RICHARD THOMPSON – ” 1952 Vincent Black Lightning “

Posted: August 23, 2018 in MUSIC
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When Richard Thompson performed at Delfest in May, he confronted the dilemma he faces at almost every show: How long can he ignore the calls from the audience for his best known song, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” before he gives in and plays it? he gave in early and played it halfway through the set.

Performing solo-acoustic at the big outdoor stage within the racetrack on the north bank of the Potomac River, Thompson said, “I’d like to thank Del McCoury for popularizing this song in the United States. He sang some different words,” Thompson added with a cryptic smirk, “but that’s okay. This, however, is the only version of the song you’ll hear today in B-flat.” McCoury, who has dominated 21st-century bluegrass in both awards and reviews, had taken this British musician’s song about a British motorcycle and British geography and made it a favorite of bluegrass and Americana audiences across the ocean.

Thompson, is a huge fan of older American music, had deliberately set out to write a song about an outlaw who rides a motorcycle rather than a horse, and to make the story as British as possible. The motorcycles mentioned aren’t American models but British: Vincents, Indians, Nortons and Greeves; the only place name in the song is Box Hill, a summit in Surrey’s North Downs and a popular cycling destination. McCoury changed the journey’s destination to Knoxville, but he left the names of the motorcycles alone Harleys are never mentioned—and yet the song has become a bluegrass classic.

“It’s important to make music that incorporates elements from where you come from,” Thompson added, “so you’re contributing something of yourself into the music. If you’re from England and you’re writing about the Mississippi Delta, there’s something missing. You can be a good imitator, but what are you bringing to the process? The early British Invasion bands really came to life when they stopped doing covers of American songs and started doing original tunes.”

“’Vincent’ started with the frustration of coming from Britain and wanting to reflect British culture,”said Thompson  “It’s hard to find mythological elements from my lifetime to build a song around, because American culture has been so dominant. The mythical places are Laramie and Cheyenne. ‘Going Back to Lancaster’ doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

Thompson recorded the original version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” on his 1991 album Rumor and SighIt’s a beautifully constructed song. It opens with some fast and tricky acoustic-guitar picking, a catchy phrase that ends on a high note, then on a low, back and forth, till it descends into the lower register. The same motif provides not only interludes between verses but also the coda.

“’1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ is a song I reinterpret every night,” Thompson said. “I play around with the instrumental part; it’s a Scottish rhythm but other things creep in. In terms of structure, it’s quite similar to a Scottish ballad from the 17th century, but that’s probably a good thing. It’s a structure with which I’m familiar, and it’s a structure that works. It encourages an economy of language and a power of language. It hasn’t been surpassed.”

For all its roots in Scottish folk music, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is quite innovative in its narrative structure. Most folk and pop songs are monologues by one speaker; even dialogues are rare. But Thompson’s song has four characters: Red Molly (a teenage girl attracted to motorcycles and the boys who ride them), James Addie (a young, low-level thief whose prized possession is the titular vehicle), Sergeant McRae (the cop pursuing the young thief) and an unnamed narrator. Each role has a fair number of lines, and the result is more like a play than a poem.

“In the context of popular song,” Thompson pointed out, “where you got three verses in three minutes, it helps to cut to the chase by jumping into the middle of the story. You don’t have to set it up so elaborately or end it so carefully. I often amuse myself by starting a story without knowing where it was going. You finish it and you realize that it’s you or someone you know. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s about you or someone else; it’s only important that it works as a song and says something about humanity.”

In the second act, James gives Molly an engagement ring along with a warning: “I’ll tell you in earnest, I’m a dangerous man. I’ve fought with the law since I was 17, and I’ve robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine.” The warning is fulfilled when Sergeant McRae comes looking for Molly to tell her that her fiancé took a shotgun blast during a robbery and it doesn’t look good at the hospital. (The song’s one flaw is the cop’s name; “Sergeant McCree” would make a much better rhyme with “armed robbery.”)

In the third act, Molly is at the hospital bed, where James is hallucinating about supernatural motorcyclists: “Angels on Ariels in leather and chrome swooping down from heaven to carry me home.” With his last breath, he presses the keys for the Vincent into her tear-dampened hands.

“It surprised me that it’s become such a popular song,” Thompson said, “because it’s a ballad with eight stanzas. I’m surprised that people have the attention span. ‘Vincent’ is my most requested song, and ‘Beeswing’ is the second, which is another story song with even more stanzas. In some communities many years ago, such songs were the only process for communicating the news, but it surprises me that it still works. People like stories in the context of a TV program, a stage play or a movie, but it’s surprising that it works in pop music. Maybe there’s an element of escaping from your own life into someone else’s.”

As he mentioned above, Thompson keeps messing around with the song, especially the instrumental interludes, and the song continues to evolve. As good as the original studio version, the versions on his various live albums (most notably Live from Austin TX) are even better.

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