Among the certainties of human existence, death and tax rank fairly high. So, a cynic might say, does Bill Taylor's disapproval.
In Salut! Live's corner of human existence, it is necessary only to express a liking for this or that piece of music for Bill to raise an objection. Which brings us to a wonderful song, Bay of Fundy, its Nova Scotian geography very familiar to Toronto-based Bill. And to an immediate admission that if I were to say Bill disapproved of my absolute joy on hearing the Unthanks perform it, I would be exaggerating. He likes it, too, and also loves the Unthanks to bits; he just feels their version is the least convincing of those he has unearthed.
I was unaware of both song and composer, Gordon Bok, until Steve Peck drew it my attention at Salut! Live's Facebook group. I am indebted to him for alerting me to the Unthanks' new version and to my mate Tom Dooley (as he styles himself these days) for encouraging me to listen to Gordon Bok. The Unthanks are, as I would expect, irresistible. And the more I hear of Bok's work, and read about his life, the more I like him.
This is an edition of Cover Story - check out the series - but I shall add a bonus clip, Gordon's tremendous version of Three Score and Ten, as powerful a description of coastal and fishing tragedy as the songs telling of mining disasters at salutlive.com trimdon and Gresford.
Yes, I find Becky and Rachel's interpretation, and the dreamy arrangement, magical in every respect, including the reasons that impose misgivings on Bill. But then, I invited him to write about it. He does so with his usual eloquence, our differences here are minor and and I respect his view.
My thanks as usual to Roger Liptrot’s folkimages.com
“Don't go down to Fundy Bay, she'll wear your time away…”
Actually, going down to the Bay of Fundy is a very rewarding way to wear some time away. As Gordon Bok’s wonderful song of the same name points out:
Fundy’s long and Fundy’s wide
Fundy’s fog and rain and tide
Never see the sun or sky
Just the green wave going by
That’s an overstatement, or at least poetic licence – the bay, which lies between the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and touches on the US state of Maine, does produce some extremes of weather but is a region of rugged and sometimes spectacular beauty. My wife Lesley and I drove around it in 1997 and would welcome the chance to go back.
Among other things, it has the highest tides in the world. The average tidal range around the globe is one metre. The Bay of Fundy’s waters rise and fall more than 12 metres, about the height of a four-storey building.
But back to the song, which Colin, the editor around here, asked me to write about after hearing what he called an “irresistible” new version by the Unthanks, from their latest album, Sorrows Away.
Just as I know the actual bay a little bit, I knew the song a little bit, too. I always assumed it was a part of the Canadian traditional canon from the past couple of centuries.
It was, in fact, written in 1975 by Bok, an American from Camden, Maine, not too far from the entrance to the Bay of Fundy. (The song turns out to be even older than Bill and I thought: written in 1967. Thanks to Randy Carman at the Unthanks’ Facebook group for pointing this out).
He is, I believe, still performing at the age of 82. (Cue the song: “I don’t mind the wet and cold, I just don’t like the growing old.” That resonates with me, too, though I don’t much like the wet and cold, either.)
An interesting man, who got off to a flying start in 1965 when his first, self-titled, album was produced by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul & Mary. Bok plays six- and 12-string guitar and a six-string fretted cello that he calls a “cellamba.” He’s also a folklorist, song-collector and woodcarver. Whether or not he actually speaks the languages, he can sing folk songs in their original Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Gaelic, Mongolian and Québécois (Quebec French is about as close to French French as modern English to Shakespearian).
With minimal digging, I came up with five versions of Bay of Fundy, all distinctly different but immensely enjoyable.
Has there a song been written that the Unthanks couldn’t sing and sing beautifully? There are any number of contemporary pieces that I’d love to turn them loose on, starting with Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road. Seriously. I think that would be epic.
So… I never thought I’d find myself saying this but I like the Unthanks’ version of Bay of Fundy the least. Which is not to say I don’t like it – I do, very much. Their interpretation is pretty much flawless with their slightly flattened Geordie vowels underscoring the bleakness of some of the words.
But for my money, it’s over-produced. The backing instruments are too lush. The Folk Radio website calls it “their most cinematic to date”. And therein lies the problem. With a simpler arrangement, I might find it as irresistible as Colin does. I’d love to hear Becky and Rachel Unthank perform it live with less going on behind them.
Less is more for Folly Bridge, a British trio – Ian Giles, Graham Metcalfe and Claire Lloyd, who I believe is Ian’s sister. Sadly, they no longer perform together. Their rendition of Bay of Fundy is a cappella, with soaring, intertwining harmonies. It’s quite lovely.
But now for something completely different – the Cache Valley Drifters, a California-based bluegrass band, formed in 1972 by Bill Griffin, Mike Mullins, Tom Lee and Wally Barnick.
What’s an outfit like this doing with a song like that? Making it work, that’s what. Theirs is a more up-tempo version with an almost C&W swing to it, and a mandolin reminiscent of Dave Swarbrick’s. It might not quite fit the mood of the song but I lot.
And finally to another interesting man – Bill Destler. Or, to be formal, Dr William Wallace Destler, former president of the Rochester Insitute of Technology in upstate New York, one-time provost and a senior vice president at the University of Maryland, dean of its college of engineering and a professor of electrical engineering. His PhD thesis examined “high-power microwave sources and advanced accelerator technologies”.
Destler collects hybrid and electric cars (he has three) and antique banjos (he has upwards of 160). He’s also a founding member of the Baltimore Folk Music Society and describes himself as “an amateur folk musician”.
An extremely good one. He’s put out a couple of albums and his repertoire includes Bay of Fundy. Destler has a light, pure voice – quite a contrast to Gordon Bok – and with his own guitar accompaniment his performance is simple, straightforward, enchanting.
** And now for the editor's bonus, Gordon Bok singing Three Score and Ten