Songs For Beginners
Earth & Sky
Songs For Survivors
This Path Tonight
Sipping black tea and staring at the pirouetting ghosts in a bush campfire are conducive to having a bit of a sing. I learned this when I participated in the Adventure Camping program of the Anglican Department of Christian Education during my brief but intense period as an ambivalent believer. After dinner, chores and whatever administrative conversations about the next day’s activities had taken place, those not totally exhausted by hiking, sailing, rock climbing or canoeing would gravitate towards the fire pit where, inevitably, someone would break out an acoustic guitar (or two) and the songbooks would appear.
No ordinary songbooks were these, however, but a roneoed, manilla folder covered, Arnos fastenered volume with the glorious title “Songs in sharps and flats for those who are and aren’t”. Presciently, I favoured the minor keys and the “Aren’t” section of the book.
Songs would be sung with spirit, if not accuracy. A communion of popular tunes and the great outdoors, with the occasional hippy hymn thrown in. Having some instrumental skill, I quickly decided that I wanted to join in the music-making. Here was a way to participate in the life of the group; less biblically perhaps, but less confusingly too. If I found it difficult to talk to people about the gospels, maybe I could sing and play “Heart of gold” to them.
The pianoforte is not, however, a campfire instrument. So after the first Camp experience I decided to teach myself guitar. Not the clever picking and melody-playing kind, more the strumming-roughly-in-time and hoping the singing-should-give-a-rough-idea-of-the-tune kind.
Having borrowed a dog-eared copy of the songbook, I set to with gusto, practicing as long as my tender fingers could stand until I had—Oh Happy Day!—a collection of three chords at my disposal. And as anyone who has ever picked up a guitar will attest, three chords is all you need to play 98.2% of all popular songs. I even became adept at guessing which tracks on some of my favourite singer-songwriter albums might be within my limited yet enthusiastic capacities. This is where Graham Nash enters the story.
Having seen that the four-headed hydra of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young was an unstable beast, Nash set about recording his first solo album. It was called, with admirable modesty, Songs for Beginners and I loved it to bits. The tunes were sweet, the structures simple, the lyrics sad and romantic enough to totally seduce my questing heart. I learned “Simple man”, “Sleep song”, “Wounded bird”, and sang to the night, alone.
Life moved on. The guitars were put in cupboards and the singer-songwriters replaced by Return To Forever and King Crimson. I picked up a couple more Graham Nash solo albums, but didn’t spend much time with them, despite what you might have read.
So what was it that led my fingers to a copy of Graham Nash’s 2016 LP This Path Tonight, his first solo outing in a decade-and-a-half? Nostalgia, perhaps. Misty memories of camping and companionship, recalled with a smile and slight shake of the head. Maybe it was the lovely black and white cover photo, highlighting Graham’s snowy hair in a chilly winter landscape. Or the pure white vinyl. Possibly the clincher was the bonus 45rpm single, a new version of “Teach your children”, Nash’s hit from the classic CSN&Y album Déjà Vu.
Or all of the above.
It’s a solid, pleasant album. Nash’s voice retains that light purity it has carried since his early days in The Hollies; perhaps a little frailer, but still true. The ten songs (plus three download bonuses) were all co-written with guitarist Shane Fontayne and display craft and care. There is sentiment—this is Graham Nash, after all—and moments of political/social comment (bonus “Mississippi burning” in particular); the music is beautifully produced (Fontayne again) and the whole thing unfolds undemandingly as befits an artist who turned 77 this year. Yet the themes of ageing and reflection are balanced by a sense of purpose, revealing a determination to live while there is living to do.
That Graham Nash, at an age when many are sinking into the gentle quicksand of inexorable decline, is recording at all is to be celebrated and indeed, aspired to. His vitality is to be admired and if one or two of his songs are sung around campfires in decades to come, well that is a pretty fine legacy, isn’t it?
A series of articles about sixth albums to mark a 6th anniversary
#4 The 10s
#3 The 60s
#2 The 90s
#1 The 70s
The introduction to the series is here