The Joy of Three Chords

Last night we watched Songwriters on the BBC, a musical rummage through BBC archives from the early 1970s. I rather enjoyed it. Very little of it was the kind of music I buy on CD to listen to, so this came as a pleasant surprise. The highlight, for me, was footage of Joni Mitchell playing the dulcimer and singing A Case of You. It first appeared in 1971. This is music with the hint of an edge to it:

Oh, I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints.
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid.

Then there were, too, I have to say, lots of men who looked like the hairy man from The Joy of Sex singing songs I’ve never heard of and never likely to hear again.  There was a band I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of – Stealer’s Wheel (“That’s Gerry Rafferty? The Gerry Rafferty? Like, er, Baker St?”). Leonard Cohen put in an appearance. There were sad stories, too, of musicians who’d never quite made it or who’d died too young.

I found myself getting drawn in. The lyrics often sounded as if they had to be written. The music was democratic: the chords could be picked up in minutes by anyone who could play three or four chords on a guitar (something these songs perhaps have in common with the otherwise very different world of Punk). Then there was the late Clifford T Ward‘s Home Thoughts from Abroad. I take my hat off to  a songwriter who has the nerve to write:

I’ve been reading Browning, Keats and William Wordsworth
And they all seem to be saying the same thing for me
Well I like the words they use, and I like the way they use them
You know, Home Thoughts From Abroad is such a beautiful poem
And I know how Robert Browning must have felt
‘Cause I’m feeling the same way about you…

Somehow it kind of made sense that he gave it all up to become an English teacher. I just wish he’d taught me.



8 thoughts on “The Joy of Three Chords

    1. It is, isn’t it? I’ve recently been getting into Patti Smith. To my surprise, I found myself thinking of PS when I heard this. No obvious reason, but I think I might start listening to more Joni Mitchell and I don’t think people fit into the “boxes” fans and critics put them into quite as easily as one might assume.

  1. That sort of English teacher is hard to find – although AR was not too bad, was he?

  2. I think there’s a lot more in common between JM and PS than the two of them would care to admit. Not necessary in a twim-soul singer-songwriter way but the freedom with which they compose. They don’t follow the same rules as the rest of the herd.

    Great post. Loved it.

    Greetings from London.

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