Ry, Ray, Bobby, Hank, 5000 Country Music Songs (And Thank You 50,000 times!)

‘I wake up in the morning and I wonder,
Why everything’s the same as it was,
I can’t understand, No I can’t understand,
How life goes on the way it does’.

(Arthur Kent/Sylvia Dee ‘The End Of The World’)

‘Life has its little ups and downs
Like ponies on a merry-go-round.
And no one plants the green grass every time’

(Charlie Rich)

There will be no end to the making of country music songs. For the blood and guts themes real country songs deal with will remain central to our human experience until the sun’s light is finally dimmed some six billion years from now.

The winning, holding onto and losing of love – along with lust and the demands and urges of loyalty and longing are the currency of a genre which speaks to the hard grind of our daily existence and the dreams that carry us through the inevitable peaks and troughs of our passage through life. No one plants the green grass every time.

The protagonist of our anchor song today, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ by Ry Cooder, believes in the power of the country song to connect with the truths of life and that one day Ray Price or Bobby Bare might just record one of his stack of returned to sender songs : ‘You’re bound to get you one just wait and see’ says the concerned rural route mailman.

Still he always had the support of the bride he married in 1963, ‘Honey I’m feelin’ something there’ and together they kept their dreams warmly alive in their old house trailer out in the countryside. In the country you can live free and as you sit in your rusty old Cadillac ideas for country songs will surely materialise just like they did to the greatest country songwriter of all – Hank Williams.

So week by week, month by month, year after year, the envelopes were mailed off to Nashvile town where country songs were sorted to separate the hit wheat from the unrecordable chaff. Despite his wife’s steadfast support he couldn’t quite work up the courage to approach the great Ray Price when he came through town. Sometimes we just can’t fill the shoes of our ambitions.

Now a song taken on by Bobby Bare would surely lead you somewhere but it seems Bobby never got to hear any of the 5000 songs – though not for want of trying. But, at home in the trailer love flourished so that his wife in a death bed scene worthy of a John Ford movie can make a last request – ‘Sing me something in your real old style, the one I like to hear Bobby Bare passed by, I’ll just close my eyes and rest a while’. And so, in the trailer in the shade of the big old tree amid the scent of the honeysuckle vine with tender harmony provided by the mockingbird he sings his heart out as her heart beats its last.

Now he wakes up in the morning to a world outside the window that looks the same but is now filtered with tears in the monochrome of grief. As the flies buzz around the rusty Cadillacs he knows that what made their home sweet home was not a building or classic cars but the love they shared throughout the years when 4999 country songs were sent back from Nashville town to gather dust. Now, it’s time to pack up those song words and the old guitar and throw away the key.

Of course, it turns out, as we hear above, that song number 5000 would be one that Ray Price would break your heart with. And, surely good old Bobby Bare, a man with a reputation for spotting songs that promise to be jukebox classics would have picked this one out of the pile and said, ‘This one’s a keeper!’

Ry Cooder gives the song a beautifully understated reading that allows all the emotion contained within the story to naturally present itself to the listener. Ry Cooder’s career has encompassed virtually every aspect of roots music, movie soundtracks and international collaborations. The connecting thread is a wonderfully sympathetic musicianship alert to and respectful of the demands of the song at hand.

Ry Cooder records tell truthful human stories brought to life most thrillingly through his eloquent rhythm and slide guitar playing, which though capable of grandstanding, usually operates in a ruminative conversational tone which draws the audience in to savour all the song has to offer. Recently, he has added startling songwriting prowess to his instrumental virtuosity to round out an already very considerable talent.

Finally, as, ‘5000 Country Music Songs’ plays on the Immortal Jukebox, somewhere in the back seat of a celestial Cadillac the shade of Hank Williams will take his hat off and join in the chorus:

‘You can take what you want after I’m gone,
It’s only just a little place that we call home, sweet home
One old house trailer, two rusty Cadillacs and 5000 country music songs.’

Thank You 50,000 times:

I am amazed and delighted that the Immortal Jukebox has now had some 50,000 views since it began at the end of March last year. A huge thank you to every reader for taking the time to visit here. I hope checking out what’s new on the Jukebox has become a good habit!

There’s many, many more treats in store so as the great Hank said, ‘If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll see you soon’.

Jesse Fuller – The Lone Cat

‘Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.’ (Viktor Frankl)

‘I was leaving the south to fling myself into the unknown … I was taking a part of the South to transplant … To see if it would grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps to bloom.’ (Richard Wright)

‘It took me a whole week one time when I wasn’t doing anything, and I made the thing I call the Fotdella in my back room. I just got the idea lying’ in my bed one night, just like I write songs. I lie down on the bed and write songs at night. I thought about doing’ something like that (the Fotdella) so that I could have something to go along with me and help me out instead of another fellow. I just took some Masonite, heated some wood in hot water and rounded it off around a wheel. I learned that in the barrel factory where I used to work – that the way they do the staves. I tried to use bass fiddle strings, but they don’t sound so good, they stretch out of tune so I use piano strings. My wife named it the Fotdella because I play it with my foot, like, ‘Foot diller’ (Jesse Fuller)

There are very few jobs that I have really and truly coveted in my life. But, I have to say that I deeply envy the Director of the august institution that is the Smithsonian Museum. Obviously the museums comprise one of world’s great scholarly centres and acts as the custodian of millions of scrupulously catalogued treasures illuminating our understanding of human history in innumerable field of endeavour – so heading it up would be a major task.

To fortify myself each morning, before drowning in emails and meetings, I would take a tour of the popular culture exhibits. I would linger over Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and gaze longingly at the Fonz’s leather jacket and just stop myself from sitting down in Archie Bunker’s chair. But, I would stop and look longest at Jesse Fuller’s Fotdella – his unique foot operated percussion bass that added so much to his signature one man band sound. I would then go back to my office and play very loudly (for who is going to tell the Director to keep it down!) Jesse Fuller’s, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ and know for certain that I would be able to keep smiling all day!

You will probably, if you’re anything like me, want to play the above track several times in a row until you’re word perfect and have figured out how to do the correct buck and wing steps to accompany your own and Jesse’s vocals. It’s now too late to warn you that Jesse Fuller’s music is seriously addictive. Nothing for it but to ask your preferred record dealer to rush you a copy of the CD, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ on the Original Blues Classics label from 1963 which is a beautifully compiled programme of his front rank repertoire.

Jesse didn’t make a record until 1958 when he was all of 62 years old. But from then on he brought to his records, before he died in 1976, songs and performances filled to the brim with dignity, quizzical humour, instrumental virtuosity and sheer effervescent love of life. He also brought the lessons he had learned from a life abundant with such trial, tribulation and adventure that it would take a movie starring a black Charlie Chaplin to do justice to it!

Jesse was born in Jonesboro, Georgia in 1896. Before he settled in Oakland California in 1929 he had worked, rambled and hoboed all around the country working in a bewildering variety of jobs to keep body and soul together. He had left the Jim Crow South as soon as possible in search of safety, independence and the promise of a better future. His early experiences had been very harsh as he had been farmed out to brutal, abusive ‘foster parents’ following the death of his mother before he was 10.

Hitting the road he worked in the circus, on the railroads, in back breaking quarries, turpentine and levee camps and the aforementioned barrel factory. All the while he was learning and performing songs gleaned from vaudeville and medicine shows, camp meetings, store front churches and the army of itinerant bluesmen and songsters who always appeared anyplace where black folks had a spare dollar to spend on booze and entertainment.

Jesse performed as a one man band because it meant he did not have to rely on anyone else to make a show happen. He performed with a 12 string guitar and a neck rack incorporating a kazoo, harmonica and microphone as well as a hi-hat cymbal and his own Fotdella to create a true full band sound coming from a single individual.

Similarly, his repertoire was a virtual compendium of the black musical heritage of the mid twentieth century to which he added his own distinctively intelligent and charming songs. So, Jesse performed Jazz tunes, children’s songs, work songs, spirituals, vaudeville recitations, hillbilly heartbreakers, instrumental party pieces and just about any kind of music that would hold and win an audience long enough for them to realise they should definitely put something substantial in the hat once he had finished.

Listen here to his wonderfully articulated guitar work on, ‘John Henry’ one of the staples of the black tradition and you will understand that though there were novelty act elements to Jesse Fuller that did not mean that he was anything less than a very fine musician and a performer who winningly brought his own thought through style to every number he took on.

Jesse knew how to work an audience. Maybe he had learned a little of that from his improbable time in Hollywood. It seems that in the early 1920s he had operated a shoe shine or hot dog stand outside the film studios and he had been befriended by none other than Douglas Fairbanks Jnr who managed to get Jesse some work as an extra on, ‘The Thief Of Bagdad’ and, ‘East Of Suez’ (honestly I’m not inventing this to spice up a life that’s rich enough already!).

For many years after his move to Oakland he worked in the ship yards with music a useful side line. It wasn’t until 1950 or so with work drying up that he gave music his full attention. He soon found an enthusiastic audience in the Bay area not least among sharp eared young folk/blues revivalists like Rambling Jack Elliott who would carry songs like, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ to the nations’ clubs and coffee houses where legions of would be Woody Guthries listened and learned.

As the 50s progressed he began to widen his circuit and venues like the Ash Grove in LA resounded to his music. By 1959 he had made his first record and featured at the Monterey Jazz Festival which led through the good offices of England’s Chris Barber to an enthusiastically received tour of the United Kingdom and Europe. He would tour the UK very successfully again in 1966 even playing at the top of the newly opened London landmark the Post Office Tower. Everywhere that Jesse played he took everything in his stride – a lone cat with sharp senses and a true sense of self worth.

Below, with his exuberantly thoughtful and comical song, ‘The Monkey And The Engineer’ you can hear Jesse play with his audience to rousing effect.

Jesse Fuller’s songs with their relaxed yet jaunty authority were manna for the young roots musicians coming up in the early 1960s. It’s clear that the young Bob Dylan’s harmonica style was influenced by Jesse and Dylan faithfully tipped his sailor’s cap by featuring Jesse’s, ‘You’re No Good’ on his 1962 debut album. Eric Clapton, Paul MacCartney, Richie Havens and The Grateful Dead have all doffed their headgear in similar fashion.

I am always planning, in some part of my mind, the cultural, ‘must- sees’ on my next American trip. One flag that’s firmly pinned into that itinerary is Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland where I plan to make my own salute to the late, great Lone Cat – Jesse Fuller thanking him for the joyous life affirming music that was his gift to us all.

I think I would at first hear in my head his lovely version of ‘Where Would I Go But To The Lord’ as heard below which would seem appropriate to the setting.

However, I’m sure before I bid my last farewell I would have to launch into my own ebullient version of, ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ with a little soft shoe shuffle thrown in as my own tribute to a wonderful artist.

One more time, ‘Walking with my baby down by the San Francisco Bay ……’

The Immortal Jukebox A10: Petula Clark – Downtown

‘A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose meaning will always remain elusive.’ (E. B. White, ‘Here is New York’)

‘The city as we imagine it, then, soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration and nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.’.
(Jonathan Raban, ‘Soft City’)

‘One belongs in New York instantly. One belongs to it as much in five minutes as five years’. (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Downtown, things will be great when you’re Downtown … Don’t wait a minute more … ‘
(Tony Hatch, ‘Downtown’)

Cities have been the great engines for transforming human lives. In that nowhere where you lived before your life was blocked, locked down and you were as good as locked up. When you looked in the mirror back there you saw the person you were told you were – not the person you knew you could be, the person you really were, if only you could be released into that wondrous life waiting for you just outside the central station of the fabled city.

In the city, above all in New York City, you can forge a new identity and show the world (and yourself) what you are really made of. Welcome to the Big Leagues! In this supreme cultural crucible whatever talent, determination and willpower you possess or can summon up will be tested and proved to acclaim or destruction. What could be more thrilling!

Now when everyone knows your name it won’t be because they knew your dad it will be because of what you have done yourself. Somewhere in the milling crowds among the roaring traffic’s boom illuminated by the brightest lights you’ve ever seen there’s an, ‘In Crowd’ who will recognise you as one of them. Here, there’s a new home for you – the one you dreamed you would find and make for yourself. Somewhere where you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares – Downtown.

Petula Clark’s, ‘Downtown’, written and produced by Tony Hatch, is a gloriously joyful anthem to the promise of the city, an anthem of 1960s optimism when all the frontiers seemed to be opening up to youthful adventurers. It’s one of those records that you can’t deny – a gold plated smash from the moment the percussive piano introduction emerges from the speakers. The song then builds and builds melding pure pop pizazz with a broadway scale orchestration suavely capturing the attention and winning the allegiance of every available audience from those aged from eight to eighty.

Tony Hatch recorded the song with all the musicians playing together, with Petula Clark singing live, to create an intoxicating ambient sound that demands you immerse yourself in it. The huge sound of the record is produced by a string section including 8 violinists, 2 violas and 2 cellos, with a punchy brass section of 4 trumpeters and 4 trombonists. Added to this there are; flutes and oboes, bass, percussion (dig that triangle!), piano, a vocal group (The Breakaways) and the three top session guitarists of the day – Big Jim Sullivan, Vic Flick and Jimmy Page (whatever happened to him?).

I especially love the drum sound – the work of big band veteran Ronnie Verell. Ronnie was a listening drummer. Here on the verses he has a lovely light touch before he kicks in with a socking snare backbeat on the choruses. His drums are powerful but never overpower his fellow musicians. Much of the credit for the organic unity of the record must be due to Tony Hatch in the producer’s chair with crucial assistance from his trusted team of arranger and conductor Bob Leaper and recording engineer, Ray Prickett.

Of course what sells the record above all is Petula Clark’s utterly charming, quintessentially English vocal, which manages to be beautifully controlled while embodying both mature reflection and dizzying excitement; with every word of the fluent lyric being enunciated perfectly so that you can commit, ‘Downtown’ to memory from the very first time you hear it. Add to that Petula’s wholesome good looks and winning vivacity and you have a package that works everywhere from Paris to Portland to Potsdam!

No wonder it was a No 1 record in the US and a worldwide multi-million selling hit as well as winning a Grammy and an Ivor Novello award. Tony Hatch and Petula recorded many very fine songs, together and separately, but, ‘Downtown’ will always be THE ONE.

Yet the story behind its creation shows that hits frequently owe as much to fate and happenstance as they do calculation. In late 1964 Petula Clark, though she was selling records by the truckload in France, was, with her producer and chief songwriter/producer Tony Hatch, desperate to turn around a two year run of records that had flopped in the UK. Seeking new sure fire material Hatch went to New York, no doubt to the Brill Building, the legendary songwriting factory which was seemingly the fount of early 60s pop smashes and returned with a quiver full of potential hits.

While he was in the city Hatch went for a stroll and at the corner of 48th Street looking towards Times Square a piano melody ran through his head which he heard as perhaps the basis of an R&B Doo-Wop style ballad that he might pitch to the Drifters. The lyric fragment he had was the single word, ‘Downtown’.

Waiting back in London Petula Clark, who was in her early 30s, was hoping Hatch would return with some songs that would kickstart her UK pop career again. Petula had been a fixture on the UK show business scene since she was discovered as a 9 year old radio singing sensation in the early years of World War Two. She was then taken to the hearts of the British people being seen by those in the forces as everyone’s favourite daughter or little sister and by everyone else as that cute girl with the curly blonde hair. Post war she had triumphed on radio, TV, film and the stage seemingly working round the clock to become the proverbial all round entertainer. But, by the early 60s she wanted to spread her wings and prove that she was ready to join the emerging world of modern pop with energy and √©lan – if only she could find songs with more youthful vigour.

The songs Tony Hatch presented to Petula on his return from New York did not pass that test! She pressed him – surely he had one of his own songs that would light up the radio dials? Reluctantly, because he was chary of presenting the barest sketch of a song, he played her the piano melody and hummed along with the word Downtown cropping up as the hook. Immediately, Petula told him that he should concentrate on finishing this song; for with a good lyric and a strong arrangement she was sure this was a fine song that might well be the one they had been looking for for so long. Apparently Tony Hatch didn’t finish the lyric until the last half hour before recording while the mini army of musicians set up in the studio. Yet, on October 16th 1964 everything came together to produce an unstoppable pop classic that surely had No 1 written all over it!

Except the powers that be at UK Pye Records didn’t hear it that way. Instead it was Joe Smith from Warner Bros in the US who had the pop intelligence to spot that with the right promotion this song would definitely appeal to the home audience precisely because it was an outsiders romantic idealisation of the American city delivered by an artist with the right mixture of likeablity, talent and determination to win a loyal fan base. Fifteen consecutive top 40 US hits showed Joe was right in spades!

‘Downtown’ never grows old. The best compliment to the song I’ve come across was provided by Leo Moran of the Irish good time band The Saw Doctors who observed:

‘One night for no particular reason we did Downtown and you could see people loved it. All ages. You could see it brought joy to people’s faces.’

That will do for me as a definition of what great pop songs can do. And, have no doubt about it, Petula Clark’s Downtown is a great pop song. So all together now:

‘… The lights are much brighter there, You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares
So go Downtown ……’

Notes:

Petula Clark en Francais:

Following a tremendously well received concert at the Paris Olympia in 1957 Petula found a new audience and a husband, Claude Wolf. The French were delighted by the way she sang in their language and have supported her ever since. Look out for, ‘Romeo’, ‘Ya Ya Twist’ and ‘Chariot’ among her many successes in France.

Incidentally, Downtown was a massive hit in France under the title, ‘Dans le temps’. In Italy it was, ‘Ciao Ciao’ and in Spain, ‘Chao Chao’. Everywhere it was released, whatever it was called, it was a huge hit!

Vic Flick:

When I mention the great guitarist Vic Flick most people say they have never heard of him. Yet I guarantee that unless you have been living in a cave for the last 50 years or so you have heard Vic! For whenever you watch a James Bond movie and you groove along to the irresistible guitar riff first heard in Dr No its Vic you’re listening to!

Glenn Gould and Downtown:

The great classical pianist Glenn Gould may well be the ultimate example of the eccentric musical genius in modern times. Yet, he produced one of the landmark recordings of the 20th century in his performance of Bach’s, ‘Goldberg Variations’. In addition he had the good sense to be a very enthusiastic fan of Petula Clark and Downtown in particular. You may enjoy seeking out the essays he wrote about the song and singer and there are clips available of him lauding the record on his excellent radio shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.

Hiding In Shadows – The Way We Make A Broken Heart

‘No adultery is bloodless’ (Natalia Ginzburg)

‘Adultery is in most cases a theft in the dark.’ (Stefan Zweig)

‘To borrow against the trust someone has placed in you costs nothing at first. You get away with it, you take a little more and a little more until there is nothing more to draw on. Oddly, your hands should be full with all that taking but when you open them there’s nothing there.’. (Jeanette Winterton)

‘There must be millions just like you and me, practiced in the art …’
(John Hiatt from, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’)

The human heart is about the size of a large fist and usually weighs about 10 ounces. Throughout each twenty four hours of light, half-light, near dark and dark your heart will beat some 100,000 times and if you are lucky enough to live a long life it will beat on and on three billion times and more.

Beyond its anatomical functions the heart has had, in virtually all cultures, a central place in human beings understandings and puzzlements about why we live the way we do: sometimes behaving honourably and faithfully sometimes turning away to wilfully betray our deepest loyalties.

The theme of love found, love lost and love betrayed has been a constant subject in all forms of art since the first cave dwellers palm painted their walls. Singers and songwriters have found that a truthful song about the twisted dance of the human heart as expressed in our carnal and marital relationships never fails to find an audience which will recognise their own story or one of someone they know all too well.

Artists within the Country and Soul genres, speaking as they do to adult audiences, have specialised in forensically examining the sorrow and the shame, the exultation and the guilt, the secrets, lust, lies and conspiracies involved in those trysts conducted in the shadows away from the homes and marriages where the spurned spouse sleeps unknowingly with their heart beating steadily on.

Roseanne Cash’s version of John Hiatt’s, ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’, featured above, was a number 1 single on the US Country charts in 1987. The song had originally appeared on Ry Cooder’s superb 1980 album, ‘Borderline’.

John Hiatt in this song carefully delineates a virtual users guide or manual for those locked in the throes of an illicit affair. The song recognises that the fruits of the passion shared by the protagonists are wormwood for the third party and come at high cost for all concerned. The song speaks of guilt, sorrow, lies and a trail of tears and ruefully acknowledges that the cycle may be unstoppable, ‘She’ll find somebody new and he’ll likely hurt her too’. However, it must be allowed that this perception may be the self-justifying shrug of a repeat offender who cannot believe others might follow a straighter path.

Still the affair must play out its painful course. Passion and longing are the drivers for the affair and once the strings are attached all must play their part whether they are willingly cast or not. In all affairs there is longing; longing to experience once again the white hot flame of addictive lust, longing to become again the person who inspires lust in another, longing for the thrilling possession of the shared secret knowledge of new lovers.

In the song we are in the shadows where lights are low and where on some dark night the lights will be forever dimmed on this affair. The song flatly advises that you get used to telling lies and intimates that the sorrow felt when the tears fall becomes ritualised rather than truly felt. The song may reveal the protagonist as an unreliable narrator who reveals more about himself, to his discredit, than he assumes in the telling of his tale. Hiatt’s reverence for the short stories of Raymond Carver may be making their influence felt here.

Roseanne Cash was at the height of her commercial success in 1987 racking up hit after hit: demonstrating that her success was due to far more than the help having her father’s name had given her initial steps in the music business.

Roseanne sings Hiatt’s song and makes it her own giving it an almost hysterical force in the live version shown here. Her lovely silver bell like voice rings out making every word strike home to do its emotional work on the listener. The arrangement and instrumentation take the song, given a soul/R&B flavour on the original recording, to the Tex/Mex borderlands emphasising the lyrical ballad like shape of the song and giving it a delirious dance rhythm.

It feels as if Roseanne is singing the song to herself as she twirls and twirls around a hardwood floor becoming giddier and giddier as she circles. Perhaps that’s why she lets loose with those intoxicating, ‘Ay, Ay, Ays’ as the song draws to a close. The hangover can, as she knows it must, kick in tomorrow! Tonight it’s a time to dance.

The pleasures and the pain of an affair are inextricably intertwined and this song and this performance bring both facets alive before us. How we hear the song will, of course, be partly determined by our own histories. We all have lessons to learn.

Roseanne Cash:

Roseanne has a distinguished catalogue which shows a highly intelligent woman building upon her considerable gifts as a writer and singer to create works of enduring musical merit and emotional impact. I particularly recommend the albums, ‘Seven Year Ache’ (for the announcement of a real talent), ‘King’s Record Shop’ (for its maturity and the luminous version of, ‘Runaway Train’) and two albums of beautiful but brutally honest and painful introspection, ‘Interiors’ and, ‘The Wheel’.

In the last decade Roseanne has produced a triumphant trio of records, ‘The List’, ‘Black Cadillac’ and, ‘The River And The Thread’ which show an artist at the height of her powers able to honour her family and regional heritage and face head on the sorrows and griefs which assail every life in songs of deep craft and humanity. She has also written an affecting memoir, ‘Composed’ to add to her earlier short story collection, ‘Bodies Of Water’. I think we can safely, at this point, refer to Roseanne Cash as a Woman in full.

John Hiatt:


John Hiatt is a top drawer songwriter and performer who has written a cache of songs including the song featured above which have been recognised by fellow practitioners like Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan as modern standards.

Chief among these is the song, ‘Across The Borderline’ which uses the Rio Grande border as a metaphor for the borders we all long to cross while remaining fearful that the promised dream may turn out not to be the gateway to the future we have fondly imagined.

For, we know or dread, that the promises we believe in or make to ourselves can often be broken by our own fallibility or the malevolence of fate.
There are wonderful versions for you to seek out by Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Freddy Fender and Willy Deville (who also does a characteristically dramatic version of ‘The Way.. ‘).

Each artist covering the song brings their own understanding of the history and promises involved in the ballad to the microphone – its a song that asks questions of each singer who takes it on.

John Hiatt’s songs are the product of a highly literate imagination tuned into the rhythms and routines of the victories and defeats of everyday life as lived in communities and towns in modern America. They are principally set in the South where the accents are rich and stories and myths abound to be told and retold.

Some of his songs have a pickup out of control on a country road propulsion (Tennessee Plates’ ) and some have a woody back porch lyricism (Lipstick Sunset). All his best songs have wit and sharp observation incarnated in well honed lyrics. Hiatt is a hymnist of scarred blue collar lives giving them their due weight in careful description and emotional drama.

Recommended CDs – ‘Bring The Family’, ‘Slow Turning’, ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’, ‘Open Road’ and, ‘Anthology’ are my picks though a trawl through his extensive catalogue will undoubtedly find you adding your own choices to this list

An Archangel, A Journey, A Sacred River, The Folk Process and A Spiritual!

Or, to put it another way:

Four takes on, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’

‘… They were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish.’ (Frederick Douglas)

‘And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great Prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as there never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, everyone shall be found written in the book.

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’.
(Book of Daniel Chapter 12 King James Version)

‘Jordan River is deep and wide, hallelujah.
Meet my mother on the other side, hallelujah
Jordan River is chilly and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, Hallelujah!’

I began my journey through primary education in the late 1950s with the good Nuns (and they were good Nuns) of the Convent of St Edwards in Paddington, London; which, though I was unaware of it at the time, was a only a couple of hundred yards from EMI’s Abbey Road Studios soon to be made famous by four lads from Liverpool.

I was a pupil at St Edwards from 1959 until the brutal (by UK standards) Winter of 1962/63 when our family made the move to leafy, suburban Harrow. I have two particularly vivid memories of my time at St Edwards. First, the disturbing thrill of reading a children’s version of the great Anglo-Saxon poem, ‘Beowulf’ and somehow realising that there was a magical transformative power in poetry and that this was a doorway to another life – the life of the imagination.

Second, I remember the hush that descended as we carefully placed our pens in our ink wells and settled down to listen to the Schools Music Programme Service of the BBC. The cloth covered radio speaker sat high on the class wall, out of reach of curious hands and from its cavernous depths there emerged songs and tunes which would lodge deep, deeper than I could ever have imagined, into my consciousness.

I remember listening to such works as: Stephen Foster’s, ‘Camptown Races’, the nursery rhyme, ‘Lavender Blue Dilly Dilly’, the rustic folk songs from the North East of England, ‘Bobby Shafto’ and ‘When The Boat Comes In’, the royally penned English anthem, ‘Green Sleeves’ and the American ballad (indeed a murder ballad!), ‘Tom Dooley’. These songs emerging from the mysterious ether entered my blood stream and permanently took up residence becoming as familiar as my own hands in front of me.

Above all I recall listening to and singing lustily along to a song I was told was a, ‘Spiritual’ called, Michael Row The Boat Ashore’. Something in this song from the Civil War era in America caught and permanently held my attention so that eventually I am now moved to trace its history and present several versions here on the Jukebox.

Spirituals are a marvellous example of American invention blending of several streams of cultural history to create something vivid, vital and new. Spirituals emerged from the black slave community as a thrilling synthesis of religious, physical and political experience. They frequently concern a downtrodden peoples journey, in hope and faith, from exile to salvation and deliverance in a promised land where the righteous will be reunited with their stolen families and departed loved ones.

In an act of supreme creativity Christian hymns and biblical texts were yoked to ancient African singing styles and melodic accents to produce something truly new and culturally particular. Spiritual are the primary artefacts of the enormous African-American contribution to modern American popular culture.

We shall never know when, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ was composed or who it’s author was. But, we can say that the first historical record we have of it comes from the 1867, ‘Slave Songs Of The United States’ collection by Charles Pickford Ware, William Francis Allen and Lucy McKim Garrison. It seems that Ware first heard the song and transcribed a version during his stay on St Helena Island, South Carolina while he oversaw the plantations abandoned by fleeing Confederates in 1862.

‘Michael’ along with other spirituals (many collected from slaves Wallace and Minerva Wills by the Reverend Alexander Reid) such as, ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ and, ‘Steal Away To Jesus’ we’re popularised both in America and Europe from the 1870s by Nashville’s Fisk University Jubilee Singers through highly successful concert tours and a best selling songbook.

Spirituals began to be adopted as folk songs and vehicles of social solidarity and protest from the 1930s onwards by idealistic young white and black singers and musicians as part of what has come to be known as the, ‘Folk Revival’. For many white artists their initial encounters with the cultures evoked in black Spirituals and blues and the Appalachian instrumental and ballad traditions proved nothing less than a deeply affecting and transformative conversion experience from which they never wished to recover!

Songs that would form the Folk Revival songbook were carried and passed on, transmitted, in many different ways. In the curled pages of old ballad books, across the smoky campfire, hanging in the air of the chapel and echoing from the store front church. Some from the blues tradition were half-heard among the din of the honky-tonk, the shebeen and the jazz dive. Some were learned at the knee from the elders, some from local and travelling ne’er do wells, some overheard from the parlour radio, some blasted out from speeding cars and neon bright Jukeboxes. A good song will find a way to be heard and sung.

Pete Seeger, whose ‘Plain Folks’ and almost schoolmasterly sing a long version of Michael as featured above was a key figure in the folk revival through his indefatigable worldwide touring and his membership of important groups such as the Almanac Singers and The Weavers. Pete, who collaborated on the writing and/or popularisation of the folk standards, ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’, ‘If I Had A Hammer’ and the Civil Rights anthem, ‘We Shall Overcome’ quickly saw the potential in, ‘Michael’ when he learned it from Tony Saletan in the early 1950s.

Everywhere Pete went he sang the song and seeded a thousand folk music careers from his audiences at colleges, camp fire meetings and union rallies. For Pete, fighting the good fight with every breath in his body, songs were working tools to promote social solidarity and change. If you want to learn the basic repertoire of the folk revival Pete, with his no frills style and transparent sincerity, generosity and commitment is your only man!

Coming from a privileged academic and religiously rigorous family Pete became for over seven decades a warrior for truth, justice, peace, civil rights and the environment armed only with a long necked banjo and endless faith in the people and the future. With characteristic eloquence Barrack Obama eulogised him as, ‘America’s tuning fork’ and thanked him for, ‘… Reminding us where we come from and where we need to go’.

I think the Archangel Michael would easily have recognised the lanky, upright figure carrying a banjo who waded across the Jordan at the end of January 2014!

Listening to Pete Seeger in concert and hearing ‘Michael’ on the radio in the early 1960s was an impossibly handsome and talented young black American of Caribbean heritage called Harry Belafonte who would go on to have an extraordinary career as a singer, actor and humanitarian.

Harry’s version has a gospel fervour and burns with political commitment. Harry was a remarkably fluent and versatile performer who could sell any type of song with beguiling charm. His breakthrough Calypso and live at Carnegie Hall records were multi million sellers that took up residence in American Hi-Fi cabinets throughout the nation. Harry loved the limelight and was an authentic show business Prince but behind the scenes he was also a very important and influential figure in the civil rights movement. He was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King providing the bail money to get MLK out of Birmingham Jail and the insurance policy that provided for his widow after his death. In addition he quietly financed the Freedom Riders campaign that sought to increase voter registration from the black community and challenge head on the worst excesses of the bull headed, bull necked, Jim Crow South.

In light of this it is no surprise that Harry’s, ‘Michael’ enjoins its listeners, as they wait for the Archangel to row the boat ashore, to, ‘Hold that line in Arkansas’ and trumpets the message that, like Joshua at Jericho, Alabama will be the next to go. As for Mississippi, while the buses speed south, it’s time to kneel and pray. In my estimation, Harry Belafonte is a very fine artist but an even greater man.

Our third take on,’Michael’ is provided by Johnny Rivers: a much underestimated artist who had an unerring ear for a fine song and the ability to perform material from widely differing genres with an attack and flair that saw him rack up 17 top 40 hits from 1964 to 1977 including the gorgeous number 1 ballad, ‘Poor Side of Town’ and iconic driving rockers like, ‘Memphis’ and, ‘Secret Agent Man’.

Johnny’s residency at the Whisky A Go Go club in Hollywood drew a loyal crowd, including numerous rock luminaries, who recognised that Johnny had a rock and roll heart and a killer band. On record his band included stellar figures from the LA, ‘Wrecking Crew’ stable including Hal Blaine on the drums, Joe Osborn on bass and Larry Knetchel on keyboards.

A Johnny Rivers record never out stays its welcome and I usually find, as with this storming take on, ‘Michael’ that I’m reaching for the repeat button as soon as the first second of silence hits me when the record finishes.

The final version of, ‘Michael’ I have chosen comes from the very hard working and productive roots music missionary, Eric Bibb. Eric grew up at the epicentre of the folk revival in the early 1960’s – New York CIty’s Greenwich Village. He was very well connected in this world with his father Leon being an actor and singer, his uncle John Lewis being a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet and his godfather being none other than Paul Robeson!

Eric, born in 1951, began to perform in his early teens and was making his recording debut by his middle twenties. He has proved a very deft artist who is at home in the gospel, folk and blues traditions. At his best, as on the version of, ‘Michael’ above he achieves a kind of meditative grace that searches out the heart and soul of a song so that a work you have heard a thousand times can suddenly appear fresh and alive with new potential and meaning.

A song, a Spiritual, a folk anthem, a testament to the human spirit, like, ‘Michael Row The Boat Ashore’ will never run dry. For we will always hope that we will meet again with our loved ones who have already crossed the Jordan. Downtrodden peoples will always need to have faith that there is indeed salvation and deliverance ahead even if it often seems so very far away.

Finally, Most of us will hope that when we step gingerly into eternity’s boat that our ferryman will be the Archangel Michael and that he will carry us safely home across the chilly and cold Jordan River.

This post dedicated to Sister Calasanctius, Sister Mary Monica and Sister Mary Mildred who were all extremely kind and indulgent to a quiet boy who seemed forever lost in dreams of poetry and songs when he should have been paying attention to arithmetic and his times tables!

One Degree of Bob Dylan:

Unsurprisingly given their association with the Folk Revival and the hectic days of the early 1960s all the above artists have connections with Bob Dylan, the Keeper of American Song.

Pete Seeger was an early and passionate advocate for the young Bob’s exploding talents and he helped to open doors and make introductions to key figures in the Big Apple’s folk elites.

Harry Belafonte had a unknown Bob play harmonica on, ‘Midnight Special’ marking Bob’s debut on record. In his wonderfully artful and characteristically enigmatic work of autobiography, ‘Chronicles’ Bob pays a very heartfelt, indeed effusive, tribute to Harry:

‘Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist … He had ideals and made you feel you’re part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry.

‘ … Everything about him was gigantic … With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way … Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect.’

Johnny Rivers recorded a fine version of Bob’s magisterial put down song, ‘Positively Fourth Street’. Bob called it the favourite of all versions of his songs and said it was obvious that they were from the same side of town and were from the same musical family.

Eric Bibb came across Bob through his Greenwich Village connections. In one of his first bands he played with Bill Lee (father of Film Director Spike) who played on Bob’s Freewheeling’ LP sessions. Eric also had a direct meeting with Bob when he was only 11. Apparently Bob advised the precocious Eric that when it came to guitar playing he should, ‘Keep it simple, forget all that fancy stuff’.

Album Of the Year 2014 – Richard Thompson Acoustic Classics

‘We are all falling. See my hand: it bends.
And look at others: It’s in all their calling.
And yet there’s One, who’s holding all this falling
Endlessly tender in his upturned hands .. ‘.

(Rainer Maria Rilke. Translation Walter Aue)

‘ The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness … Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.’

(Anton Chekhov: letter to Alexi Suvorin May 30 1888)

Vocation: A person’s main occupation especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication. From the Latin, ‘Vocare’ – to call’

‘I still have to practice a lot. You have to keep yourself going and moving and then you are going to be looking for new things … You have to keep exploring and finding new shapes and new versions, new melodic ideas. Keep at it all the time.’

(Richard Thompson interviewed by Martin Chilton for The Daily Telegraph February 2013)

Richard Thompson’s latest CD, ‘Acoustic Classics’ is the hard won though lightly borne product of a career that has involved more than forty-five years of ceaselessly seeking to write, perform, record and renew songs that honour the call he has heard to tell stories through his pen, voice and guitar about the thrilling, tender, terrifying and tormented experiences humankind is heir to before that last breath.

‘Acoustic Classics’ contains no new songs yet it is one of the most vital creations of Thompson’s storied and stellar career. It displays his considerable gifts as an artist and can be listened by the casual listener or fellow practitioner as a kind of vade mecum or handbook of the craft of songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.

Given Thompson’s immersion in and importance as a musician within the tradition of British folk music the CD might otherwise be described as a wandering minstrel’s chapbook for the ages containing tales, ballads, jests and fables illuminating the victories, defeats, joys and betrayals of an everyday life that would in its emotional essentials have been as recognisable to Chaucer’s pilgrims as it is to today’s citizens of London, Sao Paolo, Sacramento or Sydney.

Thompson is rightly proud of his songs and one of the purposes of this set is surely through the deft drama of his virtuoso acoustic playing to demonstrate their immense contained spiritual and emotional power without the listener being overwhelmed by the head swirling Sturm und Drang he brings to the electric versions.

One of Thompson’s greatest attributes as a songwriter is his ability to find the right tone and language to describe the characters he presents and the situations they are confronted with. He does not suffer from the besetting sin of so many modern songwriters of wearily reproducing self analytical, fast fading xeroxes of their own emotional states.

He has consistently been able to imagine lives that he might have led, that he could never have led or would never have wanted to lead. He is interested as an observer and as an artist in the dramas of the human condition as expressed in the travails of our endlessly variable capacity to build and/or destroy our relationships with ourselves, each other and our god.

Thompson, as a religious man, is acutely aware of the inevitability of death. As a songwriter he understands that an essential element of the beauty and poignancy of our lives is their fragility. To celebrate life necessarily involves embracing death and relishing the intense pleasures of the moment. There is an affinity here with Thomas Hardy – a certain winter chill of the imagination, a sure consciousness that time has an unflinching rigour that must not be denied.

His reverence for British traditional music has instilled in him a desire to create songs that will last because they speak to the eternal truths of the human condition. Songs that will not be found wanting by the tests of performance and passing time.

Take the example of, ‘Wall Of Death’ which through a deliriously circular melody and lyrical celebration of the pleasures of the fairground slyly hymns the thrill of peering over the cliff edge of life at the unfathomable depths of dark death beyond. To do so feels, ‘the nearest to being free’ so it’s well worth taking your chances when it reminds you of the miracle of every breath. His guitar playing here is springily and increasingly propulsive brilliantly mimicing the dizzy carnival ride.

Thompson had a pronounced stutter as a boy and young man and it was through the guitar that he found a voice that could communicate to the world with a depth, complexity and fluidity denied to him in everyday speech. Throughout the CD his playing though sometimes displaying astonishing technical accomplishment never seems strained or flashy. He has an acute sense of what to play and what not to play. He plays what needs to be played to bring the songs to life.

Thompson’s gifts as a storyteller and witness to the lost and disregarded are given full rein in his wonderful song, ‘Galway to Graceland’ which has the added merit of also being an oblique tribute to Elvis Presley. The song tells the tale of a Galway woman who leaves her marriage and everything about the west coast of Ireland life behind to travel to Graceland in West Tennessee to be with the King. She keeps an obsessive vigil over Elvis’ grave confessing to him the hopes and dreams she has never told anyone else. For, in her mind, they are married (doesn’t she have his ring!) no matter what the world might say. Thompson in his vocal delivery and the balm of his beautifully paced and graceful guitar gives the character her full human respect and dignity so that tears spring to the eyes.

I have been in bars in Ireland where a floor singer sang that song and heard people singing along and yet when I asked them who wrote the song I was told that it was a, ‘traditional song’ which says something for Thompson’s ability to write within and yet extend the territorial reach of the folk song.

The same might be said for his truly classic composition, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’ which has the soothing cadences of a long lost lullaby from another age. I am confident this song will be sung as long as, ‘the moon pulls on the tide’ for it speaks to core human needs; the need to have a confidant, the need to have a hand to hold in the fast falling dark: which can sometimes seem so much more powerful than the light.

We all need to find someone who will recognise our better side. I always feel the lovely line, ‘When all the bonny birds have wheeled away’ is a tip of the hat to his fallen comrade from Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, whose own great sigh of a song, ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ opens with, ‘Across the evening sky all the birds are leaving’. Thompson’s guitar playing on this song has a taste and simplicity that only a considerable artist can achieve.

The CD sound is bright, close and clear having been expertly mixed and mastered by Simon Tassano. You feel as if you are right next to Thompson as his fleet fingers and plectrum coax golden shimmering notes from his guitar. If you are a guitar player you can try to play along and if you have a hundred years of intense study to spare you might yet match him! Throughout his guitar is an eloquent complementary voice to his vocals alternately driving or commenting sometimes obliquely, sometimes ironically, on the action and themes of the songs.

Thompson has chosen the songs to showcase here wisely. So we get the crowd pleasing brilliance of his performance of, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ bringing the motorcycle world of 1950s England to technicolour life not least in the description of the femme fatale of the song, ‘Red hair and black leather – my favourite colour scheme.’ You can almost smell the petrol fumes and be dazzled by the chrome as his guitar playing effortlessly exceeds the speed limit as he climbs Box Hill. Bob Dylan, who knows a thing or two about great songs, recently played this song in concert as a tribute to his fellow songsmith.

There are the songs like, ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ and, ‘Down Where The Drunkards Roll’ in which Thompson captures in a tender but clear eyed way the lives of the boorish and the outcasts trying to make it through another day. The latter song shows an awareness that those in the gutters might just see more of the stars than those who rush through a sober blinkered life. There are songs like, ‘Valerie’, ‘Persuasion’ and, ‘I Misunderstood’ that show how the promises of love can be fulfilled or wring with wrong the deceived and the deceivers hearts.

Thompson knows that many gamblers never draw a hand and that there are sailors aplenty who never leave dry land. He knows that life can be as breathtakingly beautiful but also as fragile as a Bees Wing.

His art is always aware that everyday we are walking on a wire and that sooner or later we will fall. His songs give us courage and heart as we cross.

Tracklist: I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, Walking On A Wire, Wall Of Death, Down Where The Drunkards Roll, One Door Opens, Persuasion,
1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I Misunderstood, From Galway To Graceland, Valerie, Shoot Out The Lights, Beeswing, When The Spell Is Broken, Dimming Of The Day.

This post dedicated to Mike Brosnan – no mean guitar player himself. In our bachelor days we spent many an evening marveling at Richard Thompson’s genius as a guitarist and songwriter while the Whiskey flowed.

Christmas Cornucopia – Twelfth Day

So, at last – the twelfth day of our Sleigh’s journey and it’s Christmas Eve. I hope you have enjoyed the music and reflections on the way here.

I have agonised over the music choices in this series and have a couple of years worth stored up for Christmases to come (you have been warned!). But today’s choices were the first I wrote down and were my inevitable selections for the day before the great Feast.

First, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, with his inimitable spoken word rendition of Clement Moore’s, ‘The Night Before Christmas’. It is safe to say that Bob’s pronunciation of the word ‘Mouse’ has never been matched in the history of the dramatic arts! Of course, in the process of his more than 50 year career Bob has continually been reinventing himself and in so doing has gloriously renewed American culture.

The clip,above comes from his wonderful, ‘Theme Time’ radio show where over a 100 episodes he displayed an encyclopaedic knowledge of twentieth century popular music and a wicked sense of humour. Bob also recorded for the season at hand the deeply heartfelt, ‘Christmas In The Heart’ album which gets better and more extraordinary with every hearing.

It is clear that Bob, who is well aware that it’s not dark yet (but it’s getting there) is consciously rounding out his career by assuming the mantle of the grand old man of American Music tipping his hat to every tradition (hence the upcoming Sinatra covers CD). The only safe thing to say about Bob is that he will have a few surprises for us yet!

Now we turn to Judy Garland with a Christmas song without peer, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. Her singing on this song seems to me to be almost miraculous. It’s as if her singing really came from the secret chambers of the heart all the rest of us keep under guard. No wonder she has such a deep impact on us – we know she is expressing a profound truth about the human condition – our need to love and know we are loved.

Judy Garland paid a high price in terms of personal happiness for living her life and art with such an exposed heart and soul but she fulfilled a vocation given to very few and left an indelible mark on her age and will surely do for aeons to come.

Today, not a poem but the concluding passages from, ‘A Christmas Carol’ by the incomparable Charles Dickens – a writer for all seasons and situations.

‘Hallo!’ growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?

‘I am very sorry, sir’ said Bob, ‘I am behind my time,’
‘You are?’ repeated Scrooge. ‘Yes. I think you are. Step this way, sir, if you please.’
‘It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. ‘It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

‘Now I’ll tell you what my friend, said Scrooge, I am not going to stand that sort of thing any longer. And therefore, he continued, leaping from his stool and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, and therefore I am about to raise your salary!’

Bob trembled and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

‘A merry Christmas Bob! said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. ‘A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!’

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards, and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!

And who am I to do anything other than echo Mr Dickens and Tiny Tim?

So, to all the readers of the Jukebox I wish you a peaceful and joyous feast – however you choose to celebrate it. God bless us, Every One!