An early column looked at the Bee Gees’ song, Massachusetts, about a place the group had never been to and chose because they liked the sound of the name: a song more to do with feelings than geography. The same could be said of the subject of this column, also set in Massachusetts but where the actual setting was a mere backdrop for a song about something else, in this case the sadness of separation. A place becomes the trigger for the songwriter to explore emotions which the listener may or may not carry themselves to the physical location.
The song here, Alone in Brewster Bay, by the Chicago-based singer Minnie Riperton, is titled after a small settlement south of Boston overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Minnie Riperton is probably best known for her 1975 hit, Loving You, and for her extraordinary 5 ½ octave vocal range that went into whistle register, first showcased on a record, Lonely Girl, released under the name Andrea Davis at the age of 18.
Stevie Wonder once described her voice as that of an angel, with the capacity to produce a sound both ethereal and haunting for the listener. Her musical work, however, was much wider than Loving You might suggest. As part of the Chicago-based Gems in the mid-sixties (Trivia note: their biggest success was a record with the intriguing title, That’s What they Put Erasers on Pencils For), she supplied backing vocals to records such as Fontella Bass’s Rescue Me; and as joint lead vocalist with the psychedelic rock group Rotary Connection covered an eclectic range of styles from rock to soul to jazz and all points in between. Listen to their 1968 release Christmas Love and you are transported via a little historical snapshot (‘Nixon and Humphrey need a little love’), to a world of headbands, anti-war demonstrations and keeping the freak flag flying.
Alone in Brewster Bay came from her 1975 album, Adventures in Paradise, written during a holiday in the Cape Cod area sometime in the early 1970’s.With the evocative sounds of seabirds in the background and a gentle guitar backing, the song is a romantic lament that shifts between mournfulness and hope. The mood and lyrics, with the imagery of birds and bleak sky set against an awareness of time passing, is reminiscent of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. You then realise that both women died at the age of 31 within a year of each other, both leaving a few pure gems of work and a sense of a potential unfulfilled. You also wonder whether the early deaths have inevitably tinged their work with a retrospective sense of sadness that perhaps wasn’t intended. Certainly, it is difficult to listen to Minnie Riperton’s final song shortly before her death, Back Down Memory Lane, ( ‘I don’t want to go back down memory lane, save me, save me, back down memory lane’) without an overwhelming feeling of poignancy.
Perhaps because of this, it would be easy to carry a melancholic feeling from the song to the place that inspired it. On a visit to my daughter in Boston a couple of years ago, we went to a number of the towns and villages in the area where Minnie Riperton vacationed nearly forty years ago. In many ways, the harbours, little antique and gift shops, white boarded houses, the ice creams and beaches and sounds of seabirds, must be closer to the English south coast than Chicago. I was reminded of that stretch of coast round Poole and Sandbanks and Brownsea Island, though without the sandals and socks and occasional glimpse of a front garden gnome. (I later satisfyingly discovered that Brewster, MA, is twinned with Budleigh Salterton in Devon).
It wasn’t, of course, melancholy at all. I was seeing the places with my own eyes and had my own experience to take away. In such ways can memories of a place differ.
Link to song