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Into the mystic

Belfast-born poet Gerald Dawe had an epiphany listening to Van Morrison on the radio in 1970. As he reveals in his new book, In Another World, the musician gave a voice to his hometown

Belfast in the 1960s was full of music. The city centre had many clubs and dance halls, pubs and 'hops' where an extraordinary variety of music was performed.

From traditional Irish music to trad jazz to music hall (the dying embers) to showbands and to the proliferating urban sound of R&B - that rawer, passionate, bluesy encounter that became a signature of the times. Certainly, for many of the young generation born in the post-war provincial city, venues such as The Maritime, or Sammy Houston's Jazz Club, became meccas of dance and live music.

Before the curtain dropped in the late-1960s and the city, despite the best efforts of thousands of ordinary men and women, who braved the terror, fell into a kind of fragmented darkness, Belfast's vibrant music scene was a liberation. In record shops like Dougie Knight's, in boutiques like John Patrick's or Dukes, and in clubs like The Maritime (and its successor, Club Rado), you could live in Belfast's city centre and bypass the sectarian bile. People really did get on with it - and get it on.

The names of the illustrious blues, rock and R&B artists who played the city during the 1960s are legion and the respect in which some were held was considerable. When Otis Redding, the great R&B and soul singer, died tragically in December 1967, at the age of 26 in a plane crash in Wisconsin, en route to a Sunday evening concert in Madison, young men in Belfast wore black armbands.

The former well-driller from Georgia was a kind of icon to many hundreds, maybe thousands, in the provincial northern city. Pain in My Heart, Mr Pitiful, That's How Strong My Love Is, Shake, I've Been Loving You Too Long, Sad Song, Respect and (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay were anthems for a group of young men and women who dressed in imitation of black American 'cool'.

In nightclubs and in afternoon sessions in Belfast's Plaza, we would dance our young lives away - solo, with our girls, or in groups. It was a macho scene. Fights were not uncommon, though sudden and short-lived; what mattered was something other than 'scrapping'.

White blues on vinyl from Chicago, such as Paul Butterfield; neat, three-piece jazz combos, such as The Peddlers; touring bands under John Mayall, from the Bluesbreakers, through Aynsley Dunbar's Retaliation; Cream, Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac; black bluesmen like Champion Jack Dupree; soul and R&B like Gino Washington and the Ram Jam Band, and many other first-rate variations performed regularly in the city throughout the 1960s.

Why there was such an intense appetite for R&B, soul, blues and jazz in a city that became synonymous with the most virulent kind of sectarian violence is a question that has more to do with cliched perceptions of Belfast than with a rounded appreciation of the city.

Had it something to do with the thousands of America's GIs, many of them black, stationed in the north during the Second World War, who brought their music with them? Or the human traffic that swept thousands of men and women to America throughout the last century in search of work, particularly in the recessionary years preceding the Second World War?

Or perhaps it was due to the more immediate cultural bonds that linked industrial Belfast, the harbour port, to other industrial ports like Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle and, of course, London?

Belfast families had for generations moved back and forth across the narrow stretch of the Irish Sea, in their search for work, taking with them an inherited local exposure to music of one kind or another. Both radio and television, but primarily the former, were hugely influential and a great transmitter of music in the 1950s.

The freedom of movement that the transistor radio brought allowed a younger generation to switch channels to the independent radio stations, such as Radio Caroline, or Radio Luxembourg, and play 'their own' music, wherever and whenever they wanted, indoors or out, day or night.

By the 1960s, television programmes, such as Ready Steady Go! and Six Five Special, were putting faces, styles and dance moves to the music. There were also the weekly musical magazines, including Melody Maker and New Musical Express. Was there a widespread, urban elan that R&B, blues and soul represented for a generation of post-war working and middle-class kids, alongside the increase in general affluence which Belfast had started to experience along with other British cities? I don't know.

The music that developed from the city certainly revelled in its self-assured, passionate singing as much as its raw, intimate, emotional energy. Them was one of the more well-known local bands and Van Morrison, their lead vocalist and guiding spirit, unquestionably gave voice to that mood.

But there was another side to the story - a poetic side to Morrison's achievement that has kept achieving, producing over the next 50 years lyrics of the first order and some of the best popular love songs of modern times.

In the summer of 1970, sitting on the tiny balcony of my mother's flat, which overlooked a square in an estate of houses in east Belfast, I was looking at the sky when These Dreams of You came over the radio; the voice of my home town.

This is what In Another World is about.

Gerald Dawe has published eight collections of poetry and several volumes of essays. He was Professor of English and Fellow of Trinity College Dublin until retiring this year. In Another World: Belfast & Van Morrison is published by Merrion Press

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