Molly Drake

March 24, 2013

Molly Drake small-1I’ve been listening to songs by Molly Drake this week, in preparation for the Laugharne Weekend literary festival. There’s going to be an event about Nick Drake with his producer Joe Boyd and a few singers, including Robyn Hitchock, Katell Keineg, and myself, are going to perform some songs, as a kind of illustration to the talk. When I was asked to do it, I immediately thought of Molly Drake, since I’ve been very fascinated by a new collection of her work, out on Alimentation records. Molly was Nick’s mother, and a very talented singer, songwriter and pianist who played for friends and family, rather than in public. Her songs are fresh, melodic, and musically sophisticated. They seem quite light in tone but actually there’s an undertow of melancholy in all of them. They take me back to my childhood, in that her style reminds me very much of my mother’s singing, which was fashionable in the forties and fifties but was swept away by rock and roll.

In the early fifties, my mother Susan Stutchbury (as she was then) was a student at Cambridge where she met Julian Slade, the composer of the musical Salad Days. They became friends, and she went on to star as the leading lady in his first production, Bang Goes the Meringue! Later on, when she married and had children, she stopped appearing on stage but continued to sing constantly around the house. The same was true of her great friend, Angela Haswell, my godmother, who also had a beautiful voice. These women, who by the way were the first generation of women to graduate from the university with proper degrees (before that, if you were a female, they just gave you a piece of paper saying ‘well done’), were remarkably talented in many ways, but in those days, once you married, you gave up any kind of serious work or public life.

On top of that, during the sixties and seventies, my generation became very dismissive of that kind of music. I always felt quite embarrassed about liking it, and kept pretty quiet about it, since at the time masculine rock was all the rage. So it’s very poignant now to return to that era and realise how stupid that attitude was, and how difficult it must have been for our parents – accustomed as they were to a diet of tuneful, romantic, and often gently witty songs – to listen to us all singing three-chord tunes in fake American accents, strumming away earnestly on guitars. Fortunately things have changed, but it still makes me feel sad to think of all the lovely songs like Molly’s that have been sitting on the shelf for years, and are only now just beginning to be dusted off again…

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4 Responses to “Molly Drake”

  1. Interesting post. The guest artists at the Joe Boyd event in London next week include Olivia Chaney, who has dropped hints that, if time permits, she may tackle one of Molly’s songs. Like you I regret that there’s a missing segment of British music which has fallen deeply out of favour. I recall seeing a revival of Sandy Wilson’s “Valmouth” years ago – there were about six other people in the theatre. One straw in the wind may be the revival of interest in Ivor Novello, whose songs were memorably featured in “Gosford Park” and who was the subject of an entire Prom last year.

    • author said

      Thanks for your comment, Philip. Since you wrote to me, Joe Boyd sent a newsletter out commenting on the renditions of the Molly Drake songs at his shows, see below. In conversation with him and Peter Paphides, I began to realise there is a whole hidden history here, as you say, a ‘missing segment of British music’. I am deeply ignorant about this, apart from what I know from my own experience within my family, which is why I haven’t replied to your email before. But I’m now determined to find out more. After the show I was contacted by the editor of the New Welsh Review, who commissioned me to write a longish piece on it. So I will be researching further…

      From JB:

      Olivia Chaney played and sang River Man at the piano, then walked to the front of the stage and sang one of Molly’s a capella. I’ve only heard Olivia a few times, but that’s enough to make me a fan – a good old fashioned singer. If I was a wine critic and she was a Cabernet Franc, I’d say she had “Sandy Denny notes” in her singing.

      Molly was back on the menu at Dylan Thomas’ home village of Laugharne on Friday night. Charlotte Grieg is a wonderful singer whose take on traditional songs I’ve always liked. She sang and played one of Molly’s songs beautifully for a crowded village hall;In Wales, the verbals were aided and abetted by Peter Paphides, who wrote a great piece about Nick 20 years ago that I never forgot and who just wrote an excellent article about Molly Drake for the Guardian a fortnight ago. He cross-examined me, bringing a new slant to the analysis.

  2. Judy Cator said

    Dear Charlotte,

    twas I that released the Molly CD under the guidance of her daughter Gabrielle, If you ever get time I wish you would write more about the matters you touch on as so many have mentioned this in their reviews and I wonder how many other tapes sit in dusty wicker baskets waiting for me to uncover them.

    Cally
    Bryter Music

    • author said

      Dear Cally,

      Excuse the delay in replying. Thank you for releasing the CD, it’s beautiful. I’ve enjoyed learning one of the songs, How Wild the Wind Blows. It’s an area of music I find fascinating, and I think there’s plenty more there to uncover. So yes, I’m sure I’ll write more about it. And hopefully you will release another gem soon!

      All best, Charlotte

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