You Couldn't Make It Up

You couldn't make Ruth Copeland up.

There is no longer any need to make Ruth Copeland up. John Reed and Sanctuary have done another excellent job by collating (most of) the two LPs Ruth recorded for Invictus in the early '70s onto one mid-price attractive set.

This follows on from other excellent Invictus sets Sanctuary has salvaged, like Honey Cone, Freda Payne, and Parliament.

If you are searching for something a little different, try Ruth Copeland. Her work is equally fascinating, fantastic, and frustrating. In some ways all you need to know is that she wrote and dreamed up 'The Silent Boatman', one of the most absurdly wonderful pocket pop operas ever.

The song appears on both her own debut LP and the debut Parliament LP Osmium. It is one of the 10 greatest songs ever dreamed up.

Understandably the small amount that has been written about Ruth focuses on her connection to the Parliament mothership. She helped produce and is all over Osmium. In exchange the Parliament/Funkadelic crew are all over her records.

I am not a great Parliament fan, but there is one other song on Osmium I absolutely love. And that is 'Oh Lord Why Lord', which is absolutely beautiful and has Ruth wailing all over it. I am not sure of the song's origins, but I have an even better version by Horace Andy where the label is scratched off, and just the title and artist are typed on the middle. I paid 10p for this sweet, heartbreaking work of art. My luckiest ten pence.

Some Parliament fans seem a little disparaging about Ruth's work. Yet I have enormous affection for her first LP, Self Portrait. Where she collaborates with Dunbar and Wayne, the songs are as great as any others they worked on. 'The Music Box' and 'To William In The Night' are absolute classics. The second LP, I Am What I Am, is full frontal Free Yr Ass Funkadelica freak out, where the first set touches on all sorts from folk to opera (literally! The Puccini cover is omitted from the reissue!). Even so, 'The Medal', 'Crying Has Made Me Stronger', and 'Suburban Family Lament' are again classics. The latter, written with guitar hero Eddie Hazel, really does sound at times like the Slits six years early.

I say really does as I stole that line from a nice piece posted on the Poptones site about Ruth sometime last year. The piece also quotes from the autobiographical song, 'Child Of The North', where she says: "With north sea wildness in my bones, rivers and valleys and swaying meadows of Durham in my heart ...".

So, yes, the strange thing is how a beautiful girl from the north country ended up in Detroit working with the Parliament/Funkadelic collective, and then as strangely disappearing, perhaps to Canada, perhaps forever.

At least along the way Ruth Copeland dreamed up 'The Silent Boatman'. Now that's something you couldn't make up.

© 2002 John Carney