“SONG FOR EWE” is the feature where artists & music people beloved by VELVET SHEEP choose an obscure song they’ve been listening to that day. Today’s guest is a favourite on the site, singer and guitarist (and top notch twitcher) from Essex’s resurgent and super urgent C86’ers Wolfhounds.
St. Etienne’s Bob Stanley loved them so much he asked them to reform in 2006 for a C86 anniversary and they enjoyed it so much they’ve stayed together and if anything only got better. John Peel obviously rated them too, and last year they released “Hands in the Till – The complete John Peel sessions”, via A Turntable Friend Records not to mention a solo single by David called “Strange Lovers” (Slumberland Records).
Comedian’s comedian Stewart Lee is such a fan (the Wolfhounds “The Anti Midas Touch” is infamously his favourite tune) that he’s written the liner notes on brand new album (the third of their Indian Summer/second coming) which has the high voltage title “Electric Music” and is every bit as good as high watermarks “Unseen Ripples From A Pebble” (from the first time around) and the on the nose “Untied Kingdom (…Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture)” one of the best albums of 2017 (and of recent memory if truth be told).
David’s been a regular visitor on VS (only The Nightingales and members of The Fall have appeared more), and he’s previously chosen a couple of crackers by Bobby Darin and The Unthanks as well as the likes of This Is The Kit and Girlband, and he always gives great prose, unsurprisingly for such a sharp lyricist, so I was excited to get his latest entry to our long running “song for ewe” series. And it includes a timely tribute to a musical maestro that we sadly lost this week.
It’s an honour to welcome back to these pages the most excellent and erudite David Lance Callahan.
First, check out album opener “Can’t See The Light” from “Electric Music” (A Turntable Friends Records) in a mesmerising video directed by David Janes…
Age hasn’t wearied The Wolfhounds, they are rocket fuelled by indignant fury and their social commentaries have more teeth than a doberman with an overbite. “Electric Music” can veer from Sonic Youth-esque squall on “Like Driftwood” to an unshakeable earworm hook / raga that recalls “Mundian To Bach Ke” on “Song of the Afghan Shopkeeper”, but vocally it’s always unmistakably Romford’s prodigal and prodigious son Callahan. Except of course where guest vocalist Katherine Mountain Whitaker (Evans The Death) comes back to the fold as a brilliant counterpoint for three tracks this time after a successful outing on track “Lucky Heather” last time out.
Produced by Collapsed Lung’s Ant Chapman, the album also interestingly features Rhodri Marsden of Scritti Politti playing the bassoon. Not something you’ll see in every indie press release that’s for sure.
It’s mood music, if that music is the anger at the bleakness of Brexit, Covid and whatever disaster beginning with D (as these are obviously alphabetical horsemen of the apocalypse) is yet to befall us. “The Roaches” is basically “Threads” for the 21st century and I can feel the fearful warm urine running down my leg, but that’s the a good sign of music that moves me.
It’s hearty, arresting stuff, as striking as the lurid pictogram adopted as its cover.
The idea of a this feature is to garner a snapshot in time of our heroes’ listening habits, and this one also caught Callahan at a significant, if unfortunate moment for musical history – a week where we lost a legend, and forget the sheep puns, this one has wilfully led down a rabbit hole of discovery. So without further ado, here’s David Lance Callahan’s latest (and greatest) “song for ewe”…
“It’s an unfortunate – though entirely natural – modern consequence of many of the great musical innovations having happened post-war that a lot of people’s online postings are RIP messages about the death of an ailing originator. So it was for me, when remarkable soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone died on 6 July. One of the first LPs I ever owned as a child was the budget RCA Camden version of a compilation of two of his soundtracks, with “A Fistful of Dollars” on one side and “For a Few Dollars More” on the other – it’s still a worthy entry-level purchase for anyone wishing to dive into Morricone’s peerless and bottomless work. A massive influence on my music which, naturally, sounds nothing like it.
At the end of Side One was a memorably twangy and whistled version of the title music, which caused me to labour for decades under the misapprehension that “Titoli” was an actual song title; in fairness, it is literally called that on the record rather than, say, “End Titles”, but a quick look in an English-Italian dictionary might have saved me the embarrassment of thinking that Titoli was a nostalgically remembered place or person until recently. I mean, it kinda could have been Ennio’s pet cockatiel … Anyway, I posted this fine, well-known tune on my Facebook page by way of tribute.
Soon enough, an old mate posted an older version of the piece. It turned out that “Titoli” had been repurposed for the movie from a cover of Woody Guthrie’s folk song “Pastures of Plenty”, which is said to evoke John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” (which I admit I’ve never read) and certainly describes the travels and travails of American migrant workers economically, poetically and sympathetically. Morricone’s earlier arrangement is very similar to “Titoli”, the whistler being replaced by a thrillingly robust “Rawhide”-style vocal from Peter Tevis.
This morsel of knowledge sent me down the proverbial YouTube rabbit hole chasing different versions, which were plentiful: Guthrie’s thin, monophonic original, a plain-speaking Odetta, Bob Dylan’s self-conscious, prolonged party tape rendition, a raw, sepia live version by Karen Dalton, a bouncier, archival Tracy Newman in faux situ (with the same guitar inflections as Morricone’s) … and my choice for ‘Song for Ewe’ – the best for me – rendered by the pained, vulnerable, cracked voice of folk-blues Lifetime Achiever, sci-fi critic, Stonewall rioter and precognitive “Talking Cancer Blues” singer Dave van Ronk, who lends the alliterative and cinematic lyrics a personal depth.
I’ve gone back to this version daily since, always moved by the late van Ronk’s simple picking of an open tuning and his hickory-aged but ageless, sensitive holler. A key player in the Greenwich folk scene of the early 1960s, van Ronk is undervalued these days and rarely discussed – probably because he remained true to his eclectic choice of genres, generally without seizing upon psychedelia or electricity to bend them out of shape (no Judas, he!). I’ve now dug out my dusty (previously mostly unlistened-to) secondhand version of “Inside Dave van Ronk” (a record the same age as myself), and if anyone has a used copy of “The Mayor of MacDougal Street”, you know who to contact …
Like many of the best lyrics, “Pastures of Plenty” stands alone as no-nonsense poetry and could be adapted to address migrant Eastern European fruit-pickers with a few irreverent changes. The words are plainly logical and evocative, tracking the journey of crops from field and vine to table wine, never allowing us to forget the human cost of getting food on our plates, never glamorising the hardship but respecting the toil and tough life of the workers. They can only be quoted in full for the proper effect:
It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed
My poor feet have travelled a hot dusty road
Out of your Dust Bowl and Westward we rolled
And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold
I worked in your orchards of peaches and prunes
I slept on the ground in the light of the moon
On the edge of the city you’ll see us and then
We come with the dust and we go with the wind
California, Arizona, I harvest your crops
Then its North up to Oregon to gather your hops
Dig the beets from your ground, cut the grapes from your vine
To set on your table your light sparkling wine Green pastures of plenty from dry desert ground
From the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down
Every state in the Union us migrants have been
We’ll work in this fight and we’ll fight till we win
It’s always we rambled, that river and I
All along your green valley, I will work till I die
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be
Cause my pastures of plenty must always be free”
“Electric Music” is out now on A Turntable Friends Records and you can get it from all the normal places, but why not use Bandcamp (link below)…
Here’s David’s “song for ewe” from 2019…
…and a Wolfhounds Lucky 7 from 2017…