1998 Irish Times interview
In a rare interview, Van Morrison talks to John Kelly about east Belfast, hearing Leadbelly for the first time, his parents' record collection, and other sources of his music. East Belfast is a territory well covered in the songs of Van Morrison. He constantly invokes its spirit and clearly glories in the names of its places, successfully elevating them well beyond their image of coal-brick and church hall - the Castlereagh Road, Cyprus Avenue, North Road, Abetta Parade and Orangefield. With the naming of names, Morrison reclaims his own place and replaces it where he remembers it - in the imagination and in the heart.
His are the days before rock 'n' roll and, significantly, the days before Belfast tumbled so violently out of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Van Morrison's East Belfast is a place of swishing radio signals late on hot summer nights, with the windows open and distant sounds echoing across Beechy River.
It's a part of town which has been traditionally represented to the outside world by its preachers and its politicians. Many of them would have you know that it is a loyal and God-fearing territory full of well-scrubbed doorsteps, bunting and flute bands; that it is a fixed and definite heartland cluttered only by its churches, its temples and its gospel halls.
It is all the more extraordinary, perhaps, that within this very particular territory, a small house in Hyndford Street has become one of the most important sources in recent musical history. It is No 125, George and Violet Morrison's house, and it was a very enlightened home indeed.
"My father had all these records - Mahalia Jackson, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Josh White. And there was always Bing Crosby singing too. But that wasn't out of the ordinary. And before that, my mother used to get me these records out of Woolworths. Things like "Turkey In The Straw", "She'll Be Coming Round The Mountain" and cowboy songs. They were low budget records on red vinyl 45s - plastic, not like the 78s - but they weren't 45s either. This was before 45s. "On Top Of Old Smokey" was another one."
The Hyndford Street house can be described as a source in the sense that it was a place from which something began and developed. And within that house, Morrison's parents were two further sources - people from whom something precious and special was obtained. They were people who had gathered earlier sources into that one small house and shared it with their only child, Van. He then went on to be one of the most influential artists of our time and became an actual source in himself - a person providing evidence, information and inspiration. But way back, it all began in the front room.
"My mother sang and relatives would come around on a Saturday evening. They'd go to the club first and then come back and have a few drinks and sing songs. "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen", "Danny Boy". My uncle used to sing that one, "I'm A Rambler, I'm A Gambler". Then my father used to take me to Solly's place - Atlantic Records - every Saturday morning and it was always packed! Yeah, a lot of people were into jazz and blues and folk. People were just into music and it didn't matter what it was called or anything. It was just music."
Van Morrison has a remarkable memory and his descriptions of the Belfast of his youth are quite extraordinary to anyone of my generation. He insists, however, that his family was not unique and he happily recalls the sounds of Slim Whitman and Webb Pierce coming from open doors along the street. He talks fondly of a neighbour called Jim Tosh who played Hank Williams numbers in the narrow back lane behind the houses - sometimes joined by others on T-chest bass, washboard, harmonica and guitar. When Morrison sings in Cleaning Windows that he heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon on the street where he was born, that is exactly the way it was.
"Yeah, the first time I heard Leadbelly, that was it - it was already made up for me. It was not just a hobby - it was more than that. I was really into Leadbelly, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Josh White. The first soul music I heard was the McPeakes, but they were taken for granted. Now it's a world thing but then it was taken for granted. The McPeakes were ahead of their time. Everybody knew about them but they were taken for granted. But it was people like Leadbelly and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee who opened the door.
"The very first record I ever bought was "Hootin' Blues" by Sonny Terry and it cost 1/6d in Smithfield. I think the shop was called Smith's. There were rows and rows of records there. "And I got my first guitar in Smithfield too - it must have been in Joe Kavanagh's place. It was called "I Buy Anything"."
A drive through Morrison's part of Belfast reveals the deep influence of religion. Just about every possible denomination of Protestantism is represented - from Saint Donard's Church of Ireland which has turned up more than once in his work, to the smaller and more mysterious congregations and evangelical sects. Morrison has expressed an interest in many aspects of spirituality over the years and at times has even recorded hymns such as "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" and "Be Thou My Vision". Even so, his interest in Gospel music is a strictly musical one.
"I used to listen to Gospel all the time. It was always there in the background but it had nothing to do with religion. My father wasn't religious in any shape or form and what stopped me from doing more of it was the words. I couldn't get plugged in. I went once or twice to Bible class but there was no singing there anyway. I just never got into it. I went with my mother to a faith-healing thing once but that just turned me off. There was a lot of fear."
When Morrison's mother was singing with her relatives in the house, the young Van had a party piece of his own and not surprisingly it was a Leadbelly song - "Goodnight Irene". At some stage music had become something that he could do as well as listen to. It became something that moved from being on a record to something that he could perform. And the initial inspiration might seem an unlikely one.
"The first person I ever saw perform was Elton Hayes. He was singing "Mister Froggy" and then I never saw him again. And he was in the Robin Hood film also and he sang in that. He was Alan a Dale. Then there was Rory McEwan on TV and he really made me take notice. My father had the records but then here was this guy on the TV singing the Leadbelly songs and what they called topical calypsos. He was on five nights a week - I think it was Panorama - it was Cliff Mitchelmore anyway. I just thought, this is it! And then Lonnie Donegan came along and I hooked into skiffle. Then I played a school concert when I was about 14 because one of the teachers asked me to do it. We played "Midnight Special" and I don't think they knew what to make of it.
"Skiffle wasn't going that long. It was me and a couple of Hyndford Street guys and we actually called ourselves Midnight Special. T-chest bass, washboard and guitar. We wanted a jug but we couldn't get one. But then me and Gilbert Irvine found a lead pipe in Beechy River and we called it a Zobo - you blew into it. He was lucky he didn't get typhoid!"
There were several other unique figures in Belfast - among them the singer David Hammond who was one of Morrison's teachers at Orangefield School. Hammond denies that this had any bearing on Morrison, who seemed to pass through school very quietly, but Morrison does remember Hammond singing Casey Jones in class. More significant was Solly Lipsitz who ran Atlantic Records on High Street.
Morrison always speaks highly of Lipsitz, who was himself yet another source - both of records and of information. He was, and still is, a committed jazz fan and someone who over the years had met the likes of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. His record shop and others in town were absolutely vital to Morrison, who was by this stage also keeping up with the latest developments in what they were calling rock 'n' roll.
"Solly had all the records. Jazz and blues. Bo Diddley was on London American and you could get his records in McBirnie's in Smithfield. I loved Bill Haley and I remember buying "Razzle Dazzle". And Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis - he had so many good records one after another and I bought his singles in Smithfield. I still love Jerry Lee. Then there was Little Richard and Chuck Berry although I wasn't so much into him. A friend's brother was really into Johnny Ray and he was always being played on the radio. Some people say that Johnny Ray invented rock 'n' roll but the main ones for me were Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee."
But Morrison was still a blues singer at heart and he loved a music that appeared to be past and gone except in the hearts of its devotees. Showbands now reigned supreme and perfected Shadows numbers and routines. But something was bubbling under nevertheless. In the late 1950s Chris Barber had begun bringing bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy across the Atlantic. Barber had also invited Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies to play a blues set during his shows and although the trad jazzers didn't always like it, the result was an outfit called Blues Incorporated.
Many famous names later passed through or skimmed the edges of Blues Incorporated - people such as Mick Jagger, Paul Jones, John Mayall, Eric Burdon, Robert Plant, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. The direct result was the blues boom of the 1960s and the emergence of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Long John Baldry and so on - all of them playing what was basically heavily amplified blues.
When the craze hit Belfast, Van Morrison was perfectly placed. He already knew this music intimately. It was the music he had been listening to as a child. No surprise then that a Belfast group called Them would appear on the scene and show everybody else how it really should be done. Morrison was not only off the blocks - he had a head start.
"I started out long before Alexis Korner and that movement. It came from the same source but I was already doing it. The first time I ever heard an electric band it was actually Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. That was way back. It was called Back Country Blues then but in fact it was urban blues and that was the first Chicago style thing I ever heard. The first thing I ever rehearsed with Them was one of their songs called "Custard Pie".
"Muddy Waters and Little Walter were on the Pye R'n' B series but it was only the singles. The woman in the shop would tell you what had come in - things like Harmonica Fats. But it was Little Walter who was the master. He was electric but very controlled electric.
"I didn't take up the harp until '62 in Germany when we did "Elevate Me Mama" by Sonny Boy No 1. I was heavily influenced by Sonny Terry but then I met Little Walter in London in 1965 and he asked me to play harp. He laughed and said that he wasn't doing that John Henry shit any more. Little Walter was the master."
Even before the Them days - pre-"Gloria" and pre-"Here Comes The Night" - Morrison was already a veteran of gigs and the hard slog tour. His time in Germany with The Monarchs had been tough but, most importantly, Morrison had got to meet some genuine Americans with whom he shared an understanding of the music. Such encounters were hugely significant and encouraging to a young performer with definite ideas of his own.
"I remember when I was in Germany with the Monarchs meeting this GI called Lee. He played guitar and sang with us one night. He did "Stormy Monday". And he had this record player in the hotel and he played all this Bobby Bland stuff. I don't like talking in biblical terms but it was like the road to Damascus. It was a real eye-opener. I really wanted to do songs like these and later I kept trying to sneak them into the set with Them.
"Songs like "Another Saturday Night" and "Let The Good Times Roll" but they weren't really into it. They just wanted to jam it. I don't think they wanted a singer. But I was a singer and I needed to rehearse. There were never any rehearsals - just jams and they turned up the amps when I sang. When Ray Elliot and Jim Armstrong came in things were better - they knew how to do songs. Armstrong was playing nice stuff - jazz chords. Then they changed back into a guitar group. Buddy Guy said once that what happened to the blues was that everybody thought it was just a jam and they just ignored arrangements."
There were many great bands at the Maritime but none of them ever managed to repeat the success of Them. And with Morrison off the local scene, it was never quite the same again. Then apparently out of the blue in 1968 an album appeared called Astral Weeks which to this day it considered one of the most extraordinary albums ever released.
It all seemed a long, long way from Them but in fact there had been signs of a unique lyrical and musical ability even then. "Philosophy" had been written at the Maritime and "Could You Would You?" had actually been written in The Manhattan Showband in 1962. There had also been earlier versions of some of the songs which eventually appeared fully formed on Astral Weeks. Even so, something had evidently happened to release these astonishing sounds. It was something altogether different, entirely new and it mentioned places in Belfast! Van is still not sure how it happened.
"I had been picking up the odd poetry book - Ginsberg and of course Kerouac. I had already read that. You see it was all actually unconscious - they call it stream of consciousness. After that, things became more conscious. Later I read philosophy and Steiner says that you change - up until 28 you are unconscious - after that it's conscious. But I'm not sure if I buy that now.
"Also, I had heard Dylan's first or second record and I saw it was possible to write any kind of words. They could be about anything and Dylan made that possible. It meant that you wouldn't have to suppress an idea - if it came and if it was completely off-the-wall it didn't matter. So Dylan is the key. But I'm not sure about that unconscious before 28 thing any more. I mean, I still write stuff and I don't know where it comes from. It's not about me or about anybody Iknow. It just comes out of nowhere and I haven't a clue what it's about."
And so the source continues to flow. And it all began in a small house in a city that can often seem anything but inspirational. It began in the days before rock 'n' roll, before the music business existed as we know it now, and in a very different Belfast. All the precious things that George and Violet Morrison cherished about music - all the Leadbelly and the Lonnie Johnson and the Mahalia Jackson - entered their only child Van from the minute he could hear and emerged again years later in new and different strands of genius like light through a prism. Not that the BBC spotted it.
"I auditioned for the BBC when I was 14. There was an ad for a television programme and they were looking for talent. I wrote a letter and they asked me to audition. I sang a folk song and because I didn't know all the words I rewrote it and added my own lyrics. It was about a bird. The BBC never wrote back!"