Van Morrison’s Other Voices: Cleaning Windows

Rootsy railwaymen and a bellyful of lead – a look at some of the artists that made Van Morrison…

A previous Lazy Sunday post entitled Amy’s Other Voices looked at the musical influences on the late Amy Winehouse, and a comment from Susan prompted me to do the same for that great old grump, Van Morrison.

Few contemporary artists have been as influential, and few have harped on quite so much about their own influences. Over the many years and scores of albums, Van has never veered far from his two lyrical obsessions: the search for religious enlightenment; and nostalgia for his formative years in Belfast. The music of his youth is a key element of that nostalgia, and he name-checks so many singers and songwriters that I decided to do this in two parts, narrowing the scope down to just two Van songs.

But before we get onto that, a curtain-raising treat. Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)is one of Van’s finest pop numbers, inexplicably reaching only number 61 in the US billboard chart in 1972 (though the Dexys Midnight Runners cover in 1982 made it to number 5 in the UK). Which is a decent enough excuse for a video of Jackie Wilson’s Reet Petite with some absolutely brilliant dancing…

The song Cleaning Windows (top – and see here for a great live performance throughout which he insouciantly smokes a fag) appears on Van Morrison’s 1982 album Beautiful Vision and is a blissfully nostalgic look back at his life circa 1961, when he was working part-time as a window cleaner, playing sax at the weekend, eating Paris buns, smoking woodbines, reading Jack Kerouac novels and generally bumming around digging rootsy American folk music. . …I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers in my lunch-break he claims in the opening verse, and then later comes a veritable torrent of name-checks:

Heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon
On the street where I was born
Sonny Terry, Brownie Mcghee,
Muddy Waters singin ‘I’m a rollin’ stone’.

Let’s listen to some of them… Jimmie Rodgers (1897–1933) was a Mississipi (or possibly Alabama)-born railway brakeman who learnt his guitar-pickin’ skills from hobos and ne’er-do-wells. He contracted tuberculosis at the age of 27 and the illness cut short his railway career, forcing him to become one of the first US country music superstars, known variously as “The Singing Brakeman”, “The Blue Yodeler”, and “The Father of Country Music”….

Leadbelly, aka Lead Belly, aka Huddie William Ledbetter was born on a Louisiana plantation in 1888 and was by all accounts a tough old bastard. The origin of his nickname is pleasingly unclear. According to Wikipedia, blues singer Big Bill Broonzy thought it came from a supposed tendency to lay about as if “with a stomach weighted down by lead” in the shade when the chain gang was supposed to be working. Some say it was because he literally had a bellyful of lead, having been peppered by a shotgun; others attribute it to his capacity for drinking unsafe quantities of moonshine liquor; still others that it was simply some wag’s corruption of his surname. Any which way, he was a hugely influential musician and twelve-string guitar player unafraid to do politics. This song, The Titanic, tells the tale of boxing champ Jack Johnson being refused passage on the Titanic for being black…

“Jack Johnson tried to get on board. The Captain, he says, ‘I ain’t haulin’ no coal!’ Fare thee, Titanic! Fare thee well!”…

Lemon Henry Jefferson was born sightless into a family of Texas sharecroppers in 1893 and took up the guitar in his teens. As Blind Lemon he met and played with Lead Belly in Dallas in the 1910s, and would go on to become one of the biggest stars of 1920s blues music. Despite his handicap he could look after himself, apparently earning money as a wrestler and, according to saucy contemporary singer Victoria Spivey, he “could sure feel his way around”. He died in mysterious circumstances in 1929 – there were rumours of poisoned coffee or murderous guides robbing his royalty payments – and was buried in an unmarked grave at ‘Wortham Negro Cemetery’…

McKinley Morganfield (1913-1983), aka Muddy Waters is probably best known in the UK for the way he electrified blues music in the late 1950s and influenced a generation of white 1960s rock musicians with such macho posturing songs as Hoochie Coochie Man and Mannish Boy. But Van was listening to Catfish Blues (Rollin’ Stone)….

Coming attraction: soaring soul music from another reference-packed Van song…

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About Author Profile: Brit

'Brit' is the blogging name of Andrew Nixon, a writer and publisher who lives in Bristol. He is the editor and co-founder of The Dabbler.

10 thoughts on “Van Morrison’s Other Voices: Cleaning Windows

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    January 27, 2013 at 11:53

    The more I listen to Winehouse the more I realise how like Shapiro she was, great shame.

    You know how, as you go through life, your receptors disseminate the incoming data , analise it and bung it in the appropriate pigeonhole, occasionally a glitch occurs and the multi-channel sorting gadget sticks, like the needle in a record, the data becomes looped. Reet Petite is that data, rotating around my noggin, echoing, ringing, reverberating. I had thought that, through carefully applied medication and an understanding spouse, I had the thing under control and could lead a reasonable contented life.

    Thanks Brit, nice selection though but.

  2. Worm
    January 27, 2013 at 13:22

    Great selection of tunes Brit, I particularly liked the Jimmie Rodgers

  3. jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
    John Halliwell
    January 27, 2013 at 15:33

    I came across Reet Petite as we entered school assembly in 1957 when Dennis noisily announced its existence and rendered the first few bars in a sort of strangulated falsetto (his voice still hadn’t broken at a time when most of us sounded like James Mason). At the time I was struggling to get a grip on Paul Anka’s Diana, almost a grasp too far, so when Dennis said it was by a Jackie Wilson I immediately thought she must be a Lancashire lass singing in dialect. Well my old dad, who came from Chorley, regularly used the word ‘reet’. Once we’d got over this early confusion, I ditched Diana and embraced Jackie. I’ve never looked back; it is a classic. And as you state, Brit, that dancing is quite brilliant.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      malty
      January 27, 2013 at 17:44

      Good piece of cultural archeology John, Paul Anka, all dark hair, mohair suit and teeth, more lyrics hanging unwanted on the walls of memory hall. As is Delilah, sat next to a man in an office in darkest Hertfordshire, he from Norfolk, all sodding day he sang….. “moi, moi, moi Deloilah.”
      Take that one to me grave.

      1957, what a year to be alive, Peggie Sue, That’ll Be The Day and Oh boy, Jailhouse Rock and Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin On, man there certainly was, saw Gerry Lee Lewis live, in 1958, he broke his piano, and the stage. This was the era of audience innocence, pre knicker throwing one want might say and is that one coming back to haunt the recipients.

      • jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
        John Halliwell
        January 27, 2013 at 20:54

        You’re right, Malty, 1957 was quite a year: along with those you mention, Elvis, pre-army, was at his peak; even stuffy announcers on the BBC’s Light Programme were moved: “That was a gramophone recording of Mr Elvis Presley performing his latest song paralysed at 45 revolutions per minute, and jolly good it was too. And let me tell you it takes some doing to revolve 45 times per minute when one is paralytic (restrained chuckle).”

        I remember the Jackie Wilson song with great affection, but the Jimmie Rodgers is, for me, the outstanding clip here. I bet Slim Whitman was massively influenced by Rodgers. In 1957 Slim had a big hit with I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, and as the chap at the BBC possibly said: “And jolly good it is too.”
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Guna_d_pLdk

        • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
          malty
          January 27, 2013 at 23:40

          Digging deep here John, my mothers name Was Kathleen, Josef Locke singing I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen had her all misty eyed and my father rolling his. There was always a piano in the corner and the height of musical accomplishment in the house was anyone who could finish Claire de Lune without falling off the piano stool, grade six we weren’t. The only one capable of this was my uncle Albert, a night club pianist whom she detested but included in her circle because of his prowess at I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen. Christmas eve, the stale end, cigarette smoke, half empty glasses of flat beer, the smell of brandy and mince pies, the mater sitting next to the hated brother in law on the piano stool, breaking into the accompanying lyrics.

          Eventually this way of life was shattered by Bill Haley, thank goodness.

          • jhhalliwell@btinternet.com'
            John Halliwell
            January 28, 2013 at 08:36

            You had me all misty-eyed there, Malty; at that age it’s a long way down from the top of a piano stool.

  4. jgslang@gmail.com'
    January 27, 2013 at 16:25

    Is it me or is it to be noted that long-gone Victoria Spivey gets two name checks on a site outside a dedicated blues blog within 4 days?

  5. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    January 27, 2013 at 16:30

    The stories of these old bluegrass types are well worth reading. Many were way more rock n’ roll than anything in the 60s and 70s.

  6. info@ShopCurious.com'
    January 28, 2013 at 11:31

    Fascinating stuff, Brit. As well as blues and jazz, Morrison was also influenced by Celtic rhythms and gospel music from the likes of Mahalia Jackson. Oh, and country music too… like Tupelo Honey.

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