Listen to this track by British folk paragon and singer-songwriter Bridget St. John. It’s “A Day A Way” the opening track as taken from her 1971 album Songs For The Gentle Man which, as Wikipedia puts it best, “propelled her to cult status in the United Kingdom”. I love that: propelled her to cult status.
It’s not like this record went under the radar of some key influencers at the time. None other than John Peel was a major supporter in a variety of capacities. Her first three records, including this one, came out on his Dandelion label. And he produced her debut Ask Me No Questions, and arranged several Peel sessions. According to a piece in July 2006 issue of MOJO magazine, he even shouted down a loutish crowd so that she could be heard during an early tour before she recorded her first record. If only Peel had been there to do the same when Nick Drake toured.
And speaking of Drake, St. John played with him in Le Cousins, a folk club in Soho in London. They had a common friend in John Martyn who was something of a mentor to St. John when it came to the guitar. Much like both men mentioned, she unlocked her melodic sense when it came to songwriting by way of open tunings, and with a flurry of natural imagery in her lyrics. This is not to mention that patented melancholy that makes her work so compelling, and so tied to the British folk sound of the time.
But, there’s something unique to be found in this song, and St. John’s work in general.
The first thing about St. John that comes across is her voice, which is a deep, sonorous, trans-Atlantic instrument. It undercuts the expectation of a delicate ingenue voice many look for in a sensitive folk-singer. The closest comparison might be less Sandy Denny, and more a sort of Anglicized Nico. And yet on this tune, there’s aural sunshine to be enjoyed, perhaps contrasted against St. John’s rainy day delivery.
Another thing here is the almost Elizabethan arrangement from producer Ron Geesin and its supporting instrumentation, with bassoon and flute interwoven together with St. John’s lilting guitar lines and voice. They create a series of countermelodies which at times wander away from the main drama of the song in places in a childlike kind of way. Yet, at the same time, they support the feel of the song too, which is wild, gentle, innocent, and idyllic, serving to frame a series of ecstatic snapshots of a day out with a lover. The song is a travelogue-as-love-song, which is a form that St. John would explore further on other songs in her four-LP (to date!) catalog.
Bridget St. John’s wide appeal outside of her dedicated fanbase would be undone by the end of Peel’s Dandelion label in 1973, even if she appeared on Melody Maker’s top ten poll for best female singer-songwriter by the next year. Also that next year, she’d record her last album to date on Chrysalis (Jumble Queen), before emigrating to Greenwich Village in 1976. It would be here that she’d leave her professional music career behind to raise a daughter, and work with the elderly. She never gave up writing music, but rather left the hope of fame behind her, something that was easy for her to give up due to her private nature.
But, eventually she returned to public life as a musician. In 1999, she’d sing “One Of These Things First” at a Nick Drake tribute in New York. More recently, she’s emerged again having played shows with Espers, and Devendra Banhart, among others.
To learn more about her, check out this interview with Bridget St. John in which she talks about her career, and making friends with songwriters like Martyn, Drake, and even David Bowie during her years in the London folk scene of the late 1960s.