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

Here’s a Post that means a lot to me.

For the Song and the Singers featured and for the warm memories it evokes.

Nothing like music to open the gates of memory!

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

Linda Ronstadt, Mike Nesmith, P P Arnold : Different Drum

It seems like music has always been in the air around you and in your head.

Folk Music, Country Music, Rock ‘n’ Roll.

And, you write poems, lyrics if you will, that maybe could be songs.

Along comes the Guitar and those poems really do sound like songs.

There’s something about the sound of the 12 string especially that frees up the spirit.

Listened to a lot of music in Texas growing up and in the Service the radio was always a lifeline.

Now you’re back in civilian life it’s time to see if any of these songs have a life outside your head.

Head West Young Man!

Embed from Getty Images

*

Los Angeles has quite a scene.

There’s a club, The Troubadour, in West Hollywood that has a Monday night Hootenanny where all kinds of songs get played by folks desperate to get their songs sung and heard.

Some of these singers are really building a following and some have even got record deals.

Now if I could just get someone like that to sing and record one of my songs I’d be launched as a songwriter and maybe people would take the time to listen to me singing my other songs.

Might even make a few bucks!

There’s this guy, John Herald, heads up a bluegrass outfit, The Greenbriar Boys, and we get along fine – play each other our songs.

He thinks, ‘Different Drum’ has got that something a song has to have so that it sticks in people’s minds and has them singing along before they even realise they are doing it.

Well, praise be!, John only went and recorded, ‘Different Drum’ and put it out on their album, ‘Better Late than Never!’

Now I have an official song writing credit!

But, I wont be needing a truck to haul away my royalties!

John and the Boys slowed the song down and their version sounds a little worthy to me; a hit for the Hoot crowd but nowhere else.

But, all songwriters will tell you, once a song is out there on record and on the radio, its like a message in a bottle and there’s no knowing whose feet it will wash up at.

Embed from Getty Images

*

Turns out there’s this group called The Stone Poneys and that the girl in the group, Linda Ronstadt, heard the Greenbriar Boys take on, ‘Different Drum’ and thought here, finally, was a song that would suit her.

I got to say that anyone who has ever seen The Stone Poneys knows that while Kenny Edwards and Bobby Kimmel love their music they are very low watt bulbs in comparison to the brilliance that surrounds Linda.

She’s hotter than Mojave and she has a true voice that pierces the heart.

So, one day, I turn on the radio and Hallelujah!

Different Drum blasting out and no doubt about it a sure fire hit.

Got to say Linda has given the song a sweetness and sensuality that even surprises me.

Amazing how good a song can sound when its sung by a singer like Linda supported by musicians who can really play directed by a Producer who can make a song fly off those vinyl grooves.

I did some research and it seems Linda was the only Stone Poney on the record.

Nick Venet, the Producer, twigged that the song shouldn’t be one more of the thousands of pretty acoustic ballads out there.

Give it a stylish arrangement, add in the chops of first rate musicians to match Linda’s shining vocals and you’ve got a record that will have people turning up their radio’s and saying, ‘Who is that?’ and hot footing it to their nearest record store.

So, Jimmy Bond plays the hell out of the Bass – he’s got all that Jazz training and he knows the studio – how else did he get to be part of the Wrecking Crew!

Al Viola and Bernie Leadon played those sweet guitar parts.

Jim Gordon, the Jim Gordon, made the song swing from the Drum stool.

Add in a little magic from Sid Sharp’s strings and Don Randi’s Harpsichord and I defy anyone not to sing along with gusto!

This time the royalties really did flow in!

Now, some of you might know, that for a few years in the late 60s, I became something of a celebrity, heard someone call the group I was in, ‘The Monkees’ a Pop phenomenon indeed!

Of course, all the while the TV Show and the recording and  tours were in full spate I never lost track of the fact that at heart I was a singer songwriter and that when all this frenzy finished (as it always must sooner or later) I would pick up the 12 String and find a new audience.

You know, ‘Different Drum’ has been pretty good to me so I figured let’s see how it sounds with Red Rhodes on the pedal steel and me taking a mellow meander through the song.

Now songwriters love all their songs and I ain’t no different but Different Drum is close to my heart and it seems to keep finding new singers who want to put their own stamp on it.

Listen here to Susanna Hoffs (wasn’t she in a group that was something of a modest pop phenomenon in the 80s?).

Don’t she and Matthew Sweet charm us all!

That’s my kind of Hootennany right there.

One of the greatest gifts a songwriter can ever get is to hear one of their songs completely reimagined so that it comes up anew shining bright and dazzling a new audience.

That happened to me when I heard P P Arnold take on Different Drum with a bunch of English musicians.

Most everybody knows her as a backing singer or for cutting the original of Cat Stevens’ ‘First Cut is the Deepest’ but the more you investigate her career you realise she’s a magnificent soul singer and that any writer ought to be real proud to have her cover one of their songs.

Once heard you won’t forget this.

She can flat out sing!

Compared to Linda and Susanna and P P Arnold I can’t sing at all.

But, Over the years I have learned how to tell a story and make co-conspirators of an audience.

Different Drum is an old friend now and I like to make sure I don’t rush through it pretending I was still in my 20s.

A story needs to be properly framed and told for maximum impact.

So now it goes something like this :

Long as I can make it up on stage I’m going to be singing that song.

Time to close out with a tribute to the person who sent this song soaring into so many hearts.

Linda’s health doesn’t let her sing anymore but a voice like she had will always be lifting spirits and touching souls.

Ry Cooder : Maria Elena, Secret Love (lazy, hazy, days of Summer)

We drove West.

We drove past the sacred mysteries of Avebury, Stonehenge and Glastonbury.

We circled the Standing Stones.

We crossed the forbidding Moors.

We drove as far as we could go only stopping at the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was late when we arrived.

The Moon was silvering the waters.

Dazzled and drowsy we settled into familiar surroundings and breathed the salt tanged air as deeply as we could before sleep beckoned.

I woke, as always, at 6am and joined the joggers and dog walkers patrolling the golden sands.

The surfers in their camper vans were already readying themselves for the fabulous waves the tides would surely provide today.

Later on the whole family including our grand daughter, now almost 1 and an enthusiastic paddler, established camp on our own stretch of the beach.

That lucky old sun rolled around heaven all day as we intermittently swam and sprawled under its reviving rays.

Image result for sennen cove images

The picnic basket was looted of every treasure and urgent patrols were sent out for relief supplies of fruit and ice creams.

As the Sun set we meandered back to our cottage with the adults fortified by just the right number of Gin & Tonics.

Perhaps it was the power of the Sun amplified by the G&Ts that led me to start humming a tune that seemed to have the, ‘Spanish Tinge’

What was that song?

I set my music library numbskulls to work as I watched the waves crash on the rocks outside our windows.

Then, praise be, I began to sing in my (very) halting Spanish :

Era la medianoche, when oimos the scream
“Se requieren cien taxis en el almeria de Chavez Ravine.

As soon as the words Chavez Ravine formed in my mind I knew the source of the sun dappled melody that held me enthralled – ‘Onda Callejera’ from Ry Cooder’s wonderful album from 2005, ‘Chavez Ravine’.

Image result for ry cooder images

Now I was able to hit the button and luxuriate in the masterly musicianship of Ry and Joachim Cooder, Mike Elizondo, Joe Rotondi, Gil Bernal, Mike Bolger, and Ledward Kaapana.

Now, I could provide the harmonies for the true vocals of Little Willie G and sisters Juliette and Carla Commagere.

I doubt the Cornish Coast has ever heard such a midnight choir before!

Estupendo!

The interplay between the musicians here is very special.

Listening it’s as if you’ve slipped into a dream state where all your senses flow together and your imagination is released to free float into the welcoming ether.

This is not a sound you can achieve by mere practice or calculation rather it is the result of inspiration grounded on vocation and spiritual immersion leading to musical bliss in the moment.

Catching such bliss on record is very rare so I lift my Sombrero high into the sky to salute Ry and his compadres!

This is the kind of performance which permanently changes the weather inside your head.

And, that’s a feat Ry Cooder has serially achieved throughout his career as he has searched the world seeking out new rhythms and textures to delight his own musical appetite and in consequence ours too.

Ry has since his boyhood has responded to the music, in all genres, that has attracted him by determining to meet the musicians who were masters of that sound and through playing with them inhabit the mystery too.

His whole career is essentially a musical pilgrimage with each record or collaboration a way station where he draws strength, nurture and inspiration for the road ahead.

From his third solo record, ‘Boomer’s Story’ here’s a song from 1932, ‘Maria Elena’ that in the care of Ry’s all star band continues to cast a tender spell.

Now was that 6 minutes or 6 Hours?

Musicianship of this quality makes a mockery of old Father Time’s supposed regularity.

When the above performance was recorded Ry’s Band was dubbed, ‘The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces’.

And, Aces they were everyone.

Attend to the gorgeous sway of Flaco Jimenez on the Accordion.

Attend to George Bohanon’s warm breeze in the night air Trombone.

Attend to the joyful elegance of Van Dyke Park’s Piano.

Marvel at the supernaturally supple rhythm section of Drum maestro Jim Keltner, Miguel Cruz on Percussion and Jorge Calderon on Bass.

Surrender and swoon as Ry orchestrates the whole magnificent ensemble as they lead us to musical nirvana.

Now, a simple miracle.

A collaboration between Ry and the great Cuban Guitarist Manuel Galbán.

There are no words of mine that can capture the glory of this take on, ‘Secret Love’.

Close your eyes, sit still and let the magic begin.

This is collaboration becoming communion.

Ry has a wonderful generosity in his musical life.

Foregrounding the talents of his collaborators through the acuity of his arrangements he creates the space for the magic to enter and bloom.

I wish Ry well on his continuing Pilgrimage for following in his footsteps has been an education and a blessing.

Notes :

As always if a particular clip won’t play for you in this Post you will certainly be able to find a playable clip via YouTube in your own region.

The Albums, ‘Chavez Ravine’ and ‘Mambo Sinuendo’ (where Secret Love features) are unreservedly recommended.

Manuel Galbán is a legendary figure in Cuba.

His work with Los Zafiros is imbued with deep joy in music making.

Butch Hancock, Joe Ely and Emmylou Harris : West Texas Waltz

In which combining my passions for Cricket and Music I get to share pints of plain with 2 of the greatest modern songwriters ( Guy Clark & Butch Hancock), dance like the dickens and find a motto for life :

‘…Now only two things are better than milkshakes and malts
And one is dancin’ like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’.

In 1985 I bought my first property.

A flat in Kennington, South of the River Thames.

New daily coordinates.

A three minute walk to Oval Tube Station.

A 15 minute train ride to Oxford Circus for work (Times crossword finished before Green Park).

Eight minutes walk to The Oval Cricket Ground.

The Oval is the home of the Surrey County Cricket Team and a Test Match venue.

Nothing better than to leave work early citing a vital meeting (you can get away with that when you’re the Boss) and instead catch the last couple of hours play of a county match as the late afternoon sun merged into twilight.

Five minutes walk to The Cricketers Pub (now sadly defunct) where between 1985 and 1990 I regularly drank pints of Guinness as I watched a series of brilliant performers give their all to an audience that never numbered above a couple of hundred.

The Cricketers became a home from home.

I became enough of a regular to get Kenny, who ran the bar, greet me with ‘affectionate’ South London Geezer abuse as I ordered my porter.

Pint in hand I would settle down to watch lions of English Roots music like Davey Graham, Ralph McTell and Bert Jansch give master classes in intimate performance.

I seem to remember The Pogues played a week long residency just before they hit the big time.

I say seem to remember because at Pogue’s gigs it was mandatory to drink until you would have to think very carefully indeed before answering the question if anyone asked you what your name was!

THE CRICKETERS PUBLIC HOUSE, KENNINGTON OVAL

Jim, who booked the acts for The Cricketers, must have had very good taste and connections because in addition to home grown talent he also booked world class performers like Steve Earle, Nick Cave with The Birthday Party and Giant Sand.

Absolute highlights for me were the, ‘Texas Texture’ gigs where you could tune in to the Lone Star sensibility of a cult hero like Terry Allen and find that yes indeed, he was :

a panhandling, Man handlin’, Post holin’, High rollin’, Dust Bowlin’…Daddy

and metaphorically lift a can of Pearl to a Texas Treasure.

But, the gig that will always have pride of place in my memory is the one when Guy Clark and Butch Hancock brought in their being and songs the essence of the immense state of Texas to a tiny stage before a hundred folks or so in South London.

For some reason that night I was first in as the doors opened and found sitting quietly at the back sipping pints of plain none other than Guy and Butch.

It wasn’t long before I had presented them with further pints and told Guy that his Album, ‘Old No 1’ with, ‘Let Him Roll’, ‘Rita Ballou” and, ‘Desperados Waiting for a Train’ was in my Top 10 of all time.

Embed from Getty Images

*

I flat out begged him to sing, ‘Texas 1947’  which I regarded as a good as any Train Song ever written (and dear reader I can confirm that Guy did play the song for me that night).

Turning to Butch I remember saying that it was given to very few song writers to write a truly immortal song but I had no doubt that, ‘She Never Spoke Spanish to Me’ was just such a song.

Embed from Getty Images

I reeled off my favourite lines :

‘Saints and sinners all agree
Spanish is a loving tongue
But she never spoke Spanish to me
*
She said, “If you’re from Texas, son
Then where’s your boots and where’s your gun?”
I smiled and said, “I got guns, no-one can see”.
*

and said if he played the song that night I would buy him as many pints as he could drink! (and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Butch played it for me).

I also told Butch that his record, ‘West Texas Waltzes & Dust Blown Tractor Tunes’ was a nigh permanent resident on my turntable and that I had framed the cover with the legend, ‘Voice, Guitar and Foot’ on my living room wall.

Image result for west texas waltzes and dust-blown tractor tunes cover image

Again I unhesitatingly launched into some favourite lines :

‘Park your Pickups and Cadillacs, Fords and Renaults

Get up and dance like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’

‘I count my blessings, not my faults,

I like to dance like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’

‘…Now only two things are better than milkshakes and malts
And one is dancin’ like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’.

‘And the other is somethin’, but really it’s nothing’ to speak of it’s something to do

If you’ve done it before, youll be doin’ it some more Just as soon as the dancin’ is through’.

Sure enough when it was Butch’s turn to take the stage his opening salvo was :

Now tell me, didn’t all your aches and pains, your worries and cares, your anxiety and arthritis seem completely cured as you danced like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz!

You can hear ‘Workshirt’ Bob Dylan there and Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers – the true troubadours of the age.

You can hear the West Texas Wind blowing across the endless plain.

You can hear the tractor engine hummin’ as it turns over the Texas soil.

You can feel the charge in the West Texas Air.

Feel the flat land and the endless Sky.

It’s a song that’s good for dancin’ and romancin’ so grab your sweetheart and jump in your car!

And if anyone asks you why you’ve got such a sloppy grin all over your face why you tell ’em it’s because you’ve been dancin’ like the dickens to The West Texas Waltz.

Now, West Texas Waltz has become something of a Texas Anthem that any right thinkin’ performer form Texas feels honour bound to play to prove their Lone Star credentials.

When Butch was growing up in Lubbock another would be songwriter, two years younger, was growing up a couple of streets away – Joe Ely.

Butch, Joe and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, would later form, ‘The Flatlanders’ a West Texas Super Group!

Swappin’ Songs would become second nature to them.

Joe Ely has always been a natural showman who can get every last drop of juice from a song.

Listen to the sheer vitality and chutzpah he brings to West Texas Waltz.

Go on – Bind up your bunions with band-aids and gauze and …..

 

When speakin’ of dancin’ and romancin’ the thoughts of The Jukebox invariably turn in the direction of Emmylou Harris.

Embed from Getty Images

*

And, wouldn’t you just know it, with the great Flaco Jimenez on accordion, hasn’t she recorded a deliciously dreamy version of West Texas Waltz just for me and you and every other would be love lorn West Texan.

‘…Now only two things are better than milkshakes and malts
And one is dancin’ like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’.

Clear the floor!

I will bid you adios with the man himself .

Now your Pickup might need a tune up and who knows your tractor might be actin’ up – but count your blessings, don’t count your faults.

Get out and dance like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz!

 

We al have days when we struggle to tell a cow from a horse.

Only one thing for it – lace up your best dancin’ shoes and waltz away those blues.

‘Cause as we all know by now ;

…. only two things are better than milkshakes and malts
And one is dancin’ like the dickens to the West Texas Waltz’.

 

The Immortal Jukebox’s Greatest Hit : Mary Gauthier (I Drink), Iris Dement (Easy Getting Harder) Ordinary/Extraordinary Stories

I was downing a couple of bottles of Mr Whitehead’s excellent cider at the, ‘Pub With No Name’ the other evening and fell into conversation with one of the hostelry’s regulars who commented (approvingly) on my most recent post on, ‘The Third Man’.

He told me that he’d been following The Jukebox since 2017 and must have by now read more than a hundred posts.

I asked him did he have any favourites and he replied :

‘Well, I’m a major Van Morrison fan and can see he is your specialist subject so I always look out for those. And, I always think there’s never enough written about The Blues so I especially enjoyed your Post on Little Walter.

Still, I would also have to say some of the Posts I’ve found most intriguing have been about artists I had never heard of previously like Arthur Alexander, Toussaint McCall and Paul Brady’.

He added, ‘How many Posts have you written since you started?’

I quickly looked up my Stats and said to my own astonishment, ‘I can hardly believe it but it seems I’ve published more than 320 Posts since March 2014’.

As he ordered up another round of drinks Declan mused, ‘I suppose your most popular Post must be one about one of the classic Baby Boomer artists like Van or Dylan or Carole King?’

‘Actually, you’d be surprised’ I said.

‘The most popular Post ever, by a significant margin, is the Post I wrote on Mary Gauthier and Iris Dement – who are not exactly household names!’

‘And, its a Post that every week, in countries all over the globe is being discovered by new readers’.

He immediately looked it up on his iPad (other tablets are available) and when he had finished reading said:

‘Well, those are two great songs and I like the way you’ve introduced the theme of the ordinariness and extraordinariness of all our lives. How many followers did you have when you wrote this?’

‘ A couple of hundred then and more than 10,000 now’ I replied.

‘That’s a lot of people who probably haven’t read your most popular post – you ought to ReBlog it!’.

So for Declan and all of you who haven’t yet read it here’s my Greatest Hit!

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

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

I live an ordinary life.

So do you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The influence of those hymns pervades all of Iris’ songs though her own relationship with faith has been troubled.

Her songs seem to me always to be charged with a sense of the sublime, a conviction that every life, however small, burdened and disregarded, carries a light that shines through the darkest hours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She carries on.

*

Mary Gauthier writes songs of bright boned shocking intensity.

Before she took up songwriting in her thirties she had lived a life filled with more drama and incident than Dickens himself would have dared invented in a multi volume novel.

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

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

There is an almost brutal matter-of-factness in many of her songs.

She is able to honestly describe desperate lives lived the gutter because she has been there. There is respect but no romance in her descriptions of such lives.

It is the test of a true artist to be able to present recognisable living characters but not to idly judge them.

The reader or listener can do that if they feel comfortable casting a stone.

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

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

This is not the testament of someone who has won through.

It is the confession of someone anchored in addiction unblinkingly reporting on the history and daily realities of that condition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know about you but I’m sure that, wherever it comes from, I need a little mercy now.

Further Listening:

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

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

I was both impressed and moved by her CD, ‘The Trackless Woods’ from 2015 which Takes the Poems of the great Anna Akhamatova as the foundation for a  series of engrossing Songs.

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

Mary’s latest project from 2018 is the very powerful, ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ which she wrote in collaboration with US Veterans and their families.

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

 

The Band, Martin Carthy, Anton Karas : The Third Man Theme

You listen to a piece of music; a song or a symphony and by some miracle of neuro-chemistry it is encoded into your memory.

It may lie dormant there forever more.

Or, it may be a recurring theme in your mind – a faithful companion as you navigate life’s crooked highway.

There is no predicting when a certain piece of music will leave the draughty halls of memory and voila! suddenly be right there playing at the forefront of your mind.

Sometimes the trigger is a person you suddenly think of decades after you last met.

Sometimes the trigger is a return to a place you once lived in when you were young and carefree or young and anguished.

Sometimes you have to accept that the recurrence of this piece of music in your life is like so much else – a mystery.

Why I should have woken up last night with, ‘The Third Man Theme’ dancing through my consciousness is beyond my understanding.

But, there indubitably, it was.

So, nothing for it but to patrol the shelves in my music library (adorned with a framed photograph of Bernard Herrmann) labelled, ‘Movie Soundtracks’ and seek out The Third Man and match my drowsy remembrance with the real thing.

The valves warm up, the stylus caresses the vinyl and

I think the dance listening to this tune inspired me to perform must have a long Germanic tongue twisting name but whatever it’s called it sure sets the limbs a twirl and gets the blood singing at 6 o’clock in the morning!

The Homeric Anton Karas and his magic Zither.

Embed from Getty Images

 

Now, obviously having played the record four or five times without in anyway exhausting it’s charm and effervescent brilliance there was nothing to do but to ascend the spiral staircase to the Film Library and make my way to the, ‘Film Noir’ shelves (adorned with a framed photograph of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer) and pull out my Blu Ray copy of Carol Reed’s 1949 masterpiece and settle down to breakfast in war torn Vienna with Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard.

Of course, scanning the credits (and I’m the kind of person who always scans the credits) I was reminded that a very important contribution to the film’s moral complexity and fluidity of tone and character was supplied by novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene.

Embed from Getty Images

*

Graham Greene had a cinematic imagination and a compulsion to test how real men and women wrestled agonisingly with the moral and philosophical dilemmas of living through the personal, social and cultural catastrophe of War.

Image result for vienna 1945 images

What made some people behave heroically while others plumbed depths of depravity?

Was survival the supreme value in such times?

What hope is there for love and loyalty and friendship amid the falling bombs, the machine gun fire and the starvation?

Greene had been a film critic and knew that there was only one British Film Director with the eye and the empathy to bring such a story to haunting life on the screen – Carol Reed.

*

Reed had been a Film Maker since the mid 1930s and he had diligently learned his trade.

The two films preceding, ‘The Third Man’ –  ‘Odd Man Out’ and, ‘The Fallen Idol’ were both highly atmospheric and technically impeccable productions.

Reed knew how to make the camera tell the story, how to frame actors and action, how to plant suggestion in the mind of the audience, how to build and release tension, how to reveal and obscure character and how to thread humour and surprise through a narrative.

He knew that music, underscoring or prefiguring image, made a film burn itself into the imagination of an audience.

Reed knew that you had to conjure up some scenes which would stay forever in the dreams of the audience and that the key to those scenes was rarely plot but lighting, dialogue, scenery and atmosphere.

Some people, and I’m in that company, will tell you that 90% of ensuring success for a film is casting.

So, your film is set in Post War Vienna where the buildings lie in ruins and where every shade of human virtue and vice is present in public or in the shadows.

You need a, larger than life ‘Villain’ who has enigmatic charm as well as a sulphurous lack of scruples.

Someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and who is always able to convince himself (and most of the audience) that whatever he chooses to do is entirely reasonable in all the circumstances.

These are not normal times – you cant expect me to be bound by those rules we followed before (if we ever did) can you?

You need an actor who has presence, who fills the screen, seducing your attention.

You need an actor who can be a Con Man who believes his own Con.

You need an actor who can deliver oracular dialogue while expertly balancing deadly seriousness with black humour.

You need Orson Welles.

Embed from Getty Images

*

Now, your, ‘Hero’ is not going to be a charismatic match for Orson Welles (who could be!).

No, you’re going to need an actor who in perilous times is more than tempted by the charms of an old friend.

An actor who struggles to know what’s the right thing to do in all the circumstances.

An actor who is weary and reluctant to act until he’s forced by events to act.

An event like falling in love.

An event like seeing, being unable not to see once seen, how terrible the results of a sulphurous lack of scruples can be for the innocent who didn’t know enough to get out of the way.

You need a Hero who is troubled and who will remain troubled whatever course of action he chooses in the end.

The sound of the bullet dies in the air but it will echo in your soul forever more.

The woman walks past you and keeps on walking and all you can do is draw on your cigarette and start your own lonely walk into the future,

You need Joseph Cotton.

Embed from Getty Images

*

Every Film Noir has to have a role for an actress who can believably drive or accompany a seemingly rational man as he commits terrible acts which will lead almost inevitably to self destruction.

The camera has to love her.

The ghost of electricity has to howl in the bones of her face.

You’d do anything for her.

Anything.

You’ll never really know her and though that drives you mad it spurs you on too.

She can lead you to the gallows or walk away from you without a backward glance but you know, you know, she’ll never leave your dreams.

Never.

This film is set in Austria after a World War so you’re going to need an enigmatic European beauty.

You’re going to need Alida Valli.

Image result for alida valli images

*

Assemble all those elements – the script, the location, the cast and the music – and all you have to do now is ensure all the elements cohere perfectly into a work which once seen can never be forgotten.

Begin at the beginning with a title sequence which introduces the mysterious theme tune and the expectant audience, breathless in the dark, is yours – Roll ‘em Carol!

*

The Third Man was an enormous box office and critical success and was immediately recognised as a haunting work of art.

And, everyone recognised that Anton Karas’ music was absolutely integral to the triumph of the film as a whole.

Carol Reed had showed astonishing perception in realising that the musician he chanced upon when out for a night carousing in Vienna had a sound that would enchant tne world.

And, it was surely this enchantment that The Band saught to invoke when they recorded their own version for their homage to the music of their youth with the Album, ‘Moondog Matinee’.

Image result for the band 1970s images

*

There’s something of the ‘There’s no one watching let’s play what we like’ sound of The Basement Tapes recreated here.

Kick your shoes off, set your rocker rockin’ and light up your biggest grin!

*

The Third Man Theme has a hypnotic quality that calls out a cross the decades.

Certainly it called out to Folk Maestro Martin Carthy who tends to not be recognised enough for his distinctively brilliant guitar playing.

Remedied right here Martin!

*

To ensure you end up with a great film you’ve got to have a great ending.

The audience leaves the cinema with the ending burned into their minds and looking at the film as a whole in the light of the ending.

Great Films have great endings.

Think of, ‘Le Quatre Cent Coups’, ‘Ikiru’ or, The Searchers’.

Think, above all of the devastating final scene of The Third Man.

*

For Ramon – a true man of Film and a true Friend.

Gordon Lightfoot, Nanci Griffith, Ricky Scaggs & Tony Rice : 10 Degrees & Getting Colder

Where you headed?

East to the Sunrise or West to the setting Sun?

South to the Jungles or North to the Forests?

Where you headed?

One time I was sheltering from the wind outside of Medicine Hat and when the 18 wheeler pulled to a halt the driver asked, ‘Where you headed?’ so I said, ‘North to Alaska, through the woods and the frozen lakes. I’m trying to find the straight path again’.

‘Hop in – I hope you like Gordon Lightfoot ’cause I got nothing but Gord on these tapes and we sure got a ways to go to get you to Alaska.’

Embed from Getty Images

Where you headed?

It can be read as a very specific question or as a very general question or as both – like all the really interesting questions.

We are all headed somewhere or away from somewhere endlessly redrawing the map of our lives.

We all have miles to go before we sleep – we just don’t know how many miles we still have left on the clock.

Where you headed?

Sometimes the world falls on your shoulders and wherever you’ve fetched up, for whatever reason, you find it’s time to head back to where you were raised up to lick your wounds and get ready to ramble again.

And, if you want a true voice to accompany you down the road as you try to find that straight path let me tell you that you’ll struggle to find a truer one than that of Gordon Lightfoot.

Gordon knows all about the ramblin’, about the taverns, about the gamblin’, about the lovin’ and all the extremes of temperature we encounter on the road.

You know this is a man who has been places and seen things and heard all kinds of stories from all kinds of men and women.

Stories you can’t help but recognise when they’re told in Gord’s rich baritone croon.

‘He was standin’ by the highway with a sign that just said ‘Mother’ ….’

Now I don’t usually find the citations issued by august bodies when inducting an artist to the company of the great and good worth quoting but in the case of Gordon Lightfoot’s elevation to a companion of The Order of Canada I’m gonna make an exception :

‘A singer-songwriter, musician and poet, Gordon Lightfoot has been telling our stories for over five decades. He possesses a unique ability to blend contemporary urban music with our traditional roots. Genuine and reserved, he has a down to earth style that defies categorization’.

Where you headed?

Down the road a piece?

Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

Santiago de Compostela?

Rain fallin’ on your shoes?

Feet almost frozen?

World fallin’ on your shoulders?

Where you headed?

Keep on keepin’ on.

Someone might just pull off on the shoulder and you’ll be on your way again.

But, remember people don’t usually stop if you don’t put up a sign.

‘Won’t you listen to me brother ….’

Nanci Griffith has always had a very good ear for Songs.

She’s a troubadour like Gordon Lightfoot and knows that some songs bloom every time they’re played – season after season after season.

You just have to respect ’em, sing ’em right and let ’em fly!

Nanci sings, ’10 Degrees ..’ just right.

Where you headed?

Rome? Jerusalem? Mecca? Kedarnath?

I’d advise you to travel light – you’re carrying enough baggage in that heart of yours.

Where you headed?

Wherever it is you might never get there.

You might turn back.

You might find the road you set out on takes a turning you couldn’t have imagined from looking at the map.

You might find your steps matched by another’s and decide to set off together on another path altogether.

Where you headed?

Now, let’s turn to the high lonesome sound of Bluegrass aces Tony Rice and Ricky Scaggs.

When it comes to pickin’ clean and singin’ sweet you can’t, just can’t, beat Tony and Ricky.

They’ve logged up sideman credits with marquee names but I always like the taste of the pure drop myself so let’s hear their clear as a mountain stream version of, ’10 degrees …’

‘ .. he held the sign up higher where no decent soul could miss it .. It was ten degrees or colder down by Boulder Dam that day ..’

 

Where you headed?

Even if you’re following a path that’s been trod a million times before you’ll leave only your own footprints and no one can walk the way for you.

Where you headed?

Arcadia? Atlantis? Camelot? Elysian Fields?

Wherever you set out for you’ll find you’re changed by the journey even if you never reach the fabled destination.

Accept the wind – at your back or in your face.

Where you headed?

Lift your eyes to the sunny hill far ahead.

Walk on Pilgrim!

Walk on!

Where you headed?

‘Now he’s traded off his Martin but his troubles are not over ..’.

Sing it Gordon.

Where you headed?

Listen.

‘He was standin’ by the highway with a sign that just said ‘Mother’ when he heard a driver comin’ ..’

Where you headed?

Bon Voyage.