Promised Land Calling

‘The American lives … for his goals, for the future. Life for him is always becoming .. ‘ (Albert Einstein)

‘ To be an American is to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, in so far as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.’ (Leslie Fielder)

‘Well she was an American Girl raised on promises – she couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else’ (Tom Petty)

Americans are always on the move. The road, the river and the very sky above all offer up territory to be travelled through in search of a new life – a fuller, truer life than the life you just happened to be born in.

American lives, at least in the imagination, can always be started again, reborn and remade in a new place in the new world. And, what else but the Promised Land would a bible drenched culture call this fabled home away from home?

Songs about moving on, moving away, moving up and moving forward are a constant theme within the tradition of American song. Many American songwriters like Bruce Springsten and John Fogerty are virtual voyageurs and cartographers of the American spirit sending back enticing reports from the road detailing the wonders and discoveries to be found somewhere beyond the narrow confines of a childhood home’s city limits.

No songwriter in popular music has excelled Chuck Berry in converying a sense of physical and imaginative movement in the very fabric of his compositions.

A Chuck Berry song usually leaps into life like a Coupe de Ville accelerating powerfully, smoothly and thrillingly away from a stop light onto a beckoning open road.

Chuck will take one glance at his rear view mirror but his heart, his mind and his imagination are engaged with the seemingly unlimited promises of the highway over the hill.

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One aspect of his songwriting genius is the way he rhythmicallly marries his words and his melodies so that the songs glide and flow carrying the listeners attention all the while.

A Chuck Berry song always tells a story, often in the great American tradition a tall story, that instantly grabs your attention even as you fasten your seatbelt for the exciting ride ahead. His songs are filed with acute journalistic observations of American life and culture expressed with an artists airy zest and élan.

They are almost immediately memorable and musicians know that played with attack they offer guaranteed approval from any audience, anywhere.

If you don’t love Chuck Berry’s songs you ain’t no rock ‘n’ roller!

Promised Land, one of his last great songs, was written during his unfortunate prison experience in the early 1960s. It seems he needed to borrow an atlas from the prison library to plot the, ‘Poor Boy ‘s’ epic journey across a continent in search of freedom and a better life (a life no doubt mirrored in Chuck’s imagination as the doors clanged shut each prison evening).

The artful use of the atlas is clearly reflected in the mellifluous use of the place names sprinkled throughout the song. The song gleams with life giving detail; the (Grey)hound stranding them in Birminghmam, the Poor Boy sitting pretty above Alberquerque in his Houston bought silk suit, the thirteen minutes waiting time before the jet would arrive at the terminal gate.

We feel we could take over the call back to Tidewater 41009 and tell the folks back home all about Poor Boy’s adventures.

I’ve chosen Johnny Allen’s 1971 deliriously driving Swamp Pop take on the song to play here because it’s a magnificent version and because I love the sound of the accordion (played here by Cajun hero Belton Richard) in overdrive.

This is a version of the song that makes me feel three floors drunk even when I’ve been drinking water all day!

I also feel sure, at least for the duration of the song, that my dancing would surely burn up the hardwood floor of any South Louisiana Honky Tonk lucky enough to have me visiting.

As a special treat I’ m also sharing a storming live version from The Dave Edmunds Band featuring the cream of British Rock n Roll musicians including Andy Fairweather Low and the magnificent Geraint Watkins on accordion.

Geraint, the Celtic Cajun, had been in Johnnie Allen’s band when he toured Britain in the early 1980s and here he brings a wonderful woozy swagger to the song that makes me want to hit replay every time I hear it.

I wonder whether California, the Poor Boy’s Promised Land, really did turn out to be flowing with milk and honey.

For wherever you go you travel with the baggage of your own history. You can change your name and your Zipcode with ease but changing yourself?

But that’s a story and a song theme for another day on the Jukebox.

Today let’s just turn up the dial and revel in the journey …. ‘Left my home in Norfolk Virginia …

Notes:

Johnnie Allen:

Johnnie was christened John Allen Guillot in Rayne Louisiana in 1938. He was a Cajun farm boy with Spanish and French genes and a distinguished musical heritage in that a great uncle was the great accordionist and pioneer recording artist Joseph Falcon (check out his wonderful, ‘Allons a Lafayette’ to transport yourself back to the late 1920s).

He was gigging from his earliest teenage years and proving himself to be an affecting singer. With his band the Krazy Kats from the late 1950s he proved a master of the delicious musical confection called, Swamp Pop’ which built on the Cajun base with seasonings of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and rhythm and blues music. His, ‘Lonely Days and Lonely Nights’ from 1958 is a staple of South Louisiana culture. Throughout the 1960s he pursued his music career while developing a distinguished career in education.

He combines his love and expertise in music and education as the author of two excellent books on Cajun culture, ‘Memories: A Pictorial History of South Louisiana Music’ and, ‘Born To Be A Loser’ a fascinating portrait of the troubled life of the singer and songwriter Jimmy Donley. Johnnie has proved to be a marvellous advocate for his native culture. There is an excellent compilation of his recording history entitled, ‘Promised Land’ on the British Ace label.

Floyd Soileau:

Floyd Soileau is one of the regional independent producers whose musical and commercial awareness were crucial to the rich development of American musical life in the post second world war period. Operating out of Ville Platte as a DJ and record shop owner he had a keen eye for talent and soon his Swallow and Jin labels were producing outstanding traditional French language Cajun records as well as Swamp Pop sides.

Take the time to listen to complications of these labels and you’ll enjoy a hugely enjoyable eduction in Louisiana’s musical culture featuring a roster of legendary talent.

Promised Land – The history of a hit:

Promised Land, Chuck Berry’s song from 1964, was recorded by Johnnie Allen in 1971 and was a regional favourite. In 1974 the ever alert British DJ and author Charlie Gillett issued it in the UK on his Oval label as the lead single on his magnificent compilation of South Louisiana music, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (now available on the Ace label).

Amazingly some 8000 sides were sold enough to approach the outskirts of the singles charts. In 1980 it was reissued through the punk/pub rock label Stiff and again sold well.

1982 saw it issued again as a single and as part of the compilation. Johnnie Allen toured Britain and showed himself to be a winning and dynamic performer. Finally it was included on a catch all Virgin collection called, ‘Country Legends” in 2006. It has now been awarded a gold disc for achieving sales of over a million copies as a single and as part of collections.

Geraint Watkins:

Geraint is a musician I seem to have been watching ever since I discovered the joys of live music in the early 1970s. He is a hugely talented singer, accordionist and keyboard player good enough to play with Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Nick Lowe.

His solo work is filed with deeply felt and beautifully played songs. In particular look out for the incandescent, ‘Only A Rose’ from his superlative CD, ‘In A Bad Mood’.

For all his distinguished service with the music world’s top table artists a part of me will always remember with most affection his time with bar band maestros The Balham Alligators who dispensed crazy Cajun delights week after week in a London music pub I used to frequent, ‘The Hare And Hounds’.

Frequently both the band and audience were very well ‘refreshed’ and evenings phased in a blur of delirious delight. I will never forget and always treasure the sight of Geraint, dressed in shorts and unmatched socks with a sleeping dog at his feet, launching into his own brilliant, ‘Marie Marie’ with the audience roaring him along.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Charlie Gillett.

He was a pioneering popular music historian, a gifted writer and a marvellous radio broadcaster. He was generous in sharing his deep though lightly worn knowledge and he was a ceaseless advocate for the best music whether it was from Tennessee or Timbuktu.

He is the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox and the best teacher and mentor I’ve ever known.

Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘It’s just an ordinary story about the way things go … Round and round nobody knows but the highway goes on forever’ (Rodney Crowell)

‘It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine.’ (Raymond Carver)

I live an ordinary life. So do you.

Yet, I guarantee that if we sat down and talked honestly about the lives we have led, the people we have met, the narrative arc of our lives; including the successes, the mis-steps, the fulfilled and broken dreams, the regrets and the wonders, that we would each think the other has led a truly extraordinary life.

All our lives contain experiences we struggle to understand and come to terms with: unresolved longings, fault lines, tender wounds, hidden scars. In a very real sense we will always remain mysteries to ourselves.

I believe that our attraction to art – to stories and songs – is because the best of them resonate with and go some way to help explain the eternal mystery of why we exist and why we have turned out the way we have.

A great song can be our pilgrim’s companion and staff as we navigate through life’s slalom ride of fate and happenstance while attempting to fashion a connected, meaningful life.

The singer-songwriters featured on the Jukebox today; Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier, share the ability to look compassionately, honestly and unflinchingly at ‘everyday lives’ illuminating them with sharp eyed, flinty, observations and heart rending detail.

These are songs about the dignity and indignities of real lives not adverts for ‘lifestyles’. Popular culture, as these artists demonstrate, can offer far more than mere consumer branding: it can offer us the insights and balm of art we yearn for as we struggle to make it through, or knock off, another ordinary day.

Iris Dement’s early childhood was spent, as the youngest of fourteen children on a tiny island in rural north eastern Arkansas before her father moved the family to California, as millions had done before, in search of work and a better future.

Crucially, she was also raised in the bosom of the Pentecostal Church with a mother who daily sang its sweet consoling hymns as she went about her domestic tasks – a process Iris recreates with tender love in her song, ‘Mama’s Opry’.

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled. Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

Above all, the gospel influence is felt by the listener through her voice: a gloriously cracked country voice that throbs with yearning passion. It’s a voice made to embody intense emotions, a voice that cannot and will not be denied.

At the end of an Iris Dement song I always feel both uplifted and exhausted no matter what the subject of the song because her vocals are freighted with a humanity of heart, flesh, blood, bone and spirit that hits you like a punch to the solar plexus.

A punch that takes away the breath while reawakening you to the miracle of every breath you take.

‘Easy’s Getting Harder Every Day’ is Iris Dement’s finest song and one of the best songs ever written about the passions, dreads and torments involved in living a seemingly ‘everyday’ life’.

The song steadily, plainly and without hysteria or pity presents us with a portrait of a mature, self aware woman struggling to come to terms with the sense of strangled entrapment she feels in her marriage, her job and her community.

The beauty and art of the song lies in the dry eyed simplicity with which the weight of accumulating straws on the back of the protagonist are evoked: the rain, the buzzing alarm clock, the marital conversations and lovemaking reduced to mechanical routine.

The radio mast lights blink on simultaneously highlighting and mocking her dreams of another life with a different name in another town. She knows she will never make it to Couer d’Alene. And yet, though easy’s getting harder every day she carries on.

She carries on.

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity. Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

She has been; an orphaned foundling, a teenage runaway and a street and college student of philosophy. She has known the degredation of addiction and the unremitting daily struggles of recovery. She has been arrested and jailed and also triumphed as a highly successful Cajun ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her her keen intelligence and moral rigour she was storing away these experiences so that when she came to write her own songs she could have no truck with dishonesty or glib sentimentality.

There is an almost brutal matter of factness in many of her songs. She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them. The reader or listener can do do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

‘I Drink’ was played by Bob Dylan on one of his Theme Time Radio Hour radio programmes – an accolade given to very few contemporary songwriters.

Bob, the Keeper of American Song, would have recognised the spare elegance of the song and the craft involved in creating a wholly believable genealogy of alcoholism.

This is not the testament of someone who has won through. It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

The slowly dropping hours and self absorption of the habitual drinker are superbly evoked as the narrator relates the banal details of how he cooks his TV dinner and the flatly acknowledged realisation that the face in the mirror is the same as that of the father silhouetted in the lighter flame a generation earlier.

Mary Gauthier’s words, sung carefully with a court reporters calm and measured clarity, move beyond prose into the realm of folk poetry especially in the nursery rhyme chorus which hits home with the keening knell of pure truth.

As the silence descends at the end of the song you are left bereft and sadly aware of the terrible imprisoning and yet alluring power, for the prisoner, of such cycles of defeat and pain.

Iris Dement and Mary Gauthier with immense skill show us lives that but for fortune any one of us might have led or might be on the way to leading.

Their visions are not comfortable to confront but to avoid such visions is to impoverish our humanity and our moral imaginations.

So Pilgrim, as you listen remember that everyone you meet today and tomorrow is almost certainly in the middle of a much harder battle than you can see.

I dont know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

You can’t go wrong with these artists. All their CDs will repay your time with compound interest.

With Iris Dement I would start with, ‘My Life’ before moving on to, ‘Infamous Angel’, ‘Lifeline’ (a deeply moving gospel set), ‘The Way I Should’ and her latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

With Mary Gauthier I would start with, ‘Drag Queens in Limousines’ and then move on to, ‘Mercy Now’, ‘The Foundling’, ‘Filth and Fire’ and ‘Trouble and Love’.

They are both well represented on YouTube and other sharing sites.

Footnote 30 September 2014:

Many thanks to Mary Gauthier for describing this post as, “Beautifully written” and for alerting her fans to the Jukebox through Twitter.

The Immortal Jukebox A7: Little Richard – Tutti Frutti

‘My heart nearly burst with excitement – I had heard God’. (David Bowie on first hearing Tutti Frutti)

‘Ambition: To Join Little Richard!’ (Entry in Bob Dylan’s High School Yearbook’)

‘It was as if, in a single instant, the world changed from monochrome to technicolour’ (Keith Richards)

Before any truly catyclismic event in world history there are usually foreshadowings and auguries: precursor events that indicate something immense is on its way. I have identified one such sequence in history and set it out below:

In the summer of 1883 in the Sunday Strait between Java and Sumatra the Island of Krakatoa was the location for a volcanic eruption of staggering power. The explosion which destroyed the island was heard in Perth, Australia some 2000 miles away.

It was probably the loudest sound ever heard by humankind as the sky grew dark with rock, ash and pumice.

Tsunamis were generated as the shock wave reverberated seven times around the planet. Weather patterns and temperatures were disrupted for years on a global scale. The explosion was the equivalent of 200 megatonnes of TNT. In comparison the Atom Bomb explosion over Hiroshima was a mere firecracker.

If you were looking for the epicentre of the world’s scientific ferment in 1904 it is unlikely anyone would have settled on the Patent Office in sleepy Bern, Switzerland. Yet it was there that the 25 year old Albert Einstein had an intellectual epiphany.

He realised that mass and energy were not two separate realms but expressions of each other. He expressed this relationship in a beautiful world changing equation (you know, E = MC squared).

This was an epochal, paradigm shifting breakthrough that has resounded through science and culture ever since.

Asteroids are rare visitors to this earth but when they do pay us a home visit the effects can be profound. As June ended in 1908 in Tunguska in remote Siberia it seemed that the sky was split in two and covered with fire as an asteroid travelling at more than 33,000 miles per hour exploded trigerring a shock wave that devestated 800 square miles of forest.

Eighty million trees lay on their sides levelled like so much matchwood. For days afterward the skies above Asia and Europe were eerily aglow.

In the 1940s as the Second World War proceeded the significance of Einstein’s work for military purposes was sharply appreciated in Washington, Berlin, London and Moscow as teams of dragooned scientists raced to produce a war winning weapon.

The race was won in the deserts of the American South West by an international team ironically including many refugees from Hitler’s Reich. Mankind now had the capacity to destroy itself and the Atomic Age was born.

Energy, energy, energy. Energy contained and the power of energy released is the linking factor in all these events. There is something awesome in the contemplation of the overwhelming impact such displays of energy can have upon us.

Immense outpourings of energy expressed in music, film and literature can lead to revolutions in human consciousness that can profoundly alter the landscape of our thoughts and our very dreams.

Following such events the cultural climate is forever changed and aftershocks continue to ripple on through the succeeding ages.

One such moment took place at Cosimo Matassa’s recording studio at Rampart Street New Orleans on September 14th 1955 when Little Richard exploded into a version of an outrageously sexy, raucous and filthy song that had long been a staple of his live performances.

The savvy producer of the session, Bumps Blackwell, had heard the song during a time out break the musicians had taken in a local bar, the Dew Drop Inn, and instantly realised that, furnished with cleaned up lyrics suitable for listening to on the radio, this was an unstoppable hit with a drive, attack and energy that was something new under the sun and moon in the Crescent City and for all he knew the whole world.

Richard played the frenzied piano himself with the masterful drummer Earl Palmer for once taken aback and struggling to keep up. Lee Allen plays a scintillating sax solo after being given his cue by the vocalist’s trademark screams and hollers.

Little Richard, the Little Richard who occupies a permanent treasured chair at the top table of Rock n Roll pioneers and innovators was born as an artist at the very moment he began to play Tutti Frutti.

His vocals are a delirious fusion of the gospel pulpit, the back alley dive and the tent show after hours party.

They lift the song beyond jump blues, beyond rhythm and blues into a new territory that incredulous contemporary listeners and musicians and the generations who followed them would light out for in their millions whooping all the way!

But very few of them would be able to combine, like Little Richard could, the rapturous, glossolalial soar and swoop with the low down and dirty guttural rasp. For that you maybe needed to be the twelfth child of a family that included both preachers and bootleggers and grow up listening to testifying choirs in the morning and gut bucket blues men late at night.

It would also help if you had lived by the train tracks and woken up repeatedly to the sound of the whistle screaming through your town.

Primary among those attempting to reproduce the Little Richard scream was the teenage Paul McCartney who used it extensively when covering Richard’s songs (his vocal party piece was Long Tall Sally, which was one of the two songs he played atop a desk on his last day at school in Liverpool) and he also incorporated it into his own rockers to give them a wildness that would drive the girls crazy.

I’m sure you know that I’m no physicist or mathematician but according to my calculations the energy released in the first thirty seconds of Tutti Frutti as Little Richard leaves Earth’s orbit for the celestial beyond is exactly equal to and more lasting in impact and influence than the Krakatoa explosion!

Perhaps the incantation, ‘Awop Bop Aloo Bop Alop Bam Boom!’ was the unlocking alchemical phrase the Universe had been waiting to hear for many millennia. Who would have thought that such mystic power would have emerged from an omnisexual, mascara wearing son of Macon Georgia!

You can christen Little Richard the Meteor, the Comet, the Quasar or the Architect of Rock n Roll – he deserves all those accolades and all the honours heaped upon him in his mature years.

But it is the dionysiac outpouring of energy in Tutti Frutti that will prove his lasting legacy. The universe shook the day he recorded it and it’s still shaking now.