Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The (Blues) Christmas Train #4

Wow! The Blues Christmas Train is way behind time today, but it’s chugging into the station at last with three blues tunes for your listening pleasure.

In other news: I’m keeping my fingers crossed a bit on these items, but if all goes as planned there should be another Holiday Song tomorrow & another installment of The (Blues) Christmas Train on Christmas Day. The Holiday Song won’t be featuring the mandolin (as advertised earlier)—that simply didn’t come together, but it will be played on neither the guitar nor the banjo—so stop by tomorrow to check it out. Also, I understand that Platypuss-in-Boots has big plans this week—including a wedding!—so do swing by there to catch up on the adventures of the Big Bed Land gang whenever you need a break from the holiday festivities.

Hope you enjoy the songs!

HOBO BLUES: I tend to favor the old acoustic blues, but I also respect a lot of the blues players generally associated with the “electric” blues sound, & among these there’s no one better than John Lee Hooker. Hooker came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, from the area that fostered such greats as Charlie Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Willie Brown & many others; in fact Hooker saw Patton as an influence.

John Lee Hooker’s guitar style, whether electric or acoustic (as in the accompanying video) is always recognizable—lots of boogie lines on the bass strings, frequent drone notes, the frenetic fills at the end of lines, the urgent triplets. His baritone voice is also remarkable, both from sheer musicality & also in terms of emotional directness. In short, Hooker was among the very best blues artists.

“Hobo Blues” itself is a classic song, as great a song about life on the road as Hank Williams’ better known “Ramblin’ Man.” The first two lines sum up the freedom of this life & the cost of this freedom, in which a man has no attachments either to constrain or comfort him:

When I first start to hoboin’, hoboin’,
I took a freight train to be my friend, oh Lord

We see the singer’s mother accompany him to the freight train yard, praying for his safety; we hear that the next time he hobos, he wants to have his baby by his side, so the night’s won’t be so lonesome.

But enough from me—the song has a stark & compelling beauty that speaks for itself, so check it out. John Lee Hooker: Hobo Blues (Roots)

KASSIE JONES: Everyone knows the legend of Casey Jones, the famous engineer who died in
a train wreck. However, some folks may not know that Casey Jones isn’t merely the stuff of folk tales; he was a real person, an engineer on the Illinois Central line, who died in a train wreck on April 30, 1900. As is so often the case in song & actuality, “many a man has lost his life just trying to make lost time,” & this was Jones’ undoing.

Casey Jones had completed his usual run north to Memphis in the evening of April 29th, when he was asked to double back because another engineer had called in sick. He took Engine 382 south to Canton, Mississippi, but he started 95 minutes behind schedule. Jones apparently was quite determined to get the train in on schedule, & so was “highballing” (running at excessive speeds) the whole way, despite the fact that it was a foggy night. Near Vaughn, MS, the passing tracks were filled with stopped freight trains, & so many cars were involved that some were on the main line. Engine 382 came around a long curve at about 75 miles an hour when Jones’ fireman Sim Webb called, “"Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!” Jones ordered Webb to jump, & then blew the whistle & braked the train, slowing the vehicle from around 75 to about 35 at the moment of impact. Because of this, Jones was the only fatality in the wreck. Interestingly, the line Casey Jones was running is still in use as Amtrak's City of New Orleans line.

There have been a number of songs based on this event, from the well-known folk version popularized by Pete Seeger (the melody of which had been turned into a union song by Joe Hill) to the Grateful Dead’s eulogy of Neal Cassidy on their Workingman’s Dead album. One of the greatest versions of the tune is Furry Lewis’ “Kassie Jones,” which you can hear on The Anthology of American Folk Music (volume 1, Ballads). Lewis’ song doesn’t dwell too much on the wreck, but it’s a great tune with some wonderful guitar fingerpicking.
Furry Lewis: Kassie Jones (Future Noise Music Ltd.)

LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN: This is the first time Robert Johnson has appeared on The
(Blues) Christmas Train, but it won’t be the last. “Last Fair Deal Gone Down” tells about working on the “Gulfport Island Road,” which is the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad. This line carried freight from the docks in Gulfport to the main Illinois Central line, & was in operation from 1850 to 1945, at which point it was absorbed by the Illinois Central Railroad.

Johnson’s guitar work on this tune has always amazed me—the great separation between the damped bass line & the slide work (not to mention the chime-like harmonics in the last verse), the hurtling turnarounds (a musical phrase that takes you from the end of one verse to the beginning of the next) all add great excitement to the accompaniment, & Johnson’s singing is always first-rate. One note: “the captain” is never a benign figure in old blues songs, as the term refers to a white supervisor or work crew overseer.

Sadly, Gulfport suffered severe damage from the 2006 Hurricane Katrina. Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, vol. 1 (Sony)

Pix from Top:
N Scale Model of the CSXT4346 locomotive:
generously released into the public domain by Wiki Commons user William Grimes
Riding an oil car: from the Hobohemia site, which is well worth a visit
3-cent Casey Jones stamp: public domain image from Wikipedia
The Life & Times of the Belmont Line

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  1. Love the sound and feel of Lewis.

  2. Hi Heather: Lewis definitely comes from the general "school" of fingerpicking that you're learning; I think there's quite a bit of him on YouTube--he's well worth checking out!

  3. Really like the John Lee Hooker guitar sound...nice...

  4. Hi Linda: I'm with you 100% on that! Thanks for stopping by.


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