Jimmie Rodgers’ “Miss the Mississippi and You”

Jimmie Rodgers

Jimmie Rodgers

JJimmie Rodgers (1897 – 1933) was born in Meridian, Mississippi, and was a restless rebel from the start. By the age of 13, he had demonstrated a marked affinity for entertainment, twice organizing traveling shows, and twice brought back home by his father. A foreman for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, his father soon had Jimmie working as a water boy for the railroad, a position that allowed him to be exposed to the work songs of African-American workers who laid and maintained the tracks. He also learned to play the guitar from the hobos who rode the freight trains across America. Rodgers eventually worked as a brakeman and was later known as “The Singing Brakeman”, showing up for shows in full railroad overalls and brakeman’s cap.

In 1924, Rodgers was diagnosed with tuberculosis, an incurable disease at the time. The doctors prescribed rest but, even though the disease ended his railroad career, Rodgers was restless and he got back into the entertainment industry, organizing traveling shows that played throughout the Southeastern United States. Then, in 1927, a miracle happened.

The Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) developed a portable recording machine (it weighed more than 300 pounds!) and went down to Bristol Tennessee in 1927 to record the music of everyday Americans. The Southern United States was poor, rural but rich in tradition, compared to the North which was urban and industrial. The recordings, known as the Bristol Sessions, yielded music from very diverse cultures – Cajun, Mexican, Hawaiian, Appalachian, Native American and Blues, music which existed without the knowledge of the rest of the country.

The two huge stars to come out of the Bristol Sessions were The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. They were unique in their own way – Rodgers was a born entertainer who lived for his fans while the Carter Family played songs that endure to this day. The Carter Family also endeared themselves to their public by being like everybody else – for example, in the middle of the Great Depression, they charged 15 cents for their concerts but widows and orphans always got in free.

Although commercial recordings of American music began in 1922, it was almost impossible to generate any revenue from record sales because radio had become virtually universal. Certainly, the economy and the Great Depression ended many prospects at a career in the music business. Nevertheless, Rodgers’ 1927 recordings were very successful, yielding two songs for which he was paid $100, a lot of money in those days. From this small step forward, Rodgers built a career that captured the hearts of America. He was the first American artist to rise to prominence through his recordings. His concert performances were equally popular and featured a mix of musical influences, from the blues he had heard from railroad workers, to yodeling, which he had first heard from a troupe of Swiss entertainers. His yodeling became so popular that Rodgers wrote 13 numbered “blue yodels”, the most famous being “Blue Yodel No 1” (T for Texas), “Blue Yodel No 8 (Mule Skinner Blues) and “Blue Yodel No 9 (Standin’ on the Corner) which was recorded in 1930 with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and Armstrong’s wife Lil on piano. Pretty soon, people had also nicknamed Rodgers “The Blue Yodeler.” His blue yodels were later recorded by the likes of Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bill Munroe, Waylon Jennings and Jerry Garcia.

Rodgers’ next-to-last recordings in 1932 were made in Camden Studios, New Jersey, from where I chose his mournful ballad, “Miss the Mississippi and You.” By this time, tuberculosis clearly was getting the better of him. It was not in Rodgers’ make-up to stay still, though, and his constant touring and recording schedule only hurt his chances of recovery. During this final recording session in New York City, he was so weakened from years of fighting his ailment that he had a nurse accompanying him. Rodgers was coughing up blood and needed to rest on a cot between songs. Jimmie Rodgers died in 1933, two days after his last recording, leaving a wife and a young daughter in mourning. Another of his daughters, June, died in 1923 at the age of 6 months. Jimmie Rodgers was 35 years old at the time of his death and he accounted for fully 10% of RCA Victor’s record sales, in a market drastically reduced by the Great Depression.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

 

Miss The Mississippi And You

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Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver’s Blues”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966) was born in Teoc but raised in Avalon Mississippi, where he spent almost all of his life, working as a farmhand and sharecropper. He began playing guitar at the age of nine, playing for parties and dances on borrowed guitars (like me!). He refused an invitation to join a travelling medicine show because he never wanted to leave Avalon. Through his association with fiddler Willie Narmour, he was first recorded in Memphis in 1928 by Okeh records but it was the time of the Great Depression – the recordings didn’t sell and Okeh went out of business shortly afterwards.

Mississippi John returned to Avalon and obscurity, living his “ordinary” life. However, his 1928 recordings were reissued in 1952, generating interest in locating him. Musicologist Dick Spottwood finally found Hurt’s cabin in 1963, convincing him to perform again. Mississippi John wasn’t comfortable with the idea but he appeared at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, to widespread acclaim. He subsequently performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When he died in 1966, Mississippi John Hurt had influenced countless guitar players from several different musical genres. A soft-spoken man, his nature was reflected in his music, making him one of the most beloved figures of the folk music revival of the 1960s.

I first saw and heard Mississippi John Hurt on CBC television reruns of Rainbow Quest, an American black and white TV show hosted by Pete Seeger and featuring unrehearsed performances by the very best artists in folk music, old-time music, bluegrass and blues. That moment literally changed my life. Living in a small rural community of Eastern Ontario and trying to teach myself how to play guitar, I had never heard anyone play and sing as well as John Hurt. His finger-picking style, which was so natural to him and so alien to me, completely captivated me. He had taken on for me the figure of a grand-father, certainly the most important musical influence of my life. I spent the rest of my life trying to play like Mississippi John.

I started working when I was 19 and, after 6 years of borrowed guitars, I could finally afford to buy my first acoustic guitar, a Gibson J-45 which now belongs to Roch Tassé. At the time, I remember that I had “green light” songs and “red light” songs as far as difficulty and “Spike Driver’s Blues” was at the very top of the “red light” songs.

To hear me play Roch’s Gibson J-45, click here.

“Spike Driver’s Blues” is about John Henry, an African-American folk hero who worked as a “steel driver” – a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in the construction of a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. John Henry won the race only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out. Various locations have been suggested as the site of the contest, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama.

The story of John Henry has often been told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. Mississippi John Hurt’s version of “Spike Driver”s Blues” came out of the penal institutions and chain gangs, with the lyrics coming from several sources.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar
The percussion is taken from samples and original recordings by Roch Tassé

 

Spike Driver’s Blues

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Lyle Lovett’s “If I Had a Boat”

Lyle Lovett

Lyle Lovett

The first thing anyone should know about Lyle Lovett is that he’s from Texas. People from Texas are different from other people. Lovett even wrote a song about that, called “That’s Right, You’re Not From Texas.”

Many of country music’s greatest stars, like Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings could not bear the conventions and typecasting of Nashville and moved to Texas and California where their songs became known as “Outlaw” country music. Lyle Lovett fits this mold perfectly.

Lovett was born in Houston, Texas, in 1957 and started writing songs after attending Texas A & M University in the late 70s. He continued writing and performing while studying abroad in Germany. Returning to the U.S., he played in several clubs around Texas and in 1984, a demo tape of his songs found its way to MCA Records, who immediately signed him, releasing his first album in 1986 to universal critical acclaim. Lovett has since released more than a dozen albums and acted in a number of films, including five films directed by the late great Robert Altman. While typically associated with the country genre, Lovett’s compositions often incorporate folk, swing, blues, jazz, gospel and big band music. He has won four Grammy Awards.

His composition “If I Had a Boat” is best introduced by a quote from the Bible, Corinthians 13:11:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

“If I Had a Boat” is a song written from a child’s perspective and describes an insular world of heros (Roy Rogers), adventure (The Lone Ranger and Tonto), imagination (being lightning fast) and fantasy (owning a pony and a boat), all in the carefree and humourous language of a child. The composition is also disturbingly dark because the adult listener senses that, lurking in the shadows of the child’s perfect world is time, the killer of childhood. In the boy’s mind, he longs to evade this dreaded coming of age by leaving for the ocean with his pony on his boat (neither of which he has). A beautiful and poignant song in Lovett’s long repertoire of impressive compositions.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin, electric guitar, electric bass

If I Had a Boat

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Son House’s “Death Letter”

Son House

Son House

Eddie James “Son” House, Jr. (1902 – 1988) was, at different times of his life, a Baptist deacon and a Delta blues singer. This meeting of the sacred and the profane, the secular and the spiritual, made Son House a fevered and intense guitar player with a voice both powerful and unrestrained.

When he was in his early teens, Son House’s family left Mississippi and moved to Algiers in New Orleans. Recalling these years, he would speak of his hatred of blues music and his passion for the Church. At fifteen he began preaching sermons and was accepted as a paid pastor, first in the Baptist Church and then in the Colored Methodist and Episcopal Church. However, he fell into habits which conflicted with his calling – drinking (like his father) and womanizing. This led him, after so many years of hostility towards secular music, to leave the church and turn to the blues at the age of 25. He quickly developed a unique style by applying the rhythmic drive, vocal power and emotional intensity of preaching to his blues vocabulary.

In 1928, Son House was playing in a juke joint when a man went on a shooting spree, wounding House in the leg. House shot the man dead in self defense but was convicted of manslaughter and received a 15-year sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm), of which he served two years. Upon his release, bluesman Charley Patton invited him to share engagements and to accompany him to a 1930 recording session for Paramount Records. Issued at the start of the Great Depression, the records did not sell and House remained unknown at the national level. However, he was very popular locally and, together with Patton’s associate, Willie Brown, he became a leading regional performer and a formative influence on Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. In 1941 and 1942, he was recorded by the great American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. The following year, he left the Mississippi Delta for Rochester, New York and gave up music.

In 1964, House was “rediscovered” in Rochester and was completely unaware of the 1960s folk and blues revival and the international enthusiasm for his early recordings. He subsequently toured extensively in the United States and Europe and started recording again. Like Mississippi John Hurt, he was welcomed with open arms into the music scene of the 1960s and played at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1964, the New York Folk Festival in 1965 and the 1967 European Tour of the American Folk Festival, along with some of the very best bluesmen like Skip James and Bukka White.

Ill health plagued House in his later years, and in 1974 he retired once again. He later moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he remained until his death from cancer of the larynx in 1988. He was buried at the Mt. Hazel Cemetery and members of the Detroit Blues Society raised enough money through benefit concerts to put a monument on his grave.

When I first saw Son House play “Death Letter” on one of those folk revival TV shows of the late 60s, it marked me for life. There, the secular and the spiritual collided and sparked off one of the most impelling performances in the history of the blues. House plays his resonator guitar with a piece of copper tubing for a slide, his right hand circling and pounding the strings. His voice is that of a preacher in his pulpit. His performance is, for me, proof of the existence of God and, probably, of the Devil as well. Here is the link to see this video :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdgrQoZHnNY

Alrick Huebener

Quite apart from this magnificent performance are the lyrics. At a time when pop music was all flowers and sunshine, Son House spoke of death, of a corpse on a cooling board during the preparation for burial, of the viewing of the corpse, of the graveyard taken over by crowds of people and of the slow descent of the coffin in the grave. It was my fate to know these things at an early age and my performance of “Death Letter” here is certainly psychotherapeutic.

“Death letters” are a service offered by the postal administrations of most countries to help the grieving family communicate the death of a loved one to the public. Typically, the letters are pre-printed with the appropriate sentiments and bordered in black, as are the envelopes used.

Roch Tassé

I am extremely fortunate to count on the musical support of Alrick Huebener and Roch Tassé, two of the finest musicians in the Ottawa Valley.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 

Death Letter

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Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

When Robert Johnson died in 1938, he left us a total of two photos and 29 compositions. His life was shrouded in mystery and dominated by myths of demonic possession. His body was never found after his death and three different markers have been erected for him in church cemeteries around Greenwood, Mississippi. It was only when his death certificate was discovered in 1967 that details of his life began to emerge.

Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi to Noah Johnson and Julia Dodds, whose husband Charles Dodds, a wealthy carpenter and farmer with whom Julia had had ten children, was forced to flee to Memphis to escape lynching at the hands of white landowners resentful of his success. Julia was left destitute and took up with a plantation worker who abused Robert for not working the fields while still a child. For a southern black man in the early part of the 20th century, there was little else to life but a boss and a plow. In spite of the theoretical emancipation of blacks achieved by the civil war, the real, jangling chains of slavery had gradually been replaced by poverty and racism. It was bondage by another name.

Musicians visited the plantations on weekends and offered men like Robert Johnson a view of what life without servitude could be like. However, to make money, musicians had to go to cities, where people had money. They travelled constantly, a very dangerous life for a black man in Mississippi, where killing or lynching happened regularly, often on no more than a whim. Musicians were also regarded as evil by most people because of the Church, which was extremely powerful among black Christian Americans. With the drinking, gambling, womanizing and blaspheming going on in every juke joint in the South, preachers and their fiery sermons quickly created the widely-held myth that the blues was the devil’s music.

When veteran bluesman (and ex-preacher) Son House moved to the Robinsonville area in 1930, he teamed up with local sideman Willie Brown, and young Robert Johnson was a fixture at their concerts ( Johnson mentions Willie Brown by name in his song “Cross Road Blues”, calling him “my good friend.”). Son House recalls that, at that time, Johnson was a horrible guitar player and people shouted him down whenever he tried to play.

It was at this time that Robert Johnson disappeared from the face of the Earth. No one knew where he went. On his return, he went back to the same juke joint where House and Brown were playing but this time, he completely bowled over the crowd when he made it up on stage. In a little more than a year, Robert Johnson had somehow become the greatest blues singer and guitarist anyone had ever heard. No one believed that he could have become that good in so little time. Rumours quickly spread that Johnson had gone to the crossroads to sell his soul to the devil in return for his incredible talents. A far more plausible explanation is that Johnson went back to Hazlehurst looking for his biological father, Noah Johnson, but instead found Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitarist in all of southern Mississippi at that time. Johnson stayed with Zimmerman’s family and the two practiced endlessly while sitting on tombstones in nearby Beauregard cemetery, no doubt adding fuel to the fire of Johnson’s rumoured dealings with the devil. His compositions also did nothing to dispel the myth, with titles like “Cross Road Blues”, “Hell Hound On My Trail” and “Me And The Devil.”

In addition to Robert Johnson’s remarkable new musicianship, he also came back a changed man. He was now that reckless, hard-drinking, womanizing bluesman endlessly admonished by the Church. Many point to his two failed attempts at a “normal” life, where his first wife, 15-year-old Virginia Travis, died in childbirth and, later on, Virgie Cain’s strict religious family would not tolerate their daughter associating with anyone playing “the devil’s music.” After these failures, Johnson’s life seems to have rushed head-on towards his fate: a juke joint called The Three Forks in Greenwood, Mississippi.

While playing there, Johnson had befriended the wife of a barman, who sought his revenge by giving Johnson a poisoned bottle of whiskey. Bluesmen David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Sonny Boy Williamson were both there that night and saw that the seal on the bottle had been broken. They tried to slap the bottle away from Johnson but he never said no to a bottle. He drank and was in agony for three days, dying on August 16, 1838, 81 years to this day. Robert Johnson was 27 years old.

All of Johnson’s compositions are a true reflection of life in the US south for a black man during the Great Depression. His lyrics are suffused with references to Hoodoo, the spiritual practices carried to the United States by West Africans as the result of the transatlantic slave trade. Hoodoo teaches that human well-being is governed by spiritual balance, by devotion to a supreme creator (and other lesser deities), by the respect of ancestors, and by the use of talismans to embody spiritual power. These talismans are called mojos. The nation sack (short for donation) that Johnson mentions in “Come On In My Kitchen” is just such a mojo but only worn by women. Its basic use is to keep a man faithful and to make him prosperous. The nation sack is ceremoniously prepared and generally contains some coins (for prosperity) and the woman’s partner’s identification, such as a photo (very rare at the time) or simply the man’s name written on a piece of paper. The sack also contains the man’s identity – nail clippings, hair, and bits of cloth soiled by sweat, phlegm, urine, feces or semen. Interestingly, these are all absolutely positive DNA identifiers, used in nation sacks long before DNA was even discovered. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women always wore skirts or dresses, the nation sack was hung from a belt worn at the waist, under the skirt. This placed it and its contents near to the woman’s private parts, assuring her man’s fidelity. Also, a nation sack was never discarded. If it became worn or frayed, the old sack was simply sewn into a new one. Men were never to touch a nation sack and most men ignored its existence since women took it off at night and locked it away until they dressed in the morning. In the lyrics to “Come On In My Kitchen”, by taking the last nickel from his woman’s nation sack, Robert Johnson violated three taboos – he touched the sack, he stole some of its contents and, by doing so, destroyed its magical powers. Also of interest, the song lyrics qualify the coming of winter as “dry long so.” This expression, seldom heard these days, means inevitable, or even fated.

1965 Dobro resonator guitar

1965 Dobro resonator guitar

I recorded my arrangement of “Come On In My Kitchen” with my 1965 Dobro resonator guitar. Johnson plays the song in open tuning with a slide while I play it in standard tuning with a slide. From the 1920s onward, Mississippi Delta bluesmen have used resonator guitars for their metallic sound. To me, it is the sound of the Great Depression.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, Dobro resonator guitar

 

Come On In My Kitchen

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Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”

In early 1961, Bob Dylan left Hibbing, Minnesota for New York City to find the singers he’d heard on records – Dave Van Ronk, the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Josh White, the Reverend Gary Davis but most of all to find Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), his musical idol whom he referred to as “the true voice of the American spirit.” Dylan settled into the New York suburb of Greenwich Village and began making a name for himself as a singer of traditional folk songs, featured on his self-titled debut album in 1962. Of folk music, Dylan said “I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious type of thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”

The Freewheelin` Bob Dylan 1963

By 1963, he was a songwriter whose compositions became anthems of his generation, songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, both featured on his second album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” This album is also memorable for its cover, a photo of Dylan smiling and walking down a Greenwich Village street with a beautiful young woman on his arm.

Her name was Suze (Susan) Rotolo (1943-2011), an American artist and political activist of Italian descent whose parents were Communist Party USA members during the McCarthy era. By all accounts, they were a devoted couple and a fixture around Greenwich Village. Dylan described her as “a Rodin sculpture come to life.” In the end, the romance could not survive the enormous adulation and scrutiny Dylan was to receive, the disapproval of the Rotolo family and Suze’s own artistic aspirations.

The Times They Are a-Changin` 1964

She left for Italy to study art in June 1962, returning after six months but the relationship did not survive. The cover photo for Dylan’s next album, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964) shows him a changed man, pensive and aloof.

Dylan’s separation from Rotolo has been credited as the inspiration behind several of his finest love songs, including “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”. “One Too Many Mornings” and “Boots of Spanish Leather.”

“Boots of Spanish Leather” is written as a dialogue, with the first six verses alternating between the two lovers and the last three verses all sung by the lover who has been left behind. Although the lyrics deal with Suze Rotolo’s departure for Italy, Dylan chose to hide this by using Spain as the destination country. The song is an adaptation of “Scarborough Fair”, a ballad that dates back to the Middle English period (1150-1500).

Dylan, Suze Rotolo, Dave Van Ronk

Folk music has now been absent from contemporary music for more than 50 years. People today would have a tough time listening to anyone singing deep lyrics for 6 minutes accompanied only by a single acoustic guitar. But that is exactly what I’m asking of you.

 

 

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

Boots of Spanish Leather

 

To learn more about “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”, another song written for Suze Rotolo, click here.

To learn more about the Greenwich Village scene in the early sixties, click here.

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Steve Earle’s “Tennessee Blues”

Steve Earle

Steve Earle was born in Virginia but spent his childhood in San Antonio, Texas. A rebel by nature, Earle ran away from home at the age of 14 and went looking for his idol, American songwriter Townes Van Zandt. He dropped out of school at 16 and eventually moved to Nashville, the musical dominion of the American South-West.

Nashville’s brand of sugary, trite music geared towards profit incited many artists to rebel and put out their own acetic songs, songs about failed relationships wrapped in lyrics of barbed wire. They came to be known as “outlaw” songwriters, all of them greatly influenced by the high, lonesome sound and grim lyrics of Hank Williams. Their music was folk and bluegrass, blues and rock, country and R&B and the music industry, always comfortable with labels, simply called it American music. Steve Earle became of the best of these new songwriters, following a long line of luminaries like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clarke, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt and many others.

As a performer, Earle burst on the scene in 1986 with his first album, “Guitar Town.” Two of the songs from this collection (“Guitar Town” and “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left”) reached the Top Ten. Since then Earle has released 15 studio albums and received three Grammy Awards. His songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Bob Seger and Emmylou Harris, among others. He has appeared in film and television, and has written a novel, a play, and a book of short stories.

Kris Kristofferson describes the life of a Nashville songwriter as the opposite of a 9 to 5 job, where you’re constantly at someone’s place and on the way to someone else’s place, a life full of abuse and without sleep. In 1993 Earle was arrested for possession of heroin and again in 1994, for cocaine and weapons possession. Earle was sentenced to a year in jail but only served 60 days of his sentence. He then completed an outpatient drug treatment program, reformed his band The Dukes and went on a North-American tour, stopping in Ottawa at Barrymore’s where I saw them play. It was a triumphant show, highlighted by the popular “Guitar Town”, his harsh composition “The Devil’s Right Hand” and a devastating performance of The Rolling Stones’ composition, “Dead Flowers.”

Although Earle never openly stated it, “Guitar Town” refers to Nashville, the capital of Tennessee and the so-called “country music capital of the world.” “Tennessee Blues” is a farewell to Nashville, again referred to in the song as “Guitar Town.”

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

 

Tennessee Blues

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Bobby Charles’ “The Jealous Kind”

Bobby Charles

Robert Charles Guidry (1938-2010), forever known as Bobby Charles, was an ethnic Cajun who grew up in the small town of Abbeville, Louisiana listening to Cajun music and the country and western music of Hank Williams. The son of a gas company truckdriver, his life changed forever when he heard Fats Domino on the radio and he started writing songs at an early age. He led a local group, the Cardinals, and he always had the songwriter’s gift. One night as he left his friends, Charles said “See you later, alligator,” and someone yelled back, “In a while, crocodile.” Charles stopped dead in his tracks. At that moment, as would happen countless times in the future, the song “See You Later, Alligator” came to him, fully formed. He was 14 years old. Later, Fats Domino played Abbeville, and he invited Charles to a show in New Orleans. The young singer said he had no way to get there. “Well,” the fat man said, “you’d better start walking.” And sure enough, a song popped into Charles’ head: “Walking To New Orleans.” It was recorded by Fats Domino in 1960 and became his signature song.

The popularity of “See You Later, Alligator” led a local record-store owner to recommend Charles to Leonard Chess of the famous Chicago-based Chess Records label. After Charles sang the song over the phone, Leonard Chess signed him on the spot. On his first visit to Chicago, he surprised the label’s owners, who were convinced from the sound of his voice that Charles was black! They had arranged a promotional tour of the African-American venues in the “chitlin circuit” for him, which had to be cancelled.

Chess issued Charles’s song under the title “Later Alligator” in January 1956, but it was soon recorded as “See You Later, Alligator” by Bill Haley & His Comets, whose version sold 1 million copies in the U.S. Although Charles performed alongside big names such as Little Richard, The Platters and Chuck Berry on tours in the late 1950s, his own records for Chess, Imperial and Jewel did not sell that well. However, as a songwriter he was pure gold. For example, he wrote “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” which was a smash for Clarence “Frogman” Henry in 1961, the biggest hit of his career.

Alrick Huebener

In 1956, when Elvis Presley played the Paramount Theater in New York City, Bobby Charles met him backstage and had the chance to spend a little time with him. Elvis told hin “Whatever you do, don’t get as big as me. I can’t go to a movie. I can’t do anything. It’s terrible. Money’s good but it’s just a terrible life.” Charles took this to heart and, for the rest of his life, his songs were much more famous than he ever was.

Charles disappeared from the music scene in the mid-1960s and he became a member of the Woodstock community of artists in residence, appearing on later recordings by Paul Butterfield and making a rare live appearance at The Last Waltz, the 1976 farewell concert of The Band. He sang and played with Dr. John on the Louisiana classic “Down South in New Orleans.”

Roch Tassé

Charles lived for some years in quiet seclusion at Holly Beach on the Gulf of Mexico. After his house was destroyed by Hurricane Rita in 2005, he returned to Abbeville. His contribution to the music of his home state was recognized when he was inducted into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Bobby Charles collapsed near his home in Abbeville in 2010, a victim of long years of poor health. He is survived by four sons.

His songs have always attracted the very best singers in the business and “The Jealous Kind” is certainly no exception. It was recorded by Joe Cocker, Delbert McClinton, Ray Charles and Etta James, among others.

Much of the music on this site would not be possible without the exceptional contributions of Alrick Huebener (upright bass) and Roch Tassé (drums and percussion).

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, electric guitars, MIDI guitar (electric piano)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 

The Jealous Kind

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Dave Van Ronk’s “Green Green Rocky Road”

Dave Van Ronk

In the mid 1950s, several intellectuals congregated to create their art in New York City’s Greenwich Village : its colleges, universities, book stores and coffee shops. The first were the storytellers, the beat poets who shaped their words to the cadence and rhythms of jazz, often reciting their poetry to the sound of an upright bass or a drum kit. The musicians followed and the instrument of choice was the acoustic guitar, usually fingerpicked. From this cultural hub, what came to be known as the folk revival spread across the United States.

The Reverend Gary Davis (and dancer)

I learned about the folk revival from Canadian television. Both CTV and CBC aired “Let’s Sing Out”, filmed on location from a different Canadian University each week. Several prominent artists were featured, including Simon & Garfunkel and Joni Mitchell, the pride of Saskatchewan. The American show “Hootenanny”, plagued by political differences between the producers and artists, only lasted two years but was rebroadcast on CBC. It was through “Hootenanny” that I learned about guitarists like Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966), the Reverend Gary Davis (1896-1972) and Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002). Van Ronk was a pupil of the Reverend Gary Davis, who saw the guitar as a piano worn around the neck. Van Ronk took this pianistic approach and added the harmonic sophistications of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington. He also introduced the folk world to the complex harmonies of Kurt Weill.

Scott Joplin

I remember Van Ronk playing Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” and I couldn’t believe that such sophisticated piano music could be played on a guitar. I rushed out and eventually found a few guitar transcription books on the music of Scott Joplin (1868-1917). I still have these books to this day. Van Ronk was also a mentor to many artists who came to Greenwich Village from far and wide, most notably Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

“Green Green Rocky Road” comes from the beat poet Bob Kaufman, who simply gave it to Van Ronk, who in turn completed it with the help of fellow folk musician Len Chandler. The song quickly became a fan favourite and Van Ronk’s signature piece for his entire career.

Bob Kaufman

Bob (Robert Garnell) Kaufman (1925-1986) once famously said “I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten.” I hope he will forgive me for disregarding his wishes but he is too important an artist to forget. A resident of San Francisco, Bob Kaufman founded and edited Beatitude, a magazine dedicated to poetry and the source of the word “beatnik”, which Kaufman coined. He usually didn’t write down his poems, and much of his published work survives by way of his wife Eileen, who wrote his poems down as he conceived them. He named one of his poetry books “Cranial Guitar”, a sublime concept. Kaufman often incurred the wrath of the San Francisco police simply for reciting his poetry in public. In 1959 alone, at the height of the beatnik era, he was arrested 39 times by the San Francisco police on disorderly charges (i.e., reading poetry in public).

In 1961, Kaufman was nominated for England’s Guinness Poetry Award, which was eventually won by T.S. Eliot. In 1963, he was arrested for walking on the grass of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. He was incarcerated on Rikers Island, then sent as a “behavioral problem” to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital where he underwent electro-shock treatments that greatly affected his already bleak outlook on society. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Kaufman, a Buddhist, took a vow of silence which lasted 10 years.

Even though Bob Kaufman’s life was filled with a great deal of suffering, many will remember him for his wonderful idea that became the musical butterfly we know as “Green Green Rocky Road.”

 

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

 

Green Green Rocky Road

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Little Walter’s “Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights”

Little Walter

When Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs, 1930-1968) arrived in Chicago in 1945, he was already a bandleader and a seasoned veteran of the so-called “Chitlin Circuit”, a collection of performance venues throughout the eastern, southern, and upper midwest that provided commercial and cultural acceptance for Afro-American musicians and other entertainers during the era of racial segregation in the Untited States. Chitlins are the fried small intestins of hogs, a southern delicacy.

In 1952, just as Little Walter was joining Muddy Waters’s band, the first take at his debut recording session was the instrumental “Juke”, the biggest hit to this date for any artist on Chess Records and its affiliated labels and one of the biggest national R&B hits of 1952, securing Walter’s position on the Chess artist roster for the next decade. Besides recording with Muddy Waters, Little Walter recorded a string of commercially successful songs under his own name, including 14 top ten hits on the R&B charts between 1952- and 1958.

Little Walter’s groundbreaking technique of amplifying the harmonica changed the sound of the instrument so much that it came to be known as a blues harp, or simply a harp. At Chess, Little Walter could use the talents of the most gifted musicians and songwriters in the country. In 1957, he recorded “Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights)”, another top ten hit which featured such stars as Willie Dixon on bass, Luther Tucker and Robert Lockwood Jr. on electric guitars and Fred Below on drums. Apart from Little Walter’s strong vocal and harp playing, the song showcases guitar playing which ventures into chords that are typically heard in jazz but definitely not in blues. In that more misogynistic era, the lyrics of the song didn’t raise many eyebrows but they wouldn’t pass so easily today.

“Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights)” was written by Stan Lewis (1927-2018), one of the many great entrepreneurs who work in the sidelines of the music industry. Lewis set up Stan’s Record Shop in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1948, a tremendous success story whose early customers included the young Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan. As a producer, Stan Lewis is responsible for “Reconsider Baby”, a huge 1954 hit for Lowell Fulson (1921-1999) and for one of the greatest rock ‘n roll songs of all time, “Susie Q”, recorded in 1957 by Dale Hawkins (1936-2010), an employee of Stan’s Record Shop and a cousin of Ronnie Hawkins. A tribute to Stan Lewis’ daughter Susan, “Susie Q” features the great James Burton on guitar, one of the best players of all time.

To read more about Little Walter’s short and difficult life and to listen to our trio play another of his greatest hits, click on this link : « My Babe.»

 

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitar
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 

Boom Boom (Out Go The Lights)

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