What Charlie Haden’s Song Means to Me

Charlie Haden died the other day. He was one of the greatest double bass players the world has seen. He will be sorely missed.

I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on the music of Charlie Haden. Mostly, I enjoyed his work with Pat Metheny on the ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ album which Warren Bennett put me on to some time back and for which I am grateful.

But the thing for which Charlie will always mean most to me is the song he sang for his Mum and Dad.

Charlie would have been the first to say that he was not a great singer. I think his vocal chords were actually damaged by a childhood disease and this meant that he had lifelong difficulty in maintaining pitch in his voice. As a result, he only seemed to sing when he needed to. All I know is, when his heart demanded it, he didn’t shy away from singing the song he wanted to sing for his Mother and Father.

He sang his own version of the Folk/Spiritual ‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ on one of his albums ‘The art of the Song’ with his Quartet West. I heard it a few years ago on John Kelly’s afternoon show on Lyric FM. It was a song that was only half-familiar to me before I heard Charlie’s version. In my head, it was a moderately upbeat Appalachian Country style number. It also had a 'Down South Spiritual' feel to it with its 'Going Over Jordan' sentiments. It had never really meant anything to me. Until Charlie came along. Charlie’s version struck me deep and has never stopped doing so ever since.

Here’s the reason why;

In her latter couple of years, after her second stroke, my own Mum was confined to her wheelchair. I used to drive to Sligo most every Saturday and visit her in the care home where she needed to live.

On those Saturdays, weather permitting, we would try and get out and about a bit. Nothing complicated, like hauling in and out of cars, we would usually just wheel off around the laneways surrounding the care home. It became a well worn route. I think I tried to stay on the same roads to avoid the unknown, the high kerb or the rough path that would only cause some stress for Mum. We kept it simple.

This one time, though, we took a different route, just for a bit of variety I guess. This new route took us over the bridge and down to the docks. I thought it might be nice to see the boats and such, to gaze into the water.

But I hadn’t thought hard enough about it. The implications of where we would end up that day. We stopped for a moment by the black water and suddenly Mum was very animated. She made a solid effort to actually get herself out of her chair. She struggled hard with the impossible task. When I asked her what was up, I saw there were big tears in her eyes. Then I saw where she was looking.

I hadn’t remembered that we could see my Granny and Grandad’s house from down here on the dockside. Up, across the water, on the raised area everybody called The Bank. Mum’s childhood home, the place where her own Mum and Dad had lived all their lives. Both of them had ended their days, many years before, in the same home where Mum now had to live. But Mum didn’t remember any of that at this moment. To her, they were still up there, on the Bank, waiting for her to come. 

“It’s all right Mum,” I said, “let’s head on back now.”

What Mum said, perfectly naturally, stays with me.

“I won’t be long,” she said, “I’m only going up The Bank, to see Mammy and Daddy. I’m only going over home.”

A short time after that, she was gone over for real. I evoked this moment when I spoke at her funeral. I felt I ought to. She had made a wish on that day and perhaps there’s some hope somewhere that it was subsequently granted.

I never connected her words with the ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ song at that time. I only did that on the day I heard Charlie Haden dedicate his singing to his own Mother and Father. It struck home, even though Mum wasn’t quoting any song that day. She was only talking in the way she always used to talk. Saying it in her natural way. She only wanted to go over home.

So the song evokes that poignant thing for me. Not just any version of the song though. Just the one where Charlie’s thoughts are undeniably with his late Mum and Dad as he sings it.

For me, this all goes towards proving something that I've always held to be true. If you make something, and you put a piece of your own heart and soul into it then the people who find that thing will also find a part of their own heart and soul inside of it.

Goodnight Charlie. 

Thanks for the thing. 


Nigel Fathers said...

A beautiful piece again Ken. Whenever you write about your parents, the love certainly comes through, and reminds me of my own Mum and Dad and what they meant to me. Your words convey a depth of feeling without being mawkish. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t know Charles Haden, Ken. I know of Pat Metheny but that’s about it. Jazz is an area of music I freely admit to being more ignorant of than I’d like to be. I like some jazz but I find it hard to explain to others what I like without putting on some CD and saying, “Like this.” It’s especially hard with musicians who’ve had long careers because I can’t simply say, “I like Duke Ellington,” and expect you to know which pieces by him I like. On the whole I’m not that fond of the big band sound but I love his New Orleans Suite. I love Dixieland jazz. Mostly I prefer small ensembles—piano, drums and bass, that sort of thing—and once you start using words like ‘fusion’ you can probably count me out although George Gershwin would be the exception there but that’s not what people mean when they talk about fusion. Free jazz is a mystery to me which is strange because I’ll sit and listen to all kinds of atonal and twelve tonal classical works but I don’t seem to have the same tolerance when it comes to jazz. Give me Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson or Thelonious Monk any day of the week though. If you’ve never seen the TV show Treme treat yourself.

I don’t really associate any particular songs with my parents. My dad’s favourite singer was Bing Crosby and my mother’s was Gracie Fields although she was quite fond of early Ella Fitzgerald; she didn’t like her scat singing. I listened to some old reel to reel recordings from the sixties a while back. They were illuminating because basically Dad had just left the tape running and what we had recorded was what passed for normal day-to-day life in my parents’ home and the first thing you notice is how much both of them sang. There’s even a wee snippet of Dad having a go at ‘She Loves You’ only he does it in a rumpty-tumpty, jolly wee way that probably owes more to Eric Morecombe than Paul McCartney. Mum was always singing. She actually did do a fair-to-middling Gracie Fields. Dad’s Bing wasn’t so hot but he thought it was. They never had an ‘our song’.

Karen Redman said...

Oh, Ken - I wasn't, until today, familiar with Charlie Haden's music or his voice at all. That song is very, VERY beautiful and hearing it in conjunction with such an emotional backdrop has really made me want to hear more & also to give you a hug! x

hope said...

I wasn't familiar either, but what a beautiful song. Your stories always elicit an emotional response, but I swear, for a moment, I could hear your Mother speaking and see where she was looking.

Rachel Fox said...

Somehow I missed this one in 2014. Sad but lovely words, sad but lovely version of the song.

Ken Armstrong said...

I read it myself, just now, right through, on the strength of your comment. It evoked some memories and a little emotional reaction. So I guess I did okay with this one. x