Thursday, December 18, 2008

Songs 4 Foodies #3

Last week’s Songs 4 Foodies elicited a nice response, & here we come back at ya. The song list is a bit more diverse this time around—last week had a distinct New Orleans’ flavor, while this week’s features artists & songs that are a bit more across the map—from indie bands of the 80s to members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

& I should add one Robert Frost’s Banjo reader’s suggestion; K suggested Jorma Kaukonen’s "Holiday Marmalade" from his 1996 album Christmas. I still haven’t made the time to look this song up on the www, but I like marmalade (which will make an appearance on an upcoming list courtesy of another band), & I respect Kaukonen’s guitar fingerpicking skills—especially when he’s exploring old blues material à la Reverend Gary Davis—I even have old Jefferson Airplane & Hot Tuna on vinyl around here somewhere.

  • “Give Him Cornbread”: This song’s underlying structure is reminiscent of “Shortnin’ Bread,” but Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers take their tune for a high energy, rocking & rollicking ride thru zydeco accordion, hot electric guitar solos & full bodied vocals—how does Beau Jocque bring so much soul to such a simple lyric? “Give Him Cornbread” shows what you can happen when you let fantastic musicians loose with a simple song structure—they transform it & make it their own. This is a song with a high danceability quotient; & it refers to the perfect side dish to a famous food sung about by Hank Williams & Professor Longhair in an entry below. (Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers: Louisiana Spice: Rounder)
  • “Grapefruit Moon”: There are a lot of sides to Tom Waits; one of them is bringing his Old Crow & Chesterfields growl to a beautiful melodic accompaniment; there are a number of examples, both from earlier & later in his career. “Grapefruit Moon” is from Waits’ first album, before his voice “changed,” & before the 3:00 a.m. poetry or crazed Americana or Klezmer-blues of his later incarnations. It’s a lovely lyric—piano playing against a backdrop of strings; & while “Grapefruit Moon” doesn’t match the poetry of later Waits’ lyrics, the title itself is a nifty image—not only visual, but literally “bittersweet.” Perhaps you have to be young to sing about this kind of heartache—Waits makes it sound real. The pic at the bottom of this post is Waits in a posture that’s not recommended for piano playing. (Tom Waits: Closing Time: Asylum)
  • "Gravy Waltz": This infectious song, with wonderfully surreal lyrics by Steve Allen & glorious music by bassist Ray Brown, is just about my favorite jazz waltz. It’s a tune we did with the Alice in Wonder Band, & always had fun playing. But check out Bill Henderson’s version with the Oscar Peterson trio (Peterson: piano; Ray Brown: bass; Ed Thigpen: drums); after Brown’s bass intro, Henderson comes in for a duet with the bass—a very effective match-up when a singer can pull it off. Henderson has wonderful phrasing, & was a jazz singer who never got his due. Along with his characteristic smooth swing, he brings some R&B inflections to this tune as well. (Bill Henderson: Bill Henderson & The Oscar Peterson Trio: Polygram)
  • “Groundhog”: This old-time song may remind you (thematically, that is) of “Carve That Possum” from the first installment of the series. My father was a squirrel hunter, & we used to eat “squirrel pie” in the autumn, but he drew the line at ground hog, or woodchuck as we called them in Vermont. This song refers to the groundhog as a “gristle pig” —which doesn’t necessarily make it more appetizing; it also advises us to “eat up the meat & save the hide.” Doc Watson sings this song & picks it out on the banjo, & reminds us—in case we needed it—that he’s great on that instrument, too; Doc isn’t just a killer flatpick guitarist. Doc Watson’s voice is always perfectly nuanced for the song he’s singing—tenderness or devotion or, as in this case, humor. (Doc Watson: The Essential Doc Watson: Vanguard)
  • "Ham 'n' Eggs": Danny Barker is an overlooked treasure as a songwriter, singer & musician. A New Orleans great (not using that word lightly), Barker was an exceptional jazz banjoist & an exceptional jazz rhythm guitarist. On “Ham & Eggs”—one of his many compositions—Barker’s warm vocal is punctuated by an alarm clock, as he sings a bluesy lament for the fact he doesn’t have “Ham & Eggs.” Listening to the rich chords Barker brings out of that beautiful Gibson archtop makes you realize what a fine musician & a fine acoustic instrument sound like in combination. With gospel amen ending, of course. (Danny Barker: Save The Bones: Orleans)
  • “Hang on Little Tomato”: Back when Eberle & I were involved in the Alice in Wonder Band, a few people told us the band’s sound reminded them of Pink Martini, & even gave us cds to prove it. I appreciated the cds of course, especially because I like Pink Martini’s music, but I have to admit I could never quite see the connection. “Hang on Little Tomato” has a retro lounge sound, with a beautiful clarinet intro, & then nice clarinet & guitar fills punctuating China Forbes’ singing. A song of encouragement, it’s urging the little tomato to “hang on, hang on to that vine.” (Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato: Heinz Records)
  • “Happy High Cholesterol Blues”: This is Sister Exister’s ode to the notion that having love is prophylactic against high cholesterol—because when you’re too poor even to eat the chicken’s you’re raising, you just end up eating three meals a day of eggs. It’s also an ode to country living & making do, & the power of love, as well as taking a definitive stance on the old chicken & egg conundrum (per Sister Exister, it’s the egg). Besides Sister Exister’s steel pan supporting her singing, there’s some sort of percussion (I’m guessing this falls under the category of “various kitchen things” mentioned on the back of the album—an oatmeal container?)—& the fuzz baritone uke solos are not to be missed. Sister Exister, please get your cd on CDBaby! (Sister Exister: Scratch: self-released)
  • "I Like My Chicken Frying Size": OK, there’s definitely a skewed aspect to this lyric; Merle Travis says “I like my chicken frying size when I get my skillet hot,” & continues in this vein throughout the song. But the tune itself is some really nice western swing, with trumpet & pedal steel & fiddle, & of course Travis’ marvelous guitar playing, which he showcases in two short but impressive solos. As I’ve noted before, when you have a whole style of playing named after you—“Travis picking” in this case, for those who don’t know—it’s a sign you’re pretty darned good, & Travis was. (Merle Travis: The Best of Merle Travis: Rhino)
  • “Ice Cream Man”: Not the Tom Waits’ song from Closing Time (tho the premise is about the same) & not the Van Halen cover of this tune—to my ear, it’s rare when the rockers improve on a blues song, even electric blues, as this is. So I’m talking about the original John Brim version, featuring Brim’s guitar & vocal, which is more sweet & sassy than outrageous braggadocio, & which features some wild harp playing by James Dalton. Brim has got “cream sandwiches, dixie cups, popsicles, & push ups, too,” but he’s not talking about the treats you find in the frozen food section. (John Brim: Elmore James/John Brim: Whose Muddy Shoes: Chess/MCA)
  • "Jambalaya": Practically everyone knows the Hank Williams song about one of the all-time great foods (& also about crawfish pie & filé gumbo), but you may not know that the tune wasn’t written by Hank—it’s actually an old Cajun song called “Grand Texas.” There’s also some controversy about whether Williams wrote the lyrics—some claim he bought the lyrics from honk-tonk pianist & songwriter Moon Mullican. This song has been covered by scads of people—but if you’re gonna check out one cover, check out Professor Longhair’s. He makes the song his own & turns it into a New Orleans dance tune—with heavy emphasis on dance, courtesy of bassman Will Harvey, Jr. Snooks Eaglin provides a hot guitar solo, & while Fess doesn’t take a piano break, his voice is like butter. (Hank Williams: 40 Greatest Hits: Polygram [to list just one]; Professor Longhair: Mardi Gras in Baton Rouge: Rhino)
  • “Keep Your Skillet Good & Greasy”: Now this is a song that’s lots of fun to play—nice on the banjo with lots of slides so you get the feeling of something greasy, perhaps. This is as much about drinking & living a life of ease as about eating, but you do need a sack of flour & a greasy skillet, so it qualifies here. The version I’m referring to is by the great Woody Guthrie, accompanied by Sonny Terry on harp & Brownie McGhee on guitar & back-up vocal (tho they’re not credited on this album). It’s a hot take on the song, moving along at a nice clip, & you can never have enough Woody Guthrie. I always think of this song as “Keep My Skillet Good & Greasy,” but they list it as “Your” on this album—tho Woody sings “my.” (Woody Guthrie: The Very Best of Woody Guthrie: Music Club)
  • “Kitchen of Life”: Back in the dim past of the 1980s, the album Cabin Flounder by the band Fetchin’ Bones got a lot of play on my turntable. This band, fronted by amazing singer Hope Nicholls, could flat rock out, & Nicholls was a powerhouse; her voice was compared more than once to Joplin’s, but with a distinct 1980s alt rock edge. Don Dixon, of R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, & Smithereens fame, produced this album, which is a mosh pit waiting to happen. “Kitchen of Life” is a rocker about sexual politics—“How do you handle a hungry man? The Manhandlers”; & it rocks with the best of them, propelled by Nicholls’ vocal & Danna Pentes’ insistent bass—& we love lyrics that refer to the “radar range.” (Fetchin’ Bones: Cabin Flounder: DB rec)
  • “Knockin’ Down Chickens”: Ed’s Redeeming Qualities was a band whose members all really appreciated good food—I happen to have inside knowledge of this, but even if you didn’t you could guess it from their songs. After all, they are the only band I can think of who recorded the sound of bacon cooking as an intro for a song. “Knockin’ Down Chickens” is one of Dani Leone’s songs about her favorite food—in this case, chicken is chicken, not a metaphor; & Dani sings about how chickens can be consoling in hard times—she “never turns to liquor,” because there’s always a chicken to barbecue. The tune has a sweet melody, & was recorded live at a show that brought original Ed's band member Neno Perrota back with the mid 90s incarnation of the band; Neno plays bongos, while Jonah Winter adds some lovely accordion & Carrie Bradley some lovely violin. Is it true you can fail a sobriety test just from eating too much chicken? (Ed’s Redeeming Qualities: Big Grapefruit Cleanup Job: Slow River)


  1. Here's another song about cornbread. Really.

  2. Thanks for the tip-- fun song-- & they definitely get points for the resonator guitar.

    The "really" part is one of the many fun aspects of food songs, because so many of them do fit under "really." But I like the ones that really, really are about food, too.

    John H


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