Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Graveyard Tunes #4

All Hallows is just around the corner, so this is the final installment of Graveyard Tunes; thanks everybody for being so supportive of the series—there will be another song list series coming up in December.

Eberle says I should tell you all that among my many “jack-of-all-trades” jobs, I worked for two summers at Mt Calvary Cemetery in Burlington, VT as a grave-digger/groundskeeper. While we spent the majority of our working hours mowing lawns & weed-whacking fence lines, there was actual digging involved, & we did it the old-fashioned way, with spades & shovels. It wasn’t a bad job all in all—out in the sun, & tho there was some hard work, I was a young fellow & up to the task. Did this experience give me any particular insight into the Graveyard Tunes? Probably not!

Enjoy—five videos as a grand finale!

  • Scarey Day Blues: Here’s another tale of the mojo, in this case something that Blind Willie McTell’s woman has that puts “the jinx” on him in the boudoir (as it were). At the same time, his woman seems to have certain characteristics of a freight train (shaking & wobbling, like the “Central” & the “L&N”). Although Blind Willie expresses optimism about being able to find the mojo, she “keeps it hid.” I think you get the picture. Blind Willie McTell’s playing is always amazing, as on this up-tempo number—check him out in the video below. Blind Willie McTell: The Best of Blind Willie McTell (Yazoo)
  • See That My Grave Is Kept Clean: This great Blind Lemon Jefferson song is one I wrote up in a feature on Just a Song—this is a much condensed version. It's no under-statement to use the word eerie when describing this song, especially in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s version. When he sings “my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold,” it is a spine-tingling moment, as is his singing about the “church bell tone” & the “coffin sound.” Blind Lemon Jefferson had an immediately recognizable guitar style, & his flowing runs & intricate rhythms always make for good listening, even in such a chilling song. Blind Lemon Jefferson: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 3, Songs (Smithsonian/Folkways); also The Best of Blind Lemon Jefferson (Yazoo)
  • Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard: Here we move from the blues of the southern U.S. to the calypso sounds of Jamaica. The old, pre-Belafonte (& Andrews Sisters) calypso was an extremely interesting form—a mixture of lovely melodies & rhythms over which the calypsonian singer would often extemporize in verse, often describing local events or singing about political issues. In a way, calypso is “the news,” & the news Lord Executor delivers in this calypso song from the 1930s is, as the title suggests rather grisly. It may interest you to know that Lord Executor goes on to list real tragedies which, he asserts are “worse than the seven skeletons the workmen found in the yard.” Lord Executor: Calypso Breakaway 1927-1941 (Rounder)—sadly, this fine collection of vintage calypso has been discontinued.
  • She Moved Through the Fair: This traditional Irish song about a ghostly love has one of the most beautiful—& haunting—melodies I’ve ever heard. When that melody is sung by Jean Redpath, who is simply one of the best singers I’ve ever heard, the results are stunning. Ms Redpath performs “She Moved Through the Fair” a capella, but her voice combines a remarkable purity & clarity of tone combined with true insight in delivering the lyric. Jean Redpath: First Flight (Rounder)
  • Skeleton Jangle: Moving from the sublime to the…less sublime, we have a fun early jazz number from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The recordings made by this combo in 1917 & 1918 were among the first recorded jazz numbers, tho the music had been in existence for some years at that point. “Skeleton Jangle” was recorded in March of 1918, along with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s version of “Tiger Rag.” The song itself is a fun romp, as the combo’s music generally was. The “skeleton” is supplied by the drummer as he taps out time on woodblock. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band: The 75th Anniversary (Bluebird)
  • St James Infirmary: This song not only features a “cooling board” scene, as we experienced with Son House’s “Death Letter Blues” & Blind Willie McTell’s “On the Cooling Board,” but it also features an extravagant funeral procession—not up to the standard of McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blues,” but still including singing chorus girls, six crapshooters & a jazz band on the “hearse wagon.” It’s a good song—fun to perform. New Orleans great Danny Barker took it to a whole other level, however, both musically & in terms of pure lyrical surrealism. Why Barker isn’t better known baffles me—as far as I know (& I know there are a few NoLa readers, so please correct me if I’m wrong), his recordings are all out of distribution, as are those of his wife Blue Lu Barker. Barker was an exceptionally talented musician—a fantastic guitar player & banjo player, an excellent singer & a fun songwriter—how many folks realize he wrote “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”? Ah well, if you can only listen to one of today’s videos, make it the Barker version of “St James Infirmary.” There’s nothing quite like it. Danny Barker: Save the Bones (Orleans); as I said, discontinued & hard to come by.
  • Sweet William & Lady Margaret: I included two very different versions of this old ballad—another ghostly love song. Jean Ritchie’s full-length treatment goes from disturbingly surreal dreams filled with swine to true love knot tied between a rose & briar; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s short version is a dark tale of mad love & suicide. Both versions have great power, so do give them a listen; & speaking of excellent singers, both Ritchie & Sainte-Marie are fantastic. Jean Ritchie: Ballads from Her Appalachian Family Tradition (Smithsonian Folkways); Buffy Sainte-Marie: Little Wheel Spin & Spin (Vanguard)
  • Trouble Gonna Take Me To My Grave: What a way to end! Big Joe Williams of 9-string guitar fame. Yes, a 9-string guitar is that odd—I’ve never heard of anyone else playing one. In the blues, we know what the ultimate destination is, & we know trouble just hastens one on the way! Big Joe Williams is a delight, & not well known to general listeners. Tho this tune isn’t on YouTube, several are, so look him up some day when you’re in the mood. Big Joe Williams: Big Joe Williams at Folk City (OBC); this now is only available as mp3 downloads, but what the hey!

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  1. Loved the mellow almost jazz feel of DannyBaker's infirmary blues and the exhuberant liveliness of Buffy Sainte-Marie vampire slayer.Could listen to those over and over and...

  2. Well, I love them all, but I think St. James Infirmary Blues is my favorite. I really like Baker's mellow tone. Is Jean Ritchie playing the dulcimer in this song, I see many photos of them in the slide show.
    You've done a fabulous job of putting this all together! I'm looking forward to your December series.

  3. Hi TFE & Lizzy

    TFE: Barker definitely has some jazz chops! & that whole Little Wheel Spin & Spin album by Buffy Sainte-Marie is fantastic.

    Lizzy: Hard to beat that version of St. James Infirmary. Yes, Jean Ritchie is playing the dulcimer on that one; she is an amazing player as well as an amazing singer.

  4. Aside from the fab music, I love the sound of the words "Skeleton Jangle" and the name "Blind Willie McTell"!

  5. A great selection to finish the series off with. My particular favourites were Blind Willie McTell and Jean Ritchie.

  6. Great finale, John! I really loved the Buffy Ste. Marie version. Never been exposed to much of Buffy, but I'll be looking out for her now. Also really enjoyed the missing mojo song by Blind Willie McTell. Tell me, (if you already explained, sorry), but why do so many of them refer to themselves as blind? They're not really blind, are they? I know the Blind Boys of Alabama aren't all blind.
    She Moved Through the Fair is one of my all time favourites. There's a Sinead O'Connor version on the soundtrack to the film, Michael Collins that is truly haunting.

    Looking forward to what you've got lined up for the month of December.


  7. I love Buffy Sainte-Marie! Thanks, John!

    Grave digger? I always picture the scene in Hamlet...

  8. Hi all!

    Willow: Yes, a great name & a good song title.

    Alan: Can't go wrong with either of those!

    Kat: Yes, the old blues guys named "Blind" actually were, & there were a lot: Blind Willie McTell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, Blind Willie Johnson, just to name some of the most famous; also Reverend Gary Davis. Tho I don't know if this is folk wisdom or "scientific fact," but if hearing really is accentuated with blindness, then that would facilitate musical aptitude. Most of these fellows were more or less street musicians--there weren't many employment opportunities for blind African American men in the US those days.

    Karen: I like Buffy Sainte-Marie a lot myself. We didn't have any Hamletesque soliloquies on the job, tho!


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