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.

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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)

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‘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!

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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 élan Рif 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.