When we sort the 88,000 or so mp3s on the digital shelves for the direction “north” – beginning, as we do so, our “Follow the Directions” journey promised a few weeks ago – we run into several obstacles.
First of all, numerous mp3s have been tagged by their rippers over the years as “Northern Soul,” a designation that, as I’ve noted before, tends to baffle me because it’s more reliant on the reaction of the listener than it is to anything intrinsic to the music. But never mind. We’ll have to ignore those.
We also lose tunes by those performers and groups that have “north” as part of their names, like Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers, a 1920s string band; the North Mississippi Allstars, a current blues ’n’ boogie band; Northern Light, the band that released “Minnesota” in 1975; Canadian singer-songwriter Tom Northcott (without intending to, I’ve gathered eleven of his recordings); and a current folky group called True North.
Then we have to cross off our list a live 1982 performance by Jesse Winchester in Northampton, Massachusetts; and almost every track from many albums, including the Freddy Jones Band’s 1995 album North Avenue Wake Up Call, the Michael Stanley Band’s North Coast (1981), Dawes’ North Hills (2014), Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman & The Raven (1971), The Band’s Northern Lights/Southern Cross (1975) and Ian & Sylvia’s Northern Journey (1964). But we still have enough to choose from to find four worthy tunes pointing us to the “N” on the compass.
Regular readers know my regard for the late Jesse Winchester, and I think I know his catalog fairly well, but every now and then, his whimsy surprises me all over again, as happened with his tune “North Star” this morning. It starts like a serene, folky meditation:
Heaven’s got this one star that don’t move none
And that’s the place you want to aim your soul
Set you on a spot that knows no season
And be satisfied just to watch old Jordan roll
And then Winchester leaps:
Now, does the world have a belly button?
I can’t get this out of my head
’Cause if it turns up in my yard
I’ll tickle it so hard
’Til the whole world will laugh to wake the dead
Surprises me every time. It’s on Winchester’s 1972 album Third Down, 110 To Go.
If the North had ever had a poet/musician laureate, for years that place would have been filled by Gordon Lightfoot, and just three of his songs would have cemented him there: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Alberta Bound.” And it seems to me that Lightfoot summed up all of his Canadian lore in one last good Northern song: “Whispers of the North” from his 1983 album Salute:
Whispers of the north
Soon I will go forth
To that wild and barren land
Where nature takes its course
Whispers of the wind
Soon I will be there again
Bound with a wild and restless drive
That pulls me from within
And we can ride away
We can glide all day
And we can fly away
Back in the late 1980s, a ladyfriend and I included Lightfoot on our list of essential musicians; even so, I’ve never been driven to pull together a complete Lightfoot collection, as I’ve done with Bob Dylan (with the exception of his Christmas album). The urgency wasn’t there, I guess, although the shelves – both wooden and digital – hold plenty of Lightfoot. And “Whispers of the North,” though it might not rank with the other three Canadian anthems I mentioned above, is pretty high on my list. The loon call at the start doesn’t hurt, of course.
The song that shows up most frequently – twenty-two times – in my sorting of “north” is Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.” Beyond five versions by Dylan himself and four by Leon Russell (one of those with Joe Cocker and one with the Tedeschi Trucks Band), I have versions by the Country Gentlemen, Hamilton Camp, Howard Tate, Margo Timmins, Rosanne Cash, Mylon Lefevre, Jimmy LaFave, Leo Kottke and several other folks, including the previously mentioned Tom Northcott. A Vancouver native, Northcott had several charting singles in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s and got into the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. once, when his cover of Harry Nilsson’s “1941” went to No. 88 in early 1968. (A cover of Donovan’s “Sunny Goodge Street” had bubbled under at No. 123 during the summer of 1967.) His pleasant take on “Girl From the North Country” went to No. 65 on the Canadian charts in 1968.
And we end today with “Lady Of The North” by Gene Clark, the closer to his 1974 album No Other. According to the tales told at Wikipedia, Clark – after some years of indulgence – was sober when wrote the bulk of the album’s songs at his home in Mendocino, California. After heading to Los Angeles to record, though, he more than dabbled in cocaine, and his wife, Carlie, took the couple’s children back to Northern California. Whether it was a direct response, I’m not certain, but Clark, with help from Doug Dillard, wrote “Lady Of The North” for Carlie and used it as the album’s closer. Wikipedia notes that the album was a “critical and commercial failure,” that the time and resources used to record were “seen as excessive and indulgent,” and that Asylum did little to promote the album. Two CD releases of the album in recent years have been met with better critical and commercial response.