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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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The Reverend Gary Davis’ “Candyman + Cincinnati Flow Rag”

The reverend Gary Davis with his superb Gibson Super Jumbo guitar

Born in Laurens, South Carolina, Gary Davis (1896-1972) was one of eight children his mother bore but the only one who survived to adulthood. He became blind as an infant and was mistreated by his mother, so much so that his father placed him in the care of his paternal grandmother.

Davis took to the guitar at an early age and developed a unique style, playing not only ragtime and blues tunes, but also traditional and original songs. In the mid-1920s, he migrated to Durham North Carolina, a major center for black culture at the time. While there, Davis collaborated with a number of other artists in the Piedmont blues scene including Blind Boy Fuller and Bull City Red. The Piedmont (literally, foothill) guitar style was named after the Piedmont plateau region, on the East Coast of the United States from Virginia to Georgia.

It was also during his time in Durham that Davis converted to Christianity and he would later be ordained as a Baptist minister. Following his conversion and especially his ordination, Davis began to express a preference for inspirational gospel music. His strong religious convictions not only helped him deal with his blindness, but also cemented deep gospel roots he would draw on for the rest of his career. He also broke his right wrist in an accident around this time and the wrist was never set properly, which accounts for a good deal of his unorthodox fingering and hand positions on the guitar.

He became a well known street performer in the early 30’s and built up a great reputation at parties and dances around South Carolina, playing his vast repertoire of John Philip Sousa marches, Scott Joplin ragtime piano pieces on the guitar, as well as blues and gospel songs. In 1935, a store manager with a reputation for supporting local artists introduced many artists, including Davis, to the American Record Company. The subsequent recording sessions marked the real beginning of Davis’ career.

In 1940, he moved to New York where he continued to work as a street performer until he recorded again in 1956. These recordings garnered him a lot of attention and he was finally rediscovered the by folk and blues revivalists of the early 60s. He continued recording albums and became very popular on the folk circuit and toured throughout the US and even Europe, spreading his gospel message and spellbinding audiences with his powerful intense voice and his guitar virtuosity.

In New York, guitarists started to frequent his apartment for lessons, including Dave Van Ronk, Stefan Grossman, Bob Weir (later of The Grateful Dead) and Jorma Kaukonen (later of Jefferson Airplane). Like many of the older blues players rediscovered at this time, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded his version of “Samson ans Delilah”, also known as “If I Had My Way”, a song by Blind Willie Johnson that Davis had popularized. “Samson and Delilah” was also covered and credited to Davis by the Grateful Dead, who also covered one of Davis’ great masterpieces, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Eric Von Schmidt credited Davis with three-quarters of Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, covered by Bob Dylan on his debut album.

I was very fortunate to come of age when the folk revival took North America by storm. I loved everything about the music. Although I started to play guitar in 1963, I had to wait until 1969 before I could buy my first acoustic guitar. For the next six years, I tried to learn the instrument but everything was difficult back then. Even tuning the guitar was a problem – the only tuning aid at that time was a tuning fork and they certainly didn’t sell those in Rockland! At any rate, the tuning fork only helped you tune one string. Now, we have inexpensive digital tuners that precisely tune all the strings of any instrument to perfect concert pitch.

Stefan Grossman

Stefan Grossman

I remember being frustrated at trying to learn to play from recordings – since my guitar was only tuned “by ear” I struggled finding the right pitch and the notes played by the great artists of the time flew at me from everywhere. Then there were innovative guitarists like Bert Jansch who played the guitar in exotic tunings and I couldn’t find their notes on my guitar! I was saved when I saw an ad at the back of a comic book, telling me to write in to the Stefan Grossman Guitar Workshop in New York City for a free catalog of guitar instruction lessons. I started collecting Grossman’s instruction books, everything written out in tablature, a pictorial representation of the six guitar strings complete with numbers on the string lines to indicate at which fret to play each string. For a kid like me, who could never afford real music lessons, tablature was a godsend. Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, and Stephan Grossman himself, is responsible for nurturing the aspirations of countless guitarists who wanted to learn the fingerpicking style of guitar. The Workshop is still active and now features many priceless video recordings of the great masters from the past. I am still a client.

The Reverend Gary Davis learned “Candyman” around 1905 but he seldom sang the lyrics, judging them to be sacrilegious. I myself never stoop so low as to sing the “Big Leg Ida” verse. Bass lines in fingerpicking are played by the thumb and invariably from low tonic to higher fifth or the higher octave of the tonic. Davis played “Candyman” from high fifth to the low tonic, probably just to confound his students! It is a subtle inversion that is easily fumbled, so that most guitarists play the song the more conventional way. Out of respect (and preference), I play “Candyman” the Reverend’s way.

My Godin Seagull guitar

A number of people today are uncomfortable with the song’s overt reference to a drug pusher (candyman) but the song comes from a time when drugs were not regulated. At the turn of the century, opium was readily available in a liquid form called laudanum and was widely prescribed for everything from menstrual cramps to hysteria and depression. Cocaine in various forms was found at most high society gatherings and was the drug of choice for Sigmund Freud and Pope Leo XIII, among many others. It is never wise to view a bygone era with contemporary sensibilities.

One of the first records I bought was a collection of Reverend Gary Davis tunes, including “Cincinnati Flow Rag.” The reverend recorded this piece about a dozen times , but never the same way twice.. That record I had is long gone and I haven’t come across that particular version of “Cincinnati Flow Rag” but it was unforgettable, complete with field hollers. I play it as I remember it.

For this recording I used my Godin Seagull guitar, hand-made in La Patrie, Québec.

 

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

 

Candyman + Cincinnati Flow Rag

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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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