January Man by David Goulder
As the summer sky fills up with clouds, overflowing and spilling down to sodden streets, David Goulder's January Man echoes in my thoughts. I can’t remember when I first heard the unadorned vocals, intricate guitar, and poignant poetry of this folk song. I only know that I come across it now and then when I least expect, tucked away in memories from every stage of my life. How is it that the passage of time is so surprising, when it’s the most predictable thing in the world? The man of new October takes the reigns and early frost is on his shoulder. When did the leaves turn orange?
January Man to me is an expression of this wonder. We greet one month after the other, become acquainted with its individual character, and before it can grow familiar we move along to the next. Goulder characterizes each month with descriptions that go far beyond the mere weather, tapping into the associations formed in the collective consciousness of everyone who lives somewhere with a similar climate and culture to Western Europe’s. Birds come in for the summer in April, children dance around May poles, we bask lazily in the hot July sun. January Man deftly weaves these collective memories into vivid personifications. Each month passes the reigns to the next, until finally it’s December and we’re standing on an icy road wondering how we got here.
The song is wistfully familiar. I hear it in my father's voice, his gentle hands at the guitar strings, his warmth settled comfortably next to me on the couch. It's a deceptively simple piece; the unusual tune and complex guitar pattern sound effortless in my father's hands. The melody and harmonic structure are peculiar enough to sustain interest through each verse. Instead of becoming boring with repetition, the tune settles into a comfortable familiarity, allowing the listener to instead focus on the beautiful poetry. As I grew into a better vocalist, my own voice joined my father’s on this song - to take another turn and walk along the icy road he knows so well.
The season changes. We leave our well-worn childhood paths, move out of the family home, begin our separate lives, take another turn in this endless road. I’ve left the merry chaos of my parents’ house for the quiet freedom of my own space. Still, I sit down on the piano bench and pick out a familiar pattern. My solitary voice fills the air, to take this song I know so well and make it my own. The man of March he sees the Spring and wonders what the year will bring…
I wonder what this change will bring.
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