A Review of the Harvey Andrews book
"Gold Star To The Ozarks"

"Gold Star To The Ozarks"
by Harvey Andrews


This review is written by Dai Woosnam, daigress@hotmail.com, 11/07

I write this review from my home in Britain. And unlike most of my pieces for Kevin & Maxine's Celtic & Folk Music CD Reviews, this is a BOOK review, and not that of a CD. It is a review of a book written by a household name on the UK folk scene.

Were I Harvey Andrews, I would go do the following: I would pack my suitcase and fly to Seattle and camp out in the grounds of the mansion of the CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos. I would then refuse to leave until he agreed to take a thousand copies of this book “see-safe”. (Please excuse me wearing my one-time hat as a book publisher's representative there: it just means, “supplied free, invoiced only when sold”.)

And “sold” they would assuredly be, particularly at the competitive price of £8.95. It seems criminal that, at the time of my writing this review, the only way one can buy this fine book is at his gigs or through his website.

But hey, whoa! Stop a moment. This is supposed to be a review and not a slavish fan letter. Anyone can write a puff job. I, as an independent reviewer, should be more cautious in my approach to this review: and maybe END with that paean of praise, but first weigh up the pros and cons.

And yet, I have to confess, I fell head-over-heels in love with this book from the very first page. But then, how could I not?

For the book starts with him about to do his first floor spot at one of the most famous folk clubs of the Revival years: the Jug o' Punch, then held in the commodious surroundings of Digbeth Civic Hall. And why this fact registers with me is because when I turned up to live in Birmingham toward the end of the 60s, it was the first folk club that I ever joined. And former resident Harvey Andrews - by that time making a name for himself nationally – could do no wrong with my fellow members who packed the place (oh for such crowds today!), and his regular return visits would be treated with acclaim.

I was subscribing to SingOut! back then, and kept seeing these songs by a chap called Phil Ochs. I used to pronounce his surname as the beast in the paddy field: it took Harvey to tell me that it should be pronounced as the tree in the meadow.

But hey, that's enough of my reminiscing. This book is about Harvey's reminiscing: and by golly, it's a book where every line rings true, every comma, and even the gaps BETWEEN the lines.

It covers his boyhood and youth up to his 22nd year. It's not totally linear - there is the occasional chronological jump – but it is a book that doesn't make any acute demands on the reader. Now some of us would see that as implicit criticism – the choice of vocabulary for instance would never have your average reader reaching for his dictionary – but as someone who has read far too many literary works where authors have deliberately swallowed a thesaurus, I regard Andrews' economy of style a very real plus point.

And you know what they say: clear pools are often the deepest.

But whereas there is an avoidance of “the abstruse” in his language, there is no avoidance of anything in his choice of what he can recall. The stuff from a half-century ago that he brings to the page is remarkable in both its breadth of material, and his flair for breathing life into it and bringing it on to the page like it happened yesterday. And with a staggeringly good eye for detail.

Examples? Oh gosh, the book abounds with them and alas there's just space here to list a couple. First, trust me, as a near contemporary of his, brought up like him in a house with no mod cons (and us in the Rhondda Valley never had bathrooms fitted like he did when still in school!), I can personally testify that his description of laying/setting a coal fire and then lighting it on a freezing morning using a double page of a newspaper to “draw” it … well, it is quite masterly. I had clean forgotten all the minutiae involved.

And, how he remembers the postman coming down the road to post him that letter telling him he had passed the 11-plus. And suddenly Harvey has baked his own madeleine cake for me. Reading his account, I feel my throat go dry: I got that same letter.

(Talking of schooldays, I note that he calls a satchel a “rucksack”. Or at least, I THINK he does. Because, that is what he and his mates take to school. Today, yes. But back then? Doubtless the kids in Brummagem were different to us South Walians in this regard.)

The real hero of this book is perhaps not Andrews Jnr., but Andrews Snr. His dad Vic comes out of it as a real working class hero, and Harvey owes him a lot (including saving his life when appendicitis threatened).

The book is full of surprises. Somehow I would never have guessed that Harvey was someone who was not only an avid aircraft spotter, but was also a former air cadet, marching and saluting. Nor did I imagine him working on inter-city express trains pushing the refreshment trolley down the length of the carriages, selling his wares. And who'd have thought he originally suffered from stage fright? (The way he used his own mental technique to overcome this problem, is brilliantly explained on page 195: it is worth the price of the book itself, as sound advice to aspiring performers.)

He has a great gift for capturing speech. I looked in vain for a false note. The nearest I could come was page 65 which has his dear dad saying “What good is Princess Margaret? I ask you. What is she for?”.

Now, I'd bet my shirt that this usage of “what is she for?” can only be traced back to about the mid 1980s, but such is the sheer INTEGRITY of this book that Harvey would doubtless succeed in taking the shirt off my back! So I'll withdraw the suggestion.

And that integrity is such that he allows himself to paint a “warts and all” account of some events: he certainly shows himself to be a rotter damaging someone's car and not putting a note on the window (callow youth is no excuse, and he knows it). And he also shows real honesty when explaining a vendetta waged against him at teacher training college. I would have been too gutless, thinking that the casual reader might have thought “there is no smoke without fire”.

Best of all, is the story he tells of how he lost his girl to a friend at the first party he ever hosted. It has happened to us all, but most of us have airbrushed it out of our memories, as being too painful, even after all these years.

The book abounds with so much else. Fascinating lists of records purchased, and diary entries. Generally, I find his taste simpatico with my own at the same age. My eyebrows were only raised at him now being puzzled as to why Anthony Newley played such a big part in his listening life.

I am surprised at you Harvey! Had Newley been French, they would now be raving over him as a great chansonnier. An extraordinary talent, both as a performer and a writer (the latter sometimes with Leslie Bricusse). In some ways the most underrated artiste in my lifetime. You'd rewrite one line in that fine song about Jake Thackray: “I could be NEWLEY, he could be Brassens”. (Oh yes for sure, Jake would HAVE to stay Georges!)

But hey, any adverse criticism of this book would be churlish. Yes, in a second edition, one would like an index, and perhaps the customary 8 rather than just 4 pages of photographs (though in some ways this is such a good autobiography that it needs NO photos, here the author has succeeded in making the characters all come alive in this reader's mind's eye!).

It is just the “anorak” in me that wants additional pix I suppose, just like it will be the anorak in me that makes me, the next time I am driving along the M6, take the slightest of detours to check out the Andrews boyhood home in Kenilworth Road, Handsworth.

And talking of detours: his account of his boyhood idyllic cycle rides around his beloved Shropshire, was enough for me to reach for my well-thumbed copy of “The Collected Poems of A E Housman” from my bookshelf.

There's no greater praise than that.

Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

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