Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Graveyard Tunes #2

It’s Wednesday, so it’s time for Graveyard Tunes again—hope you enjoy reading about & listening to this week’s October octet of old-time ghastliness! But first, a bit of blog news:

1. This is (according to Blogger, which keeps track of such things) the 500th post on Robert Frost’s Banjo!

2. I’ll have limited computer access at best thru the weekend, so if I don’t respond to comments as usual it’s simply that I have no way to do so. However, there are posts scheduled thru the week: tomorrow, Women’s Art is Women’s Work with Audrey; Friday, another Halloweenesque film; Saturday, the Weekly Poem; & Dad’s Photos on Sunday.

  • Dying Crapshooter’s Blues: Tales of elaborate funeral processions abound in old-time music, whether it’s the fife & drum march of “Streets of Laredo” or the jazz band on the hearse wagon in St. James Infirmary.” None of these processions can match the one the great Blind Willie McTell came up with in “Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” however. While the song certainly owes a lot to “St. James Infirmary,” it’s a completely changed vision both musically & lyrically in McTell’s hands. Check him out in the first video below. Blind Willie McTell: Atlanta Twelve String (Atlantic)
  • Fixin’ To Die: Not the Country Joe MacDonald Vietnam War protest song—this is a song associated with Delta bluesman Bukka White, one of the tradition's great slide guitar practitioners. White first recorded this song in the 1930s, then recorded a re-make in the 1960s after he’d been re-discovered by the folk movement. “Fixin’ to Die” picks up on a few common blues themes—the inevitability of death (“Just as sure as we livin', just as sure we born to die”), a description of death’s physical “symptoms” (“I'm lookin' funny in my eyes and I believe I'm fixin' to die”) & concern for what will happen to orphaned children (“I know I was born to die but I hate to leave my children cryin'”). It’s an interesting tune—White plays it with a hard-driving boogie strum & subtle slide work. You can hear this is the second vidclip below. Bukka White: Fixin’ To Die (Snapper UK – an import, but reasonably priced)
  • Gallis Pole: What does a traditional Finnish folk tune, a British Child Ballad, bluesman Leadbelly & hard rock innovators Led Zeppelin have in common? A song variously entitled “Lunastettava neito,” “The Maid Freed from the Gallows,” “Prickly Bush,” “Gallis Pole” & “Gallows Pole”—not to mention other Swedish, German & British variations—Wikipedia lists a dozen other variant English language titles. Leadbelly was one of the first old-time blues artists I listened to, & he’s always amazing—an elemental force with his singing & his booming 12-string guitar playing. You can read the lyrics for the Leadbelly version of this song online at WikiSource here. In Leadbelly’s version, it's a man who’s saved from the gallows—as I understand it, the British & Continental versions usually involved a woman being saved, but in U.S. versions the condemned was usually a man. Leadbelly: Bourgeois Blues: Lead Belly Legacy, Vol. 2 (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • Grandpa’s Spells: Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe was born in New Orleans sometime in the 1880s—seems there’s some disagreement about the date. LaMothe later became known as Jelly Roll Morton, & by age 14 was playing piano in a Storyville brothel. Morton claimed later in life to have invented jazz—a grandiose claim, but if anyone could even begin to make it stick, Morton could. He was a virtuosic player & a prolific composer, & “Grandpa’s Spells” is a great ragtime piece, pure & simple. Morton’s connection to Voodoo itself is a bit more complicated; it’s assumed by many that Morton’s grandfather was a Voodoo practitioner—hence the title. Morton’s Uncle Henry downplayed any family connection to Voodoo when he was interviewed by Alan Lomax (see Lomax’s excellent Mister Jelly Roll (University of California Press), but Lomax noted that Uncle Henry seemed “overemphatic” in these denials. It’s also reported that Morton himself believed the illness that brought on his death in 1941 was the result of a Voodoo spell. However that may be, do check out the music in the vidclip below. Jelly Roll Morton: 1923-1924 (Milestone)
  • Haunted House: What more can you ask for in a Halloween song list than a tune with this title? I’ve never heard this song done by anyone but Leon Redbone, who included it on his fantastic debut album On the Track. According to the liner notes, it’s traditional (public domain); at any rate it’s a slow bluesy lament about being haunted by a dead lover. Redbone’s vocal is a sort of slurred & mumbled perfection, & as always, the arrangement of his backing musicians is first-rate. On the Track is pretty much an essential album in my book, tho I might lean toward Branch to Branch as my absolute favorite Redbone disc. Leon Redbone: On the Track (Warner Bros. Records)
  • Heebie Jeebies: Louis Armstrong recorded this song on several occasions, but it’s hard to beat the 1926 version with the Hot Five: Armstrong on cornet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin Armstrong on piano & Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. What a line-up! This hot jazz number is really a dance tune, but I’ve always been partial to the term “heebie jeebies” to describe a sort of anxiety, & I’ve always loved this tune. Speaking of essential listening: the 4-volume Hot 5s & 7s is right up there. Louis Armstrong: Hot Fives & Sevens (this number is on vol. 1) (JSP)
  • Hell Hound on My Trail: I think most blues fans would agree this is one of the finest songs from the Delta blues tradition. Built around just two chords & a typical Robert Johnson “turnaround” (a musical figure that tends to lead from one chord back to the root tone), this song is beautifully conceived both in terms of melody & lyrics. Certainly “Hell Hound on My Trail” has been used as justification for the legend about Johnson selling his soul to the devil to achieve mastery of the guitar. I found the discussion of this legend on Wikipedia quite interesting (yes, I know Wikipedia is a questionable source, but this article appears pretty well documented); according to the article, a number of features from that legend were also ascribed to an earlier bluesman, Tommy “the Snake” Johnson—less well-known than Robert Johnson, but a great blues composer & performer in his own right. But for our purposes, this song has not only a “hell hound,” but also the Voodoo “Hot foot powder” that the singer’s “rider” (or “good gal”) has sprinkled all around his door. My own favorite lines are “I can tell the wind is rising/Leaves trembling on the trees." Check this one out below! Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues, vol. 1 (Sony), Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)
  • Henry Lee: This is the first song on Harry Smith’s great Anthology of American Folk Music, & it certainly sets the tone for what Greil Marcus would term “the Weird Old America.” A singer named Dick Justice intones “Henry Lee,” backing himself with an elementary guitar arrangement, but the effect—due in part to the quality of Justice’s tenor voice—is more than the sum of its parts. The story itself is a variation of the British ballad “Young Hunting.” In this case, the spurned lady murders her lover & then is haunted & taunted by a little bird—when she threatens to kill the little bird with her bow & arrow, the bird threatens to reveal her as a murderer. Great stuff! Dick Justice: Anthology of American Folk Music, vol. 1, Ballads (Smithsonian Folkways)

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  1. Some great clips there. I particularly loved the Jelly Roll Morton one.

  2. Congrats on your 500th post! I guess you're serious about this thing!

  3. Thanks K--it does seem like a nice milestone!

  4. Congratulations on 500!

    I can't believe you found so many of these October offerings! Thanks, John.

    Have a great weekend.

  5. Happy 500th, John! (You know, we don't get nearly enough chances to wish our friends a happy 500th.)

  6. Congrats on 500 posts! Woowee!
    That Jellyroll Morton rag makes me want to drag out my old vinyl copy of "The Sting" (and watch the dvd).
    Great selection here, John. Thanks for working to put it together for us to enjoy.

  7. Hi Karen & Sandra & Kat:

    Belated thanks for your kind words. We've been away, & internet-less!


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