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owl song by big al whittle

18 Jan 06 - 11:46 AM (#1650937)
Subject: owl song by big al whittle
From: Big Al Whittle

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. However it is a piece of work that must have occupied my attention for quite a while, and I thought maybe it might be of interest to some of you.
I have written a little essay about it and its origins and the intensity which some people have commented on. And I have made it available on a webpage of my site which you can access easily.
I hope some of you find it worth a read and listen. to access the site page
to just play the song

18 Jan 06 - 08:23 PM (#1651265)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: Peace

I'm listening to it now, Al. Guitar work is excellent, voice sounding good and the lyrics have something 'magic' to 'em. I like it very much. Thank you for this thread and the link to the song. Love the modal/minor/major mix too. Good on ya, buddy.

18 Jan 06 - 08:28 PM (#1651269)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: Peace

Then I read with great interest what you wrote about the writing of the song on your blue link (site). That kind of info is invaluable to other writers. Thank you again. Makes some of us feel we ain't the only crazies in the world.

18 Jan 06 - 09:27 PM (#1651304)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: 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.

19 Jan 06 - 04:34 AM (#1651420)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: alanabit

It sounds a bit like the sound Leonard Cohen would make if he learned to sing and play the guitar. I liked the final touch about the Leonard Cohen song, "Bird On A Wire", being sung by Joe Cocker.
It is certainly a very atmospheric and eloquent song.
There is, of course, one of your favourite themes in there Big Al: That a lot of today's music revered in folk clubs sounds irrelevant to you. Fair enough too. If you don't care that much about the past, you will inevitably not care about those songs.
My favourite folk clubs have been the ones that give me a feeling of being connected to the past, but not stuck in it. There is a line to be walked in seeing that we are passing into history even as we are making it. Maybe that is why an evocative song about driving (presumably south) from Buxton at night is as good a representation of our age as any. I hope more people get to hear and enjoy the song.

19 Jan 06 - 05:45 AM (#1651442)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: Big Al Whittle

It's not that I don't care about the past Al.
Perhaps I care too much about it. I was brought up by an old lady born in the 1880's. her tummy was a mass of bumps - where her stomach had been ruptured - from the time she had been worked like an animal when she was a child. She was my grandmother. her sister came and stopped with us - I think it was my mother's dream to reunite the two sisters and let them live together with us. But we couldn't afford it.

anyway my grandmother's sister had been born in in the 1850's. she was in an old people's home that still bore strong traces of being a workhouse. One morning, my mother gave her egg and bacon for breakfast - and she'd never had that before. at no point in her life had she been affluent enough to afford both an egg AND bacon together.

All I'm saying is I don't hear the voices of people like this in what passes for English Folksong. I'm not sure it would be a comfortable experience if you did hear their voices.

Either way, it doesn't seem to have much to do with me and there are things about being alive now that need expressing. And if my grandparents weren't worth singing about. And my experiences count for nothing – just who the hell is this folksong movement for – apart from a few very obvious showbiz beneficiaries.

thankyou for the time you have spent listening to the song and writing about it. I do appreciate it very much.

thankyou Alan.

19 Jan 06 - 06:59 AM (#1651468)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: BusyBee Paul


A bit of a step back this, but I have experienced the travelling alongside an owl and it was breathtakingly awesome.

It happened about 20 years ago, in Hampshire. I was living on a farm and helping to exercise horses. One winter's morning, the manager and I rode out together, as usual, at 7am and were cantering along a green lane on the farm when an owl appeared out of the murk of the half-light dawn and paced us along the lane. This must have been for about half a mile, then the green lane stopped at a t-junction with a wood beyond. We had to stop and turn, but the owl kept on into the woods.

The manager was an old "countryhand" and we both just sat speechless on our horses for a few seconds - neither of us had experienced being at such close quarters to an owl before. It was one of "those" moments that I will remember for the rest of my life. Thanks for reminding me of it today.


19 Jan 06 - 07:49 AM (#1651488)
Subject: RE: owl song by big al whittle
From: Big Al Whittle

yeh its good, isn't it Deidre? perhaps it would be nice to have a trained owl following you round!

Thanks for writing