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  • Writer's pictureKeiron Farrow

In 1987, just after I’d started secondary school, I saw a video on Top Of The Pops of a tune being sung by a plasticine cat with deep, resonant tones; the like of which I'd never heard before. I realised that the voice was being overdubbed and that it was a woman singing. She sang of these seemingly glamorous characters: Liz Taylor, Lana Turner and Liberace. Of not caring for clothes, shows and high tone places...There was something in the way she phrased the lyrics: like having a conversation, it was effortless and it seemed really sophisticated and worldly compared to Tiffany, Kylie and Debbie Gibson. Not only that, it swung harder than any music I’d heard up to that point.

From then on Nina Simone was always with me. At first it was all about the voice, I mean, imagine opening your mouth and that sound coming out. Being able to take someone through pretty much every emotion in our earthly experience. Then her wonderful mixture of confidence and vulnerability. Her stance on racial inequality and the way she channelled it into her art. Her piano playing: incendiary and exquisite, combined with that voice enabled her to glide from Jazz to Folk via Show Tunes, Blues, Pop and Classical; as she does in ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. Nina’s authenticity both on and off stage has become a guide in my own life and my endeavours as a musician.

Once, on a seventeen hour bus journey in Australia, loaded on black sambuca and bush weed; Nina singing ‘Take Me To The Water’ and ‘Don’t Smoke In Bed’ brought me back from the brink… In 2014 my wife and I separated. It was a strange old time.... A time when I started to reconnect with myself in ways I’d forgotten. I wandered into HMV Northampton one dreary Saturday and was thumbing the racks of vinyl, when I came across a cover with bold colourful lettering and the unmistakable majesty of Nina sat at a piano. It was a pressing of an album I was unfamiliar with: ‘Live At Town Hall’. The range of material and its execution combined with the audience’s hushed reverence was simply stunning. Not least, when I reached the end of side one, which concludes with an Irving Berlin tune: ‘I Don’t Want Him (You Can Have Him). The song unfurls like a miniature drama, with Nina sat talking to the woman who has taken her love away. She then slips into a reverie of moments from all the years they were together, as the other woman sits and listens in uncomfortable silence. The scene climaxes with Nina’s evocative sobs ascending a scale of transcendent, knowing triumph. She is free. I was too and I wept as I played the song over and over again.

  • Writer's pictureKeiron Farrow

The Postern Gate is the only part of Northampton Castle that still stands. Within a fortified structure, a postern gate is usually a concealed or secondary entrance; allowing inhabitants to enter or leave without being detected. Today, the gates archaic regality overlooks a bus stop; incongruous as it rubs shoulders with the CAD of the train station and the University of Northampton offices. Construction of the castle, commissioned by Simon de Senlis; first Earl of Northampton, commenced in 1084 and was probably completed around 1089. The castle was an important seat of government during the reign of Henry II. Thomas Becket was tried by Henry’s council at the castle in 1164 and escaped sentence, apparently disguised as a monk. I’ve always liked to imagine that the Postern Gate was the doorway he left by. A hundred years later, during the Baron’s War, Simon de Montfort controlled the castle until the garrison was defeated by the forces of Henry III and Prince Edward (future Edward I).

During the ensuing four hundred years, the castle’s ownership changed hands many times. By the end of the English Civil War in the Seventeenth century, the structure was falling into disrepair. Charles II ordered it to be dismantled in the early years of his reign. Northampton, always a royalist town (King John gave Northampton its first charter) switched allegiance during the conflict to the parliamentarian cause. This act of rebellion is considered to have influenced Charles’s decision. In the 1860’s, the Victorian rush to progress, saw what was left of the castle raised to the ground so the age of the train could begin.

Yet for some reason the Postern Gate; a concealed doorway, a secret passage was selected to stand. It was due to be pulled down a few years ago when the bus lanes were reconfigured but public petitioning won the day. Like many Northampton folk, I have often been incensed by the way the town's history and culture have been swept aside to appease the power of the free market, and then assuaged with a perfunctory plaque. In many ways the Postern Gate represents that power: Northampton Castle, like all the concentric structures built after the Norman Conquest, were designed to remind the inhabitants of these islands of their subjection and feudal obligation to a class of people who felt themselves to be superior. Opposed as I am to any form of oppression, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile my fascination with this particular period and my romantic need for historical connection. Over the years, stopping on my way to town and placing my hand on the stones, I’ve been able to enter a secret portal of my own. Perhaps that’s enough.

  • Writer's pictureKeiron Farrow

I first heard Blind Willie Johnson on a Blues compilation tape I bought from WH Smith in The Grosvenor Centre, Northampton. The track was ‘Jesus Make Up My Dying Bad’. This would have been 1994. Whilst I thought it was a great track and I knew that Led Zeppelin were into him, I’d bought the tape because of another Johnson (Lonnie) being seventeen at the time, I was into flashier guitar players.

Over the years, I would see his name appear in various magazines; usually other musicians talking about him (a Ben Harper interview springs to mind also Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai) and then in 2002, whilst in New York, I bought a CD, released on Yahzoo in 1989: ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’, which I still own. It has beautiful painting on the cover of Blind Willie Johnson playing in the street: his primary source of income and where he performed most. The sleeve notes were really detailed too (always important). Track two was ‘Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground). It sounds like nothing else he ever recorded and like nothing else I have ever before or since. Beautiful in its simplicity (I read that he meant it as an evocation of the ‘Crucifixion’) exquisitely pitched slide guitar and moaned vocal phrasing. It has an amorphous feel, out of time, hanging in the air…

In late 2018, I was working two jobs to make ends meet: early starts, late nights; trouble sleeping...Things were pretty dark...I would lay awake, headphones on and listen to Blind Willie Johnson and somewhere deep in his lament for Jesus, I found something to hold on to.

When Nasa launched Voyager 1 in 1977, two gold discs were placed on board; containing examples of life and culture on Earth. Dark Was The Night (Cold Was The Ground) was one of the pieces of music. Blind Willie Johnson was an astonishing musician, a singular performer and artist who never really found lasting commercial success (he did out sell Bessie Smith in 1927) to me, his music is for all time. Voyager 1 is still transmitting.

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