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.

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

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2106 : Eleventh Day

 

Eleventh day:

A Painting by Duccio (c1255 to c1319)

A poem by Lawrence Sail

Music by  The Voice Squad, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris

Our Nativity painting today is by a great Master from Sienna, Duccio Di Buoninsegna.

Since I first discovered the work of Duccio as a teenager I have been in thrall to the luminous beauty of his works.

His paintings seem to me to have been deeply pondered in his heart which gives them qualities of stillness and humility which I find overwhelmingly moving.

In particular, something about, ‘Duccio Blue’ sets my heart aflame.

        

duccio-the-nativity-with-the-prophets-isaiah-and-ezekiel-1308-1311-dw7c5b

For music to take you away from the daily tumult I offer you a precious work of the heart.

‘A Stor mo Chroi’ as performed by The Voice Squad (Phil Callery, Fran McPhail and Gerry Cullen) insists that we each attend to what is truly important in all our lives; the love we offer and the love we share.

Where else is your treasure to be found?

 

 

Onward!

We are nearing the end of our journey now with our Sleigh still moving forward following a star.

As you approach the end of any journey there is space for reflection on the path already traveled and anticipation of the welcome to be found at the destination.

The Holy Family, weary and anxious about the straitened circumstances surrounding the impending birth of Jesus had to hold on and have faith that somehow all would be well and they would be a family.

Above all Mary had to have faith that her encounter with the heavenly realm at the annunciation and the event foretold by the Angel Gabriel was miraculously true and that she would indeed be a mother to a saviour (though one she would have to nurse and nurture like any other human child).

There would have been no Christmas birth without Mary’s assent at the Annunciation. From that leap of faith heaven and earth became joined and history eternally altered.

Mary was in a very real sense the first disciple: accepting God’s call and following it never knowing the joys and sorrows it would entail as her son too accepted his destiny.

I was an altar server from the age of seven and I can still recite the responses to the Latin mass if I close my eyes.

I can also recall the way certain prayers had a profound impact on me that was probably based more on their literary and musical cadences than any theological understanding given my youth.

The prayer that always moved me the most was the Loreto Litany Of Mary, the reciting of which even in an almost empty church seemed to set up a palpable spiritual vibration in my being.

‘Mother most admirable, Mother of good Counsel, Mother of our Creator, Mother of our Saviour, ….
Mirror of Justice, Seat of wisdom, Cause of our joy, Spiritual vessel, vessel of honour …..
Mystical rose, Tower of David, Tower of ivory, House of gold ……. ‘

Those flowing phrases will never leave me.

Now a music choice which shares the Litany’s hypnotic attraction.

From Patty Griffin, one of the brim full jars of American song, ‘Mary’.

 

 

I spoke earlier about nursing and nurturing and I can think of no more apposite artist to express those qualities than Emmylou Harris as she invokes in, ‘Light Of The Stable’ the glorious mystery which kindled a light which still burns bright today some two thousand years and more since it first shone in Bethlehem.

 

The poem today is, ‘Christmas Night’ by a contemporary English poet, Lawrence Sail.

‘On the wind, a drifting echo
Of simple songs. In the city
the streetlamps, haloed innocents,
click into instant sleep.
The darkness at last breathes.

In dreams of wholeness, irony
is a train melting to distance;
and the word, a delighted child
Gazing in safety at
a star solid as flesh.

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Fourth Day

Fourth Day featuring :

A painting by Giorgione (1477 to 1510)

A poem by Christopher Smart (1772 to 1771)

Music by Mae McKenna & Mairi Macinnes, Roger Miller and Billy Eckstine

Giorgione, a Venetian artist from the period of the High Renaissance, remains a figure of intense mystery.

 

giorgione_-_adoration_of_the_shepherds_-_national_gallery_of_art

What we can say from his, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ (NGA Washington) is that he could suspend time and evoke awe and silent wonder.

This painting offers us a profound sense of reverence. The Nativity tableau shows Mary communing with her child as both motherly protector and prayerful worshiper.

Joseph, so often the forgotten man of the narrative, seems overwhelmed by the enormity and mystery of the events he has been caught up in.

Shepherds were ill-regarded outsiders in biblical times. Yet, it was they who were granted the blessing of an audience with the new born King.

This must be some new type of King who welcomes first the poor and the ragged before the rich and high born.

The sight greeting the Shepherds was beyond words.

Their attitude of humble surrender to an experience beyond their understanding is intensely moving.

Our contemplative music today comes from the Hebrides.

The Christ Child’s Lullaby or Taladh Chriosda in Scots Gaelic is full to the brim with maternal feeling for the vulnerable new born.

Mother and child, once one, now two, create together a sacred space where love and mutual regard dwells.

The standing stone vocals of Mae McKenna and Mairi Macinnes, switching fluently between languages, supported by the pellucid instrumental playing of William Jackson and Tony McManus casts a timeless spell.

 

 

Onward!

Our Sleigh cuts a deep track through the falling snow as it’s carrying a whole heap of presents for all the good boys and girls all around the world (the list has been checked twice and we surely know who has been naughty and who has been nice).

Our first song is, ‘Old Toy Trains’ by the one and only Roger Miller. He wrote a hatful of hit songs, was a multiple Grammy winner and admitted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame.

In addition he also had a theatrical Tony Award in his trophy cabinet for his score for the hit Broadway musical, ‘Big River’ which he based on the writings of Mark Twain.

Despite all the above he has always seemed to be to be under rated with many damning him with the faint praise of describing him as a writer of, ‘Novelty Songs’.

Certainly there is humour in his songs but as anyone who is any kind of honest writer will tell you it is much harder to write comedy than it is to write tragedy.

The key to understanding Miller’s very real eminence as a songwriter lies in the sharpness of his observations expressed in language that is simple in nature but complex in impact.

Roger Miller had a poor upbringing but as he said words became his toys and you can feel that in the playfulness and delight with which he uses the resources of the American language as spoken by the everyday working man and woman.

Roger Miller liked people and liked telling stories that would resonate with their common experiences. Listening to him you do feel spoken to by a ruminative and intelligent man who has seen enough of life to be slow to judge and quick to smile.

There’s often a metaphorical raised eyebrow in the tone of his language and vocals but never a raised fist.

‘Old Toy Trains’ is a simple song that catches the magic of Christmas Eve – a magic that it is easy to lose or forget as we grow in supposed sophistication. Miller taps into the time- suspended feeling as we approach a great event and the hope we all have that all will be calm and all will be well.

Most of us will look back on a present we received when we were young children and reflect that no later gift has ever so perfectly matched our dreams than the toy train, drum, doll (or in my case) a cowboy outfit we received and cherished all those years ago.

Next, Billy Eckstine with the luxuriantly romantic, ‘Christmas Eve’.

Mr B was a pure class act. A handsome dandy who knew how very good he was as a singer and a bandleader. Billy’s rich, burnished voice lent dignity and drama to every song he ever recorded.

Listening to Billy here you are swept into a world where the brandy is five star and the Christmas lights twinkle all night on your perfect tree as you and your loved one dreamily dance by the flickering firelight.

I love the slow motion control of Eckstine’s vocal and the intoxicating musical arrangement courtesy of Lionel Newman.

Time to take the top off your favourite bottle and lean back to sink deep into this one.

Today’s poem extract comes from, ‘Christmas Day’ by Christopher Smart – an 18th Century English poet who pursued his vocation steadfastly despite spells in an asylum and prison.

‘Spinks and ouzles sing sublimely,
We too have a saviour born,
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn

God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate and a native
Of the very world he made.’

Bob Dylan : The Nobel Prize, One Too Many Mornings, The Albert Hall & Me!

In honour of Bob Dylan being selected as the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature I am Reblogging one of the very first Immortal Jukebox posts which combines a tribute to Bob with a review of his 2013 Albert Hall concert in London.

Some may argue that as a songwriter/performer Bob does not qualify for the Literature Award.

Frankly, I regard such views as unforgivably petty and deeply wrong headed.

I can think of no figure in post World War 2 global culture more worthy of a Nobel Prize!

To add to the review below which had no soundtrack here’s my all time favourite Bob Dylan song in a bravura performance from the 1966 tour soon to be immortalised in a 36 CD set!

No one in the field of popular music has ever written as well as Bob Dylan and no one has performed and sung with such inimitable power.

Congratulations Bob!

Sometimes, you just know.  There is literally something in the air. 

A sense of gathering fevered anticipation as the crowd assembles and the air becomes charged with faith and hope that this will be one of those nights.

The ones that you will relive in memory and recount proudly a thousand times to those who didn’t have the foresight, the cash, the sheer luck to be in that town on that night when everything clicked, when the energy built and built arcing from person to person, from stalls to gallery and flashing from the stage until we were all swept up and away into an ecstatic realm for those few hours on that one night that you will never forget and never be quite able to recapture.

All you can do is call for another drink, smile that distant smile and say with a regretful tone  ‘You really should,have been there.’

SW7 Revisited

‘Let us not talk falsely now – the hour is getting late’.   Bob Dylan

‘The thing about Bob is that he is and always will be Bob’. Jeff Lynne

I discovered and fell headlong into obsessive allegiance to the music and persona of Bob Dylan as a callow fourteen year old in 1969.  Up to that night, when I incredulously listened to the epiphany of Desolation Row on a French language radio station I had been largely dismissive of contemporary pop/rock music. 

Much as I liked the vitality of the Beatles and especially the Kinks I was not thrilled and transported by their records in the way that I was when reading the works of D H Lawrence or Chekhov which seemed to open up whole new worlds of sensation and understanding.

The Dylan I discovered that night was like the elder brother I never had – someone cleverer, more assured and knowing than me who yet leaned over to tell me all the secrets he had learned with a nod, a wink and a rueful grin. 

He would continue to fulfill that role throughout the following decades.dylan3

So, when I saw him in concert in November 2013 at London’s Albert Hall I was moved to reflect on all the years and miles we had travelled since he had last been there.

At the Albert Hall In 1966 when the last notes of an  epochal, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ that sounded like nothing less than an electric typhoon faded into the night air Bob Dylan walked off stage a fully realised genius.  In the previous four years he had created a body of work that would have, even if he had never recorded again, made him the single most important artist of the second half of the century.

However, he was also swaying on the precipice of a physical and emotional collapse. This was brought on by an impossible workload of recording and touring only tolerable through the fuel of a teeming headful of ideas and an increasingly dangerous reliance on ever more powerful drug cocktails.

He had once said that, ‘I accept chaos – I’m not sure if chaos accepts me’.  Now he was learning to his cost that chaos was indifferent to his acceptance – chaos swallows and destroys.

He was saved from permanent burn out and death by the happenstance of a motorbike accident that gave him the opportunity to clean up, rest, recuperate and find a new way of working allowing for some form of future and family life in the haven of Woodstock.

Over the next 47 years he would never again attain the heights of inspiration achieved through to 1966 (neither would anyone else!) but he would continue, in an unmatched way, through craft, cunning and sheer bloody mindedness to write, create and perform works that honoured the traditions of American song while being thoroughly modern, post modern and finally timeless expansions of and additions to that tradition.

bobdylan1So, when he returned to the Albert Hall as Thanksgiving approached in November 2013, as he looked around at the grand old venue he might have been excused the quizzical smile that had become his trademark expression. 

Much like Ishmael returning after an age to the Nantucket waterfront he carried with him the knowledge of how hard survival could be and how that knowledge was every bit as much a curse as a blessing.

In 2013 Bob Dylan could be more reasonably compared to an old testament prophet (Jeremiah? Isiah? Micah ?) than to any of his ‘peers’ within the entertainment industry albeit a prophet who doubled as a song and dance man.

A song and dance man, walking and gliding through a blasted landscape, who while not dismissive or disrespectful of his classic creations, primarily chose to mine the new seam of the songs collected as Tempest.

In this he was aided by a road tested band, alert to his hair tigger mercurial nature, who artfully melded blues, rockabilly and sly swing to embody and illuminate the songs.

Upfront, the man himself settled either into a seafarers stance when centre stage or bobbed like a sparring boxer when stationed behind the piano.  His voice, a bare ruined choir of its former glory, though still uniquely distinctive, adapted its tone to the demands of each song – variously knowing, bewildered, threatening, regretful, cajoling and doleful. 

Somehow his totemic harmonica playing still manages to encompass all these qualities and more and audibly thrills the warmly affectionate audience.

Bob Dylan has, not without cost, become what he set out to be all those years ago – a hard travellin’ troubadour, with a lifetimes worth of songs, something for every occasion, in his gunny sack, always on the way to another joint.  Always looking at the road ahead not the road behind. 

I can’t help but feel that up ahead the shades of Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Whitman and Rabbie Burns are waiting to welcome another to their company.

Well they can wait a little longer – this troubadour has more miles to go before he’s ready for the final roadhouse.  May god bless him and keep him always.

Thanks to Karl-Erik at Expecting Rain for posting this article on his wonderful site.

 

Little Feat: Willin’ – An American Anthem

Sometimes the crowd cheers and you wear the laurel wreath. Sometimes you wear the motley of a fool and shrink before the jeers.

Sometimes you knock the ball right out of the park and set off for home with joy in your heart. Sometimes arriving home drunk and exhausted you look in the mirror and see your father’s face staring back saying- what in the name of god are you doing with your life?

In all the circumstances the only thing you have to do is to keep on keeping on. Keep on keeping on. Keep on keeping on whether you can read the signs of the times or not.

Keep on keeping on while you’re still on your feet. Keep on keeping on when you’re knocked clean off your feet. Keep on keeping on even if you’re lied to and left for dead with your head stoved in.

Keep on keeping on as long as you are willing to be moving on in your life. Keep on keeping on if you can find the faith and maintain hope whatever happens. Keep on keeping on as long as you’re willin’ to be moving. Willin’

Let Lowell George and Little Feat tell the story their way:

Now ain’t that a peach!

Willin’ is a great folk song and a great country song silver veined with rhythm and blues and rock and roll. It’s a great road song and a great blue collar anthem.

And, in every note of music played by every instrument and in every syllable of its lyric it takes us on a journey to an America of sweat and grime and the everyday heroism of disregarded millions who keep on keeping on through fire and flood and the relentless pressure of paying the bills and keeping a family fed.

From the moment of the, ‘lean in, here’s a story you might recognise’ acoustic guitar intro we know we are in safe hands with musicians who know how to tell a tale in song.

Little Feat had degrees and diplomas in funk, country, R&B and soul with a Ph.D in feel.

And, in Lowell George a professor of musical alchemy who could mix all the flavours together and add to the tradition.

The unhurried, night cruising, tempo evokes for me the near contemplative state of a lonely driver rolling for mile after mile after mile through a desert landscape lit only by his headlights and the distant stars.

Lowell George’s vocal is that of a man who knows all about defeat and exhaustion but who Refuses to stay down and be counted out. Despite all the miles he’s come and all the miles he has to go in his Mack truck he’s still willin’ to be movin. Willin’

In his rheumy voice you can hear a man talking to himself and anyone who cares to listen about the realities of the life he lives. A man who keeps on keeping on without enough pay, without enough company and without enough sleep. Willin’

The glistening piano and the pedal steel are like, ‘weed, whites and wine’ induced roadside hallucinations which come and go even as the windscreen wiper drums beat steadily on, steadily on.

Tonight he remembers Dallas Alice but maybe next week it will be Memphis Marie. It’s a long way from Tucson to Tucumcari and a man’s mind is apt to wander through the halls of memory as the miles and the hours unfold.

Maybe before leaving Tucson he had dropped off on a road not marked on any map a load of illegal smokes or illegal folks he’d picked up under the baking Mexican sun. Now there was a 500 mile plus drive ahead with only the radio for company.

Didn’t Duane Eddy come from Tucson? Hell, he only drove 40 miles of bad road though you have to say the twang of his guitar sounds made for the desert air. At least when you get to Tucumcari there’s no shortage of motel rooms. 1200 or more they say. So, like the neon signs say it will be, ‘Tucumcari Tonite!’

But, there are no long layovers when you’re a trucker chasing a buck. So it’s the back roads where you hope to escape the regulations about what and how much you can carry. On the blue highways you might test the suspension and have to be careful not to end up in a ditch but you likely won’t get warned and weighed.

Next run is Tehachapi to Tonapah. The skies above Tehachapi are filled with gliders riding the mountain air thermals. Those gliders must make sore the hearts of the prisoners entombed in the men’s and women’s state prisons.

Starting the engine he remembers what ol’ Humphrey Bogart said to the disbelieving Mary Astor when he turned her in for being responsible for the death of his partner in, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ – ‘Well, if you get a good break you’ll be out of Tehachapi in 20 years and you can come back to me then!’ They don’t make them like HB anymore.

As his truck rumbles down the road he wonders what the rumble of the earthquake in ’52 must have sounded like. Zeke, who has driven these roads since FDR was president says it was the sound of god clearing his throat. Over in Tonapah with the jets screaming overhead and who knows what bombs exploding in the ranges there’s a fair amount of throat clearing going on too.

Ain’t likely he’s going to find any silver nuggets these days. Today he’s glad of the bright sun and the air conditioning in his cab and the song in his heart that with every beat says he still willin’ to be moving. Willin’.

Notes:

Willin’ is such a great song that Little Feat recorded it twice. First on their eponymous debut album (much under rated) and definitively on their magnificent, ‘Sailin’ Shoes’ – a record everyone interested in American music should own.

The classic Little Feat lineup featuring Lowell George are captured in all their glory on the live album, ‘Waiting for Columbus’ and the DVD, ‘Skin It Back’.

A biography of the band by Ben Fong-Torres, ‘Willin’: The Story of Little Feat’ is well researched and a good read.

Merle Haggard, Dave Alvin & Emmylou Harris – Kern River

‘I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities – ever, however, implacable,
Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder
Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated
By the worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.’

(T. S. Eliot – ‘The Dry Salvages’)

The river is a strong brown god.

In our lives we all have many rivers to cross. And, so often, we can’t seem to find our way over. Over to the land of milk and honey. Over to the land of lost content. Over to the home we are sure is there waiting, waiting.

So filled now with hope, now with faith, now firm in resolve, now lost and abandoned without hope or faith or resolve we stand silent and shivering on the river bank. Wondering will I ever cross over and what will await me when I do?

The river is a strong brown god.

Beside a river man is a paltry thing despite all the majesty of our boats and bridges. The river ran before man ever drew breath and will run and run long after our last breath.

The river is a strong brown god.

And, we are attracted to the power and mystery of rivers even as we fear their mystery and power. And, sometimes the river, in spate and flood, asserts its power and authority and reminds us brutally that beside a river man is a paltry thing.

A river, in flood and spate, can, in a moment, sweep away our idle dreams of the future and leave us chastened, bereft, beached and fearful of rivers for the rest of our lives.

The river is a strong brown god.

Merle Haggard know this. Merle has always seemed to me have the far away look of a man who knows how unfair and brutal life can be. A man who learned hard lessons in youth which he can never dismiss or deny.


A man who does not flinch to tell uncomfortable truths. A man who honed his craft as a songwriter so that his songs seem like the folk takes or fables we use to illustrate the wisdom of the race.

And, being the great songwriter and performer he is in 1995 he recorded my favourite river song, ‘Kern River’, a song as deep and mysterious as a river. A song filled with flinty, implacable power.

A song which has eddied and swirled through my imagination since the first time I fell under the current of its spell. It still runs through my dreams.

In a few short verses of spare telling detail delivered with a measured, dry-eyed, rueful tone Merle sums up a life stalled and cauterised by sudden trauma. Sudden trauma, when a river’s swiftness swept the love of a man’s life away.

On one side of the river life on the other death. Oblivious the river, Kern River, flows on. And, when your life has been cleft in two; into before and after what can you be sure of now?

Only that a river can be mean, meaner than you ever imagined. All you can be sure of now is that you will never, never, swim Kern River again. Oh, it may be that drowning may still be your fate for a man can’t escape his fate wherever he is, wherever he escapes to.

We all have an appointment in Samarra or Lake Shasta and you can drown in still water just as you can drown in a raging torrent.

Now, he is alone, a shattered survivor, weightless like chaff in the wind to be swept up into the mountains. Now he stares ahead remembering the town he grew up in where the oil flowed though his gusher never came in.

Now, as the hours and days fall like soft sift through the hourglass he remembers his lost love, his best friend, who he must live without for all the hours and days his life has left. All the hours and days he has left.

All around him the mountains remind him that beside nature man is a paltry thing. And that the river is a strong brown god. So he may cross, with care on the highway but he will never swim Kern River again.

Merle Haggard’s, ‘Kern River’ is a masterpiece from an American master. A song whose depths can never be sounded.

It takes up its place on The Immortal Jukebox as A15

Though nothing can match the Homeric authority of Merle’s own take on, ‘Kern River’ the song has attracted fellow songwriters and singers who know that it is a song of rare power.

Listen here to Dave Alvin’s meditative live in the studio version which has a lovely flow.

Dave Alvin, a mighty songwriter in his own right, has always listened closely to the masters of American song and it is clear that he has learned how to allow the power of a true song to flow through his guitar and his voice.

Emmylou Harris has spent decades mining the songbook of American roots music. To each of these treasures she brings the tender beauty of her voice and her unerring knack of finding superb musicians to make the songs come alive in performance.

Below, with The Red Dirt Boys she brings a dreamy, revival meeting by the river, passion to the song. You might believe for an instant that the river would be lulled and stilled.

Yet, we know the river can never really be propitiated. It will flow and flow on no matter how lovely the song sung on its banks.

The river is a strong brown god.

Notes:

Kern River was the title track of a CD Merle issued in 1995.

Dave Alvin has recorded the song on a lovely multi artist tribute CD to Merle called, ‘Tulare Dust’ and also on his own wonderful, ‘West of the West’

Emmylou Harris’ version can be found on her, ‘All That I Intended To Be’

Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Elvis all knew how great Joe South was – So should you!

‘A need to hear and tell stories is essential to human beings, second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter,’ (Reynolds Price, Novelist of the American South)

‘In the South people talk in rhyme and clap on the offbeat’ (Robbie Robertson)

Growing up in the American South in the post World War Two era a boy with attentive ears and a curious mind would have had access to a rich, loamy diet of inspirational songs and stories. Tall tales, fables and folk tales at the kitchen table and the store. Gossip and rumour outside church and school.

The heavy air all around you was suffused with Hymns and Murder ballads, work songs, cheating songs, songs of exile and songs longing for home. Tuning the radio dial in Georgia you could hear scarifying Black Gospel, parlour songs, train songs, bluegrass breakdowns, bottleneck blues, honky tonk drinking songs, waltzes, polkas and whatever was top of the pop charts.

If you were musically inclined you could start practicing with the guitar your daddy gave at 11 and while still a teenager, if you had the will and the talent, you might find yourself co- writing a hit song with a rock n roll legend and go on to be a master session guitarist, Grammy winning songwriter and singer with a string of classic songs to your name and work with everyone from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin and Simon and Garfunkel. You might even have Elvis himself record and perform one of your songs.

You might grow up to be Joe South.

And, if you were Joe South you would write and record in 1969, ‘Games People Play’ one of the most enduringly satisfying and effective songs of the 1960s.

Now that’s a song! An unstoppable hit from the majestic sitar intro and La – Da da da da da da vocalising even before the brilliant straight from the shoulder lyric skewers the phoniness and pretensions of the movers and shakers of the 60s generation (not to mention every generation before and since!).

There is a characteristic magnificent sinewy strength to Joe’s baritone vocal and his guitar/sitar playing. In Games People Play he has turned a great song through superb performance and production into a great record. ‘Games’ features a wonderfully integrated vocal, organ, strings and brass arrangement which swells the sound to anthemic proportions.

Joe South always sang like a man who knew what he was talking about and who wasn’t afraid to tell uncomfortable truths about himself and the world around him.

‘Talking about you and me and the games people play ….’

‘Oh we make one another cry, Break a heart then we say goodbye .. ‘

‘People walking up to you, Singing glory hallelujah, And they try to sock it to you in the name of the Lord…’

‘They’re gonna teach you how to meditate, Read your horoscope, cheat your fate… ‘

‘Look around tell me what you see, God grant me the serenity to remember who I am …’

‘Turned your back on humanity and you don’t give a da, da, da da , da …… ‘

It seems to me that, ‘Games People Play’ is as accurate a summary of life in 2016 as it was in 1969 and as it will be in 2069. Cue it up again!

Joe South was an Atlanta Georgia native. Once he discovered the guitar he became an obsessive practicing round the clock and even setting up his own mini radio station to broadcast his playing.

Through DJ Bill Lowery he got involved with Atlanta’s NRC Record Label and formed musical bonds with Jerry Reed, Pete Drake, Ray Stevens and Billy Joe Royal. In 1958 he co-wrote the novelty hit, ‘The Purple People Eater meets Witch Doctor’ with the larger than life Big Bopper of, ‘Chantilly Lace’ fame (who was to die in the plane crash that took Buddy Holly)

His prowess as a guitarist won him work in Atlanta, Nashville and Muscle Shoals. In 1962 he played the Buddy Holly style guitar on Tommy Roe’s Billboard Number One, ‘Sheila’.

In the same era he had his first mainstream hit with the charming, ‘Untie Me’ by the black vocal group The Tams – a favourite on the Myrtle Beach summer sand scene.

Joe South grew up in a strictly segregated South. But like Tony Joe White, Steve Cropper, Dan Penn and Eddie Hinton his musical taste was never segregated and the influence of Gospel, R&B and Soul music as well as Country is palpable in every note he sang and played.

Joe’s versatility is clear when you consider that in 1965 he was called in by Simon and Garfunkel’s producer Tom Wilson to add electric guitar punch to the ‘Sounds of Silence’ Album in the same year that he was writing and producing a country soul classic for his long time friend Billy Joe Royal with, ‘Down In The Boondocks’ a tale of the travails of love attempting to cross the tracks from the picket fenced lawns to tar papered shack poor side of town.

Apparently Joe had asked Billy to record Boondocks as a demo hoping to pitch it to Gene Pitney. However, the distinctive echoey sound and Billy’s urgent performance was recognised by a savvy someone at CBS and lo! A top 10 hit resulted.

Billy would go on to record several other Joe South songs including the lilting ballad, ‘I Knew You When’ and the irresistible, ‘Hush’ perhaps better known from the hit Deep Purple version.

In late November 1965 and through to March ’66 Joe became involved in the epochal sessions for Bob Dylan’s landmark masterpiece album, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ playing both guitar and bass. He plays bass on the sublime, Visions of Johanna’ which must be one of the defining Himalayan triumphs of Dylan’s career and of the whole rock era.

Joe was as comfortable recording with members of The Band and Nashville luminaries on Blonde on Blonde as he would later be when he played with signature brilliance along with Muscle Shoals finest on Aretha Franklin’s 1967 smash hit, ‘Chain of Fools’

That’s Joe with the E string tuned to a low C providing the spooky, something serious is gonna go down here, intro that sets things up for the majestic Aretha to slay us all. Throughout the song Joe meshes perfectly with Jimmy Johnson, Tommy Cogbill, Spooner Oldham and Roger Hawkins as they keep everything between simmer and boil following Aretha.

When it came to his own recording career Joe would never have as big a hit as, ‘Games’ but he would write and record biting songs that continue to hit home with their humanity, their moral force and their musical power.

My particular favourite is the you just can’t deny it’s true, ‘Walk A Mile In My Shoes’ which became a high point of Elvis Presley’s 1970 stage shows (and there isn’t a songwriter in the world who wouldn’t have whooped at top volume when learning that Elvis had done one of their songs!).

Do look up the King’s version but I have to feature Joe’s testifying version here today. What fantastic guitar too!

We all know, as surefire sinners, that we should keep the stone in our pocket rather than casting it at our neighbour for their sins. Or as Joe puts it with pithy force:

‘Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes,
Hey before you abuse, criticise and accuse,
Walk a mile in my shoes’

There’s something very cheering about the way Joe South songs come at you so directly presenting a clear eyed, dare to say this isn’t so, critique of our personal and communal hypocrisies and failings .

And, in a way that never has the whiff of pious cant about them. Rather, these are songs filled with life and hard won wisdom which you just have to sing along to. It’s a rare gift to write songs filled with righteous anger that aren’t deadening rants that win allegiance only from those with closed minds and hard hearts.

In October 1970 a song that Joe had originally given to Billy Joe Royal and recorded himself in a lovely ruminative version became a world wide hit for Lynn Anderson.

‘I Never Promised You A Rose Garden’ is the kind of country record that sells to people who say they can’t stand country music.

The kind of pop song that is bought, listened to and remembered by eight year olds and eighty year olds. The kind of record that wins nodding heads of agreement from all us, bruised in Love, when it says, ‘You know what I’m talking about’. So smile for a while and let’s be jolly … Come along and share the good times while we can. While we can.

Joe South’s life and career took a marked turn for the worse in 1971 with the death by suicide of his beloved brother Tommy. That and the pressure he felt trying to match the success of, ‘Games People Play’ seems to have sent him into a spiralling depression (fuelled in part by drugs) which meant that his enormous gifts were in abeyance for many years.

Though he did make later albums which have their moments he was largely content, once he had ceased as he put it, ‘Kicking myself about’ to live a quiet life in his Georgia home. He died there in September 2012 having left a deep and indelible mark on the music of his era.

I’m going to leave you with an elegy he may have unknowingly written for himself. ‘Don’t It Make You Want To Go Home’ must surely have been played by the angels, singing him home to his final rest, as Joe rode in that last limousine. Hank Williams will surely want to swop Whippoorwill references.

Joe South’s songs were built to last and last they surely will.