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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Dylan’


Our last breakfast in St. Louis and Chuck surpassed himself, with a divine Eggs Benedict following a sweet, refreshing bowl of strawberries.

But there was a difference at the table this morning. We were joined – after ten minutes – by the two couples that had checked in the night before, rendering the bed and breakfast fully booked.

Jim and his wife from Mobile, Alabama and a younger couple from upstate Illinois introduced themselves, though it is only Jim’s name that I now recall as you will learn the reason for shortly.

The Illinois couple, who had been to a music event in the city the night before, were professors of history and an artist respectively.  Although they listened intently to the story of our road trip, they were not so forthcoming about their own lives, seeming eager to hit the road.

But Jim was another “personality” altogether. A retired stockbroker who had made his money, and now an avid golfer, he was far more forthcoming about his accomplishments  and, more alarmingly, his political views.

Now, we had scrupulously avoided being dragged into any intense debates about the state of American politics and society on the trip, though, to be fair, we had only really met people who were of a liberal persuasion, and embarrassed about the current state of their country. In fact, our fellow shuttle bus passenger in Newark at the start of the tour personally apologised to us for her president.

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But Jim, as authentic a ‘good ol’ Southern boy” as I had ever met, came right out with it.

“So, what are your politics , right or left?”.

Fortunately, he levelled his question at our history professor, casting no more than a cursory glance in our direction. I think he had already resolved that we were pagan, socialised medicine loving, immigrant embracing, gun hating reprobates and beyond redemption.

Clearly discomfited by the direct, almost aggressive nature of the question, the history man replied, with an unnecessarily apologetic tone in his voice.

“Well, we are liberals”.

Presumably thinking he would sound tolerant and fair minded Jim rejoined:

“I told my friends when Obama became president, that you had to accept it whether you liked it or not”.

Awkward silence.

And the inducement for the younger couple to announce their intentions to leave the table.

To her credit, Jim’s wife did attempt to lighten the atmosphere, making excuses for his manner on a couple of occasions.

My attempt at injecting some screamed for humour into the moment came with stating that the only thing I knew about Mobile, Alabama, was the Dylan song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again. 

Stifling a knowing chuckle, our Illinois diners wished us good luck for the remainder of our trip as we both rose from the table.

Jim?

He just looked baffled and not a little flustered at the reference alone to another spawn of the devil.

But, in the admirable spirit of fairness and cooperation so often preached by his president, Jim enthusiastically took the two photographs seen here with Magretta, Chuck, Spike and Haley.

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St. Louis had been a revelation, and somewhere we are keen to return to in the near future. It had also been a joy to share Magretta and Chuck’s home for the past three nights.

The weather gods had been kind to us too, even to the extent of postponing the rain until this morning.

But it would be a wet ride to our final overnight stay in Peoria!

 

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After the frenzy and hubbub of last night on Broadway, we expected to encounter a calmer scene when our Uber driver deposited us downtown on a warm Sunday morning.

And it was certainly quieter (in volume terms), though surprisingly busy.

We had booked tickets for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum yesterday, so entered the imposing building where we endured a lukewarm coffee before joining the growing numbers flocking into the museum itself.

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The architecture of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, with its unique design and materials, is a celebration of country music and Southern culture. Many of its features reflect this visibly, for example the front windows which reference black piano keys and the cylindrical shape recalling the railroad water towers and grain silos found in rural settings (many of which we had seen on the road).

The building is one of the world’s largest museums and research centres dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of American vernacular music, and it has amassed a huge musical collections since its chartering in 1964.

Beginning on the upper floor, the first special exhibition we came across was a celebration of the career of Emmylou Harris, whom it so happened, had been performing for us at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco a year ago to the day.

The highlight for me of an informative and colourful display  was the section recounting the period she collaborated with Dolly Parton and the lovely Linda Ronstadt. Not so sure about the hairstyles though!

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As I explained in the previous day’s blog, I am somewhat of a traditionalist when it comes to country music, and amidst the comprehensive displays given over to the entire history of the genre, I was drawn to two of the legends in particular, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

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Any self-respecting museum showcasing country music has to put one of Elvis’s cars on display, doesn’t it? They are certainly not confined to Graceland.

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Not least because of the massive scale of the museum, we were selective in exploring what we wanted to see, avoiding the Judds and Little Big Towns exhibits.

But any reference to Willie Nelson and I’m there!

Those people who only know him from his more recent, rebellious persona, might have trouble identifying him in his younger, sharp suited, clean cut days, as this television performance framed by a mock up of the world famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway showcased.

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Of all the special exhibitions currently on display, the Willie & Waylon: Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s, one was the most fascinating for me. This was the more recognisable Willie that is so universally loved nowadays.

What was particularly interesting was the close crossover with the country, even psychedelic, rock movements of the late sixties and seventies.

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The Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda is a lovely space that recognises all its members from then original inductees, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Fred Rose in 1961 to Alan Jackson, Jerry Reed and Dan Schlitz in 2017.

Indeed, there was a ceremony underway at the time of our visit, where citations for all the members were being given as part of the process for inducting the 2018 performers.

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Anyone familiar with the history of country music will be familiar with the phrase “will the circle be unbroken”, a popular hymn from the early twentieth century which became the inspiration for one of the Carter Family’s most celebrated songs, “can the circle be unbroken”.

It is fitting, therefore, that the question should be at the heart of the Hall of Fame’s concept of continuous growth and relevance.

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Even though we skipped some exhibitions, we still spent three hours in the museum and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone with an interest in music, not just country.

Back in the real world, we were greeted by two familiar sights – the “Batman” building and a “Honky Tonk’ party in full swing.

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But at this point, a drizzle turned into an unexpected downpour. As we had eaten little, and the rain quickly began to look as if it would persist for some time, we resolved to dive into the Hard Rock Cafe for lunch.

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Sat under a Dave Matthews guitar (which thrilled our San Franciscan friend, Alicia, whom we were scheduled to meet in Chicago later on the trip), we had a delicious lunch, washed down by two cocktails each, before the rain desisted.

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We were now ready to tackle another museum before night fell. The Johnny Cash Museum may be only a fraction in size of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but I am prepared to claim that it is one of the best I have ever visited – a magnificent tribute to not only a great singer, songwriter and performer, but a great American.

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If you want a simple but telling analysis of someone’s contribution to the world, you need rarely go further than read Bob Dylan. His eulogy to Johnny Cash is a perfect example.

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The museum covers all aspects of his life – not only his extraordinary career as a musician, but his, perhaps less successful, film and television performances, his patriotism, humanitarianism, Christian belief and influence on so many other people.

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The feature of the museum that most appealed to me was the “Cash Covered” exhibit in which you could select a Cash song and then don headphones to listen to multiple recordings of that song by other artists. Unsurprisingly, I made a beeline for the rendition below.

Both Janet and I could have spent all day on this exhibit and the “In Concert Theater” alone.

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Equally impressive is the ‘Hall of Records” which houses his gold and platinum discs.

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As you return to the store and cafe, you are haunted by his astonishing rendition of Trent Reznor’s  (of Nine Inch Nails) magnificent song.

Oh Johnny, you will never let me down or make me hurt.

By the time we dragged ourselves out of this moving salute to a true icon, dusk was falling, and time to listen to some live music.

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We returned to AJ’s Good Time Bar on Broadway where a large crowd was already enjoying a band playing a more modern version of country than we had experienced the night before. Screens on the walls in the ground floor bar depict performances on floors on the upper levels.

I resisted the temptation to inflict my version of Crazy Arms or I Fall to Pieces on the audience and we left after one drink.

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We had been invited by our current landlords to come along to the acoustic concert on their backyard that was scheduled to run until 9pm. Without staying out later, there was no way we could avoid attending as our bungalow was in the backyard!

We sat outside the bungalow to the side of the main garden which housed a sizeable crowd. We witnessed two acts – a duo who were engaging and a woman from San Diego, whose greatest quality was that as he sung and played so quietly that she couldn’t really be heard!

And Janet got bitten!

Despite this slightly surreal experience, we were warming to Nashville by now and looking forward to visiting another two historic places – RCA Studio B and the Ryman Auditorium.

Tomorrow would also be decision day on the most important aspect of our trip to Nashville.

Cowboy boots!

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I blame it, of course, on Scott McKenzie.

And Alan Whicker.

Now I trust that many readers, notably those of a certain age and transatlantic disposition, will recall that Scott McKenzie was the singer who advised the world in 1967 that, if they were going to San Francisco, they should “be sure to wear some flowers in their hair”. That song alone had a searing impact on an impressionable fourteen year old boy living five and a half thousand miles away.

But Alan Whicker?

In appearance, with his English grammar school upbringing, clipped accent, Saville Row suit, slicked back hair, thick-set glasses and brisk moustache, he was the antithesis of the young people flocking to the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood at the time.

Whicker was an English journalist and broadcaster who forged a career spanning nearly sixty years until his death in 2013. His finest work was Whicker’s World which he presented for thirty years, travelling the world and commenting in an inimitable ironic fashion on society, and interviewing many prominent figures of the time, including the Sultan of Brunei, reputedly the richest man in the world at the time, the Haitian dictator, “Papa Doc” Duvalier and numerous high profile actors and aristocrats.

His stiff upper-lip style made him the affectionate butt of many comedians, none more memorably than the Monty Python team who delivered a sketch entitled Whicker’s Island, in which a succession of Whickers would walk on and off the screen uttering in his customary hushed tones, the catchphrase “here on Whicker’s Island”.

On 9th September 1967, the day that Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Byrds headlined at the Family Dog and Fillmore Auditorium, two of the emerging and competing concert venues in San Francisco,  Whicker broadcast a programme on the BBC entitled Love Generation. The episode was groundbreaking not least for the fact that it showed scenes of drug taking, despite the corporation’s “horror” of the practice, for the first time on British television, notably in 710 Ashbury, the Grateful Dead house (Phil Lesh and Bob Weir figured prominently). In the light of the recent Mick Jagger drug bust, it was put out very late at night. Among the individuals invited to expound their hippie ideals, emerging music promoter, Chet Helms, outlined his plans for taking music and light show “happenings” to London.

It was an incisive, literate and surprisingly sympathetic piece in which Whicker spoke over footage of the large influx of youth who had hitchhiked from every state to “Hashbury”:

In the States, pot is going middle class and spreading like prohibition liquor as more and more citizens   get zonked out of their minds. The drug culture enters the blood stream of American life. Like it or not, we’re living in the stoned age.

Later he was to lament that the:

Summer of Love was a short outburst of happiness that lasted only a few months. When I returned a year later the flowers and the innocence had died.

I was, like the thousands of young people that sought escape from the drabness of middle America, inspired by the message of “tune in, turn on, drop out”, though I hadn’t the means of joining the tribes.

The broadcast also gave my first experience of the Grateful Dead in performance with a beardless Jerry Garcia taking the lead on the Golden Road (to Unlimited Devotion). A song title was never more apt.

News bulletins featured scenes of Gray Line tour buses crawling down Haight Street with bemused middle aged, provincial passengers staring at the carnival on the street.

And then there was Scott McKenzie.

Another character with a splendid upper lip growth, it was his song, full title San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair), which topped the charts in the UK but not (quite) the US, that so enthralled that fourteen year old boy in what was, despite the emergence of “swinging London”, still a monochrome etched country.

I took to decorating my Beatle mop with an occasional fresh daisy or buttercup. I commandeered my mother’s chocolate and purple paisley print blouse to wear to the home games of my local football team, guaranteeing that I would be bullied as mercilessly on a Saturday afternoon on the terraces as I was already being five days a week at school.

But I didn’t care.

I was a hippie.

My home grown musical diet of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Kinks and a dozen other pop groups began to be supplemented by the weird, thrilling sounds of San Francisco. But it would still be another three years before I could get my hands on the music of the  Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service (thank you Keith Mason wherever you are), and before I could justifiably claim to be aboard the bus – the magic, not tourist, version.

During those same three years, I became increasingly fascinated by American culture and society. My political awakening was borne more out of opposition to the Vietnam War and support for the blacks in the Deep South, and students at Berkeley and Kent State than with the Rhodesian question or devaluation of the pound in Britain. I chose American history as one of my “A levels” at school and later studied American literature at university.

Underpinning all this was the music – my adoration for the San Franciscan bands was extended to embrace the country and folk rock idioms of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Eagles and, of course, Dylan. I devoured every American film I could, especially those with a counter cultural bias like Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop and Alice’s Restaurant, and read George Jackson, Angela Carter and Tom Wolfe.

Those enthusiasms have endured to this day, though it would take me another quarter of a century before I first gazed adoringly on the Golden Gate Bridge or strolled down the street that had been the epicentre of my cultural life for so long.

But that is another story.

To finish, another of those siren songs that sucked me into a San Francisco state of mind.

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This post first appeared two years ago as “My Ten Favourite Christmas Songs”. It had a mixed reception, some accounting it a “great list” whilst others, as is their right, rubbishing certain selections and offering their own alternatives.

I stated at the beginning of the earlier post:

there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching fifty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way.

That statement still rings true, and I have re-released that same list today, with only minor textual amendments.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the aggravating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere at this time of year – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of “Fairytale of New York”, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like “Do You Hear What I Hear? Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by “In the Bleak Midwinter”, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I listen to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to maintain a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols might be thought to have bred – far from it, but “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – “Rocking” and “Away in a Manger” which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

“See Amid the Winters Snow” has added resonance too in that this was my father and his eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. They would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt, drunken duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy – Kate Rusby

This should have been “The First Tree in the Greenwood” but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah” first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the inherited faith, if not the latent spirituality, be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

And, of course, they evoke that most precious period of our lives – childhood.

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Or it may not be.

For doesn’t the music you prefer to listen to so often reflect the mood that you are in at that moment in time?

And then there’s the thankless challenge of breaking down an initial list approaching thirty into ten. That said, after much soul searching, I’d like to think that the ten I have chosen – at least for today would be broadly similar to those I would have plumped for last year and will do next year, and in the years to come. The order may differ slightly but the contenders will remain the same. I make that assertion in the full expectation that the future is unlikely (sorry X Factor) to unearth some sensational new numbers that will threaten the current status quo (those old rockers are not in it by the way).

So I have tried to avoid these potential pitfalls and focus on those songs and performances that transcend current inclination or mood.

A word of warning first.

One type of “music” you will not find in this list are the excrutiating seventies pop confections of Slade, Wizzard, Mud, Shakin’ Stevens and many others that are heard everywhere – TV programmes, shopping malls, parties – and are the bane of my life at this time of year. So if they’re your favourites, I’d stop reading now. And don’t expect to see any of the annual serving of mush served up by Cliff Richard either.

I am also unmoved by those songs that may or may not have a Christmas theme and content, but are forever associated with the holiday period purely because that is the time of year when they first came to our attention, often for commercial reasons. This is why I don’t share the almost universal idolatry of Fairytale of New York, despite the fact that I love both Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I don’t dislike Band Aid’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? and you cannot knock the tremendous work it has done in addressing famine in Africa. But these are false friends and do not, for me, carry that indefinable spirit and “feel” of Christmas.

I’m an unashamed traditionalist, even sentimentalist, when it comes to Christmas music, indeed Christmas per se. So the list is essentially nostalgic, redolent of past times, especially childhood. And yes, I’m prepared to concede that, on this occasion, age is a contributory factor to this outlook. Maybe it also derives from being surrounded by Dickens from a young age.

Am I saying then that, for a Christmas song to earn my respect or adulation, it must either serve a lengthy apprenticeship – at least half a century – or evoke a romanticised version of a bygone age?

Perhaps I am.

But enough of this – let’s get on with my selection. Cue immediate quizzical looks with number ten.

10. Must Be Santa – Bob Dylan 

Bob Dylan doing a Christmas song? You must be mad, or you’ve clearly had too much egg nog – or both, I hear you scream in disbelief. Well, maybe, but he produced a whole album of them back in 2009. And some of it is rather good. The grizzled near seventy year old voice, ravaged by red wine, cigarettes and constant touring, lends itself rather nicely to some of the old standards like Do You Hear What I Hear?, Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, though perhaps less so to the assortment of Christmas carols he tackles.

But this is my particular favourite – a rollicking, boisterous romp with some less than traditional lyrics.

So who’s had too much egg nog now?

9. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow –  Dean Martin

Another standard sung in a more conventional manner. Recorded countless times but, for me, this is the best version. Deano’s lascivious, martini-soaked croon nails it for me.

8. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear – The Choir of Winchester Cathedral

Initially, this slot was filled by In the Bleak Midwinter, a lovely carol but perhaps just a little too familiar for inclusion here. I was then reminded, on hearing it for the first time this year, of this beautiful and too little heard melody. But, in truth, it could have been any number of other carols.

7. Here We Come A-Wassailing – Kate Rusby

The first of two – there could again have been more – offerings from the Barnsley Belle. It may only be number seven – at least for today – but it tends to be the first song I turn to each December to kick start the festive season with its atmosphere of celebration and community. A song ripe too for inclusion in an adaptation of any Thomas Hardy novel.

6. Angels From the Realms of Glory – King’s College, Cambridge

And glorious this indeed is. Truly thrilling. As a child, this would fill Rochester Cathedral at the school’s end of term concert more satisfyingly than any other carol, even if I and my school friends were more interested in our card and dice games beneath the pews. But we always found time to join in with our own version of the last line of each verse – something to do with a West London football team if I recall correctly.

5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald

“The Voice” has to have a place on this list. Warm, vibrant, nostalgic – everything that makes Christmas special. Along with Al Jolson, the Andrews Sisters and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ella dominated the soundtrack to my earliest years. She has subsequently survived Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, psychedelia and country rock to hold a similarly central place in my affections.

4. See Amid the Winter’s Snow – King’s College Cambridge

The more discerning reader might have observed that my carol selections are not the most frequently heard, hence popular. I have not developed the measure of contempt that the more familiar carols such as Once in Royal David’s City, Silent Night, While Shepherds Watched, O little Town of Bethlehem, Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell and O Come All Ye Faithful might be thought to have bred – far from it, but these and the achingly beautiful melodies of my other selections carry the day for me.

A passing nod too to the two carols that I most associate with my childhood – Rocking and Away in A Manger which we “sang”, sat cross-legged on the frozen wooden floor of Glencoe Road Primary School when, apparently, we’d never had it so good (well, for a six year old, perhaps we hadn’t).

See Amid the Winter’s Snow has added resonance too in that this was my father and eldest brothers’ party piece at the end of the annual freemasonry lodge Christmas dinner and dance. Fuelled by a cocktail of beer, wine, gin and tonic and Irish coffee (not all at once though), they would – so I’m told, I never witnessed the spectacle myself – bring the house down with their heartfelt duet.

3. The Holly and the Ivy  Kate Rusby

This should have been The First Tree in the Greenwood but I could not find a video of Kate’s performance. Instead, I returned to the song of which it and many others are variants. Again, I could have filled this list with Kate’s lovely renditions of traditional carols, supported by the mellow tones of the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band.  

2. Run Run Rudolph – Chuck Berry

The nearest thing to a “pop” song in this collection, even though it was recorded more than half a century ago. But what drive, energy, excitement and humour – classic Chuck, the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll. He may not have written it but he gave it its life.

1. For Unto Us A Child is Born from Handel’s Messiah – Sir Colin Davis & the London Symphony Orchestra

Probably heard – and certainly sung – more often as part of a carol concert, the opening bars of Handel’s sublime oratorio evoke Christmas for me more than any other piece of music, hence its pre-eminent position. A perfect accompaniment to a big breakfast and the exchanging of gifts.

But surely, you say, isn’t this one of those “false friends” you sneered about earlier in this article? After all, wasn’t Messiah first performed in the Great Music Hall, Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742. It’s a Easter, not Christmas song goddamit!

Fair point, but I contend that not only does it fit my “spirit and feel” test, but it has become so inextricably associated with the Christmas season in the public consciousness that it is the most glorious expression of the life, and in this instance, birth of Christ.

I rest my case.

By the end of this journey through the last four centuries of western music you may be wondering if I have “got religion”, and specifically Christianity, so drenched in the christian tradition are my selections. It is an understandable question, to which I can only respond that, though the faith be long gone, the thrill of listening, and indeed reading, how gloriously others have expressed that faith, endures.

So you’ve heard mine. What are your favourites?

Please let me know either by commenting at the end of this post, or replying via Facebook or Twitter.

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It is 10am on a bright, brisk market day morning in March in a town in the south of England.  I order a decaffeinated skinny latté from an eager young man in the one cafe that does not reek of grease, and take a seat outside.

On his way out to me the trainee barista trips over a discarded beer can and spills the coffee over the pavement.  He apologises and returns to mop it up, but fails to offer me another cup, and then is visibly irritated when, wholly unreasonably, I request a fresh one. That said, he brings a prompt replacement, seasoned with a further apology.

From the doubtful comfort of my three and a half legged plastic chair I scan the establishments around me – “Nails Palace – Professional Nail Care for Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Cash Generator – the Buy, Sell and Loan Store”, “Tanning Heaven”, “Tattoo xxxxxx Ltd”, “Cheques Cashed”, “We buy Gold – any Condition”, “Residential lettings”, “Betfred” bookmakers and the “Community Store”, run by the Salvation Army and offering “Heart to God, Hand to Man”.

“Eel Pie Island”, which specialises in  all day breakfasts, announces itself in large, yellow lettering to be a “Caf’e” (I doubt the apostrophe police saw that one coming). Upstairs is a dental surgery which, somehow, seems appropriate.

The “Hot 4 U Pizza, Chicken and Kebab” shop is closed, victim of too much competition in the fast food field, proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Breakfast for those not crammed into McDonald’s consists of sausage and bacon rolls and fresh cream puffs. Obesity seems a badge of honour.

The traditional gentleman’s barber shop is missing his iconic red and white striped pole. Nothing for the weekend here.

The local pub is also boarded up. A ragged, handwritten paper sign flaps in the light breeze. Somebody has inserted an “i” between the words “to” and “let”.

The compensation culture is in full swing. The frontage of the “Claim Shop” is emblazoned with a huge sign proclaiming “have you been involved in an ACCIDENT or suffered an INJURY through no fault of your own!!!”.

A council street cleaner fights a losing battle with bottles, cans, and food packaging, strewn over benches and pavement.  On the opposite side of the road a modern day Steptoe proceeds in stiff but stately fashion along the pedestrianised street, peering professionally in all directions for unwanted morsels.

The air reverberates in a veritable Babel. English is spoken, or rather shouted, liberally infused with swear words, but it is no more heard than is Polish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish or Punjabi.

Young gap-toothed men wearing baseball caps or hoods and gripping cans of super strength, but astonishingly cheap, lager, swagger past, trailed by tattooed teenage mothers already carrying their next child, barking at their toddlers who are committing the heinous crime of  being  ……………….. children.

As the weather is uncommonly mild, plain white vests, accompanied by sometimes matching sweat pants, appear to be the dress code of choice, at least for the men. Whilst this might be an attractive look on a young man with taut muscles in the right places, it does not sit well with balding, unshaven, middle aged men, stomachs bursting from a diet of gassy beer and burgers. Bare arms are bedecked with body art depicting snakes, eagles and pseudo-oriental slogans.

Their Staffordshire bull terriers, acquired for menace, encircle each other, doing nothing more threatening than sniffing at each other’s private parts.

And yet, I am observed quizzically, even suspiciously, by passers-by with my fancy coffee, book for reading and, especially, notebook and pen desperately trying to capture the vivid images around me.

The young mums congregate outside Gregg’s and Iceland to share a cigarette, compare frilly pram and buggy decorations and show off the clothes they have just bought for Bailey and Madison in Primark. As the conversation turns to X Factor and piercings, their progeny become increasingly testy, provoking screeching admonitions to “shut up…… now”.

Shoppers seek bargains in the many charity shops, notably Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam, British Heart Foundation and Demelza (for children in hospice care), but the upstart 97p conv£nience store has recently closed, sent packing by the more established and cavernous 99p emporium.

In the bustling market the stalls selling inexpensive imitation leather jackets, shell suits and sweatshirts are doing a good trade.  Following close behind are those offering household goods and toys, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, rugs and carpets, curtains, handbags, purses and luggage – the selling point in every category being cheapness.

Country crooners from the fifties dominate the airwaves from the two stalls specialising in CDs and DVDs. A local driving school and the RAC try to rein in passers by, but most people here do not drive. Surrounded by fast food outlets, the centrally positioned greengrocer is still highly popular, as is the plant stall.

The meat wagon man is not so successful despite his saucy entreaties to “come on girls, don’t be shy, give my lovely meat a try”. A further invitation to feel his pork loins goes similarly unheeded. Despite his impressive discounts, a middle aged couple try to barter with him to no avail – another sale lost.

An octogenarian sea dog (this is a naval town, after all), dressed in a tweed jacket and waistcoat that displays several medals, shuffles past pushing a shopping trolley. Woe betide anyone who gets in his way, for a wheezy verbal volley and a clip from his walking stick will befall them. He sports a flourishing white beard reminiscent of Uncle Albert’s in the TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

A slowly warming sun glints through the trees as I drain my latté and head for The Works in the hope of picking up a bargain book to add to the already overstocked shelves at home.

Florence this is not. Nor is it Bath or Edinburgh. But it is a area of contrasts. Despite having some of the worst school exam results in the country it boasts four universities, and the local sports centre has been refurbished and rebranded as an Olympic training venue.

If the picture I have portrayed here only depicts one side of that, it is because that is what I see on this March Monday morning.

And, as someone infinitely more eloquent than I said “it’s alright ma – it’s life and life only”.

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With apologies and grateful thanks to the mighty Bob Dylan, I have revised the lyrics of probably his greatest put-down song in honour of the people running Kent County Cricket Club.

You got a lotta nerve to say you run my Kent, now that we’re down you just stand there grinning

You got a lotta nerve to say the money’s been well spent, so why have we a team that’s just not winning?

You say you’re in control, you know it’s not like that, if you’re in control, why then don’t you show it?

You say you’ve got a plan but that’s not where it’s at, you have no plan at all and you know it

You say there is no rush to rebuild our ailing team, why then does our captain think we should do?

Do you take me for such a fool to think we have a side that will compete with other counties like we could do?

You see me on the ground, you always smirk and chat, you say “How are you”, “Good luck”, thanks for your letter

When you know as well as me you’d rather ignore what I say than agree that I can help to make thing better

No, I do not feel that good when I see the mistakes you embrace, along with those two men in crime you’re in with

And now you know that I’m dissatisfied with your performance and your place, can you please find us a team to win with?

I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, and just for that one moment I could be you

Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes, all you’d see’s a suit, a grin and no clue.

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