Thursday, April 30, 2015

I Hear Mother Africa Calling-With Odetta In Mind




They say that the blues, you know, the quintessential black musical contribution to the American songbook along with first cousin jazz that breaks you out of your depression about whatever ails you or the world, was formed down in the Mississippi muds, down in some sweat-drenched bayou, down in some woody hollow all near Mister’s plantation, mill, or store. Well they might be right in a way about how it all started in America as a coded response to Mister’s, Master’s, Captain’s wicked perverse ways back in slavery times, later back in Mister James Crow times (now too but in a different code, but the same old Mister do this and not that, do that but not this just like when old James ran the code). I do believe however they are off by several maybe more generations and off by a few thousand miles from its origins in hell-bent Africa, hell-bent when Mister’s forbears took what he thought was the measure of some poor grimy “natives” and shipped them in death slave boats and brought them to the Mississippi muds, bayous and hollows (those who survived the horrendous middle passage without being swallowed up by the unfriendly. Took peoples, proud Nubians who had created very sharp civilizations when Mister’s forbears were wondering what the hell a spoon was for when placed in their dirty clenched fingers, still wondered later how the heck to use the damn thing, and why and uprooted them whole.          

Uprooted you hear but somehow that beat, that tah, tat, tah, tah, tat, tah played on some stretched string tightened against some cabin post by young black boys kept Africa home alive. Kept it alive while women, mothers, grandmothers and once in a while despite the hard conditions some great-grandmother who nursed and taught the little ones the old home beat, made them keep the thing alive. Kept alive too Mister’s forced on them religion strange as it was, kept the low branch spirituals that mixed with blues alive in plain wood churches but kept it alive. So a few generations back black men took all that sweat, anger, angst, humiliation, and among themselves “spoke” blues on juke joint no electricity Saturday nights and sang high collar blues come Sunday morning plain wood church time.  Son House, Charley Patton, Skip James, Sleepy John Estes, Mississippi John Hurt and a lot of guys who went to their graves undiscovered in the sweat sultry Delta night carried on, and some sisters too, some younger sisters who heard the beat and heard the high collar Sunday spirituals. Some sisters like Odetta, big-voiced, who made lots of funny duck searching for roots white college students mainly marvel that they had heard some ancient Nubian Queen, some deep-voiced Mother Africa calling them back to the cradle of civilization.           


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Blues Aint Nothing But Lucille On Your Mind- With B.B. King’s Lucille In Mind 




Here is the drill. I started out life listening to singer like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby (and his brother Bob), Miss Patti Page, Miss Rosemary Clooney, Miss Peggy Lee, the Andrew, McGuire, Dooley sisters, and all the big swing bands from the 1940s like Harry James, Tommy Dorsey (and his brother Jimmy who had his own band) as background music on the family radio in the 1950s which my mother had always during the day to get her workaday daytime household world and on Saturday night when my father joined in. Joined in so they could listen to Bill Marlin on local radio station WJDA and his Memory Lane show from seven to eleven where they could listen to the music that got them (and their generation) through the “from hunger” times of the 1930s Great Depression and then when they slogged through (either in some watery European theater or Pacific one take your pick) or anxiously waited at home for the other shoe to drop during World War II. I am not saying that they should not have had their memory music after all of that but frankly that stuff then (and now although less so) made me grind my teeth. But I was a captive audience then and so to this day I can sing off Rum and Coca Cola, Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (the Glenn Miller version not the Andrew Sister) and Vera Lynn’s White Cliffs of Dover from memory. But that was not my music, okay. 

Then of course since we are speaking about the 1950s came the great musical break-out, the age of classic rock and roll which I “dug” seriously dug to the point of dreaming my own jailbreak dreams about rock futures (and girls) but that Elvis-etched time too was just a bit soon for me to be able to unlike my older brother, Prescott, call that the music that I came of age to. Although the echoes of that time still run through my mind and I can quote chapter and verse One Night With You (Elvis version, including the salacious One Night Of Sin original), Sweet Little Sixteen (Chuck Berry, of course), Let’s Have A Party ( the much underrated  Wanda Jackson), Be-Bop-a-Lula (Gene Vincent in the great one hit wonder night but what a hit), Bo Diddley (Bo, of course), Peggy Sue (Buddy Holly) and a whole bunch more.   

The music that I can really call my own is the stuff from the folk minute of the 1960s which dovetailed with my coming of chronological, political and social age (that last in the sense of recognizing, if not always acting on, the fact that there were others, kindred, out there beside myself filled with angst, alienation and good will to seek solidarity with which I did not connect with until later after getting out of my dinky hometown of Carver and off into the big cities and campus towns where just at that moment there were kindred by the thousands with the same maladies and same desire to turn  the world upside down). You know the mountain tunes of the first generation of the Carter Family coming out of Clinch Mountain, Buell Kazell (from Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music times), Jimmy Rodgers the Texas yodeler who found fame at the same time as the Carters in old Podunk Bristol, Tennessee, the old country Child ballads (Northwest Europe old country collected by Child in Cambridge in the 1850s and taken up in that town again one hundred years later in some kind of act historical affinity), the blue grass music (which grabbed me by the throat when Everett Lally, a college friend and member of the famed Lally Brothers blue grass band let me in on his treasure trove of music from that genre), and the protest songs, songs against the madnesses of the times, nuclear war, brushfire war in places like Vietnam, against Mister James Crows midnight ways, against the barbaric death penalty, against a lot of what songwriter Malvina Reynolds called the ticky-tack little box existences we were slated for by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk and Phil Ochs. The latter songs being what drove a lot of my interest once I connected their work with the Harvard Square coffeehouse scene (and the adjacent hanging out at the Hayes-Bickford Cafeteria which I have written plenty about elsewhere where I hung on poverty nights, meaning many nights).


A lot of the drive toward folk music was to get out from under the anti-rock and rock musical counter-revolution that I kept hearing on my transistor radio during that early 1960s period with pretty boy singers and vapid young female-driven female singer stuff. (Of course being nothing but one of those alienated teenagers whom the high-brow sociologists were fretting about like we were what ailed the candid world I would not have characterized that trend that way it would take a few decades to see what was what then the music just gave me a a headache). Also to seek out roots music that I kept hearing in the coffeehouses and on the radio once I found a station (accidently) which featured such music and got intrigued by the sounds. Part of that search, a big search over the long haul, was to get deeply immersed in the blues, mainly at first country blues and later the city, you know, Chicago blues. Those country guys though intrigued me once they were “discovered” down south in little towns plying away in the fields or some such work and were brought up to Newport to enflame a new generation of aficionados. The likes of Son House the mad man preacher-sinner man, Skip James with that falsetto voice singing out about how he would rather be the devil than to be that woman’s man, Bukka White (sweating blood and  salt on that National Steel on Aberdeen Mississippi Woman and Panama Limited of course Creole Belle candy man Mississippi John Hurt.

But those guys basically stayed in the South went about their local business and vanished from big view until they were “discovered” by folk aficionados who headed south looking for, well, looking for roots, looking for something to hang onto  and it took a younger generation like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and the guy whose photograph graces this sketch, B.B. King, to move north, to follow the northern star to the big industrial cities (with a stop at Memphis going up river) to put some electric juice in those old guitars and chase my blues away just by playing like they too had made their own pacts with the devil. And made a lot of angst and alienation just a shade more bearable.  Praise be.               

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Smokestack Lightning, Indeed- With Bluesman Howlin’ Wolf In Mind







Sometimes a picture really can be worth a thousand words, a thousand words and more as in the case Howlin’ Wolf doing his Midnight creep in the photograph above taken from an album of his work but nowadays with the advances in computer technology and someone’s desire to share also to be seen on sites such as YouTube where you can get a real flavor of what that mad man was about when he got his blues wanting habits on. In fact I am a little hesitate to use a bunch of words describing Howlin’ Wolf in high gear since maybe I would leave out that drop of perspiration dripping from his overworked forehead and that salted drop might be the very thing that drove him that night or describing his oneness with his harmonica because that might cause some karmic funk. So, no, I am not really going to go on and on about his midnight creep but when the big man got into high gear, when he went to a place where he sweating profusely, a little ragged in voice and eyes all shot to hell he roared for his version of the high white note. Funny, a lot of people, myself for a while included, used to think that the high white note business was strictly a jazz thing, maybe somebody like the “Prez” Lester Young or Duke’s Johnny Hodges after hours, after the paying customers had had their fill, or what they thought was all those men had in them, shutting the doors tight, putting up the tables leaving the chairs for whoever came by around dawn, grabbing a few guys from around the town as they finished their gigs and make the search, make a serious bid to blow the world to kingdom come.

Some nights they were on fire as they blew that big note out in to some heavy air and who knows where it landed, most nights though it was just “nice try.” One night I was out in Frisco when “Saps” McCoy blew a big sexy sax right out the door of Chez Benny’s over in North Beach when North Beach was just turning away from be-bop “beat” and that high white note, I swear, blew out into the bay and who knows maybe all the way to the Japan seas. Well see we were all a little high so I don’t know about that Japan seas stuff but I sure know that brother blew that high white one somewhere out the door.  But see if I had, or anybody had, thought about it for a minute jazz and the blues are cousins, cousins no question so of course Howlin’ Wolf blew out that high white note more than once, plenty including a couple of shows I caught him at later when he was not in his prime.         

The photograph (and now video) that I was thinking of is one where he is practically eating the harmonica as he performs How Many More Years (and now like I say thanks to some thoughtful archivist you can go on to YouTube and see him doing his devouring act in real time and in motion, wow, and also berating “father” preacher/sinner man Son House for showing up drunk). Yes, the Wolf could blast out the blues and on this one you get a real appreciation for how serious he was as a performer and as blues representative of the highest order.

Howlin’ Wolf like his near contemporary and rival Muddy Waters, like a whole generation of black bluesmen who learned their trade at the feet of old-time country blues masters like Charley Patton, the aforementioned Son House who had had his own personal fight with the devil, Robert Johnson who allegedly sold his soul to the devil out on Highway 61 so he could get his own version of that high white note, and the like down in Mississippi or other southern places in the first half of the twentieth century. They as part and parcel of that great black migration (even as exceptional musicians they would do stints in the sweated Northern factories before hitting Maxwell Street) took the road north, or rather the river north, an amazing number from the Delta and an even more amazing number from around Clarksville in Mississippi right by that Highway 61 and headed first maybe to Memphis and then on to sweet home Chicago.  

They went where the jobs were, went where the ugliness of Mister James Crow telling them sit here not there, walk here but not there, drink the water here not there, don’t look at our women under any conditions and on and on did not haunt their every move (although they would find not racial Garden of Eden in the North, last hired, first fired, squeezed in cold water flats too many to a room, harassed, but they at least has some breathing space, some room to create a little something they could call their own and not Mister’s), went where the big black migration was heading after World War I. Went also to explore a new way of presenting the blues to an urban audience in need of a faster beat, in need of getting away from the Saturday juke joint acoustic country sound with some old timey guys ripping up three chord ditties to go with that jug of Jack Flash’s homemade corn liquor (or so he, Jack Flash called it).


So they, guys like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Magic Slim, Johnny Shines, and James Cotton prospered by doing what Elvis did for rock and rock and Bob Dylan did for folk and pulled the hammer down on the old electric guitar and made big, big sounds that reached all the way back of the room in the Red Hat and Tip Top clubs lining the black streets of blustered America and made the max daddies and max mamas jump, make some moves. And here is where all kinds of thing got intersected, as part of all the trends in post-World War II music up to the 1960s anyway from R&B, rock and roll, electric blues and folk the edges of the music hit all the way to then small white audiences too and they howled for the blues, which spoke to some sense of their own alienation. Hell, the Beatles and more particularly the Stones lived to hear Muddy and the Wolf. The Stones even went to Mecca, to Chess Records to be at one with Muddy. And they also took lessons from Howlin’ Wolf himself on the right way to play Little Red Rooster which they had covered and made famous in the early 1960s (or infamous depending on your point of view since many radio stations including some Boston stations had banned it from the air originally).Yes, Howlin’ Wolf and that big bad harmonica and that big bad voice that howled in the night did that for a new generation, did pretty good, right.  


The Dark Night Of Revenge-Ray Milland’s Hostile Witness

DVD Review

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

Hostile Witness, starring and directed by Ray Milland, 1968

You know you always hear stories, or at least in the old days in the corner boy society I belong around in high school you heard stories, about guys who had been sent to stir, you know prison, by some happenstance of their making who swore on seven bibles, maybe more, that they would get even with the guys, mainly the cops, prosecuting attorney, and judge who put them in the slammer. That search for revenge would help them while away the hours but in the actual case they usually let it go. Either that or their scheme was so hare-brained that if it had been executed they would be once again whiling away the hours in some cellblock.  But not all of them let it go or had such hare-brained schemes, take John Naylor in the film under review, Ray Milland’s Hostile Witness, who almost, and remember that word almost, got away with murder in his vengeful scheme.

Simon Crawford, Queen’s Councilor, in other words a lawyer in England, played by Ray Milland, had like a lot of up and coming lawyers started out in the prosecutor’s office and in the course of events would have put more than a few bad guys away, a few seeking revenge for their incarceration too. Same with judges, maybe more so if they handed out a harsh sentence. Like I said plenty of guys whiled away their prison time plotting in excruciating detail their revenge. And John Naylor who was put in gaol (jail) by Simon and Justice Matthews planned and plotted a lot better than most. See he was in his revenge for the long haul so when he got out he gain employee in the law offices of one Simon Crawford. His idea was to study the man and when he had an opportunity he would pounce. After years of waiting he got his opportunity when Simon’s young daughter was run over and mortally wounded by a hit and run driving identified only as an older man. Simon was ready to move heaven and hell to find that bastard who took his main reason for existence away.

That is when John was able to pounce. Justice Matthews by then was an old man and the idea was put in Simon’s mind that Matthews had been the hit and run driver. And presto one fine night Justice Matthews was found dead, found murdered most foul and on that same night in that same neighborhood one Simon Crawford was found on the ground by a neighbor conked on the head. It didn’t take much for the coppers to put two and two together and come up Simon, Simon murder one. It figured, right. So Simon was going to the big house, maybe step off on some high hung gallows for the crime. But wait a minute. Hold on. Simon was not built like that although a lot of evidence pointed his way. Naturally in trying to find the real criminal Simon honed in on the idea that it had been an inside job, had been done with close knowledge of his movements, and so guess who got to take the rap. And now dear John Naylor will have plenty of time to figure out his next revenge. But that last time was a close thing. Just ask Simon Crawford.      


Monday, April 27, 2015

In The Hills And Hollows Again- With Mountain Music Man Norman Blake In Mind    

In The Hills And Hollows Again- With Mountain Music Man Norman Blake In Mind    

Recently in discussing Sam Lowell’s relationship with mountain music, the music from down in the hills and hollows of Kentucky where his father and his people before him had lived dirt poor for generations eking almost nothing out of the land that had been abandoned decades before by some going west driven spirits who played the land out and moved on, some moving on until they reached ocean edge California, Bart Webber noticed that he had concentrated a little too heavily on the music of Sam’ s father’s  Kentucky hills and hollows. There were other places down south like in the Piedmont of North Carolina where a cleaner picking style had been developed by the likes of Etta Baker and exemplified more recently by Norman Blake who has revived the work of performers like Aunt Helen Alder and Pappy Sims by playing the old tunes. There are other places as well like down in the inner edges of Tennessee and Georgia where the kindred also dwelled, places as well where if the land had played out there they, the ones who stayed behind in there tacky cabins barely protected against the weathers, their lack of niceties of modern existence a result not because they distained such things but down in the hollows they did not know about them, did not seem to notice the bustling outside world.
They all, all the hills and hollows people, just kept plucking away barely making ends meet, usually not doing so in some periods, and once they had abandoned cultivating the land these sedentary heredity “master-less men” thrown out their old countries, mainly the British Isles, for any number of petty crimes, but crimes against property and so they had to go on their own or face involuntary transportation they went into the “black god” mines or sharecropping for some Mister to live short, nasty, brutish lives before the deluge.
But come Saturday night, come old Fred Brown’s worn out in need of paint red barn the hill people, the mountain people, the piedmont brethren, hell, maybe a few swamp-dwellers too, would gather up their instruments, their sweet liquor jugs, their un-scrubbed bare-foot children or their best guy or gal and play the night away as the winds came down the mountains. This DNA etched in his bones by his father and the kindred is what Sam had denied for much of his life.          
But like Bart had mentioned when discussing the matter with Sam one night sometimes “what goes around comes around” as the old-time expression had it. Take for example Sam Lowell’s youthful interest in folk music back in the early 1960s when it had crashed out of exotic haunts like Harvard Square, Ann Arbor, Old Town Chi Town and North Beach/Berkeley out in Frisco. Crashed out by word of mouth at first and ran into a lot of kids, a lot of kids like Sam, who got his word from Diana Nelson who got it from a cousin from North Adamsville nearer Boston who frequented the coffeehouse on Beacon Hill and Harvard Square who had “hipped” her to this new folk music program that he had found flipping the dial of his transistor radio one Sunday night.
See Sam and Diana were tucked away from the swirl down in Carver about thirty miles as the crow flies from Boston and Cambridge but maybe a million social miles from those locales and had picked up the thread somewhat belatedly. He, along with his corner boys, had lived in their little corner boy cocoon out in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner figuring out ways to get next to girls like Diana but who were stuck, stuck like glue to listening to the “put to sleep” music that was finding its way to clog up Jimmy Jack’s’ hither-to-fore “boss” jukebox. Christ, stuff like Percy Faith’s Moon River that parents could swoon over, and dance to. Had picked the sound up belatedly when they were fed up with what was being presented on American Bandstand and WJDA the local rock station, while they were looking for something different, something that they were not sure of but that smelled, tasted, felt, and looked different from a kind of one-size-fits-all vanilla existence.
Oh sure, as Bart recognized once he thought about it for a while, every generation in their youth since the days when you could draw a distinction between youth and adulthood a century or so ago and have it count has tried to draw its own symbolic beat but this was different, this involved a big mix of things all jumbled together, political, social, economic, cultural, the whole bag of societal distinctions which would not be settled until the end of that decade, maybe the first part of the next. That big picture is what interested him. What Sam was interested then down there in Carver about thirty miles south of Boston was the music, his interest in the other trends did not come until later, much later long after the whole thing had ebbed and they were fighting an unsuccessful rearguard action against the night-takers and he was forced to consider other issues. And Sam had been like that ever after. 
The way Sam told it one night a few years back, according to Bart, some forty or so years after his ear changed forever that change had been a bumpy road. Sam had been at his bi-weekly book club in Plymouth where the topic selected for the next meeting was the musical influences, if any, that defined one’s tastes and he had volunteered to speak then since he had just read a book, The Mountain View, about the central place of mountain music, for lack of a better term, in the American songbook. He had along with Bart and Jack Dawson also had been around that time discussing how they had been looking for roots as kids. Musical roots which were a very big concern for a part of their  generation, a generation that was looking for roots, for rootedness not just in music but in literature, art, and even in the family tree.
Their parents’ generation no matter how long it had been since the first family immigration wave had spilled them onto these shores was in the red scare Cold War post-World War II period very consciously ignoring every trace of roots in order to be fully vanilla Americanized. So their generation had had to pick up the pieces not only of that very shaky family tree but everything else that had been downplayed during that period.
Since Sam had tired of the lazy hazy rock and roll that was being produced and which the local rock radio stations were force- feeding him and others like him looking to break out through their beloved transistor radios he had started looking elsewhere on the tiny dial for something different after Diana had clued him in about that folk music program. Although for a while he could not find that particular program or Carver was out of range for the airwaves. But like a lot of young people, as he would find out later when he would meet kindred in Harvard Square, the Village, Ann Arbor, Berkeley he fortunately had been looking for that something different at just that moment when something called folk music, roots music, actually was being played on select stations for short periods of time each week and so it was before long that he was tuned in.
His own lucky station had been a small station, an AM station, from Providence in Rhode Island which he would find out later had put the program on Monday nights from eight to eleven at the request of Brown and URI students who had picked up the folk music bug on trips to the Village (Monday a dead music night in advertising circles then, maybe now too, thus fine for talk shows, community service programs and odd-ball stuff like roots music to comply with whatever necessary FCC mandates went with the license.) That is where he first heard the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk, a new guy named Tom Rush from Harvard whom he would hear in person many times over the years, and another guy, Eric Von Schmidt whom he would meet later in one of the Harvard Square coffeehouses that were proliferating to feed the demand to hear folk music. Those coffeehouses were manna from heaven, well, because they were cheap for guys with little money. Cheap alone or on a date, basically as Sam related to his book club listeners for a couple of bucks at most admission, the price of a cup of coffee to keep in front of you and thus your place, maybe a pastry if alone and just double that up for a date except share the pasty you had your date deal all set for the evening hearing performers perfecting their acts before hitting the A-list clubs.
He listened to it all, liked some of it, other stuff, the more protest stuff he could take or leave depending on the performer but what drew his attention, strangely then was when somebody on the radio or on stage performed mountain music, you know, the music of the hills and hollows that came out of Appalachia mainly down among the dust and weeds. Things like Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow, Gold Watch and Chain, Fair and Tender Ladies, Pretty Saro, and lots of instrumentals by guys like Buell Kazee, Hobart Smith, The Charles River Boys. Norman Blake just starting his rise along with various expert band members to bring bluegrass to the wider younger audience that did not relate to guys like Bill Monroe and his various band combinations, and some other bluegrass bands as well that had now escaped his memory.
This is where it all got jumbled up for him Sam said since he was strictly a city boy, made private fun of the farm boys, the cranberry boggers, who then made up a significant part of his high school. He furthermore had no interest in stuff like the Grand Ole Opry and that kind of thing, none. Still he always wondered about the source, about why he felt some kinship with the music of the Saturday night red barn, probably broken down, certainly in need of paint, and thus available for the dance complete with the full complement of guitars, fiddles, bass, mandolin and full complement too of Bobby Joe’s just made white lightening, playing plainsong for the folk down in the wind-swept hills and hollows.  
Then one night, a Sunday night after he had picked up the Boston folk program station on the family radio (apparently the weak transistor radio did not have the energy to pick up a Boston station) he was listening to the Carter Family’s Wildwood Flower when his father came in and began singing along. After asking Sam about whether he liked the song and Sam answered that he did but could not explain why his father told him a story that maybe put the whole thing in perspective. After Sam’s older brother, Lawrence, had been born and things looked pretty dicey for a guy from the South with no education and no skill except useless coal-mining his father decided that maybe they should go back to Kentucky and see if things were better for a guy like him there. No dice, after had been in the north, after seeing the same old tacky cabins, the played out land, the endless streams of a new generation of shoeless kids Sam’s father decided to head back north and try to eke something out in a better place. But get this while Sam’s parents were in Kentucky Sam had been conceived. Yeah, so maybe it was in the genes all along.          

Sunday, April 26, 2015

One More Time Down 1950s Record Memory Lane




Sam Lowell, ex-corner boy in the early 1960s when in the working-class neighborhoods of America you had best have had corner boy comrades when you hung out on date-less, girl-less, dough-less Friday and Saturday nights to have your back if trouble brewed, ex-hippie “flower child” along with his long mourned and lamented friend the late Peter Paul Markin heading out west on the hitchhike roads when the world turned upside down later in the decade, now a sedate grandfatherly lawyer filled with respectability and memories had to laugh about how much he of late had been thinking about the 1950s. The 1950s when he came of age, came of musical age, drawing away from the music on his parents’ family living room radio and their cranky old record player after they had, to insure domestic peace and tranquility if he remembered correctly, his first transistor radio down at the now long gone Radio Shack store and he could sit up in his room and dream of whatever coming of age boys dreamed about, mainly how those last year bothersome girls became this year’s interesting objects of discussion (by the way that room, shared with his two brothers also a beauty of hold up to your ear transistor radio and drown out the world of brotherly scuffings). 

More than that though, more than just thinking about the old days he had via the beauties of the Internet been purchasing several record compilations of the “best of” that period from a commercial distributor (and also keeping up to date on various versions of the songs on YouTube) and through his friend and old corner boy Frankie Riley been spilling plenty of cyber-ink on Frankie’s blog, In The Be-Bop ‘50s Night, going back to the now classic age of rock and roll. He had to laugh about that as well since he had been well known back on the corner, back holding up the wall in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner on those date-less, girl-less, dough-less Friday and Saturday nights for proclaiming to all who would listen (mainly Frankie, Markin, Jimmy Jenkins, Jack Callahan, Kenny Hogan and Johnny “Thunder” Thornton and an occasional girl who wondered what he was talking about) that “rock and roll will never die.”

Mainly, through the archival marvels of modern technology, it had not died although it clearly no longer provided the same fuel for later generations more into hip-hop-ish music. But funny when kids, his grandkids, for example, hear (and see) Elvis, all steamy, smoldering and swiveling in something like the film clip in Jailhouse Rock, Bo Diddley proclaiming that he put the rock in rock and roll, Chuck Berry telling a candid world, a candid teenage world which after all was all that counted then, now too from what he had heard, that Mister Beethoven from the old fogy music museum had better take himself and move over because a new be-bop daddy was taking taking the reins, curl-in-hair Buddy Holly pining away for his Peggy Sue, Jerry Lee Lewis sitting, maybe standing for all Sam knew telling that same candid world that everybody had to do the high school hop bop, confidentially, Wanda Jackson proclaiming that it was party time and an endless host of one hit wonders and wanna-bes they went crazy. Yeah, just like the young Sam who could not believe his ears when he had come of age and, yeah, those same guys who formed his musical tastes back in the 1950s when he had come of age, musical age anyway. Jesus, Jesus too when he came of teenage age and all that meant of angst and alienation.

Sam had thought again recently about going back to those various commercially-produced compilations put out by demographically savvy media companies to cull out the better songs, some which he had on the tip of his tongue almost continuously since the 1950s(the Dubs Could This Be Magic the great last chance dance song that bailed him out of being shut out of more than one dance night although his partner’s feet borne the brunt of the battle, and the Teen Queens Eddie My Love, where Eddie took advantage of the girl and she is wondering when he is coming back, a great love ‘em and leave ‘em song and the answer is still he’s never coming back, are two examples that quickly came to his mind). Others like Johnny Ace’s Pledging My Love or The Crows Oh-Gee though needed some coaxing by the compilations to remember.

But Sam, old lawyerly Sam, had finally found a sure-fire method to aid in that memory coaxing. Just go back in memory’s mind and picture scenes from teenage days and figure the songs that went with such scenes (this is not confined to 1950s aficionados anybody can imagine their youth times and play). But even using that method Sam believed that he was cheating a little, harmlessly cheating but still cheating. When he (or anybody familiar with the times) looked at the artwork on most of the better 1950s CD compilations one could not help but notice the excellent artwork that highlights various institutions illustrated back then. The infamous drive-in movies where you gathered about six people (hopefully three couples but six anyway) and paid for two the other four either on the back seat floor or in the trunk. They always played music at intermission when we gathered at the refreshment stand to grab inedible hot dogs, stale popcorn, or fizzled out sods, although who cared, especially if that three couples thing was in play, and that scene had always been associated in Sam’s mind with Frankie Lyman and the Teenager’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love.

So that is how Sam played the game. Two (or more) can play so he said he would just set the scenes and others can fill in their own musical selections. Here goes: the first stirrings of interest in the opposite sex at Doc’s Drugstore with his soda fountain AND jukebox; the drive-in restaurant with you and yours in the car, yours or father borrowed for an end of the night bout with cardboard hamburgers, ultra-greasy french fries and diluted soda; the Spring Frolic Dance (or name your seasonal dance) your hands all sweaty, trying to disappear into the wall, waiting, waiting to perdition for that last dance so that you could ask that he or she that you had been eyeing all evening to dance that slow one  all dreamy; down at the beach on day one of out of school for the summer checking out the scene between the two boat clubs where all the guys and gals who counted hung out; the night before Thanksgiving football rally where he or she said they would be, how about you; on poverty nights sitting up in your bedroom listening to edgy WMEX on your transistor radio away from prying adult eyes; another poverty night you and your boys, girls, boys and girls sitting in the family room spinning platters; that first sixth grade “petting” party (no more explanation needed right); cruising Main Street with your boys or girls looking for, well, you figure it out listening to the radio in that “boss” Chevy, hopefully; and, sitting in the balcony “watching” the double feature at the Strand Theater on Saturday afternoon when younger and at night when older. Okay, Sam has given enough cues. Fill in the dots, oops, songs and add scenes too.                      

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Where Have All The Flowers Gone- With Legendary Folk-Singer Pete Seeger In Mind



A while back, a few months ago now I think I mentioned in a sketch about how I came to learn about the music of Woody Guthrie I noted that it was hard to pin just exactly when I first heard his music since it pre-dated my coming to the folk minute of the 1960s where the name Woody Guthrie had been imprinted on lots of work by the then “new breed” protest/social commentary troubadour folk singers like Bob Dylan (who actually spent time in Woody’s hospital room with him when he first came East from Hibbing out of Dinktown in Minneapolis and wrote an early paean called Song To Woody on his first or second album), Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (who made a very nice career out of being a true Woody acolyte and had expected Dylan who had subsequently moved on, moved very far on to more lyrical work), and Stubby Tatum (probably the truest acolyte since he was instrumental in putting a lot of Woody’s unpublished poems and art work out for public inspection and specialized in Woody songs, first around Harvard Square and then wherever he could get a gig, which to say the least were not among the most well know or well thought out of Woody’s works. After some thought I pinpointed the first time I heard a Woody song to a seventh grade music class, Mr. Dasher’s class whom we innocently then called Dasher the Flasher just for rhyming purposes but which with today’s sensibilities about the young would not play very well and would probably have him up before some board of inquiry just because a bunch of moody, alienated hormonally-crazed seventh graders were into a rhyming fad that lasted until the next fad a few weeks or months, when he in an effort to have us appreciate various genre of the world music songbook made us learn Woody’s This Land Is Your Land. Little did we know until a few years later when some former student confronted him about why we were made to learn all those silly songs he made us memorize and he told that student that he had done so in order to, fruitlessly as it turned out, break us from our undying devotion to rock and roll, you know, Elvis, Chuck, Jerry Lee, Wanda, Brenda, Bo, Buddy, the Big Bopper and every single doo wop group, male or female. If anybody wants to create a board of inquiry over that Mister Dasher indiscretion complete with a jury of still irate rock and roll will never die-ers you have my support.   

In thinking about Woody the obvious subsequent question of when I first heard the late Pete Seeger sing, a man who acted as the transmission belt between generations, I came up against that same quandary since I know I didn’t associate him with the first time, the first wave of performers, I heard as I connected with the emerging folk minute of the early 1960s. That folk minute start which I do clearly remember the details of got going one Sunday night when tired of the vanilla rock and roll music that was being play in the fall of 1962 on the Boston stations I began flipping the small dial on my transistor radio settling in on this startling gravelly voice which sounded like some old-time mountain man, some old time Jehovah cometh Calvinist avenging angel, singing Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies (who turned out to be folk historian and seminal folk revival figure Dave Von Ronk, who as far as I know later from his politics had no particular religious bent,if any, but who sure sounded like he was heralding the second coming. I listened to a few more songs on what turned out to be a folk music program put on every Sunday evening between seven and nine at the request of some college kids in the area who were going crazy for roots music according to the DJ.          

After thinking about it for a while I realized that I had heard Pete not in solo performance but when he was with The Weavers and they made a hit out of the old Lead Belly tune, Good Night, Irene (a song that in the true oral tradition has many versions and depending on the pedigree fewer or more verses, Lead Belly’s being comparatively short). In those days, in the early 1950s I think, The Weavers were trying to break into the popular music sphere and were proceeding very well until the Cold War night descended upon them and they, or individual members including Pete were tarred with the red scare brush.

Still you cannot keep a good man down, a man with a flame-throwing banjo, with folk music DNA in his blood since he was the son of the well-known folk musicologist Charles Seeger who along with the father and son Lomaxes  did so much to record the old time roots music out on location in the hills and hollows of the South, and with something to say to those who were interested in looking back into the roots of American music before it got commercialized (although now much of that early commercial music makes up the key folk anthology put together by Harry Smith and which every self-respecting folkie performer in the early 1960s treated like a bible. Pete put a lot of it together, a lot of interests. Got the young interested in going back to the time when old cowboys would sing themselves to sleep around the camp fire out in the prairies, when sweat hard-working black share-croppers and plantation workers down South would get out a Saturday jug and head to the juke joint to chase the blues away, and when the people of the hills and hollows down in Appalachia would Saturday night get out the jug and run over to Bill Preston’s old seen better days red-painted barn and dance that last dance waltz to that weeping mountain fiddle.

Stuff like that, lots of stuff like that to fill out the American songbook. But Pete also put his pen to paper to write some searing contemporary lyrics just like those “new breed” protest folk singers he helped nurture and probably the most famous to come out of that period, asking a very good question then, a question still be asked if more desperately than even then, Where Have All The Flowers Gone.  Now a new generation looks like it too is ready to pick up the torch after the long “night of the long knives” we have faced since those days. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Yes, You Had Better Shake, Rattle And Roll That Thing-With Big Joe Turner In

From The Pen Of Bart Webber
In the old days, the old days when the songs were just starting to be weaned off of the old time religion gospel high heaven savior thing and come down in the mud and of hard drinking, hard lovin’, hard woman on your mind, yeah, the old birth of    the blues days, the blue being nothing but a good woman or man on your mind anyway, around the turn of the 20th century and you can check this out if you want to and not take my word for it a black guy, a rascally black guy of no known home, a drifter, maybe a hobo for all I know, and who knows what else named Joe Turner would come around the share-cropper down South neighborhoods and steal whatever was not nailed down, including your woman which depending on how you were feeling might be a blessing and then leave and move on to the next settlement and go about his plundering way. Oh sure like lots of blues and old country music as it got passed on in the oral traditions there were as many versions of the saga as there were singers everybody adding their own touch. But for the most part the story line about old ne’er-do-well Joe Turner rang very similar over time. So Joe Turner got his grizzly self put into song out in the Saturday juke joints out in places like the Mississippi Delta where more legends were formed than you could shake a stick, got sanctified once old  when Willie’s liquor, white lightning home-made liquor got to working, and some guy, maybe not the best singer if you asked around but a guy who could put words together to tell a story, a blues story, and that guy with a scratch guitar would put some verses together and the crowd would egg him on. Make the tale taller as the night went until everybody petered out and that song was left for the next guy to embellish.

By most accounts old Joe was bad man, a very bad man, bad mojo man, just short of as bad as Mister’s plantation foremen where those juke joint listeners worked sunup to sundown six days a week or the enforcers of Mister James Crow’s laws seven days a week. Yeah, Joe was bad alright once he got his wanting habits on, although I have heard at least one recording from the Lomaxes who went all over the South in the 1930s and 1940s trying to record everything they could out in the back country where Joe Turner was something like a combination Santa Claus and Robin Hood. Hell, maybe he was and some guy who lost his woman to wily Joe just got sore and bad mouthed him. Stranger things have happened. In any case the Joe Turner, make that Big Joe, Turner I want to mention here as far as I know only stole the show when he got up on the bandstand and played the role of “godfather” of rock and roll.          

That is what I want to talk about, about how one song, and specifically the place of Big Joe and one song, Shake Rattle and Roll in the rock pantheon. No question Big Joe and his snapping beat has a place in the history of rhythm and blues which is one of the musical forbear strands of rock and roll. The question is whether Shake is also the first serious effort to define rock and roll. If you look at the YouTube version of Big Joe be-bopping away with his guitar player doing some flinty stuff and sax player searching for that high white note and Big Joe snapping away being  very suggestive about who and what should shake you can make a very strong case for that place. Add in that Bill Haley, Jerry Lee, and Elvis among others in the rock pantheon covered the song successfully and that would seem to clinch the matter.      

In 2004, the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of Shake by Big Joe, there had been considerable talk and writing again by some knowledgeable rock critics about whether Shake was the foundational song of rock. That controversy brought back to my mind the arguments that me and my corner boys who hung out in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner in Carver, a town about thirty miles south of Boston, had on some nothing better to do Friday nights during high school (meaning girl-less, dough-less or both). I was the primary guy who argued for Big Joe and Shake giving that be-bop guitar and that wailing sexy sax work as my reasoning while Jimmy Jenkins swore that Ike Turner’s frantic piano-driven and screeching sax Rocket 88 (done under an alias of the Delta Cats apparently for contract reasons a not uncommon practice when something good came up but you would not have been able to it under the label you were contracted to) was the be-bop beginning and Sam Lowell, odd-ball Sam Lowell dug deep into his record collection, really his parent’s record collection which was filled mainly with folk music and the blues edge played off that to find Elmore James’ Look On Yonder Wall. And the other corner boys like our leader Frankie Riley lined up accordingly (nobody else came up with any others so it was those three).

Funny thing Frankie and most everybody else except I think Fritz Taylor who sided with Jimmy Jenkins sided with me and Big Joe. The funny part being that several years ago with the advent of YouTube I started to listen to the old stuff as it became available on-line and now I firmly believe that Ike’s Rocket 88 beats out Shake for the honor. As for the old time Joe Turner, well, he will have to wait in line. What do you think of that?