Alison and I (among others) ran a folk club in London (at Jacksons Lane Community Centre, Highgate) for a while, and later on lived in the same part of Tottenham for several years. It’s only recently – when we haven’t met face-to-face in decades and now live in different counties – that we’ve started to collaborate on songs, though.
Vestapol (even the name has variant spellings, almost as many as the tune) has a fascinating (if slightly confusing) history. Henry Worrall (1825-1902), an artist and musician who taught guitar at the Ohio Female College, composed a guitar piece apparently inspired by the siege of Sebastopol (1854-1855) and sometimes called ‘The Siege of Sebastopol’ or ‘Sebastopol: Descriptive Fantasie’, or – according to the printout of the sheet music I have in front of me – just ‘Sebastopol’.
Sadly, I can’t read music – well, maybe if it’s simple enough that I can play it on recorder, but that’s about as far as I can go, so I don’t know how close that piece is to the tune I’m interpreting in this video. Compared to this version, played by Macyn Taylor on parlour guitar, not very. That said, this version, played by Brian Baggett “interpreted from the original manuscript…in collaboration with the Kansas Historical Society” is just about close enough to suggest that my version does derive ultimately from the older piece. As does the resemblance of the naming of the later piece, and, even more, the fact that both pieces use the same open D (D-A-D-F#-A-D) tuning, often referred to by blues musicians as ‘Vestapol’ or ‘Vastapol’ (or similar) tuning.
It’s worth noting at this point that Worrall also published an arrangement of a popular piece called ‘Spanish Fandango’ – which, though it’s not without charm, to my ear resembles a ‘real’ fandango rather less than ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ resembles the work of Václav Tomášek – which uses an open G tuning (D-G-D-G-B-D). While I’m not aware that Worrall’s ‘Fandango’ has had anything like the same popularity or influence among blues/ragtime/folk musicians that ‘Sevastopol’ has, it’s notable that this open G tuning is often referred to as ‘fandango’ tuning. And certainly Elizabeth Cotton, who also played ‘Vestapol’, had a very similar tune called ‘Spanish Flang Dang’.
But – returning to ‘Vestapol’ – how did a formal piece apparently intended for the genteel parlours of the US get to my genteel home office/recording studio in the Wild West of Cornwall as a blues-y, train-y, ragtime-ish, clawhammer picking piece?
Stefan Grossman, who put together a three-part video to teach his own version, kind of skates over the issue as barely explainable, though a contributor to a thread on Mudcat points out perfectly reasonably that blacks and whites worked together and blacks worked as servants in the homes of white people: “They heard, they liked, they learned.” And adapted, making the work of other musicians into something of their own. So by the time John Fahey recorded the tune he still called ‘The Siege of Sevastopol’, it had developed into something significantly different Worrall’s tune, and acquired words – Robert Wilkins’s ‘Poor Boy (a long way from home) and ‘Prodigal Son’, later kidnapped by the Rolling Stones.
In fact, I sometimes follow Grossman’s lead in combining ‘Vestapol’ and ‘Poor Boy’ – he was the first person I heard do that, back in the late 60s or early 70s – or tack it onto the end of one of my own songs as with ‘Highway Fever’ here. Or ‘Castles and Kings‘, but not available as a recording right now.
However, on this occasion I decided to quit while I was ahead and just do the instrumental. And hope that it doesn’t measure up too badly to the many fine musicians who’ve taken their own shots at this well-worn but well-loved music.
This is a very young, very bitter song. I was actually playing with it in Garageband recently as a guitar piece, but the words came back to haunt me. I think I may change them, but the arrangement has promise.
(Vocal is a bit ropey: heavy cold…)
Miles of air is all I need
Jab on the starter and pick up speed
Stand back lady and watch me feed my heels
Got to get you out of my head
There’s new juice keeping my motor fed
From today I’m the fastest thing on wheels
You’re birdlime baby
And you should know
You’re bad news baby
Everywhere you go
Harley aged 60-something having fun adding lead break to Harley aged 30 something. Clearly, the words have changed a bit over the years. Originally recorded on cassette sometime in the 80s, probably playing my ES175D copy or my Ovation Viper: the lead break was added with a Les Paul Special.
I rolled out my paper this morning to see what Lady Luck would say She said “Sorry boy, no joy: It’s just another rainy day…”
Slow down, Lady Luck: why d’ya turn your back on me? I never meant you any harm at all, but you really have your knife in me
Rolled out of bed this morning, in hopes to see some sun But a long cool woman put the freeze on me and the good times are dead and gone
Slow down, Lady Luck: lady, won’t you let me be? I never meant you any harm at all, but you really have your knife in me
I don’t mean to bring you down, I don’t mean to take you too deep But I’m bored and bad and on my own and I need me a place to sleep
I think I’ll point my feet at the highway and move a little further down the line
If my shoes get stuck maybe Lady Luck will let me go this time
Words & Music by David Harley, copyright 1975
There once existed a recording of this with some percussion. Long gone. More rock than blues, in a pastiche sort of way.
No, nothing to do with Dionne Warwick or the Gibb brothers.
Written back in the 80s, and turned up in my box of half-written songs today. The tune needs work, and the words have already changed a bit since the recording. And yes, it was intended for a female singer, but I don’t have one handy right now.
Look at you – you’re such a heartbreaker
You’ve not yet said a word that anyone has heard
You know that all you have to do is smile
To capture any male – I’ve never seen you fail
To captivate every man in miles
Look at you – you’re such a foxy lady
Your table manners won’t win prizes; it’s really not surprising
That you’ve got broth all down your bib
But all your male relations are stood at battle stations
With the Kleenex to wipe down that greasy chin
Look at you – you’re such a heartbreaker
I can’t turn my back for a minute and a half
Without your creating mess
You’re taking years off my life – your dad says “Leave her, she’s all right”
But if he cleaned up I might be more impressed
Look at you – you’re such a heartbreaker
If I’d as many men as you to give my kisses to
I wouldn’t have much reason to complain
You’re a pain sometimes, it’s true, but I’d be heartbroken too
To be without you now, it’s so plain
Rough demo: vocal needs redoing completely when (if) my voice recovers from present croakiness, and guitars could be improved. But at least the tune is now out there.
Groping through the wavebands for a time-check
On a local music station I caught the tail end of the news
Of a singer in New York who’d committed suicide
Too late to catch the name, still I knew that it was you
The way that bad news comes as no surprise
Though till you hear it, you can’t think what could be wrong
In fact I thought of you just the week before
For the first time in years when someone asked me for a song
I’d learned from you
I don’t know how to define what you mean to me now
I never met you, of course, and I don’t sing your songs
Though I did long ago and even now, in a way
There are things I learned from you in songs of my own
I first heard your songs second-hand – the sweeter ones, of course
and bought an album on spec that raised blisters on my soul
In an era where ‘protest’ meant ‘hey man, it’s all wrong’
You were raising real issues and aiming at real goals
And I heard that you’d dried up, or did you just let it pass?
Did you find songs weren’t the weapon we were told that they could be?
No doubt someone has some answers but I’ll never really know
If you just decided snapshots don’t alter history
I’ve been thinking for hours there should be better songs to write
But thinking just makes circles in my head
There’s just a vague ache where my conscience ought to be
And a sour conviction that something true is dead
Only time will tell if I’m repeating your mistakes
Perhaps you’d have survived turning redneck like your peers
The romantics seem to be the real cynics after all:
Could it be the escapists really have the right idea?
And did you just decide living was a bind?
Slops for the body and musak for the mind?
Phil Ochs hanged himself in April 1976, after several very troubled years. Michael Schumacher suggested in his biography that “By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.” [The strangling took place when he was travelling in Tanzania – the assault left him with his vocal range seriously reduced. For some months in 1975 he told people that he was John Butler Train, saying that he’d killed and replaced Phil Ochs.]
The lyric is fairly literal. I did hear the ‘tail end of the news’ on a local station in Berkshire, where I was living at the time. The ‘song I’d learned from you’ was Ewan MacColl’s Ballad of the Carpenter, which I still sing from time to time, and the album I bought was “I ain’t marching any more“. (I often sing the song of that name and go straight into this song – or did when I performed regularly.) At the time I bought it, I was only aware of a couple of his songs sung by others, notably Joan Baez – whose version of ‘There but for fortune’ had made the UK top ten – and ‘Changes’, which I think I first heard sung by Julie Felix. The album actually has a wider range of material than the topical/’protest’ label might indicate, with a couple of the verse settings he did so well and the descriptive song ‘Hills of West Virginia’, as well as the searing ‘Talking Birmingham Jam’ and the darkly comical ‘Draft Dodger Rag’.
Ochs didn’t exactly ‘go redneck’ but his later concerts did reflect an urge to get the attention of the public by mixing his own material with covers of older rock and country material, and I certainly preferred at that time the straightforward topical material of ‘Marching’ and ‘All the news that’s fit to sing’ to the more self-consciously poetic material like ‘Crucifixion ‘. But there may be a hint there that I was already aware that the very English school of socially and historically aware singer-songwriter that I was loosely aligned to (Bill Caddick, Peter Bond et al) was already outgrowing its one-voice-one-guitar roots.
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow