From Elsewhere to Halstead: singing in the 80s
In 1987, as a songwriter and solo performer on the folk music scene in England, I felt the need to find a new theme, something specific and focused. We don't really have sleevenotes as such now, but I like the word, as it indicates a space for discussion.
In my green, faux-leather 'Ferndale' unlined notebook (£2.75), according to the legend, suitable, with its rough pages, for Mounting, Pressing Flowers, as well as for Songs and Poems, I began an unpublished group of verses about Essex, to be called, I thought, An Essex Guidebook. The feel of these first drafts contain the seeds of the songs that became Roadworks, which was eventually premiered at the Sidmouth International Festival of Folk Arts two years later. In 'The Rain', the first poem, a source of the whole and the only one to make it to a typed version, some years later, on the 8 September, I wrote:
It feels right that it is raining while I write
Connected this dull Wednesday in autumn
Damp and bleak inside as if we had a thousand words for rain
Reducing the landscape to its black shadowed nature-
In Basildon and Braintree, it raineth the same, see?
This sense of the landscape was a new, but oddly familiar thought coming to the surface, one gathered from years of playing in little village halls in the English folk barn-dance band, The Metric Foot Band, with friends like Peter Booth, who wrote Steel Guitar Music. The urge to write about what was local and immediate which came to me in the seventies (see From Braintree to Bovinger: cycling in the seventies ), and what was now coming to me, was acknowledging how strange and half-alienating was the suburban half-road, half-country and half-housing world I lived and drove around in. There was a bracketed word in the original draft title of the projected verses: An Essex (Suburban) Guidebook. Sensing the metaphorical power of the 'suburban roadscape' as I called it at the time, I hoped to write about our beings half defined by the madness of travel and building and half resisting it with love and nature. I felt I'd found my theme in the road outside my little house down an alley in Halstead, my 'healthy place' in North Essex.
There is an order of songs as they appear on recordings, arrived at so as to give the listener contrast and preparation, to build towards meaning, then there is another order, that of composition.
I still feel that this group of songs is the most unified and coherent work of my solo singing life and I still sing many of the songs today. (Colchester, 2006).
All songs written/ performed Adrian May;
'Steel Guitar Music' written Peter F Booth
with Jon May, triangle & '745 CER', Morris Minor
MYCD 6.2 2006
Sleevenotes to 'ROADWORKS' a CD of folk songs written and performed by Adrian May
Copyright © Adrian May
'Woman at the Side of the Road
'It wasn't until 1st of January 1988 that I began 'The Woman at the Side of the Road'. The strangeness of that familiar world was what I felt I needed to get at. It was not inspired by any historic ghost, although the area is not short of those, but by seeing a drunk woman staggering by the A130, and turning her into my ghost, my muse in alienation.
'On the M25'
The next song, which could have been the title song, if my idea of a story to hang the songs around, of a man asleep in a traffic jam on the M11 dreaming, had been used. 'On The M25' tried to use as many jokes as I knew about the then new motorway.
'The Back Roads'
'The Back Roads' was the half that found truth amid the strangeness, with the wonder of what remains, despite everything. 'We're robbed of fascination/ On this suburban straight road/ Where everybody has thrown/ Their dirt and money' goes an edited out section.
'On the 339'
'On The 339' came unbidden out of writing the first three, more self-conscious songs. I knew I'd tapped into a deep source in myself. Comic songs like this I find the most difficult to write. Seemingly most mechanical, for me they have to be the more inspired. I knew I'd moved into the tradition of comic songwriters on the cosmic nature of the bus: see Flanders and Swan's Transports of Delight and Jake Thackray's Country Bus.
The final song of the original cassette album, 'Driving Home' was a deliberate celebration, reminiscent of the verse that started it all, with its rain motif. It was a deliberate use of an old folk style, using the harmonica to suggest the melancholy nature of space in landscape, later expanded on when recording the album.
'The Village Ball'
The first demo recordings, which I sent to my pal Alan Bearman, Artistic Director of Sidmouth Festival, included 'The Village Ball', written much earlier for, but never performed by the Metric Foot Band, and Steel Guitar Music , which had been performed by the band. I had to wrestle the song from Peter Booth, who was in the process of rejecting it. I insisted that we used it and volunteered to sing it too, as I thought it was exactly the sort of song I was trying to write. He had got my theme better than me, I still think. Also on that first demo was a mock-surfing song called 'There Ain't No Surfing (Down in Shoeburyness)', written for the Colchester-based Hooligan Band, led by the equally legendary Phil Manchester. There is a live version of this daft item somewhere about.
'Steel Guitar Music'
'Lay-by Love' brought me back to the sinister theme and included my other obsession, writing-wise, of that time, that of love. The double-album, which included Roadworks, also included the album Out Of Love, now available elsewhere on the internet . The overall title of the two together on cassette was Hearts and Flyovers.
'English Driving Blues'
English Driving Blues was the comic side to Driving Home and reunited me with the ukulele, a big feature of my English comic thing earlier in my solo singing life, and this brought in the Little America problem, which remains in areas like war, and so on.
Then followed the writing of some rejected songs like 'Oil and Blood', never finished (too dark and wordy). Nowhere Now , the first song on the album, in a way, came last of this main batch and was a way back to the theme via love and narrative, so seemed a good introductory piece, with its mid-tempo feel (not something I do often).
'Appearing in Cabaret'
More regrouping came with the recognition of older songs which fitted in to the whole, like Appearing in Cabaret , which came from a memory of seeing a poster in Braintree for 60s band The Equals playing at a cabaret venue, without their main songwriter Eddy Grant. The Ongar Push & Pull was a childhood memory of a steam train, and was an even older song, included here as an extra track with Steel Guitar Music , both in the form of very basic demo-tape recordings.
'Ongar Push and Pull'
'Old Morris Minor'
Later, nearer when the main recordings were done, the last two songs written arrived. 'Old Morris Minor' dealt with the theme of unearned nostalgia. The first vehicle I drove to gigs in was a yellow, ex-Post Office Telephone Morris Minor van. When I recorded the song I wanted some characteristic sounds of that car, so I went in to an office outside which I often saw one parked. The owner turned out to be a woman journalist, who exchanged my story as a singer (which I don't think she ever used) for driving by me a couple of times, while I held a Dictaphone to catch the 'trumpeting' sound of the exhaust, for which she may have even given me the accepted term. I later sent her a copy of the cassette, but received no response. Maybe she was offended by the cynicism of the song and could not detect the underlying affection, or maybe she just thought it was no good, or not worth the effort. Still, her car, 745 CER, which she called 'Ceri', was credited. The only other credit was my brother, who played Cajun-style triangle in On The M25.
'This is England'
'This Is England' came at the same time and seemed to be the song which dealt with the themes of the whole most directly, a final attempt to describe the positive love and hate of my native place, through a dark acknowledgement of the importance of place. I finished the song on St George's Day, 1989. There is a liberal orthodoxy which denies love of place as a kind of incipient fascism, but in these songs I make no apologies for wanting to contradict this:
Then and now … restored to our banality
Bowing across the sheltering county to our rain-god
As I put it in 'The Rain', which was where it started. These ideas and strong feelings still inhabit me and I am still working on writing about locality and tradition, trying to get from any dreamed Elsewhere to Halstead, back home to somewhere in Essex: Disowned as nowhere by us all, but where we fit our face.