Dave Edmunds, Geraint Watkins & Johnnie Allan : Promised Land

‘The American lives … for his goals, for the future. Life for him is always becoming .. ‘ (Albert Einstein)

‘ To be an American is to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, in so far as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.’ (Leslie Fielder)

‘Well she was an American Girl raised on promises – she couldn’t help thinking there was a little more to life somewhere else’ (Tom Petty)

Americans are always on the move. The road, the river and the very sky above all offer up territory to be travelled through in search of a new life – a fuller, truer life than the life you just happened to be born in.

American lives, at least in the imagination, can always be started again, reborn and remade in a new place in the new world. And, what else but the Promised Land would a bible drenched culture call this fabled home away from home?

Songs about moving on, moving away, moving up and moving forward are a constant theme within the tradition of American song.

Many American songwriters like Bruce Springsten and John Fogerty are virtual voyageurs and cartographers of the American spirit sending back enticing reports from the road detailing the wonders and discoveries to be found somewhere beyond the narrow confines of a childhood home’s city limits.

No songwriter in popular music has excelled Chuck Berry in converying a sense of physical and imaginative movement in the very fabric of his compositions.

A Chuck Berry song usually leaps into life like a Coupe de Ville accelerating powerfully, smoothly and thrillingly away from a stop light onto a beckoning open road.

Chuck will take one glance at his rear view mirror but his heart, his mind and his imagination are engaged with the seemingly unlimited promises of the highway over the hill.

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One aspect of his songwriting genius is the way he rhythmicallly marries his words and his melodies so that the songs glide and flow carrying the listeners attention all the while.

A Chuck Berry song always tells a story, often in the great American tradition a tall story, that instantly grabs your attention even as you fasten your seatbelt for the exciting ride ahead.

His songs are filed with acute journalistic observations of American life and culture expressed with an artists airy zest and élan.

They are almost immediately memorable and musicians know that played with attack they offer guaranteed approval from any audience, anywhere.

If you don’t love Chuck Berry’s songs you ain’t no rock ‘n’ roller!

Promised Land, one of his last great songs, was written during his unfortunate prison experience in the early 1960s.

It seems he needed to borrow an atlas from the prison library to plot the, ‘Poor Boy ‘s’ epic journey across a continent in search of freedom and a better life (a life no doubt mirrored in Chuck’s imagination as the doors clanged shut each prison evening).

The artful use of the atlas is clearly reflected in the mellifluous use of the place names sprinkled throughout the song. The song gleams with life giving detail; the (Grey)hound stranding them in Birminghmam, the Poor Boy sitting pretty above Alberquerque in his Houston bought silk suit, the thirteen minutes waiting time before the jet would arrive at the terminal gate.

We feel we could take over the call back to Tidewater 4109 and tell the folks back home all about Poor Boy’s adventures.

I’ve chosen Johnny Allen’s 1971 deliriously driving Swamp Pop take on the song to play here because it’s a magnificent version and because I love the sound of the accordion (played here by Cajun hero Belton Richard) in overdrive.

This is a version of the song that makes me feel three floors drunk even when I’ve been drinking water all day!

I also feel sure, at least for the duration of the song, that my dancing would surely burn up the hardwood floor of any South Louisiana Honky Tonk lucky enough to have me visiting.

As a special treat I’ m also sharing a storming live version from The Dave Edmunds Band featuring the cream of British Rock n Roll musicians including Andy Fairweather Low and the magnificent Geraint Watkins on accordion.

Geraint, the Celtic Cajun, had been in Johnnie Allen’s band when he toured Britain in the early 1980s and here he brings a wonderful woozy swagger to the song that makes me want to hit replay every time I hear it.

I wonder whether California, the Poor Boy’s Promised Land, really did turn out to be flowing with milk and honey.

For wherever you go you travel with the baggage of your own history. You can change your name and your Zipcode with ease but changing yourself?

But that’s a story and a song theme for another day on the Jukebox.

Today let’s just turn up the dial and revel in the journey :

‘Left my home in Norfolk Virginia …

Notes:

Johnnie Allen:

Johnnie was christened John Allen Guillot in Rayne Louisiana in 1938.

He was a Cajun farm boy with Spanish and French genes and a distinguished musical heritage in that a great uncle was the great accordionist and pioneer recording artist Joseph Falcon (check out his wonderful, ‘Allons a Lafayette’ to transport yourself back to the late 1920s).

He was gigging from his earliest teenage years and proving himself to be an affecting singer. With his band the Krazy Kats from the late 1950s he proved a master of the delicious musical confection called, Swamp Pop’ which built on the Cajun base with seasonings of rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly, country and rhythm and blues music.

His, ‘Lonely Days and Lonely Nights’ from 1958 is a staple of South Louisiana culture. Throughout the 1960s he pursued his music career while developing a distinguished career in education.

He combines his love and expertise in music and education as the author of two excellent books on Cajun culture :

‘Memories: A Pictorial History of South Louisiana Music’ and, ‘Born To Be A Loser’ a fascinating portrait of the troubled life of the singer and songwriter Jimmy Donley.

Johnnie has proved to be a marvellous advocate for his native culture.

There is an excellent compilation of his recording history entitled, ‘Promised Land’ on the British Ace label.

Floyd Soileau:

Floyd Soileau is one of the regional independent producers whose musical and commercial awareness were crucial to the rich development of American musical life in the post second world war period.

Operating out of Ville Platte as a DJ and record shop owner he had a keen eye for talent and soon his Swallow and Jin labels were producing outstanding traditional French language Cajun records as well as Swamp Pop sides.

Take the time to listen to complications of these labels and you’ll enjoy a hugely enjoyable eduction in Louisiana’s musical culture featuring a roster of legendary talent.

Promised Land – The history of a hit:

Promised Land, Chuck Berry’s song from 1964, was recorded by Johnnie Allen in 1971 and was a regional favourite.

In 1974 the ever alert British DJ and author Charlie Gillett issued it in the UK on his Oval label as the lead single on his magnificent compilation of South Louisiana music, ‘Another Saturday Night’ (now available on the Ace label).

Amazingly some 8000 sides were sold enough to approach the outskirts of the singles charts. In 1980 it was reissued through the punk/pub rock label Stiff and again sold well.

1982 saw it issued again as a single and as part of the compilation. Johnnie Allen toured Britain and showed himself to be a winning and dynamic performer.

Finally it was included on a catch all Virgin collection called, ‘Country Legends” in 2006. It has now been awarded a gold disc for achieving sales of over a million copies as a single and as part of collections.

Geraint Watkins:

Geraint is a musician I seem to have been watching ever since I discovered the joys of live music in the early 1970s.

He is a hugely talented singer, accordionist and keyboard player good enough to play with Paul McCartney, Van Morrison and Nick Lowe.

His solo work is filed with deeply felt and beautifully played songs. In particular look out for the incandescent, ‘Only A Rose’ from his superlative CD, ‘In A Bad Mood’.

For all his distinguished service with the music world’s top table artists a part of me will always remember with most affection his time with bar band maestros The Balham Alligators who dispensed crazy Cajun delights week after week in a London music pub I used to frequent, ‘The Hare And Hounds’.

Frequently both the band and audience were very well ‘refreshed’ and evenings phased in a blur of delirious delight. I will never forget and always treasure the sight of Geraint, dressed in shorts and unmatched socks with a sleeping dog at his feet, launching into his own brilliant, ‘Marie Marie’ with the audience roaring him along.

This post is dedicated to the memory of the late Charlie Gillett.

He was a pioneering popular music historian, a gifted writer and a marvellous radio broadcaster. He was generous in sharing his deep though lightly worn knowledge and he was a ceaseless advocate for the best music whether it was from Tennessee or Timbuktu.

He is the Patron Saint of The Immortal Jukebox and the best teacher and mentor I’ve ever known.

Muhammad Ali : The Supporting Cast – Bundini Brown

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At the court of a King, and Muhammad Ali is nothing less than a king, there must always be a licensed fool : a Jester ; someone who while embodying the spirit of anarchy and ridicule also knows, to preserve their life and position, when to bow the knee and when to sing the praises of their liege.

A Jester, someone who is by nature a rule breaker, has to push the boundaries of taste, manners and position but not forget that there are boundaries – which sooner or later must be enforced to preserve the system as a whole.

Drew Brown, universally known as, ‘Bundini’, occupied this role for the Greatest with festive wit, finesse and wholehearted distinction from the days of youthful glory in 1963 through the ensuing stratospheric ascent, the triumphs, the comebacks and comedowns down to the last unutterably poignant fight with Trevor Berbick in 1981.

Despite a five year exile from the court for flagrantly ignoring the Nation of Islam morality which held firm sway in the camp in the mid and late 1960s he emerges from all the reputable histories as a key figure in Ali’s court.

He was born in 1928 and spent his youth in Florida before, barely into his teens, joining first the US Navy and then the merchant marine. He roamed the globe and learned how to look out for himself, how to drink (he loved to drink and went on shore leave binges throughout his life) and how to mock and outmanoeuvre authority.

He was a tough street poet and philosopher who figured out that God was best thought of as, ‘Shorty’ – the guy you might disregard but who knew everything about you and who you would have to reckon with some sweet day.

He shared a generous love of live and humanity, energy, ego and quick witted humour with his master. They had a deep bond and recognised the distinction in the other.

Bundini was usually aware that while his own talents were far from negligible, with their skilful use an important element in preparing Ali for each battle, they were as different in scale and impact to the world at large as moonlight is to sunlight.

From time to time he fell into the Jester’s trap of overestimating his own importance but an actual or metaphorical cuff around the ear soon cured that. A king may be teased but not taunted.

In partnership they lit up the world as supreme patter merchants and travelling players who performed with as much brio to an audience of one as they did to the TV audience of millions.

Throughout Ali’s career they put on a kind of peripatetic medicine show selling and demonstrating a genuine elixir of life which bottled a 100 per cent proof mixture of drama, excitement, passion, skill and wonder.

Together their act was eyebrow raising, heart lifting, spirit surging, smile inducing, head shakingly outrageous and entirely wonderful.

No Don Draper, million dollar Madison Avenue advertising team, could have devised more successful promotional campaigns than those devised off the cuff by Bundini and Ali.

Bundini was there with the net and the honey when they marched outside Sonny Liston’s house when angling for the first title fight.

He was there, boosting the hysteria at the weigh in for that fight, as they yelled over and over the immortal lines:

‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – Rumble young man rumble!’.

Poor Sonny thought he was dealing with lunatics and got his mind thoroughly messed up.

Bundini was there to echo and amplify Ali’s preachers calls and to spur him to greater flights of oratory to win the audience for their cause.

He was in the corner for the fights and while it was properly Angelo Dundee who set the strategy and was in command of the back up team it was Bundini’s voice you could hear clearest amid the maelstrom, ‘Dance Champ, Dance!’ ‘End the Show, End the Show!’.

Bundini lived every moment of every round: delighting in the Champ’s jabs and feints and the audacious brilliance of his combinations while wincing when he was tagged by his opponents.

It was Bundini, in the dawning early morning light, who could risk the wrath of the sleeping giant and cajole Ali to put on the track suit and pound the roads – putting the endurance into those dancing legs.

Bundini through his own largeness of life could charge Ali’s batteries.

A King and his Jester who last beyond initial mirth and diversion must come to see each other in their common humanity and as they do so their bond deepens beyond place and fealty into what can only be described as love.

Bundini was the first of the original court to pass from this realm in 1987.

Ali knew that he had lost a faithful friend – someone who had helped create the legend and the myths, someone who knew the price paid in sweat and pain as well as the glow of triumph on the summits.

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He also knew that Allah, or call him Shorty, would be royally entertained by the tales only a Jester of genius like Bundini could tell.

Footnote: There are two further Muhammad Ali posts on the Jukebox – on his first title victory and his first Pro fight – Check them out!