Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Parchman Farm," Mose Allison, And The Real Blues

It seems a bit odd (to me at least) that I am nearly three and a half years into this blog and haven't yet even begun to plumb the depths of the great American catalogue of blues songs. That isn't because I don't have an appreciation for that tradition; it is rather more that I have very particular tastes in it, and those tastes seldom find much play in the recording industry, having been washed away by the red tide of electrified pseudo-blues purveyed by everyone from British Invasion rockers to contemporary "roots" groups.

Are my prejudices showing a bit here? Allow me to explain. My first childhood exposure to anything like the blues came from my parents' love of blues-infused jazz, especially Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. While both are always more particularly and properly identified as jazz artists, you're going to hear a lot more of the roots of real Delta blues in their work than you will in much of what is marketed as blues today. Armstrong especially seems to capture the essence of it all and often slyly underpins his jazz riffs with some trumpet lines that Robert Johnson would have appreciated.

My young adult interest in folk music led me (through my oft-cited in this blog love of Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival, 1960 records) to the great John Lee Hooker - who with Robert Johnson epitomizes for me the real sound of American blues. One of the songs that Hooker performed at Newport was his classic "Tupelo," presented here in a TV performance from roughly the same era. Watch his left hand:

Segovia or Carlos Montoya could appreciate that left hand work.

One good Hooker cut deserves another - "Serves Me Right To Suffer":

The harder edge of the Delta blues is personified in the great Robert Johnson, dead at 27, largely unknown in his lifetime, and resurrected with a series of 1961 reissues of the few recordings he made in 1936-37. As a point of comparison - the original blues as opposed to the popped-up, modified contemporary version, here is Johnson's often-adapted "Crossroad":

Now, modern audiences tend to think of blues as sounding something rather more like this - Eric Clapton and Cream's 1960s rockification of Johnson's classic:

That is a great, great cut - worth another listen just to hear what Clapton is doing on guitar and Jack Bruce's amazing bass line.

But it's not what I'd call blues. It's white-guy blues as imagined by British Invasion musicians - meaning, finally, that it's rock. Nothing at all wrong with that - my own propensity to like commercial folk groups suggests that I have a high degree of tolerance for adaptation - but it has morphed far afield from what it originally was.

There has been a kind of intermediate group of musicians whose adaptations have been perhaps truer to the music's roots, white musicians like Elvis Presley and today's composer Mose Allison, who grew up with the music, imbibed it with their mothers' milk, and learned to play it naturally and not as a respectful study of someone else's music. Presley grew up in Hooker's Tupelo and Allison in Tippo, Mississippi where both heard black musicians everywhere except perhaps in church. Their free-hand adaptations of the music originated because they were trying to sound like the singers whom they had actually heard growing up - singers virtually unknown to the larger mass white audience because of the segregation that existed in radio station programming and in the records carried in music stores. The earliest Presley recordings show perhaps the greatest influence - for Allison, the blues burst out of him after he had made a name for himself as a jazz musician, playing with greats like Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. When Allison began recording with his own trio in 1957, he began to write in blues style and sing what he had written. Here is his '57 original recording of his "Parchman Farm":

Don't know about you, but I hear a lot of Hooker's vocal style in what Allison is doing here, and a lot of Hooker's uptempo guitar work in the piano accompaniment to the verses (but with a full-on jazz instrumental break).

Parchman Farm was the correctional facility that evolved into the Mississippi State Penitentiary - and temporary home to great bluesmen-to-be Bukka White (who wrote the original but different song "Parchman Farm Blues") and Son House. There is a bit more on prison farms and the music that came out of them in my article on "Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos".

Probably the best-known version of Allison's tune was waxed by British Invasion blues legend John Mayall in 1966:

Mayall may not be imitating Allison here, but he isn't going all Clapton on us either. I hate to sound like a broken record (ask your parents if you don't know what that means) - but this has strong elements of Hooker's style in it too.

Another great white blues-rock performer also gave "Parchman Farm" his own distinctive treatment, the Texas Tornado himself, Johnny Winter:

Winter and his contemporary John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival were clearly listening to the same records when they were growing up.

Popped-up blues were the specialty of Baton Rouge's Johnny Rivers, who presents the song with that distinctive cool Whisky-A-Go-Go Sunset Strip mid-60s sound:

Rivers does an entirely creditable job here, keeping the vocals well within the range of his own style - which brings us to our final and most curious cut, that of the Kingston Trio. By 1965 the KT, which had for a time in the late 50s and early 60s been the top record sellers and most popular act in U.S. music, had been pushed aside in sales and popularity by the British Invasion, folk-rock, and more politically-oriented folk performers. In an unsuccessful attempt to stay relevant, the group recorded a folk-rock styled album called "Somethin' Else" for Decca Records, the group's third on that label and 24th original LP overall. The record was a dismal failure commercially, becoming the first KT album not to hit the "Billboard Magazine" charts, and a serious misstep according to critics as well - the group's upbeat, clean-cut image and sound just did not morph easily into the newer styles. Judge for yourself:

Taken by itself, it's not a bad cut at all, and as a single it reached #30 on Billboard's easy listening charts. The Trio's Nick Reynolds often observed that the group had made the conscious decision, like Rivers maybe, to sound like who they were - suburban white college guys, not sharecroppers or sailors or convicts. So far, so good - the Trio isn't trying to be John Lee Hooker here. What they sound as if they are trying to be, though, is Bob Dylan - and they ain't he, babe.

I have always absolutely loved Clapton and Rivers and the KT, which may seem contradictory to the thesis of this article presented at the outset. Not so. I love them - but I wouldn't call what any of them are doing the blues. Maybe because of politics and mass media and a hundred other factors we have failed to realize just how debased our use of language has become, where things are what we say they are because we say them (a form of solipsism for you philosophy majors). But again - not so. Words have meanings - meanings that always morph and change but that also have an original and primal integrity. Or as Hooker was once quoted as saying - "The blues is just the blues. Ain't nothing else."

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