Hank Williams, John Stewart, Bob Marley & Curtis Mayfield : Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow!

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Somewhere in my memory and imagination there’s always a train.

Maybe it’s the evening train soothing me to sleep or perhaps it’s the night train letting loose its eerie lonesome whistle as it heads off into the darkness in search of the dawn.

Trains heading from shore to shore, north and south, east and west, over the mountains, through the valleys and the deserts, across the endless plains.

Travellers, clutching their ticket to ride, look out the window at the passing show wondering anxiously or excitedly about the welcome waiting for them at their destination.

We get on trains for all kinds of reasons.

Because we got in trouble and had to roam, because we need to make a new home, a new life, in a new place where nobody knows our name.

Because we are starting a new adventure or running back to safety after a failed adventure.

Because we need a hand to hold or because we are wrenching away the hands that want to hold us down and hold us back.

We wait on station platforms to wave our children away as they move inevitably, happily, heart-wrenchingly into adult life.

We wave the boys away as they go off to war and stand sombrely as some of them come home again to rest in the ground; never to leave the home place again.

Trains are alive.

They scream and shout.

They roar and they rumble.

They keep up a constant conversation with the world as they clank and click, click and clank, over the shining steel rails.

They echo as they rush through the tunnels pushing the very air out of their way.

Above all trains have, are, Rhythm!

As soon as you get on a train you can’t help but listen to and fall under the spell of that rhythm. It’s no wonder that songwriters and singers love to write train songs.

Trains – their rhythm, their sounds, their names and the stories that train journeys reveal about love and life and history are manna for the songwriter in every genre of popular music.

Thinking about this post I easily drew up a list of about 100,’Favourite’ train songs I thought I would like to write about (Warning! There’s a series coming).

I’ve managed after much internal debate to limit myself to just four songs today.

So take a stroll to the dining car, order your refreshment of choice, settle back in your seat and listen up!

First, from 1965 with fellow Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, a marvel from the gentle genius of soul – Curtis Mayfield.

People Get Ready – There’s a train a coming.

Whenever I feel the night closing in and it’s starting to feel like November in my soul I find that turning to the songs of Curtis Mayfield is a sure-fire way to see the light of dawn rising and feel the promise of the month of May approaching.

Curtis’ work and vision of life was grounded in his faith.

The very strong faith of a man who was both strong and gentle.

A man and a musician who spoke with authority and wisdom about life and love, war and peace, justice and injustice.

Curtis was a warrior for a better world, a champion of civil rights and for people standing up proudly for their human dignity whatever their race or station in life.

He always had one eye fixed on the shore across the Jordan while keeping the other focussed on the need to build the Kingdom right here, right now. Curtis’ warrior’s weapons were melody, rhythm and folk poetry which he deployed with consummate skill.

Listen to the way his falsetto vocal and the arrangement of the sing beckon you lean in, to listen closely and to get on board.

Curtis Mayfield had the very rare and extraoridinary gift of being able to speak of faith, love and justice not as pious platitudes but as living fires expressed and incarnated in his songs, his guitar playing and his vocals.

His unutterably lovely guitar style feels like the strings in Chekhov’s heaven being softly plucked to wake and warn us as we journey through life as individuals and neighbours.

He reminds us of our duties in both roles. That’s what prophets are sent to us to do.

Next, from his 1991 live album, ‘Deep Neon’ John Stewart with the compressed epic, ‘Runaway Train’.

John Stewart as a songwriter and performer with The Cumberland Three, The Kingston Trio and as a solo artist made the term Americana a living, breathing, up and walking reality long before it became a term beloved of over eager genre defining journalists.

John Stewart looms in my mind like a figure out of one of the great Westerns directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks – think of someone who’s two parts Henry Fonda and one part James Stewart with a singing voice like the wind crossing the Painted Desert and a guitar style that can summon up the runaway train of American History.

This version of a song originally recorded in 1987 has something of the lion in winer about it which makes it all the more poignant as it describes the dangers of the curves around midnight and the flashing red warnings unseen in the rain.

Stewart knows that steel rails and hard lives are always in twos and that too easily we light the fuses on our relationships without thinking about the cost for those who remain.

And he does it with a hell of a guitar riff!

In the late 1960s and through the following decade in particular John Stewart created a series of mythopoetic records that speak of an America and an American people that’s filled with a continental grandeur and generosity as well as fabled characters with shoulders broad enough to carry the past while facing unafraid the challenges of the future.

Coming into the depot now from Jamaica are The Wailers with a live in the studio 1973 version of the irresistible, ‘Stop That Train I’m Leaving’.

Commonly at this time The Rolling Stones were described as the best live band in the World and there’s no doubt that they had a strong claim to that title.

But, for my money the real holders of the crown were The Wailers.

In Bob Marley and Peter Tosh they had two winning songwriters who were also entrancing vocalists and deeply charismatic performers.

The rhythm sections of brothers, Aston, ‘Family Man’ and Carlton, ‘Carly’ Barrett (base and drums respectively) are only rivalled in my estimation by Duck Dunn and Al Jackson from Booker T and The MGs for the ability to establish and maintain a groove that never lets go.

Earl Lindo adds the swelling colourful keyboard textures and the legendary Joe Higgs adds vocal seasonings and percussion fills in support of the band he had mentored from their boyhoods.

You can feel the heat and languor of the Jamaican sun in this recording of Peter Tosh’s song and understand how the train in question might have been a swelteringly slow ride.

Country boys would have looked up from the fields as the train went by and thought that it wouldn’t be too hard to hop aboard (if they could avoid the conductor) and see whether the delights of Kingston town were all they were promised to be in story and song.

Jamaica was and is a deeply unequal society which offers few opportunities for advancement for the poor beyond music and sport. Reggae music in particular became the vehicle whereby those seemingly born to live small found a way to get up, stand up and walk tall in the world.

Finally, I turn to the song that gives this post it’s title – the peerless Hank Williams with, ‘I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow’.

Hank Williams. Hank Williams. Hank Williams.

When I think of Hank I think of a figure straight out of myth.

A figure from Homer, Virgil or Dante.

In a typically artful song Leonard Cohen speaks of Hank never answering the question of quite how lonely life does get but instead coughing all night long 100 floors above him in the Tower of Song.

Cohen is deeply versed in literature and American song so I have no doubt there is no irony in his ranking of himself and Hank.

Hank Williams consistently had the power in his work to command your attention by imposing and projecting his wounded spirit and will into a song with such intensity that listening to him is almost always as troubling as it is inspiring and rewarding.

I doubt that anyone has from such seemingly slender musical resources ever had such a gigantic impact on popular music.

Listening to Hank I feel as if I am sitting with my tribe round some ancient campfire when out of the snowy mist an unknown, unknowable, wandering bard appears.

Without hesitation he offers his songs of loss and loneliness: the loss or loneliness we all know or fear.

As he sings the listeners, the fire and the night are stilled until, his song sung, Hank, the eternal stranger, without adieu vanishes into the darkness he came from.

Notes: Thanks to Glen for pointing me to the best video to illustrate People Get Ready

If you are new to the Jukebox do take a few minutes to check out the archive!

Especially the first post which sets out some of the aims of the blog.

I am really pleased when my readers take the time to comment – it’s enormously encouraging.

Tell me what you think, send in suggestions – set the Jukebox spinning!

Those of you who have enjoyed the thematic approach of this post may well enjoy two earlier posts:

‘Swinging Summer Sisters … ‘ and ‘Guitar Instruments a Go Go !’ – Check them out!

Mary Gauthier, Iris Dement : Ordinary (Extraordinary) Stories

‘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 ccok and restauranter.

All the while with her 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 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 dont 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 latest the comeback classic, ‘Sings The Delta’.

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’.

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

Footnote 30 September 2014:

Many thanks to Mary Gauthier for describing this post as, “Beautifully written” and for alerting her fans to the Jukebox through Twitter.