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Profiling Caravan by Van Morrison, A 1970 Rock Great

Kot: Did you enjoy The Last Waltz? (the Band’s farewell concert in 1976, in which Clapton, Bob Dylan and a host of greats performed.)
Clapton: I did, yeah. A fantastic event. I loved it.
Kot: Was the music up to snuff?
Clapton: For me, Muddy [Waters] and Van [Morrison] steal the show. Van doing Caravan with the leg kicks. Some of the greatest live music you’ll ever see.
– Interview with Eric Clapton, by Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune, July, 2007

The impact of Van Morrison’s Moondance album continues apace even decades after its release. Although the title track and Into The Mystic seem to be both fan favorites and pet songs of the critics, it is Caravan, which truly will rock your gypsy soul.

Caravan seamlessly blends all of the main elements of rock’s synthesis of other kinds of music. It is bluesy, folky, jazzy, soulful, lyrically complex and complete; and produced flawlessly. There is a slow rocking feel to Caravan; saxophone bits that recall the best of Motown and Doo-Wop; a vaguely honky-tonk piano; a bouncy, bubbly base line; and a sweet, friendly acoustic guitar.

Morrison’s voice had just entered its peak period (which lasted decades). He blues-shouts, bends sound. He coaxes and massages words and phrases as if he were a living trombone. Much of his phrasing in Caravan is among the most inventive in all Rock history.

Caravan includes images and impressions from different parts of Morrison’s life, especially observations of gypsy life. Known as Travelers in Ireland, they inspire the tune’s broad motif. “Emma Rose” is a very popular first-middle-name combo in Morrison’s native country. And his time in Woodstock, New York, informs the “turn up your radio” images, as well as his soul-stirring tribute to his then-wife, Janet Planet.

Switch on your electric light
Then we can get down to what is really wrong
I long to hold you tight so maybe I can feel you
Sweet lady of the night, I will reveal you.
Turn it up, little bit higher…

America has had many dystopian moments scattered about in many places. The region around the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains in New York, 75 to 100 miles north of New York City, is one of the few utopian-washed regions of the United States, one that exists not solely in reality, but also in memory, due in significant part to the legendary festival named Woodstock, which was staged some 30 miles away in Bethel.

Some of the 60s’ greatest music was either written, produced or sparked by the mellow landscape that is one part hillbilly, one part old New England and one part urban sophistication. The Band’s Music From Big Pink and their eponymous classic, The Band, grew from Catskill roots. On a third album, Stage Fright, in a song called Time To Kill, they cite the Catskills as a place for a rollicking good time in the summer (which it can be).

Bob Dylan’s album, John Wesley Harding also has the smoky, cozy feel of Woodstock, where Dylan went to rest after his 1966 melt-down and motorcycle accident, even if the work is austere and surreal. It is dripping with Americana. Dylan’s manager for the first part of his career, Albert Grossman, built Bearsville Sound Studios in the region. It has catered to some of the greatest rock and pop musicians of all time.

Of course, Van Morrison also quite consciously draws on the region’s lore throughout a handful of his albums – His Band And Street Choir and most pointedly in Tupelo Honey, which features a song called Old Woodstock. The Catskills have a long, deep history of folk music and northern mountain music that was swamped by modernism, tourism, and the decline of agriculture in the area. (For a glimpse into that lost world, visit this website as a jumping off point: http://bobluskcatskills.blogspot.com/ )

In the end, perhaps that is the significance of Caravan. Contact with other luminaries such as Dylan and the cohorts in The Band, plus all the legendary lost music aroused Morrison to write lines such as:

And the caravan is painted red and white
That means everybody’s staying overnight
Barefoot gypsy player round the campfire
sing and play
And a woman tells us of her [fortune-telling] ways

The cherry on top: Caravan has given us one of the most-recognized song endings in Rock history, one of the most famous in the book of Pop, period: It’s too late to stop it now.