Johnny Cash, Debbie Harry & Gene Autry chase Ghost Riders In The Sky!

The ‘Way out West’ Series No 1

Music hath charms. Music hath charms.

And, among those charms is its uncanny ability to forge bonds of fellow feeling and friendship between people born in wildly different times, places and cultures.

Take me and Carl.

Carl came from the spice Island of Grenada in the Caribbean.

When we met he was seventy years old and I was a callow twenty two.

I had just emerged, blinking, from the ivory tower of Cambridge University awaiting my inevitable discovery as a great novelist.

Carl had spent decades in the fierce factories of Detroit and the searing cane fields of Florida.

We met in Hospital.

I was working there as a porter dramatically rushing the resuscitation trolley to people on the point of death and more prosaically ferrying patients to the X-Ray department and to the operating theatre for surgery.

Carl, having suffered a heart attack, came into Accident & Emergency by ambulance at 3am when I was on night shift.

I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination the team of doctors and nurses, with whom moments before I had been sharing idle banter,  urgently bring all their professional skills to the struggle to to save Carl’s life.

Happily they succeeded and before I left that morning I wheeled Carl to the ward where he would recover.

Normally that would have been the last time I saw him but as I was about to leave Carl said, ‘Will you come and see later?’.

A request I could hardly refuse.

So, that night I made the first of many visits to Carl’s bedside in the three weeks he spent in the hospital.

Walking into the ward I wondered what two such disparate individuals might find to talk about.

Almost without thinking I asked him, having learned of the time he had spent in America, what kind of music he had listened to there.

Given his age, and reading on his chart  that he was a Baptist by religion, I anticipated that he might answer Big Band Jazz or Gospel Music.

I was a little taken aback therefore when he answered by singing in a mellow baritone:

‘An old cowpoke went riding out one dark and windy day,

Upon a ridge he rested as he  went along his way,

When all at once a mighty herd of red-eyed cows he saw

Riding through the ragged skies and up a clouded draw …’

Now, my education, at University, might have been airily academic but luckily on those few occasions when I was not bent over some medieval text I could be found, a huge tub of popcorn by my side, obsessively watching every ‘A’, ‘B’ or series Western that ever came to town.

So, without missing a beat, I joined in as we sang:

‘Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel,

 Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel,

 A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky,

For he saw the riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry ..’

And then, to the incredulity of the rest of the ward, we lifted our voices up and sang together lustily:

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Then we laughed and laughed until we nearly cried.

And, we sang that song, among many other Western favourites, every time we met until Carl died some two years later.

‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ was Carl’s favourite song and the version he preferred, ‘Because he don’t mess about with the song’ was the one by Gene Autry from 1949.

This one’s for you Carl:

 

 

According to the Western Writers of America, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’ is the greatest of all Western songs and I whole heartedly agree with that august body.

The song was written in 1948 by Stan Jones and first recorded by him and his marvelously named, ‘Death Valley Rangers’ that same year.

 

stan-jones-2

Stan, then a Park Ranger in Death Valley, is reputed to have written the song on his 34th birthday as he recalled a legend told to him when he was 12 by an old cowboy.

Now, all stories told by Stan Jones need to be taken with a fistful of salt as he was a noted fabulist who often valued the effect of a tale above its veracity (as frequently do I!).

The tale of the spectral herd in the skies and the curse of, ‘Stampede Mesa’ probably traces its origins to mythical cautionary stories told around the cowboy campfire in nineteenth century Texas.

Whatever its cultural lineage Stan crafted a certifiable classic which is shot through with haunting images which never leave the mind once heard.

Burning in the mental firelight of my imagination as the song proceeds I feel the hot breath of those red-eyed cows and shudder with fear as their black and shiny horns and steely hooves thunder by.

In my dreams I’m there with the gaunt faced cowboys their shirts soaked with sweat as they endlessly pursue the cursed herd they never, ever, will catch.

Surely that’s my name I hear them calling in the wind at the dead of night!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan wrote many more fine Western ballads notably those featuring in the films of the greatest of all Western Film Directors – John Ford.

But, neither he, nor anyone else, ever wrote a better one than, ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’.

The brilliance and mother lode Americana quality of the song has, for seven decades now, attracted hundreds and hundreds of artists to take a shot of rye, strap on their spurs and saddle up with the Ghost Riders to see if that herd can finally be corralled.

And, if anyone, by force of will and character could carry out that miracle it would surely be none other than Johnny Cash – no mean mythic figure himself.

 

 

Johnny sings the song with the oracular power an old testament prophet issuing a grave warning to his tribe to prevent them from sleepwalking to doom.

You want fire-snorting horses brought to life?

You want those ghostly riders coming hard right at you?

You want to feel those mournful cries in the pit of your stomach and the marrow of your bones?

Call for The Man in Black!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

Stan Jones’ evocative melody has always attracted guitarists and instrumental groups who like to tell an atmospheric story using six resonant strings instead of the vocal chords.

Today I’ve chosen to feature a top 30 Billboard Chart hit from 1961 (and top 10 in the UK) by The Ramrods  – who had clearly listened closely to Duane Eddy.

 

 

The Ramrods were out of Connecticut and had brother and sister Claire and Rich Litke on drums and sax respectively.

Vinny Lee took the lead guitar role with Gene Moore in support.

Embed from Getty Images

They were essentially one hit wonders though I greatly enjoyed listening to their follow up, ‘Loch Lomond Rock’ which, probably uniquely, mashes up twangtastic guitar with a bagpipe solo!

And, now as they say, for something completely, completely different.

I have to say that when I started researching this post I never expected to feature a trance version by Debbie Harry!

 

 

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh, Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh’ Indeed!

 Debbie’s version comes from Alex Cox’s 1998 film, ‘Three Businessmen’ and in my view is the best thing about it.

The production is by Dan Wool who had worked frequently with Stan Jones’ son who is a music editor – so legal clearances to use the song were easily arranged.

There’s definitely something sexily hypnotic about Debbie’s vocal adding an unexpected dimension to an established standard.

I’m going to conclude with another version out of left field or should I say the firmament.

And, versions of Ghost Riders don’t get more left field than the hipster version by Scatman Crothers!

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

 

Everyone has heard Scatman’s distinctive tones through his voice over work for TV and film. That’s Scatman as Hong Kong Phooey and as the hep Jazz playing feline in, ‘The Aristocats’.

Some may remember his appearances on TV in the show, ‘Chico and the Man’ or on film as Dick Halloran in Kubrick’s, ‘The Shining’ (one of four films he shared billing with Jack Nicholson).

Scatman was always a hep cat as evidenced by his drumming with Slim Gaillard. He brings all his vouty hipster presence to this version of Ghost Riders which has me cheering him on while doubled up with laughter.

There will be many more fine versions of Ghost Riders because we all love a good story.

Especially one that’s so incredible it just has to be true.

‘Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Yippie I aye, Yippie I ooh,

 Ghost Riders In The Sky’

 

Notes:

There’s a fine biography of Stan Jones by Michal K Ward published by Rio Neuvo.

The major hit version was by Vaughn Monroe

Basso profundo versions by Lorne Green, Marty Robins, Burl Ives, Frankie Laine

Western versions by Sons of the Pioneers, Riders in the Sky, Chris Ledoux, Jimmy Wakeley, Mary McCaslin

Instrumental versions by The Ventures, The Shadows, The Spotniks, Glen Campbell/Roy Clark, Dick Dale

‘Other’ versions by Spike Jones, Blues Brothers, Brothers Four, Judy Collins, Christopher Lee

 

Jonathan Richman : Roadrunner! One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six!

 

‘… He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.’ (William Blake)

‘We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary eyed .. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.’ (John Felice, childhood friend of Jonathan Richman)

 

‘… Roadrunner once, Roadrunner twice, I’m in love with rock & roll

and I’ll be out all night’ (Jonathan Richman)

Embed from Getty Images

 

It is a matter of some hilarity in our family and eyebrow raising puzzlement to visitors to our home that whenever I perform any kind of count off I don’t echo the rock roadie, ‘One, two – one, two’ or the more conventional, ‘One, two, three, four …’.

Oh no!

When I count off I always chant with a crazed grin and extreme vigour:

One, two, three, four, five, six!

And, the reason for this is simple.

One, two, three, four, five, six!‘ is the intro to what may well be the most exhilarating rock and roll song ever recorded.

A song that never, ever, fails to thrill when you hear it – no matter which of its numerous live or recorded versions you chance upon or carefully select.

I refer, of course, to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers immortal, ‘Roadrunner’.

We should, as they say, begin at the beginning.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, Massachusetts 10 miles west of Boston on May 16 1951. After a conventional suburban childhood the teenage Jonathan had a Pauline epiphany which would change his life forever.

On the radio, among 1967’s kaleidoscope of folk rock, blues rock, summery pop and psychedelia something shockingly, wonderfully, NEW crashed into his consciousness.

From the dark heart of New York City strange siren songs filled with sin and secrets – The Velvet Underground.

Embed from Getty Images

The combination of Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison’s relentless guitar attack, Lou’s deadpan vocals, John Cale’s instrumental extremity and Mo Tucker’s zen drumming entirely redrew the map of the world for Jonathan.

From that epochal moment whenever The Velvets played Boston, invariably at the Boston Tea Party at 53 Berkeley Street, Jonathan was there – absorbing the music through every physical and spiritual pore.

A particular favourite of his was, ‘Sister Ray’ a dervish three chord cataclysm that could last for anything up to half an hour until the band and audience were transported to undreamt of dimensions of being.

And, no one listening flew further or higher on the astral plane than Jonathan. For he was a waking dreamer with dreams of his own.

Dreams of his own that would become songs like shooting stars.

Songs influenced by his beloved Velvets but glowingly imbued with the imagination of a young man who intuitively perceived the shining radiance of the everyday world all around him.

A young man who could make that radiant world burst into life through a few chords and the total immersion of his own being in the song he was singing.

A young man who could write and perform a transcendent anthem about listening to the radio as he drove round Boston’s suburbs.

A young man who could turn the, ‘Stop ‘n’ Shop’, Route 128, the suburban trees, the factories, the auto signs and the radio waves saturating the Massachusetts night into holy way-stations on an ecstatic journey to heaven!

Join Jonathan now on that journey.

 

 

Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom! Va Va Voom!

There are apocryphal tales of Disc Jockeys in the 1950s locking themselves into the studio as they played, ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ over and over and over until desperate radio station bosses broke in with axes to restore sanity to the airwaves.

I know exactly how those DJs felt.

I remember, as if it were yesterday, buying in August 1976 the vinyl LP, ‘Modern Lovers’ which had, ‘Roadrunner’ as its opening track.

I believe it took me several dazed days and nights before I even attempted to play another track on the record as I obsessively wore out the Roadrunner groove.

As soon as I got back to college I announced with a prophet’s zeal to anyone who would listen that their lives would be transformed by listening to Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, ‘Roadrunner’.

Look what listening to it a couple of hundred times had done for me!

Jonathan wrote Roadrunner in 1970 and recorded it first with John Cale as producer in 1972 – though such were the vagaries of the music business that it took until 1976 for it to emerge.

You can hear the homage to The Velvet Underground and especially Cale’s organ sound all through this version of Roadrunner.

The rhapsodic keyboards are courtesy of Jerry Harrison who would later achieve fame with Talking Heads. David Robinson, later of The Cars, provides the foot to the floor and keep it there drums. Ernie Brooks anchors everything on the bass.

And Jonathan? Well, miraculously, Jonathan brings his innocent eye and his full heart to the song and conjures a lustrous landscape where the spiritual and physical realms we live and move in balletically entwine.

In this song, and to my mind particularly in this version, Jonathan Richman achieves something very rare.

He manages to create a work of art which captures the quantum quick of life.

The reach and energy of his imagination takes him to a place where is viscerally aware of the unique distinctiveness of the people and objects in the world around him.

And, surrendering his ego to that vision he accepts it as a gift and offers it to us.

If we accept it, as he did, we too will have had a glimpse of eternity’s sunrise.

 

Notes:

There are many versions of Roadrunner.

‘Roadrunner Twice’ a hit single in the UK was recorded in 1974 with Jonathan backed by The Greg Kihn Band.

‘Roadrunner Thrice’ is a wonderful live version.

Jonathan is a mesmeric performer able to fill a room with joy with a capital J.

So the best version of Roadrunner ever may be one he is yet to play.

 

Dolores Keane : Voice and Vision from Ireland

‘.. Every night their mouths filled with Atlantic storms and clouded-over stars and exhausted birds. And only when the danger was plain in the music could you know their true measure of rejoicing in finding a voice where they found a vision.’ (Eavan Boland)

‘As long as Dolores Keane is walking around this earth, I won’t call myself a singer. I think she’s the voice of Ireland.’ (Nanci Griffith)

To my mind the besetting malady of modern life is atomisation.

Meagre lives lived in migraine-fraught locked and barred isolation.

When I seek a musical antidote to my despair about this situation I turn most often to a singer, Dolores Keane, whose every breath embodies not atomisation but connection. Embed from Getty Images

Dolores had the immense good fortune to be born, in 1953, into a family who were keepers of the flame of Irish Traditional Music in a time when the deep treasures of the tradition were at risk of being swept aside by the glittering lures of commercial modernity.

From the age of four Dolores lived in Caherlistrane, County Galway, with her aunts Rita and Sarah.

The Keane sisters played accordion and fiddle but their greatest accomplishment was their heart stopping prowess as duet singers of ballads in the Sean-nos or old style.

Literally growing up at their feet Dolores imbibed their mastery through every pore of her being. In the kitchen and in the parlour songs sounding the depths of human experience were sung with full hearted candour and artistic delicacy.

Dolores, as a child, was exposed, initiated, into the, ‘Big Music’. Later, while still a young woman she was able to give life to the Big Music herself.

Knowing, in her heart and bones, where she was from set her free to voyage out into the wider world armed with a sense of inner poise.

The golden lesson Dolores learned from Rita and Sarah was that a singer’s duty was to devote all the emotional and technical resources in their gift in service of the song.

To bring a song to quickening life required discipline, engagement and above all attention. Attention to lyric, story and melody.

Attention to breath and pace.

Artistic, emotional and spiritual attention. Dolores listened with rapt attention to the artistry of her aunts. The proof of how diligently she attended can be heard through every moment of her sublime performance of, ‘The May Morning Dew’ from her debut solo record, ‘There Was A Maid’.

There can be no such thing as the definitive performance of such a song.

Traditional singers taking on the challenge are in pursuit of a wild hare which will always eludes capture.

There is always, always, more singing in the song.

Yet we can say that it is hard to imagine that anyone has ever engaged in a more thrilling pursuit than Dolores.

She inhabits, ‘The May Morning Dew’ so intensely that we feel connected to a complete world.

Connected to a living hospitable community.

Connected to the trees and the sky, the flowers in the valley, the calling of the small birds and the farmyard dogs.

Connected to the sound of the kettle boiling on the hob as neighbours converse on matters of great local import under the sky blue and clear.

Feeling the tender warmth of such a world we must feel too the chill and the pang of knowing that all things must pass, all things must pass.

So the beloved house will become but a stone on a stone and the lovingly tended garden a a riot of weeds.

And, like the red rose our parents, our friends and relations and, we cannot deny it ourselves, will perish in the May morning dew.

Dolores’ singing arrests time and allows us, each in our own way, according to our history, to contemplate and perhaps come to terms with the timeless truths of the song.

Next a contemporary song, ‘Never Be The Sun’ written by Donagh Long.

Every listener to this song will recall the one, who for them, will always be the light. Always be the light.

I have never listened to this performance without salt tears cascading down my face.

I really have no words to express how magnificent Dolores singing is here except to say that as she sings I leave the dusty Earth behind as she sets the very sun, the deepest ocean, the moon and the stars in sway.

Listening to Dolores singing epic ballads from the treasury of folk music history has convinced me that very few modern songwriters have works to compete with that great writer, ‘Trad’.

Still, we can all allow that Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson have added mighty stones to the cairn of the song hoard.

And, it is certain that the late Guy Clark, supreme craftsman of the narrative ballad, has too.

The pain and the promise of emigration seems to be always present in Ireland’s history and culture. As such it has proved a rich seam for songwriters to mine.

With, ‘Emigrant Eyes’ Guy Clark, with typical skill, yokes the sweep of history with the hope and the blood and the tears of generations to make a song crying out for a singer who can hold all these in balance.

A singer who can span oceans and centuries and set the heart and imagination ablaze.

In Dolores Keane he finds that singer.

I will leave you with a privileged glimpse into the roots of Dolores Keane’s art.

Together with her beloved Aunts Rita and Sarah she sings, ‘Once I Loved’ .

As they sing they evoke for me all time and no time.

History and pre-history.

Fairy forts and ancient barrows.

Passage graves, beehive chapels and high crosses.

Healing wells and hedge school philosophy.

Blind Harpers and hermit Saints.

The flight of the Heron and the Curlew.

The rush of the wind over the reeds.

The mysterious music of the constant moon and the day-blind stars.

Dolores Keane, while gifting us untold riches, has come through well documented struggles with depression, alcohol and cancer.

She is a singer of the stature of Bessie Smith, Umm Kulthum and Aretha Franklin.

She has sung herself, and us as listeners, back to where the singing comes from.

I wish her health and peace and songs to sing whenever she chooses to sing them.

 

Notes: Dolores Keane has an extensive catalogue.

Every record she has ever made is worth of your attention.

My personal favourites are:

‘There Was A Maid’

‘Solid Ground’ ‘

Broken Hearted I’ll Wander’ & ‘Farewell To Eirinn’ (With John Faulkner)

‘De Dannan’ & ‘Ballroom’ (from her time with the group De Dannan)

 

Rita & Sarah Keane’s mesmeric singing can be found on, ‘Once I Loved’ & ‘At The Setting Of  the Sun’.

There is a heart wrenching documentary, ‘A Storm in the Heart’ on Dolores’ life by Liam McGrath.

The best book on Traditional Music I have ever read is Ciaran Carson’s, ‘Last Night’s Fun’.

A fascinating insight into Caherlistrane where Dolores grew up can be found in the history/memoir, ‘Caherlistrane’ by Mary J Murphy – available online from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway.

Phil Everly Remembered

 

Phil Everly’s physical voice was stilled three years ago.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Yet his voice on record and in the hearts of generations of listeners now and to come will surely never be stilled.

The keen in his and Don’s voices cuts deep. And deeper with the years.

So, its a rare week when I don’t find myself humming an Everly Brother’s song as I go about my daily life.

Phil and Don’s divine harmonies continue to strike chords in my heart.

Today, in his honour, a Reblog of one of the earliest posts on The Immortal Jukebox.

One where I felt my own voice called by Phil’s.

I hope I have done him justice.

There is a magical moment during the Everly Brothers celebrated and triumphant reunion concert at The Albert Hall in 1983 which goes some way to explaining the source of their enduring appeal.

After opening with a heart warming , ‘Bye Bye Love, a rocking Claudette, the magesterial, ‘Walk Right Back’  a forlorn, stately, ‘I’ll Do My Crying In The Rain and the knock-out punch of, ‘Cathy’s Clown’ the band, which featured England’s guitar legend Albert Lee, took a momentary breather.

The two brothers briefly smiled at each other knowing now that a decade apart had in no sense diminished their power as performers.  Reassured, they leaned their heads close together and began to sing acapella, ‘These are the words of a frontier lad who lost his love when he went bad.’

The opening lines of, ‘Take A Message to Mary’.  As their two voices entwined in a rich fraternal harmony of heartbreakingly vulnerable perfection you can feel the whole audience catch their breath as countless personal memories are evoked.

Memories of the passing years with all their freight of love, joy and loss.  Memories of friends, lovers and family happily present and memories of those now separated by distance, time and mortality.

Looking around the auditorium it was clear that few popular music figures have ever burrowed so deep into their fans emotional core or repaid that loyalty and affection with such tender grace.

Simply put the Everly Brothers were the greatest duet singers and brother act in the history of popular music.

It will remain a mystery as to why the sibling relationship and consanguinity combined to supercharge the emotional resonance of Phil and Don’s harmony vocals and how this mysterious power could survive and endure for virtually all their lifetimes as brothers – whatever the state of their personal relationship.

It was surely a mystery to them as much as to anyone else.

Phil Everly’s life began in Chicago but he was in every other sense a son of the South.  His parents were Kentuckians and musicians.  From the age of six he was singing on the radio with elder brother Don and his parents.

The songs they sang were country songs or those weird and wonderful folk songs as Dylan put it about, ‘Roses growing out of people’s heads’.

From the get-go it was clear that these two brothers, influenced by other brother acts like the Delmores and Blue Sky Boys, had a uniquely potent mystical chemistry that made their arousing and keening singing able to thrill and also to pierce the hardest heart.

As they grew older the cute boys became handsome young men, accomplished guitar players and confident performers.  They were thus in prime position in the late 1950’s to shoulder their jet black Gibson guitars ready to ride and help drive the runaway rock ‘n’ roll train as far as it could go.

Settling into their recording career at Cadence Records and supplied with a string of classic teenage angst songs by the likes of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’) the Everly’s took up residence in the hearts and memories of a generation.

Phil himself wrote one of their signature teenage classics, ‘When Will I Be Loved’.  Up until the advent of the Beatles led British invasion the Everlys were reigning rock ‘n’ roll royalty enjoying massive chart success and the esteem of their fellow artists.

They were also enormously influential – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, The Hollies and The Beach Boys all freely acknowledged their admiration and desire to emulate the wonder of the brothers’ harmony singing.

Of the two brothers Phil was by all accounts the more outgoing, sensible and grounded of the two.  Though the younger brother it seemed that he was the one looking out for the more mercurial and vulnerable Don.

Don, whose voice seems able to cleave your ribs and pull your heart apart generally took the lead part while Phil intently, watchfully, with a brother’s love and care, held everything together with poignant poised harmony.

Together they made a sound that has rarely been matched for longevity of emotional impact.

Phil had some notable successes as a solo artist including recording the excellent, ‘Star Spangled Springer’ album (1973) which contains the wonderful tracks, ‘The Air That I Breathe’ and ‘Snowflake Bombadier’.

He also worked fruitfully on the soundtracks of the Clint Eastwood  movies, ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and, ‘Any Which Way You Can’.

Genuine though these successes were they are minor in comparison to the luminous body of work he created with his elder brother.

They were great country singers, great rock ‘n’ roll singers and great pop singers.

Their body of work is sure to provide emotional sustenance and solace long into the forseeable future.  For people will always fall in and out of love and always carry the scars of past hurts even as they embrace new hope.

There will always be an Everly Brothers song to turn to.