Death’s Dateless Night


“Now can I drown an eye unused to flow
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night” *

Charlie and I had talked over the years about making a record together but had never got around to it. Driving to a friend’s funeral last year and discussing the songs we’d played at other such occasions, separately and together, finally gave us our frame. Songs mostly written by others – Cole Porter, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Lennon/McCartney – and some traditional.  

We enlisted J Walker with whom I’d worked with previously on Spring and Fall to engineer and co-produce the recording, taking over Charlie’s house at Arthurs Seat for a week at the end of February. We kept the sound live and sparse, just the two of us, except for the occasional vocal by family members – my sister Mary Jo and my daughters Maddy and Memphis.

I stuck to singing and playing acoustic guitar. Charlie was the swing man, playing dobro, lap steel, electric guitar, synthesizer and piano. I managed to talk him into singing some harmonies too.

It’s interesting to look at the kinds of songs people request at funerals. They’re not always sad, of course. They tend towards the philosophical, wide and deep in scope.
Paul Kelly, Aug 24, 2016


Paul’s notes on the songs…

HARD TIMES – Written by Stephen Foster, the Father of American popular music. He wrote Oh, Suzannah, Camptown Races, The Old Folks at Home, Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair, Beautiful Dreamer and many others. He died in 1864 with 38 cents to his name and a note in his pocket that said “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”

TO LIVE IS TO FLY – Texan tower of song, Townes Van Zandt, lived hard, died youngish and leaked many great songs along the way. Steve Earle says of him “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”
PRETTY BIRD TREE – L J Hill hails from Narrabri, NSW, and first released this song on his 2008 album Namoi Mud. Not long after recording our version I was in an ancient Dingle graveyard with Irish singer Pauline Scanlon who was showing me round the area. “Do you know L J Hill?” she asked. It turns out she’d landed on the song around the same time as I had. Or should I say, this rare and beautiful bird landed on us.

PALLET ON THE FLOOR – there are many versions of this old song with different words and melodies. Gillian Welch did her own a few years back. This is one of the first tunes I learnt on guitar. Good practice for finger-picking. And I like a song with a cooking reference in it.

NUKKANYA – One of two songs of mine on the record. Coincidentally, it was written when I was acting and singing in a play called Funerals and Circuses. ‘Nukkan’ is a Narrandjeri word meaning “see’. So ‘Nukkanya’ means ‘See ya’.

THE PARTING GLASS – Traditional Irish song of farewell. Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers’ version live at Carnegie Hall gives me chills every time I hear it. The silence of a crowd has a completely different charge to the silence of emptiness. I invited my sister Mary Jo to sing the harmony with me as we’ve sung this song a lot at family funerals over the years.

MEET ME IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AIR – The words to this tune are a rhyming rearrangement of Psalm 23, often recited at funerals. Allegedly written 3,000 years ago by King David, harpist of skill, commander of armies and lover of women.

DON’T FENCE ME IN – Cole Porter wrote this, adapting it from a poem that someone sent him. The story goes that he, the urban sophisticate, didn’t rate it too highly. Too hokey, too clip-cloppy. I love it though and I’m not the only one. I recorded a song – Roll On Summer – with my daughters when they were children but this is the first time we’ve sung as adults together on a record. It won’t be the last, I hope.

BIRD ON THE WIRE – Leonard Cohen sang this song every night when I opened up for him over ten shows in 2008. Every concert was an exquisite ritual, a sly and tender offering of service to the ecstatic audience. Leonard himself was part rabbi, part vaudevillian.

GOOD THINGS – Written by Maurice Frawley, a long-standing friend of Charlie’s and mine. Charlie played in Maurice‘s band, The Working Class Ringos, for many years. Maurice wrote Look So Fine Feel So Low with me when we were in a band together in the early eighties. I remember this song playing through the speakers set up outside the overflowing church when they carried Maurice in his coffin to the hearse.

LET IT BE – The second song on the record featuring the pure, clear vocals of Maddy and Memphis Kelly. I’ve sung a lot of Beatles songs for fun over the years but always shied away from recording any. The original versions are so idiosyncratic, so right, that it’s hard to conceive of them any other way. But M and M and I have sung Let It Be at various occasions over the years so we just approached it like we would a folk song with a little Charlie weirdness thrown in.

ANGEL OF DEATH – From Hank Willams’ series of recordings as Luke The Drifter, when he assumed the character of a haunted preacher. Charlie and I have never done this song at a funeral and I doubt if we ever would. We think of it more as a coda to the rest of the record, a kind of commentary. When Charlie, J Walker and I sat down to listen to the demo on my phone, prior to recording, we all looked at each other and said “Let’s leave it as is.”

These are the songs we’ve sung for friends and kin. We hope they give joy and succour. This record was a pleasure to make all the way. I’m already thinking about the sequel.

* SONNET 30 – William Shakespeare
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unus’d to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancell’d woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish’d sight: s
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.