Curtis Mayfield & Major Lance express the inexpressible : Um, um, um, um, um, um!

‘Now that I’m a man I think I understand sometimes everyone must sing this song

Um, um,um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um’

The songwriting genius of Curtis Mayfield and the seductive tones of Major Lance combine to create a Chicago Soul masterpiece and an anthem for us all in these, ‘interesting times’.

 

 

It may not surprise long term readers of The Jukebox to learn that I am a compulsive journal keeper.

I read a lot of newspapers and subscribe to a wide selection of specialist magazines which I scrupulously annotate before I make journal entries trying to pin down my version of posterity.

To make it easier to look up one of my particular interests later I prefix every entry with a code letter.

So, if an entry concerns Ireland an ‘I’ precedes the text. My memorials of notable deaths have, ‘Obit’ in front.

And so on.

There is one prefix which seems to be cropping up more and more these days demanded by articles I have read which have had my eyebrows shooting up to the skies in my bewildered head. That prefix is (!!).

(!!) does not necessarily indicate approval or disapproval.

It’s rather a chastening reminder that the world, the people in it, and the daily cavalcade of events are more mysterious, various and downright strange than my addled mind can adequately comprehend.

Sometimes all you can say, whistling a happy tune or humming a death tempo dirge, is:

Um, um, um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

Let’s kick off with this entry which burst back into my mind recently.

The source is H L Mencken:

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‘All we got to say on this proposition is this: first, you and me is as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better; second, nobody ain’t got no right to take away none of our rights; third, every man has a right to live, to come and go as he pleases, and to have a good time however he likes, so long as he don’t interfere with nobody else’ (!!)

Um, um,um, um, um, um,

 

little-auk-calling

‘Normally we see 100 Little Auks a year in St Cuthbert’s beloved Farne Islands. Today on the 89th anniversary of the end of World War 1 we saw 29,000’ (!!)

The Hamza River flows for some 3,700 miles at a depth of 13,000 feet below The Amazon River. (!!)

Um, um,um, um, um, um …

the-champ

‘The death scene in the film, ‘The Champ’ with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight was found by a psychology professor from the University of California-Berkeley, to represent an emblem of pure sadness. The clip has since been used in experiments that range from testing the tearful responses of depressed people, elderly people and people with eating disorders to tracing the spending habits of sad people.’ (!!)

Um, um,um, um, um, um …

polar-bea

‘Polar Bears are Irish. Modern polar bears share a distinct DNA sequence, passed down the female line, with their now extinct brown ancestors. The same DNA fingerprint is absent from other species of brown bear alive today. It is thought the link arose from interbreeding between prehistoric polar bears and female brown bears when their paths crossed as the Irish climate cooled.’ (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

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‘Mary Prince lived in The White House during Jimmy Carter’s presidency as a housekeeper. In addition to his other duties President Carter was her parole officer as she was a convicted murderer. She had previously become Amy Carter’s nanny following assignment to the then Georgia Governor’s mansion.’ (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

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‘When former World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston’s dead body was discovered all that was found with him was an ounce of heroin, a shot of vodka, a gun and a crucifix (the Mafia like to keep things simple).’ (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

juzcar

‘Located 113 km away from the city of Malaga and 25 km from Ronda, in the autonomous province of Andalusia, Juzcar has become a hotspot for worldwide travelers, and one of the most recognizable villages in Spain. Once a traditional white village, the picturesque hamlet changed its look in the summer of 2011, becoming the first and only official Smurfs village in the world.’ (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

hudson-super-6

‘In 1930 Charlie Heard a taxi driver from Geelong, Australia hesitated only briefly before accepting a fare to take Ada Beal and her two lady companions to Darwin and back – a distance of some 7,000 miles. Charlie drove a 1928 Hudson, Miss Beal had a wooden leg and always wore a fur coat. The fare was in the order of 9,000 Australian Pounds. All parties returned safely to Geelong with stories to tell. Charlie bought a service station and stayed close to home therafter,’ (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

mark-sykes-001

‘At a solemn service before sunset in a rural Yorkshire churchyard a battered lead-lined coffin was reburied hours after being opened for the first time in 89 years. As prayers were recited, samples of the remains of Sir Mark Sykes, the aristocratic diplomat and adventurer whose grave had been exhumed, were being frozen in liquid nitrogen and transported to a laboratory with the aim of saving millions of lives.

During his life, Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes made his mark on the world map. As the British government’s lead negotiator in a secret 1916 deal with France to carve up the Ottoman Empire, he laid the groundwork for the boundaries of much of the present-day Middle East and, according to some critics, its current conflicts.

But it was the manner of the death of this Conservative MP, British Army general, and father of six children, that may yet prove the source of his most significant legacy by providing key answers in how medical science can cope with 21st century lethal flu pandemics.

Early in 1919, Sir Mark became one of the estimated 50 million victims of the so-called Spanish flu and died in Paris.

His remains were sealed in a lead-lined coffin and transported to the Sykes family seat in Yorkshire. He was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, adjoining the house.

Were it not for the fact that Sir Mark’s body was hermetically sealed by a thick layer of lead, the story of his life would have passed quietly into history.

But the accident of chemistry – the decay of soft tissue encased in lead is dramatically slowed – has presented scientists investigating ways to deal with the inevitable mutation of the H5N1 “bird flu” into a lethal human virus with a unique opportunity to study the behaviour of its predecessor.

There are only five useful samples of the H1N1 virus around the world and none from a well-preserved body in a lead-lined coffin. Sir Mark’s descendants are delighted that his influence may reach a different sphere of human endeavour. His grandson, Christopher Sykes, said: “We were all agreed that it was a very good thing and should go ahead. It is rather fascinating that maybe even in his state as a corpse, he might be helping the world in some way.” (!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

brian-bevan

‘A lifeboatman who saved the lives of at least 300 people and was awarded the service’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross retired on Friday after 27 years spent braving the North Sea.

Coxswain Brian Bevan, 55, would be rejected if he applied to join the Royal National Lifeboat Institution today. The ability to swim 100 metres fully clothed is now a prerequisite – and he gave up learning to swim after he was thrown in at the deep end and nearly drowned in a prank on a school swimming trip in the 1950s.

He observed: “You certainly don’t need to swim to man the lifeboat. Your lifejacket keeps you afloat.”

Pinpoint timing and a cool head helped Mr Bevan to earn the RNLI Gold Medal during a mission in a force 10 storm on Valentine’s Day 22 years ago.

He remains the only lifeboatman to receive the bronze, silver and gold medals of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at a single ceremony.

He has no plans to learn to swim.'(!!)

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

 

fra-angelio

‘When Jean Preston in the 1960s came across two small panels depicting medieval saints in a box of unwanted items up for a quick sale, she thought they they had an enigmatic quality and were, ‘quite nice’.

Miss Preston, from Oxfordshire, was working as a manuscript curator in California. Her father bought them for a couple of hundred pounds to indulge her interest in curious works.

For decades they hung, partly obscured, behind the door of her spare room. It was only after Miss Preston’s death, at the age of 77 that the panels were found to be key works (worth over £1m) by the Renaissance master painter, Fra Angelico, solving the 200 year mystery of their disappearance.’ (!!)

odell

 

‘For the first time in almost 60 years, Dianne Odell’s family home was silent yesterday. Only a string of well-wishers interrupted the eerie calm that pervaded the house where, for as long as anyone can remember, a noisy electric motor had powered the massive ‘iron lung’ pumping air in and out of her body.

Miss Odell had been in the iron lung for more than 50 years after contracting Polio in her youth. She was believed to be the world’s longest-surviving victim of polio to have spent almost her entire life inside an iron lung, a now virtually obsolete medical device that keeps patients alive by forcing air in and out of their paralysed bodies.

She was cared for by her close family together with a community of friends and admirers, with whom she made eye contact through an angled mirror. Despite the difficulties of Ms Odell’s condition, she managed to get a high-school diploma, take college courses, and even write a children’s book about a “wishing star”‘ called Blinky – all from the confines of the living room of her home.

Miss Odell proved the truth of the observation of the great moral philosopher Victor Frankl; that everything can be taken from you but one thing : the last of human freedoms – to choose your attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose your own way.

Recalling her life Miss Odell said:

I remember walking to a ball game with daddy and I remember being on a train. It seems like I can remember playing out in the mud one day.

But I’ve had a very good life, filled with love and family and faith. You can make life good or you can make it bad. I’ve chosen the good.’ (!!)

Um, um,um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um,

Um, um, um, um, um, um

Um, um, um, um, um, um ..

Sometimes the world is too much to take in. Too much.

In those times I find respite in the gracious words and melodies of Curtis Mayfield and the artless art of Major Lance.

I cue up, ‘Um, um, um, um, um, um’ and dance until my heart is full and my mind is free.

Give it a try.

 

 

 

Gene Chandler – Duke of Earl (A11 on The Immortal Jukebox)

‘As I walk through this world, Nothing can stop The Duke Of Earl’

There are days when all is right with the world.

Days when the sun shines clear in an azure sky that bathes you in balmy glory.

Days when the gods are indulgent so that your long shot romps home at 100-1 and the girl you’ve nearly asked out a thousand times suddenly smiles at you and asks what you’re doing later.

The poet Robert Browning expressed this feeling of elated contentment very well in his verse drama, ‘Pippa Passes’:

‘The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-sides dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in his heaven –
All’s right with the world!’

Being an educated sort of chap these lines often spring to mind when I find myself enjoying one of those blessed days when nothing seems impossible – when all the gears of the universe seem to mesh perfectly to deliver pleasure, promise and delight.

Probably 10% of my memory is indexed to recall the deathless thoughts of the great poets when these occasion presents themselves.

However, I would estimate that at least 30% of my memory neurones are tasked with filing, indexing and processing the melodies, lyrics and performances of the canon of popular music created in the recording era between the 1920s and 1980s.

So while I will sometimes find myself quoting Browning, Byron or Wendell Berry as I give thanks for the gift of life – much more often I find myself singing at the top of my voice the lyric from one of my all-time favourite songs (it will be one of my 8 Desert Island Discs list when the BBC finally get round to asking me to appear on that iconic radio programme), ‘Duke Of Earl’ by Gene Chandler.

Scanning my memory for this post I recall chanting out, ‘Nothing can stop the Duke of Earl’ on the red letter days of my life.

The day I learned that I had won a scholarship to Cambridge, the day I got married and the day my son was born were all celebrated with repeated choruses of Gene Chandler’s immortal classic from 1962.

‘Duke of Earl’ is one of those songs that works every time – always lifting the heart and spirit with its simply stated belief that there is indeed a paradise to be shared and that a Duke can find and cherish his Duchess as they walk together through the Dukedom.

Since first hearing this song I have never been able to use the technically correct term, ‘Duchy’ for the territory ruled over by a Duke – such is the power of music!

Apparently the song evolved from the vocal warm up exercises used by the Doo-Wop group The Dukays which formed in late 1950s Chicago. Gene (then known by his original name of Eugene Dixon) practiced his vocal craft with James Lowe, Shirley Jones, Ben Broyles and Earl Edwards.

It was while running through the pre-show, ‘Do do do do’ routine that one night Gene mixed things up by singing instead, ‘Du, du, du … Duke of Earl’ and thus with some help from manager Bernice Williams a million selling No 1 pop and R&B record was born!

The Dukays record company (Nat Records) preferred the song, ‘Nite Owl’ to ‘Duke of Earl’ so Gene went to Vee-Jay records as a solo artist to find fame and hopefully some fortune.

To promote the record Gene gamely appeared dressed in Hollywood History’s version of ducal attire – Top Hat, Monocle, Walking Cane, Opera Cape and White Gloves! I have to say he carried it off very well, as many a video clip shows, and the, ‘Duke Of Earl’ look has in consequence become my default fancy dress party attire!

The vocals on ‘Duke Of Earl’ display a top flight Doo-Wop group creating a wonderfully full sound from basso profundo bass to ascending to the heavens falsetto tones.

Every, ‘nonsense’ syllable is entirely translatable by our human hearts as glimpses of momentary happiness.

Gene Chandler sings with the affecting gliding ease that would carry him to some 40 hit records. Gene sang the hell out of every song that came his way whether it was badged, ‘Doo-Wop’, ‘R&B’, ‘Soul’ or ‘Disco’.

Whatever the genre Gene delivered a welcoming humanity through his vocals that engages the listener on a visceral level – locking in our attention and winning our affection.

I look forward to many more, ‘Duke Of Earl’ days in my life and wish the same for you.

Notes:

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‘Duke Of Earl’ has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was selected as one of the, ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll’.

Gene Chandler has had a fabulously successful and diverse career as a singer, songwriter and producer.

Look out for several versions of the scintillating, ‘Rainbow’ which is frequently quoted in concert by Van Morrison who knows a great song when he hears one! I prefer the atmosphere drenched 1965 version recorded in Gene’s hometown Regal Theatre.

Gene had a series of wonderful collaborations with the king of tender soul balladry – Curtis Mayfield. Even the stoniest hearts will crack listening to, ‘Just Be True’ and if you’re aren’t out on the floor dancing to, ‘Nothing Can Stop Me’ from the first notes you need to get your reflexes tested!

A few hours listening to the above along with, ‘Think Nothing About It’, ‘A Man’s Temptation’, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me No More’, ‘Groovy Situation’ and, ‘Get Down’ among others will more than repay your time.

As a producer Gene won the NATRA Producer of the Year Award for the unreservedly recommended, ‘Backfield In Motion’ by Mel and Tim (look it up now!)

I was delighted to find that Gene’s website is called The Dukedom!

You can find it at genedukeofearl.com

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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!