Thursday, December 4, 2008

Songs 4 Foodies #1

Two of our favorite subjects here at Robert Frost’s Banjo are food & music—so I’m thinking, especially in this holiday season when both should abound, why not come up with our own list of foodie songs? This isn’t a novel idea, I admit. Such lists are easy enough to find on the ‘net, including one here, with 525 songs (in my opinion he stretches things a bit here & there, but it’s an entertaining read); in the blog world, I’ve seen foodie sites that feature a “food song of the week,” a concept I wholeheartedly endorse; & if my memory’s not failing too badly in my AARP days, I believe good pal Dani Leone made a killer mix tape of food songs—also one of her favorite subjects—back in the 90s.

So I’ve come up with a list of 64 songs based on the fo
llowing criteria: 1.) I’m familiar with a specific recording of the song. 2.) The song’s is primarily about food, either literally or metaphorically. 3.) No songs about coffee or booze, because including either one would have made the list amazingly looong; there’s a good chance I’ll do song lists for both at some later point. 4.) Rules are made to be broken; I broke rule #1 once, including a song Eberle & I played lots in our old “Blue Notes” band, but which we’ve never had on any recording. I also broke rule #2 twice, because there were a couple of songs that had such great lines about food I had to include them, even tho food wasn’t the main “topic.”

Each list includes a baker’s dozen songs. Here’s th
e first installment:

  • "Alice's Restaurant Massacree": The assumption when you say a food song isn’t really about food is that it’s actually about sex. Arlo Guthrie’s talking blues “Alice’s Restaurant” is about neither, tho it covers a lot of other topics during its 18+ minute run time: Thanksgiving, littering, the law, the draft & ways of avoiding & protesting same. “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree” has a great fingerstyle riff—good thing, considering how much it’s played—& a very hummable chorus, tho you do have to wait about 15 minutes between the first & second times that’s sung. (Arlo Guthrie: The Best of Arlo Guthrie: Warner Bros)
  • "All that Meat & No Potatoes": So what is this great Fats Waller song about? We know a lotta food songs are more about sex than supper, but it’s hard to say what’s going on during this surreal romp. Waller was sort of the Mel Blanc of singers: he could adopt more voice personas per tune than anyone I can think of, & “All that Meat & No Potatoes” is one of the best examples of this—he switches effortlessly from a high-pitched whimsy to a basso mock dudgeon, & channels a few other characters in between. (Fats Waller: The Very Best of Fats Waller: BMG)
  • “At the Chocolate Bon Bon Ball”: A dream tango in a “sugar-coated hall” finds assorted candies partying in wacky Leon Redbone style to gypsy violin & accordion. There are a number of “sweet” lines: e.g. “Those chocolate-coated butts & those assorted nuts made love to old-fashioned taffy” or “little peanut brittle played the jazz upon her fiddle.” (Leon Redbone: Up a Lazy River: Rounder)
  • “Bacon Fat”: Not really about bacon fat, tho “bacon fat” is mentioned during the widely scattered vocals—the song clocks in at close to seven minutes, & for the most part its an enjoyable & mellow electric blues with some sweet blues harp thrown in for good measure. Taj Mahal’s musicianship, including his singing, is always a real pleasure—does any other singer sound that relaxed? (Taj Mahal: Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home: Columbia)
  • “Big Butter & Egg Man from the West”: A wild hot jazz number by Louis Armstrong & his tremendous Hot Five, joined on this occasion by singer May Alix, who’s full of gusto describing how a butter & egg diet can give a man various sorts of prowess—Armstrong joins in the singing to confirm this. Who says high cholesterol is bad for you? Besides Armstrong (on cornet back in ’26) the Hot Five are Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano, Kid Ory on trombone & Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. Now there’s a band that can cook. (Louis Armstrong: Louis Armstrong Hot Fives & Sevens: JSP)
  • “Big Foot Ham” – Jelly Roll Morton’s business card proclaimed him the “inventor of jazz”—an outrageous claim, of course, but if any one could get away with such a boast, Jelly Roll probably could. This is a beautiful piece, with ragtime elements but played in swing time. There are a lot of humorous moments, as occur with all the best jazz pianists. Hearing Morton’s left hand makes you realize he could make a piano sound like a full jazz band. This tune is sometimes called “Big Fat Ham”—the recording I’m referring to also has a version of it under that title played with a five-piece backing band. That's Jelly Roll in the pic at post's end. (Jelly Roll Morton: Jelly Roll Morton 1923/24: Milestone)
  • "Big Rock Candy Mountain" – This song about a hobo’s paradise may or may not have been written by Harry McClintock, a hobo who later became a country singer. True to its roots the lyrics include plenty of references to cigarettes & booze, as well as to various food items. In this live version, it’s clear how accustomed Seeger was to audience singalongs—he slows the tempo down very smoothly to match the crowd on each chorus. Audiences are notorious for dragging rhythm, whether they’re clapping or singing. (Pete Seeger: Folkways: A Vision Revisited: [also Woody Guthrie & Lead Belly] Legacy)
  • “Bunion Stew”: Catching all the words to this talking blues would require translating Lightnin’ Hopkins’ deep Texas drawl—suffice it to say the song’s about eating soup & dancing. But mostly the song’s about Lightnin’s guitar picking, which here burns thru a boogie pattern like the strings were struck by you know what. It’s instructive how a set form like a blues boogie pattern comes alive when the guitar’s played by a master like Hopkins. (Lightnin’ Hopkins: Country Blues: Tradition)
  • “Butter My Brother”: An ode to the many benefits, culinary & otherwise, of butter by good Robert Frost’s Banjo pal Sister Exister—who would no doubt agree with the sentiments expressed in “Big Butter & Egg Man.” Whether or not “butter is better than love for the heart” might be a topic worthy of debate, but Sister Exister makes her case for this in a wonderfully melodic mélange of vocal, steel pan, baritone uke fills, & one-string bass. (Sister Exister: Scratch: self-released)
  • “Candy Man”: Both Reverend Gary Davis & Mississippi John Hurt have songs called “Candy Man.” Of course, neither song is really about a man who sells candy; late in his life, Hurt seemed abashed to sing his lascivious version on a live recording I’ve heard. Davis’ “Candy Man” is ultimately about the same thing, but the lyrics are way more surreal, with red lights & green lights & beer drinking babies. Both the performances referred to here are Davis’ song. Taj Mahal accompanies himself on banjo—the banjo is a very under-rated blues instrument—while Van Ronk does a wonderful fingerstyle guitar version à la Reverend Davis. (Dave Van Ronk: A Chrestomathy: Gazell; Taj Mahal: Giant Step/De Ole Folks at Home: Columbia)
  • “Cantaloupe Island”: This gorgeous piece from Herbie Hancock’s 1964 album Empyrean Isles features Freddie Hubbard’s cornet work alternating with Hancock’s fine piano solos. The rest of the time Hancock lays down the modal background on the keys & Ron Carter & Tony Williams keep up a funky groove on bass & drums. The basic melody is minor pentatonic, tho the underlying harmony adds some chromatic notes to the palette—“Cantaloupe Island” is actually a 3-chord song, tho far from your typical I-IV-V; it’s Fm, Db7 & Dm in the original. (Herbie Hancock: The Essential: Sony)
  • “Carve that Possum” A song that tells you everything you wanted to know & then some about how to catch, prepare, cook & eat a possum. For those of you who’ve never lived in possum territory, I will point out that these critters look like huge albino rats from outer space. On the other hand, Uncle Dave Macon claims, “Possum meat am good to eat, always fat & good & sweet” sweet potatoes in the pan, sweetest eatin’ in the land,” & he probably knew more about it than I do. Great interplay between fiddle & banjo, & Uncle Dave sings with his inimitable élan. (Uncle Dave Macon: Go Long Mule: County)
  • “C-H-I-C-K-E-N”: What would a song list be without Mississippi John Hurt, & what would a food list be without chicken? In case you ever forget how to spell “chicken,” this song tells you how, tho there are different versions. Hurt for instance sings “C for to season the bird” for the second “C,” while some folks sing, “C you’ve already heard.” (Mississippi John Hurt: The Best of Mississippi John Hurt: Vanguard)
Don't be shy about leaving a comment on your own favorite food songs, & CHECK BACK NEXT FRIDAY FOR THE SECOND INSTALLMENT!

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