Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Train Songs #5
This is it, folks—the final installment of Train Songs. If you want to see the others, check out this link to Train Songs 4, which in turn links to Train Songs 3, which links to the first & second installments. Got that? As in the case of last week’s post, I’m only providing info links for those musicians who haven’t come up in previous Train Songs’ installments.
Take the “A” Train: Duke Ellington; Bob Wills – Of course lots of people have covered this wonderful Billy Strayhorn tune, but Ellington & Wills seemed like antipodes of sorts. You really ought to know the composer, Billy Strayhorn; if you don’t, you really ought to look him up—here’s a place to start. In addition to “Take the ‘A’ Train” (the Ellington band’s theme song), Strayhorn wrote such standards as “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lush Life,” “Day Dream, & “Something to Live For.” Bob Wills, on the other hand, was the goofy but talented fiddler & bandleader of Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, who are just about it when you talk about western swing. Although western swing & big band jazz sound different, there are actually quite a few underlying similarities—ensembles such as the Texas Playboys were modeled on the big bands, so it’s not surprising there was some crossover in repertoire. One connection: the rhythm guitar styles for both kinds are music involve straight rhythm, heavy damping, & lots of bass movement.
Talkin’ Casey: Mississippi John Hurt: This song, which can be heard on Vanguard’s The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, recorded live at Oberlin College in 1966, is must listening. Hurt’s slide guitar really does talk, & become a train, & moan, etc; it’s just uncanny—also amazing call & response between singer & guitar.
Texas 1947: Guy Clark – This fellow sure can write songs, & he also performs his own material really nicely. “Texas 1947” is the story of the first “fast rolling streamline” train to come thru Clark’s area in Texas when he was 6 years old. With his usual knack for detail, he tells how he “laid a nickel” on the track right before the train sped thru, & then later treasured that same nickel, now “smashed flatter than a dime by a mad-dog, runaway red-silver streamline train.” You can hear “Texas 1947 on either Clark’s 1975 Old No. 1 album or on The Essential Guy Clark.
Train On the Island: Hazel & Alice – “Train on the Island” is of course, a bluegrass/old-time standard, & it’s been performed by scads of people. But I mention Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard because they’re both incredible musicians who don’t get the recognition they deserve. You can hear their take on “Train on the Island” on the Pioneering Women of Bluegrass release. In many ways, it’s the bluegrass album I like best; actually, both Eberle & I have some misgivings about the bluegrass genre as it comes down from Bill Monroe, & I think those misgivings are similar. Bluegrass is a virtuosic kind of music, & sometimes it seems perhaps too much about the virtuosity, & how many notes someone can pick, & too little about the song; another way to say this is it can be difficult to bring that sort of technical excellence & compelling emotional content to bear on a song at the same time. Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard never seem to fall into this—while they’re both highly skilled musicians, there’s always a powerful underlying emotional content informing their singing & playing.
The Train That Carried My Girl From Town: Doc Watson – I only know this song from Doc’s version, which can be heard on Vanguard’s The Essential Doc Watson or on Doc Watson in Nashville: Good Deal! As he is wont to do, Doc really cooks on this upbeat song about desperate rounders.
Wabash Cannonball: Carter Family; Roy Acuff - & practically everyone else who ever played any old-time country music. This is a 19th century song, which may have been written by one J.A. Roff. The fact that the song was copyrighted to A.P. Carter in the late 1920s simply had to do with RCA Victor’s practice of claiming copyright on old tunes by ascribing them to folks they had under recording contract. There is 1882 sheet music for “The Wabash Cannonball.” Although the train named in the song was fictional, the Wabash Railroad named its express run between Detroit and St. Louis the Wabash Cannonball to cash in on the tune’s popularity.
Waiting For a Train: Jimmie Rogers – One of “The Singing Brakeman’s” best known songs, “Waiting for a Train” sums up the romanticized hobo life as well as any old time tune. Like a number of his songs, “Waiting for a Train” has a fun chord progression; it’s a bit “meatier” than the run of the mill 3-chord country song; & of course, as in many of “The Singing Brakeman’s” tunes, there’s good opportunity for yodeling.
White House Blues: Charlie Poole - & lots of other banjo pickers, both of the clawhammer & the bluegrass sort (& assorted sorts in between). For those of you don’t know (& also for those of you who do) “The White House Blues” tells the story of the McKinley assassination, tho it’s a very upbeat song, with some rather wry lyrics (e.g., “Roosevelt’s in the White House doin’ his best, McKinley’s in the graveyard takin’ his rest”) so it makes you wonder how the original songwriter felt about McKinley. “The White House Blues” uses the same tune as another oldtime song, “The Battleship Maine”—which is also a tongue-in-cheek song about the Spanish-American War. Charlie Poole was a fantastic banjoist & singer from the real old-time days (the teens & 20’s), performing with his North Carolina Ramblers trio (guitarist was Norman Woodlief & later Roy Harvey; fiddlers included Posey Rorer, Lonnie Austin and Odell Smith).
Wreck of the Old 97: Flatt & Scruggs; Lipsey Mt Spring Band – We wind it all up with another old chestnut that’s been covered by everybody & his brother, as they say. I mention Flatt & Scruggs because they do one of the best straight bluegrass versions; I mention my old pals the Lipsey Mt Spring Band because they may well have done the wackiest version ever on their Cayman Cowboy album—after playing the song at the standard fast clip, they come to a crashing (as it were) halt, & then plod at about the slowest tempo possible thru “He was going down the grade doing 90 miles an hour when the whistle broke in to a scream; they found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle; he was scalded to death by the steam.” Then they pick it back up right thru to the finish. Also, no doubt the Lipseys were one of the few bands to feature steel drum & pennywhistle on this number.
It’s been fun for me to think about these songs; hope you’ve enjoyed it too. I’m thinking of some categories I may explore down the road; will keep you posted. Let me know if you have any suggestions. Finally, the pic just below is Jimmie Rodgers & the Carter Family.