Can a song be haunted? Actually haunted by the presence of voices rising up from the past? I believe so. And can a listener be haunted by a piece of music too? I don’t mean merely finding something “hauntingly beautiful”, but a song that is capable of nocturnal visitations or encroaching upon the environment of the listener and changing their perception of their surroundings. Of somehow getting inside of you, and evoking voices of demons that squirm there.
I don’t believe in ghosts as spectral physical entities but rather consider them to be the residue of unfinished business or perhaps the sub-conscious’s way of dredging up memories held in our muscles, bones and very DNA, as real as instinct or intuition. Ghosts may have been hijacked by horror film directors and autumnal merchandiser sellers – their white, wailing forms most likely born out drunken wandering folk’s encounters with owls – but really they are reminders of things buried deep within our genetic history evoked through anything from landscape and buildings to scents or tastes – and sounds. Definitely sounds.
Released just over a year ago, Richard Dawson’s ‘The Vile Stuff’ is a sound that is haunted by the spirits that are unleashed within it during the lyrical tale of a school trip to a Northumbrian castle, and is also capable of haunting the listener with its drones, tonal shifts, key changes and dramatic peaks and troughs. It is Homeric in scope, and as much a novel, play or epic poem as it simply a contemporary folk song.
Similarly moved in unexpected ways, John Doran of The Quietus offered a fantastic reading of ‘The Vile Stuff’, in which Dawson himself describes it as “like a cross between Dante’s Inferno – which I’m reading slowly at the moment – and a Hieronymus Bosch painting but with the characters drawn by Matt Groening.” This cartoonish element to which he refers comes in Dawson’s lyrics: “My neighbour Andrew lost two fingers to a Staffie-cross / Whilst jogging over Cow Hill with a Peperami in his bum-bag” is a Benny Hill-ish comedic couplet that’s had me chuckling through the darkest moments of 2015, while another scratched at the inside of my cranium for hours, days, weeks at a time: “I haven’t had a wink of sleep and now the sun is in my porridge / I’m starting a BTEC in engineering at Tynemouth college.” Imagine that occupying your every waking moment. Your every waking moment.
This, along with the biblical characters of the songs (‘Thaddeus’, ‘Peter’, ‘Simon’ – each, as Doran observed, named after Christ’s apostles) and Dawson’s electrified and distorted acoustic guitar playing style made for a work simultaneously haunted and haunting. This is a piece that goes way beyond your common-or-garden earworm and no amount of repeat plays seem able to exorcise the song from my deepest recesses. It is lurking around corners. It is watching from doorways. It is following me.
Perhaps coming from the north-east and being of a similar age and background, the colloquialisms and locations that enrich Dawson’s output evoke a world I am more than familiar with. ‘The Vile Stuff’ alone is littered with “hockle”, “lad’s bogs” and “menthol tabs”, while locations such as Featherstone Castle, Haltwhistle and “a Buddhist monastery in Halifax” (currently my local town) all feature. One listen and I am there, back rolling one-skinners in the school toilets or puking on coaches down winding back roads on trips to Beamish or Lightwater Valley. I’m also up in barren Weardale poking round abandoned lead mines, or out in Northumberland, trying to locate an unremarkable reservoir.
Dawson is no one-trick pony and is already arguably the British underground’s best kept secret, adored by several thousand on the live circuit and awaiting discovery by millions internationally. Working backwards converts can discover a wealth of accrued recorded material that bastardises the blues and reaffirms the importance of English folk music being done the right way and for the right reasons: to tell stories. To add to the narrative. To transcend place and time.
His 2012 album The Glass Trunk (to be re-issued in on Domino in December alongside 2011’s The Magic Bridge) is every bit as powerful as last year’s Nothing Important, on which ‘The Vile Stuff’ featured. The album is constructed around seven dark works sung a capella and inspired by real north-eastern stories of death, each punctuated by two short bursts of Dawson’s chiming, discordant guitar that is reminiscent of another Dawson – Les this time – and his approach to piano playing. I offer this solely as a compliment: behind his working men’s club turn facade and mother-in-law gags, Les Dawson was not only a linguistic expert and lover of literature but also a fantastically accomplished piano player whose every bum note was carefully placed.
Here is the north of old where life was cheap, short and pox-scarred. ‘Poor Old Horse’ depicts in horrifically violent detail the clumsy dispatching of a horse in a scrap-yard in Gateshead, while ‘The Ghost Of A Tree’ is a gothic narrative about a disastrous journey through the Yorkshire Dales, taking in the winding Buttertubs Pass, death in lime pits, and a constricting fog that curls around the necks of the wandering party’s members as they find themselves lost in “the arsehole of the world”. (Given my last two novels considered the violent world of a marginalised young Durham traveller complete with cruelty shown towards horses, and a bleak journey through a violent Cumbrian landscape of the distant past, how could I not be enamoured?)
Sung chorally with voices coalescing into a diabolical drone as hypnotic as the wind bending round a boulder of millstone grit and as mesmerising as any old crate-digging acid-folk classic that you could care to name (the works of Mr Fox and The Young Tradition are two that spring to mind) ‘The Ghost Of A Tree’ is a ragged and utterly unnerving song that has taken up residency in the hinterlands of my mind. It is haunting me. It won’t be leave me alone. I believe it to be a portal.
Such is the power of his music, the details of Richard Dawson’s life would almost seem superfluous, were it not for the fact that his entire output is clearly a product of time and place. Because his is 21st century folk music that awakens the ghosts of the past to remind us who we are and from where we came. This is the North of both past and present, a century-spanning place of coughing deaths from disease and Peter Beardsley, of spaghetti hoops, cub scout huts, day trips to odd museums and old quilt-makers. His biography tells of time spent working in pubs and record shops and years on the Newcastle club scene; it also tells of him being partially sighted. His story is out there to be read and will surely be explored in greater detail over the coming years.
Perhaps the true power of Dawson’s work lies in its disregard for the constraints of time, as it instead steps through the imagined walls that divide eras, just as the ghosts of our imaginations drift through walls in the early, still hours or hover down dusty stairwells. He spans eras simultaneously, marrying the old mining folk songs of pit-man poet Tommy Armstrong with the contemporary folk tones of The Unthanks; he has critics mentioning Captain Beefheart while playing shows that are like discovering that the drunk guy in the corner of your local is actually an outsider artists genius with a jukebox-head full of remembered songs and a suitcase carrying nothing but whisky and a shaving kit. Here is one good example.
Lyrically I’d argue he is already up there with Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, though thematically is more akin to the poetry of Ted Hughes or Basil Bunting or the era-hopping novels of Alan Garner. Dawson’s is the voice of all the ghosts of old England rising at once to sing songs of joy and woe, mayhem and murder, life and death. Taking my daily dose of Dawson last week I was, out of the blue, invited to act as one of several writers in residence on Hadrian’s Wall for a spell this winter. I know his music will be there with me – summoning more spirits, awakening the dead, bringing the landscape to life.
Few are the artists who truly move us. Fewer still are those capable of climbing inside the listener and living there. Richard Dawson is one of them. He will haunt you. And you will let him.
Benjamin Myers’ most recent novel ‘Beastings’ has been nominated for the Portico Prize For Literature