I first heard this song many moons ago when the bulk of what I listened to consisted almost entirely of music from the deep American south recorded between 1920 and 1933. Such was the power, artistry and invention of the great and innumerable artists from this time and place that everything else seemed to pale in comparison. Aged twenty I tried very hard to become a delta bluesman before realising the comic futility of my ambition but sometimes we are so touched by something, we inevitably at first try to become it.
Back then I wanted to sing and touch the places that Skip James reached, not what the English
pop-stars of the time were singing about but I later realised that you can’t sing another man’s life, you can only sing your own. Realising that was the most important step I made in becoming a songwriter.
We cannot be what we are not and yet paradoxically music can only move us if it speaks to something already inside us. Falling in love with a song outside our usual cultural references is the proof of existence of a common echo that binds us all and pulls us back to a primal universal source. I’m getting carried away but roll with me for a few lines!
This is the wonderful paradox that makes a Tokyo businessman become obsessed by Charlie Parker or a Scandinavian postman by Cuban Son or a Nigerian taxi driver by Hank Williams to pull some unlikely examples out of the hat
Early black American music always transported me, mysteriously these voices called to me.
Years later I’ve tried to understand what it was that resonated in me then and to put it clumsily into words , I came to see that it was a recognition or acknowledgement of something that goes beyond race, culture and geography. Since then I’ve experienced this same resonance not only in the early bluesmen from Mississippi but in music from all over the world and in places much closer to my place of birth. I once heard a blind Irish street musician on a cold London street corner sing note for note the same melody that Mississippi John Hurt had sang 60 years earlier and that I’d listened to that very morning on an old scratchy record.
There’s a phenomenon in music called sympathetic resonance that you can hear clearly in Indian classical music. In an instrument like the sitar there are strings which are plucked by the player but there are other numerous strings that are never physically touched and yet when tuned carefully simply play themselves, activated by the vibration of the strings that are plucked by the player.
When i hear Washington Phillips I feel like those strings that play themselves, humming in shared resonance.
So what is this primal sound, this universal hum, if we can call it that? You could also call it, the song of being, it’s at once an anguished wail and a celebratory cry. It’s the essence of what you hear when Souther Italian Uccio Aloisi roars, when Bukka White moans, when the Malian troubadour Boubacar Traore sings or even when June Tabor bears her heart a cappella. If we had to play one song to a Martian for him to understand what music is, I’d play him Washington Phillips’s ‘I used to have a good mother and a father.’
I meant to talk about the song specifically but I got carried away, waxing lyrical as the French country side whistled past me from the window of a high speed train. There is a beauty in this song and in the manner in which it was played by Washington Phillips all those years ago that will freeze you to the spot. No words can describe its power, its grace.
My humble version is just a small homage or a doffing of the hat to this forgotten master of early gospel music and if my version alone leads you to his miracle of early recorded song then it’s job done for me..
We are what we hear, for we can only hear what we are!
see you folks and thanks for bearing with me in my mystic ramblings..
next cover will be up in November..watch this space!