Category Archives: Johnny Cash


Elsewhere, I found myself trying to maintain the difference between an “engineer” and a “mechanic”. To that end I rattled off this:

My Dear Old Dad completed his apprenticeship as a locomotive fitter for LMS. That “qualified” him to be a Chief Petty Officer running three Packard high-octane engines on an MTB (= PT boat) up the war-time Aegean. I never heard him claim to be an “engineer”, or more than a “tiffy” (= artificer). In all truth, I’d rather a time-served mechanic worked on my vehicle’s engine than a desk-bound engineer — and so would some engineers of my acquaintance.

I think I also had in my head an ear-worm of Cyril Tawney’s Lean and Unwashed Tiffy (there was once a Youtube of this, but it seems to have been lost at sea):

61iw6i0bbyl-_sx425_I’m a lean and unwashed tiffy
I come up from Plymouth Town
I can fix it in a jiffy
If you’ll hand that spanner down
If you’ll hand – that spanner down.

Cyril acquired that first line from … Bill Shagsper, no less:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously:
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths: […]
Another lean unwash’d artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

It also crosses my mind there’s a further dimension of English social history in the word.

The OED has its earliest citation from John Gower:

And so forth of the remenant
Of al the comun poeple aboute,
Withinne Burgh and ek withoute,
Of hem that ben Artificiers,
Whiche usen craftes and mestiers,
Whos Art is cleped Mechanique.

One’s mestier is one’s trade, by the way — which survives in modern French as métier. So artificier and métier: two English acquisitions from (Norman-)French at the end of the Fourteenth Century. And that, of course, was the time, the end of the process, when the Norman aristocracy merged their language with the Saxon peasants.

But I’m wondering if we can go a bit further. The Black Death was the lubrication that transformed feudal servitude into one of wage-labour. I’m looking here at Philip Ziegler’s monograph on The Black Death:

Another point to which Thorold Rogers attached particular importance was the ease with which the peasant could escape from his manor in the chaotic conditions of the English countryside in 1349 and 1350. This ever-present if unvoiced threat must have made the landlord far mor amenable to the peasants’ pleas for better conditions of work.

The Establishment attempted to push back with the (ineffectual) Statute of Labourers — one of the best examples in history of dead-letter legislation. Ziegler, again:

The object of the statutes was to pin wages and prices as closely as possible to a pre-plague figure and thus check the inflation that existed in England of 1349-51. The Government realised that this could never be achieved so long as labourers were free to move from one employer to another in search of higher wages and so long as employers were free to woo away labourers from their neighbours with advantageous offers.

The essential clue there to why the Statute of Labourers could not work is is use of the word “employer” rather than, perhaps, “lord”.

The working man, then, could aspire to this new status: craftsman, mestier, artificer.

But what about “engineer”?

The OED gives its first citation to c1380 — remarkably contemporary with Gower, but at this stage specifically as:

A constructor of military engines; a person who designs and constructs military works for attack and defence.

Consider: two World Wars facilitated the development of the modern aircraft. Out of the Cold War and the associated Space Race we got everything from non-stick saucepans to the internet. During the Fourteenth Century the spread and sophisticating of gunpowder meant warfare and defences had to change. Enter the “engineer”.

The American usage of “engineer” for — specifically — the driver of a locomotive or the manager of a ship’s steam-power is illustrative of something akin. In both cases (trains and steam-ships) in early applications the steam-boiler was a damnably dangerous appliance of science. One didn’t rise to such a level of expertise without a long and onerous apprenticeship, for which one could proudly congratulate oneself.

Somewhere around here I have an aged bit of early-’60s vinyl, and Joanie Baez telling of Georgie’s fate on Engine 143:

51utcgazigl-_sx425_Up the road he darted, into a rock he crashed:
Upside down the engine turned; and Georgie’s breast did smash.
His head was against the firebox door, the flames are rolling high:
I’m glad I was born for an engineer, on the C&O road to die.

Youtube seem to have that one blocked, so we’ll have to suck it up with The Man in Black (no great loss, then: and it was a Carter Family song before Joanie):


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Dave revisited

Way, way back, when Malcolm’s Home and Away Services were blogspotted, he found himself pre-occupied with the multiplicity of Daves.

twangThat was prompted in part by George Strait’s 2009 album, Twang. Then newly-released it was thoroughly raspberries by Steve Morse, reviewing it for the Boston Globe. Across the Great Divide, Randy Lewis for the LA Times nailed it as:

a pretty nifty summation of what commercial country is, circa 2009.

Note that “commercial”. It is not a compliment, but it makes one wonder what “uncommercial country” must amount. Particularly so when it’s a “big hat”act.

Anyway, Twang includes a song, Arkansas Dave (a folksy old-fashioned C&W morality, credited to Strait’s son):

He rode up on a winter day,
Steam rising off the street, they say.
Said, “You probably know my name:
If you don’t it’s Arkansas Dave.

He talked of fifteen years ago,
And how he got to play hero.
Said he killed a man in Ohio:
First man he killed, first horse he stole.

Marty Robbins did this kind of thing with more style, and more originality, a half century gone.

Johnny Cash could, and did, do it sequentially — starting with Don’t Take Your Guns to Town in 1958. When Strait’s boastful (and totally forgettable — Malcolm wishes he could purge it from his memory) Dave ends up miscalculating the odds, and dead in that same street, we are not prostrate in bestaggerment.

Still, let’s hear the good stuff:

In honour of Diddy Dave Cameron, who hasn’t been having a good few days of late, what other lyrics celebrate the forename of the moment?

11021614438_3-W231His Name is Alive, on the King of Sweet album (not Malcolm’s sort of thing, at all, but if you have one, don’t shout about it: it’s worth the odd bob) did two in a row: Ode on a Dave Asman and A Dave in the Life.

Boomtown Rats achieved something eponymous and a bit better known (Pete Townsend rated it), as the opener for The Long Grass album:

But please,
The view from on your knees
Keep going, Dave.

That one was deep into the trans-Atlantic deep doodoo. The US executives thought it odd that a man might sing a love song to a “Dave”. It had to be re-recorded and issued as Rain. There is a clip on YouTube, but it’s blocked in the UK.
Then we have Caffein(UK punk-rockers, on the road less-taken — unfairly so) doing Dave’s Song (In Slow Motion):

I looked up to the sky, and I saw a figure
It was small with shiny lights;
And out of this, this little blue figure,
With the small shining lights
Stepped a little blue man,
With a little blue figure
And he said to me “Do you believe?”

Some kind of psychological profile is emerging here; and it doesn’t flatter Daves.

Let’s go to the movies …

Dave (1993)On the great Silver Screen (but more at home on off-off-peak sitting-room TV), there was Kevin Kline’s 1993 outing as Dave.

In Malcolm’s view, that was a more than decent movie: light, frothy, with a heart in the proper place. It references two recognisable characters:

  • the scheming, creepy, on-the-make Bob Alexander (played by Frank Langella), the inspiration for subsequent melodramatic villains of the Dubya coyer: Karl Rove and Veep Cheney;


  • the decent, honourable Vice-President Nance (a cameo for Ben Kingsley). He takes the name from “Cactus Jack”, FDR’s first Vice-President, John Nance Garner, and his unacceptably-progressive (except in the company of such as President Jed Bartlet) ideology from FDR’s second, Henry Agard Wallace. In historical terms, just as well that FDR’s death precipitated his third pick, Harry Truman, who deservedly gets into everyone’s Top Ten of all time, into the job.

The slogan on which Dave was advertised went:

In a country where anybody can become President, anybody just did.

The US of A allows even a self-confessed “mutt, like me” to reach the highest office in the land, but, as far as Malcolm can recall, the only time a real “David” made it into the White House, he was David Dwight Eisenhowe (and he didn’t make too bad a show of it). In the UK, of course, it helps to see a Dave through if he has royal cousinage, is descended from the mistress of a royal princeling, has a wife with connections to the Astors, and some £20 million of inheritance money.

david-golden-balls-1345794682Why are some Daves unfailingly “David”?

In particular, why was “Golden Balls” always given his full birth name, never abbreviated — or when he was, he became “Becks”?

Even St David of Wales is allowed to be “Davey”, but that’s largely because he is also Dewi Sant. If one is the author of all those psalms, you get your full moniker, and pass it on to all the others. Dabíd mac Maíl Choluim and Daibhidh a Briuis, as the two Kings David of Scotland, are historically dignified without shortening. And if you were sculpted by Bernini, by Donatello, by Michelangelo or by Verrochio, you get the full five-syllables, though one of you spends eternity in the buff.

David, Prince of Wales, got the top job (briefly) and was recycled as “Edward VIII”, before he become “Duke of Windsor”. But he was just one of three Princes of Wales with that forename, along with Dafydd ap Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd. Perhaps we should throw David Lloyd George into that mix.

Musicians seem to tend to Dave rather than David: Brubeck; Davies; Edmunds; Matthews, Swarbrick, Van Ronk. Apart from the economist Davids (Hume and Ricardo) Hume and the playwright Mamet, the most obvious literary David was always elided down to D.H.

Still, most peculiar that the demotic never accepted “Dave” for Beckham..

On the box

Nor should we overlook Freeview channel 12. Here we find the BBC’s marketing vehicle for antique video-tape. It’s Dave, tending to laddishness (and named on the principle that “Everybody knows a man called Dave”), the 1998 fifth reboot of a repeats channel. Stephen Fry and TopGear seem never far away from the schedule.

In recent years Dave has  has has spawned a whole litter of siblings, and even got around to the odd original (if dirt cheap) studio shows never knowingly oversold as:


full of complete and utter wits

Or as:

The home of witty banter

Read those very, very carefully. Any miscue is deliberate.

The posters for Dave, common on the London Underground, are unfailingly striking, and frequently zoological:
At least it is switch-offable or channel-hop-able. And isn’t based entirely on prat-falls and mis-speaks of the Cameron kind.

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Cashing in on Dylan

By  some casualty, Malcolm’s Big Bastard ™ hard-drive (where he keeps those back-ups of his iTunes Library) threw up Johnny Cash at Newport 1964.

What seems implicit — get the whole concert, and listen –  is that Cash had to fight to catch the audience. By the time he came to his version of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right he had’em. And — let’s admit it  — it’ll never be done better.

Not a bad moment on a Friday night.

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A profitable weekend

Once upon a time Malcolm would have been easily satisfied by the lesser things in life: world peace, or the arrival of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Now, in the autumn of his span, he looks for something more: a decent bottle of wine for a reasonable cost, a good book, a nice surprise. Well, this weekend, two out of three can’t be bad.

The book

The book is C.J.Sansom’s Winter in Madrid. Obviously Malcolm has taken some eighteen months to get around to this one. That is a function of an antipathy to rave reviews, and lasting disillusion with historical whodunits (Sansom’s previous speciality). However, eventually the combination of a Spanish Civil War background and a three-for-two offer at Waterstone’s got him. Wowza! There are enough synopses and tasters on the Web for Malcolm to be excused the task of summarising. Nor is it a particularly complex story: it amounts to a series of interlocking emotional triangles. The essential theme is loyalties. Three factors make it different: a disordered time sequence, characters overcoming childhood crises, a superbly-realised and atmospheric background.

It was Chapter 10 when Malcolm came to this:

There was a susurrating murmur from the crowd. At the far end of the hall a door opened and a bevy of flunkeys bowed in a middle-aged couple. Barbara had heard that Franco was a small man but was surprised how tiny, even delicate, he looked. He wore a general’s uniform with a broad red sash around his paunchy middle. He held his arms stiffly at his sides, moving them back and forth as though leading a parade. His balding head gleamed under the lights. Doña Carmen, walking behind, was slightly taller than her husband, a tiara in her jet black hair. Her long haughty face was made for the regal expression it wore. There seemed something posed, though, about the stoniness of the Generalísimo’s face, the little mouth set hard under the wispy moustache, and the surprisingly large eyes staring ahead as he marched past the stage.

The Falangists in the audience sprang to their feet, stretching out their arms in the Fascist salute. ‘¡Jefe!’ they called out. The rest of the audience and the orchestra followed.

[Sansom admits in his end-note:

I have also invented Franco’s attendance at the first performance of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, which was actually in Barcelona.

And where else than the Palau de la Música Catalana, on 9th November 1940. The first Madrid performance did not happen until December 11th (which would be too late for Sansom’s chronology).]

Sansom’s description is, for Malcolm, quite spine-tingling. In terms of skewering the characterisation and the zeitgeist, it is as effective as, say, Dickens doing for the Veneerings. It is also less arch, less baroque, which adds to the noir sinisterness. Malcolm knows that it is essential for the writer of any critique or blurb to stretch for comparators. The Independent‘s reviewer (Barry Forshaw) invoked Greene (as did Michael Arditti in the Mail) and Hemingway; the Telegraph invoked Julian Mitchell; the Express threw in Sebastian Faulks and Carlos Ruiz Zafón (the latter perhaps simply because of the cover design and the Spanish location). Malcolm has already thrown in Dickens (if only for the complexity of the plotting), but would add Alan Furst (if only for the setting and the mood).

Incidentally, Furst’s latest The Foreign Correspondent is out in paperback in the US, but not in the UK until the end of the year. Seems a good way to exploit the exchange rate.

The nice surprise

Malcolm has already mentioned Our American Cousin in these drivellings, and has come to rely on OAC for guidance through the maze of song-writers, particularly those from Texas. OAC severely counselled Malcolm on his ignorance of, among others, the late Townes Van Zandt. Now Malcolm is not entirely ignorant in these matters, but his knowledge of Van Zandt extended little further than his credits on a stack of fine songs and for Dead Flowers on the soundtrack of the final scene of The Great Lebowski. Then there was a worthwhile essay by Anthony Decurtis in Rolling Stone some years ago: the essay had Van Zandt’s name in the title, but was mainly about Willie Nelson (which is how Malcolm came to it). RS‘s last review (or the last one Malcolm can see) of Van Zandt was pretty hot:

with the market flooded with all-too-often mediocre singer-songwriters, it would be very easy to overlook Townes Van Zandt. But it would be a mistake, because Townes is one of the very best… Townes’ quiet, unassuming voice and guitar come across like a fresh prairie breeze. And if there were any justice in this world, he’d be a star, not just the property of a tiny band of followers who count his records among their most prized possessions.

So Malcolm put on his frog-suit and went a-courtin’, and came back with the inevitable Best of …

Not quite an instant revelation, but a growing recognition. This culminated by the 13th track: The Ballad of Ira Hayes. In common with anyone else still breathing, Malcolm knew this one mainly from Johnny Cash’s version: upfront, quite up-tempo and bristling with anger. Let us equally celebrate that Cash, when asked to sing for Nixon, chose this and What is Truth? as alternatives to the President’s choice of Okie from Muskogee.

Van Zandt makes Ira Hayes much more elegaic, more thoughtful, driving the message more subtly. As Michelin would say, “worth a special journey”. And the song really belongs to neither Van Zandt nor Cash: it is by Peter La Farge.

So, another strike for Our American Cousin.

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Filed under C.J.Sansom, Franco, Johnny Cash, Rodrigo, Rolling Stone, Spain, Townes Van Zandt