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   Richard Thompson  

 

Richard Thompson is a British singer-songwriter named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the Top 20 Guitarists of all-time. His work is admired and recorded by such artists as Bonnie Raitt, David Byrne and Elvis Costello.

 

From his teenage years as a founding member of the 1960's pioneering group Fairport Convention to duo work with his then-wife, Linda Thompson, and over 20 years as a solo artist, to scoring Werner Hertzog's 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, Richard Thompson's body of work includes over 40 albums distinctive for their acoustic and electric guitar delivery of which Newsweek said, 'Like all genuine art, it satisfies completely'.

 

In 1972 he released a solo album, Henry the Human Fly, which established him as a significant talent in his own right. In the same year he married folk singer Linda Peters. The combination of Linda's vocals and Richard's talents as songwriter and guitarist subsequently led to the recording of six albums by the them.  Their final album, Shoot Out the Lights, released in 1982, was their most successful, critically and commercially, and was ranked among Rolling Stone Magazine's Top Ten Records of The Decade.

 

In October 1990, Thompson was invited to the Guitar Greats celebration in Seville, Spain, as the special guest of Bob Dylan.


In 1995, the latest of several Thompson tribute albums was released called Beat the Retreat. REM, Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Syd Straw, Bob Mould, The Blind Boys of Alabama and others performed cover versions of Thompson's songs. These efforts illustrated the admiration these artists held for Thompson, and brought some his songwriting achievements to previously unexposed listeners.

 
In 2006 Thompson was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award at BBC 2's Folk Awards.


 

 

Q: Do you think of your lyrics as poetry?

 

A: I think they would incorporate a few of the virtues of poetry at one time or another, though in a more dilute form. In a sense, they are aground, lacking the depth to make them float on the cold page, needing the tune to lift them up off the sandbank. There are many poets who have written good, sing-able lyrics, like Walter Scott, Burns Yeats, etc. I think of Leonard Cohen as someone who does both poetry and song well, and it’s interesting, I think, to see how simple his tunes can be to carry various levels of complexity in the lyric. There is an unwritten rule (in my house, anyway) that says, complex lyric, simple tune, complex tune, simple lyric. The Elizabethan madrigalists would take straight poetry by the likes of Shakespeare or Herrick, and set it to fairly elaborate tunes, but I think their relationship with language was different - we may get back to that some day – right now, to my ears, settings of poetry to jazz, or sometimes opera settings, can sound stilted and artificial.

 

Q: Do you think it is important that songs rhyme and if so why?

 

A: As a songwriter, one is in the communication business, and it needs to be immediate. You have three minutes total to put it all across, plus you’d better grab them in the first line. Songs are considered entertainment much more than poetry, and it was probably ever thus. So rhyme helps, as does a degree of predictability, and repetition.

 

Q: Do you think song lyrics must conform to recognised song structures such as clear rhyming schemes, choruses, refrains, hooks and bridges or that songs can also be like free verse?

 

A: I’ve written one song (‘Shoot Out the Lights’) which does not rhyme at all, and no-one seems to have noticed! Another (‘Calvary Cross’) is in half-rhyme. Those are two of my most-requested songs, so clearly one can get away with it from time to time. I think the recognized song structures are the default, but it’s always possible to stretch the envelope, and to feel that you’ve gone somewhere where no one else has gone. There is that beatnik thing where you recite a beat poem over cool jazz but that I would categorize more as poetry with music rather than song.

 

Q:  When you read poetry in school or elsewhere did you recognize any connection to the music you enjoyed?

 

A: I grew up in a house full of Scottish poetry, and sometimes out of boredom, I would read it and enjoy it, although it never seemed as relevant to my life as the Kinks. We also had a book of Scottish ballads, and that’s the real place to go to school if you want to write song lyrics. We don’t know the authors, who may have been poets, schoolteachers, fishermen or farmers, but over hundreds of years of being sung, these ballads have become polished to a fine sheen, The verses that don’t advance the plot are gone, the weak lines and rhymes have been improved, and the singability is amazing! Ben Jonson said he would have traded all his work to have written the ballad ‘Chevy Chase’.

 

At school, I enjoyed poetry much more, and when my sister bought the first Dylan LP, it all started to make sense. One of the first things I did in the songwriting line was to set ‘The Sunlight In The Garden’ by Louis McNeice to music.

 

Q:  Was there anything about poetry in books that influenced your songwriting?

 

A: I think of songs as an accessible popular form of entertainment. On the music side, you can slide in the occasional idea from art music or jazz, and it’s all the better for it. On the word side, you can aspire to and borrow from poetry, without it actually being poetry. At school, we read Eliot and Graves and the Beat poets, and the Elizabethans, and our teachers had a genuine enthusiasm for the subject, especially the 20th century. Learning about symbolism, layering classical or mythological references into a poem, that was useful stuff to learn.

 

Q: Why do you think songs are more popular with people than poetry is?

 

A: Maybe because it’s more immediate, and more obviously entertaining. To get anyone under twenty to pick up any kind of book these days is more and more of a challenge. To get them to a poetry reading – ouch! But they could probably quote you Tupac or Tool or The Chili Peppers. I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I could speculate, and this may be ground well ploughed over by others:

 

Does poetry suffer from the same post-modern malaise as the rest of The Arts? Music has a hard time getting past Schoenberg and Varese and Cage. You get that abstract and then where do you go? Jazz hits Coltrane and Ayler, and then seems to retreat in confusion (or just Fusion). Painting hits Mondrian and Pollock and Rothko, and that’s about it for painting, and the concept takes over. Finnegan’s Wake deconstructs the novel, and can you then go back to the old narrative virtues? Poetry gets to Eliot and Pound, and then seems to do the same stutter. The Beat Poets return it to the streets, but then Dylan goes electric, and becomes the voice of his generation, singing very poetical lyrics with complexity and levels of meaning, and social and political relevance. In doing so, he may have been the most important “poet” of that generation, and dragged poetry closer to popular culture. And it’s stayed there to some extent in the popular song. Every band or solo performer after The Beatles and Dylan has had to write and sing their own lyrics, for the audience to identify with them, to be “authentic”. They must all be the voice of the audience, and must correctly express the concerns of their followers, social, personal and political. Being in the realm of pop culture, all this is tied up with image, marketing, fashion, etc., into quite a package, and I don’t think poetry can compete for the relevance, real or manufactured, to peoples’ lives.

 

There was a wonderful sketch by British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, in their 60s TV series Not Only But Also. The sketch was called ‘The Ludwig Van Beethoven Show!’, and featured Dudley Moore dressed in glittery Lurex frock coat and knee britches, with his hair freaked out, playing his hits to an adoring and screaming teenage audience. His patter between songs was a bit like an eighteenth century Lawrence Welk. At one point, he introduces his special guest, William Wordsworth (Peter Cook), who recites the poem ‘Daffodils’, accompanied by dancers ludicrously dressed as daffodils. The sketch is hilarious for many reasons, but mainly, I think, because the reality of High Art descending that far into popularity seems impossible in the real world.

 

The more limited opportunities for entertainment in the Elizabethan world meant that a Shakespeare play could be seen and presumably enjoyed by all classes of society. It could contain the highest poetry and the lowest comedy, and include plenty of love interest and blood and guts. We now pick and choose our recreation from hundreds of TV channels, scores of plays, millions of websites, millions of iPod downloads. There may never be that proximity of high and low again, that uniting form that appeals across barriers again... and yet it is extraordinary to watch the audience at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, sitting, or standing as groundlings, for a Shakespeare performance. Half the audience are tourists, about a third are kids who don’t want to be there, but in that setting the plays seem to make more sense, and everybody comes away with a positive experience. So maybe there’s a way …

 

 

 

   

 

copyright © Richard Thompson