Call Yourself Apprentice?


Around the start of the 80s I wrote some dialogue and monologues and most of the original music for the ‘Nice (if you can get it)’ revue, directed by Margaret Ford. At the time it was put together and (briefly) toured, I was working by day for a company that built staircases (mostly). This song is based on my personal experience of working in the woodworking industry, though I was a wood machinist, not a carpenter.

In a recent conversation, I expressed some regret that I never got to do something like the radio ballads put together by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Charles Parker et al, then realized that the revue was actually quite near to that concept.

Ian Campbell also wrote some songs in that idiom, including one called The Apprentice’s Song, but it’s about gas fitters. Mine is about an apprentice carpenter, and I’ve changed the title to avoid confusion with Ian’s song.

Originally a poem of sorts, but re-recorded as a song after a discussion about that harsh little joke in the third verse. I honestly can’t remember if it was used in the revue – it was written around that time, but maybe not soon enough to be included. Like ‘Long Stand‘, it touches on the uneasy relationship between the old hand and the apprentice – while hazing or snipe-hunting is a particularly unpleasant way of keeping the young ‘uns in their place, it’s not always considered the duty of the master to encourage the apprentice.

The tune is now mostly associated with ‘Tramps and Hawkers’, a song that seems to have been written by ‘Besom Jimmy’ in the late 19th century, though the tune is far older than that. (Ewan MacColl used the same tune for England’s Motorways, from the radio ballad ‘Song of a Road’, about the people who built the M1.)

Fetch the rolls: make the tea: then grab the end of that
And sand it till your fingers bleed, if you think you’ve planed it flat.
Call yourself apprentice? Lad, I’d be ashamed
If I knew so little, to be called by such a name

Never mind the splinters: In a year or two
You’ll have quite forgotten that they ever bothered you.
Hands as hard as English oak, muscle, skill and guile:
That’s what makes a craftsman; but not you, for a while

Cut yourself, you silly sod? Take care, if you please,
And don’t bleed on the timber: do you think it grows on trees?
Call yourself a craftsman? No, lad, never you.
Though if you try your hardest, one day you might scrape through

So you’ve got your piece of paper? I hope I’ve taught you well,
And I won’t deny you’re willing: no doubt time will tell.
Call yourself a craftsman? That’s as may well be…
Another year, or five, or ten, and then perhaps we’ll see…

David Harley

Long Cigarettes, Cheap Red Wine

This is a very old song (early 1970s) I keep revisiting. Old in years, but perhaps not in terms of maturity. This time I went back to it because Ian Semple played a version on his radio show on Coast FM (thanks, Ian!) that I’d not only forgotten I’d cut, but also couldn’t find on my laptop. This version has a slightly trimmed version of the lengthy instrumental (much more recent) with which it starts, and a different take on the actual song. It’s essentially the same track that I used on the Ten Percent Blues album, only I didn’t use the instrumental for that album.

Backup version:

Unusually for me, the guitar is in open G (which I did use a lot more in those days, but mostly for slide). I think I originally wrote it on banjo, which might explain a lot.  The instrumental might reappear on a poetry/music project.

You sing your songs, the stage is bare
There isn’t anyone out there
Sometimes it almost seems that way
And I run out of songs to play

Forget the muzak and the beer
The open mouths, the grudging cheers

There isn’t any better way
To freeload your life away

Back in 1969
I lost someone I thought was mine
That’s the price I had to pay
When I ran out of songs to play

Goodbye, old friend, I have to leave
To prove to myself that I’m still free
I’ll see you in a year or so
And buy the round you say I owe

The long cigarettes, the cheap red wine
The melodies you say are mine
If you find somewhere to be
I hope you’ll save a place for me

David Harley

Eclipses and Auroras

You’re going to be disappointed. This is possibly the dullest astronomical post you’ll ever read, if you’re rash enough to read on in the hope that I’m joking.

Well, just so that it isn’t a complete waste of your time, it started with a post that just crossed my radar on the Cornish Story web site. Cornwall and the Scillies were the part of Britain best-placed to see the total eclipse of 1999, and while many were disappointed that Cornish mizzle obscured the spectacle, Alan Murton and his family were luckier than most and got a pretty good view from the cliffs at Perranporth, as described in his article Whose Eclipse?

In his postscript, he says: “Can you remember the full eclipse of the sun?  I do because I was among the lucky ones who enjoyed the sight of the clouds parting a few minutes before totality.”

On another day, I probably wouldn’t have commented on that, but as it happens I’m sitting in my pyjamas with my brain working at half-speed due to a (hopefully temporary) condition that’s too dull and (more importantly) too embarrassing to describe further, and this is about the most useful bit of writing I’m capable of right now.

So yes, I remember it. Mostly because I didn’t see it. I wasn’t in Cornwall, for a start, and hadn’t been for many years (holidaying as a child). I was in London, working for Imperial Cancer Research Fund, which later became Cancer Research UK. And I was probably the only person in the building, everyone else having rushed out to Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see whatever the weather permitted of the eclipse. Why? I was on the phone to some other luckless, totality-deprived individual, trying to get a handle on his or her IT-related problem. No, of course I don’t remember what the problem was: if it was a helpdesk day, it could have been anything. So my view of the eclipse was basically that of darkness suddenly descending on Kingsway: apart from the speed of the descent, it looked much like any winters evening looked from my office, except that I didn’t have to wait for dawn next day to see daylight again. My daughter, who was with her mother  in Austria, did rather better.

Ah, you may say, but you’re in Cornwall now, so you must have seen the Aurora Borealis? Well, I did go out at a ridiculous hour of the morning in the hope of seeing it, but I didn’t see the amazing displays people in Cornwall had actually seen the night before. Because it was an amazingly clear night, I did take some photographs anyway, and because the phone needed exposures of several seconds, I did get to see some effects I hadn’t seen with the naked eye: a mysterious green aura over the nearest large town, and a halo round the moon. Here they are, but they’re hardly prizewinning photos.

Well, I promised you disappointment, and I always keep my promises. I can only say that some of the other photos were even duller. Perhaps I should have tried for a video or two, since I couldn’t realistically do time-elapsed stills.

David Harley

New book and album

For quite a while I’ve been threatening the world with a book based on my Tears of Morning album, on which nearly all the content has a Shropshire connection, including some settings of verse by Housman. The first version went onto the back-burner when I excised one of the appendices and gave it its own book (The Vanes Of Shrewsbury), which essentially provides historical and personal commentary on Shrewsbury as illustrated by my late uncle, Eddie Parker. I then veered into other projects, including a book on Nashville tuning for guitar and a new edition of my verse collection from the 1980s Suite in Four Flats (and a Maisonette).

Now, however, the Tears of Morning book (now renamed So Sound You Sleep) is available, like the other three, as a paperback and as an eBook for Kindle.

How Sound You Sleep tells the stories behind the songs on the album Tears Of Morning, which comprises songs and settings of poetry with a (sometimes tenuous) connection to Shropshire and the Welsh Marches. Several of the poetry settings are from Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’.

The book contains copious commentary and information on the historical, traditional, musical and/or biographical background to the songs and poems on the original album, especially the settings of verse by Housman. However, it also includes a lot of additional material relating to other songs and settings, in many cases with a Shropshire connection that is even more tenuous. Not all the additional Housman settings, for example, are from A Shropshire Lad.

An updated version of the original album – called So Sound You Sleep – More Tears of Morning – features many more tracks in order to reflect the content of the book. There are links to each of the tracks in the book: while I’d be very happy if you bought the album, you don’t have to buy it to listen to the individual tracks. 🙂

(All of my books – well, those that are still available, including some ancient security books – can be found here, and all my current albums are on Bandcamp.)

Thanks to Kate Morley for the cover art and to Denise Lewis of the Memories of Shropshire Facebook group for permission to use a photograph of her great-grandmother, Ellen Hughes, who told a story to the writer Ida Gandy that was the starting point for one of my songs.

David Harley

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

From the forthcoming album, an expanded version of the Tears of Morning album to go with the upcoming book. I’ve recorded it before, but this version is heavily edited and remixed with copious synth.

This 1917 poem by Housman refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916. I find it hard to empathise with either Housman’s or Kipling’s imperialist sympathies, but the poem does have power. I hope my arrangement does it justice.

From ‘Last Poems’, by the way, not ‘A Shropshire Lad’.


More Tears of Morning – Rain

I’ve now started uploading some tracks for the enhanced (hopefully) version of the Tears of Morning album, to go with the book – almost finished. This is one of two versions of Rain that will be added to the new version. The song is (probably) the first song I wrote and kept, from the late-ish 1960s/

This is an a cappella version, the other version will be a video capture including guitar.