Going For A Song: ‘Lonesome Valley’

Richard Dyer-Bennet – Lonesome Valley

You may be preparing for Christmas. You may be stuck for a present to get that music loving relative. So, instead of choosing a Christmas song, I’m using this week to write up a few music books I’ve enjoyed this year (though most have not been necessarily published this year).

My usual approach to music books is to dip in and out. That’s why, even though I began it quite a while back, I have only just finished Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute. It’s a great book; quite an undertaking, and it’s not a criticism to say it’s sometimes as contrary and contradictory as the protest songs, and the musicians who compose them, Lynskey writes about. Then there was the e-book, Point Close All Quotes: A Quietus Anthology, a varied collection of what it says on the tin – selected pieces from the Quietus website.

I finally got to reading (just because it was very hard to find a copy) Shirley Collins’s America Over the Water, which is the singer’s memoir of her trip with Alan Lomax – the musical archivist – to America in 1959. And after reading about Greil Marcus’s new book Three Songs, Three Singers, Three Nations I went back to his book Mystery Train. When I first read the section on Elvis Presley it made me reconsider my position on Presley completely, and I didn’t even know I had a position.

But it’s Studs Terkel’s And They All Sang I’d recommend the most. An illuminating and revelatory book. It covers, in parts, music I am quite unfamiliar with – classical and opera – but the way Terkel handles the material, the interviewees, and how the book is structured, I was carried through, held by Terkel’s enthusiasm for the artists he interviews and their music. It does what good music books and music writing should do first and foremost; make the reader want to go and seek out the music written about.

It was because of And They All Sang I began listening to Richard Dyer-Bennett. As Studs writes in the book, Dyer-Bennett was ‘a twentieth-century minstrel […] an art singer who sings folk songs as well as lieder’. Even now in 2015, when a male tenor voice is more commonplace, movie opening even, the initial reaction is maybe to laugh when you hear Dyer-Bennett, but that’s ok; it’s a natural reaction to something not quite understandable. For me Dyer-Bennett seems to exist in an era difficult to map; a part of musical history that evades clarification. I’m not going to attempt any description of ‘The Lonesome Valley’, but I’ll finish with the answer Dyer-Bennett gives in reply to Studs’s question about why he finishes his concerts with this particular song:

[It’s] a song that has continued meaning for me beyond the fact it is a good song musically […] The statement in the song is that you cross the lonesome valley by yourself […] I can’t come too closely to grips with my own feeling about it except that there’s an inescapable truth in the song and every time I sing it, I feel it. I have the feeling that every person in the audience feels it also.

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