Ryeberg Playlist: Guitar Poets

1) If I Become Antique You Collect Me

Fionn Regan, “Snowy Atlas Mountain” (2007)

That’s young Fionn Regan of Bray, County Wicklow, Ireland, making beautiful pictures atop vibrating strings. He joins an antique tribe of guitar poets. Below, Ryeberg collects eleven of Fionn’s precursors.

2) Not Wanting A Peaceful Life

Son of a Georgian father and Armenian mother, Boulat Okudjava entered the world in 1924 in Moscow. He fought the Germans as a teen soldier in the Red Infantry Army. He graduated from Tbilisi University and worked as a school teacher. Later he was editor at a publishing house. He wrote poems and essays and novels. He performed his own songs — songs of love for fabulous women, of fragile men suffering war, of nostalgia for old Moscow. Soviet authorities were not always receptive to his lyrics, but pirate recordings spread throughout the USSR. Two years after his death in 1997, his face appeared on a Russian stamp.

Boulat Okudjava (1924-97), “The Paper Soldier” — Thx David Gille

There once was a soldier,
Handsome and brave,
But he was a toy for children,
Because he was a paper soldier…

And he, cursing his destiny,
Not wanting a peaceful life,
Demanding: “I want to go to the front lines,”
Forgetting he was a paper soldier…

3) Et Puis L’Amour A Fait Le Reste

Many think of Okudjava as the Georges Brassens of the Soviet Union. And Brassens? He’s the one and only. The incomparable.

Georges Brassens (1921-81), “L’Orage”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez writing in 1981: “In the course of a literary discussion, someone asked who was the best poet at the moment in France. I responded without hesitation: Georges Brassens.”

But it’s not only the great beauty and craft of his texts. Even in his voice, in the pull of his guitar strings, there is that same beauty and craft — and wisdom, menace, hope, gravity, elegance, love… Yeah, Ryeberg likes this guy, a lot.

4) I Will Let Horses Drink, I’ll Complete This Refrain

Another Soviet-Russian bard often compared to Brassens is Vladimir Vissotsky, born 1938, deceased 1980. He tore through his short life like an asteroid (there is an asteroid named after him), leaving behind hundreds of poems and songs, as well as over twenty screen roles, a handful of prose works, three wives, a bounty of mistresses, and the exploitative entourage that had fed his alcohol and heroin addiction.

His sly, ironic songs of war and everyday life and the hypocrisy of officialdom didn’t always please his government. Leonid Brezhnev is believed to have said: “The air of Moscow will be more breathable when Vissotsky and Okudjava no longer breathe it.”

Vladimir Vyssotsky (1938-80), “Capricious Horses”

Hey, is that Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov sitting in the audience?

5) And So The Earth Is Yours

If we’re singing about horses, let’s get ourselves to Spain and gallop to the sea.

Paco Ibáñez (born 1934), “A Galopar” — Thx Pauline Hachette

Paco Ibáñez did not originate his own texts, but he interpreted those of Federico García Lorca and Rafael Alberti and Miguel Hernández so stirringly that he belongs in this playlist. No Spaniard would argue. Hey, he did covers of Brassens as well.

6) If Our Lives Could Be Like That

Judy Collins was another prodigious singer-player who channeled the words of other poets. Here she is doing one of Dylan’s best.

Judy Collins (born 1939), “Bob Dylan’s Dream” (Rainbow Quest, 1960s)

7) With God On His Side

Yup, Bob Dylan’s dreams are our dreams. Out of the old, he made songs that were new and lasting, even when he lifted melodies directly from others, like “With God On Our Side,” which takes from “The Patriot Game” by Dominic Behan, which itself takes from a traditional Irish folk song, “The Merry Month of May.”

Bob Dylan (born 1941), “With God On Our Side” (1964)

From Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One: “Sometimes you just want to do things your way, want to see for yourself what lies behind the misty curtain. It’s not like you see songs approaching and invite them in. It’s not that easy… You have to know and understand something and then go past the vernacular. The chilling precision that these old-timers used in coming up with their songs was no small thing. Sometimes you could hear a song and your mind jumps ahead…” This stuff got him the Nobel Prize for Literature.

8) The Angry Skylark

Dylan was probably unaware of Félix Leclerc, but he’s one of those chillingly precise old-timers. He did a whole lot for the post-war chansonnier revival in Quebec. He also sang in support of Quebec national identity. Case in point, “L’Alouette en Colère,” released just after the October Crisis of 1970 (see 10:28).

Felix Leclerc (1914-88), “L’Alouette En Colere: 10:28” (1974)

Damn, that’s good: a politically passive father coming to feel the anger of his rebellious son, who he acknowledges is disenfranchised in an anglophone Quebec. His son, “renter and unemployed in his own country,” his mother tongue not recognized by the law, driven to crime, imprisoned… Finally, the father admits:

Pour la première fois
Malgré moi, malgré moi
Entre la chair et l’os
S’installer la colère…

9) Take Me As I Am

Be gone snow and strife of Quebec. The sunshine of California is calling. Hey, why do so many Canadians make California home?

Joni Mitchell (born 1943), “California”

Joni Mitchell comes from Fort Macleod, Alberta, where her father was an officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. She started smoking at nine years old, around the time she taught herself to play guitar. She’s always used open tuning and fairly unusual right-hand techniques, but it’s her vocal phrasing and those high, pure notes that make you want to cry.

10) He Talks His Dreams To Sleep

Fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen has stuck it out in Montreal. He lives somewhere off Boulevard St. Laurent. The “profane prophet” toured until the end of his life, never ready to leave the platform for a sleeping car that’s warm.

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), “The Stranger Song”

11) Trying To Wipe Out Every Trace

Another poet of loneliness, another tired man laying down his hand: Tom Waits. But he’s not on a Greek island or European train platform, he’s in a greasy diner, he’s growling into the microphone at a seedy bar, drinking last-call bourbon on a Saturday night.

Tom Waits (born 1949), “The Heart Of Saturday Night” (1975)

12) Guitarra Dimelo Tu

Finally, the grandiose Atahualpa Yupanqui, born 1908 in Pergamino. In his early twenties, he joined Argentina’s Communist Party, meaning censorship and detainment later on in life during Juan Perón’s presidency. He fled to France in 1949 and a year later was opening for Edith Piaf. He befriended Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard and Pablo Picasso. He recorded an album. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1952 and by the sixties was recognized the world over… Apparently he composed over 12,000 songs in his lifetime!

Atahualpa Yupanqui (1908-92), “El Carrero”

From his song,

Men are dead gods
From a time now fallen
Not even their dreams were saved
Only a shadow remains
And I pass the morningtime
Searching for a ray of light
Why is night so long?
You, guitar, tell it to me.

– Ryeberg

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