I’ve had the idea of once a week celebrating a song which means a lot to me but which is perhaps less well-known than they should be.
Like Chaim Tannenbaum’s ‘London, Longing For Home’.
When I saw a rare solo performance by Tannenbaum at the London Palladium in 2016, have been introduced to his music quite recently by my friend Dillie Keane, he had the air of someone who was uneasy being in the spotlight. This song was introduced with particular diffidence. It’s quite long and not exactly feel-good in spirit, but the more I’ve listened to it, the more I have come to admire the way it evokes a lost world of post-war London.
Tannenbaum is an unlikely folk hero. A Canadian, he has been part of the McGarrigles/Loudon Wainwright extended family since the 1960s. When, belatedly, he released his own CD in 2016, Wainwright described him as ‘my musical conscience… I have never in my life come across a less ambitious, yet more talented singer, player and songwriter than Chaim.’
The lack of ambition may have something to do with the fact that, professionally, Tannenbaum is an academic, teaching logic and philosophy, a job from which he has only recently retired. There is no connection between his two lives, he says. ‘I may as well be two unrelated people,’ he is quoted as saying in a 2011 profile of him in The Tablet.
I’ve been unable to discover when he wrote ‘London, Longing For Home’, but it must date back, at least in its inspiration, to when he was living in England in the late 1960s. What’s unusual about it is that, without ever seeming wordy, it conjures up the London of that time in a way that is rare to find outside the pages of a novel.
Although it’s melancholy in tone, it has that tug of wit beneath the surface which is there in most great songs. Early in the song, he sets up a faintly ironic London Tourist Board version of the city:
Here’s London, my mother, my home,
The fount of all glories, in gracious repose.
All the banks of the Thames moored in tradition
Here’s Milton and Marlowe and Greavsie and Dickens.
Then the song turns and reveals the real London, full of arresting images (‘boiling faces and mouths full of brown teeth’) and vivid scenes, presented with a hard, clear-eyed irony:
Consider this pub full of England’s fine treasures,
These thirty odd sets of malarial eyes
In second-hand suits and broken umbrellas,
Cursing their dogs, their luck and their lives
It’s fair to assume that, when he wrote this song, Chaim Tannenbaum’s heart was not exactly brimming with affection for London’s fair city.
It was day after long rainy day
Of stumbling in shadows and turning away from the thousand small horrors,
Nicely run funerals, dancing sorrows and endless parades
Of grey tiny souls in wool overcoats gathering rain.
Then, in a weird imaginative touch, he introduces into the song the chorus of ‘Shenandoah’, whose its tune and lyrics evoke a longing for home.
This is a song which is specific to a time and a place and yet reaches far beyond them. As Tannenbaum says, in a characteristically gnomic note in the CD credits, ‘Homesickness is not a condition that can be resolved by going home.’
The song is here, and the lyrics (woefully transcribed) are here. And, if you like this song, Tannenbaum’s ‘Time On My Hands’ – also wonderful – is here.