Euphoria (The Holy Modal Rounders)

My uncle Sascha was a lefty lawyer in Berkeley, California, in the 1960s — he was the lawyer in the field with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, and also Huey Newton’s contact with the outside world from prison — but by the time I was old enough to be aware of his activities he had ceased practicing law, and figured in my personal life mostly as a cool uncle who gave me some of the records that have most influenced the course of my life. He had been close to Lenny Bruce, and made sure I knew Lenny’s oeuvre, and he had gone to college or law Fantasy blues samplerschool with a couple of the top people at Fantasy Records, and one year gave me a promotional sampler of their new series of “two-fer” blues releases, compiled from the old Prestige catalog. He knew I was getting into blues, and that set had two cuts each by some of the greatest: Furry Lewis, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Rev. Gary Davis, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee — but what changed my life was hearing Dave Van Ronk, Tom Rush, and the Holy Modal Rounders. They had two songs each, and I still can play all six. My notion of blues up till then was some Josh White 78s and my half-brother Dave’s records, which were people like Skip James and Booker White — all terrific, but much less accessible for a white kid from Cambridge who had started out with Pete, Woody, and Cisco.

Of all the artists on that set, I’m guessing it was the Rounders who first captured my imagination, because they were just so WEIRD. Especially “Euphoria,” which was unlike anything I’d ever heard — it sounded like Charlie Poole on methedrine, Holy Modal Roundersexcept at that point I’d never heard of methedrine, or of Charlie Poole. I was thirteen years old, which is kind of a perfect age to discover the Rounders, and I fell hard, quickly learning this and “Blues In the Bottle.” Then my uncle was kind enough to follow up with the Fantasy double-LP set comprising their two first albums, and I picked up several more songs off that.

I only got to see the Rounders — the original duo, Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber — once, around 2000, and it was one of the most bizarre and fascinating shows I’ve ever attended. They had briefly reformed and were squabbling constantly between songs, but they were playing and singing great, and the (small) audience was riveted through a two hour show.

I wouldn’t bet on any future Rounders gigs, but Peter is busier than ever, playing constantly and releasing new albums at a dazzling rate. If you don’t know his work, I still recommend starting with the Rounders, but for two later masterpieces I’d suggest “Impossible Groove,” a track with the Bottle Caps on which he raps a Robert Service poem, and his immortal version of “Goldfinger” with clawhammer banjo and tuba. And if you can see him live, don’t think twice, just go.

No Money Down (Chuck Berry/John Hammond)

Blues at Newport was one of my life-changing albums. I don’t remember how or why I bought it (or got my mom to buy it for me), but it was Dave Van Ronk’s version of blues at newportThat’ll Never Happen No More” on that set, more than his version of “Cocaine” on a Fantasy sampler, that persuaded me to persuade my mom to go see him in concert. Neither recording had captured my imagination on first hearing, but when I saw the poster for the gig I recognized the name and went home and listened, and that was enough to send us to the concert that changed my life.

The tracks on that album that did capture my imagination immediately were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee doing “Key to the Highway,” and in particular John Hammond’s performance of “No Money Down.” I don’t think I was yet aware of Chuck Berry, and certainly hadn’t heard his version of that particular song — and when I did, it took a while for me to accept it, because my first reaction was that it was too perky and didn’t have the guts of Hammond’s. I’ve revised that opinion over the years, but there’s still more Hammond than Berry in the way I do this.

chuck berry“No Money Down” is an interesting example of a self-penned follow-up or “answer song”: Berry had hit with “Maybellene,” in which his little Ford was “motorvating” over the hill and won a race with a Cadillac Coupe de Ville driven by the title lady. But rather than being true to his Ford (never mind the lady), in his follow-up he’s motorvating back into town and jumps at the opportunity to trade up.

Musically, this was one of the many offshoots of Muddy Waters’s “Hoochie Coochie Man.” Written by Willie Dixon, that song started a wave of comically exaggerated blues songs using versions of Muddy’s trademark riff.  Ray Charles had “It Should’ve Been Me,” the Robins/Coasters had “Riot In Cell Block Number 9” and “Framed,” Ruth Brown had “cadillac 1950 series 61I Can’t Hear a Word You Say,” and Chuck Berry had this one.

Incidentally, Hammond changed “Murphy bed” to “roll-away bed,” apparently to be more up-to-date, and I went back to the original because I thought it was charmingly archaic (my only experience of a Murphy bed being the site of Britt Eklund’s downfall in The Night they Raided Minsky’s) — but now that we’re in a new age of chic urban living, I find Murphy beds are advertised everywhere from Costco to Ikea.

Memphis (Chuck Berry)

There are a few things in my past I look back on with shame, and one is that I was such a wrongheaded pseudo-folk-purist that it took the Kweskin Jug Band’s version of “Memphis” to make me realize the song might be appropriate material for a serious young folksinger like myself. Admittedly I was only about twelve years old, but still…

I’m pretty sure I’d heard Chuck Berry’s Golden Decade by the time I heard the Kweskin version, and I know I always liked Berry’s version better that the Jug Band’s, which frankly was not one of their stronger performances. But IChuck Berry thought of  Berry as playing teen oldies music — better than the Monkees, but still closer to them than to someone like Skip James or Mississippi John Hurt, or Muddy Waters.

At that point I had no idea that Waters had been an early mentor to Berry, nor had I yet discovered the Rolling Stones, who had helped a lot of my folk-blues revival models make that connection. I was coming to all of this late, and kind of feeling my own way with a hodge-podge of various older friends’ records as guideposts. So on the one hand I was hearing Chuck Berry and enjoying him, and even saw him live when I was eleven or twelve, thanks to an older friend named Bill Clusin — Bill lived in my folks’ house in Woods Hole for a few winters, and it was his copy of Golden Decade that introduced me to the original version of this, and then he took me and my sister to see Berry at Cape Cod Coliseum, which was godawful loud, but great. But on the other hand, the first three Berry songs I learned had — not coincidentally — been recorded by young, white, revivalists: “Memphis” from the Kweskin aggregation, “No Money Down” from John Hammond, and “Too Much Monkey Business” from Tom Rush.

I did grow up, eventually, and we’ll get to “Nadine” and “Promised Land” in later posts. Meanwhile, however wrong my logic, I was at least learning Chuck Berry songs, and soon had the sense to begin accumulating his records as well.

Beedle Um Bum (Kweskin Jug Band)

There are some songs I learned back in my youth that make me wonder, in retrospect, what I was thinking when I sang them. I’m sure I knew “Beedle Um Bum” was a euphemism, and had some sense of what the song was about, but I’m also sure I missed some of its juicier implications. In any case, my main interest was having fun and playing the kazoo, for which I’m sure my parents cursed the Kweskin gang occasionally, since I played it with far more exuberance than expertise Kweskin first LP shot — and yes, there are more and less expert kazoo players, just as there are more and less expert scat singers… and I was well down on the list, though hard to beat for exuberance.

The Kweskin Jug Band was even harder to beat for exuberance, and is fondly remembered today by a lot of people, but even its fans are often unaware of quite how great and influential it was. I don’t think I fully appreciated it myself until I was in Memphis, talking with Jim Dickinson, who was a seriously heavyweight and knowledgeable musician with deep links to a lot of classic local blues artists (and father to Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars). When he learned I was from Cambridge, he immediately proceeded to wax rhapsodic about the Kweskin band, saying he’d had his own jug band in Memphis around the same time and couldn’t believe how great the Kweskin group sounded: “We’d learned directly from all the old guys, we knew Will Shade and Gus Cannon, and Furry Lewis, and we thought we really had that sound down, but they blew us away — we couldn’t figure out how a bunch of guys from Boston could sound like that!”

Part of it was that although the Kweskinites loved the Memphis Jug Band and Cannon’s Jug Stompers and learned a lot by listening to them, they also listened to a lot of other groups from other places, and a lot of other styles of music, and fed everything they heard through their own musical tastes and skills, and really didn’t sound like any previous group. “Beedle Um Bum,” for example, was not a jug band song — it had been done by one of the various Chicago studio aggregations dubbed the Hokum Boys, in this case consisting of Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, who were riding the crest of a wave of upbeat double-entendre numbers they had started a couple of months earlier under their own names with their huge hit, “It’s Tight Like That.” I’m assuming they wrote this one as well, which would mean its lyrical vivacity is due to the nimble pen of Thomas A. Dorsey, remembered as the Father of Gospel Music for composing “Precious Lord,” “I’m Gonna Live the Live I Sing About,” and “Peace in the Valley,” among many Christian favorites, and also for being an early mentor to Mahalia Jackson.

It seems only fair to note that the Kweskin group made a couple of changes to this lyric, including the reference to “southern eel,” but only a couple, and this was far from Dorsey’s raunchiest number. Dorsey lived to be 93 years old and although he did not sing any of this sort of material after he became established as a gospel composer, he was always happy to talk about his days playing piano for Ma Rainey and writing naughty hokum hits, and apparently had no regrets.

Rag Mama (Jim Kweskin)

I don’t remember exactly when I got Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band’s Greatest Hits!, but I sure remember listening to it, over and over, and over. It was silly aKweskin greatest hitsnd rowdy and fun — or at least those were the songs I liked best, Jim’s goofy features rather than Geoff’s soulful blues (though I loved Geoff and Maria’s “Never Swat a Fly,” and of course Maria’s “I’m a Woman”). There were 24 songs on the two LPs, and at one time or another I played at least half of them.

I later realized that the Kweskinites were also the first performers I can clearly remember seeing in person. It must have been 1964, which would have made me five years old, at a children’s concert in what I remember as a large auditorium of some kind, and the only song I know they played was “The Animal Fair,” with Fritz Richmond doing the part of the elephant on his jug — except Jim tells me that I’ve remembered that wrong and the song was actually Leroy Carr’s “I Carried Water for the Elephant.” Anyway, it was a memorable experience, and jug bands have had a warm spot in my heart ever since.

“Rag, Mama” was one of the first songs I learned after getting their double album, which was appropriate, because itJim Kweskin had been Jim’s solo showpiece before he put the jug band together. It was originally recorded by Blind Boy Fuller, and Jim had clearly picked up some of Fuller’s guitar style, but he changed the song a fair amount, adding a scat flourish and dropping Fuller’s repeated chorus, and much as I love Fuller’s work, all Jim’s changes were improvements. Of course, like much of the music of that period, it was sexist as hell, so I dropped it from my repertoire in the 1970s, but I still enjoy the opportunity to pull it out and give it a little run now and then.

He’s In the Jailhouse Now (Pink Anderson)

One of the greatest records I discovered in the Cambridge Public Library was an album issued on the Riverside label in 1961 and titled American Street Songs. I’m guessing I pulled it out because side two was eight songs by the Reverend Gary Davis. They’d been recorded in 1956, when he was American Street Singers at the peak of his powers, and I still think they may be his greatest recordings. (His 78s from the 1930s have incredible guitar technique, but his voice is very hoarse, and if I had to choose I’d go with the ’50s tracks — though fortunately, I don’t have to choose.) It would be another few years before I could even think of attempting to play Davis’s music, and in any case I was never going to be a gospel singer… but side one had a dozen songs by a singer and guitarist I’d never heard of named Pink Anderson, and they were just my meat.

The Anderson tracks had been recorded in 1950 by Paul Clayton, which caught my eye because Clayton’s own LP of whaling and sailing songs had been one of the first albums I loved as a kid. Clayton was a folklorist and singer with very broad tastes, which made him the perfect pAndersonPinkerson to supervise a Pink Anderson session, since Anderson’s repertoire was wonderfully varied and quirky. He had been a medicine show entertainer and made a few records in the 1920s which typically get filed as blues, but he sang everything that came his way, from country ballads to minstrel comedy, did showy guitar tricks, and told jokes — basically, he was an all-around entertainer, like a lot of the guys who have been typed as bluesmen because they happened to be black and southern and play guitars, and had some blues songs in their repertoires. (Blues scholars tend to describe people like Anderson as “songsters,” but that seems to me like unnecessary jargon — they were versatile singers and musicians, like Louis Armstrong or Gene Autry, or Maybelle Carter, or Pete Seeger, or Dave Van Ronk, or, for better or worse, me.)

I’d never heard “He’s In the Jailhouse Now” before that Pink Anderson record, and learned it immediately. Afterwards, of course, I heard it from lots of other people: Blind Blake, then Jim Jackson, the Memphis Jug Band, and eventually Jimmie Rodgers, who did a very popular version and is often credited as the composer, though at least a half-dozen black performers had recorded it before he did his version in 1928. It sounds like a professionally composed “coon song,” the standard term for ragtime-era songs in the blackface minstrel comedy tradition, of which Anderson had numerous examples in his repertoire, but as far as I know, no one has ever found sheet music predating the Rodgers version.

Incidentally, I’ve messed with the second verse, which was originally about an African American protester representing the “colored sentiment” during an election, and learning the hard way that he should “leave the white folks’ business alone.” I changed that to suit myself, but the original version provides important musical evidence of early voting rights efforts and the longstanding and well-justified cynicism with which a lot of people in the black community viewed efforts to win the right to vote for white politicians who were unlikely to have their interests in mind. As my lyrical changes indicate, I think both the effort and the cynicism are still appropriate, for black voters in particular, but also for everyone else who can’t afford to buy a candidate or an election.

Is Anybody Going to San Antone (Doug Sahm)

My love affair with Texas roots music began in the Cambridge Public Library. The main branch of the library was located in the open space between the two high schools, Rindge Tech and Cambridge High and Latin, and if you had a note from a teacher saying that you had no classes, you could use it during school hours. I spent some time browsing in the stacks, but mostly took advantage of the fabulous f_1210_gallery-image_28989record collection. The music librarian, a tall, quiet jazz enthusiast named Ken Williams (who I recently learned was a pioneering activist against Apartheid), had assembled a relatively small but wonderful assortment of LPs, and there were a couple of turntables where you could listen to them, and I spent hours and days and weeks sitting with a pair of old gray headphones on my ears, getting an education. Among other treasures, that’s where I discovered Guitars of Africa, with Jean-Bosco Mwenda’s “Masanga” (I have an earlier post about studying with him in the Congo),  and one of the albums that forever shaped my musical taste, Doug Sahm and Band.

I can’t begin to describe how unlikely and unusual that album was in the mid-1970s. We’ve since had forty years of “roots music” and “Americana,” and all of us are aDOUG-SAHM-And-Band-SEALED-Vintage-1973-Lpt least glancingly aware of Tex-Mex accordion, and bluegrass, and traditional fiddling, and classic R&B, and blues, and New Orleans music, and roots rock, and have heard bands that attempt various fusions of those styles. But back then no one had ever attempted a fusion even vaguely comparable to Sahm’s, and no one before or since has assembled a comparable band. Jerry Wexler, at the height of his powers at Atlantic Records, had decided Doug was the quintessential American musician, and between them they assembled… well, let’s put it this way: Bob Dylan, then in his hermit period, came out of the shadows to sing harmony, contribute a new song, and play occasional harmonica; Flaco Jimenez was on accordion; Dr. John was on piano; David “Fathead” Newman was there from the Ray Charles band on tenor sax; David DOUG-SAHM-And-Band backBromberg played dobro; Charlie McCoy played steel; Andy Statman was on mandolin; Kenny Kosek was on fiddle… and of course there was Doug, on fiddle and electric guitar and vocals, and his Texas buddies, Augie Meyers and Jack Barber… there were a few others, but you get the idea.

As for the songs, they ranged from T-Bone Walker to the Delmore Brothers, to… I’m going to stop now, because you should just check it out, though I should mention that Sahm had a couple of good ones on there as well.

I listened to that LP over and over, probably wore out the library’s copy, and then, because the American record-buying public inexplicably failed to share my tastes, I found a copy in a cut-out bin and wore that out as well. But, oddly enough, I only learned one song off it, Doug’s version of this Charley Pride hit about his home town — which he leads off on twin fiddles with Kosek, after shouting, “This is a song about my home town!”

I still have that intro etched in my brain, along with the horn chart from “Dealer’s Blues,” and have made some attempt to capture it on guitar.

Best of All Possible Worlds (Kris Kristofferson)

I have no idea how I ended up with a copy of Kris Kristofferson’s first album — I was buying hardly any country, or rock, or pop at that point — but however it came into my hands, I was instantly hooked. The writing was like nothing I’d ever heard: a perfect combination of hip, smart, soulful, literary, and simple as a great country songkristofferson lp. It matched Kris’s unique background: Vietnam, Oxford University, flying helicopters to oil rigs, emptying ashtrays at Columbia’s Nashville studio. But I didn’t know that at the time; I just knew how much I loved his writing. In retrospect some of the songs feel a little over-romantic — in a 19th century literary sense — but I was the right age for that, and others have held up as well as any songs I know.  I’ll probably get to “Me and Bobby McGee” before this project is over, because overdone as it is, it’s a great song; and I don’t think I can write about busking in Norway without doing “Help Me Make It Through the Night”; and I don’t know many better phrases than “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” and have a soft spot for “Just the Other Side of Nowhere”…

But my favorite to play and sing was always “Best of All Possible Worlds,” because it came along just when I was getting into Jim Kweskin and Willie McTell and all those guys who played rural ragtime circle-of-fifths tunes, and I figured out that a riff from McTell’s “Kill It, Kid” would fit perfectly with Kristofferson’s song. Plus, I never heard anyone else do this one, unlike all the other Kristofferson songs I liked, which were mostly covered to death.

Also, obviously, I love the story, and the wry humor:

They finally came and told me they were gonna set me free,
And that I’d be leaving town if I knew what was good for me.
I said, “It’s nice to learn that everybody’s so concerned about my health.”

I was lucky enough to meet Kris a couple of times, and interview him, and he was one of the most likeable people in the music business. He carried a band made up of songwriters who enjoyed hanging out and playing together, including Billy Swan and Donnie Fritts, and I once came back to the dressing room and asked Swan, KristoffersonThirdWorldWarriorwho was acting as the bandleader, if he had a set list for the show I’d just heard, and behind me Kris quietly said, “You got a pen?” And then, while his band drank beer and relaxed, he wrote out the set for me. That may not sound like much, but headliners don’t typically act that way — not to mention headliners who are also movie stars. But he has always been atypical, in a lot of ways: that night, he’d done a country set about the Nicaraguan revolution, including a moment when he named Sandino, Che Guevara, and other Latin American revolutionary heroes, and the bandmembers pumped fists in the air and yelled “¡Presente!” after each name. (The album was called Third World Warrior. It wasn’t a great record, but it was heartfelt and a very unusual project to be touring around county fairs in middle America in 1990.)

It was Kris’s first album, though, and his follow-up, The Silver-Tongued Devil, that changed the course of country music, and if anyone reading this hasn’t heard either, or both, you’ve got a treat in store.

On a Monday (Lead Belly and racist stereotypes)

I got this from Lead Belly, but more specifically from The Leadbelly Songbook — I have no clear memory of hearing him sing it, and may have heard it by Pete Seeger or any number of other people, but I have a photographically clear memory of  the page in that book,* with a picture of a pretty young woman walking along a city street in a nice dress and an impressively broad-brimmed hat. leadbelly songbookShe was, presumably, one of the “yellow women” whose doorbells the singer would no longer be ringing. At the time I had no idea what the word “yellow” meant in that context, though I’m pretty sure I understood him to be talking about prostitutes.

I didn’t sing the song much, though I noted Johnny Cash’s reworking of it as “I Got Stripes” on his Folsom Prison album, but I always appreciated the way the story is told in brief, precise images, and how much it leaves to the listener’s imagination.

Then, when I was sitting down to do it for this project, I began thinking about all the implications of that reference in the chorus to “yellow women.” when I first sang this, I don’t think I separated the women in the chorus from the woman he loves who has thrown him out of doors, presumably leading to the crime that has ended him in prison. But that generic use of “yellow women” goes along with an old and widespread stereotype — I even ran across it when I was living in Lubumbashi, in the Eastern Congo — about light-skinned black women. And that, in turn, leads into the complex and brutal history of colonialism and slavery, and in particular the long history of white men publicly decrying the idea of white-black sexual relations while privately indulging by means of rape and economic coercion… and the pervasive double standard whereby women who fail to remain “pure,” whether voluntarily or not, get blamed for being temptresses, or loose, or whores.

One of the complicated things about singing old songs is that they reflect times, cultures, customs, and viewpoints that are historically and sociologically interesting, but when I sing them they cease to be artifacts and become living performances, in the present, sung by me. I enjoy that process more in some instances than in others, and am more conscious of it sometimes than others. This time, I played this song for a few days, not having done it in at least thirty years and thinking about how I might play it on guitar, then filmed a first version… and it wasn’t until I was actually doing it in front of the camera that it struck me how unpleasant it was for me to be sitting there singing about ringing yellow women’s doorbells — and also by the fact that when I sang this as a kid, no one ever suggested there was a problem.

So I filmed it again, with the lyric changed to “pretty women” — which still leaves the sexism intact, and stereotypes about good-looking women being sexually available, and me sitting in Cambridge, Mass, assuming elements of Huddie Ledbetter’s persona and describing the trials of wearing prison stripes and chains…

I love the range and breadth of American vernacular music, and am fascinated by the history embedded in these songs, and have been living with them my whole life, and plan to keep singing them. Lead Belly sang not only about his own life and experiences, but about being a cowboy shooting it out with Jesse James, and about paddling his canoe on the island of Hawai’i, and he did his best to assume those personas and make them come alive. But he also changed lyrics when he thought they were wrong for him, and if I had his talent I’d change more to suit my own tastes and reality.

*Having tracked down a copy of The Leadbelly Songbook, I find that my “photographically clear memory” of that photo was right, but it illustrated a different song, called “Yellow Gal.” I don’t know if there’s a moral to that.

Walk Right In (Rooftop Singers/Jose Feliciano)

I mostly missed the hottest groups of the pop-folk craze. I was born in 1959 rather than 1950; I started out with my grandparents’ 78s, listening to the Almanac Singers and Josh White; my half-brother Dave introduced me to greatest folksingers of the sixtiesold-time country blues recordings; and I guess I was already something of a loner and a contrarian by age five, more attuned to Woody Guthrie than to the perky collegiate approach. In any case, I missed the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Brothers Four, and only heard Peter, Paul and Mary because my little sister liked them, but never listened to them voluntarily.

However, somewhere along the line I picked up Vanguard’s Greatest Folksingers of the ‘Sixties, and along with Cisco and Kweskin and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott it included the first tracks I ever heard by Ian and Sylvia, and by Richard and Mimi Fariña, and “Walk Right In,” by the Rooftop Singers. Those were not really my kind of music — the Fariñas a bit more than the others, and I did pick up their “best of” double LP, but didn’t listen to it very often — but it was hard to resist the rhythmic drive of “Walk Right In,” propelled by Eric Darling’s 12-string guitar. (Incidentally, Ian and Sylvia’s “You Were on My Mind,” also on that album, has a very similar 12-string arrangement, which I’d guess was not coincidental.)

The Rooftop Singers, as it happened, were formed by Darling specifically to record “Walk Right In,” which he’d presumably heard on Sam Charters’s The Country Blues reissue LP. I preferred the Cannon version, of course, but didn’t learn it because the song was already so overdone, due to the Rooftop version, which was a number one pop hit in 1963… the rub being that I could not avoid knowing the Rooftop version, more or less, because it was unforgettably catchy,feliciano-jose and fooling around with my own variation of the bass part, because it was fun. And then there was José Feliciano…

He was on Greatest Folksingers of the ‘Sixties as well, blowing away the Newport Folk Festival audience with his flamenco-ized version of “La Bamba,” and sometime later I managed to acquire a copy of his first LP, which is a truly weird and wonderful record, recorded when he was seventeen years old and including his versions of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “High Heeled Sneakers,” and “Walk Right In,” which he sings in English, Spanish, and Yiddish.

Whatever my reasons for not learning the Cannon or Rooftop versions, my reason for not learning Feliciano’s is simple: there was no possible way I could even dream of playing like him… and yet, the bassline in my head is more Feliciano than Darling, and I’ve got that Spanish verse (I don’t speak Yiddish, which didn’t stop José, but I’m not seventeen, or a genius). So, here it is, for what it is.