Nights in pubs, nights of music and dark beams, of golden light glinting off glasses and the golden warmth of fermented grape and hops. But it’s not about the alcohol, it’s about the craic and laughter and people sharing. The tiny woman swaddled in her cosy green cardie is worried about singing here in the Scotia Bar in Glasgow - Julie Felix, legendary singing star of the 60s and 70s, thinks people will be too busy talking to listen to her. But for now she moves chairs out of the way and listens as fellow musician Frank O’Hagan adjusts the sound levels for her. She has been doing this for half a century and is painstaking in getting it right.
A Mexican woven rug is spread on the floor, the cardigan is off, her guitar seems as big as she is. Without any warning or introduction she crashes into song - Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, her guitar loud and insistent as she (with audience accompaniment) reaches the chorus: And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard, It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
In her youth Julie Felix’s voice was throaty, warm honey beside the pure iced water that flowed from the mouth of her contemporary,Joan Baez. Baez may have been the international star, but Julie Felix was the one people loved here - the first folksinger to fill the Albert Hall, the first to have her own television series; indeed Once More with Felix was the first colour series ever made by the BBC and was sold to virtually every country in the world.
Now the voice is darker, the honey turned granular, still warm but smattered with little roughnesses. Singing, though, is about more than the vocal instrument - it’s about emotion, energy, meaning. Julie Felix shares her passion with her audience, makes us feel what the words mean. Sometimes it’s about memory. Tonight she sings songs many of us know from our own youth - John Lennon’s Imagine; Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right; Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier. They swirl through the pub like songs from a foreign country, these anti-war songs, songs of people leaving each other and moving on in a time when love seemed free, Lennon’s song of hope for a world to come. ’Weren’t the Sixties the most magical time?’ she asks and we all shout back Yes, yes they were, but we all know that the world they promised never came.
As she introduces one of her own songs, she mentions that she was born in Santa Barbara. ‘We won’t hold that against you,’ says a man in the crowd. ‘Glasgow loves you to bits.’ Julie looks bemused, seeing nothing wrong with her place of origin and clearly unaware that Glaswegians have anointed themselves the chosen people, though later she satisfies Scottish pride by saying how much she loves Nicola Sturgeon. ‘I think she’s Mary,
Pictures by Mary Rafferty Queen of Scots reincarnated,’ she says. (Nicola’s love life appears to be rather less messy than that of the historic queen.) The song is touching, one of the few I have ever heard where a woman talks about her mother and says simply that she is proud to be her daughter.
The theme of female solidarity continues with her version of Just Like a Woman, whichis also unlike any I have heard before. Later she says she has never sung it that way before. Dylan’s song is often condemned as sexist, but she takes the words head on, makes them personal and true. In the final verse she changes the words to first person - I fake just like a woman, a line that causes many of the women in the pub to smile in complicity, then burst out laughing. The last line, But I break just like a little girl, is deeply poignant.She’s a woman in her seventies but she makes you understand that grief has no age limit, there are no limits to loss.
Her long silky hair is as dark and glossy as it ever was, her figure as neat. Her daughter says she’s a tomboy who doesn’t really care about clothes but her black shirt, adorned with a skull and embroidered roses, is quietly flamboyant. The voice, though, is vibrant and powerful and her big personality makes a mockery of her stature. There’s a moment almost of music hall joy when she gets her audience to sing along to one of her own compositions. Ooh, ooh, ooh, we all croon but the song has a serious message - it’s been written for a project called On Wings of Waste, which aims to fly an aeroplane from Australia to the UK on fuel made from recycled plastic. A brilliant idea - I have enough placcy bags in my house to fuel a round the world trip.
Nights in pubs, nights of music.
The songs Julie Felix sings are the songs that say who she is - Dylan, Cohen, Joni Mitchell, the anthems of a generation who wanted to change the world. She still does, is excited about Jeremy Corbyn, wants to see an end to Trident and war, loves Nicola. ‘Maybe we’ll see a change,’ she says. ‘I’ve been marching for 50 years, hoping to see it and now it looks like it could happen.’
More Dylan, the haunting Not Dark Yet and the crowd-pleaser, I Shall Be Released.
She ends her set as abruptly as she started, too tired to go on, too excited to stop. Instead of leaving she sits in the pub, talking to the people who’ve come to see her, one from as far away as Portsmouth. And the music goes on. She listens as people round the table pick up the pub guitar and sing. She sings too, accompanied by a young man with a mouth organ who tells her he’ll pick the tune up. He does, and the combination of the low, dark voice and the ethereal sound of the harmonica has the whole place cheering.
A special night in a special place. A special woman. Even when Julie Felix has slipped away, the music and the talk go on. People look back at all the special nights in the Scotia and remember being brought here by their fathers. I look at the people gathered round the dark oak table and think of a line from another Sixties song, I am he as you are he as you are me And we are all together.