Starless and Bible-Black

Dylan Thomas

Came across an astonishingly beautiful piece of music this week thanks to my friend – writer, music-lover, and fellow enthusiast for creative thinking – Doug Miller. STARLESS AND BIBLE BLACK is a tune inspired by Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, from an eponymous record of 1965 by the Stan Tracey Quartet. The Quartet was a British jazz outfit right there on the front line, “one of Britain’s few genuinely original contributions to world jazz”. The tenor saxophonist on Starless is a Glaswegian called Bobby Wellins whose performance is Something Special. I really, really love the title.

STARLESS AND BIBLE-BLACK.

It’s just one of those perfect phrases. It comes from the very beginning of Under Milk Wood: “To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black”

I once started a novel (inspired by Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones) and took the rather over-reaching step of starting it “In the beginning…”. Proved a bit too much to live up to.

Tracey worked outwards from the titles which I really love as a working method – titles can be key and inspiring. “I settled down with the book and the album [original performance of Dylan Thomas' play], and as I was going through I jotted down ideas for titles. By the time I’d got to the end of the play I’d got all the titles worked out and just went on from there – writing for the titles”.

The phrase immediately brought to mind my favourite sentence from my favourite book:

THE HEAVENTREE OF STARS HUNG WITH HUMID NIGHTBLUE FRUIT.

It’s from James Joyce’s Ulysses (page 619 in my trusty old Penguin Modern Classics copy). It’s from when Bloom and Stephen go back to Bloom’s house after a wandering night on the lash and go out into the back garden for a piss.

Which brings us round to the Simple Pleasures – an outdoor piss after a great night out; an inspirational read; and a musical surprise. Total cost: about a fiver.

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22 comments so far

  1. humorousarts on

    You might like to complete the ‘Starless and Bible Black’ collection and get the album of the same name by King Crimson!

  2. stellabystarlight on

    I LOVE the phrases…thanx 4 blogging it.

    A blog-groupie

  3. ArkAngel on

    Humourousarts, thanks for that – not a record I’d heard of. I’ve seen Robert Fripp once live with David Sylvian and that’s about the extent of my knowledge of King Crimson.

    Stella, I wish I could read Dutch to enjoy your blog. There’s only one Dutch subject I’ve covered so far which is Zwartboek – see http://aarkangel.wordpress.com/2006/10/30/black-book/

  4. stellabystarlight on

    Great writing, ArkAngel, I will visit your blog very soon again!!!
    Today I took an effort to translate some in english (which is poor) of the dutch (wich is stuff (which is rich) I write about…

  5. Bartleby on

    Bobby and Stan are still playing together, and are on good form. Bobby is a truly great musician and a really nice guy.He lives a few miles away from me and occasionally plays in my favourite pub. May Happy Days Attend You.

  6. ArkAngel on

    Where’s ‘a few miles away from you’?

  7. Bartleby on

    He lives in the Felpham area, which is close to Bognor in West Sussex. The pub I mentioned is The Hare&Hounds in Worthing. There is jazz there every Tuesday night…..sometimes exceptionally good. Ben Clatworthy, Don Weller, Guy Barker, Alan Barnes, Peter King (seen in The Talented Mr Ripley) have all played there.

  8. ArkAngel on

    As children we used to live in East Wittering, not a million miles away – I had no inkling Sussex was such a hotbed of jazz. I’ve seen Guy Barker at a Miles tribute event at the Festival Hall. Is Peter King the same Pete King of Ronnie’s fame?

  9. Bartleby on

    No, they are not one and the same. Peter King is the incredibly gifted alto player who, in my book, is on a par with the likes of Phil Woods, Art Pepper and even Bird. Pete King of “Ronnie’s” fame, on the other hand, used to play tenor until he took up managing the club.

  10. ArkAngel on

    Thinking of making a trip to The Hare & Hounds when i’m down in Brighton – do they advertise who’s going to play in advance or do you just have to take pot luck? (can’t find anything online but figured that was a long shot anyway)

  11. bartleby on

    They advertise in the listings of the “Jazz UK” magazine, which is free from music shops. However, I will find out who they have lined up for April and let you know.

  12. Practical Psychologist on

    I feel rather pleased with myself for introducing you to this. But I feel more pleased for you as I think back to the first time I heard it (on a BBC4 documentary on Stan Tracey) and how it made me feel. You have now had that feeling!

    There were some good things going on in British jazz and it was only a few years later that greats such as McLaughlin, Surman and Holland appeared. If any of the respondents are interested then I really recommend the Joe Harriot album ‘Freeform’. Very different to Tracey but it proved that Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were not the only ones breaking boundaries.

  13. [...] brings me to a peak of creativity, my favourite book, James Joyce’s Ulysses. One of the things I most love about the book is the fabulous ecelecticism of the novel – whether [...]

  14. David Grundy on

    you might be interested to know that “the heaventree of stars” phrase also inspired a piece of music, by the late welsh composer alun hoddinott. it’s essentialy a tone poem for violin and orchestra, suitably mysterious and sensual.

  15. ArkAngel on

    David, thanks for bringing that to my attention – especially on St David’s Day. I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of Hoddinott but had a quick listen to an online excerpt just now and The Heaventree of Stars sounds interesting. A strange circular linkage back to Wales here – Starless jazz composition > Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood > Starless phrase > Heaventree phrase / James Joyce’s Ulysses > Heaventree composition > Alun Hoddinott. I love these kinds of organic connections – at the heart of creativity and the thinking behind my occasional Songlines audio posts in this blog.

  16. [...] 1 Starless and Bible black [...]

  17. [...] piano and the gentle breath of the waves. The piano theme is very reminiscent of Stan Tracey on Starless and Bible Black. And like that precedent, it’s simply [...]

  18. [...] well as setting great store by titles, I love names. On Saturday afternoon we went out to the wonderful Scratching Post (cat rescue [...]

  19. […] she’s central to the Ulysses story as its bold and generous publisher and being as it’s my favourite book in the world, a natural for me. I was at the current (not entirely related) iteration of the store […]

  20. […] and the main mission was to see Bobby Wellins, who made Under Milk Wood with Stan Tracey. One of my favourite posts in Simple Pleasures part 4 is the one from St Patrick’s Day 2007 about the sublime Tracey […]

  21. […] my contribution this time I read one of my favourite posts from this blog, Starless and Bible Black and then the passage from James Joyce’s  Ulysses to which it refers. It’s when the […]

  22. […] Starless and Bible Black […]


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