“A Poem Is A Naked Person” and the English Folk Expo

If any of you are near Bristol, England this Monday (November 2) evening – come along to the Institute of Art and Ideas where I’m giving a talk and answering questions. It starts early, at 6pm, which is appropriate for the now-geriatric era which is the subject of the event, “The Sixties”! The location is 15 Berkeley Square, Bristol BS8 1HB and the phone there is 0117 921 0455.

I promised to fill you in about the late Les Blank’s film on Leon Russell – “A Poem Is A Naked Person” – which I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2 weeks ago. I was certain it had been re-edited since Les screened if for me in 1972 as some scenes I vividly remembered were not now in it, according to those who had seen it more recently. And also because Leon had agreed to its release – something I could never imagine him allowing based on what I recall seeing 45 years ago….

Well, it turns out that the film is almost entirely unchanged since then. It’s just my brain that has changed… or something. I still don’t consider it a very flattering portrait of Mr Russell, but it’s not as cruelly realistic as I remember. For those of you who have never seen a Les Blank film, I recommend that you remedy that lacuna straight away. (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/Flowerfilm.html or amazon) Les was a master documentarian. He would hang out with the subject, in his understated way, sometimes carrying a camera with no film, until he had become part of the wallpaper. Only then would he start.

In the case of a wonderful musician like the Zydeco great Clifton Chenier, this created a warm, affectionate and unself-conscious portrait of a man you wished had invited you over to share his gumbo and listen to his tales and his music. In the case of Leon Russell, it reveals a man from whom you would run a mile to avoid having to spend any time in his company. Or at least the Leon Russell of 1971; he may have mellowed in the intervening years.

The general atmosphere among Leon and his musicians and friends that Les captured in “Poem” stood in stark contrast to the prevailing mood at the English Folk Expo in Bury immediately prior to the screening. Over two days in this relaxed Lancashire mill town, I heard wonderful music, met engaging and inspiring people and generally enjoyed myself. I heard old faves Eliza Carthy and Sam Lee, new faves Stick In The Wheel and discovered Ollie King, the Rhiengans Sisters and Dan Walsh. The overall standard was very high and the atmosphere of mutual support and friendly exchange that prevailed during my two days there (I missed the Saturday so I could see ‘Poem’) made the contrast with the drugged and ego-fuelled atmosphere in Russell’s compound in the early ’70s all the more disconcerting. Sex and Drugs and Rock n Roll were really fun, honest! Don’t let films like this re-write history. And don’t let my comments put you off seeing it. Les Blank was a wonderful film-maker and “Poem” is grimly fascinating.

In my keynote address at the Folk Expo, I talked about the “American Epic Sessions”, the sounds and images from which have stayed with me and which I cannot stop talking about. I was taken to task for mentioning T-Bone Burnett and Jack White but not director Bernard MacMahon and producer Allison McGourty. I plead guilty! They were so nice to me at the reception after, as well! My excuse is that I write these things off the top of my head and am determined to keep the newsletters informal stream-of-consciousness essays that evade the exigencies of proper journalism. But I would hate anyone to feel slighted. And, by way of redress, I should point out how beautifully shot the film is, claustrophobic in the best possible sense. Well done, everyone.

I am looking forward to immersing myself once again in the warmth and good music that is the English folk scene these days. Saturday I go to Cecil Sharpe House for a celebration of Shirley Collins and look forward to seeing many of my favourite singers and people. I am particularly keen to hear Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, whom I heard in the BBC Folk Awards earlier this year in Cardiff. On my lunchtime stroll today (after recording some more A-Z podcasts nearby) I stopped by Rough Trade to say hello to Geoff Travis and he told me he’d signed the duo. A good match, I say!

This is getting too long – I’ll write another one soon about the Womex conference in Budapest… A multi-cultural event in an “illiberal” (according to Hungarian Prime Minister Orban) country… and where I led a discussion on “Nationalism and Folk Music”… stay tuned.


PS – some complaints that podcast “Letter D” is unplayable. Unfortunately, there was a brief time when D was on the blink. Anyone who subscribed via iTunes during that period got delivered a faulty “D” and will have to delete, unsubscribe and re-subscribe to hear it… but hey! it’s all free…