Kathleen Ferrier made me cry. Last Friday morning, when I was sitting at the kitchen table. She died in 1951, but she made me cry a week ago. I was writing with the radio playing in the background: Desert Island Discs, Paul Greengrass, the film director, as their guest. I was – very loosely – registering his selection. Extremely loosely, actually, as I can’t recall what he chose. A Beatles number, I think. And then from the radio came the river of Kathleen Ferrier’s contralto voice, singing a capella.
“Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly,
Blow the wind south o’er the bonnie blue sea.
Blow the wind southerly, southerly, southerly
Blow bonnie breeze my lover to me.”
Recorded sometime in the 1940s, I stopped what I was writing, listened, and cried. Why that response? Because it is a lullaby? The purity of one distilled voice, without musical embellishment? A plaintive calling? A yearning? A plea for safety? Is it because it reminded me of my Dad? “Listen, it’s Kathleen Ferrier,” he would tell me, “the finest contralto that ever lived.” All of that, and more. I know it reminded me of a happy time, a few years ago, when I sang with a group of women in England, this song included. But, more simply, maybe I just needed to cry and Kathleen’s voice put my heart through a gentle mangle.
‘Better out than in’, they say of tears. I suppose so. Yet the older we get, the less we do of it. And if you’re a man, well, you’re in trouble. For men, the adage is reversed and it’s most definitely, ‘better in than out’. With the very odd exception, that is, such as: football matches.
I’m taking you back to May 21st 2016. Edinburgh’s Hibernian Football Team (Hibs) have just won the Scottish cup and 25,000 Hibs fans (I’m allowing for half of gate numbers to be Hibs fans) break into song. I know, these days, men, women, and children all go to games. However, look up footage from that day on YouTube and you’ll find clips showing mostly legions of men parcelled up in green and white, waving scarves and flags, and singing. They are being led by Charlie and Craig, of ‘The Proclaimers’, and almost all of them are crying their un-broken hearts out. Just as the twins made it acceptable to sing in a proud Scottish accent, so too have they given men permission to cry in public. Since Hibs adopted the anthemic ‘Sunshine On Leith’, back in 1988, Easter Road has been Edinburgh’s safe space for men to cry.
“While I’m worth my room on this earth,
I will be with you.
While the Chief, puts sunshine on Leith
I’ll thank him for his work
And your birth and my birth.”
Whose birth are they rejoicing? Not their wives and girlfriends, you can be sure! Back in May of last year, I’m pretty sure it was David Gray’s birth they were rejoicing. Born the year ‘Sunshine On Leith’ was released, he’s an all-time hero for ending Hibs’s 114-year losing spell with his late goal.
It’s all so confusing, this crying lark. Dry your eyes, big up, worse things happen at sea, stiff upper lip, get over it, stop your old nonsense….. all words that are meant to be helpful. Even gentle Joni Mitchell is at it. In ‘Both Sides Now’ she makes a plea against showing any vulnerability, singing:
“But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away.”
She was only 24 when she wrote that wonderful song. She famously sang it in the year 2000 when she was almost 60, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City, a retrospective, celebrating her career. Her voice is different. The rendition is poignant, emotional, vulnerable, fragile, melancholic. Go, look it up and listen to that version. I bet it makes you cry.