Happy Birthday Robert Burns!

Tomorrow is Robert Burns’ birthday, so it seemed appropriate to memorialise one of the greatest poets with one of the greatest musicians; Dick Gaughan singing “Now Westlin Winds”, Earth-born companions.

This version is from TV in 1983, Gaughan’s original recording being on his 1981 album Handful of Earth. This parent album remains one of the key folk music records; Robin Morton’s production is exactly right for what Gaughan wishes to express; dry, intimate and powerful.

The sound of Handful of Earth reminds me of a comment I once read from Ry Cooder about the use of the sound and ambience of a room. He pointed out that on the painting on the sleeve of Robert Johnson’s King of the Delta Blues Singers Vol. 2, Johnson is shown facing the corner of the room where the recording is being made; this was usually read as meaning that Johnson was a shy, “cowrin tim’rous beastie,” which then passed into the Johnson mythology. The notion was cemented in Walter Hill’s film Crossroads which was based on the life of Johnson.

Robert Johnson Happy Birthday Robert Burns King of the Delta Blues Singers

However, as Cooder pointed out, this is not what you hear. At all. Johnson’s passion and ferocity reaches out still. Surely what he was doing was using the acoustic property of the corner of the room to focus his playing and singing for the microphone, his own little “wall of sound.”

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling this sort of technique was used on Handful of Earth. It certainly has the same concentrated power as the Johnson recordings.

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