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Minstrel Boy

How singer-songwriters shaped a poet

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I was writing before I could read. Those poems and songs seemed realer to me than the diurnal details of my working-class childhood. Occasionally, I would speak only in rhyme for days at a time. Among the picturesque peaks across the Firth of Clyde, Parnassus could not be counted. The idea of becoming a poet was beyond me. Yet on the wireless each night, singer-songwriters inspired that word-smithy smout to get really real about trying to write.

On television too. Saturdays, after the football highlights, saw Jake Thackray drolly channelling George Brassens, about whom, despite formidable French lessons, I knew next to rien. Was chanson wit, it?

As we careened Catholically schoolward one morning in 1971, a miracle occurred. The conductress stopped talking. I quickly realised why. Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ was making its top-ten debut on her transistor. Adolescence could sound like that? His upbeat dirge, this jukebox elegy, a bravura lovelorn lament, was astonishing in its poetic self-possession and formal poise. McLean’s command of rhyme, pathos, humour, imagery, narrative verve, allegorical sweep, cocky gaucheness, the sheer messed up, mythic, mournful, epic American-ness of it, was more instructively compelling than any poem in our textbooks. Learn to yearn! My way with words at last led somewhere.

Unsold and unsellable at the Scout jumble sale were a suitcase-style mono record player and a plywood guitar with cheese-parer strings — would-be troubadours for the use of. Upon the hippy-harbouring listening booths of Opus Records descended a thirteen year-old with a milk round’s pounds to spend on twelve-inch tutorials by Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Al Stewart, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Loudon Wainwright, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, Joni Mitchell and other lyricists more obscure than these celebrated seers whose vatic verses were powerfully poetic without quite being poetry. To the poet’s status they staked no claim. And that remains true, despite the determination of the Nobel jury to provoke by making a literary laureate of Bob Dylan, when among singer-songwriters, obviously only Leonard Cohen merited the writerly wreath!

It was from Cohen, no poète manqué, nor even maudit, a bona fide litterateur with Canada’s Governor General’s Award to prove it, that I learned that composed and sung verse could legitimately aspire to the condition of poetry. That said all these role models schooled me. Theirs was heart-to-heart communication. ‘Three chords and the truth’. And now Orpheus had his lyre; a newly broken ‘baritenor’ voice; and black vinyl whirlpools in which to drown the terrors and tumults of teenage liminality. Gordon Lightfoot helped hone my narratives. Paul Simon indulged a solitary streak that never quite degenerated into affected ‘literary’ loneliness. Jim Croce inculcated a plangent wistfulness devoid of self pity. Harry Chapin sang film scripts that scanned. Loudon Wainwright was fearlessly funny and a rhymer to rival academic candidates for the poetic canon. These were hectic-hearted North Americans; glamorously liberal, their every word hung on, successors to Dante and Dowland, giants of a genre produced by and for the Sixties, now segueing into the Seventies. Gallagher and Lyle had grown up gazing at the same seascapes and landscapes as me and were neatly and bittersweetly vocal about the local. I literally picked my way through the back catalogues of dozens of singer-songwriters, not excluding Robert Burns. I had learned many songs and written some after a year. In the local paper Dad found a secondhand stereo set for sale. High Fidelity indeed. On a rainy day my mother’s dotingly cashed-in insurance policy bought a tune-able guitar.

So I set about extending my craft. Paul Simon, whose persona and preoccupations in his early work are so self-consciously poetic, had the humility and insight to take a sabbatical during which he studied classical and jazz guitar and music theory. More chords, more truth? Fretting away in my bedroom it seemed so to me. Simon’s verbal brio and imagination are the equal of all but the greatest poets and in his range and nuance, few composers can match him. Wordy when a tyro, he gradually got more and more from less and less. That terse loquacity, his headlong hesitancy, I am still failing to emulate.

Yet Harlan Howard was right about the veracity of country music’s three-chord trick. ‘Folks often say to me I learned to play the guitar using your songs’, Tom Paxton was wont to tell audiences, before adding, ‘So did I…’ Sophisticated simplicity; the art that conceals art; words you can hum; rhymes and prosody Ogden Nash would have been proud of — Paxton exemplified that mastery of technique. Folk, but never folksy; I longed to write lyrics like that.

All the singer-songwriters I saw live were troupers. The notoriously dyspeptic Van Morrison one went to hear hoping to be disappointed. Almost everything I know about giving a performance was learned from watching singer-songwriters. The best of them specialise in instant intimacy, rapt rapport and the pace and grace of an adroitly structured recital. A spectrum with a plectrum. Such a gamut runner I aim, falteringly, to be. Verse gains in art when learned by heart. Applicable with or without a guitar.

When talking with students about poetic stagecraft, I often present a contrastingly comparable pair of singer-songwriters, one they have all heard of, the other familiar to few. In a long career as a cultural commentator, reviewer, critic, broadcaster, impresario and arts producer I have witnessed wonders across every form, genre and medium, but never anything to surpass for gravelly gravitas, panache and profundity, the spiritually uplifting, humanity affirming, enrapturingly redemptive, presence of Leonard Cohen in Glasgow on his final tour.

That November night, every note and syllable audible, a vast crowd morally melded, enthralled, I discovered that shamen can sport trilbys, that seannachies, sveltly suited, can sashay in shiny shoes, that words can be suave whilst running wild and free. They can touch and tease, accuse and amuse too, when the charismatic, handsome bard is bald, flannel shirted and in jeans. Archie Fisher is another filí whose basso truly is profundo, again, pitch and word perfect, charming and disarming, humour and timbre dry but the magisterial oeuvre seamlessly ‘traditional’.

From the Montrealer and the Glaswegian a schoolboy scribbler picked up the importance of sensibility, the expressive particularity, a this not thatness, a here not thereness that persists vibrantly in being open, inclusive and welcoming, universal in its existential specificity. Nothing in the background of either writer was wasted or unacknowledged. Indeed antecedence and heritage were revelled in, sometimes amplified into actual legend. Was my birthright not a similar store of lore, from an Antrim mother, rural-Ulster bred, and eloquently full of heirloom broodings; and a father, shipyard apprenticed, improvised yarn-spinning, reared in a Clydeside ceilidh house, a tenement tenor, possessed of a velvety voice, dark, yet light-topped as a well-poured glass of stout?

In time I would write columns about singer-songwriters for the New Statesman and the Glasgow Herald, interview some of my idols, produce and direct television programmes featuring performers whose lyrics I had pored over after doing my official homework. The listening and learning went on. I was invited – by myself mostly – to give public utterance to these ditties. The indulgent arm-twisted claques would have had more fun watching me burst my plukes. But the words soon outstripped my singing and playing. Two of those songs I occasionally perform today, nearly fifty years later.

Under the influence of singer-songwriters, as a poet, I had acquired a technique, a certain stylistic authority, timing and confidence as a performer, and a way of being and seeing, that was thrillingly freeing, as heritage and hinterland hove into view. Now jazz and classical LPs were revolving in the late-night lamplight. The guitar developed a hankering for show tunes, and si, chansons. Folk chords were suspended and diminished… Suddenly what I was writing didn’t want to rhyme. Edwin Morgan’s free verse was being analysed for exams. I’d eventually make a film about him. This side of Argyllshire’s forbidding, purple bens, poetry was possible. There were poets right here, world-class poets, whose feats, on a much smaller scale, I could attempt to emulate.

I went back to writing songs; am composing them still. Once in a while they are even studied. Every line of verse I wrote and write benefited from the tutelage of minstrel mentors I never met. As a poet, I was now producing lyrics of a different kind. First-person, if not especially singular. My first broadcast poem was about Bob Dylan and won a radio competition. I was fifteen. Songwriters would help me spruce up my poetic practice later too. But this time, in my twenties, I’d turn to Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Johnny Mercer and Stephen Sondheim, pure, peerless poets, every one. Dylan? He’s just a genius. Who hasn’t learned from him? And decades afterwards, I’d encounter Bob again, croakily ambling that same broad way…

Donny O’Rourke continues to write songs himself as well as with guitarist Dave Whyte, classical, jazz and folk composer Edward Maguire, and the Bern-based Swiss Celtic group, Morgain. Donny’s most recent poetry collections are Maryhill Medicants and Urban Pastoral.

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