Archive for February, 2020

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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