The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #88149 Message #1651304
Posted By: Big Al Whittle
18-Jan-06 - 09:27 PM
Thread Name: owl song by big al whittle
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
Joe Offer suggested that I put the link to the song and the essay on this thread to make it easier for people to access it. So here it is. Thanks for your nice comments Peace.
The Owl Song
Recently Phil Widdows did me the great honour of selecting this song to be one of the very first played on his new FolkCast radio style programme. Of course I was pleasantly surprised that he should choose one of my songs, but his choice of The Owl Song had me puzzled.
It is a song I have never performed in public – it is a private song. And not altogether successful – songs are basically verse, set to music – that is to say the thoughts expressed have to be linear, and tell a simple graphic story. The Owl Song on the other hand, is very definitely an attempt to write a poem about virtually everything that was going on in my head at a certain time. As such it full of conceits and
the thoughts leap around like fireworks, in the song in the best tradition of John Donne at his most obscure.
When I recorded The Owl Song, Willy Jackson who has recorded all my albums in the last nearly twenty years, said to me, My God Al! – that was an intense performance. Apparently some of this intensity communicates itself to the listener, and so I am writing this little essay to explain some of the references and from whence comes the intensity..
Ezra Pound once said, if he knew what a poem was about – there would have been no need to write it in the first place. Whilst I can sympathise with Pound, I personally feel the need to explain and justify what I write.
Very simply the song deals with my state of mind one night as I drove home after doing a gig in an Irish bar in Manchester. Probably my roadie Tony Martin was with me in actual fact, but for the purposes of the song the driver is alone in his car driving through the darkness – alone with his thoughts. Sometimes the radio is on, but sometimes it irritates him, and he switches it off and he sings to himself – and then before long his own thoughts and feelings irritate him and he switches the radio back on. And so on.
The road he is travelling is the A6, east out of Manchester and it goes through outer Manchester, then Stockport. By one o'clock a.m. there are only gangs of drunken kids spilling out of pubs and clubs and periodically jumping out in front of his car, trying to flag him down thinking he is a taxi. Beautiful urban foxes (plumper and more affluent than their stringy country cousins) are now fully alive and awake and strut disdainfully across the road on their tour of dustbins outside hotels and fast food places. Sometimes they turn and stare directly at him with cold arrogance – this is their time.
Then after Chapel en le Frith, the road is clear – he is on his own, and the song starts. His headlights of his car cut into the darkness of the unlit Pennine road before him, which twists and turns before him, 'like a lifetime time of sadness never bending to his will'. Like it says in The Clockwork Orange – real country dark!
On the stretch of road leading out of Buxton, an owl swoops down into his headlights beam. The owl banks and turns skilfully before him, and when the driver looks in his side mirror, it is still there riding in the slipstream. For longer than he thought possible the two creatures are fellow travellers through the darkness. But the owl unlike himself has a pure and simple relationship with this time of night.
And then almost as though it feels naked and inhibited in his company – the owl slides off into the darkness – and it leaves him amongst his lonely thoughts and obsessions.
Without saying a word of reproof, the owl by its mere existence has asked him the question every 20th century person has asked himself – why the hell are we living like this? By what authority does the owl speak? Owls were of course sacred birds in the temple of ancient Athens. The song is a guess at the ancient knowledge that the owl possesses.
Firstly he thinks of his relationship:-
Her finger my ring encircles, so does her breast enfold my heart
These are virtually the same words that Richard III uses to seduce Lady AnnIn Shakespeare's. play Richard III They are the words of a liar and a scoundrel. So there is some dishonesty hinted at here. The phrase is so like the similes that litter the vapid songs that are this man's stock in trade. However the man can do no other than think of love in these simplistic and dishonest terms, that are inadequate for the reality in which he finds himself .
There is a further Shakespearian reference, this time in the chorus of the song. In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo woos Shylock's daughter Jessica and persuades her to elope with him away from Shylock's money dominated world. Lorenzo says:-
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with pattens of bright gold.
The owl is talking to man who plies his trade for about fifty quid a night. The 'alien words in a subject tongue' are the endless catalogue of miseries – deportation, poverty, random torture and murder visited on the Irish by the English. Similarly they could be the English folksongs with their armies of victims – luckless poachers, factory workers, revolutionaries, etc.
But sad as these things are – bloody tragic for his forefathers caught up in this - they are not his battlefield. He lives in world where no one is happy with their lot. People are always in a state of stress from what society expects. And this guy has given his life to an art form which never addresses any of this – it prefers indulging in maudlin regret about the kids killed in the First world war, the sailors flogged on Nelson's ships, the witches burned at the stake in the 15th century – anything but today!
The owl sits above all this on the sky of midnight blue. It says, I fall down from the sky and I take what I need - and you must do the same with your talent. This is the only world you know, but its well worth walking away from, because the only involvement it offers you is defeat . Why not…….?
All the floors of heaven are lined with gold……
Leonard Cohen's song about the limits of human freedom bursts upon his consciousness and he snaps off the car radio, because it cuts too deeply. And this flawed human being carries on his journey into the darkness.