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."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?"

"The fastest train I ever did ride,
Was a hundred coaches long,
And the only woman I ever did love,
Was on that train and gone."

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" is a typical American lost love folk ballad, generally similar to and possibly derived from its sister songs, the rather older "I Never Will Marry" and "The Butcher Boy/In Tarrytown I Did Dwell," both of which boast pedigrees that go back to the British Isles. "Pretty Little Foot," though, is in its present form attributed to and copyrighted by Woody Guthrie, who typically and honestly notes in the copyright "Words and Music Adaptation by Woody Guthrie."

Both lyrics and melody indicate why Guthrie did so. The "who's gonna shoe your foot/hold your hand/be your man" sequence appears in several Appalachian ballads and reels; "the only girl/boy I ever loved is gone" on some train or other likewise keeps popping up, most prominently in the first verse of the closely-related "I Never Will Marry," whose melody has the same structure as Guthrie's. No one better to present that one than a very young Joan Baez, from early in her career when her repertoire consisted primarily of traditional songs:

Baez is still learning to play guitar at this stage, and she is having some difficulty making her modified Travis-style picking fit with the 3/4 time that "Marry" and "Shoe Your Foot" share. That's a "waltz" tempo, a 1-2-3 1-2-3 rhythm that is clearer and audible in Guthrie's own recording of "Shoe Your Foot":

Guthrie is likely drawing on the older "There's More Pretty Girls Than One," a 19th century song recorded early in the 20th by both the duos Alton Delmore and Fiddlin' Arthur Smith and Rutherford & Foster, whose version is here:

A more contemporary take on "Pretty Girls" by Lyle Lovett with Alison Krause:

Both "Marry" and "Shoe Your Foot" have evolved into gender-neutral songs, performed with slight lyric alterations by performers of both sexes - though if I were a betting man, I'd wager that the root song of "Foot" was from a masculine perspective and feminine for "Marry" even though early published versions of both were male-oriented.

The Browns had a number of folk-oriented hits in the 1950s, one of which is this combined m/f vocal:

Largely Guthrie's arrangement, with that clear 3/4 time.

The Weavers also combine the male/female voices to good effect, and the instrumental skills of Pete Seeger and Fred Hellerman are on display as well:

Great harmonies here, and note that the Weavers are combining "Pretty Girls" with Guthrie's "Shoe Your Foot" to come up with a new song - and a new copyright.

One good theft deserves another, which is pretty much what the Kingston Trio's Bob Shane and his friend and songwriting partner Tom Drake did to create "Who's Gonna Hold Her Hand?". The Kingstons always acknowledged the primary influence of the Weavers, and note that this KT number follows the Weavers tune almost exactly, significant because the latter group clearly made minor changes in the line length from the older songs:

Musically interesting for the seventh chord that the group adds to the end of the fourth line of each verse and chorus, the cut also represents what enraged traditionalists about KT adaptations. The new lyric explores pretty much the same emotional geography of the original songs, but the "oooh" background vocals violate traditional standards and identify this effort as the 1950s pop ballad that it really is.

Interestingly, pop vocal harmonizers extraordinaire Phil and Don Everly present a version much closer to the traditional, accompanied by a single guitar:

Of course, the Everly's alteration of the last line to "I'm gonna kiss your ruby red lips" takes the melancholy out of the song and stands it next to the KT in the 1950s ballad folder of the American musical archives.

One more pop version to close with - Guthrie's fellow Oklahoman and 50s superstar singer Patti Page:

This would seem to be the inspiration for the Everlys. The arrangement Page is using here combines a touch of the old-timey with the harmonica but otherwise goes for the full-on 50s pop orchestra and chorus - nice version nonetheless from 1965.

"Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?" and its associated songs represent much of what I like about folk music and explains why this blog just keeps going and going. The variations are all interesting musically entertaining, even the 50s pop versions. I could wish that more of today's acoustic songwriters would more frequently mine the rich and largely untouched veins of American folk gold for some of their melodies and themes.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Blue-Eyed Gal/Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss"

The ascendancy of the now-ubiquitous guitar in its many incarnations as the primary instrument of American folk music is actually a rather recent phenomenon. It wasn't until 1960 (likely thanks to the combined popularity of Elvis Presley and the Kingston Trio) that guitars actually outsold pianos in the U.S. Think about that one - relative cost, size, and difficulty to master. The mass media of recordings and radio pushed the guitar past the piano, and it has never looked back, the former now outselling the latter by factors of ten.

So what did our eighteenth and nineteenth century forbears use to make music while the guitar was still in the childhood of its development and played largely by refined urban young ladies in parlors? Harmonicas, of course, and the ever-present concertina - even the banjo was beginning to break out of its segregation as a slave instrument by the 1830s. But the granddaddy of all American folk instruments is the humble fiddle, simply a slightly smaller and cruder version of its more august sibling, the violin. Compact, light, and portable - but capable of producing a great volume of sweet sound when played well - the fiddle was perfect for accompanying either voice or dance, as a solo instrument or in tandem with just about anything else that could make music. "Turkey In The Straw," "Flop-Eared Mule," "Old Dan Tucker," "Devil's Dream" - there is an entire repertoire of American folk songs, many that we now think of as banjo tunes, that first saw the light of day two centuries ago in rural American hoedowns and square dances and camp meetings, played on the fiddle.

This week's song, which has dozens of names and variants, generally starts with a short fiddle riff, with a clawhammered banjo coming in at the second bar. It is a very old song, learned by legendary country-folk performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford from one Fletch Rymer in 1898 - and Rymer was a really old man at the time. Lunsford was one of the first to record it, along with Sarah Bumgarner as "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss" in 1924, the same title used in the same year by Frank Blevins and his group. In this remarkably well-remastered 1931 recording with yet again the same name, The Skillet Lickers gave the tune genuine national exposure on radio:

I am not sure of the personnel of the group here - Britain's folk site identifies the lead singer as Riley Puckett - but I'm going to hope that Chicago musician and old-time music devotee Jeremy Raven will fill us in a bit on this. It is to Jeremy that many of us owe any knowledge of this group at all, whose bang-up version here certainly sounds like a 1930 edition of the Kingston Trio in their energy and the fun they are clearly having with the tune. I am also reminded here of Lindsay Buckingham's remark to John Stewart that a good recording should be "simple, repetitive, and hypnotic." I think Buckingham may have meant "simple-sounding," because the sophistication of the instrumentation on this recording is amazing.

The Kingston Trio in 1960 didn't have a fiddle player handy - but their version of the song as "Blue-Eyed Gal" gave them an opportunity to showcase the impressive development of Dave Guard as a banjoist and vocal arranger of the lyrics adapted by KT's Bob Shane with Tom Drake and Miriam Stafford:

Guard is blending different banjo styles here, much as he would do a year later in his tour-de-force "Coast of California." It is not exactly a traditional rendering of the song - but definitely one that respects the origins and roots of the piece.

The New Lost City Ramblers" made a career out of presenting authentic readings of old mountain tunes, as they do here:

I always get a kick out of talented non-professionals, especially when they are young. Here is the Short Mountain String Band in Frostburg MD two years ago - a fine toe-tapping instrumental once they get going:

Another great instrumental, this one by Julie Duggan on clawhammer banjo:

Duggan's right hand work here is mind-blowing.

For a more contemporary reading - indie rock group Built to Spill (now almost 20 years old) updated the lyric and electrified the accompaniment on an album appropriately named Ancient Melodies of the Future:

I actually rather like this, though it clearly uses the root song as a starting point only, as for instance the Kingston Trio did with "A Worried Man." But for sheer repetitive and hypnotic exuberance, I'll take the Skillet Lickers any day - or the Kingston Trio.