Guitar Visionary Kelly Joe Phelps plays Bob Dylan & Leadbelly

‘… Kelly Joe Phelps plays, sings, and writes the blues. HOLD UP before you lock that in – forget about songs in a twelve bar three chord progression with a two line repeat and answer rhyme structure – though he can certainly do that when he wants to.

I’m talking about a feeling, a smoky, lonesome, painful – yet somehow comforting groove that lets you know that you are not alone – even when you’re blue. Play on brother.’ (Steve Earle)

‘I’ve heard Kelly Joe mention that he’s been inspired by people like Roscoe Holcomb, Robert Pete Williams, Dock Boggs, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and others. He seems to have absorbed all this (and all kinds of other stuff as well) and come back with something all his own.

Sounds like he’s coming from the inside out. The bottom up. He’s not just playing ‘AT’ the music or trying to recreate or imitate something that’s happened in the past. He seems to have tapped into the artery somehow. There’s a lot going on in between and behind the notes. Mystery. He’s been an inspiration to me.’  (Bill Frisell)

Modern music is saturated by the sound of you know what’s coming next, auto tuned, multi-tracked guitars.

Drowning in this aural tide you can forget that, in the right hands, the guitar can be a questing instrument; an instrument which can sound the depths of human emotions in this life of dust and shadows.

When Kelly Joe Phelps plays the guitar whether slide or finger picking what you hear is the sound of a musician who has indeed tapped into the artery.

I first encountered him more than two decades ago now at the tiny 12 Bar Club in London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley, Denmark Street.

Standing a couple of feet away from him I was able to read, as he tuned up, the scrawled set list at his feet. It included:

‘Goodnight Irene’, ‘The House Carpenter’, ‘Hard Time Killing Floor Blues’, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’.

Fueled by my early evening libations I leaned towards him and said, ‘Wow, you’re going to have to be very good indeed to hold us with those songs without someone muttering every two seconds, ‘… Not as good as so and so’s version.’

Sensibly, he answered only with a wry smile before stilling the room in in the next hour with an astonishing display of instrumental virtuosity harnessed to a deep emotional understanding of both the Blues and the Gospel traditions.

Songs that were veritable foundation texts (in some hands museum pieces) came shockingly alive as Kelly Joe fearlessly explored the territory they opened up – voyaging wherever his heart and fertile musical imagination took him.

Listen now to his version of the canonical classic Leadbelly’s, ‘Goodnight Irene’ and marvel at the deliberate beauty and power of deep sea sway he brings to it.

Ever since I heard this take on Irene this is the one that plays in my dreams.

 

 

Born in the dwindling days of the 1950s Kelly Joe began his musical career as a bass player in modal and free Jazz combos where the ability to improvise and react to your fellow musicians was paramount.

At the same time, as an alert listener, he was immersing himself in the core deep works of artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and Dock Boggs.

Artists who made singing in the blood music which still casts a profound spell. Taking the slide guitar as his vehicle to explore this universe he began to cast spells of his own.

Kelly Joe’s music is all about reaching, reaching, for the other shore.

Listening to Kelly Joe play James Milton Black’s 19th Century hymn, ‘When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder’ there can be no doubt that we are brought in soul’s sight of that other shore.

Now, if you are a musician of Kelly Joe’s class and intuitive understanding of what makes the songs of the , ‘Old Weird America’ so profound and eternally relevant you will struggle to find such rich material in contemporary songbooks.

Happily, the Keeper of American Song, Bob Dylan, has laid down a storehouse of mystery filled dancing spells which musicians of spirit will always want and need to explore.

Bob once said that he saw himself a song and dance man. Kelly Joe takes him at his word here whirling, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ round a mystic Maypole.

As his career has progressed Kelly Joe has featured more original material. His own fine songs show how deep he has drunk at the well of the blues and gospel masters.

 

Kelly Joe’s music is filled with ancient lore and wholly alive in the here and now.

Surrender to his spell.

Notes:

There is a handy 2 CD Kelly Joe compilation, ‘Roll Away the Blues’ on the Nascente label which I highly recommend.

My own favourites in his excellent catalogue are:

‘Lead Me On’

‘Roll Away the Stone’

‘Shiny Eyed Mr Zen’

‘Beggar’s Oil’

‘Brother Sinner and the Whale’

Kelly Joe is a transfixing live performer. Seek out You tube for some wonderful clips.

Guitar buffs should seek out his finger picking tutorials.

 

Rosanne Cash, Eric Bibb, John Phillips and Scott McKenzie sing Hedy West : 500 Miles

‘We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there’  (Pascal Mercier)

‘The desire to go home that is a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be a point of intersection of all the lines drawn though all the stars, to be the constellation- maker and the center of the world, that center called love.’ (Rebecca Solnit)

‘You can’t go home again.’ (Thomas Wolfe)

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’ (Hedy West)

Much meaning can be expressed in so few letters of the alphabet

Just four will do.

Good. Evil. Luck. Fate. Time. Fear. Hope. Hate. Womb. Tomb. Life. Love.

And one four letter word might contain them all.

Home. Home.

The home you were born in; the home you grew up in, the home that was your shelter and refuge.

The home you left with tears in your eyes.

The home that lives forever in your heart and your mind’s eye.

The home that was your prison.

The home you left without a backward look.

The home you’ll never go back to now you’ve made a home of your own.

Home, home, home.

Should you write a true song evoking the longing for home when the tides of time have taken you far away you’ll find singers to sing that song for evermore.

Hedy West wrote such a song, ‘500 Miles’

 

Crystal clear. Mountain dew.

Banjo, voice, Presence, centuries of the ballad tradition.

Fiddle tunes and songs called Rueben’s Train, The Railroader’s Lament and 900 Miles all swirl in the imagination of a young woman growing up in a home suffused with tunes and stories and songs.

Great Uncle Gus plays the fiddle, Gradma Lillie plays the Banjo and has a bottomless well of ballads and laments that seem to float on the breezes all around.

Dad, Don West, is a poet (‘Clods of Southern Earth’), a labor organiser, a civil rights activist, an oral historian and inspiration.

west_don_photo

Hedy has a voice. She plays the Banjo in her own style.

She has the austere gravitas of a classical bard.

When she sings the room stills. When she sings she has something to say.

She has a calling.

A calling to tell the stories of the disregarded rural poor.

A calling to tell their stories in songs that express, and more honour, the depth of their struggles and the fullness of their humanity.

In a career of more than five decades taking her from folk contests in her native Georgia to Greenwich Village, Carnegie Hall, London and venues all over the globe it’s a calling she fulfills with steadfast hope, faith and love.

In the 1950s folk world a song as true and singable as 500 Miles scorches across the continent like a raging forest fire.

It instantly becomes a folk standard with each group or artist adapting the lyric and instrumentation to suit their own style and the image of home they carry with them.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As far as I can tell the first notable recording of the song is by The Journeymen in 1961.

Now, you’d have to be a scholar of the American Folk Revival to sagely nod once their name is mentioned. Yet, almost all of us came to know the members of the group through their later careers.

journeymen

John Phillips became the leader of prolific hit makers The Mamas & the Papas, Scott McKenzie had a whole generation singing, ‘San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair) while Dick Weissman achieved eminence as a banjo picking musicologist and folklorist.

 

Listening to this time suspending version in soft sift black and white dreams I drift through the home of my own childhood.

Streetlights glow the palest yellow as they struggle to penetrate the blanket like London Fog of the 1950s.

Spectral trolley buses are boarded by attentively following their clanging sound until they suddenly loom up before you.

Snow surrounds market stalls piled high with cheap goods sold as wondrous bargains you must not be without – ‘Buy now Mrs! When they’re gone they’re gone!’

Cocooned in a two room first floor flat a young boy, certain in his bones that he is the constellation-maker and centre of the world, learns to read, ‘Treasure Island’ and dreaming of wooden ships, wooden legs, parrots, pirates and buried plunder begins to dream stories of his own.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

As we have seen from the previous post here on The Jukebox when it comes to recognising an American standard Johnny Cash is your go to man.

Johnny took his curatorial role so seriously that he drew up, ‘The List’ – a compendium of great songs he entrusted to his daughter Rosanne.

Following her father’s death Rosanne returned over and over again to The List and the result was a luminously beautiful record featuring haunting tracks like Dylan’s , ‘Girl from the North Country’, ‘Long Black Veil’, Motherless Children’ and, ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’.

The one I come back to the most though is her devoutly heartfelt take on 500 Miles.

Johnny sure would have been proud.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

Great songs call out across the miles, across genres and cultures and across time.

The veteran Acapella group The Persuasions uncover the longing, the loss, the mourning and the journey to the farther shore that awaits us all.

Their Gospel and Spiritual version of 500 Miles makes a congregation of us all.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

500 Miles is a song that speaks from and to the bonds of familial love.

I’ll conclude with a blessed version by a father and son, Leon and Eric Bibb, which has the quality of a foot sore pilgrimage concluding in longed for peace and reconciliation.

‘Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four,

Lord, I’m five hundred miles away from home.’

 

We are all pilgrims.

May we all find peace reconciliation and the home we seek.

Notes:

I love every record made by Hedy West.

Seek out her CDs on the Vanguard, Topic and Bear Family labels for a lifetime of inspirational listening.

The only CD I can find by The Journeymen is, ‘New Directions In Folk Music’ on Collectors Choice from 2010 which is a nice collection of thistledown folk.

Eric and Leon Bibb’s, ‘A Family Affair’ hard to find is a gem well worth the search.

 

Pop Staples : Faith, Friendship & Beguiling Guitar!

 

‘Think where man’s glory most begins and ends and say my glory was my friends’ (WB Yeats)

‘The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.’ (Bob Marley)

Some of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out just exactly who we are.

For some creative artists that pursuit can be both furious and fruitful – consider the late much lamented David Bowie.

But there is a high cost in psychic and emotional wear and tear in living such lives.

Better to my mind to find out who you are early and then just be.

Easier, of course, said than lived.

So, I find that when I encounter that rare person who is entirely comfortable in their own skin and content to be nothing other than themselves I am both surprised and enormously impressed.

And, my ultimate example of such a person would be Roebuck ‘Pop’ Staples; singer, songwriter, guitarist extraordinaire and Patriarch of the greatest Gospel group of the modern era, The Staple Singers.

 

I first saw him some time in the mid 1980s at one of my favourite music venues/watering holes of those times ‘The Borderline’ a small basement club in Charing Cross Road London.

Somehow, that night, Pop through his prophetic guitar, beguiling voice and grace filled songs turned a ramshackle crew of booze hounds and music aficionados into a joyful clapping on the off beat congregation.

The inner lit warmth of Pop’s faith and the transparent sincerity of his belief in the fellowship of mankind made for a transformative experience.

I had expected to be affected by his history and his talent.

I had not expected to be so moved by his person.

Actually to feel I was a better person simply by having been in the same room as him.

With Pop there’s no tortured theology, no secret knowledge for the elect alone.

Instead there’s faith, fellowship, fraternity and guitar playing throbbing with power and portent.

 

 

What more can I say?

Well, just that if you’re looking for some resolutions for 2017 (and every year thereafter) you might listen closely to the lyric above.

And if you want some watchwords as the year progresses you won’t do better than to remember and embody some more wise words Pop lived out every day of his life:

Respect yourself.

Reach out touch a hand – make a friend if you can.

In these troubled times that will certainly do for me

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Eighth Day

Eighth Day :

A Painting by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos 1541 to 1614)                                      

A Poem by Patrick Kavanagh (1904 to 1967)

Music by John Dowland (1563 to 1626) played by Julian Bream, The Chieftains with Nanci Griffith and The Trinity Lavra Choir

 

Our painting today, ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ is a work of blazing, visionary brilliance by El Greco who had the artistic bravery characteristic of genius in all ages.

el-greco-nativity

El Greco depicted the human body and used colour and perspective in a manner that was wholly individual.

The awe inspiring intensity of his vision breaks down any conventional, ‘tutored’ response.

To my mind his art is a true veil shredding glimpse into a co-existing reality : present then and present now.

This painting, more than any other I know, captures the enormity of the event which took place some two thousand years ago.

It is a peerless hymn of exultation and adoration.

Today’s spirit refreshing music comes courtesy of John Dowland who can genuinely be described as a Renaissance Man in view of the time he lived in and the depth of his talents as a composer, Lutenist and singer.

His works will enter your consciousness like a pebble dropped into a pond with ever widening circles of effect.

Julian Bream is another musician with, ‘The Touch’.

Music played by Bream flows purely and naturally from his fingers to our hearts.

 

 

Further music comes from two countries: Russia and Ireland which share a reverence for poets and prophets, visionaries, bards and shamans.

Both have produced more than their fair share of saints, scholars and wayward genuises.

In both lands a sense of the numinous pervades the air and prayers ascend unceasingly heavenward – even in the increasingly secular modern age.

Of course, both countries are filled with a hundred times the number of would be writers to actual page blackening writers and both have to deal with the drunken consequences of frustrated spirituality encountering the demon drink.

Still, veil-piercing poetry and song are central to the cultural life and achievements of Ireland and Russia.

Both peoples love to carouse until they are stupefied yet both are capable of being stilled to silence and tears by a simple lyric or an exquisite slow air.

Let’s listen now to the exquisite, ‘Wexford Carol’ performed by the veritable custodians of Ireland’s traditional music, The Chieftains (here accompanied by a Texas rose, Nanci Griffith).

 

The Wexford Carol may well date back to the twelfth century though it’s widespread popularity is due to the work of William Gratton Flood, who was musical director of Enniscorthy Cathedral in the late 19th century.

The Chieftains play with an authority born of thousands of hours of perfecting their craft as traditional musicians – always respectful of the source material while being alert to each other’s role in bringing a tune to shimmering life.

The Chieftains, led by Piper Paddy Moloney, who has proved to be a natural born networker, have recorded many inspired collaborations with leading artists in many musical genres (though their greatest collaboration is probably with an artist from their own island – Van Morrison).

Here, Nanci Griffith sings the carol with a beguiling gravity befitting the immensity of the events portrayed. Listening I feel as I were marching in a torchlit devotional procession with the same moon that shone over Bethlehem above the sentinel trees of the forest around me.

Next, from a powerhouse of Otthodox Russian monasticism, ‘The Song Of The Magi’. The choir is from the Trinity Lavra (monastery/hermitage) of St Sergius in Sergiyev Posad some 50 miles from Moscow.

This has to be the sound of the breath of the Russian soul. Russian Othodox services provide doorways to contemplate the divine – an opportunity in stillness to be lifted into a different realm of being.

Giving ourselves over to such an experience can be profoundly uplifting and over time transformative.

 

 

Russian spirituality opens itself to mystery and awe accepting that grace cannot be willed but only gratefully accepted.

The Magi travelled long miles in search of a new kind of King and gave their gifts to a babe in a manger. Perhaps, listening to this work we could learn to give the gift of an attentive soul.

The poem today, ‘A Christmas Childhood’ is provided by one of the great figures of 20th Century Irish Literature, the sage of Iniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

‘Cassioepeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon – the Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
‘Can’t he make it talk –
The melodian’. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door-post
With my penknife’s big blade –
There was a little one for cutting tobacco.
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse’.

 

This post dedicated to the deceased members of The Chieftains:
Fiddler Martin Fay, Tin Whistle and Bodhran player Sean Potts and the mystical doyen of the Irish Harp, Derek Bell.

 

 

Christmas Cornucopia 2016 : Fifth Day

Fifth Day featuring :

A Painting by Taddeo Gaddi (1290 to 1366)

A Poem by Patric Dickinson (1919 to 1994)

Music by Charles Lloyd, Louis Armstrong and Kay Starr

Today’s painting is by the Florentine Taddeo Gaddi who was the star pupil of the great Master, Giotto.

His, ‘The Angelic Announcement to the Shepherds’ can be seen in the Baroncelli Chapel within Santa Croce in his native Florence.

It is a wonderfully dramatic painting.

 

gaddi_taddeo_announcement

An Angel acts as God’s messenger alerting humankind to an event upon which all history will pivot.

The Sheep are stirring and the Dog’s keen senses alert him to the messenger from afar.

As the Angel speaks eternity merges with linear time.

How could the waking Shepherd find the words to tell his sleeping companion what he has learned?

Surely all he could say was:

‘Let us go – someone we must see is waiting for us just down the hill. Come now!’

It is an invitation which remains open.

Today’s new music selection is cool, clear water, drawn from a deep well.

Saxophonist Charles Lloyd is a musical pilgrim who has journeyed, as so may have, through trial and turbulence in search of a place of peace.

 

 

If this stunning version of, ‘Shenandoah’ from his 2016 released Blue Note CD, ‘I Long to See You’ is anything to go by he has found that place and a way of sharing that blessing with us.

The rhythm section of Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland and the stellar guitar duo of Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz add gorgeous shimmers of light as Lloyd horn calls us each of  us to set off on our own Camino.

Onward!

Our Sleigh is picking up a very special passenger today. He’s here to sing and play on a Christmas song, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?’ that has the effervescence of a fine champagne.

Of course, I’m talking about Louis Armstrong.

If they ever get round to carving four heads into a mountain to celebrate musicians in the way that Presidents are celebrated at Mount Rushmore there can be no argument among men and women of reason that the first head to be carved must be that of Louis Armstrong.

 

Zat You, Santa? Zat You, Louis?

I could set out an exhaustive list of his astounding achievements as the preeminent musician of the 20th century with special reference to his role as the pioneer genius who transformed a pastime into an art form and who influenced everyone who ever had the good fortune to hear him play.

Others far better qualified than I have written major scholarly tomes on the subject. So, I will limit myself to a few remarks on the effect hearing the great man has had on me.

When I hear Louis play (at every period of his career) I hear the sound of a master musician revelling in the sheer joy of making music.

It was as if he lived and breathed through playing his horn – singing a song of exultation; using without reserve the wondrous gifts of imagination and creative daring yoked to technical brilliance that made him a such a unique musician.

Add to that his personal warmth and ebullience and you have a musician and a man who simply made everyone who encountered him feel better, more human and more glad to be alive.

Isn’t what Santa Claus is supposed to do too?

Next a singer, the late Kay Starr, who knew how to swing and who had the chops to share a bandstand with the finest musicians of her era.

Born on a reservation in Oklahoma with an Iroquois father and an Irish/Native American mother she was as American as you can be.

Maybe that’s how she could sing the hell out of any song in any genre of American popular music.

Kay had an inbuilt sense of rhythm and the ability to musically inhabit and sell a lyric. Listen here to how she brings out the drive and the humour of, ‘Everybody’s Waitin’ For The Man With The Bag’.

One of the co-writers of the song was Dudley Brooks who featured earlier in the list featuring Elvis Presley.

I can’t honestly say I have done everything I should this year (extra special good) but I can recognise an extra special good singer when I hear one and Kay Starr must be one of the best and merriest we ever did have!

Today’s poem is, ‘Advent: A Carol’ by Patric Dickinson a writer who revered and translated the Classical poets while looking at the world himself with a sharply individual measured intelligence.

‘What did you hear?
Said stone to echo:
All that you told me
Said echo to stone.

Tidings, said echo,
Tidings, said stone,
Tidings of wonder
Said echo to stone.

Who then shall hear them?
Said stone to echo:
All people on earth,
Said echo to stone.

Turned into one,
Echo and stone,
The world for all coming
Turned into one.’

 

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.

 

Johnny Cash & Brother Claude Ely – Aint No Grave!

‘In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed … Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting?’
(St Paul 1 Corinthians)

‘When Brother Claude Ely would get up to sing, I mean he would just get a key on the guitar and when he started singing, it was like the heavens would open up’ (Dennis Hensley lead guitarist at Brother Ely’s Revival meetings)

‘Aint No grave gonna hold my body down .. Gonna get up out of the ground!’ (Brother Claude Ely)

Christmas Cracker 5

As I said in CC1 I often, to the delight and/or outrage of my friends, casually drop the name of an obscure artist into conversation stating that they recorded one of the greatest records ever made. I then respond to the blank stares by swooning in mock horror while exclaiming, ‘What do you mean you’ve never heard of ….’

Well, I’m gonna do it again today – what do you mean you’ve never heard of Brother Claude Ely?

He only recorded one of the greatest records ever made! I’ll brook no doubt about it, ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’ represents an inspirational peak in American gospel music and is a cornerstone of the treasury of American popular music in the 20th Century.

Prepare to be amazed!

Hearing that it’s no surprise to learn that Brother Claude, a heavy set man sporting a gold front tooth, wearing a white suit and cowboy hat, prowled his stage like an impatient panther. Preaching, singing and praying like a man possessed he worked up a torrential sweat that necessitated tender ministrations from a series of acolytes.

Now, you can unquestionably hear the influence of Claude’s soul shaking testifying in the epochal careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. If there is such a genre as Rockabilly Gospel Brother Claude was its only true monarch.

Elvis’ mother, the sainted Gladys, definitely attended the electrifying revival meetings where Brother Claude preached the word of The Lord and set the house alight with his fiery flailing guitar and burning bush vocals.

They say Elvis himself was blessed by Brother Claude and saucer eyed he must surely have learned a lot from Claude about how to lift an audience to ecstasy.

Brother Claude was born in Pucketts Creek, Virginia in 1922. He was brought up in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition and it soon became clear that Claude was one of those who felt the spirit profoundly.

The legend goes that he wrote, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ as a TB stricken 12 year old in 1934. A Sears guitar was brought to him in his sick bed and then .. ‘By the hand of God my fingers began to play the chords and a voice came into my mouth to sing. From that day on I have been playing guitar and singing’.

Following spells as a miner and WW2 serviceman Claude became a full time preacher in 1949 – a minister in his own Free Pentecostal Church. He carried the divine message message with him as he criss crossed The Appalachians singing and preaching.

Arriving in a new town he would drive one handed while bellowing into a bullhorn, ‘Tonight I’ll set up a tent in the middle of town – please come out and experience the fire and Holy Ghost’.

As soon as those physicists at CERN figure out how to set up a time machine I’m gonna book a trip back to Apallachia in the early 1950s and get with the Spirit with Brother Claude!

The canny Sid Nathan at King Records out of Cincinnati recognised how powerful a draw Brother Claude was and arranged in 1953 for a live recording to be made at a Courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky.

So, we have the manna of a captured performance from Brother Claude at the height of his very considerable powers.

In addition to his travelling jubilee Claude reached out across the airwaves through his, ‘Gospel Ranger Show’ which greatly expanded the reach of his preaching and the number of his devotees.

Brother Claude raised roofs, wrecked churches and burned barns all the way through to his death, at 55, in 1978. And, when he died he was performing what else but, ‘Where Could I Go But To The Lord’.

Where indeed! Brother Claude Ely, after all his holy exertions, is at rest now. Waiting for the trumpet to sound. Waiting for the trumpet to sound.

Johnny Cash, one of the Mount Rushmore figures of American music, was a great song collector. Throughout his life and career he had an ear out for remarkable songs. Songs that would sing in the blood and challenge the spirit. Songs that he could incarnate; bringing his extraordinary physical and spiritual intensity to them.

Johnny Cash, to his cost, knew all about the fallibility of mankind, all about sin and redemption. So, when he sang a Gospel song he was always a pilgrim who knew that his journey home would not be without snares and painful desert wanderings.

And, as death loomed large, in his epic ‘American’ recordings he set down a one foot in time, one foot in eternity, version of, ‘Ain’t No Grave’ that will haunt you.

This is the sound of a man, a pilgrim, who is bone tired, footsore and weary from decades of journeying. The ominous simplicity of the recording suggests a man jettisoning the inessential as with courage he knowingly, painfully, head bowed, eyes dimmed, readies himself for the last few strides of his earthly journey.

It’s a journey whatever our faith or lack of faith, whatever life we have lived that we will all, one day coming, have to make.

For some, listening to Brother Claude and Brother John lightens the load we carry.

Notes:

Ace Records has issued a fine compilation of Brother Claude’s King recordings called, ‘Satan Get Back!’ The 23 glorious tracks it contains should be in every collection.

Macel Ely, the nephew of Brother Claude, has with the assistance of the wholly wonderful Dust To Digital publishing/recording company put together a superb biography/oral history complete with CD called,’Ain’t No Grave: The Life and Legacy of Brother Claude Ely’.

The American Recordings series by Johnny Cash, produced by Rick Rubin, may constitute one of the greatest American autobiographies.