Written and performed by Bert Jansch, on “Sweet Child” (with The Pentangle; Reprise, 1968), his own “Birthday Blues” (Transatlantic, 1969), and (live, 40+ years later?) at www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYEX2XcFavw
(Appointed to the projected opening day of the ski season at Winter Park, Colorado.)
This song made me broody in my teens and twenties, until the young women around me proclaimed removal of themselves from the pedestal of traditional romantic love, evoked in lyric and tone here. (I still seem to detect that Guinevere doesn’t want to slay dragons, after all; too many heart attacks, not enough spiritual reward questing for silver chalices and golden parachutes.) I’ve come back to “A Woman” recently, however, first by way of my own “Winter Park,” though the latter started life as an atmospheric instrumental about nothing in particular. Eventually it morphed not into a love song (listen to a “living room recording” of it, and read the lyrics here) but a narrative about alienation in childhood. Then there was the recent death of John Renbourn, which made me look back across his career, including his association with Jansch, who died in 2011. Though I prefer Renbourn as the more intellectually curious and fully-rounded musician, Jansch was a one-off, and an imaginative composer and guitarist in his own right.
The chart: “A Woman’s” moody-blueness derives from the DADGAD guitar tuning, with that haunting “D-suspended” drone. Apparently Jansch (along with Renbourn and the other folk guitarists of the 1960s folk music scenes in the British Isles) learned the tuning from Davy Graham, said to have “invented” it during musical tourism in Algeria. The song’s key seems to be D myxolidian (in the later live performance, capoed to A myx.), with the C “unsharpened” (as a minor seventh) yet more pointed thereby. Jansch individually frets and “vibratos” it, ingeniously making it the forceful, dominant tone while he sings the expected one, the “sub-dominant” G, to resolve the phrase in each verse’s first and third lines. This gives the hypnotic effect of a false exit, a wrong turning. Then, too, there’s the sustain in the single notes he plays, which runs them together with a chordal effect in a sort of contrapuntal or answering drone – all of this weaving that haunting, magic spell narrated in the song. (The tuning is very evocative that way: listen, also, to Renbourn’s use of it for the brilliant four bars he composed to introduce and link the verses of Dave Goulder’s “From Sandwood Down to Kyle.” You can actually hear the mist.)
I used to believe that my “Winter Park” had an early Joni Mitchell feel to it. I was infatuated with her during my mid-teens through my twenties, but when I lately tried to think which of her songs I would nominate to this blog, I discovered that I had outgrown her. (Also, Warner Brothers never bothered to send me even a photo, let alone a letter, when I wrote her a mash note, care of them, circa 1971.) Like “A Woman Like You,” “Winter Park” uses DADGAD tuning, which I don’t think much interests Mitchell(?), and today Jansch’s music seems more mature and true to me than hers does, less self-regarding if sometimes similarly dreamy. Also, I now hear the same ringing moodiness in my song as permeates the Jansch tune. (I’ve discovered as well that “A Woman’s” moodiness plays out well in the double-coursed unison tuning of an Irish bouzouki (a pared-down inversion of DADGAD)).
The “Woman”/“Winter” pairing makes for an odd threesome, however, when Glen Campbell’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” enters the picture (or soundtrack). The stolidly American C&W song shares that lonely, romantic longing of “A Woman” and “Winter,” but beyond that, I could have sworn that when I rode the ski train to and from Winter Park, I would look out at the telephone poles in the snow and hear Campbell in my head. In particular I associate my lyric, “The trees in the snow look like home would if it only could…,” with the lonely lineman atop the frosty poles, hearing his love’s voice singing in the wires (the telephone lines between Denver and the ski resort being, blessedly, the only sign of human infliction on the winter countryside.) But, lately, The All-Knowing Google tells me that Campbell didn’t record the song until 1968, four or five years later than when I was in the Eskimo Ski Club…
Which was disastrous, by the way. At 13, a chubby, bookish, uncoordinated latecomer to skiing and a new school across town from my old working-class neighbourhood and familiars, I spent each Saturday struggling friendless on the slopes, with absolutely the worst rental skis available. Though my parents couldn’t afford any such luxury, I had guilted them into letting me join the club, and it remains one of the great embarrassments of my life that, over what seemed like hours, the ski-shop sales force showed us increasingly crap equipment, their exhausted amiability sagging into pity as, at last, they more or less dug my rental skis from a dumpster out back.
Hands up, brand-new, top-of-the-line gear would have made little difference. I could hardly ride the T-bar up the beginner’s hill without bringing down several other would-be hotdoggers with me, as I tried desperately to seem the consummate ski bum like my schoolmates – the nylon ski-cap with the two-foot tail and poofy tassel (a cross between a nightcap and jester’s headgear) I bought with my allowance mitigating the humiliation of those rotting planks of glorified cardboard. But then there was the last run of the day, with the sun dipping behind the upper slopes, when I caught an edge on the iced-up crust, and the rusted bindings on those clapboard skis didn’t release. The ensuing spiral fracture of my right ankle earned me a cozy ride down the slope on a toboggan, lower leg carefully splinted, courtesy of a stoically efficient member of the Winter Park Ski Patrol. And so was the awkward new kid (“Pudgy and pimply and prim, / You slip and you slide to fit in”) more spectacularly pathetic than ever, hobbling around the school on crutches for six weeks …
It was probably just as well (except the broken bone part), and not only for the family budget. I got to meet Drs. Roger and Yamamoto, who as my personal orthopedic surgeons in the ensuing school years would reconfigure shoulders I separated in similarly disastrous attempts at rock climbing. Then too, the highlight of my Winter Park skiing days was trudging through the snow back to the parked train at noon, alone and palely loitering, gorging myself on the cold roast beef sandwiches my mother had packed for me from Friday night dinner. (The warming huts were for the real skiers, with their spare cash for packaged sandwiches and hot chocolate.) Eventually I became the kind of kid who, for winter refuge and recreation, learned to play “A Woman Like You” in D myxolidian, on a bargain basement Yamaha classical guitar. More than fair compensation, I think.