Songs of Dominic Williams

Songs of Dominic Williams

Ringing Roger, July 2010

Dominic Williams has been appearing in folk clubs for four decades or more, performing his own and other people’s songs, as well as traditional material. He has played at the Edinburgh Festival, and has also appeared several times on Radio 2. To me, the way he delivers his own lyrics is very striking: a mixture of fragility and resolution. I would strongly recommend looking up some of his performances on ‘You Tube’. I’ll just offer three examples which indicate the range of his genius.

1.‘Tommy’s Lot’

This is Williams’ classic lament about the Great War – and, by extension, all wars. If I say that the song and its accompanying film constitute a brilliantly economical history lesson, that might make it sound too dull. Put simply, I’ve rarely come across such a vivid reminder of the price paid by millions of ordinary men for the incompetence and hunger for power of their so-called betters. The idiocy and horror of war are conveyed in sharp, searching lyrics, accompanied by skilfully selected images and a sound that can only be described as superb – delicate but deliberate, lyrical but incisive.

2.‘Blue Skies Gone’

Here we move from historical disaster to ecological catastrophe. This is an elegy for nature, in our age of planetary crisis, as well as an expression of a personal sense of loss and bewilderment. The songwriter wonders what has happened to the land, to the climate, to the seas and to the very heavens above our heads, registering his own disorientation both sensitively and succinctly. Although the title might just be an ironic echo of Irving Berlin’s uplifting ditty, made famous as performed by Fred Astaire, I suspect that what Williams has chiefly in mind is Marvin Gaye’s ‘Mercy Mercy Me’, with its simple, searching line: ‘Where did all the blue skies go?’ If so, then this song makes a worthy pairing with that: each is a classic ‘Ecology Song’, to use Gaye’s subtitle. The accompanying film, complete with sound effects, moves between images of family & friends and of the natural world. The effect is poignant and thought-provoking.

3.‘Prime Cut Meat and Fine French Wine’

If ‘Tommy’s Lot’ is about history, and if ‘Blues Skies Gone’ is about ecology, then this song is about ideals. It explores what it feels like to be alive now, having come of age in the 1960s – the decade of flower power and the rise of the counterculture. The question it asks, essentially, is what went wrong? Williams addresses an old friend whom he used to think was really radical and alternative, but who has ended up as a pillar of the establishment, enjoying an affluent way of life and espousing reactionary principles. Yet there is compassion, both in the lyric and in the delivery; and Williams is canny enough to include himself in this shrewd assessment of how ideals get abandoned. Moreover, there is more than a hint that, in the first place, those ideals had been adopted by both of them, like so many others, as a matter of fashion rather than conviction.

In all three songs, the songwriter manages to explore what we might call the big issues while registering their impact on individual lives. The political and the personal are brought together, to powerful effect. The songs can stand perfectly well on their own, but I do think that ‘watching’ them is really worth the effort – even if you have to unravel the mysteries of the internet in order to do so. Do have a go!

Laurence Coupe