Rab Noakes: It all joins up in the end

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Photograph by Carole Peacock

Blabber’n’Smoke recently reviewed Rab Noakes‘ latest album, Welcome to Anniversaryville, an album which celebrates his 50 years as a performer and which was recorded with the band he assembled for his 70/500 concert at last year’s Celtic Connections. It’s a wonderful disc featuring old and new songs, originals and interpretations with many of them having some connection with landmark events in Noakes’ life while stylistically it roams around with folk and rock rubbing shoulders while there are Gaelic deliveries of traditional songs and a dash of old time tin pan alley songs.

In the midst of preparing for the official launch of the album in Lochgelly in his native Fife on the 29th August, a show which will see the concert band reconvene for the first time, Mr. Noakes was kind enough to take some time out to  speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. It was a fascinating conversation as he spoke about his career and about the new album,  displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk music along with a fierce and proud sense of his working class heritage. Now well after treatment for tonsillar cancer he can look back on a career which, while never achieving chart success, nevertheless saw him at the forefront of Scottish folk music along with the likes of Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly back in the late sixties and early seventies while recording albums in Nashville and having several of his songs covered by Lindisfarne when they were hitting the charts. With around 20 albums to his name he also carved out a second career as a highly successful radio producer working with the BBC before going independent.

We started off by asking him about the album which, as its title indicates, celebrates a host of anniversaries but often in unexpected ways.

Well, it did start off with the concert I did for Celtic Connections which we called 70/50 as I was turning 70 and had been performing for 50 years. The album is a reflection of that but I don’t really like to look back in an indulgent way, I prefer to embrace the past and use it, it’s an information source but I always want to do things in the here and now. The 70/50 title just came to me, I didn’t plan it but it seemed like a good idea although of course it’s branding in its most crass sense but there you go. On the album I tried to create a narrative of sorts which made some sort of sense. I’m old enough to remember that when you made an album that you sequenced two sets of songs, about 20 minutes for each side of the album but nowadays with CDs you’re looking at maybe putting together an hour’s worth of songs and I like to think that if you want people to invest in the album and stay interested for a whole hour then it’s worthwhile spending time on the sequencing and not treating it as just a bunch of unrelated tracks. So it was a case of using what I call “landmark songs,” I never had any hits so I can’t do a greatest hits album but I can celebrate songs which have some significance to me. The inclusion of a song such as Gently Does It (written in 1985 and available on the 2004 album Standing Up) is a fine example as one of the musicians in the band, Lisbee Stainton, was someone I met back in 2014 when I did the Red Pump Special show at Celtic Connections. I was invited to do a Radio 2 show and she was there playing banjo for Seth Lakeman banjo and I quite liked her playing and thought we could do some things together. Anyway she really liked Gently Does It although she had no connection with the song or its history, she didn’t know anything about Alex Campbell for instance, but it was interesting to me as a songwriter that it could resonate with her despite her not having any specific reference point for the song. Later on Lisbee was on a Bob Harris show and was asked to pick some favourite albums and she chose an album of mine, Standing Up, so when I got the opportunity to put the band together for the show she was one of the musicians I asked along.

I was going to ask you about the band. How did you decide on whom to invite?

Once Donald Shaw gave the go ahead for the show and we agreed on a budget I was able to select the band. I consider Celtic Connections  as a patron of the arts because for an artist like me having the wherewithal to hire a large group of musicians doesn’t really happen often. I wouldn’t be able to manage that financially so when Celtic Connections gave me the go ahead it was an opportunity to put a big band together. Initially I asked people I’d worked with before such as Jill Jackson, Kathleen MacInnes, Una McGlone and Stuart Brown to join in. I’d been watching Innes Watson for some time after playing with him in the Grit Orchestra and I really wanted another female singer so I asked Lisbee who of course could also bring in her banjo along with her really interesting eight string guitar playing. Christine Hanson kind of invited herself as she was at Celtic Connections anyway and asked if she contribute and of course I jumped at that and her cello turned out to be a really nice addition to the line up. It’s a bigger band than usual but it’s not a massive or flashy sound and it worked well on stage and then in the studio an attempt to get a full band sound without me layering vocals and guitars to flesh it out and I think that we captured that. Anyone who makes records will know how elusive it can be to get that specific sound and feel that you want that but I think that we managed it. Getting a bunch of people into a room to make music together is great and although I don’t want to evangelise and say that’s the only way to make a record it’s the way I like to do it. We were squeezed into a front room with me singing live and that’s the core of the record. There were a few songs where I did do the vocal afterwards but doing it this way it gets into the groove so to say.

You recorded the majority of the album in the week after the concert.

Yes, of the 17 songs I think about 14 were almost completed in that time. There were a few I hadn’t quite got the lyrics done so I had to revisit them but although the album has taken some time to come out most of it was recorded back then. 

There’s an excellent loose limbed raggle taggle feel to many of the songs which to my mind recalls the likes of Ronnie Lane and his Slim Chance band but on Still in Town, an old Hank Cochran /Harlan Howard song you veer into a classic country rock sound from the mid sixties.

It’s interesting you mention Ronnie Lane as I opened for him many times back in the seventies and I think we plough a similar furrow at times, old timey blues and such although as I recall his starting point was Fats Waller. Still in Town however ties in with the thread in the album which pertains to me back in the sixties when I started out playing professionally with Robin McKidd. Robin was slightly older than me and really well informed and he introduced me to what you could possibly describe as the bohemian life in Dundee in the early sixties. He was a banjo player and we formed a duo and although there were a lot of those around then I always thought we were slightly different because of Robin’s knowledge. He had the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk music and he could do all those Clarence Ashley/Doc Boggs’ like things which added some depth to the music. When we went to London we stayed with a chap called Sandy James who was a big Johnny Cash fan. I was aware of Cash but I had no idea of just how wide and deep his repertoire was. Sandy had all of the themed albums which Cash had recorded about Native Americans, the old west and the working man but there was one  album in particular called Old Golden Throat which had Still on Town on it and it really resonated with me and I’ve carried that with me since then. I really like the song writing from Nashville around that time. People like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, The Bryant’s and Cindy Walker. It’s just such a concise way of writing, simple but very effective. Just look at a line such as “I made it to the edge of town and turned around.” It’s so simple but it opens up a whole world of imagery and possibilities.

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So you arrived in London in 1968 but presumably you were listening to and playing music for some time before that.

I have always been a singer even when I was a kid, I loved songs and singing and back then it was a combination of the Scottish home service which would play things like Robert Wilson singing A Gordon For Me along with songs like Westering Home and then on the light programme you started to get some American songs such as Allentown Jail by Jo Stafford which I really loved. And then rock’n’roll and Elvis happened although with Elvis it was his late fifties songs which grabbed me in particular, when folk like Lieber and Stoller were writing for him. I also loved Dion and Cliff Richard and The Shadows but when The Beatles and The Stones came along they were like gatekeepers for the likes of me. The Stones’ first album was full of songs by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Marvin Gaye so we got into that and I then read that John Lennon had said that folk should listen to Bob Dylan so I did. That that got me into going to folk clubs and crikey, it opened up this whole repertoire of Scottish songs which had been hidden from us. This was about 1964 and I was fortunate enough to see the likes of Jimmy McBeath and Jeannie Robertson who were still singing on the folk circuit back then, their songs were immensely interesting. And of course there was this other connection with Dylan who was singing Woody Guthrie songs such as The Grand Coulee Dam which we had heard from Lonnie Donegan so things all seemed to start to connect. Dylan has always retained that sort of interest for me because he refers to that European ballad tradition and he’s done so from his first album with Pretty Peggy O, which is essentially the Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, up to the present day.

There are a couple of fine examples of that ballad tradition on the album along with some elements of that cross fertilisation across the Atlantic which you just talked about. I’m thinking in particular of Tramps and Immigrants along with The Twa Corbies/An Dà Fheannaig and Long Black Veil, the first two sung in Scots and the latter more in keeping with versions such as The Band’s.

Well again I’m very interested in Dylan’s use of British and Irish folk songs and melodies. I’ve done a couple of BBC shows looking into his songs which have an identifiable origin in these islands and I Pity The Poor Immigrant, from the John Wesley Harding album, had as its basis the Scots song Tramps and Hawkers. When I started working with Kathleen MacInnes we decided to put those two songs together although we went against expectations as I sing the Scottish part and Kathleen sings the Dylan part. It was a fine creative exercise which was really satisfying to put together and it’s great to perform. When we first met up though the Gaelic initiative, Ceòl’s Craic, I sent Kathleen a bunch of songs which I liked just to give her a sense of where I was coming from and one of them was the Everley’s Down in the Willow Garden and she really liked that one. I found that interesting because it’s a murder ballad of probably Irish origin which found its way to the Blue Ridge mountains so we decided to put murder ballads at the heart of the show we conceived and two of the songs we did are on the album. Long Black Veil might sound like a traditional song but it was written in the fifties. The Twa Corbies is a really interesting one because the theme turns up in lots of cultures although our version probably comes from the borders. It has an interesting narrative which has that cycle of life element in it with the two crows using the dead knight for food and his hair to feather their nest. Kathleen knew the Gaelic version and so we wove that in also and it worked really well.

Going back to the sixties folk scene there was a strong connection to left wing politics and protest songs were all the rage.On the album you sing about the working class on TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) and about immigrants working in a car wash in The Handwash Feein’ Mairket while Jackson Greyhound salutes the civil rights movement in the States. I know you’ve always been a strong advocate for the Trade Union movement and that you sit on the executive committee of the musicians union but I wanted to ask how important is it to you that music has an awareness of politics and do you have any comments on the current state of politics?

I grew up in a political house, my dad was a trade unionist and I’m a product of the practical socialism that came in after the war, the NHS and such, and I’ve never seen why that has had to be devalued to the extent that it is these days in order to preserve a rather ugly form of capitalism. I’m of an age now where I accept that capitalism isn’t going to be overturned and I understand that in situations where it was overturned as in the Soviet Union it had too many dark aspects to it. But I utterly fail to see why we should be in thrall to this rather ugly, avaricious, driven and divisive form of capitalism that we have now. I’m not party political but I am involved with the union movement and that’s where my political activities take place. There’s a way of gently influencing decisions here and there, not in a major way perhaps but I’m still trying to uphold a set of values to do with liberty and equality which are often rubbished and devalued these days. That angers me greatly. As for the state of the western world, and I’m sure I don’t have to name names here, if you pay attention to the news you should be tearing your hair out at the self serving nature of what is going on.

As I said my politics were engendered in the home when I was growing up but when I got into the folk scene in the sixties it was very political and it’s where many of us got to know about things like the civil rights movement while many of the older folk songs themselves were about the conditions of work, both agricultural and industrial, and that was a real education to me. Jackson Greyhound came about when I went back to Nashville in 2013 forty years after recording Red Pump Special there. We toured around several places associated with the civil rights movement and we visited this old bus station where many freedom riders were arrested. It’s a museum now and several words of the song were taken from the information sign outside the building. I’m not one to stand on a soapbox so it’s wrapped up in what I hope is an attractive musical style so there are references in the finger style guitar to Gary Davis and John Hurt so that it’s a bloody good record to listen to and not dependent on its message to have value. I’ve always thought that it’s far more valuable to fling in a strong apposite line rather than having a chorus driving a point home. TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) came about after a visit to the RCA studios in Nashville where Elvis recorded and I was reminded that Taking Care of Business was one of his catchphrases. The concept of the working man is seen as something heroic but I wanted to add working women to the title to be more inclusive. The song is about the concept of being working class. Nowadays class is seen very much as a matter of economics but for me it’s more a set of values. I grew up in a working class culture where the values were that you do your best, the aspirations are of expanding your knowledge and have some meaning to your life. In terms of money I’d be considered middle class these days but I’m not a middle class person because I still adhere to the values I grew up with and in a sense the song is trying to uphold that, a defiant message that I’m not going to be put in a box I don’t fit into while I also wanted to address that gender imbalance which is becoming more apparent these days.

As for The Handwash Feein’ Mairket it was actually a commission from Hands up for Trad who are doing some great work at bringing the song back into focus in the trad world as for a long time instrumental virtuosity has been at the forefront.  There was a brief to use Scots language and to reference Robert Burns which is a difficult thing to do without the song becoming a pastiche. Anyway I was a regular visitor at a local car wash and each time I went it was different men who were working there and one time I saw the gaffer picking out the ones who would be picked for the day which reminded me of the way people were picked for work back in what was called the feein’ mairket and it seemed to me to be a pretty exploitative way of handling workers. So that was the germ of the song and I when I wrote it I tried to use Scots language in the way that I use it everyday with words like thole and thrawn and others put in rather than set it in some archaic fashion.  I even was able to use a line I recalled from a Jimmy Mcbeath song, a bothy ballad, and I was quite proud to be able to slip that in.

You’ve talked earlier about connections and cycles and I thought it was interesting that the album artwork is by Celie Byrne who is the daughter of John Byrne who did album artwork for your buddies Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly.

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I knew Celie when she was a wee girl but I became aware of her work as an artist and also a musician through work she did with The Grand Gestures. Anyway, I was thinking about the artwork for the album and I saw a portrait she had done of Emma Pollock which was really striking. Celie lives in Fife and had an exhibition in Lochgelly at the time so we went through there to see her there and that was strange because I’d played a show there years ago with Billy Connolly for the miners and of course as you say her dad had painted covers for Billy and Gerry so it is a bit of a cycle.

So the album’s out and there is an official launch gig at the Lochgelly Arts Centre on the 29th August with the full band line up. Anything else in the offing?

I’ve got some new songs kicking about. I actually did a kickstarter for the end process of the album and that was an interesting process. I just needed that wee bit of money for the pressing of the album and we got the funds but I’ve decided to add a reward to the people who backed it and I’ll send them a download of six new songs. The launch show will have all of the band together apart from Jill Jackson who can’t manage to be there and it will be a one off as we can’t all get together easily. After that I’ll be back on the road doing some more shows with Jill and later in the year with my old pal from Lindisfarne, Rod Clements.

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