like him’.

I eventually persuaded the studio to let me make the Jimi Hendrix documentary and slowly morphed from being a bureaucrat into what I was deluded enough to think would be my new career – filmmaker! But before that happened, in December of 1971, Atlantic Records (which was then part of the same corporation) told us they were coming to LA to make a gospel album with Aretha Franklin. It would be done live over two evenings at James Cleveland’s church in Watts. Might we be interested in filming it?

Might we?? I jumped at it and told studio boss Ted Ashley I would find an experienced team of 16mm cameramen to shoot the two nights. Once we’d shot it, there would be time to consider whether it was a TV special, a documentary or simply an elongated promo for the album. But before I could finalize a deal with the crew, I got a call from Ashley. He had mentioned the project to the famous director Sydney Pollack, who turned out to be a huge Aretha fan and wanted to film it himself. I remember saying, ‘do you think that’s wise? Filming live music is a very specialized skill.’ But to no avail; in came Team Pollack and I sat on the sidelines, digesting my lesson in Hollywood studio politics. On the first evening at the church, I asked one of the cameramen how they were going to synch picture to sound; they told me they ‘had it under control’.

Reader, they didn’t. The editor called me a few days later to say he couldn’t do anything as there were no synch marks. Pollack moved on to his next feature and the footage was consigned to the Burbank Studio vaults. Over the years, I occasionally wondered if anyone would try and resurrect it. The answer came in 2010 when I arrived at the LA stop on my ‘Chinese White Bicycles’ tour with Robyn Hitchcock (there’s a six-camera shoot of one of those shows sitting in a vault in Chicago in case anyone’s interested….). Into my Inbox popped an email from one Alan Elliott; he had the Amazing Grace footage – did I want to have lunch?

Alan is a producer/composer/a&r man who once worked at Atlantic, where Jerry Wexler (who had produced the album) told him about the lost film project. Warner Brothers proved willing to let Alan have a go and delivered the film stock and a copy of the audio tapes to his Hollywood garage: no notes, no labels, no instructions. After a few head-scratching weeks, Alan met a woman named Beverly Wood at a party who revealed that she a) had grown up listening to Amazing Grace and b) worked at Deluxe Lab restoring films. She sent a truck to pick up the film and brought it back a few weeks later all synched up. Alan then proceeded to assemble a brilliant and deceptively straightforward 90-minute film. I had the impression from a few 1972 conversations that Pollack was planning to interview all the principles and build an interview-filled music documentary around the footage of those two evenings. Alan turned in the opposite direction: no talking heads, no analysis, no one leading the audience by the hand, no alerts about what you’re about to see. The viewer is simply immersed in the events and music of the two nights at Cleveland’s church.

In some ways, watching the film now is even more astounding than being there. (see photo below of me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack on the first night) For one thing, we had to wait after every take while Aretha, Wexler, Cleveland and Arif Mardin walkie-talkied about whether the last take was a keeper, then we’d often hear the same song over again. But perhaps even more important is that we now have a perspective lacking in 1972. I was thrilled to be there, awed by the musicianship, the virtuosity and by the surprise co-star, choirmaster Alexander Hamilton. But with the arrogant optimism of youth (as well as that of the only recently deceased Sixties), I fully expected my life would continue to be full of such musical high points and thrills – bring ‘em on! I’m ready!

Me and my moustache talking to Sydney Pollack, January 1972, Watts


What I had no idea of at the time was how, only a few years later, disco would sweep across the world, someone would invent the drum machine, Aretha would start making pop records with Teddy Pendergrass and the gospel ‘warriors’ would all stop touring. I now see the film as the final bow of a way of making music perfected by an extraordinary generation of music-makers with the skills and influences that bounced back and forth between African-American secular and religious music. Think about it as you watch Amazing Grace (and you will watch Amazing Grace) how no one makes music like this any more, to say nothing of on this timetable: a double album in two nights, live.

If Alan Elliott were a well-organized, linear, cautious, lawyered-up filmmaker, you would never have been able to see Amazing Grace. He charged ahead, heedless of Aretha’s demand for a huge amount of money, heedless of lawyers who said he had to take care of this company or that person before cutting a single frame. Amazing Grace is the ultimate ‘facts-on-the-ground’, a document so magical and irresistible that a team of producers – myself and my lawyer brother included – have just shrugged and set about picking up the contractual pieces.

Aretha was on record saying she ‘loved the film’, but she wanted the sort of fee that would give any documentary distributor a heart attack. She never had much time for contracts and lawyers and bridled at the bureaucratic complexity of the film industry. When Alan showed her family the film last autumn, they immediately offered to work with us to bring it to out. The process has been hugely complicated; for months, it’s kept me away from my book, from my wife and from my friends. But even now, having seen it again and again, whenever I introduce it at a screening or a festival and tell myself that I’ll leave as soon as I’m sure the sound is loud enough, I find it impossible to tear myself away and end up staying for the whole 87 minutes.

Amazing Grace represents artistry on a level we’re unlikely ever again to see at such close range. It’s an homage to a form born in 1932 when blues singer Georgia Tom’s wife died in childbirth and he turned his back on saucy lyrics, became Thomas A Dorsey again, and wrote ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’, the first modern gospel song (which Aretha performs in a brilliant arrangement in the film.) Gospel music lives on, preserved by talented choirs and singers, but the Golden Era ended that second night in Watts in January 1972. I was lucky to have heard Mavis Staples sing with her family in a Roxbury high school auditorium when she was 16, to see Claude Jeter and the Swan Silvertones destroy the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre one Sunday afternoon in 1963 and watch Dorothy Love ‘fall out’ after an astounding performance at a store-front church in Newark, New Jersey. I am not religious, but I am happy to gaze in wonder at Italian religious paintings from the 15th century and I remain convinced that between 1932 and 1972, American gospel produced some of the greatest and most influential music ever made. It entered the mainstream via Ray Charles and Aretha and other stars of rock ‘n’ roll and r&b and changed the way the world listened.

Over those two nights, Aretha summed it all up, bringing it, as her father proclaims in the film, ‘into a SYNthesis’ and providing a document for the ages.


If you want to read more about Aretha and the film, check out Josh Jelly-Shapiro’s piece in the NYRB:

Aretha’s Grace

and/or Mikal Gilmore’s obituary, which includes a link to a brilliant podcast about her life.

The Queen: Aretha Franklin

If those two aren’t enough, then get ahold of Anthony Heilbut’s book “The Fan Who Knew Too Much” with its fascinating long chapter on Franklin.



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Please check out Joe’s new Kickstarter campaign.  SAZE the day – the Albanian recording project

The Podcast Spirit and upcoming events

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Dear Mailing List,
It’s been a while. There’s been a lot going on and those pesky podcasts take up quite a bit of time! But I keep getting great feedback and numbers keep climbing, so there’s no stopping them. Besides, I enjoy doing them…
The coming week sees a few public manifestations of the “Podcast Spirit”, if not the actual thing itself. Tuesday night (July 12), I will be a guest on BBC Radio 3’s “Late Junction” with Verity Sharpe (from about 1130pm). They’ve asked me to bring a couple of favourite tracks, and I’ve decided to focus on my two favourite vocal harmony groups. A-Z Podcast fans will know who these are (hint, listen to Episodes F and H), but the rest of you can tune in to find out.
Then on Wednesday evening (July 13), I’ll join Resonance Radio’s Live To Air event at the East Tower of the late lamented Television Centre in White City. It seems this storied studio is about to be turned into flats! Of course! Welcome to Tory World! There may be some (free) tickets left at:  Resonance Live to Air tickets
My brief there is to do a “West London” edition of the Joe Boyd’s A-Z, so I’ll be focusing on my adventures with Syd Barrett and Toots and the Maytals. I am scheduled to hit the stage – and the airwaves – about 8:30.
Then on Friday (July 15), it’s off to the Rhythm Tree Festival on the Isle of Wight, where Robyn Hitchcock and I will revisit our collaboration from years past, generally known as “Chinese White Bicycles” or “Live and Direct from the 1960s”, wherein I read from the book and Robyn sings an appropriate song. I’ve never been to the fabled Isle of Wight, so I’m looking forward to that, as well as a reunion with the legend that is RH.
If there are any German speakers among you, you might be interested in this link to a three-hour (!) special on Yours Truly which aired last week, and is still up on the German version of BBC i-Player.  Deutschlandfunk
Looking a bit further ahead, I’m working with my old friends Charlotte Horton and Alexander Greene at Castello di Potentino in the Val d’Orcia in Southern Tuscany on a day of stunning a capella singing, August 20. There will be groups from Sardinia, Genoa, Albania and the local host group, “I Cardellini de la Fontanina”. They don’t seem to have the event listed yet at but should do soon. In any case, the event is definitely happening, I’ve heard all the groups close up and can vouch for how wonderful they are. There may still be a few rooms in the castle, but if not, can connect you to local hostelries. We hope to bring this idea of European harmony to a wider audience in the future and have been talking to some presenters about replicating the notion at a festival or concert hall.
I am particularly excited by hearing the Cardellini and the Albanian “Grupi i Pilurit” next to each other. The Cardellini have a falsetto ‘yodeling’ part that blends in with the Tuscan melodies and local legend has it that this ingredient arrived in the 19th century with Tyrolean foresters brought South by the Hapsburg Duke who owned most of the land around Monte Amiata. But when I heard the Albanian group, with their male falsetto ‘yodel’ part, I was so struck by the comparison that my talk with Charlotte resulted in our decision to bring these groups together and try to find out if this wonderful sound comes from across the Adriatic, or north of the mountains… or both!
I’m trying to cure my bad habit of revealing things at the last minute, so here’s an even longer-distance heads-up. The Victoria & Albert Museum is going to follow up their hugely successful David Bowie exhibit with one called “You Say You Want A Revolution: Records and Rebels 1966-70” which opens 10 September. I will do some events there on November 6 and I’ve filmed an interview for them that will appear on a screen somewhere in the exhibit. If the Bowie show was anything to go by, it should be excellent.
There’s even more to report, but I’ve banged on enough for now. I know you’re busy people!
Until soon.

Bayou Maharajah and WTB ticket link

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Dear Mailing List,

Almost forgot! Another very worthwhile event is the screening of “Bayou Maharajah”, a documentary about New Orleans pianist James Booker. It’s part of the Everyman group’s “Music Film Festival” the weekend of May 14-15 in London. I’m going to be at the 3.30pm Hampstead screening and answer questions afterwards (I produced Booker’s first solo lp in 1975 and appear in the film.)

I know there is a blur of music docs these days on television, but this one is head and shoulders above the rest and it makes a nice change to see music on the big screen with big sound. Tickets can be booked here:

There are simultaneous screenings at the Everyman in Barnet and Muswell Hill that day, but I can only be at one!

And speaking of booking tickets, I neglected to include a box-office link for the May 12 Nick Drake concert in Birmingham in the previous newsletter. So here it is:

Please stop and say hello if you come to one of these events. In Birmingham, I’ll most likely be camped at the sound controls in the back of the stalls…



Way To Blue concert and Cuba

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Dear Mailing List,

I know, I’ve been back from Cuba for a while and I promised a full report. It was great……! OK, I’ll expand on that but first some ‘housekeeping’ as event comperes are wont to say.

First, “Way To Blue”, the concert tribute to the music of Nick Drake that I have – with Catherine Steinmann, Kate St John and Bryn Ormrod – organized in various UK venues and abroad over the past seven years is performing an encore at Symphony Hall in Birmingham on May 12. Birmingham is where it all began and the organizers there wanted us to return to the scene of our first concert to celebrate the new hall’s tenth anniversary. The singers are a mix of rookies and veterans, with Green Gartside and Vashti Bunyan joined by Sam Beam (Iron and Wine), Glen Hansard (of “Commitments” fame), Sam Lee (Mercury prize nominee), Olivia Chaney, The Rails (Kami Thompson, Richard and Linda’s daughter plus James Walbourne of The Pretenders) and Mark Abis. The band is (almost) the same, with Kate, Zoe Rahman, Neil MacColl, Leo Abrahams, Martyn Barker but without our totemic bassman, Danny Thompson, who’s recovering from an illness. John Thorne, a disciple of Danny’s, will deputize.

I’m excited – it’s been four years since our wonderful night at the Sydney Opera House and I’m ready to hear these wonderful songs again from a new angle.

In other news, JOE BOYD’S A-Z has settled into its new fortnightly format and we’re already up to EE. The audience is growing, the plaudits are being gratefully received and, hey, I think I’m getting (even) better at it! We’ve been from Mongolia to the Brill Building with many stops in between.

I was asked to contribute to Rebecca Solnit’s new urban atlas of New York and in my piece about the song that drew me to a particular New York neighbourhood, I evoked the greatest female rock n roll voice of the 1950s. And, just coincidentally, she is the subject of podcast EE.

So, on to Cuba. You can imagine how hesitant I was to be a part of a busload of Americans being disgorged in small Cuban towns for a specially arranged concert of Afro-Cuban dancing and drums. The vision brings up all kinds of uncomfortable clichés. But it turned into the most wonderful 10 days. Here are some of the reasons why:


  • – Ned Sublette, our fearless leader, author of “Cuba And Its Music”, “The World That Made New Orleans” and “America’s Slave Coast”, speaks fluent Cuban Spanish and knows the place backwards. Musicians there have felt his superbly well-informed love for their music for over twenty years and they reciprocate. His Cuban collaborator, Cari Diaz, knows every musician in the land and all love her, as do we.


  • – The group turned out to be very diverse and completely intelligent, sociable and interesting. From the ethnographer who knew Lucy Duran from Bamako, to the retired, Bauhaus-ly dressed German couple who met “dancing Latin” in Nuremburg in the late ‘50s, to the hot young couple from California who turned out to have four kids and knew almost as much as Ned about Cuban music. The bonus track in the group was the legendary Harry Sepulveda, manager of the greatest Latin record store in the world and the only one you need a subway token to get to. Harry is the sage of Latin New York, known to all Newyoricans and he’d never been to Cuba! Watching and listening through the delighted Harry’s eyes and ears was worth the trip just in itself.


  • – The musicians, who were mostly in the Afro-Cuban religious tradition or other styles from the rich history of the island’s music. Rumbas, charangas, kongos, keyboard extravaganzas, decimas – we saw it all. And mass Cuban audiences, while they respect their roots, are not always that interested in paying to see these great artists. So there were only warm, unrestrained welcomes for us everywhere we went.


  • – We spent only a few days in Havana. It’s a great city, but when I was last there fifteen years ago, it was hard work dealing with the hustles and the bureaucracy and the potholes. So it was great to be out in the beautiful countryside. And Matanzas! Where rumba was born! What a nice city. I’d happily go back there anytime.


  • – The food! Ned warned us that this was not a culinary trip, but the food has improved out of all recognition, even in government-owned restaurants. The paladares (private restaurants) have been freed from their previous limits of a dozen places, only government-supplied frozen fish and no non-family employees. We ate like kings, the most memorable being a ‘slavery-era’ feast in an old sugar-mill town east of Matanzas complete with whole roast pig and a side-trip to my favourite Havana restaurant, La Esperanza. Hubert and Manolo, who were paladar pioneers many years ago, have expanded and their food is better than ever.


  • – But most of all, the trip was memorable – cliché alert! – because of the people. It’s been said many times, but whatever the flaws or shortcomings of the revolution, it has created a society in which people are actually very nice to one another. The Revolution was wary of Afro-Cuban culture back at the beginning. Socialism is supposed to be colour-blind and it was counter-revolutionary to encourage too much interest in distinct cultures. But that has turned completely around and now there is solid support for Afro-Cuban religious traditions (and Cubans of all shades wearing the all-white colours of new Santeria initiates). As a result, Afro-Cubans seem more confident and connected than ever before. But hard to find anyone, black, white or tan, with the kind of strutting ego you often meet in big capitalist cities. People were agonizing about how the opening with America will change Cuba; my big concern was how can we get America to change by exposing it to more Cubans.


  • – We had a very nostalgic visit to Egrem studios, where I made 3 Cubanismo records and one by Alfredo Rodriguez. It was great being back and remembering those great sessions – the first was six months before Buena Vista happened.


Like most others, I did some filming on the trip and I plan to put it up on my site or YouTube or something. I’ll let you know when that happens.

To find out about more Ned Sublette-guided musical trips to Cuba, write to If you go, don’t miss (closed Sundays) and tell Hubert Joe sent you.

As ever –



Letter AA is here!

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Letter AA is now available to download here and will be added to this site very soon…

V&A Friday Late Special

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Dear Mailing List

Londoners and Thames Estuary denizens can find me this Friday evening (Feb 26) at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It’s one of their Friday Late Specials – this month’s theme is Radio.

I’m going to ‘perform’ a few elongated versions of the A-Z podcast. Admission is free, it starts at 6:30 and goes until 10. I’ll be in a room near the ‘ethical’ rum bar on the first floor with a good sound system. Admission is free; come up and say hello.

V&A Friday late

Some of you may be aware that I’ve finished all 26 letters of my musical alphabet and am starting round again. AA will appear March 4 and the alphabet will carry on from there at fortnightly intervals. All episdoes continue to be a click away on and on the iTunes or acast websites.

In early March, I follow Ned Sublette’s siren call to rural Cuba where he’s taking a group of enthusiasts to hear the kind of Afro-Cuban roots music that probably won’t be around too much longer – at least in its non-touristic, unself-conscious form. In my next newsletter, I’ll report on what I heard and saw.



With Cerys Matthews on the World Service

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Dear Mailing List,

Let’s hear it for Cerys Matthews! She sweeps all before her as champion radio presenter. And to prove what good taste she has, she did an hour-long programme with me, playing records and talking Sixties, for the World Service. For those of you who haven’t heard enough of me lately, it’s on the BBC iPlayer until Feb 9.

And let’s hear it for Richard Morton Jack of Flashback magazine who is sending me his copy of the Sydney Carter ep! (Flashback is an erudite fanzine – in this case, not a contradiction in terms…)

Other responses to my last newsletter include the most welcome news that Norma Waterson is up and about and singing like the angel she is. Wonderful! I have also been told that a photo exists of Bob Dylan singing from the stage of the Singers’ Club. Yet more about Mr MacColl that I have to take back! I’m (almost) always happy to stand corrected.

And so many people have told me – via email and in person – how much they loved Sydney Carter…

It has been brought to my attention that the podcast track-listing which can be seen on iTunes, is not visible when you listen from my website. We are working to correct this and hope to have a full listing of all tracks visible in the coming days.

ciao for niao


English Folk Music

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Happy New Year! The A-Z podcasts are back after a fortnight’s hiatus with “T”. Easy as pie at – click on a letter and the ten-minute podcast plays.


* * *


As a teenager, I was horrified by the idea of white blues singers, but modified that view when I heard my friend Geoff Muldaur successfully channelling Lonnie Johnson on a Boston coffee-house stage. I was also put off by middle-class singer-songwriters until I was bowled over by Bob Dylan in a tiny room at a Cambridge, MA party in 1963. These prejudices never evaporated entirely; for every Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, there seem to be thousands of well-bred strummers whose cds I recycle to Oxfam. And don’t get me started on the Stevie Ray Vaughn and Johnny Winter cults! But I digress from the subject at hand…


When I arrived in London in 1964, I had already developed, then lost or modified a number of such prejudices. Before setting out for London, I had a very bad attitude about English folk music. (I know, some of you, my dear English readers, still have a bad attitude about your own folk music; if so, perhaps you’d better skip this newsletter and wait for the next one…) I have written elsewhere about having these views confounded by an encounter with the Ian Campbell Group and Dave Swarbrick, and then by Norma and the rest of the Watersons. (White Bicycles, Ch. 7). But when I went to the famous “Singers Club” in Farringdon, there was Ewan MacColl singing shanties with a finger in one ear, conforming to the humourless stereotype prevalent across The Pond. MacColl had notoriously barred Bob Dylan from singing at the club; only songs from whence you came were allowed! His rigid, snotty attitude was just as advertised and I never went back to The Singers’ Club.


Around the same time, producer Bill Leader took me to small basement flat just down the road from MacColl’s club to meet a man from the opposite end of the class and stylistic spectrum of British songwriters. Sydney Carter was eccentric, middle-class, donnish, kind, off-hand and idealistic (He had worked in an ambulance corps in WW2 rather than fight…). He wrote poetry and taught a bit, but his primary source of income seemed to be fees and royalties from writing songs with Donald Swann of the Flanders and Swann comic duo. (Economic guru Stephanie Flanders is the daughter of the other half of that team.) I was entranced by his odd, off-hand songs. When I returned to London a year and a half later to open the Elektra Records office, I took Sydney into the studio to make an EP “The Lord of the Dance”. The title song was to become his most famous, gleefully sung by happy-clappy liberal Christians the world over. But don’t hold that against him! Like Springsteen’s “Born In The USA”, which became a red-neck anthem despite the ironic lyrics, “Lord” is a secular sceptic’s attempt to portray Christ as the very human founder of a cult of joy and ecstasy (which is pretty close to how it actually was until killjoys like St Paul got ahold of it). I think my EP was the first recording of “Lord”, but I wish the God-botherers had been quicker off the mark with the title song; the EP might have sold better and not been a black mark against my track record with the Elektra bosses back in New York. (If anyone has a copy and wants to sell it or make me a digital version, I would be very grateful; it’s the only one of my productions not in my collection.)


A series of concerts last year took me back to Year Zero of my exposure to the London folk scene. In April, there was a tribute to Carter (who died in 2004) in a small, medieval theatre adjoining the Porter’s Lodge at Balliol College, Oxford. One driving force behind this event was Martin Carthy, a longtime supporter who accompanied Sydney on that 1966 Elektra EP (and who shared my dislike of MacColl). Martin led a great group of singers in the canon of Carter songs, including my personal favourite “Taking Out the Dustbin in the Gray’s Inn Road” as well as his anti-war song, “Crow on the Cradle”, for years a staple at Jackson Browne concerts.


The other instigator was Stephen Sedley, whom I met in my first years in London. He grew up a folksong buff; his lawyer father represented many folksingers as well as Topic Records. Sedley now teaches law at Oxford, having retired from the bench after a heroic career championing human rights as a Lord Justice of Appeal, a member of the European Court of Human Rights and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. (After I introduced a girlfriend to him at a Human Rights Lecture, she told me it was far more impressive and thrilling than the time I introduced her to Mick Jagger.)


Earlier last year, I impulsively purchased a train ticket to Glasgow to hear some of my favourite singers pay tribute to one of my least favourite songwriters. Celtic Connections had brought together Norma Waterson, Chaim Tannenbaum, Martin Carthy (who knows a good song when he hears it, regardless of who wrote it), Jarvis Cocker, Eliza Carthy, Dick Gaughan, Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) and Karine Polwart to honour the long-deceased (1989) MacColl’s memory. One attraction for me was that the evening was curated by Ewan’s sons Neil and Calum and Neil’s wife Kate St John. Working with those three in various combinations on my own live tributes to Nick Drake and Kate McGarrigle has been an unalloyed pleasure. And there was in the back of my mind the nagging thought that if he had such great kids, maybe it was time for a reassessment…


The concert was terrific. Chaim and Norma stole the show with their renditions of “My Old Man”, “Go Down You Murderers” and “Shoals of Herring” (Tannenbaum) and “The Moving On Song” (Waterson). Sitting in the audience, I was forced to admit the old crank wrote a lot of great songs, full of anger and passion and wonderful folk-based melody. Even the often-corny “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” sounded pretty good in Buchanan’s hands.


But another reassessment was also slowly dawning in my prejudiced mind. Researching my world music book, I’ve discovered a hero-figure in Dimitri Pokrovsky, the man who defied Soviet ideologues to revive regional Russian folk music. Cultural specifics are anathema to authoritarian regimes; they prefer broad generalities and the music that expresses them (the Soviet Moiseyev Ensemble being the archetype). The Right-Left divide in politics these days often comes down to denial vs acceptance of facts. Local music is the equivalent of factual research. Pokrovsky was not only opposed to Soviet kitsch, but he peered into the future and recognized the dangers of post-Soviet Russian nationalism; he refused to call any folk song “Russian”. They were ‘from Voronezh’ or ‘Irkutsk Oblast’, never “Russian”.


At a time when cultural battles are being waged over what it means to be “British”, or “English”, MacColl’s strictures that you should sing songs from your home territory begins to seem like a good idea, an antidote to the kitsch clichés of UKIP and the Tories. And when I went to give a talk at the English Folk Expo last year, I found many wonderful musicians fully committed to the notion of local music, usually their own. It was inspiring, and yet another reason to give the old finger-in-his-ear crank a respectful reappraisal: he might have been right after all!


The Glasgow concert was such a success that they took the show on the road in November and the London show was, again, terrific. I hope a few of you got to see it. And I am so glad I bought that train ticket last January; Norma Waterson’s health has taken a turn for the worse and it’s hard to say when we’ll hear her sing like that again.


It was nice to see Jarvis Cocker and Norma bonding backstage. I remember the 1996 Mercury Prize awards, when the jury announced a deadlock between Pulp’s “Different Class” and Norma’s solo record for Hannibal. They gave it to Pulp in the end, but Oasis had also been nominated, and I’ve saved the Daily Mail headline “Grandmother beats Oasis in Mercury Prize Vote”.


Tribute concerts have sprouted like toadstools in recent years, but for me, 2015 was a vintage year because of those celebrations of two eccentrically British songwriters. They were based only a few hundred yards from each other along Roseberry Avenue, but between them there was a chasm of class, attitude, style and personality. Somehow, last year, they seemed quite nicely balanced, resonating beautifully across the decades, never to be forgotten.


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On-line reviews of the A-Z podcasts…


“Digestible wisdom for all”

by electrophreek

Joe Boyd is one of the titans of music production and his hard fought insights into the nature and scope of global music are among the finest you will ever encounter. This is the bench mark of music podcasts and the standard by which all should be judged.



by modal d

Exhilarating, mesmerizing, poignant. That such a pivotal figure, responsible for so much music I love, would take the time to put together this series is just an incredible gift. Listen!