June Tabor on the singing and the songs
Martin Carthy on Dylan: ‘You can’t do that! It’s a musical instrument, man.’

Cover Story (76): Jerusalem Tomorrow. David Olney or Emmylou Harris

NB: comments are open after briefly - and unintentionally - being closed


Salut! Live's popular Cover Story articles, in which we compare different interpretations of the same pieces of music, now runs to 76 instalments (that figure is a little vague: reposting and updating leave the series numerically all over the place). The entire series can be seen at this link 

For this post, we are deeply grateful to the late David Olney's family, and specifically his daughter Lillian, for permission to use the photograph you see below ...

For the great Sid James, who belied South African origins to perfect a compelling Cockney stage and screen persona, the end came while performing in The Mating Season at Sunderland Empire in 1978.The audience at first thought events on stage were part of the show and laughed,

The American singer-songwriter David Olney was in the middle of the third song of his set at the 30A Songwriter Festival at Santa Rosa Beach, Florida 42 years later when he stopped, apologised and closed his eyes. Both were pronounced dead from heart attacks and both left huge numbers of grieving fans.


Photo of David Olney by Scott Housley, taken in Sept 2019, a few months before his death

In his 71 years, Olney had created a formidable body of work and earned a strong reputation. Townes Van Zandt, a friend and highly respected fellow artist who predeceased him by 23 years, listed him was among the best songwriters "alongside Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lightnin' Hopkins and Bob Dylan".

One epic item in his repertoire was Jerusalem Tomorrow, a story told in drawling narrative about a bogus faith healer moving from town to town trying to make a living from his snakeoil cures:

I'd hire a kid to say that he was lame
Then I'd touch him and I'd make him walk again
Then I'd pull some magic trick
I'd pretend to heal the sick

On his 1989 album Deeper Well, Olney does a great job of his own composition. There are also some excellent live versions out there. It is a marvellous piece of work that easily conjures images of a short film capturing the deceptions, successes and failures of an itinerant conman. For some reason, I thought of Jack Black in the anti-hero's role though Sid James might have been a shoo-in for an equivalent set in Britain.

Graeme Tait puts it very well at the Americana UK site: "Olney was the owner of a fine singing voice but here the lyrical narrative is delivered in the style of the great method actors of the past, understated and yet menacingly direct, inhabiting it’s character, evoking an imagery that places the listener at the very heart of the scene.

"In the space of just 4 minutes 35 seconds he creates a tale of cinematic proportions, as vivid as it is thought provoking, as original as it is sagacious, and like nothing else you’ve previously heard."

But there is another quite magnificent version. Emmylou Harris performs it so well that I found myself irrationally disappointed to discover she was not its author.

I am not, however, inclined to declare a preference. One tremendous piece of music - the narrative comes with a haunting accompaniment - is delivered in their own ways by two exceptional artists. 





Listening to both, readers will make up their own minds. I suspect that if I had heard Olney's first, I would not have been so torn. Can we call it another of Cover Story's high scoring draws?

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490px-Mark_Knopfler_and_Emmylou_HarrisEmmylou Harris, live with Mark Knopfler  in the Netherlands in 2006. By Ckuhl


Bill Taylor

Nothing against Emmylou Harris but, for my money, it's Olney all the way. His voice, his delivery, that serpentine violin winding its way around the lyrics. Harris makes it a good song but Olney makes it a great song.

Tom Dooley

Do you know his song "1917", where he writes from the perspective of a Parisian prostitute during the Great War? It was also covered by Emmylou, a great song.

Michael Bechler

Via Facebook (Uncharted Jukebox group)

Now that's a folksong! Thanks. I might even have to learn that one.

Colin Randall

I am sorry Comments were inadvertently closed. Open again now

Bill Taylor Tom Dooley: I heard 1917 it for the first time on your recommendations. Beautifully constructed, sensitively sung. RIP la pute, le soldat and David Olney

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