Thursday, June 24, 2010

the great English songbook

[Richard Thompson, with an unspeakably cool guitar]

Nothing to blog about, and blogging it:

It is officially summer, tho summer weather set in here weeks & weeks ago. Terrifically muggy, sticky, generally uncomfortable. The air conditioner in my little Cabrio died the other week (this is the second time it's done this over the car's lifetime), so getting from place to place is an exercise in temporary sauna-immersion. I'd take the top down, but the sun is unbearably oppressive, & the daytime weather here is terrifically unpredictable: if you leave for the office on a cloudless morning, there's decent chance of getting caught in a cloudburst before you get to the parking lot.

We leave for New York next week, to be away for something like 6 weeks. Am I looking forward to the trip? Well, as much as I usually do – I'm frankly a homebody, deeply inertial. I like being among my books, my guitars, my stuff. But I'll manage. I'll get things read, and get things written. I've already gotten a few little things done since the end of the semester (tho that six weeks has felt more like a week & a half).

Father's Day was nice; I'd spent much of the week before visiting my mother in God's Country (middle Tennessee), a deeply depressing, sad experience, so it was nice to come home to the girls. They gifted me with something I'd been anticipating for years: the big set of 3 Richard Thompson songbooks. Now anyone who knows me well knows that I've had a well-nigh obsessive relationship with RT's music for maybe 30 years now. Yes, I've got all the albums; yes, I know all the words (or most of them).

The songbooks were at first, frankly, a bit of a disappointment. RT's website has been anticipating them for several years now. They'd hired the Fairport Convention guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Maartin Alcock to do the transcribing, & apparently (former descriptions have vanished from the site) the plan was to present the entire RT song corpus – every single song – in detailed tablature. [Tablature, for those non-guitarist-geeks out there, is a kind of pidgin musical notation that shows the guitarist which fret & string a note should fall on: for real musicians who read music, it's a supplement, showing unusual fingerings and tunings; for musical idiots like me, who can read music about as well as I read Greek, it's a wonderful bridge to actually being able to play something.]

At any rate, the 3 volumes of the RT songbook as published don't by any means include all of his songs. It's true, the 150-odd songs here are practically everything one would want to know, but anal-compulsive completists like me are bound to miss a few things. And the promised tablature is only there for maybe 30 or 40 of the songs. Like, it's great to have the tabs for "1952 Black Vincent," but let's face it, I'll never have the technique to play that song anyway; I'd much rather have the tabs for the psychotic guitar solos on "Gethsemene" or "Dad's Gonna Kill Me."

On the plus side? (and truth to tell, the pluses far outweigh the disappointments of this set): The books are spiral-bound, so they lie flat on a table or music stand when you're trying to learn a piece. And even more importantly, while way too many of the songs have nothing more than a vocal melody line & a set of chord symbols, this is very much a guitarist's collection, in sharp contrast to the mass-produced music books of the 1970s or 80s, where the transcribers would figure out chords & then automatically punch in standard chord symbols. Here the transcriber (Alcock's still got a credit in the books, but his contribution has been massively downplayed on the website – what gives?) has scrupulously noted which tunings Richard uses on each song (lots of dropped-D, a good deal of DADGAD), what chord shapes RT plays (some of them exceedingly strange at first glance, but always eventually logical), & whether a given song is capoed. It makes all the difference in the world. Call me slow, but songs I'd worked out in standard tuning in E, & found unplayably difficult, suddenly become cool & luminous when played in dropped-D with the capo at 2.

So it seems suddenly tough to have to leave all guitars behind for the rest of the summer. And – did I mention this? – the newish acquisition. Yes, I broke down & bought a shiny black Turkish baglama (or "saz," the more generic term for stringed instrument) the other month. It's a strange piece of work, a combination of high-tech (pickups, control dials, etc.) & the primitive (the single-piece neck & headstock, the maddeningly inaccurate friction tuning pegs). It makes a lovely sound. I have its three courses tuned in "buzuk" tuning – D-G-A – so I can muddle thru with much of what I've learned on the mandolin & bouzouki. But it's still hard to get used to 18 frets to the octave, & figure out what to do with all of those extra notes. "Kashmir" sounds great, as do the Mekons' "Old Trip to Jerusalem" and PiL's "This Is Not a Love Song."

[is "baglamist" a word? yr humble blogger, flipped courtesy of Photobooth]


Edd. H. said...

I'm not totally a Thompson obsessive--these days I listen to more Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny and Incredible String Band than Thompson--but he's great. For me, he's never topped his very first solo thing Henry the Human Fly, altho certainly his mid-'70s output w/ Linda and of course Shoot Out are essential, I mean he did write well about the joys of ice cream..

I still think "Old Changing Way" and "Nobody's Wedding" are about his best songs ever. Mark, will have to check out the selection on the songbook and see what they deemed meet...

Mark Scroggins said...

Both of those songs of course make the songbook. And I'm inclined to agree with you about their preƫminence, Edd; "Old Changing Way" strikes me as the purest, most fully realized marriage of traditional form & contemporary subject matter ever -- in later songs like "1952 Black Vincent" & "Beeswing," beautiful as they are, he's just rewriting "Old Changing Way."

E. M. Selinger said...

Makes me think of that ad campaign from my youth:

"What becomes a legend most? A Baglama!"

I've finally decided to learn my way around the fretboard, starting with every 13-year old's set of minor pentatonic scales & shapes. Embarrassing, but less so than endlessly envying my son's chops without doing a damned thing about it. ("Endlessly Envying"--wasn't that a CSN number?)

Where's the YouTube clip? We want "Kashmir"!

Anonymous said...

The Baglamist cut his hair!