Friday, July 30, 2010

The Byrds + Hot Tuna + The Dead + More - "I Know You Rider"

This is a song about which I knew relatively little except for the facts that a) a lot of folk revival singers covered it, and b) it was at least vaguely related to the folk/blues/country/rock "C.C. Rider." But when I Googled the song and was directed to the Wikipedia article, I discovered that I had the book in which a published version of the song first appeared, John A. and Alan Lomax's American Ballads and Folk Songs, published in the 1930s. Father John A. had collected part of the song from a young woman prison inmate and had fleshed out the rest of the lyric with standard blues tropes that appear in many other songs (like "the sun's gonna shine" line). He named it "Woman Blues" or "Woman Blue," the title under which Joan Baez and some others recorded it. (James Taylor recorded a version that he named "Circle Round The Sun" - I have no idea why.)

That the song is originally a plaint from a lady is clear from the suggestive terminology in the words. I remember that my mother objected to the title of the 1969 counterculture classic film Easy Rider because of the implication of the title, an "easy rider" as she knew from jazz songs referring to a man who pimps out his wife or girlfriend so he won't have to work. "Rider" itself was synonymous with the 1960s police slang "john" for a hooker's customer - for what I'm going to guess are reasons obvious to anyone who reads here.

But the "you're gonna miss me" tag line has proven just too appealing to be restricted to one sex - recall that Charlie Poole's song of that title is derived from "Frankie and Johnie," in which Frankie takes the initiative and tells Johnnie that he's a-gonna pay. Both "Rider" and its cousin "C.C. Rider" have been interpreted by singers of both sexes, to very different effect - much as listening to the song the Kingston Trio called "Pullin' Away" from the masculine point of view puts a completely different slant on the words than in the original song, a lament by a young woman named "The Wagoner's Lad."

Our first version from 1986 is a fairly trad-sounding country blues version from Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady (Hot Tuna) joined by David Bromberg, whom I used to see around Chicago:

This trio has a really traditional acoustic blues sound, rather like Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson - down to Bromberg eschewing electrified slide guitar in favor of acoustic bottlenecking, the original blues sound (anyone else remember trying that from Jerry Silverman's Folksinger's Guitar Guide?)

Next, the folk-rockers - the Byrds from 1965 -

This group seems to refer back to the blues roots of the song a bit more than the Kingston Trio.....

..whose high-octane banjo-based arrangement actually seems almost to anticipate the eventual transformation of the song into a bluegrass number - here as done in 1979 by the legendary Seldom Scene:

Easy to see here why this group is so highly regarded. And apropos of an earlier discussion on the John Stewart message board - "Rider" is one of the songs that provided Stewart and John Phillips with part of the lyrics for "Chilly Winds."

Far and away the most famous version of "Rider" post-1960 belongs to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, here from 1972:

Garcia always listed the Kingston Trio among his influences - he was such a protean musician that he could (and did) borrow from multiple sources and come up with something completely his own.

The multiplicity of different approaches to "Rider" here demonstrates why I love the traditional music so much - as John Duffey notes in the intro to the Seldom Scene version - it's a folk song, so you can "steal" it and do whatever you want with it, just like everybody else has.

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