Ciaran Carson and Davy Graham

Ciaran Carson, the Belfast poet, died earlier this week.

I knew him a little bit, and admired him immensely.

The one time I went to dinner at his house, he was editing The Yellow Nib, a literary magazine. As we ate, we talked about music. He was a professional – could pick up a penny whistle and make you want to caper. I confessed to playing guitar, not very well. He challenged me to write it up – what I’d been saying about trying and failing to get better at playing tunes. I think the deadline he gave me was two weeks.

This is what I wrote:

I’ve been giving up guitar since the age of eleven and a half – because I couldn’t play like John Williams on CBS Records Presents John Williams or Dave Gilmour on Wish You Were Here or Django Reinhardt on anything he recorded or, for the past year, because I can’t play like Davy Graham on the CD reissue of Folk, Blues and Beyond (1964).

The most famous song on this album is ‘Angi’. It has been covered by a million bedroom guitarists, and also by Davy Graham’s contemporaries, Bert Jansch (as ‘Angie’) and Paul Simon (as ‘Anji’). And I’d like to write here about not being able to play ‘Angi’ (or ‘Angie’ or ‘Anji’).

It starts as casually as any recorded sound I know. The first notes, not as fully fretted as the later ones, are merely an out-breath – and the listener, travelling imaginatively back in time to the moment before the tape started rolling, knows there was an in-breath and an out-breath before that. In fact, what is implied, by these few seconds of chime, is a whole casual-disciplined existence – Davy Graham’s existence.

After strolling in so lightly, ‘Angi’ continues for four foursquare bars. During this introduction, it has already achieved an unprecedented balance; it is absolutely rigid and, at the same time, it is flowing. This is an impossible architecture of molten steel. (The strings of Davy Graham’s Gibson guitar would have been made of steel, although the three bass ones might have been copperwound.)

What has been established, on the most basic level, during these thirteen seconds, is the thing that always separates competent musicians from incompetent: the ability to accompany oneself – to play two lines at once.

On the BBC programme Folk Britannia, Graham mentions how he tried for ten years to learn the Arab lute, the Oud, but never quite mastered the ‘question and answer, antiphonal responses between treble and bass’. That may be true. But there is definitely a dialogue going on here.

The bassline of ‘Angi’ is a very simple descending figure, and Davy Graham’s statement of it is brutally direct. You’ll be familiar with the plonk-plonk-kerplonk-plonk from some of its later incarnations. It’s there, doubled up, as the first hook of The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’. It’s the basis of ‘Stray Cat Strut’ by The Stray Cats – which took ‘Angi’ across into a world of cartoon rockabilly. (Hard not to imagine T.C. growling it out to Officer Dibble.) Madness played around with it on the chorus of ‘It must be love’, taking it down to the deadness of the bottom note, and then resurrecting it with duh-duhhr! The Cure jazzed it up for ‘The Love Cats’. I can even hear it lurking around behind Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’.

Where it came from, in the first place, is probably some unrecorded jazz jam. Somehow, it seems as eternal as the three chord climb of ‘La Bamba’. (In fact, now I think of it, it’s pretty close to ‘La Bamba’ played backwards.) Wikipedia, however, credits Percy Mayfield’s ‘Hit the Road, Jack’. But maybe you could go further back, a lot further, and discover it buried in the Liebestod of Tristan und Isolde.

Plonk-plonk-kerplonk-plonk. Why is this riff so popular? Partly because it sounds so utterly right, and partly because, when you pick up a guitar, the opening notes to ‘Angi’ will fall under your fingers. In Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald observes how John Lennon’s style of composition was very much dependent on his indolent fingers. Songs like ‘Nowhere Man’ and ‘I’m so tired’ enact their semi-stasis on the guitar neck where they came into existence, basing themselves around minimal movements – a C-chord to an F, a hammer-on, a note missed out. This laziness doesn’t hold for ‘Angi’, or not for long, because as soon as he’s set up the attainable, Davy Graham begins to mess with your sense of the finger-possible.

As a basic rule, the thicker your guitar strings (technically, the heavier their gauge), the harder they will be to play, and the purer, more ringingly, they will sound. Nick Drake has a reputation for effeteness. But, going by his dexterity on ‘Three Hours’ or ‘Time Has Told Me’ or ‘Road’, he could easily have crushed your skull with his left hand. Thicker guitar stings vibrate more powerfully, so, in order to get a clean note out of them, you have to press them down harder on the fretboard. Harder still than this is to bend the stings, and keep the note ringing out rather than fuzzing up. In the second four bars of ‘Angi’, Davy Graham pulls off something that, to a non-guitarist, doesn’t sound like much: he begins to bend lead-line notes on top of his downwardly clumping bass. What the guitarist knows, and marvels at, and is terrified by, is that Graham’s left hand is at the bottom of the guitar’s neck (though there’s actually a capo involved, moving all this action up to the fourth fret). Here, on the first three frets, is where most strumming-type guitarists (out of Dylan by Young) play their tunes. If they ever attempt to bend a note, they will move their hands halfway up the neck – where it is much much easier to push the string far enough to bend the note a tone or semi-tone. Davy bends notes which he shouldn’t be able to bend, at least not with such insulting ease. To a guitarist, these second four bars say one thing: ‘Fuck off – I’m better than you are.’

Behind most if not all twentieth century note-bending is Louis Armstrong, who took the practise from New Orleans and spread it across the world. And Davy Graham’s syncopated slurs in ‘Angi’ are a years-later tribute to the kind of sliding soundworld Armstrong perfected in ‘West End Blues’ and other epochal sides. This is the Blues part of Folk, Blues and Beyond, though it might as accurately have been Folk, Jazz. The pleasure in jazz is rarely in the centre of the notes but on their fraying margins. Think of the sad crack in Mile’s Davis tone, or the sanctified hoarseness of John Coltrane, or even the going-out-of-tune boom of Thelonius Monk’s straight-finger-struck piano. The tone of a guitar string changes when notes are played bent. That’s why Jimi Hendrix sounds as he does – so many of his notes are struck when the string is stretched, two, three, four notes higher than if the string were just fretted. ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)‘ – or, if not bent up one or two notes, they are played with vibrato, the rapid bending of the string. (Eric Clapton learnt to do this – or learnt to avoid not doing this. Play your guitar too straight and everything starts sounding like ‘Greensleeves’. The blues always goes at notes sideways.) Hendrix’s playing becomes increasingly more anguished. This is what most lead guitarists do: Push your fingers up to make the string tighter, it cries, let it loose from this position, it sobs.

What is even more astonishing about Graham’s playing is that the notes underlying the bent note remain unaffected. As you bend a string, it gets closer to the string beside it – and, simultaneously, harder to keep that note held decently down. But you’ll never hear a badly sounded note on Folk, Blues and Beyond. Graham sounds like he’s playing Plato’s guitar.

After this piece of disguised virtuosity, a coded message to all guitarists listening, Graham returns to another three very straight bars of his opening theme – though he finishes these off with a bluesy solo on the higher strings. He’s beginning to play with the constraints of the form. The regularity of the bass-pulse continues, though. If this were electronic music, it would be called ‘motorik’. The discipline involved is inexpressible. This is Man Machine Music.

But, to a guitarist of my level or above, ‘Angi’ seems just about do-able. The opening downward plod holds out the hope that you might, after a couple of weeks practise, be able to cobble together your own version of this tune. In the 1960s, you didn’t exist as a folk guitarist until you were able to play ‘Angi’. It was your ticket into the session, onto the stage; it was your introduction to young ladies with long hair and atrociously thick knitwear. In order to do this, to get your version, you would have to jettison all but the basic structure of the song. Those high-up solo flourishes, they would be first to go. What you’d be left with is a dogged bash through something recognisable. In other words, a travesty.

‘Angi’ is still a rite of passage. Just type it in to YouTube and you’ll find several dozen virtuosi having a go.

None of them even comes close to Davy Graham. With every one, you can tell that they are playing the tune just to prove that they can play the tune. Their eyes fix on their hands, willing them not to make a mistake. And almost all of them take it too fast – as if, simply by speeding things up, they could show they were better than Graham.

The versions by Bert Jansch and Paul Simon are both painful, in different ways. Jansch wants to sound rougher than Graham. His rhythm isn’t as secure. Graham is an immaculate troubadour – someone fit to appear before the ladies of the court; Jansch is his Boho cousin, entertaining the marketplace. Paul Simon just wants to show that he’s a good enough guitarist to get from one end of the damn thing to the other. There is no musicality on display, just the kind of sleepwalking fingering that comes from months of repetitions. It constantly pushes to speed up. The end isn’t a fulfilment, it’s the finishing line; and the relief in the final jazzy chord is wince-making. Did it! No, you didn’t.

And here is where I’d like to bring in another song from Folk, Blues and Beyond. It is Graham’s transcendent version of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’.

To amateur guitarists like myself, this tune is a lot kinder than ‘Angi’, because it puts us out of our misery almost immediately. From the very first notes, it is clear that Davy’s guitar is tuned in some weird modal way that would take you months to figure out. Then he’s playing an entirely idiosyncratic mix of Celtic air, Delta Blues, Indian raga, Moroccan trance music and Bluegrass fingerstyle. This is very much the Beyond of Folk, Blues and Beyond. And what it is beyond is everything. Here is Carolan jamming with the Muezzin. Here is a musician as at home in the souk as in County Down. Davy Graham becomes a one-man Afro Celt Sound System. This is where the sitar on ‘Paint it Black’ comes from. But play Brian Jones’s one-string twangings after Graham’s spangle-making and you know who was the real genius. Similarly with The Beatles’ ‘Within You Without You’ and The Kinks’ ‘See My Friends’. Jimmy Page’s rip-offs of Davy Graham (‘No “Stairway”. Denied!’) are rightly notorious.

With Davy Graham’s ‘She Moves Through the Fair’, the guitarist is left no choice – either you play it exactly as he did, note-for-note, which would be an exercise in imitative virtuosity, or you give up completely, accepting that your only way to challenge Graham would be to come up with a guitar style as innovative, achieved and sublime. And that is impossible. Graham’s playing is imperialistic – it is the pink on the map of World Music. He is a Rough Guide to the strength of strings. You want to go exploring? Find some obscure place no-one’s ever been. Well, Davy’s lived there for three months. He can show you the best bars, the best brothels, and the best temples, also.

Where ‘Angi’ makes me pick the guitar up again, ‘She Moves Through the Fair’ makes me abandon it. I will never achieve anything like this in music. Far better for me to try and do it in words.

One thing remains puzzling. ‘Angi’ was supposedly written in tribute to Davy Graham’s girlfriend. But as a portrait of a young woman with a Bohemianly-spelt name (Davy himself now insists on ‘Davey’), ‘Angi’ is a complete failure. Nothing built of flesh and blood ever sounded like this. Try to imagine her moving at this pace: it’s too fast for a walk and too slow for a run; it’s too regular and breathless even for a dance.

The clue comes in the next song on the album: ‘Davy’s Train Blues’. ‘Angi’ can only be a locomotive – an American locomotive – ambling through a midwestern town; neither speeding up nor slowing down, just implacably, imperturbably continuing on its way. Only a mythic wreck would stop it (‘The Wreck of the Old 97’). ‘Angi’ travels in a straight line, on tracks, and wherever it is headed isn’t all that different to the place it’s come from. There is variety, along the way, but no climaxes; vistas open out, briefly, then are curtailed. It’s what’s going on in the carriages that is full of life.

Harmonica players have always loved to imitate midnight expresses: chuffing, plaining. Woody Guthrie did it, Bob Dylan, also. Here, Davy Graham manages it, too. That plonk-plonk-kerplonk-plonk is the regular rhythm of the wheels on the sleepers; the maintained chime of the middle notes is the drone of the engine; those bent upper notes are the trademark whoo-whoo-whoo riff of the whistle. But this, to complicate things more, is an American locomotive as heard by a European.

In his diary entry of 31 July, Kafka wrote: ‘Sit on a train, forget the fact, and live as if you were at home; but suddenly recollect where you are, feel the onward-rushing power of the train, change into a traveller, take a cap out of your bag, meet your fellow travellers with a more sovereign freedom, with more insistence, let yourself be carried towards your destination by no effort of your own, enjoy it like a child, become a darling of the women, feel the perpetual attraction of the window, always have at least one hand extended on the window sill.’

Three years ago, I bought a decent guitar and – with the help of the AnyoneCanPlayGuitar video, and bearing Ciaran always in mind – taught myself to play ‘Angi’.

Recently, when I heard of his illness, I sent Ciaran a link to a video of me playing it – just about getting through – something I’d never have done, if it hadn’t been for his challenge.

He replied, ‘Bravo!’

I can only say that back, a thousand times.

Ciaran was probably the most intense human presence I’ve ever encountered. When he looked at you, it was like you were facing a bonfire. It was a blaze of a gaze. If he asked a question, he was really asking it of the most profound part of you – and so, usually, you felt like you hadn’t given an adequate answer. You hadn’t even begun. He sometimes asked the same question again. I feel the only adequate answer would, in each case, have been a poem. Or, perhaps, a song.

If you would like to read more about Ciaran Carson, from those who knew him properly, The Irish Times has some wonderful tributes.