To the gentleman writing under the alias of UNCLEBEN.
DEAR SIR, – Notwithstanding my ordinary toleration of popular musical entertainment, I am writing to express my gravest concerns at the reports of a performance you intend to arrange at a local song hostelry. If it be true that you desire to have singers and players perform ballads, with the purport of reducing to scraps of musick the lives of famous men, this would be a gross travesty of the art of biographical literature. I am told also that pamphlets have been distributed in the taverns of Lambeth, bearing a facsimile of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of me and soliciting contributions to these revelries. I entreat you, Sir, to desist from these foolish endeavours and slanderous deceptions, else I shall give instructions to my lawyers. Yours, &c.
September 20, 1791. JAMES BOSWELL.
Dear Mr Boswell,
Don’t you see? That’s the genius of it! Distilling salient features of other people’s lives – or memories from one’s own – into a concise, precisely crafted piece of popular music. It’s an art form in its own right! If you don’t believe me, make your way on Saturday evening to the Vauxhall Gardens, where I’ll arrange for some musicians to provide a taste of what we have in store. You can pick out your own favourites!
MY DEAR SIR, – I am astonished and intoxicated. I have always considered Vauxhall Gardens peculiarly adapted to the taste of the English nation, there being a mixture of curious show, – gay exhibition, musick, vocal and instrumental, not too refined for the general ear; – for all of which only a shilling is paid. The performances of your travelling players and the fecundity of their musical and lyrical imagination have nevertheless opened a gateway in my mind. I append a list, which I propose to name the “Alpha”, and wherein I have inscribed the names of the songs recommended for your fellow revellers’ enjoyments.
The virtues of the first entry are such that I have nailed it to the Alpha list. A band of capricious ruffians, possessing the sobriquet of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, regaled me with the Ballad of the Sulphate Strangler. It is a boisterous tale of their former personal watchguard, who – in Mr Dury's words – wore a thousand earrings and a diamond on his tooth, and whose multi-hued proboscis betrayed a stormy youth. Ha, ha, ha!
I also heartily commend a company distinguished by the title of The Mountain Goats. The charms of The Legend of Chavo Guerrero have, like a worm, insinuated themselves into my ears. Mr. Guerrero is a pugilist of sorts, though also, I have inferred, a device permitting the narrator to explore his unhappy relationship with his father, thereby weaving together, with exemplary dexterity and vivacity, strands both biographical and autobiographical.
I do sincerely hope that the Alpha list may include animals among its biographical subjects. For it may then admit a troubadour by the name of Russell Morris, and his Big Red, the charming story of a racehorse who carries the dreams of a nation. This song will also be of interest to Johnson, whose Dictionary defines “Oats” as “A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”.
My heart also warmed greatly to The Temptations and to the singers’ reverential affection for their Ma, born in a log cabin in our former American colonies, raising sixteen children, instructing them in the scriptures, and bequeathing to them abundant musical talents. I know not what label to append to this music, but it is suffused with a strong benevolence of soul.
Next there appeared a gentleman, Tyla J. Pallas, Esq., singing an Ode to Jackie Leven. It is a sorry but majestick tale, of fame and misfortune, addiction and heartbreak, which reaches its brimming heights in an affecting finale of violoncellos. Johnson told me that he might have played on the violoncello; but that a man would never undertake great things, could he be amused with small. O Lord! that gentleman can be pompous.
Johnson once remarked that The Beggar’s Opera was not pernicious in its effect, as no man was ever made a rogue by being present at its representation, and we may surely say the same of The Fall. Kurious Oranj is a sprawling, rough-hewn composition, sung predominantly on one musical note by a sprawling, rough-hewn character, who turned his back on me for the duration of his performance. Mr. Smith’s biographical history of the Orangists contains, it must be acknowledged, as little authenticity as some of the definitions in Johnson’s Dictionary. These scruples aside, this visceral work excited my heart profoundly.
It at first presented a mystery to me that the musical poet Linton Kwesi Johnson could maintain that Inglan Is A Bitch. Having heard, however, the story of his travails in London town, one cannot escape the harsh veracity of his description. The accompaniment to his verses, besides, embodies a propulsive rhythm of Protean patterns that utterly shook my sinews.
Oh Lord! I foresake utterly the disgraceful opinions that I have hitherto expressed on the matter of slavery and am now fleeing to the side of Mr. Wilberforce. My sensibilities could not be but violently disturbed by the story of Emmanuel Jal’s life as a Warchild, fighting as a child soldier, losing his mother and father in battle, but believing himself to have survived in order to tell his tale to others.
It has been explained to me that Mr Sufjan Stevens is a writer of frequent autobiographical inclination. Whilst I had to reach out and grasp at the biographical fragments of Should Have Known Better like leaves in the wind, and whilst I know not the exact nature of a “video store”, I was deeply moved by this performance. “The past is the past, the bridge to nowhere.” I detected similar notes of melancholy in the balladry of Jason Isbell. His Children of Children exhibits great kindness of heart to his mother and all the years he took from her by being born; and its concluding sections contain a sweeping wordless landscape in which I found myself wandering in search of my own youth.
I am indebted to you, Sir, for affording me this opportunity. Will you also convey my gratitude to all those patrons of the arts, with whom you consort in your song tavern, for their recommendations.
I am, Sir, your most obliged servant,
October 4, 1791. JAMES BOSWELL.
Dear Mr Boswell,
I am most impressed by your burgeoning tastes in music! Please permit me to complete the list with songs in memory of three truly great musicians who have died in the last month: Walter Becker, Charles Bradley and Tom Petty. I think you will find them to be eminently fitting ways of completing our mutual tome. Steely Dan lead off with My Old School, a semi-autobiographical tale of a student drug bust. Charles Bradley follows with Why Is It So Hard, a deeply heartfelt account of the hardships of a black man trying to make his way in America. And we finish with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, heading off Into the Great Wide Open.
The (auto)biographical A-list Playlist:
Ian Dury & the Blockheads – Ballad of the Sulphate Strangler
The Mountain Goats – The Legend of Chavo Guerrero
Russell Morris – Big Red
The Temptations – Ma
Tyla J. Pallas – Ode to Jackie Leven
The Fall – Kurious Oranj
Linton Kwesi Johnson – Inglan Is a Bitch
Emmanuel Jal – Warchild
Sufjan Stevens – Should Have Known Better
Jason Isbell – Children of Children
Steely Dan – My Old School
Charles Bradley – Why Is It So Hard
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Into the Great Wide Open
The more loosely biographical B-list Playlist:
Nick Lowe – Marie Provost
Laura Cantrell – Queen of the Coast
Lightnin’ Rod – Sport
Grace Jones – Williams Blood
Billy Childish & the Blackhands – Louis Riel
Boston – Rock ’n’ Roll Band
Eric Burdon & the Animals – The Story of Bo Diddley
France Gall – Sacré Charlemagne
Ani di Franco & Utah Phillips – The Most Dangerous Woman
Eliza Gilkyson – Beauty Way
Sage Francis – The Best of Times
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – West Country Girl
Peter Hammill – Primo on the Parapet
Guru’s wildcard pick:
A few of us were hunting high and low last week for the perfect biographical reggae song. I’ve still not found what I’m looking for. But nothing wrong with this mid-80s selection from the Saxon soundsystem in Lewisham, South East London. Irie. Papa Levi – Bonnie and Clyde:
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Born this way … biographical and autobiographical songs. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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Fancy a turn behind the pumps at The Song Bar? Care to choose a playlist from songs nominated and write something about it? Then feel free to contact The Song Bar here, or try the usual email address.