I watched a doco on TV recently on the erratic but – to my mind – much under-rated 60s UK band, The Small Faces. Their 1968 ‘concept’ album Ogden’s Nutgone Flake, a psychedelic rock classic, was one of the first albums I bought. I still treasure this unique work – for the great music, the warped and inspired narrative in “Unwinese” by Stanley Unwin, and the eccentric fold-out tobacco tin cover (in good nick, this album is now a prize collectors’ item fetching $300+ …but I’d never sell mine).
One of my favourite tracks is Song Of A Baker. Strange, but in all the times I’ve listened to this song, I’d never really pondered on the lyrics until the TV doco – even though I know them by heart:
There’s wheat in the field
And water in the stream
And salt in the mine
And an aching in me
I can no longer stand and wonder
Cos I’m driven by this hunger
So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour
Store some salt and wait the hour
When thinking of love
Love is thinking for me
And the baker will come
And the baker I’ll be
I’m depending on my labour
The texture and the flavour
I can no longer stand and wonder
Cos I’m driven by this hunger
So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour
Store some salt and wait the hour…
I found myself greatly moved as I finally properly ‘heard’ those words after all these years of listening to the record. I was moved because of the beauty of the song, because of the nostalgia it evoked in me, and because of knowing of the tragedies that would befall The Small Faces, both as a band and individually (they were unmercifully ripped off – killed off, effectively – by unscrupulous management; singer/writer/guitarist Steve Marriott subsequently developed schizophrenia and died in a house fire a bankrupt alcoholic without ever receiving a royalty payment for his work in the band, and co-writer/bassist Ronnie Lane died way too young of MS).
But back to the lyrics. Why did they finally ‘speak’ to me this time, and with such emotional impact?
Well, to answer that I need to ‘come out’ – to reveal a fundamental truth about myself that is known so far only to a few close friends and strangers I’ve ‘met’ online.
I vividly recall my mother’s ‘coming out.’ One of my siblings asked her during the final stages of the illness that claimed her life how she saw herself. She was taken aback, thought a while before speaking, then stated firmly: “I’m a cook.”
Not a mother, as we might have expected her to see herself. A cook. And so she was. And a bloody good one, in the old-fashioned CWA style of her generation. Yet, her answer was surprising, for she had never before defined herself thus.
I’ve often pondered since then how I would answer such a question. I refuse to define myself in terms of any job I’ve had. I have never managed to find much – if any – meaning in the things I’ve done for money. Have never had a moment’s ambition to ‘progress’ in any workplace I’ve endured. The only point for me has been the pay cheque at the end of the fortnight and getting through the working day as quickly and smoothly as possible to the freedom that begins with clocking-off and ends with clocking on again.
Folk who know me are aware of the things I do well, that fire my imagination, get me animated, make me who I am – my ‘talents’ as they were once referred to, before too long went by without a public blooming.
What am I then?
A writer? Of blogs and movie reviews, yes, of occasional feature articles and even more occasional scripts and short stories, but nothing that counts. Not “the novel” I’ve dreamt of, and only dreamt of, all these years.
A songwriter? Yes, once, and for many years, but not for a long time now, perhaps never again, though melodic fragments still come to me, and at least one complete song lives in my head, unbirthed.
A cook? To be sure, and I think quite an accomplished one in a domestic context – but unlike my mother, and perhaps partly because of her, I cannot quite define myself that way. The fit is close, but not perfect.
This is perfect: I am a baker.
Yes. Not professionally, but you know now that that means nothing to me. I am a baker because I bake bread and am proud of my produce, and because when I bake I feel calm and assured, and ‘right’, as if it is something I was born to, even though it has taken me most of my adult life to discover it.
And it excites me unfailingly. The hand-mixing of those 4 basic ingredients – yeast, flour, water, salt – to form a dough with a life of its own that metamorphoses before my eyes into something good, life-giving, civilised, that crosses national boundaries, age and generations. The aroma that fills the kitchen during the bake. The 2 hour cooling of the loaf, the anticipation, the suspense as you cut into its end, exposing the crumb inside for the first time. The silent sharing of that first sample with my partner, almost solemn, as if it were a host, and the review that follows – a treasured ritual, now, that is part of our lives.
I am speaking of sourdough, specifically – the mysterious wild yeast that I summoned to my service like spirits to a séance just over 9 months ago now, just as the ancients did many centuries ago, as generation upon generation has done since. That I feed twice daily and talk to like a pet. That sacrifices itself to the dough’s rise so that we may have bread.
Beautiful bread. Bread to change your life.
There’s wheat in the fields
And water in the stream
And salt in the mines
And an aching in me…
Of course, metaphorical possibilities leap out of the lyrics of Song Of A Baker, but there can be no doubt that The Small Faces understood the calling of the baker, the peace to be found in the process, the wonder of conjuring bread from ingredients as simple and seemingly disparate as grain, water and salt. To bake bread is to invite the best of nature to your table. Who would not welcome such a guest?
Then there is the most important element of all – the secret ingredient of all good bread, of all good food. Except that it’s not really a secret. The Small Faces knew it. My mother knew it. All good cooks and all home artisan bread bakers know it. It is love. Sounds drippy, and hippy dippy, but godammit it’s the truth.
To home bakers of artisan bread everywhere (come ye reader, join us), and to the memory of Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane and The Small Faces…with thanks.
24 thoughts on “Song Of A Baker”
What a beautiful story! And a beautiful write-up.
Thank you so much, Shiao-Ping. It’s affirming to receive a comment like yours. I often wonder why I put such effort into my blog posts, and every so often a comment like yours comes along – to know that I have connected with someone out there is enough…
I would add that you’re also a writer Rolan!
Baking like cooking is, zoning into a special place – and you evoked that very well Rolan.
Well done. Terrific set of words.
just found your piece on
“Song of a Baker” – beautiful!
Thought you might like to
see and hear my version of
their recipe . . .
Hi Brendan, and thanks for your comment. Sorry about this delay in responding. Other comments on other posts came in and pushed yours outta sight and outta mind. Meant to get back immediately, but somehow overlooked it.
Nice tribute to this great Small Faces song by you and your band. Good to hear it stripped back like that…many a song won’t survive that sort of distillation. Like the sense of intimacy you give it, and the vocals – and the bread/baking montage.
Lisa, Colin and Kenny,
Thanks so much for your comments. It is way too late to expect you to forgive me for my rudeness in not responding…not sure what happened there, although I think I did get back to you, Lisa, and you, Colin, by private email. Kenny, I don’t recall even seeing your comment until now. My apologies for being so slack.
This song is actually the alchemical process. I don´t think they were aware of when they wrote it.
Wheat (earth), water, salt (the elements) and an aching in me (intention, will).
“When thinking of love
Love is thinking for me” – Love, the lover and the loved become one!
“I’m depending on my labour
The texture and the flavour” – Your actions, the creation.
Thanks for your comment, Marcelo.
It’s impossible to know what the Small Faces were and were not aware of when they wrote these lyrics. In fact, it’s largely irrelevant IMO.
Your interpretation is different from mine, but if the song speaks to you in one way and to others in other ways, that’s fine – it’s the nature of art. I can’t imagine that there wasn’t some awareness of the breadmaking process informing those lyrics, but of course, the figurative coexists with the literal.
I like your comment that “if the song speaks to you in one way and to others in other ways, that’s fine – it’s the nature of art.” Quite right! Great point.
Hi shiao-ping! Great to hear from you.
Sorry about this delay in responding. I’ve been in Vietnam for a month and am only now catching up on replying to blog comments.
Needless to say, we agree again. Mind you, it’s a topic that could be elaborated upon almost infinitely. While the potential for individual interpretation is an essential quality of art, I have no patience for the dumbed down populist assertion that there is no standard other than “I like it”, “I don’t like it” and “whatever you want it to mean is OK.” To an extent this is fine, but there are such things as good and bad art, and educated opinions. Unfashionable in some quarters to say so, but that’s my view and I’m stickin’ to it!
The “everything is just personal opinion” notion paves the way for rampant mediocrity, and that’s something I do revile against.
Nice to hear from you.
Yes, there are also such things as good and bad literature, and good and bad music, right?!
That’s the great thing about songs, poetry… we can all relate to one same piece in different ways and infer from them different meanings all equally valid. I see this song as the process a person who longs for love goes through when finding that loved other half. The meeting of two hungry people who become bakers and “cook their own bread” putting together all the ingredients as well as they can. RIP Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane.
Hi kubispd, and thanks for your comment. Nice take on the Song Of A Baker lyrics.
Re your comment: “we can all relate to one same piece in different ways and infer from them different meanings all equally valid.” Not sure I completely agree with the “all equally valid” part.
There has to be something in the text that demonstrably supports a particular interpretation; otherwise, any lyrics can mean anything to anyone. I think that proposition does a disservice to the author(s) of the lyrics, which are the result of a process of thought, imagination and deliberation, not completely random. However, I understand the sentiment behind your comment, and share your view that art is open to interpretation that can be validly and credibly far wider than the authorial intent.
Add melody, vocals and instrumentation to the equation, though, and it all gets more complicated and is more open to subjective response! That’s a long, complex conversation – too much so for here! In fact, I’m not sure I’m up to it!
RIP Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane indeed.
You had written the following three years which made me smile with recognition:
“Yes. Not professionally, but you know now that that means nothing to me. I am a baker because I bake bread and am proud of my produce, and because when I bake I feel calm and assured, and ‘right’, as if it is something I was born to, even though it has taken me most of my adult life to discover it.
And it excites me unfailingly. The hand-mixing of those 4 basic ingredients – yeast, flour, water, salt – to form a dough with a life of its own that metamorphoses before my eyes into something good, life-giving, civilised, that crosses national boundaries, age and generations. The aroma that fills the kitchen during the bake. The 2 hour cooling of the loaf, the anticipation, the suspense as you cut into its end, exposing the crumb inside for the first time. The silent sharing of that first sample with my partner, almost solemn, as if it were a host, and the review that follows – a treasured ritual, now, that is part of our lives.”
I too do the hand mixing, and I too await the response of my partner … most of all, I am feeling good about what I am doing.
And feeling good is the truest signifier there is that you should continue with your baking, Doris! All the best and I hope you’re soon as healthily addicted as I am!
Hi Rolan! Its been 10 years since you published this, but I have just come across it today. I am a lover of sixties music but only in the last 5 years I have discovered the Small Faces. Steve was a genius indeed and this concept album is one of my top three albums of all time for sure.
My boyfriend is a chef and i love to bake and we both love this song both figuratively and literally!
I am not a professional by any means but I do love baking bread and the process is indeed a fulfilling one.
Thanks so much for bothering to comment, Maria. It’s great to encounter kindred spirits, which you and your boyfriend certainly are when it comes to this wonderful song and baking!
I’m not surprised it took you some time to ‘discover’ The Small Faces and their brilliant Ogdens album. They deserve far more recognition than they got. Even at the time of release, this album was not very widely known.
It was only by happy accident that I stumbled upon it (in 1972) during an illicit record listening session at a school mate’s house – a group of us were wagging school this afternoon. He had been introduced to it by his older sister. I instantly fell in love – rushed out and bought the album next day. Hundreds of albums and decades later, it remains one of my most cherished.
Great to know younger people like you and your boyfriend (at least, I assume you’re younger!) are rifling back through the 60s albums to turn up gold nuggets like this. There are many more, and I wish you the very best in your musical and baking odysseys.
Although I knew of the Small Faces I hadn’t eally delved into them until prompted by my wise-beyond-his-years 23 year old son fairly recently.
I was born a couple of months before this song was released, so my first exposure to the Small Faces was when I played my dads tapes while basking in the comforting warm green glow of the Sanyo Music Station in our living room. They only contained the hits so I had to wait until my late teens to really appreciate them when a Mod friend loaned me his collection. Even then…….it’s only with maturity that I can appreciate Song of a Baker as I do now,. To think Ronnie Lane was barely out of his teens when he wrote it is faintly embarrassing when I think what a lazy wasteful and selfish turd I was at the same age. The lyrics are concise, elemental and poetic. They can take on a meaning personal to whoever hears them. I would love to hear from the surviving “Face” Kenny Jones whether he recalls the inspiration for it. I have read that he is living with prostate cancer so that should be sooner rather than later.
I also enjoyed your writeup, the section about not letting work define you really struck a chord and sounds exactly like me. I have always felt the same way, the same freedom upon stepping outside the door and still do. To spend so much of your life with people you would not normally choose to consort with is corrosive to the soul. The people who would stab you in the back for a pay rise, who would sell their grandmother to slavery for a pat on the head and change in job title to Team Leader. I am brimming with qualifications but each time I master one craft or get familiar with a workplace I feel bored and move on to another, effectively starting from zero. I will never be MD.
The only problem now I have read this blog post is I have to address the same question, who am I? I’m not baker or a cook though I participate in both almost daily and enjoy them. Peacemaker? Truth seeker? Neither are jobs though are they? more a calling…but then isn’t that the point of the song? Perhaps your core value has to be both. That’s a hard one.
PS Did you know this blog post is currently the top search hitfor this song?
PPS what is an “CWA style” cook?
Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment, Mark. Really appreciated. I’ll get back properly soon, but just wanted to answer your question re CWA. It stands for Country Women’s Association. Here’s a Wikipedia summary of the organisation:
CWA-style cooking is the home-cooking style typical of Australian housewives from the 20s through to about the 70s. Things like scones and Aussie country-style cakes spring immediately to mind, but also many soups, dishes and deserts that people of my generation were brought up on. Broadly, it was English-influenced food, reimagined and adapted by country Australian women, and their city sisters.
Once multicultural cuisine became established here, cooking modes changed, including my mother’s. She was always ready to experiment with food. But the staple favourites remained.
You might be interested in having a look at this link: https://www.booktopia.com.au/country-women-s-association-cookbook-country-womens-association/book/9781741963595.html
Hi again, Mark. Just a few things I want to say in response to your great post.
First, hats off to your fabbo 23yo son for being open-minded, adventurous and above all passionate enough about music to seek out gems of so many decades ago like Ogdens. Love the young of today. The future is in good hands – and shit, does it need to be! (And at the risk of sounding cloying, take a bow yourself for your part in raising such an excellent young cultural explorer).
Glad to come across a kindred spirit re attitude to work. You’ve given me some comfort. OTOH, I can’t help feeling a sense of inadequacy in not pushing self-analysis to the point of committing to some kind of meaningful career at some point. If not the artistic ideal, then something else that yields more self-satisfaction than merely falling into this or that in a half-arsed kind of way. I suppose ESL teaching is as close as I’ve gotten. Once the door of the classroom closes, mostly pretty good – but open it and you’re back into dreary politics and “self-development” courses etc. A first world dilemma that smacks of indulgence and preciousness, I admit…
And here we arrive back at the ‘who am I?’ question you pose. I’m less a baker now than I felt back when I wrote this post, despite never having bought a commercial loaf since and continuing to bake bread, pizza etc at least twice per week. So we’re really in much the same place.
I had no idea this post heads the search list for Song of a Baker. Thanks for letting me know! Just a bit chuffed at that news. I’ll take it.
Just watched BBC Sounds of the Sixties and pleased to discover this song. I’m 70 years old and somehow missed this mini masterpiece first time around creative talent. A footnote search says words are from a poem.
How can I not feel sad and wonder what young people today are missing.
A beautiful piece, thank you! In 1968, of course, this was a seriously heavy piece of music and even after 53 years, it’s still one of my all time top tunes. But with such soul! And, unusually, the wonderfully human Ronnie Lane taking lead. Thank you, again!
Thanks so much for your comment, Hugh, and sorry about this delay in responding. Have been neglecting my blog since Covid hit, but will be reviving it again soon.
Great to encounter another fan of this great track off this gem of an album. As you say, an enduringly superb song that has not paled with age. Still one of my favourites, also, from that great, great era. You listen to something magical like Song of a Baker and it takes you back, and it ends and you sit there wondering how the hell we got to where we are now.
Whatever, good to hear from ya! Makes the time and effort of posting worthwhile.