Sometimes you can be all ears and still miss it, that vital life-changing music. Certainly, it took me a long time to appreciate both Dylan and Cohen, preferring then the jazz-rock (or 'progressive rock', as it was dubbed at the time) of Soft Machine.
One voice I didn't miss last weekend in Cardiff was that of young singer-songwriter Jemma Krysa from Tairgwaith, who is big in Germany and Swansea apparently. At first I thought it must be someone well-known gigging in HMV. Her tones carried me down Queen St., her range as wide as Thea Gilmore's and voice full of power and emotion. Here's a person to watch out for, no doubt.
At times, however, I feel there's a certain futility in my constant search and I simply need to investigate my own music collection to renew my acquintances.
I did so recently with the work of Robb Johnson. When you mention his name , people either say 'Who?' or 'Do you mean the bluesman Robert Johnson?' No, Robb Johnson from London has been around far too long without the widespread recognition he truly deserves.
His lyrics are as witty, often topical and satirical as his mentor Leon Rosselson and Robb is like Billy Bragg if he were really left-wing ( Bragg once did a whole tour urging support for Blair and later went all LibDem!) and had a half-decent voice. He is a Bob Dylan ( circa 1960's) for these times and these Isles and maybe now - with protests and impending strikes, with appalling job losses and cuts - more will listen to him.
His album 'This Is The UK Talking', which includes songs from 1987-92, is a classic. It contains the hilarious 'The Animal Song', a swipe at meat-eaters and the equally funny and sensitive '6B Go Swimming' ; there is the hard-hitting political ballad 'The Herald of Free Enterprise' and the title track with its Eastern influence.
Robb Johnson isn't just a protest singer and I'm sure he'd wish to emphasize the many other diverse subjects he has tackled so well, including Tony Hancock in Australia and a girl alone on a beach.
In his more recent album 'Love, Death and Politics' he moves from an historical song in sea-shanty style 'The Spirit of '45' to 'Saturday Night in Albion', where the idealism of the first song has been demolished by the drugs and violent sub-culture of the second, a rough rocking number. As always, he writes particularly sensitively about children ( which derives from his time as a teacher) and 'Little Angels' follows songs like 'In Buttercup Class We Smile' to take on disturbing backgrounds of children, whose innocence is destroyed. He is never sensational or sentimental, always realistic and responsive.
Johnson has to be recognised one day, I tell myself. But who knows? There are plenty of bands and artists out there who never are. At least with i-tunes his stuff is instantly accessible, not like in the past when you had to scour all the little record shops to find one album.
The following poem shows the great influence Bob Dylan had on me in the 1970's.
In County Derry : ‘Masters of War’
We were singing ‘Masters of War’
at the piano in the classroom
the green-eyed Gaelic teacher
with her waist-long hair
and slim body a country
I’d come to know much better
singing together ‘Masters of War’
I stood behind her, voice rivering
deep below the strata of the choir,
at home now in the harmonies
in a strange land of pointed barrels
which had met me from the plane
where my mind recalled ‘Masters of War’
when the Deputy Head burst in
and spotted two pupils giggling,
he quaked and cracked with anger
punishing every one of them ;
pain made their voices louder
sensing the meaning of ‘Masters of War’
at the window an army helicopter
before it landed near the estate,
squaddies with machine-guns ready to fire,
to lift suspects and drag them away ;
houses where the tricolor was raised
none heard us singing ‘Masters of War’
and as long as that song lasted
we were marching, fists held high
like those of Burntollet and Derry City
who had stood against batons and bullets,
pounding riot shields with music and rhyme
the power of ‘Masters of War’.
Note - ‘Burntollet’ and ‘Derry City’ – scenes of Civil Rights marches in the 60’s.