by Eric Doumerc
Dave Reeves has been working as a freelance writer, performer and musician for many years now in England. He often performs poetry while accompanying himself on the harmonica or the melodeon and his work has taken him to pubs, workingmen's clubs, literary and rock festivals, and many other places. He was once described by a Times journalist as a "kind of cultural hired gun around the West Midlands." The music he performs his poems to could be defined as country blues or traditional blues and reflects his attempt at reaching a wider audience.
He first started performing in the late 1970's and early 1980's, after practicing in his bedroom with a friend of his. He recalled this time in a February interview.
"I spent years working in one form or another with a guy called Peter Phipps. When we were 16, we were hammering out very bad blues in our bedrooms, and he became a much more sophisticated guitarist as the years went on and a very good slide guitarist. And after I started doing readings, we ended up working together again. I was playing harmonica, he was playing guitar, and I was doing spoken word material. I was doing performance poetry with music behind it. We toured folk clubs and festivals, and we were doing quite a bit of work. We were quite successful, in a very low-key way. We just kept working- we were always doing a gig somewhere. We put out one tape, then we came to do more material. We teamed up with a bass player called Chris Lomas, and that act then toured as dave reeves plc (using lower case).' And we toured out to art centres, festivals, a variety of places. We were touring almost constantly. We were also working in another act as well, the three of us plus a girl singer, so that was how we managed to do it full time."
Dave sees his art as a form of blues-inspired performance poetry. "[I'm talking about] really old blues before they became formalized - where somebody is telling the story over the top of a drone, a plucked guitar, a beat, a rhythm, an interaction between one person and a harmonica. Thats' all par of it. It is all oral art. I've always thought of myself as a performance poet, but because I do a lot more stuff now with visual artists, working in collaboration, again it's a performance element, but it's all publishing. I see being a performance poet as publishing and being out there. The original phrase is ‘to publish abroad,' so that's what I'm doing. I am publishing it with my voice ; like a town crier would publish the news or something like that…"
Dave Reeves was inspired by blues musicians like Sonny Boy Williamson, bands like The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and folk musicians like Arlo Guthrie whose "Alice's Restaurant" was a major influence. "He's playing the guitar and telling a story at the top. He's working with the music but not delivering to it."
Storytelling lies at the heart of what Dave does and on stage, he uses props like puppets and visual elements to convey his message. The visual artist Bob Devereux and the American spoof drama radio group The Firesign Theater were important influences too.
Reeves' brand of performance poetry has taken many forms over the years. Indeed Dave has worked as a community poet, documenting people's lives and their relationship with their enviroment. He has also worked in a more "socio-political" mode and commented on important issues. His poetry has also reflected his deep attachment to the Black Country, the industrial area to the North of Birmingham he grew up in.
Over the years Dave has been involved in many projects as a community poet. These projects have usually been about a sense of place and about how people relate to their own environment and surroundings. One such project in Sandwell (in the West Midlands) resulted in an exhibition entitled “Beneath4Moons” and involved working with people in residential care homes and with wheelchair users.
In 2004 Dave worked with the rural community of Craven Arms (in Shropshire) on a project called “Passion for Landscape” and the outcome was an exhibition in which seven artists took part. The exhibition was held at the Secret Hills Discovery Centre, in Craven Arms. In 2007, he took up a writing residency in the parish of Bomere Heath, in Shropshire. The poet worked with pupils in schools, ran open sessions in the local Post Office, and talked to the locals in their homes. This project led to a CD titled Ballads for Bomere Heath.
The ballad form is another major inspiration for Reeves as ballads were originally an oral art form; ballads were songs meant to be performed by troubadours. The Ballads for Bomere Heath CD was recorded with the guitarist Tom Cook and also features Dave playing the melodeon, as on the first track, an atmospheric talking blues about fitting in. The second track on the CD, entitled "Royalty," is a folk ballad about a member of the Royal family visiting Bomere Heath and the excitement caused by such a royal visit. The quick-paced musical backing works beautifully with Dave's vocals:The school was all excitement – the day the Queen passed throughReeves was once described in a review as a "socio-political performance poet" and he often deals with important social issues like political corruption, social inequality or the class system. He often performs "rants" or talking blues and his targets range from the evils of crass commercialism to the new social media. In "The Devil is In the Retail," he points out the excesses of consumerism:
The teachers washed behind our ears - the day the Queen passed through
Scrubbed our knees and combed our hair - the day the Queen passed through
Straightened ties and smoothed down pleats - the day the Queen passed through
We were jostling on the pavement - the day the Queen passed through
Pushing, punching, picking nose - the day the Queen passed through
We were waiting on the corner ¬- the day the Queen passed through
Waving Union flags around - the day the Queen passed through
We've Mark Down's, special offers,In "Faceache (anti-social media notworking),” Dave takes to tasks the new social media in a style which is reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke's performance poetry:
Two for the price of one deals;
Cash back, Free lunches,
It's like music to your ears
You think the scales are weighed in your favour
The scores are all going your way,
there's brass in them there arrangements,
the strings are attached and ready to play:
Well the devil rides on a fiddlestick
And there's a fiddle here somewhere,
Hear the catgut sizzling
Smell brimstone in the air,
The devil is in the retail he's gonna put his brand on you
I don't want to be your friend - Get lostAs early as 1986, Reeves released a cassette entitled The White Dog of the Cynics, which could be described as spoken word before the phrase was coined. The first track is a wry rant about America as the land of freedom which features some beautiful slide guitar by Mr. Phipps (as he was always referred to) and has Dave playing the Jew's harp, an instrument he has always been fond of.
I don't want to be your friend - Get lost
If I ain't seen you since junior school
There might be a bloody good reason you fool
I don't want to be your friend - Get lost
A good example of Reeves' topical poetry is the piece entitled "Duck Island Blues," a ferocious snipe at dishonest politicians who fiddle their expenses and thus cheat the taxpayer. This blues poem could be seen as his response to the notorious expenses claims scandal, when it was revealed in 2009 that many British MP's had misused the allowances they were entitled to:I hear you've got a duck island floating in your lakeReeves' attachment to the Black Country appears in his latest collection, which is entitled Black Country Dialectics (Offa's Press, 2011). The book is accompanied by a CD recorded with and produced by guitarist Chris Lomas. The CD also allows the reader to experience Reeves' art in a performance context, and the interplay between music and poetry works beautifully, for instance on "Saturday Night in Dodge City," a humorous piece which transplants Black Country culture to the American wild west and turns Billy the Kid into a West Midlands immigrant:
I've got ducks up the wall on the council estate
But I'm a floating voter so you'd better watch out mate
‘Cause I've got the duck island blues
You say you got into politics to redistribute wealth
Looks to me like you redistributed most of it to yourself
Through a company you'd got to duck tax, registered on an island just off the continental shelf,Oi yo' I'm callin' yo' out !Typical Black Country cultural elements like "pork scratchings" (a West Midlands delicacy) find themselves in seemingly outlandish setting until we learn that in the 19th century, many immigrants to America came from the industrial Midlands.
Saturday night in Dodge City
And Billy the Kid is angry.
A pint o' mild an' a bag o' scratchin's luv
These recordings remind us that Reeves' art can be seen as the continuation of a long tradition of performance poetry in the UK which includes poets like Attila the Stockbroker, John Cooper Clarke, Adrian Henry and the Liverpool poets, Jools, Roger McGough, but which also actually goes back to the early talking blues tradition, with artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson, and the folk music tradition exemplified by Woody and Arlo Guthrie. A rich culture indeed and Reeves is an apt purveyor to carry it on.
Dave Reeves' music can be accessed at https://soundcloud.com/davereeves-who-bellows
Some of the tracks on the Ballads for Bomere Heath CD are available at http://www.bomereheathballads.co.uk/.
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