Syd Barrett's "Golden Hair": James Joyce Set to Music
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Syd Barrett's "Golden Hair": James Joyce Set to Music

Syd Barrett's output includes a delicate version of a James Joyce poem set to music, for one of his greatest achievements.

Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair”, from his first solo album The Madcap Laughs is a short James Joyce poem set to a simple musical accompaniment, making one of Barrett’s most perfectly formed and haunting songs. Unlike the fractured and bizarre lyrics that characterize most of the album, it is perfect in its focussed simplicity, a love lyric of classic beauty.

Joyce's Chamber Music

Joyce’s poem is from the 1907 collection Chamber Music, which contained 36 short lyric poems. This book is from the beginning of Joyce’s career, published when he was just 25 years old, and they are conventional and accesible, in stark contrast to his later work. Chamber Music has been subject to much less critical comment than Joyce’s later work. Joyce said that part of his idea in writing these poems was that they would be set to music, and some of them were set to music after their publication, such as poem XXXI, known as “Donnycarney”, arranged by Adolf Mann in 1910.

Barrett's Version of "Golden Hair"

Poem V, usually known as “Lean out of the Window” after its first line, is the poem Barrett adapted. It consists of 4 verses of 4 lines each, the lines very short so that the poem totals only some 58 words. The fourth verse is an altered version of the first verse, so there is very little material in the poem. Barrett made one significant change to the lyrics: in the final verse, insteading of repeating the phrase “Singing/ A merry air” from the first verse, he sings “Singing/ A midnight air”. Also, rather than Joyce’s “Goldenhair”, which confirms that this is the name by which he is referring to the object of the poem, Barrett separates the words into “Golden Hair”.

Musically, Barrett plays a single guitar line throughout the less than 2 minutes of the song, using a pedal point of the open high E string to create a droning, hypnotic effect while the chord progression moves along the higher strings before settling on the home chord of A at the end of the line. An organ also plays a drone note, subtly and low in the mix. This aside, there is only some soft cymbal work. Syd’s guitar playing is tighter than usual, and the minimalism of the arrangement perfectly compliments the minimalism of the lyrics.

Syd performed multiple takes of “Golden Hair”, and put more work into its recording than most of his solo output. For his producer Peter Jenner, “’Golden Hair’ was the key song. That’s the song you would build an album around.” The album, The Madcap Laughs, sold poorly at the time, but soon a myth built up around Syd and his music, and grew through the 90s and 2000s until his death in 2006, and shows no signs of abating. Syd recorded no more music after the mid-70s and the rumours of mental breakdown from that time on only served to to make him more compelling to the general public. While much of his solo output is to oblique and far-out for many tastes, in “Golden Hair” he married an understatedly emotional approach to beauty of form, for one of his greatest achievements.

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