In 2005 Stuart Staples and David Boulter decided to get together and produce an album of updated versions of children’s songs. Boulter had just had a son and wanted to play him classic kids’ music which he felt was on the verge of being forgotten. These two Tindersticks chaps asked a bunch of different artists to record vocals for them and so here we have Oldham’s contribution, and it’s er…magic. Well, it is for me because I have a personal connection to this song. When I was a kid, we had a radiogram, which was a radio/turntable unit with built in speakers, varnished wood, nasty, but those things probably possess a degree of retro hipness nowadays. Anyway, I remember we had this double 7” book thing with four songs on it, one of which was the Peter, Paul & Mary version of “Puff The Magic Dragon.” (Another was “Morningtown Ride”). And I always thought it was such a sad song. In fact I was afraid to play it because it was so sad. But you know, I liked it at the same time. Dave Boulter says something similar: “There’s sadness in ‘Puff The Magic Dragon,’ a sense of loss, change, time moving on that’s always haunted me.” That sums it up nicely. He says after approaching Staples about the idea, “we both thought of Will [Oldham] for ‘Puff’ straight away and that’s how it all began.” I guess that’s why this was released as the promo single.
Puff The Magic Dragon… I can’t imagine anyone reading this blog wouldn’t know the gist of this song, but for the unenlightened, it goes like this: there’s a dragon called ‘Puff’ and he has a friend called Jackie Paper, who comes and visits him by the sea, and they play pirate games and then, one day, Jackie doesn’t come anymore and Puff slips off into his cave, very very sad. Yup. Pretty sad song for kids. I never quite understood why Jackie stopped coming when I was a kid. I just knew that it was a devastating ending to an otherwise happy song. Anyway, there was some debate for a while over whether the song was about smoking pot. Enter Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He likes a bit of the old puff’n’stuff. He has his own song about it (“The Gator”) on Joya. The music here is all soft vibes and delicate acoustic guitar, but it has to be said that Oldham’s voice suits the song well. Staples and Boulter clearly have good taste. On the chorus, someone called ‘Red’ with a much deeper voice joins in. What is it then about Oldham’s voice? It’s that ever so sad gentle and frail way he has of singing, and the way he can hit this high pretty edge of his voice with a few cracks; it’s absolutely perfect for this song, and even better, Oldham plays it completely straight, too straight almost, in that this is even sadder than the Peter, Paul & Mary version. I mean, what kid wants to head off to bed in tears every night? When Oldham gets to the sad part, he lifts his voice into even lighter falsetto territory, while a female vocal aaaahs faintly behind, somewhere high overhead. This ain’t for kids. This is for obsessive Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy fans who found it too depressing when they were kids. Hmm.
Theme For The Young At Heart… is an instrumental melody, with vibes, and thus sounds very much like the Tindersticks doing ‘kids’ music. An awful woodwind blows a slow melody over top of the faster vibes and xylophones. I call that woodwind ‘awful’ because it could just as easily be coming out of a synthesizer. Light violins pierce the background, but mostly it’s rhythm vibes and recorder or flute playing a breezy soft slow dreamy melody, like, I dunno, imagine someone sleeping in a tree, a nice big cozy wide branch and your head nods off in the V of a fork. This is music for infants, tiny tots.
A one-off project for Oldham. The next batch of singles would arrive in droves—no less than four promo singles for the truly marvelous The Letting Go LP in 2006.