Sam Cooke brings it on home! (Hors Categorie)

This week is School Half-Term in our part of the world. So there will be little time for blogging! Instead, there will be lots of cycling, lots of swimming, trips to see favourite aunts and visits from my extended family.

We are also going to be touring England’s West Country; gazing at the eternally mysterious ancient standing stone circle at Stonehenge, sampling the delights of the grandeur of Bath and idling through charming sleepy small towns and villages.

Following tradition my son Tom will be in charge of in car entertainment. So, lots of Louis Prima, Julie Andrews, Bobby Darin, Ruth Brown and now, top of his charts with a bullet – Meghan Trainor!

While I’m away I’ve cued up on The Immortal Jukebox an artist very dear to my heart – Sam Cooke (about whom I will write much more later!)

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Sam was (is – greatness is always current) an artist of immense talent and cultural impact; a musical exemplar, a guiding spirit able to illuminate life’s arc of sorrows, joys and struggles with power, wit and grace. Sam Cooke resists all easy categorisation. Artists of this stature can’t be neatly filed in genre racks!

When I think about how to describe him I’m drawn to a term taken from the greatest of all cycling races – Le Tour de France. Anyone hoping to complete the race, let alone win it, has to be able to complete a series of lung wracking, muscle burning, mountain ascents seemingly designed to test the absolute limits of human endurance. Mountain stages receive, ‘Categorie’ ratings exquisitely calibrating the brutality of the challenge presented.

Categories of difficulty are assigned taking into account how far the riders have cycled before they begin to climb and the subsequent length and steepness of the ordeal to the summit. The, ‘easiest’ climbs are rated Categorie 4 and the most arduous Categorie 1. And then, then, there are some climbs, climbs like Alpe d’Huez with it’s terrifying 21 hair pin bends on the route to the summit at over 6000 feet involving gradients up to a near impossible 13% that merit the extraordinary term, ‘Hors Categorie’ – beyond category.

When I contemplate the stature of Sam Cooke I now use the term, ‘Hors Categorie’ as my own shorthand for those rare artists who rule imperiously over their own artistic realm. When you hear a characteristic performance by Sam Cooke the use of classifications like, ‘Soul’, ‘Gospel’, ‘Rhythm and Blues’, ‘Jazz’ and, ‘Pop’ becomes insignificant. Sam was a musical explorer; never intimidated by any map that might proscribe the limits of the world he might journey to and claim for himself and his audience. Artists of this stamp have the wherewithal and ambition to redraw all our maps.

Let’s start off with his electrifying, ‘Any Day Now’ when he was still a member of The Soul Stirrers.

This is singing that invites you to share in a transcendent experience. An experience that can’t really be described in prose but which might be just glimpsed through the medium of a poem or here via a song taking us to a place we’ve never known yet still somehow recognise.

Sam’s vocal here glides through the song like a raptor effortlessly riding the air currents – now ascending, now swooping down, now wheeling for the sheer life-affirming thrill of it! Sam Cooke sang, at all emotional temperatures, with an ease and elegant poise that is genuinely awe-some, in it’s proper sense. I’m listening to this performance on the feast of Pentecost – who can doubt that tongues of fire can descend on human heads when you listen to Sam Cooke sing, ‘Any Day Now’!

Now let’s hear Sam taking the church-wrecking skills displayed above into another dimension as he ignites the Harlem Square Club in 1963 with an out of the ball park grand slam performance of his own, ‘Bring It On Home To Me’.

This is a man entirely at home on stage, entirely at home with the audience surrounding him; the audience he can seduce, thrill and command with regal authority. He’s not exaggerating when he sings, ‘Everybody’s with me tonight!’

Sam Cooke seems to live inside rhythm; pushing or lagging the beat in time with the demands of his and our own beating hearts. Crescendo after crescendo rains down on us until we are intoxicated, elated, finally enraptured. Very few singers have genuinely had the gift of opening up the gates to rapture and bringing it on home as Sam could.

When I hear Sam Cooke sing time after time I hear myself saying, ‘Now, That’s How You Sing!’

The Avett Brothers, Mahalia Jackson & Randy Travis : Just A Closer Walk

‘When one is a child, when one is young, when one has not yet reached the age of recognition, one thinks the world is strong, that the strength of God is endless and unchanging.

But after the thing has happened – whatever that thing might be – that brings recognition, that one knows irrevocably how very fragile is the world, how very, very fragile …’ (Russell Hoban from the Novel, ‘Pilgermann’)

‘Pilgrims are persons in motion … Seeking something we might call contemplation, or perhaps the word clarity will do as well, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way’ (Richard Neibuhr)

‘Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of joy to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.’

(Sir Walter Raleigh)

Solvitor Ambulando! (It is solved by walking!)

We are all pilgrims. Between the moments of first drawing breath and breathing out for the last time last we all conduct our own pilgrimages.

For some of us this will involve solitary, epic journeys, for others the daily accumulation of quiet thoughts and unnoticed actions among friends and family close to home.

We all find, one way or another, our own road to walk the way.

The song featured on The Immortal Jukebox today, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ is a traditional gospel song that has lifted, comforted, and accompanied many a pilgrim on their walk through life as well as galvanising many fine musicians in many genres to produce inspirational performances.

Of course, the song has often (especially in New Orleans) been played as a cortege song as many a coffined pilgrim makes their final earthy journey : and who is to say it does not comfort them at that moment every bit as much as the weeping mourners?

With no further ado I’ll kick things off with a barn-burning performance from a band, North Carolina’s The Avett Brothers, who have regularly commanded audiences to their feet with their fervent encore performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (Warning: once heard this version will echo in your mind for months to come!)

Wow! Brothers Seth and Scott Avett know only one way to play – with lung busting, nerve shredding, whole hearted, heart bursting, total fraternal commitment: so that you are breathlessly swept away by the tidal wave irresistibility of their performance.

I’m convinced that if, at the end here, they had kept on playing and said,’Come On! Let’s walk together to the end of the earth (wherever that might be) the whole audience would have joined them!

So where did this great song come from?

As so often we have to rely on conjecture and guesswork as much as documentary evidence. It is surely true that the song emerged out of the African-American encounter with slavery and the soothing sonorous cadences of the Bible.

The idea of the suffering pilgrim being accompanied on their daily travels and eventual journey across the Jordan by a compassionate saviour runs very deep.

Late in the 1800s Martha Lankton and William Kirkpatrick published, ‘Closer Walk with Thee’. Sometime in the early 20th century the Reverend Elijah Cluke from Atchinson, Kansas seems to have come up with something very close to the song we have today though gospel publishing luminary Kenneth Morris had a hand in the process too.

Gospel choirs, quartets and soloists recognised the strength of the song and it became in the 1930s a staple of the sacred repertoire. Still, it was just two months before Pearl Harbor when it was first recorded by the Selah Jubilee Singers.

Since then there is no counting the number of versions that have been recorded (I’ll point to some superior versions in my Notes).

When Van Morrison, in his endlessly absorbing song of pilgrimage and contemplation, ‘Common One’ was looking back at the voices that had stirred his soul, calling forth his own voice and setting him off on his continuing journey towards Avalon he reached down deep to exclaim, ‘The voice of Mahalia Jackson came through the ether’ to acknowledge the spiritual power and inspiration that the, ‘Queen of Gospel’ has exercised on generations of her fellow citizens in the United States and on singers and musicians all over the world.

When you listen to the awesome, regal power of her performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ (a song she sang for her whole life) you will surely agree with Martin Luther King that such a blessed voice comes along not once in a century but rather once in a millennium.

Mahalia, when she sang, was clearly filed to the brim with the Spirit and her gift was to honour and glorify that Spirit through the stately magnificence of her performances.

There is an unquestionable healing power in her singing which seems to accept and contain, unafraid, the inevitable pain of life even while her voice is uplifted by a faith which insists that no journey of pain has to be walked alone.

The penultimate version featured is by Randy Travis perhaps the greatest singer country music has produced in the last 40 years or so.

Randy’s voice has a manly, burnished elegance such that when he has a song worthy of his talent he can touch your heart and soul as few singers have ever done.

As a man he remains a pilgrim whose life has provided him with glittering triumphs along with devastating bouts of addiction and illness.

I am pleased to read only today that he is continuing to recover from a debilitating stroke and that he has just got married.

The restrained, strangely moving, inner-lit, fervour of his performance of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ must owe something to his hard won understanding that those to whom great gifts are given are not exempt from experiencing how fragile, how very, very fragile life can be.

I wish him well in the miles he has yet to walk.

To conclude today I turn to the magnificently named New Orleans native, Trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffin, accompanied by the Rebirth Band who returns, ‘Just a Closer Walk’ to its incarnation as a song to steady the heart and lift the spirit as another brother or sister is carried away on the day of their burial.

Kermit has indeed played this song hundreds of times at New Orleans funerals and this shows in the relaxed authority he brings to it below.

I hear this version as an affecting, consolatory amalgam, of defiant vitality, unashamed sorrow, purposeful dignity and heart-shadowing grief.

‘Just a Closer Walk’ is a song which will always live because it speaks to our bone deep understanding that nothing in this world is permanent and that each step we take is a further step on our path to a destination far beyond the grasp of our limited human senses.

Yet each of us may feel our burdens eased when shared and our load made lighter by melody and song guiding us gently to some farther shore.

Notes:

The Avett Brothers – I was tremendously cheered when I first discovered them because they gave me, once again, that sense that I had found, ‘My band’ – one I could commit to without snarky reservation.

I was bowled over by their sheer joy in making music and their seeming indifference to the dictates of what they should do according to the music business moguls and analysts.

I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their records but I particularly recommend:

‘Mignonette’ (2004), ‘The Gleam’ (2006), ‘I and Love and You’ (2009) and ‘Live Vol 3’ (2010).

Recommended versions of, ‘Just a Closer Walk’:

Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Van Morrison
Bob Dylan with Johnny Cash
Dr John
Louis Armstrong
Patsy Cline
Harry Dean Stanton (a cameo performance in the Paul Newman film, ‘Cool Hand Luke’)
Corey Harris
Allen Toussaint

Hank Williams, 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.

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!

Bonnie Raitt, Barbara Lynn, Lucinda Williams & Rosetta Tharpe : Swingin’ Sisters !

The School holidays are upon us and as is my wont I’m about to cross the ocean to a far away Isle where we can stretch out in the sun, sip something cool and refreshing and relax for a blessed fortnight.

The taxi is booked and the cases are nearly packed. Before we take off there’s only one last thing to do – make sure that the faithful patrons of the Immortal Jukebox are left supplied with nourishing thoughts and sounds while I see how burnished and golden an Irish complexion can become in two weeks.

So I’ve dropped my spare nickels on some records intended to ensure your hips and hearts get a good workout while I’m away. All these selections feature women artists who, without false modesty, stand front and centre playing a mean guitar while singing with passion and authority.

All of these artists deserve, and will get a post devoted to themselves later. But, in the meantime … Ladies and Gentlemen it’s the Swinging Summer Sisters Jubilee Festival!

To kick thing off we have Sister Rosetta Tharpe – a woman who was a force of nature (if there hasn’t been a hurricane Rosetta yet there should have been) defying all attempts to contain her ebullient personality and musical largesse within genre categories.

So she was a glorious gospel singer, a rowdy rhythm and blues shouter and a proto rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll guitar hero. Whatever the nominal tradition she was working within the good sister believed in turning the dials up to 11 and barrelling straight at you!

She became a star of the gospel world in the 1930s and as the decades proceeded her work brought her a wider and more diverse audience all thrilling to the allure of her overwhelming talent and charisma.

The clip below is from a 1960s TV show. Later in 1964 she was in England as part of one of those missionary blues and gospel tours that were like musical manna for devout fans who had previously only known of the legendary artists from hard to find records – look out for videos of her electric performance at a railway station with ranks of serried music buffs watching her across the tracks!

Raise the roof Sister, raise the roof!

Next up from Beaumont Texas the sultry smoky tones of the wonderful Barbara Lynne. The song is her self penned classic, ‘Youll lose a good thing’ a big R&B hit from 1962 featuring her assured left handed guitar playing.

This one will slay you!

In a sense this is an answer record to all those, ‘slippin around’ soul braggarts who never seemed to think of the woman left at home while they were illicitly trysting at the dark end of the street. Well, in this song Barbara makes the case in the most dignified, enticing and winning terms for the woman scorned.

Anyone listening to her incandescent entreaty here must think the guy in question would be a world class fool if he let this pearl slip through his fingers. Something in the grain of Barbara’s voice lodges in your mind and grips your heart – once heard you’re never going to forget her.

I am not one for giving out too much advice but I do advise you to listen to and buy as many Barbara Lynne records as you possibly can – it’ll be an investment in emotional musical maturity that will pay you long term dividends.

Our next artist, flame haired mighty guitar mama Bonnie Raitt, needs very little introduction having had several career flowerings and triumphs over a forty year plus career.

She’s a time served blues veteran who can conjure up the spirits of Memphis Minnie and Sippie Wallace and trade licks and innuendos with John Lee Hooker himself.

Her tender or tormented slide guitar is integral to her sound and she loves to lean into a solo wrenching every ounce of musical meaning from the instrument.

Bonnie is a great interpretative singer with a keen ear for songs that have real emotional weight and reach. She can soar and swoop vocally to accent the strident or the seductive.

Her voice now has a vintage aged in the wood quality that admits to vulnerability while maintaining impressive strength.

She has recorded the definitive cover of Richard Thompson’s aching folk standard, ‘The Dimming Of The Day’, the classic modern break – up rock ballad, ‘I Can’t Make You Love Me’ and the knock ’em dead in the aisles swooner, ‘Love Has No Pride’.

She has judiciously looted the song catalogues of John Hiatt and Paul Brady and has latterly moved onto the territory of the great American Songkeper himself – Bob Dylan.

To represent Bonnie I’ve chosen her take on fellow blues stylist Chris Smither’s, ‘Love Me Like A Man’.

This is a performance by an artist wholly in command of her talent, her material and her audience.

Finally an artist, Lucinda Williams who wouldn’t comprehend the meaning of half hearted if she tried. I first saw her in London sometime in the early 1980s when she supported Mary Chapin Carpenter. The latter presented her literate, beautifully crafted song/stories with exemplary professionalism. However, it was Lucinda’s passionate intensity that really struck home to the extent that I virtually ran from the concert to the nearest record shop to buy all her available albums!

Lucinda’s music is firmly grounded in the southern verities of the blues and deep dyed country with added rock stylings. The shades of Hank Williams and Charlie Patton surround her approvingly as she plays.

She has written at least one classic song – the gut wrenching elegy, ‘Sweet Old World’ and her take on Nick Drake’s, ‘Which Will’ is a magical recording that hangs in the air around you long after it has finished.

Lucinda sings from the core of her being and when she is on she is a mesmerising performer who will have you holding your breath one minute, crying the next then reeling home wondering how she does it.

There’s no one like her.

I’ve chosen her boozy, bluesy reverie, ‘Big Red Sun’ to close out this post. A Lucinda Williams concert is the kind where you might find easily yourself falling in or out of love, falling down and not noticing and wonder the next morning why your head hurts yet you still sport an ear splitting grin.

Feel free to take the top of the Tequila bottle and sway along.

Happy Holidays!