Thank you for your interest in my music.
These are notes to accompany the cd, St Peter and John Dillinger.
The album itself is an upgrade of the collection entitled Don’t Act Stupid and Stop Acting Clever released in December 2003. There are eight additional trax on this new cd, plus all the tracks have been remastered – one of the original trax has been rerecorded totally, and another has been altered substantially.
The accompanying notes are offered in this fashion as a signed letter to keep the production costs down, as well as to personalise your purchase. It is my intention that these notes will be available on the webpage so that you can run them off if the letter gets lost.
St Peter and John Dillinger
When I was about nine, I had a very colourful afterlife planned. My family were Quakers and I used to sit in the Quaker Meeting House on Sundays reading Matthew 6 and strongly suspecting that I was the chaff that will be winnowed out from the wheat to burn in the everlasting fires of hell for my grievous sins - swearing under my breath and regularly forgetting my pencil case.
As I got older, I realised that God has more exquisite tortures in mind for most of us. Handsome Harry, James Carlos Blake’s recent novel about the Dillinger/Pierpont gang made me focus on the afterlife and I wrote this song.
Points of information for anybody not too familiar with some aspects of the USA. A Hoosier is a person from the state of Indiana – as were Harry Pierpont and John Dillinger. During his year of freedom, Dillinger robbed a lot of banks. One day he took a stolen car over a state line, and thus rendered himself liable to pursuit by the FBI. The FBI was led at this time by John Edgar Hoover, rumoured to be a homosexual cross dresser. This song is not however an attack on homosexual cross dressers – what ever floats your boat......
George Joseph Smith
A mad song about the maddest criminal ever to appear before an English court. Wordsworth wrote Daffodils, Coleridge wrote The Ancient Mariner, Joyce wrote Ulysses and I wrote this song. Easily my most memorable and most requested song. Artists ranging from Punk bands to my hero the folksinger Derek Brimstone have had a shot at singing this, John Mortimer selected it to appear in The Oxford Book of Villains – but it remains doggedly my own creation.
During 2004, I bought a Line 6 guitar and tried to record a sampler of my work. There were two decent trax from the whole morning session. This is my favourite recording of a song that has been stubbornly difficult to capture on tape.
There is nothing remotely funny about GJS’s crimes. But that a fellow member of our species could choose to think that he had hit upon a good wheeze in this manner, should give us all pause for thought.
Once, as a supply teacher, I was asked to teach Anthony Thwaite’s Haiku Cycle about the rhythm of the year’s passing.. I did my best. But I’m not convinced haiku is all about counting syllables. It seems to me, more to do with holding in our hands a few drops of reality in the face of life’s deluge – rather as Henry Moore said, that the act of selecting the pebble from the beach was a work of art.
One day I was playing the guitar and through the window I could see it start snowing. This gave me the first line. I thought it seemed like a line from one of Ezra Pound’s haikus and decided to run with it as best I could.
Down and Out Blues
When I was fifteen I transferred from my Grammar School to a Quaker boarding school. Many of the kids there came from more wealthy families than my own. They owned beautiful acoustic guitars – Harmony Sovereigns and Levins – and they were all greatly into Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and folk music. This song was taught me by a fellow pupil called Jon Arden Jones, who works as a busy doctor in Nottingham nowadays – and he is still a fine guitarist.
This is the other track I liked from the session with a Line 6 Variax guitar. Nobody is too sure about the authorship of this very old song, once sung by Bessie Smith.
The fall of communism – these great cataclysmic events touch us all. The tale of my infatuation with Trish is hereby chronicled.
Howard Coleman, of Loughborough Acoustic Club once said to me, God I’d love to see a photograph of that girl Trish you sing about!
I said, Yeh, I wouldn’t mind! So if Trish Spencer is out there somewhere, ask her to send a photograph – for me and Howard!
This version features Mick Bedford’s drumming. I loved the sheer madness of Willy Jackson’s drumming on the first version, but after a while I understood how it might be difficult to live with.
Grammar School Puppy Dog
In Boston, Lincs where I grew up, we had the eleven plus exam in my day. This meant all your childhood you beavered away – homework every night, and if you were lucky, you got selected to go to the Grammar School. The top 18%. This of course was a gross insult to the 82% who weren’t considered fit for a grammar school education, and they called you a Grammar School Puppy Dog.
The Grammar School itself was a dire place – a sort of 1930’s theme park. There were fine teachers, but all your life was under the threat of violence and it was upsetting. Luckily I never received one of the visceral life changing beatings that were on offer.
Mick Bedford’s drumming is quite exceptional here. Absolutely excellent. The song was written in response to a Write a Lincolnshire Folksong Competition organised by BBC Radio Lincolnshire. I was voted best act, by the musicians union. chap on the panel of judges.
The Big Red Sausage
Now this was also a competition entry. Andy Dwyer and I drove up to the Whitby Folk Festival one day in the 1970’s – my song was entered for the Mattesons Sausage Company Songwriting Competition. You had to write a song about sausages and the first prize was to appear onstage with The Watersons.
When we got there the place was full of eejits in fisherman’s smocks singing in a very arch manner, oh sausages put lead in your pencil, by gum they do not half. One of the most ghastly experiences imaginable – I’ve certainly never bothered going up to the Whitby festival since.
I sung my song, and Andy said, lets get the hell out of here before they kill us. And so we did. Anyway I drove back home a bit depressed, but not long after Bill Caddick and Barrie Roberts published the Big Red Sausage in their Songsmith magazine, and it has certainly become a very popular part of my repertoire.
The Owl Song
The great Irish music scare of the 1990’s, when there was an Irish theme pub on every street corner seemed to offer the possibility of earning a living from playing the acoustic guitar; the skill to which I had devoted my adult life. My family had many Irish connections and of course hanging round the folk scene for thirty years or so I knew a lot of Irish songs.
However many of the audiences didn’t know any Irish songs, and they weren’t Irish and I certainly wasn’t, so after a while the situation lost its allure. Here’s a song about an owl who made me face reality on the subject.
I love it when you sing the blues
In 2004 I went to a Kevin Brown seminar on playing slide guitar and (quite unrelatedly) I saw Ralph McTell play a couple of times and I bought his album, National Treasure – all about his National guitar, and put it all together and this song came out. And I do love it when you sing the blues Ralph....!
The Telephone Song
About 1977 I won a singing competition to play at Wembley Country Music Festival – alongside Merle Haggard, Vernon Oxford, Freddy Hart and Don Everly.
Ken Dudeney asked me, as a local celebrity to come on his country music radio programme – and bring my favourite country records. Here was a problem – I didn’t have any such records. That day I went out and bought a Moe Bandy record and Joe Ely’s first album, so I had something to play on the radio. Moe, cos I heard him mentioned. Joe, purely on the drawing on the cover. Well they were great albums and I’ve loved country music ever since, and here’s me trying to write it.
The down side of all this being a famous person on the radio was that I got gigs all over the country singing to real country music fans – who wanted somebody up there on stage who knew all eighty six verses of Big Iron on His Hip; knew the tune of Okie from Muskogee, and Up Against the Wall you Redneck Mother AND Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.
To quote Ry Cooder “ How can a man see such hard times and live?” Frequently I didn’t!
If You Love Somebody
Hello! Hello out there! This is a fair example of me playing the guitar. Hope you like it.
Well Done Liz!
What can I say? There I was, I had an identity crisis. I was commuting out of Manchester going there every weekend to do gigs at the Irish pubs, singing Irish songs. I had taken the words of a chance remark by Christy Moore seriously, and rather than turn my back on my roots – I had become a shillelagh carrying Irishman. I even read the Irish Post.
The Her Majesty’s Jubilee came to the rescue and I rediscovered my English persona. How proud we all were to feel ourselves Englishmen in that bright dawn.
Box of Music
What is it about the guitar that has captured so much of my generation’s idealism and imagination – almost like the True Cross to an earlier generation.
It offers self expression in a world that defines us as social beings. As the song says , ‘theres a small place inside, that’s always your own, cos YOU choose it.....’
There is a Land called America
I was watching Fox or CNN – one of the American channels around the time of the Bush/Kerry face off. There was a lot of footage and interviews about the troops in Iraq. I saw they were youthful , idealistic, self sacrificing and very fine young people. About the same time I went to Acoustic Avalon – every single guitar act slagged off Bush for the war. Several of the acts were American.
I went home and wrote this song. A short while after The Pentagon got to hear the song and put it on their website – americasupportsyou. Before long I was getting wonderful letters from young men and women in the services who had downloaded it – some in doubt about their situation, but all grateful because someone was recognising the merit of their intentions.
Here I am once again revisiting my childhood, which was spent in the market town of Boston in Lincolnshire. We were a lucky generation – the first that century not to be called up to fight a war.
By modern standards the amenities in 1950’s Boston were pretty poor. But we had free education and health care. We had a library, a roller skating ring, ballroom dancing classes for if you were a cissy….. and of course an outdoor swimming pool.
Winding Boy/Pretty Baby
Two songs written by musicians working in the brothels of New Orleans. I learned them as a kid of sixteen or so from versions by Ian Buchanan and George Melly I never really thought of them as political songs.
Then one night last year, I was looking for a folk club situated near the red light district of Sheffield. The locals in a fit of high spirits had ripped down all the street signs. Reluctantly I rolled down my window and asked one of the working girls if they knew where the hell I was, and where was the pub I was looking for. This pinched little 15 year old face, with heroin glazed eyes, bobbed down and said, ….want some business mate?
Of course it’s all there in these songs written by: Jelly Roll Morton, who got his diamond front tooth yanked out of his head and stolen as he lay dying: and Tony Jackson; black, gay, epileptic and reputedly paid $45 for his song that made millions.
Tribute to Dink
One of the books everybody had in the 1960’s was Alan Lomax’s The Penguin Book of American Folksongs. Such was the popularity of folk music at the time, that it was almost omnipresent in student’s lodgings. As I remember Dink’s Song was towards the back of the book.
Before long I had learned a version of the this song, collected in 1908 by Alan Lomax’s father from a lady doing laundry and living in a tent by the side of Brazos River in rural Texas. I got my version from Mike Cooper who was resident at Shades Coffee House folk club in Reading – round about 1965. I used to feel sorry for Mike. He had a metal guitar, and I figured he had perhaps made it himself from Meccanno - or at best metal work class. Of course it was a National Steel guitar and I was a dumb kid of 16, who knew absolutely nothing.
Anyway I played the song for forty years or so and I had decided to put it on this album. However, feeling I needed to say something of the song’s origins, I decided to look up John Lomax’s original comments about his discovery of the song. These I found easily on the net. Reading about the utter wretchedness of the working life of the creator of Dink’s Song, the words for this song came to me very easily.
Nowadays Mike Cooper is a top lensman at Folk Roots.
This is a song I wrote, recalling a conversation nearly 20 years previously with Paul Downes – the great singer and guitarist from Devon. He had a musical partner called Phil Beer, whose parents didn’t think much of his career choice.
The Apartment Song by Roger Brooks
This is my completely unworthy tribute to West Bridgford’s finest…… the talented and quite irresistible Roger Brooks.
Roger skipped into my life one night in the mid 1970’s at Nuneaton Folk Club, where he was doing a floor spot. He was wearing a top hat, muffler and leather jacket….looking like some louche but devastatingly beautiful character from Dickens. He’d only recently returned from New York, and his talk that night was all of that city…but then he was always on his way to and from some exotic location.
His guitar playing however was the business – bristling with bold inventive chord inversions; his fingers snapping, sliding and syncopating around the fingerboard. The guitarists in the audience stirred uneasily. There were and are no instruction books telling you how to be original.
And the songs…. they spoke of a life not lived at a superficial level, but rather at an altitude of emotional and perceptive intensity, that few of us could commit to. And yet Roger did. Flamboyantly, willingly and joyously. The titles say it all: In the diamond rain, Street Riot, Wild bird flying through a cold black night. They are like flowers gathered from the very top of the mountain.
The Apartment Song is one of my favourites and it doesn’t take too much guitar playing –at least the way I do it!
Miss you Roger, see you in the morning
This concludes the album notes, I hope they have aided your understanding of my songwriting.
All the best and thank you for your interest and support
Big Al Whittle