“SONG FOR EWE”
with DAVID LANCE CALLAHAN
“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 friend of VS, the erudite, cultured singer-songwriter, journalist, keen twitcher and band leader of The Wolfhounds, a band whose C86 era “Anti Midas Touch” tune is the comedian’s comedian Stewart Lee’s fav song (and whose riff has clearly been lifted by Nirvana on “Smells Like Teen Spirit”), and whose recent album “Untied Kingdom (…Or How To Come To Terms With Your Culture)” was a politically and socially timely classic.
David was also of course in Moonshake and is from Essex, an exotic land upon which I stared from the window of a house in my native Gravesend (not far from Dartford where you can dart around for 1.60 or at least could in the 80s). He’s a punk, he’s a poet, he has a popular touch, and a fire of DIY culture burns brightly within, not least on new solo material as David Lance Callahan on Slumberland Records. He’s about to support reformed cult NYC No-Wave act UT (who have also recently been our guests), and that’s a killer line-up! He’s also written a delightfully composed, well thought “song for ewe” with impeccable research and taste. It’s always a pleasure to welcome on these pages, one of my all-time indie heroes, David Callahan!
Here’s “Strange Lovers” by David Lance Callahan…
David’s been gigging the UK (and France and Norway) for the last three years in addition to his return to form with the reformed Wolfhounds and he’s been carefully crafting a solo album which is due very soon. If “Strange Lovers” is anything to go by, it’s going to be sparkling.
Here’s an action pic, artfully shot through glass, perhaps a metaphor for the reflective material being sung therein!
Without further ado, here is David’s considered “song for ewe”…
“It’s often slightly galling when you think you’re writing something original to realise that people decades earlier have already covered similar ground. That feeling is somewhat self-serving, and its’ actually a pleasant revelation to further realise that – whether you’re aware of your writing’s antecedents or not – it is really adding to a very long tradition.
One of the strands of my recent writing – mostly unrecorded, as yet – has been adapting unusual, pyrrhic or against-all-odds stories into lyrics, and I’ve been very pleased with the results so far, to the extent that I’ve been introducing the new songs rapid-fire into my solo live set and that of The Wolfhounds. Despite the research and reading this method of songwriting can involve, I’ve found it less of an academic pursuit and more of a way of plunging into a deeper well of layered emotions. Folk music, of course, is a bottomless resource of such ‘story’ songs.
One great example is the song ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’, which has lyrics adapted by a little-known Birkenhead folk singer called Frank Higgins in 1969 from the genuine plaint of a 17-year-old girl who worked in the Yorkshire coal mines. Patience Kershaw had already worked there for six years when she was interviewed in May 1842 for a published Parliamentary Report inquiry into conditions in the coalfields by the Children’s Employment Commission, which is the source from which Higgins adapted his nuanced and perfectly pitched lyrics. Patience was a ‘hurrier’ – a child employed by colliers to transport freshly hewn coal up cramped tunnels in small trucks called ‘corfs’. The tunnels were sometimes no more than 16 inches in height, meaning only children on their hands and knees could push the corves.
Most Victorians burning the coal cared or knew as little of how it had got to their fireplace as people now care or know about how the minerals in their mobiles or the aluminium in their coke cans got there. The song’s details about the privation of a hurrier’s life is enhanced by the matter-of-fact humbleness of the interviewee’s tone in the song, as she outlines the physical and psychological costs of her exploitative lot, covered in cuts and callouses and bearing a bald patch, as well as the humiliation of working with an almost all-male and all-naked workforce.
“The sights, the smells, the sounds, kind Sir, not even God could sense my shame / I say my prayers, but what’s the use? Tomorrow will be just the same” are the words she wryly utters in the song. It is sung with characteristically colloquial tenderness by Rachel Unthank on The Unthanks flawless 2009 LP, Here’s The Tender Coming, as a near-solo showcase. The Unthanks’ arrangement is a far less traditional and richer affair, with its string quartet and very occasional splashes of harmonies, than Gary and Vera Aspey’s 1974 more standard acoustic guitar recording of the song, but this has the counter-intuitive effect of making the song even more directly relatable on a human level. The gradually evolving string arrangement also adds metaphorical dropped heartbeats and snatched breaths as the banal horror of Patience’s existence and its grim tenacity is revealed. YouTube’s lossy formatting isn’t the best way to hear this subtle arrangement – so I suggest you seek out the CD – but here it is online:
For background, here is the original 19th-century testimony from the report: “My father has been dead about a year; my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to mill; all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers; one lives at home and does nothing; mother does nought but look after home.”
“All my sisters have been hurriers, but three went to the mill. Alice went because her legs swelled from hurrying in cold water when she was hot. I never went to day-school; I go to Sunday-school, but I cannot read or write; I go to pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more underground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men; all the men are naked; I would rather work in mill than in coal-pit.”
“This girl is an ignorant, filthy, ragged, and deplorable-looking object, and such a one as the uncivilized natives of the prairies would be shocked to look upon,” wrote the authors of the report.”
THANKS DAVID, BRILLIANT STUFF!
Catch David Lance Callahan playing with UT in April (see flyer)
David also plays on 22 June: The Green Door Store, Brighton.
And here’s the Wolfhounds Lucky 7 circa “Untied Kingdom” – another great read…!