Murder ballads and Dick Justice’s “Henry Lee”

In the early twentieth century, the invention of recording technology, the phonograph and the phonograph record made music available to the common people for the first time. In previous centuries, music was very much entertainment for the rich and affluent, symphony theaters and opera houses being beyond the means of everyone else. However, a different, more rural music was emerging, particularly in the British Isles, thanks to composers like Robert Burns (1759-1796) of Scotland and the Irish composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). These new ballads, reels and jigs came over to America with the European settlers, especially those who settled in the Appalachian Mountain region.

In Appalachia, a particular type of ballad, which singled out tragedies, came to the front. Train wrecks, mining disasters and murders became the subject of many popular songs – dozens were written about the sinking of the Titanic alone. Murder being a purely human venture, both aberrant and alluring, those particular songs became very popular and were known as “murder ballads.” For a brief look at Appalachian music and to hear Alrich, Roch and I play my interpretation of “Little Sadie”, a well-known murder ballad, click here.

Dick Justice

Dick Justice

The song “Henry Lee” is of Scottish origin with Scandinavian relatives and has several distinct versions with different titles, melodies and lyrics. For me, the definitive version was recorded by Dick Justice (1906-1962), a coal miner from West Virginia. At a time when Blacks and Whites seldom associated, Justice learned guitar from a black bluesman from Virginia named Luke Jordan (1892-1952). Both were able fingerpickers but Justice’s “Henry Lee” is delivered in the most basic of styles. He only recorded ten sides for Brunswick Records in 1929 and they never sold well because of the Great Depression. Afterwards, he went back to the coal mines and an early grave, like so many other miners. His recording of “Henry Lee” is the first song in the Anthology of American Folk Music, eighty-four songs published in 1952, which became the Bible for the Folk Revival.

“Henry Lee”, a quintessential murder balled, is divided into five verses – Lee’s rejection of a potential lover, the girl’s murder of Henry Lee, the gruesome disposal of the body, the murderer’s menacing of a bird who witnessed the murder, and the bird’s retribution.

Part of the charm of the old ballads are the terms and speech patterns left over from an earlier time. In “Henry Lee”, I’ve chosen to “modernize” a few of the expressions used by Dick Justice – “bend and bow” becomes “bended bow”, “wobble” becomes “warble”, etc. Some may wonder how a murder could be committed with a “little pen-knife” but it was originally a “weapon knife,” pronounced “weepin’ knife,” from whence “wee pen-knife,” and an easy verbal jump to “little pen-knife.”

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, mandolin

Henry Lee

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Mississippi John Hurt’s “Pay Day”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

By the time I first heard John Hurt, he had already died, passing away in 1966 at the age of 73. I saw him around 1968 on CBC reruns of Pete Seeger’s American TV show, “Rainbow Quest”, which featured many of the blues and roots artists which the American Folk Revival had brought into prominence. The camera work gave us close-ups of Mississippi John’s fingerpicking right hand, where all the intricate and interconnected movements of all his fingers were revealed as they struck the guitar strings and created a full and harmonious arrangement. This was a true revelation for me and it changed my life. Before I heard John Hurt, I was a guitar strummer, like millions of others. After I hear John Hurt, I willed myself into becoming a guitar player, like him.

In the 60s, this was no easy task. Now, there are many didactic videos freely available on the internet, teaching guitar arrangements for any song imaginable. Back then, there were books, especially those published by the Stephan Grossman Guitar Workshop, out of New York City. I was very skeptical about sending a postal money order to New York City from Rockland, but I took a chance and, a few weeks later, I received my instructional booklet in the mail. The songs were presented in tablature, a more pictorial representation of musical notation that I knew nothing about! However, I eventually figured everything out.

I started with simple songs like “Pay Day.” I learned how to create a bass pattern with my thumb. I gradually brought in the four other fingers of my right hand, used for melody, harmony, counterpoint and syncopation. Before I knew it, I understood all these basic elements of composition and was able to use them freely. It was a very powerful lesson in self-worth, especially for a kid who had always thought of himself as inept. So I grew as a musician and I grew as a person, thanks to John Hurt.

John Hurt and his disciples

John Hurt and his disciples

I always loved the relaxed pace of “Pay Day”, its amusing lyrics and its almost child-like spirit, a characteristic found in much of John Hurt’s music. He was everyone’s grand-father, a benevolent smiling friend in a felt hat, so beloved by his young, mostly white audience.

“Pay Day” was not part of John Hurt’s original 1928 recordings but his tremendous popularity in the 1960s led to additional recordings. “Pay Day” was recorded in 1965.

For a more detailed narrative of Mississippi John Hurt’s life and artistry, click here.

 

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

 

Pay Day

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Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”

Dylan in 1964

Dylan in 1964

In 1964, Bob Dylan released “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, which he sang while playing only an acoustic guitar. The lyrics read like a newspaper account of an incident that occurred at the Emerson Hotel, in Maryland, on February 9, 1963, where a 51-year-old black servant named Hattie Carroll was struck with the cane of a drunken William Zantzinger, a 24-year-old rich white patron of the hotel. Carroll died eight hours after the assault. Zantsinger was subsequently found guilty of assault and sentenced to six months in the county jail, a verdict that incensed many.

In 1965, Bob Dylan released “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, which he sang while playing an electric guitar, backed by Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar),

Dylan en 1965

Dylan in 1965

Al Kooper (electric piano) and session musicians Paul Griffin (piano), Harvey Brooks (electric bass) and Bobby Gregg (drums). The lyrics describe a hallucinogenic vision of Juarez, Mexico, where the narrator encounters poverty, sickness, despair, prostitution, indifferent authorities, alcohol and drugs before finally returning to New York City. The lyrics make reference to works by celebrated authors like Malcolm Lowry, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Kerouac and Arthur Rimbaud.

So what happened? How did Dylan change so completely in one short year?

Of course, some superficial manifestations of change like hairdos and clothes can be discounted. However, the change from acoustic to electric instruments was extraordinary and provided Dylan with many more colours to his palette. Electric instruments were a very important means of expressing the nuances of his new and obviously expanding world. He no longer sang about the politics that were corrupting and tearing American society apart. Afterward, Dylan sang of the whole world, with all its magic and all its aberrations.

From my point of view, throughout his early “protest” period, Dylan sang of things that happened in a foreign country. However righteous that I found his cause (and I did), I was aware that he had nothing to do with Canada. With a few and far between exceptions like Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1868), George Brown (1880) and Pierre Laporte (1970), we don’t assassinate politicians in Canada. Our restaurants serve all people, our motels welcome everyone and black people can even drink at public water fountains in Canada. It has always been so, as far as I know. We are not Americans and, starting in 1965, Dylan’s compositions left America to explore roads previously left untraveled.

Alrick Huebener


Starting in 1965, Dylan sang words that defy the logic of the material world. He gave us unforgettable words like:

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun
Crying like a fire in the sun

or incredibly romantic phrases like:

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

Gone are the common words expressing bigotry and hatred. Here was a poet trying to describe the ineffable. The lyrics to “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” have caused much confusion to many people, beginning with the title itself. Tom Thumb is never mentioned in the lyrics and many believe the reference comes from Arthur Rimbaud’s Ma bohème (My Bohemian Life), where he refers to himself as a stargazing Tom Thumb. I believe the logic of the title can be found in the original book of The History of Tom Thumb. Tom’s story was originally intended for adults, but it was amended over the years and relegated to the nursery by the middle-19th century. Published in 1621, it was the first fairy tale printed in English. It relates a story from the days of King Arthur, where old Thomas of the Mountain wants nothing more than a son, even if he’s no bigger than his thumb. He sends his wife to consult with Merlin the magician and in three months time, she gives birth to the diminutive Tom Thumb. Several outlandish adventures befall our tiny hero – he proceeds to fall into a batter and gets cooked into a Christmas pudding, which he eats his way out of. Tom gets swallowed (and excreted) by a cow, carried away by a raven, and swallowed once again by a giant and a fish. I rather believe that Dylan makes an analogy between these fantastic hardships of Tom Thumb and the demoralizing situations related in the song’s lyrics.

Roch Tassé


Towards the end of my arrangement, I give a wink to The Beatles by incorporating their composition, « I’ve Just Seen A Face, » into our playing. I must also recognize the inspired contributions of Alrick and Roch, two of the finest musicians of our region.

Richard Séguin – voice, 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

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Arthur “Blind” Blake’s “Police Dog Blues”

The only remaining photo of Arthur

The only remaining photo of Arthur “Blind” Blake

During the mid 1920s, the unexpectedly strong sales of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Paramount 78s sent record scouts scrambling throughout the southern United States to sign other blues artists. One of their best discoveries was Arthur “Blind” Blake (1896-1934), a sophisticated guitarist whose warm, relaxed voice added to his appeal. Today, the man with the “piano-sounding guitar” is still regarded as the master of ragtime and blues guitar fingerpicking. Some of his songs feature some raucous boogie-woogie phrases that he must have picked up from some of his contemporaries like the great Meade Lux Lewis, a master of the boogie-woogie piano. Certainly, no other guitarist played phrases like that at that time.

Very little is known about Arthur Blake. He was born blind and there were some questions as to his real name – he was simply known as Blind Blake all his life. His single surviving photo is a promotional print made by his life-long recording company, Paramount Records. It shows Blake sitting cross-legged, dressed in his Sunday best and playing a small parlour guitar. In one of the most callous and insensitive decisions I’ve ever comer across, Paramount included a dedication on the lower part of the photo saying “Cordially Yours, Blind Blake”, in a flowery script. Anyone can see from his sunken eyes on the photo that Blake is bling and, obviously, incapable of writing. Anther example of the blatant disregard for black artists in that era.

Arthur Blake’s recording career spanned six years, from 1926 to 1932, all with Paramount Records. In that time, he was extremely popular and recorded some 80 sides as a solo artist as well as playing guitar for artists like Leola Wilson, Ma Rainey, Bertha Henderson, Chocolate Brown and many others. He was the most gifted guitarist of his era, had a powerful voice and was comfortable with ragtime, ballads or blues.

Paramount’s ads in the Chicago Defender, a popular African-American newspaper, emphasized Blake’s guitar style, which was often compared to a piano because of his magnificent dexterity on the instrument. Of all his songs, “Police Dog Blues”, recorded in 1929, is my favourite. Not only is the song a classic example of Blake’s sophisticated guitar work and solid vocals, it is humourous and yet also paints a stark picture of the life of an itinerant musician during the inter-war years.

Being blind, Arthur Blake’s life was harder than most. It was a time of severe segregation, where black people could not sleep in the same rooming houses, eat in the same restauraunts or even drink from the same water fountains as white people. There was no Green Book (which was published after Blake’s death) to help black people decide on “friendly” accommodations. In “Police Dog Blues”, Blake talks of travelling, staying alone, making shipping arrangements for his trunk to follow him wherever he played. For a blind black man, an easy prey for thieves, it was a hard life and you did the best you could.

In 1932, the Great Depression caught up with Paramount Records and they went out of business. Blake never recorded again and he died in 1934. Facts about Blake’s life and his death were hard to come by. The Reverend Gary Davis believed he had been run over by a streetcar, a plausible fate for a blind man. It wasn’t until 2011 that facts finally surfaced when a group of researchers led by Alex van der Tuuk published various documents regarding Blake’s life and death in the journal “Blues and Rhythm.”

Arthur “Blind” Blake’s tombstone


Working from a small obituary found in the Chicago Defender, they searched the Milwaukee area and found a remote part of the cemetery where he had been buried (Glen Oaks), the grave found in a bush along with garbage and an American flag. .From the 1934 death certificate they found, we now know that Blake was born in Newport News, Virginia and married Beatrice McGee in 1931. This is extremely comforting to me – Blake finally had someone to share his lonely and dark world with.. It must have felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off of his shoulders. 

In April 1933 he was hospitalized with pneumonia and never fully recovered. On December 1, 1934, after three weeks of decline, Beatrice Blake summoned an ambulance. He died on the way to the hospital, the cause of death listed as pulmonary tuberculosis. Blake was buried in Glen Oaks Cemetery, in Glendale, Wisconsin in a previously unmarked grave. The county paid for the burial so the popular artist heard and enjoyed by so many was never paid for his efforts, like many others. Thanks to the exemplary work by van der Tuuk and his researchers, Arthur Blake now has a headstone, as does his wife Beatrice.

My Taylor 30th anniversary guitar

In 2004, to commemorate 30 years of guitar making, the Taylor company introduced a limited issue Grand Concert series guitar featuring a classic slotted peg head, elaborate pearl and 18k gold inlay, the best quality woods and state-of-the-art construction techniques. It is a vintage, prior to 1930 look that I’ve been looking for since I saw Jimmie Rodgers’ magnificent 1928 Martin guitar. Not surprisingly, one of these rare beauties found its way into the exquisite collection of my long-time friend Pépé (Pierre Pinard). Following casual negotiations between two good friends, that guitar is now part of my collection. I used it in my recording of “Police Dog Blues” and it will be my guitar of choice from now on.

Richard Seguin – voice and acoustic guitar

Police Dog Blues

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“That’s No Way To Get Along” by the Reverend Robert Wilkins

The reverend Robert Wilkins

The reverend Robert Wilkins

Robert Wilkins (1896 – 1987) was an American country blues guitarist and vocalist, the son of an African-American father and a white and Cherokee mother. Wilkins was born in Hernando, Mississippi., at the center of the cotton industry. He recalls making the 22-mile trip from Hernando to Memphis as a small boy. “We would drive a wagon or buggy to Memphis.”, he said. “I hauled five bales of cotton on a two-mule team to the cotton shed. Then I picked up freight to take back to the merchandise store.”

When Wilkins was very young, his father was forced to leave Mississippi to avoid prosecution on bootlegging charges. His mother remarried a very fine guitar player who taught Robert how to play. After service in World War I, Wilkins played on the same circuit as did Furry Lewis, Memphis Minnie and Son House. He also organized a jug band to capitalize on the “jug band craze” then in vogue. Like many of his contemporaries, he played for very different audiences throughout the South and needed to be versatile to make a living. Consequently, he played ragtime, blues, minstrel songs, and gospel music with equal facility and dexterity. He recorded four sides for Victor Records in 1928 and eight sides for Brunswick Records the following year, including “That’s No Way To Get Along.” Thanks to his outstanding guitar talent, he was also asked to play on a number of recordings by other artists, including Will Shade, the founder of the influential Memphis Jug Band and one of the architects of what would later be known as The Memphis Sound.

In 1935, Wilkins recorded five additional titles for Vocalion Records but sales were poor during the Great Depression and he saw the writing on the wall. In 1936, he witnessed a murder at one of his performances and he started doubting his choice of careers. At that time his wife also became very seriously ill and Wilkins, a religious man, offered his life to God in exchange for that of his wife. His wife survived and Wilkins kept his pledge and joined the Church of God in Christ, becoming an ordained minister in 1950. Wilkins specialized in healing and herbal remedies but never stopped playing the guitar, although he left the blues for more appropriate gospel numbers. However, he kept his old blues guitar arrangements and played them as instrumentals. Occasionally, he would add religious lyrics to his earlier blues pieces and create a “new” song, which he did with “That’s No Way To Get Along.” The new lyrics were based on Christ’s parable to the Pharisees about the prodigal son, the third and last parable of a cycle of redemption found in the Bible. He named the resulting song “Prodigal Son”, which he recorded for Piedmont Records in 1964. “Prodigal Son” was then famously taken up by The Rolling Stones on their album “Beggars Banquet” in 1968.

Valerie and Ben Turner

Valerie and Ben Turner

The Reverend Robert Wilkins was “rediscovered” in the early 1960’s, like many bluesmen from the early days when roots music was being created. He was persuaded to record an album of religious material but never played the blues again. It is very likely that “That’s No Way To Get Along”, one of the very best blues songs I have ever heard, would have been lost and forgotten, were it not for the determination of some contemporary artists to preserve the music of the past. I must mention the work of Valerie and Ben Turner, a married couple who play Piedmont Style blues with great style and vitality. Piedmont, a literal French translation
Guy Davis

Guy Davis

of “foothill”, is a plateau of the Eastern United States that sits between the Atlantic coast and the Appalachian mountains. In addition, Guy Davis is a tremendous artist whose voice and guitar playing really rejuvenate the blues that was. Davis is the son of Ruby Dee (1922-1914) and “Ossie” Davis (1917-2005). Both were actors, poets, playwrights, screenwriters, journalists, and civil rights activists.

The Reverend Robert Wilkins died in Memphis in 1987 at the age of 91. His son, the Reverend John Wilkins, continues his father’s gospel legacy.

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar
Roch Tassé – shaker

That’s No Way To Get Along

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Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”

In 1965, Dylan opened his monumental and controversial set at the Newport Folk Festival with “Maggie’s Farm”, a song from his recent album, “Bringing It All Back Home.” It was the first time he went on stage with an electric band, much to the consternation of the crowd. To learn more about this era and the profound changes Dylan struggled with, click here.

Dylan à Newport, 1965

Dylan at Newport, 1965

From left to right on the photo, Mike Bloomfield, Sam Lay and Jerome Arnold all came from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Al Kooper, to the right of Dylan, had replaced Barry Goldberg on organ in the studio band that recorded “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was the biggest fan of Dylan’s new electric music and “Maggie’s Farm” was, and still is, at the very top of my favourites. However, in 1965, I had no idea that “Maggie’s Farm” would occupy such a special place in my life.

By the end of my adolescence, I had decided that I wanted to be an educated man. I had two friends, André “Red” Henri and Jean-Pierre Béland, who were educated and both of them spoke like a bird sings – extended vocabularies, sure expressions, I could have listened to them speak all day. So, when I finished high school, I took aim at university, looking to get educated. This was not without problems. The university was in Ottawa and I was in Rockland. I had no car, no money and my parents couldn’t afford to pay for my studies. In my mind, my entire life depended on achieving a successful education so I borrowed money from the bank and I rode the bus to Ottawa every morning, coming back home every night.

One of my new classes ended at 11 PM and there was no bus service at that hour. I tried changing the hours of my course but this was 1968-69 and the students had suddenly become ultra-cool hippies – they had occupied the administration building and were protesting against the war, the laws, everything except pot. The university administration communicated with the students by stapling flyers on the telephone poles telling us where we could reach them on a daily basis. The problem was that I never read public notices. I lost sight of the already dreary path of my courses.

In those classes, the professors were disinterested and the curriculum was no more than a race for them – they all wanted to finish as soon as possible. If I asked a question, they politely answered that the question was interesting but that we didn’t have the time to get into that. My illusions totally shattered, I talked to Jean-Pierre in the cafeteria – Jean-Pierre was finishing his last year while I was starting my first. Not for the last time, my friend gave me his support and made me understand that I could educate myself (we read books back then) and perhaps in a better way than in the organized methods of the province. I left university in February 1969, a total failure in my own eyes.

I would be remiss not to mention that both Alrick and Roch, my musical sidekicks, sucessfully completed their university studies. Alrick went to Eastern Washington State College, working summers in construction back home in Cranbrook B.C. to pay for his tuition. Like me, he was lonely, didn’t feel ready and quit after his first semester. Ill suited to the forestry, construction and mining jobs available to uneducatied youths, Alrick went back to school and found his way to the social sciences and a degree in psychology. After three years in Vancouver, Alrick studied journalism at Carleton University and earned his masters degree in 1984, the only one in his immediate family to do so. Roch, who is also from Rockland and who has been a good friend since high school, was in the same predicament as I was. His mother raised him and his sister on her own and the family had no money for tuition. Like me, Roch had to borrow money from the bank and ride a bus to Ottawa and back. Unlike me, Roch persevered for three long years and earned his baccalaureate in Political Science

L'édifice Sir John Carling

The Sir John Carling building

I started working in September but teenagers without diplomas don’t get the best jobs. I worked on sorting and delivering mail in a basement room of the Sir John Carling Building, which doesn’t exist anymore but was occupied by the Ministry of Agriculture at that time and was part of Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm. To get to work, I drove in with Mr. Fernand Laporte and Mr. Ovila Diotte, both from Rockland and both elegant in their suits and ties, me, not so much. Mr. Laporte, also a very educated man, was the best whistler I ever met in my life. Roger Whittaker would have been put to shame. Mr. Laporte was captivated by the classical music we listened to on the radio and he whistled to his heart’s content. It was like travelling with a bird and, with a lot of practice, I also learned to whistle pretty well, thanks to Mr. Laporte.

The work was boring but I had three friends in the mail room. Jim, a very intelligent anglophone a little older than I was, had anticipated the “goth” style by several years. This was a new world to me – we didn’t have goths in Rockland. Jim was tall, wore a long black coat that went to his ankles, black jeans and black t-shirt, black Army boots and even his long hair was dyed black. His favourite group was the Rolling Stones and he lived for the profound negativity of their lyrics, like “Heat of Stone”, “Under My Thumb” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Jim even looked like Jagger!

My second friend, Marcel, was a guy from the streets of Hull, maybe six years older than I was. Nature had not been kind to Marcel – he was skinny and had a hook nose, his hair was short and unruly and he only had a few teeth left, all of them rotten! Marcel was a romantic and spoke to me endlessly of his girlfriend. He quickly saw that I was a naïve country guy and he became in some ways my protector, almost an older brother. Particularly, Marcel hid me from one of the civil servants on the third floor, a very vulgar and predatory homosexual with an affinity for young francophones. Marcel convinced him that I neither spoke nor understood French, which did not prevent him from verbally tormenting me all the more, thinking that I didn’t understand what he said. Seeing this, Marcel took over the delivery of this monster’s mail in my place. A friend like few others, Marcel.

My third friend was called Doug but everybody knew him as Dougie, a tall thirtyish man that people thought was retarded but I just saw him as a simple man, uncomfortable with the complicated interactions that people juggled amongst themselves. He lived with his mother, whom he loved very much. He also had something that none of the other workers had – enthusiasm. Dougie could sort and deliver mail like nobody else. He was good at his job, proud of himself and he was happy, spreading his joy to every floor of the building. Everyone loved Dougie. That is to say, everyone loved Dougie except one person – the mail room manager.

Alrick Huebener


He was an ex-Army type, thick in the torso and thick in the head, always angry, undoubtedly frustrated by his miserable life. He blamed Dougie for everything because Dougie never talked back. Dougie just looked at the floor in shame, never understanding what it was he had done wrong. I started hating my boss more than I hated Hitler and I wanted to hurt him like he hurt Dougie. So I waited for the busiest time of the year, two weeks before Christmas, and I went into his office and told him something unforeseen had happened and I needed to quit immediately, leaving him shorthanded. He was furious, very disappointed in me but I left the mail room with a smile on my face.

Roch Tassé

Back in Rockland, I felt like a total failure but I was nineteen years old. Nineteen-year-olds don’t stay moody too long. They have support mechanisms, lots of them. In my mind, I started equating the Experimental Farm with “Maggie’s Farm” – that place where East is somewhere West and everything low is on one of those floors higher up. I kept the door to my room shut, banging on my guitar and singing that delicious Dylan diatribe at the top of my lungs – “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more!” It was music as emotional liberation. Hearing those cries and howls emanating from my room, my poor mother, not for the first nor for the last time, surely thought that her son had finally gone mad.
 
Richard Séguin – electric guitars, voice
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums
 
Maggie’s Farm

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The short, sad life of Bix Beiderbecke

In the United States, the 1920s are known as « The Roaring Twenties” but just exactly what was causing people to roar? The end of the first World War? I doubt it. The Americans only participated in the last year of the hostilities. In the 1920s, two things made Americans roar – jazz and booze.

Prohibition in the United States (from 1920 to 1933) banned the manufacture, the transportation, the importation, the exportation and the sale of alcoholic beverages. This led to bootlegging and speakeasies where jazz, illegal alcohol and the latest dance crazes flourished. Prohibition also led to organized crime and gangsters like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz but that’s a story for another day.

La maison Beiderbecke

The Beiderbecke home

Jazz is a totally American institution born in New Orleans in Louisiana. For the most part, jazz artists were Afro-Americans like Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LaMothe), Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Most artists worked in the big urban centres of Chicago and New York but there were exceptions. An exception all his life, Leon Bismark “Bix” Beiderbecke, born in 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, was the youngest of three children of a German immigrant. Beiderbecke senior was a rich merchant in wood and coal often absent from home and very authoritarian when he was there. Consequently, Bix was never able to be close to his father and this lack tortured him all his life.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (and their animals!)

While still very young, his mother encouraged his interest in the piano and Bix developed an affinity for the music of French composer Claude Debussy. When he was 7, the Davenport newspapers spoke enthusiastically of his remarkable musical ear, playing at the piano any air he heard, in spite of his lack of formal training. Bix gravitated towards jazz when he heard his brother Burnie’s record collection, especially the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a racially-integrated group which made the first jazz recording in 1917, “Livery Stable Blues.” This magnificent piece, where the instruments imitate the sound of barnyard animals, caused quite a sensation at the time. Bix also heard the jazz played on the riverboats that went down the Mississippi River to Davenport.

Things didn’t go so well at school. Bix had an aversion for teaching in all its forms. At the time, learning disabilities and poor grades at school were considered a deficiency. Things got worse in 1912 when Bix contracted scarlet fever and had to repeat the previous year. Bix felt humiliated and more and more alienated.

In high school, Bix played with a number of bands on an old, dented cornet, a gift from a neighbour. In addition to his passion for jazz, it was the Prohibition era and Bix started drinking but he couldn’t moderate his consumption. He was more and more absent and his grades plummeted. All men abuse alcohol for the same reason – they’re in an intolerable place and they want to be elsewhere at all costs. Alcohol is readily available, inexpensive and very efficient at taking people elsewhere.

Bix indeed found himself in an intolerable situation in 1921 when two men witnessed him taking a five-year-old girl into a garage. By all accounts, nothing untoward happened but Bix was arrested by the police and accusations were filed. Both families involved and the police decided to erase all records of the incident but Bix’s father was furious, as he often was, and shipped his son off to Lake Forest, a military academy near Chicago. This amounted to giving a Zippo to a pyromaniac. Bix quickly found his way to the Chicago clubs, with the jazz, the booze and the gangsters. He smoked constantly, caught up in a crippling anguish.

While in Chicago with his good friend the composer Hoagy Carmichael, author of such masterpieces as “Stardust” and “Georgia On My Mind”, among others, Bix finally heard one of his idols play in King Oliver’s band – Louis Armstrong, who would become one of the 20th century’s greatest artists. While in New York, Bix also met Nick LaRocca, the cornet player from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, whose recordings had inspired him to take up the cornet. Bix also played in several bands while at Lake Forest but the only class he managed to pass was music, and even there, he wasn’t interested in learning the formalities of that discipline, he just wanted to play. Bix stopped attending classes and was expelled from Lake Forest in 1922.

Les Wolverines en 1924 (Bix est assis au milieu)

The Wolverines in 1924 (Bix is seated in the middle)

Bix next joined a band playing at the Stockton Club in the Cincinnati area. The band was famous for its version of “Wolverine Blues”, a Jelly Roll Morton composition, and became known as the Wolverine Orchestra, the first band made up entirely of white musicians who did not come from New Orleans. On New Year’s Eve, 1923, two gangs crossed paths in a bloody quarrel at the Stockton Club. The police were called in and the Stockton Club had to close its doors. Out of work, Bix played with bands led by Jean Goldkette, Frankie Trumbauer and Paul Whiteman. These associations yielded his best recordings.

Enregistrement acoustique

A typical acoustic recording

The original recordings of Bix Beiderbecke are a treasure, a precious part of my collection, a well whose cool water can be revisited at will. Starting with one of his own compositions, here is “Davenport Blues”, written, of course, for his home town and recorded in 1924 under the name of Bix And His Rhythm Jugglers. The acoustic recording process was still in effect at the time, where the sound of the musicians was amplified by a huge horn which caused a needle to vibrate and etch grooves on a wax disc. This method was replaced in 1925 by yet another new invention, the microphone. The joyful melodies of the piece belie the internal strife of the composer.

Davenport Blues, Bix And His Rhythm Jugglers, 1924

Bix’s performance on “Singin’ The Blues”, a composition by J. Russell Robinson, Con Conrad, Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young recorded in 1927 with the Frankie Trumbauer Orchestra, is certainly one of his most famous. His tone and his imagination are in full bloom. The guitar part is played by the great Eddie Lang, the father of jazz guitar. In 1977, this recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Singin’ The Blues, Frankie Trumbauer And His Orchestra, 1927

“In A Mist”, another of Bix’s compositions, is the only piece he published under his own name and the only piano solo he recorded, in 1927. The piece is unique in all of the jazz from this era. Indeed, you have to wait until the arrival of Thelonious Monk, 20 years later, before hearing those dissonant chords and chromatic structures again.

In A Mist, Bix Beiderbecke, 1927

Bix’s style, concise but emotionally charged, made him a celebrity, known even more in Europe than in America. Eddie Condon, a guitarist who played an important part in the development of jazz in New York, said that Bix’s cornet “sounded like a girl saying yes.”

Paul Whiteman’s busy schedule, both in concerts and in recordings, exacerbated Bix’s alcoholism. In 1928, during a tour of Cleveland, he suffered a serious nervous breakdown. He had to return to Davenport to recuperate. A thorough examination at the Keely Institute in Dwight, Illinois, confirmed the terrible consequences of his alcoholism. His liver was swollen and inflammation of the nerves complicated his condition.

1929 came quickly and all musicians found themselves out of work due to the Great Depression. Unfortunately, Bix only lived for music so he lost his only reason to live. On his last recording in New York in 1930, Bix played with his friend Hoagy Carmichael, who sang his new composition, “Georgia On My Mind”, for the first time. In 2014, this recording was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix Beiderbecke

Bix found himself in New York and rented a small apartment in Queens. He closed the door and started to drink endlessly. In the evening of August 6, 1931, hysterical cries emanated from Bix’s apartment and his rental agent came in to witness his uncontrollable trembling. He ranted that two Mexicans with long knives were hiding under the bed. Trying to calm him, the rental agent looked under the bed and was standing back up to reassure Bix that nothing was amiss when Bix stumbled and fell in his arms. A doctor from a nearby apartment was summoned but Bix was already dead.. He was 28 years old. His mother and brother took a train to New York and made arrangements to return his body back home, where he rests in Oakdale cemetery.

Little is known of Bix’s love life. Alcoholic musicians with no control were not in demand with young women looking for a stable relationship. Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel “Young Man With A Horn”, is loosely based on Bix’s life. The novel was also the basis for the 1950 film of the same name, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Doris Day. A minor planet, the asteroid 23457, is named Beiderbecke in his honor.

The Beiderbecke home is now a Bed and Breakfast for tourists. During the renovations, a pile of 78 rpm records were found in the attic, all addressed to Beiderbecke senior from his son Bix, who sought his father’s approval all his life. The records, some 200 titles, were still in their packages. No one had opened them. No one had listened.

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Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”

Bob Dylan à Newport, 1965

Bob Dylan at Newport, 1965

Growing up in a rural environment as part of a large stable family, playing outdoors with lots of friends, I was incredibly happy as a child. I managed to endure, perhaps not all that well, the loss of my grandparents and of my brother Gabriel. However, starting with the Cuban Missile crisis in late 1962, what I failed to endure was the existence of foreign political leaders who threatened the survival of all life on this planet. I started hating people I didn’t know who interfered with my perfect life, as if they were entitled to decide other people’s fate. This wasn’t the life I wanted and for the first time, I was unhappy. Then things got worse.

I had just started high school when Oswald shot Kennedy. Then Ruby shot Oswald and later died of a pulmonary embolism at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the same place where Kennedy and Oswald died. Then James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King Jr. and Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby Kennedy, both in 1968. I was (and have been ever since) conscious that I was living next to a nation of barbarians. Any nation whose citizens are legally entitled to bear arms is, by definition, a nation of barbarians. To this day, I thank Providence that they didn’t shoot their harshest critic, a man who lived long enough to actually make a difference – Bob Dylan.

I followed Bob Dylan because he spoke of everything I was anxious about. In 1962, “Blowin’ in the Wind” became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, racist Byron De La Beckwith assassinated black Civil Rights activist Medgar Evars. Dylan responded by singing “Only a Pawn in Their Game” at the Freedom March on Washington in 1963, where doctor Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Still in 1963, Dylan published the album “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, a dire warning about the escalating arms race. Violence and protest were everywhere in 1964 when he published the album “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, an obvious understatement.

Dylan never actively sought the fame and adulation that surrounded him every waking hour of every day. An entire generation of young, educated people expected him to be the saviour of their troubled existence but Dylan was always an outsider. While the entire music industry, everyone from The Byrds to Mitch Miller, from Harry Belafonte to Duke Ellington, tried to grab a piece of Dylan’s pie by recording hundreds of versions of his songs, Dylan was moving in a different direction, his music gradually acquiring a blues edge intensified by the addition of electric instruments. It started with his 1965 album entitled “Bringing It All Back Home,” where some magnificent acoustic songs were featured next to a few electric songs that revealed a different Dylan, an exceptional lyricist whose consciousness seemed to be exploding.

Dylan returned from an exhausting tour of England (see D.A. Pennebaker’s 1965 documentary “Don’t Look Back”) and went into the studio in June, 1965 to record “Like a Rolling Stone.” The song went through different tempos, multiple pages of lyrics, a trial ¾ time signature and a number of musicians, the two most famous being Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper. Bloomfield, the fiery guitarist from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band who Dylan said was the best guitarist he had ever heard, was an easy pick. At that time, Al Kooper was a 21-year-old guitarist invited by producer Tom Wilson to take part in the session. When Kooper heard Bloomfield play, he put his guitar back in its case and moved to the control booth! When Wilson moved a musician from organ to piano, Kooper bluffed Wilson into believing he had a perfect organ part for the song. Wilson scoffed at him but didn’t say no and when Dylan heard Kooper play, he told Wilson to turn up the volume on the organ. Wilson protested that Kooper didn’t know how to play the organ but Dylan got his way and the most famous organ part of the decade was born.

Because of concerns from the sales and marketing departments over the song’s unprecedented six-minute length and “raucous” rock sound, “Like a Rolling Stone” was initially rejected by Columbia Records. A discarded acetate of the song made its way to a New York disco and was quickly worn out completely at the demands of the crowd. On July 20, 1965, “Like a Rolling Stone” was released as a single with the acoustic gem, “Gates of Eden” as its B-side.

Alrick Huebener

According to review aggregator Acclaimed Music, “Like a Rolling Stone” is the statistically most acclaimed song of all time. Rolling Stone magazine listed the song at No. 1 in their “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list. At an auction in 2014, Dylan’s handwritten lyrics to the song fetched $2 million, a world record for a popular music manuscript. In an interview with CBC radio in Montreal, Dylan called the creation of the song a “breakthrough”, explaining that it changed his perception of where he was going in his career.

I was 15 when I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone.” I was walking through the school cafeteria, a radio was playing in the back and when I heard that first snare shot, what Bruce Springsteen said “sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind”, followed by Al Kooper’s sublime organ, I stopped dead in my tracks. I didn’t move for 6 minutes.

Immediately after the release of “Like a Rolling Stone”, Dylan went on a tour that encompassed three continents. He was booed, threatened and assaulted everywhere he played. Why? The band played electric instruments. The dynamics between acoustic and electric performances are opposite. In an acoustic performance, the direction is toward the artist, the audience listens, pays attention and there is a personal bond with the artist. None of that exists in an electric performance. The direction is toward the audience, loud, agressive and imposing. In Dylan’s case, the personal bond with the audience was lost, which was perceived as a betrayal.

Roch Tassé

At the Newport Folk Festival Pete Seeger threatened to cut the wires to the amplifiers and Dylan was booed off the stage after three songs. He was coaxed back, acoustic guitar in hand, to prophetically sing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” At Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York, fans booed and rushed the stage. This insane period is perfectly captured in Martin Scorsese’s excellent documentary about Dylan in the 1960’s called “No Direction Home”, the title taken from the lyrics to “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan is clearly shown as a progressively frustrated and hopeless artist in the face of an insensible public and even more senseless media. He talks of “having enough with the whole scene and quitting for a while.” As it turned out, this decision was made for him. After returning home from the tour and finishing yet another masterpiece recording with “Blonde On Blonde”, Dylan was involved on a serious motorcycle accident on July 29, 1966. The incident is clouded in mystery. No police report was ever filed. Dylan did not go to a hospital. He spent three months in the third-floor bedroom of a local doctor he knew.

Dylan continued writing and recording but his music was never the same. Different but still great – “All Along the Watchtower” from Dylan’s 1967 album “John Wesley Harding” made Jimi Hendrix a household name. However, it took eight years for Dylan to tour again.

Once again, all my thanks go out to Roch and Alrick, two of the best musicians I have been lucky enough to know.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, 6 and 12 string acoustic guitars, electric guitars, MIDI guitar (organ)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 

Like a Rolling Stone

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Mississippi John Hurt’s “Sliding Delta”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

The welcoming page for my site identifies it as “Yesterday’s music, revisited.” I’ve loved yesterday’s music since I heard Bert Jansch playing 300-year-old Celtic melodies in the 1960s. To me, this was a real time machine – I was able to hear the same thing people were hearing 300 years ago. It felt like I was there.

Today, I am fascinated by the past and specifically the music that was created between the world wars, that period in America where roots music began to flourish, with its simplicity, its spirituality and its antiquity. Roots music is history and there is no greater teacher than history. In a time when more and more people carelessly surrender control of their life to technology, history and its teachings loom even larger in importance. As Edmund Burke said in the 1700’s, “Those who don’t know history, are doomed to repeat it.”

The two decades between the world wars were given catchy names – “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Great Depression.” The 1920s saw scholars and collectors from northern States seek out musicians to record in order to preserve folksongs and styles that they feared would disappear amidst the rapid pace of social, economic, cultural and technological change then engulfing America. At the same time, northern businesses saw the tremendous potential for profit from rising sales in phonographs and records. These businesses organized roots music into categories based on the colour line- race records for black musicians, hillbilly records for white musicians – even though the colour line didn’t exist among musicians. Musicians had to eat and they played what people wanted to hear. A black bluesman might have to play for a country barn dance or a bar mitzva; a white string band might have to make black people dance at a run down roadhouse.

The record companies made the investment so they decided which songs would be recorded, how and where they would be distributed and marketed, and who would share in the profits. There was tremendous growth in the music industry in the late 1920s but, as everything was flourishing, the Great Depression dealt the recording industry a devastating blow, sending phonograph sales plummeting from 987,000 in 1927 to 40,000 in 1932. In the same time, record sales plunged from 104 million to just 6 million. By 1935, the eleven companies that specialized in blues and other roots-based styles had all been driven out of business.

Taj Mahal & Mississippi John Hurt at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival

Taj Mahal & Mississippi John Hurt at the1964 Newport Folk Festival

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966), like many musicians of this era, was caught in the middle of this “perfect storm.” Through his collaborations with Willie Narmour (1889-1961), a popular white fiddle player, he got a chance to record for Okeh Records in 1928. He recorded 19 songs but only 13 were released. “Sliding Delta” was one of the six other songs that were not released and were lost in history’s dust. Mississippi John’s records came out at the wrong time, didn’t sell well, and he went back to what he always was – a farmer and sharecropper in Avalon, Mississippi. Thirty-five years later, Mississippi John was convinced to play again, this time for northern audiences who welcomed him with open arms. He became a very important figure in the Folk and Blues Revival of the 1960s and he was the musician who influenced me more than any other, convincing me to strive for the higher ground of guitar playing.

“Sliding Delta” is one of many songs that spoke of the devastating floods which continually torment America. It conveys the disturbing image of the ground being carried away by water. The song was saved from obscurity and finally recorded by Mississippi John in the 60s, both in the studio and in live performances. The song was also later recorded by Doc and Merle Watson – Doc was a big fan and friend of Mississippi John’s, often calling him “uncle John.” It is to be noted that a song called “Sliding Delta” was recorded in 1930 by bluesman Tommy Johnson (1896-1956), but it is a different song with different lyrics.

There is no information anywhere concerning the meaning of Mississippi John’s lyric about the “big Kate Allen.” He never mentioned it and no one asked him about it. After some research, I believe it is a reference to a locomotive, always given the feminine gender in the English language. Certainly, there were a lot of Allen locomotives at the time, named after Horatio Allen (1802-1899), the American engineer who designed them. “Kate” is almost certainly a reference to the Katy (K.T.), the name given to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railway, which Taj Mahal points to in his brilliant composition, “She Caught the Katy, Left Me a Mule to Ride.”

Several blues songs of this era feature a reference to a man’s entire worldly possessions fitting into a suitcase and a trunk. People did not own homes and many worked in servitude. I first heard this reference in 1964 when The Animals had a huge hit with “House of the Rising Sun”, which laments “The only thing a gambler needs is a suitcase and a trunk.” It takes me a whole room in my house just to accommodate my guitars.

Barbecue Bob

Barbecue Bob

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith

Ironically, as Mississippi John was recording “Sliding Delta” in 1928, his home State of Mississippi was recovering from the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The flood broke 145 levees, flooded 27,000 square miles of land to a depth of 30 feet, killed approximately 500 people and left 700,000 homeless. There are indications that “Sliding Delta” was part of Mississippi John’s repertoire as far back as 1907 but many songs were specifically written for the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, including “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” by Barbecue Bob (Robert Hicks, 1902-1931) in 1927; “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith (1894-1937), also in 1927; “When The Levee Breaks” by Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas, 1897-1973) and Kansas Joe McCoy (1905-1950) in 1929; and the very influential “High Water Everywhere” by Charley Patton (1891-1934), also in 1929.

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe McCoy

Charley Patton

Charley Patton

 

The great flood was also the inspiration behind Randy Newman’s majestic 1974 hit, “Louisiana 1927”, featuring these haunting lyrics, delivered in the Cajun dialect :

 

 

What has happened down here is the wind have changed
Clouds roll in from the north and it start to rain
It rained real hard and it rained for a real long time
Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana’s Evangeline Parish, which I visited in 1999, is in the heart of Cajun country. It takes it’s name from the French word “évangile”, meaning “bible.”

Mississippi John Hurt’s grand-daughter Mary Hurt recalls that “Daddy John”, as she called him, wrote home when he was going to appear on The Tonight Show in 1964. Unfortunately, the family had no TV set. A white neighbour, Miss Annie Cook, invited everyone to come over and watch on her TV. Johnny Carson invited Mississippi John to sing “You Are My Sunshine”. By the end of the song, the audience was in tears of joy, as was Johnny Carson. The audience gave him a standing ovation, unheard of for a TV studio audience.. When Mary’s father saw his own father on TV, he couldn’t believe it. It was a great moment for the whole community of Avalon.

Today, Mississippi John is buried next to his old cabin, which Mary Hurt maintains as a museum. She also runs a summer camp in Avalon where underprivileged urban kids can get out to the country and learn about music.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar

 

Sliding Delta

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Furry Lewis’ “Casey Jones”

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, there was a sense that the world was changing and rushing towards the future at a dizzying rate. The commonly called “talking machine” (later known as gramophone, from where we got the name for the Grammy Award), joined the typewriter, the cash register and the sewing machine as the marvels of their age. At the time, Scientific American magazine said of the phonograph, “nothing that can be conceived would be more likely to create the profoundest of sensations, to arouse the liveliest of human emotions, than once more to hear the familiar voices of the dead.”

I’ve been listening to the “familiar voices of the dead” for most of my life, thanks to the work of the record companies who developed methods of electrically recording sound and making their recording equipment portable. In the late 1920s, several northern record companies traveled throughout the Southern United States to record ethnic music of all types and, although most of these recordings have faded into obscurity, they did not fade from memory.

Harry Smith (1923-1991) was an eccentric bohemian and self-taught student of anthropology who developed, among many other preoccupations, a hobby of collecting old records, 78 rpm discs being the only medium at the time. He accumulated a collection of several thousand recordings, and over time began to develop an interest in seeing them preserved. In 1950, he brought the best of his record collection to Moe Asch, the president of Folkways Records with the idea of selling it. Instead, Asch proposed that Smith use the material to edit a multi-volume anthology of folk music in long playing format – then a newly developed, cutting edge medium – and he provided space and equipment in his office for Smith to work in. The resulting three LP records (now six CDs) issued in 1952 contained 84 songs and were issued as The Anthology of American Folk Music. It became the Bible for the folk and blues revival of the 1960s.

Furry Lewis in 1928

The songs in the Anthology were all recorded between 1926 and 1933. All the artists were unknown when the recordings were made but some of them achieved celebrity in later years. Today I focus on one such artist, the singer/guitarist/songwriter Furry Lewis.

Walter E. “Furry” Lewis (1893 – 1981) was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. His family moved to Memphis when he was seven, where he acquired the nickname “Furry” from childhood playmates. By 1908, he was playing at parties, in taverns, and on the street. He was also invited to play several dates with W.C. Handy`s Orchestra – Handy later became one of the most influential of all American songwriters. In his travels as a musician, Lewis was exposed to a wide variety of performers, including Bessie Smith and Blind Lemon Jefferson, which diversified his impressive portfolio. Lewis began to travel around the South, often with itinerant “medicine shows” that included him in vaudeville acts.

In 1917, while trying to hop onto a moving train, his leg got caught in a coupling and he fell underneath the wheels of the train. The accident nearly killed him and led to the amputation of his left leg. Forced to wear a prosthesis for the rest of his life, he grew tired of traveling and took a permanent job in 1922, as a street sweeper for the city of Memphis, a job he held until his retirement in 1966. However, Lewis loved music and kept playing locally. Lewis recorded for Victor Records in 1928, mostly blues tracks, including two railroad songs, “Casey Jones” (sometimes spelled “Kassie Jones”) and “John Henry.” Lewis learned these songs from a Memphis street guitarist simply known as Blind Joe.

Furry Lewis

Furry Lewis

Like many bluesmen of his era, Furry Lewis enjoyed renewed interest in his music during the 60s folk and blues revival. He made many new recordings and opened twice for the Rolling Stones, performed on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson, had a part in a Burt Reynolds movie called “W.W. And the Dixie Dancekings” (1975) and was even profiled in Playboy magazine. In 1973 he was named an Honorary Colonel of the State of Tennessee, an honor also bestowed upon such greats as Duke Ellington and Elvis Presley. In 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded a song for Furry Lewis called “Furry Sings the Blues.” Lewis began to lose his eyesight because of cataracts in his final years. He contracted pneumonia in 1981, which led to his death from heart failure in Memphis at the age of 88.

Lewis’ song “Casey Jones” is interesting for its unusual two-beat wedge that separates the two parts of each verse. However, it is Lewis’ syncopated and rhythmic vocal delivery that can heard in so many R & B, rock ‘n roll and even rap recordings thereafter.

Casey Jones

Casey Jones

Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones (1863 – 1900) from Jackson, Tennessee, was an American railroader for the Illinois Central Railroad. He was killed on April 30, 1900, when his train came around a sharp curve in the tracks and collided with a stalled freight train near Vaughn, Mississippi. By greatly reducing the speed of his train, he is credited with saving the lives of all passengers involved. Casey Jones was the only casualty of the accident and his legend grew from then on.

Some explanations on the lyrics :
– “Drivers”, also called “driving wheels” are those wheels under the train engine which are connected by a rod driven by the pistons of the locomotive. These are the wheels that drive the train, all other wheels are for support.
– “Eastman”, almost certainly, refers to the Eastman street gang which dominated organized crime in the New York borough of Five Points in Manhattan towards the end of the 19th century. A good indication is that the protagonist of the song sells gin and doesn’t have to work! The street gang era of New York is well depicted in Martin Scorsese`s 2002 film, “Gangs of New York.”

 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar, percussion (cardboard box)

 

Casey Jones

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