16 March 2023

Song Snatcher

 Love Minus Zero/No Limit

Performing for Amnesty International - Yes, that is Adrian Mitchell on the left.....

Last night I had a dream.  Somehow, I was to sing a song.  I think it was at an event at my wife, Amanda’s, Care Home, so there would be a small audience – maybe some twenty or thirty.  My son-in-law has recently loaned me his Martin acoustic guitar, though I have not practised for years.  

Thanks, Cam - I'll look after it


In the dream I had the guitar, and I had several books of words and chords.  These were the books that I had written out when a teenager (I had my first, cheap, guitar, when I was about twelve).  I can see them now, flimsy exercise books with my handwriting in royal blue ink underlined on the cover, then songs written out with the chords over the words in red biro.


Some of the first songs I learned were simple American songs, cowboy songs, copied from Alan Lomax’s American Songbook, and probably heard on Two-Way Family Favourites on the radio on Sundays.  


Then there was Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan with some more modern material – Blowin’ in the Wind, etc.  


My guitar playing was simplicity itself – three chords if I was lucky, and none of them with a barrĂ© (so B minor was a problem) and my sense of rhythm less than strict. I was no singer, either, though perhaps later on my voice pleased some.


Anyway, I was there with the guitar and my song books, but then, as I seemed to be on a stage now, with a gathering audience, I panicked a bit.  I couldn’t find the books, I had put them somewhere but I was now lost.  I was never good at remembering all the words, and, I had had a crib stuck on the shoulder of my guitar with the first words of lines or verses to help me.


But I get ahead of myself.


For many years I just played a bit with friends.  I was a very minor part of a group led by school mate ‘Niggles,’ with Nick on Bass, Ben as vocalist, and Roy Dodds (yes, THE Roy Dodds) on drums.  I remember we played at parties, but my contribution was minimal.  I don’t think anyone noticed.


Picture taken on Dunrobin Beach, Sutherland, for the local press

I made some progress however when another friend, Charlie Snoxall, gave me a better guitar, and it was with this that I went to Scotland before my eighteenth birthday.  There I met Paul and Derek and we formed The Dunrobiners (for more about this period you can see an earlier Blog, entitled “Highlands,” https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2014/06/highlands.html) quickly becoming sought after for Ceilidhs and pubs, and even making a record (long since disappeared, don’t even try to find it....)  I remember one evening when we drove up to Wick in Paul’s Rover 90 to perform at a folk club.  The headline act was Hamish Imlach (I think!) and we played with him – but that’s about all I recall..... 

Paul, Derek and me at The Stag's Head, Golspie in 1969
I loved that silk shirt (until I dropped hot cigarette ash on it!)


Later that summer we did a week in the front room of The Stag’s Head, Golspie, and I still smell the tables of Tennent’s Heavy that accumulated before us as we worked through our repertoire of traditional Scottish and Irish songs, including The Irish Rover (She had twenty-three masts and she stood several blasts....)Leaving of Liverpool (So fare thee well my own true love....), and my speciality, The Black Velvet Band (Her eyes they shone like diamonds/You’d think her the queen of the land/And her hair it hung over her shoulder/Tied up with a black velvet band), the whole room joining in for the chorus. Apart from that I spent time trying to impress the Assistant Matron (the gorgeous Marty Dearlove) by plucking my way through The Last Thing on my Mind, my eyes sticking to her like snails on a window pane, while she darned the boarders’ socks (Are you going away with no word of farewell/Will there be not a trace left behind?


Not a trace.....


Around the same time, I also spent holidays in Ireland and met Luke Kelly, in Dublin (for more on this see my Dublin 3 Blog https://www.richardpgibbs.org/2012/10/dublin-3_28.html).  I learned a little from singers and guitarists, but, to be honest, I wasn’t a very good musician.  I had a few party pieces – Season of the Witch (When I look out my window), being one, Mr Tambourine Man (Let me forget about today until tomorrow.....) another.


Several years later, in Rome, friends formed Roisin Dubh, the Celtic connection being strong at the time, and I bought a new (Echo) guitar, which stayed in tune a little better than my old one.  With a friend and colleague, Gerry, I set up a folk group at our school, and we practised and sang loud and happily for some years.  It was, interestingly, a very cosmopolitan group, including Palestinians and Israelis as well as British and Italians, and we performed at concerts that I set up for Amnesty International, headlined by the likes of Adrian Mitchell and Roger McGough, with songs like I shall be released (They say ev’rything can be replaced....)

One iteration of our folk group in Rome


On my return to the UK I tried to keep going, but family life and then, eventually, my wife’s illness withered the vine.


And so, to my dream.  I am now searching furiously for my word books, sweating and frightened, the enormous audience restless (we are in something like the Ryman Auditorium now), but I am lost, and my soft fingers are not practised.


I stand and there is a hush.  I decide to talk about memory, and memory loss, and try to illustrate this with snatches from some of the songs I used to sing, plucking hopefully at the guitar.  At my door the leaves are falling/The cold wild wind will come/Sweethearts walk by together/And I still miss someone..... (Johnny Cash).  I struggle to complete the song, and then talk some more about my personal history as I have told you, dressing up my encounters with musicians and singers, grasping at memories of lines.  Things begin to fall into place, I see my light come shining/from the west unto the east/Any day now, any day now/I shall be released....

Danny, Andrew and Clive


My confidence grows, my fingertips harden, I use a pick, Must be the season of the witch!  I talk a bit about dementia, about the way my wife has lost all language, I strum a chord, and begin Love minus zero: (My love, she speaks like silence....) I falter.....  I begin Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, but muddle the verses:  Well it ain’t no use to sit and wonder why babe, If’n you don’t know by now.....


The audience is standing, No wait!  I say.  I just remembered.  One more.....


May God bless and keep you always, May your wishes all come true,

May you always do for others and let others do for you,

May you build a ladder to the stars and climb on every rung,

May you stay for ever young

For ever young, for ever young, May you stay forever young.....


The auditorium is dark and empty.  The audience has gone.  The auditorium has gone.  I am in my wife’s Care Home, in the Dining Room; Amanda is asleep, head down on the table.  The cook brings me a cup of tea.  Very nice, she says.  You should go on Britain’s got talent......


Love Minus Zero/No Limit


My love she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true, like ice, like fire
People carry roses
Make promises by the hours
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her


Bob Dylan



  1. Ah, but you were older then; you're younger than that now.

  2. I was always impressed by your guitar playing, way back in our school days...