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The shuffle: The Calvary Cross

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Richard Thompson is perhaps the best songwriter no one's ever heard of, and one of the most prolific and imaginative guitarists they've never heard. John Mellencamp once said Thompson can say more in a single line than he (Mellencamp) can say in a song. A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but not much. At any rate, it speaks to the esteem Thompson is held in by other musicians.

I'm sitting here listening to a live version of Thompson's "The Calvary Cross." Thompson sings the lyrics while unleashing shards of chords at a dirge's pace: a six-string apocalypse, the end of the world crashing down over the eastern horizon and heading this way. Thompson's songwriting was once described as "doom and gloom from the tomb," and this song shows why. Four lines in and you're swallowing hard:

I was under the Calvary Cross
The pale-faced lady she said to me
I've watched you with my one green eye
And I'll hurt you 'till you need me.

Remember the train Robert Johnson sings about in "Love in Vain," a song covered by the Stones on "Let It Bleed"? Johnson laments watching the train leave the station with his love on board, two lights on behind it: "The blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind." That's the blues—and everyone knows the legend of Johnson selling his soul to the devil so he could play guitar. Robert Johnson? Satan? Thompson's pale-faced lady runs the the two of them right off the tracks:

One day you catch a train
Never leaves the station.

Thompson continues to rain down the chords as the song's mood plunges further into the abyss, hitting four of the bleakest lines he's ever written:

Scrub me 'till I shine in the dark:
I'll be your light 'till doomsday.
Oh, it's a black cat cross your path,
And why don't you follow?

Just how grim is the singer's fate? The lady with one green eye closes the song and closes the deal:

Everything you do,
Everything you do,
You do for me.

Thompson ends with an extended guitar solo. He is as fast, as free, and as fluid an axeman as anybody you'd care to mention, but this particular solo walks in step like a mummy, a march of the damned, a shuffle of the doomed. Under the Calvary Cross, a savior and two thieves have lost their lives, and the singer has forfeited his soul.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 2nd, 2011 10:31 am (UTC)
John Mellencamp once said Thompson can say more in a single line than he (Mellencamp) can say in a song.

Doesn't sound like hyperbole to me! :) Not a huge fan of Mellencamp; maybe that's why. I mean, he's okay, I suppose, but...

There's nobody like Richard Thompson :) Fairport hasn't been the same without him, as far as I'm concerned! He's had a fantastically wide-ranging career, but all of it marked by that incredible guitar work. I'm sad Andrew and I had to miss the chance to see him a couple of weeks ago -- he put on one of the best shows I've had the good fortune to be at.
Feb. 3rd, 2011 12:52 am (UTC)
I've seen R.T. twice, but not recently. I first caught him on the Mock Tudor tour at a show in a room that holds maybe 500 people. Easily one of the best shows I've ever seen. His song catalog draws on so many influences that I don't like all of his stuff, but he's still a must-see act. And a breathtaking guitarist.

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