Ladies and gentlemen, The Ravens!

In 1965, I was 15 years old, I was in my second year of high school, my life was full of health and music and I had made friends who, I was convinced, would be friends for life.

1965 was a benchmark year for popular music, a year where everything exploded. We had, at the same time, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone”, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, The Beach Boys’ “California Girls”, Gerry and The Pacemakers’ “Ferry Cross The Mersey”, The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride”, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, James Brown’s “ Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag”, Del Shannon’s “Needles and Pins”, The Temptations’ “My Girl” and many other unforgettable songs. All this wonderful music enveloped us, like the air we breathed.

The Ravens
Martin Cunningham, Roch Tassé, Richard Séguin and
Pierre Lafleur

Back then, I had started to play guitar, as had two of my best friends, Martin Cunningham and Pierre Lafleur. Another friend, Roch Tassé, played drums. Why not form a band!!? And that’s what we did. We mustered the courage to play at one of the high school dances and we called ourselves The Ravens, all four of us dressed in black – black turtle necks, black pants, black socks, black shoes. We played for maybe half an hour and that was our one and only gig!

More than 50 years later, I was at least right about one thing – the friends of my youth in 1965 are still my friends. Friends for life. Roch played with The Ravens, he played on my first recordings in the 70s and, of course, he still plays all percussion instruments on my current recordings. He is the very definition of a true friend. Martin still plays guitar, we meet regularly and our breakfasts are part of our routine. Pierre doesn’t play anymore and we’re separated by many kilometres and one big river but we’re still close, even though we don’t see each other as often as we’ed like.

This summer, Martin asked me to play on one of my recordings. I saw right away that this was something that meant a lot to him. Martin has been there for me all my life, ready to give me the shirt off his back and the last thing I could ever do is to refuse him anything. So it was a done deal. It was Alrick’s suggestion to bring back The Ravens for the web site and here we are (minus the black duds), the photo taken in my back yard in early September. Martin and I are currently talking about collaborating on a Beatles piece!

For this recording, I’ve chosen a very popular song from 1965, that most superb of all years – The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.”

Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars
Martin Cunningham – voice, acoustic guitar
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums, maracas

 

The Last Time

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Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land”

I’ve been listening to Chuck Berry since I was six years old. I was lucky enough to witness the great social upheaval that was rock ‘n roll in the mid 50s. I was also extremely lucky having an older brother who let me play his great record collection. My favourites were Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. It never occurred to me that some of these artists were black and some were white. But that was exactly what was on the mind of the music industry.

Chuck Berry

I never heard Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land” on the radio when it was released in 1964. I heard two different versions of the song in 1971 – Johnnie Allen released a fine Cajun version (with the great Belton Richard on accordion) and Dave Edmunds’ group Rockpile put out a great rocking version. It was still common practice in those days to hear “cover versions” on the radio, where a hit by a black artist was quickly recorded by a white performer, who would get all the airplay. The 1956 Chuck Berry song “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” was originally called “Brown-Skinned Handsome Man,” but it was much easier to get radio play with the new name. In the case of “The Promised Land”, it was mostly ignored in the U.S. because Chuck Berry had just gotten out of jail in 1964 and the predominantly white music industry wouldn’t touch him. Everybody whispered that he was jailed for prostitution but Chuck Berry was jailed for being a black man who didn’t know his place.

The United States enacted the Mann Act in an attempt to curb prostitution or any other “immoral” act involving interstate transport. In its application, the Mann Act gave the police “carte blanche” to arrest any black man, for any or no reason. Jack Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested twice under the Mann Act in 1916, for having a white girlfriend. In 1959, Chuck Berry was handsome, rich, drove a Cadillac, wore fancy clothes and had many girlfriends, some white. A white cop who could barely feed his families on his meagher salary couldn’t let that go. He had to be shown his place. Berry was arrested in 1959 and sentenced to five years in jail. The sentence was later reduced to three years and he eventually was incarcerated for a year and a half.

Racial discrimination is ingrained in American society and has been for centuries. They fought a civil war over it. I will not go into the atrocities that occurred in the case of Jesse Washington in 1916, but I encourage you to look it up. It’s important to know who your neighbours really are.

In my lifetime, I have witnessed the systematic lynching and murder of black people in the United States. On June 21, 1964, when I was just starting high school, three civil rights workers went missing after the police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, first arrested them. They were part of the “Freedom Summer” campaign to help register blacks to vote. On Aug. 4, the FBI discovered their bodies in an earthen dam, buried along with eight other black men who had previously been lynched. This incident was the basis for the excellent 1988 Alan Parker film, “Mississippi Burning.” More recently, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan are at the heart of Spike Lee’s 2018 film “BlacKkKlansman.” And let us not forget Colin Kaepernick, the talented young black quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who had the audacity to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest against police brutality and the oppression of black people. White America, led by the biggest idiot in the land, quickly turned this into disrespect for the armed forces, a sacrosanct topic among our belligerent neighbours, and Kaepernick hasn’t played football since. Sensible people found this ludicrous and Nike launched a new advertising campaign using Kaepernick as their spokesman. Reaction from white America was swift, with the widespread burning of Nike shoes, much like they burned rock ‘n roll records in the 50s.

I only heard Chuck Berry’s original 1964 recording of “The Promised Land” sometime in the eighties. It made me smile because it reminded me of his 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen.” At that time I was in third grade and starving for knowledge and Sweet Little Sixteen’s chorus mentioned seven cities and place names. It was like getting a free geography lesson! “The Promised Land”, however, mentions a total of twenty-one cities and place names! On the surface, the song lyrics are about a bus ride from the East Coast to the West Coast of the U.S., fraught with motor trouble, getting stranded and other struggles. Having decided to record the song, I was curious about Rock Hill (South Carolina), which I knew nothing about.

The Freedom Riders

I found out that in 1961, when Chuck Berry was in jail writing “The Promised Land”, Rock Hill was the first stop for a group of young political activists called the Freedom Riders, who boarded buses and rode across the U.S. to protest racial segregation in all interstate public facilities. When they stepped off the bus at Rock Hill, they were beaten by a white mob that was uncontrolled by police. The Freedom Riders made several stops on their voyage through the South. In Charlotte, North Carolina, some were arrested, others beaten. In Alabama one of their buses was firebombed. In Birmingham (Alabama), they were again attacked by a white mob.

Welcome to Birmingham

At that point, the riders had to be evacuated to New Orleans, bypassing Rock Hill, where the riders first experienced violence. I couldn’t believe it. It was all there before me, all the cities mentioned in the song. I had found the true meaning of “The Promised Land.”

And that’s what Chuck Berry is all about. On the surface, he’s a great singer, an imaginative and gifted songwriter, a witty lyricist, and a very influential and talented guitarist.

Richard and Roch

But when you look below the surface, Chuck Berry is one of the most important artists of the 20th century.

 
Richard Séguin – voice, electric guitars, electric bass
Roch Tassé – drums

 
The Promised Land

 
P.S. Chuck Berry died in March, 2017. Lest we forget his incredible beauty, here he is in his prime.

 

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Dick Gaughan’s “Now Westlin Winds”

Dick Gaughan

In the 60s when I was learning to play the guitar, a great source of inspiration and material came from the traditional and Celtic music revival in Great Britain, lead by guitarists and singers like Davey Graham (1940-2008), Bert Jansch (1943-2011), Martin Carthy (b. 1941) and John Renbourn (1944-2015). Their influence was worldwide and inspired many musicians, like Dick Gaughan, a Scottish guitarist-composer. During his carreer, Gaughan has also been active as a record producer/engineer, MIDI programmer and orchestrator, composing music for films for the BBC and the Scottish Arts Council. He has also been the subject of three full BBC documentaries in the UK.

In the 70s, Gaughan joined the Celtic bands The Boys of the Lough and Five Hand Reel, spending a lot of time on the road away from his family. This lead to excessive consumption of alcohol and a generally unhealthy lifestyle which wore him down both physically and mentally. However, Gaughan eventually recuperated and in1981, he released “Handful of Earth”, a universally critically acclaimed album that was named folk album of the year and the greatest album of the decade by both media and critics alike. In my opinion, “Handful of Earth” was also a significant factor in the struggle towards Scottish independence.

Robert Burns

“Handful of Earth” features a mixture of fiercely political and proud traditional songs, none more moving than “Now Westlin Winds”, which comes to us across an ocean of time spanning some 250 years. Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland, wrote this poem for one of his first loves, Margaret Thompson (Peggy in the song), when he was only a treenager. Probably most known for his song “Auld Lang Syne”, Burns’ birthday (January 25) is celebrated all over the world as “Robbie Burns’ Day.”

Burns’ deep love of nature is obvious in “Now Westlin Winds”, as is his hatred for the hunt and the hunters, with references to slaughtering guns, murdering cries and gory pinions. Burns mentions many birds in the poem, most of which are unknown in North America, and I thought a list of their names would be useful here. They are the moorcock, partridge, plover, woodcock, hern, cushat, thrush, linnet and swallow.

I have stayed very close to Dick Gaughan’s brilliant and masterful arrangement of “Now Westlin Winds”, certainly the version against which all others are measured.

 

Richard Séguin – voice and guitar

 

Now Westlin Winds

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Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”

Skip James

Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902 – 1969) was an American Delta blues singer, guitarist, pianist and songwriter. James tuned his guitar in a rare open D minor chord, even though his songs were played and sung in the D major key. The resulting tonalities and resonances gave his music a haunting, ominous quality, more so than mainstream blues. James learned this method of tuning a guitar from his musical mentor, the unrecorded bluesman Henry Stuckey, who in turn acquired it in France from Bahamian soldiers during the First World War.

James first recorded for Paramount Records in 1931 but the recordings sold poorly, released as they were during the Great Depression, when people had no money to spend on records. Like most of the bluesmen recorded during that first great wave of big company recordings, James later drifted into obscurity until he was rediscovered in 1964 during the blues and folk music revival. During that time, James appeared at folk and blues festivals, gave concerts throughout the U.S. and in Europe, and recorded several albums for various record labels. His songs have influenced generations of musicians and have been adapted by numerous artists.

James recorded 18 songs in 1931, many of which are now classics of the blues canon, like my chosen piece here, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, a vintage Depression-era song that speaks of people drifting like ghosts in an earthly purgatory. Like other songs James recorded, it is one of the earliest examples of gospel music merging with the blues. Son House, who recorded for Paramount Records at the same time, also played in this hybrid gospel/blues style – little wonder, since James and House were both ordained ministers. Later in the 60s, the gospel/blues style was expanded by artists like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin.

An excellent version of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues”, played by Chris Thomas King, is part of the soundtrack to the celebrated Coen brothers film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” The soundtrack won three Grammys, including the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002,

A few expressions used in the song merit an explanation: “killing floor”, widely used in blues parlance, is that part of an abattoir where the animals are slaughtered; “dry long so” is less frequently used and means worn out by poverty.

In late 1966, the British rock trio Cream (Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker) released their first album, which included a number of blues standards including Skip James’ “I’m So Glad”, another of his 1931 recordings. Clapton, ever respectful of blues music and the pioneers of the genre, ensured that all these old blues songs were properly attributed to the original composer. This was in stark contrast to other bands of that era, like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, who shamefully usurped the writing credits from these old and dying bluesmen, even going so far as stealing from contemporaries like Ry Cooder and Bert Jancch.

In the ‘70s, when Jack Bruce was playing at the Philadelphia Spectrum with Leslie West and Corky Laing of the group Mountain, Bruce went into the dressing room and met a little old lady sitting very uncomfortably, surrounded by the harsh din of rock music. It was Skip James’ widow. She had travelled all the way to Philadelphia to thank Bruce for recording “I’m So Glad.” She said her family had made more money from the recording royalties for this one piece than in all that Skip James had made in his lifetime as a musician. The money enabled him to have proper medical care at the end of his life and a decent funeral. Sometimes, merely doing the right thing can change lives.

I recorded “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” as Skip James did in 1931. My voice and my guitar, tuned to an open D minor chord, are recorded directly through a microphone, just as things were done in pre-digital times.

Richard Séguin – voice and guitar
 

Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

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Leroy Carr’s “Papa’s on the Rooftop”

In the 1920s, a few American companies built a portable record-producing machine and went throughout the rural south making the first recordings of ethnic music styles such as Cajun, traditional, Mexican, Hawaiian and even Native American chanting. Johnny Cash called these recordings the Big Bang of American music. The first recordings of jug band music were also made at this time by the Memphis Jug Band. Too poor to own instruments, these artists created music with various items and found objects such as kazoos, harmonicas, jugs, combs and basses made from washtubs, broom handles and string of some kind.

Jim Kweskin Jug Band

I first came across jug band music in the 60s when I saw the Jim Kweskin Jug Band on the folk music shows on TV at that time. One of my all-time favourite bands, the Jim Kewskin Jug Band transformed the sounds of pre-World War II rural music into a lively mix of blues, ragtime and folk. Kweskin’s jug band was formed gradually. When Kweskin was still at Boston University, he saw a band called The Hoppers which featured a washtub bass player named John “Fritz” Richmond. He later met and started playing with Geoff Muldaur, a blues enthusiast. After Fritz Richmond returned from a stint in the U.S. Army, they formed the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, adding Mel Lyman on banjo and harmonica and Richard Greene on fiddle The group was a smash from the onset and was quickly signed to a record contract by Vanguard Records.

While playing at the Bottom Line in New York City, they met Maria D’Amato, fiddler and vocalist for the Even Dozen Jug Band, who accepted an invitation to move to Cambridge and join the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Soon after, Muldaur and D’Amato were married. The Jug Band broke up in the 70s but Geoff and Maria Muldaur kept playing the folk circuit, as did Kweskin, occasionally accompanied by Geoff Muldaur. Fritz Richmond went on to become a well-respected recording engineer and producer. Maria Muldaur also had a brief but successful solo career, recording the huge, Grammy-nominated hit “Midnight at the Oasis” in 1973.

Leroy Carr

“Papa’s on the Rooftop”, a popular number from the Kweskin repertoire mostly referred to as “Papa’s on the Housetop”, was composed and first recorded in 1930 by pianist-composer Leroy Carr (1905-1935). An alcoholic, Carr died of liver complications shortly after his 30th birthday.

I take a few liberties with my arrangement and lyrics of this piece but my fingerpicking is pretty similar to Jim Kweslin’s, who was heavily influenced by Blind Boy Fuller and, like me, Mississippi John Hurt.
 

Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitars
 

Papa’s on the Rooftop

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Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”

Bob Dylan

In 1966, Bob Dylan was involved in a serous motorcycle accident that temporarily stopped his career. Much changed as he recuperated and the recordings he released afterwards were generally acoustic and moderately interesting at best. It was a difficult period – as he said at the time, “Everything was wrong, the world was absurd.” Then, in 1975, Dylan released “Blood on the Tracks”, one of the most important albums of his career. “Buckets of Rain”, which I play here, is a Piedmont Style fingerpicking country blues that closes out the album. This style, based on ragtime piano music, got its name from the Piedmont Plateau on the east coast of the US, where many of the guitarist who played this style originated.

Mississippi John Hurt

I play this Dylan song in the style of Mississippi John Hurt. In 1965 and 1966, I saw Mississippi John play on a couple of the folk revival TV shows that were popular at that time and I immediately knew that, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to play like him. Much later, I found out that Mississippi John (1892-1966) was a self-taught guitarist, like I am. He was a sharecropper from Avalon, Mississippi who was recorded in 1928 by Okeh Records but the recordings never found an audience. He returned to being a farmer in Avalon for almost forty years. In 1964, he was recorded by the Library of Congress and these recordings were a huge success with our generation and Mississippi John became a crowd favourite on the college and coffee house circuits. Unfortunately he died before he got the chance to fully enjoy his late popularity. His influence in contemporary music is vast and his songs have been recorded by artists like Bob Dylan, Doc Watson, Bruce Cockburn, Gillian Welch and Taj Mahal, among others.

Growing up in Rockland, it was extremely difficult for me to learn Mississippi John’s finger-picking style, mostly because I had no money so I didn’t have a guitar of my own! I played on bad, borrowed instruments. There was of course no internet or any music shops in Rockland so I had to save and buy Mississippi John’s records in Ottawa. I also ordered a few finger-picking music books by mail, my favourites being the ones published by guitarist Stephan Grossman in New York, who had an enormous sphere of influence on thousands of guitarists. I bought my first guitar when I started working at the age of 19. Eventually, I worked at it and taught myself to play in a style similar to John Hurt’s – mine is more percussive. My early instrumental compositions recorded in the 70s were all based on this finger-picking style. To this day, my proudest achievement is learning how to finger-pick like Mississippi John Hurt, one of my biggest heroes.

Richard Séguin – voice, acousric guitars, electric bass

Buckets of Rain

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Howlin’ Wolf’s “Forty-Four”

Roosevelt Sykes

“Forty-Four” is a blues standard whose origins have been traced back to early 20th century Louisiana. In its earliest forms, the piece was an instrumental piano blues sometimes referred to as “The Forty-Fours.” Little Brother Montgomery, who is usually credited with the development of the piece, taught it to a blues pianist called Lee Green, who taught it to Roosevelt Sykes. It was Roosevelt Sykes who provided the lyrics and first recorded the song in 1929. It was his first release and the song became his signature piece. Through numerous adaptations and recordings over the years, ”Forty Four” has remained a vibrant part of the blues lexicon to this day.

In 1954, when Howlin’ Wolf recorded his version of “Forty Four”, the song took on a whole new feel. Backing Wolf, who sang and played harmonica, were Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams on electric guitars, Otis Spann on piano, Willie Dixon on upright bass, and Earl Phillips on drums. Together they transformed “Forty Four” into a driving Chicago blues with prominent agressive guitar lines. However, it is Earl Phillips’ performance that drives the song, with an insistent martial shuffle on the snare drum and a bass drum that slams down like a hammer. Given Howlin’ Wolf’s gruff and overpowering vocal, the overall effect was described by one critic at that time as “menacing.”

Howlin’ Wolf and his band

When I was 21 years old, my brother bought a Sony reel-to-reel tape recorder and I recorded some of my favourite songs with three other musician friends in the basement of our home. I was more and more into the blues at that age and one of the songs we recorded was ”Forty-Four.” Amazingly, those recordings still exist and I can hear the slightly altered Hubert Sumlin guitar part that I had come up with for that recording. I kept this altered guitar part on our recording. Lowell George (1945-1979) introduced a slide guitar on Little Feat’s version of “Forty Four”, which I’ve also used here.

Wolf only sang two verses in his landmark recording and I’ve added two more. The third verse is taken from Roosevelt Syke’s 1929 recording of “Forty Four.” The last verse is taken from Wolf’s great trance blues classic, “I Asked For Water.”

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

Forty-Four

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Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl”

David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

The United States as a country was populated mostly by immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland and West Africa. All these different cultures had their own music and their own preferred instruments. Their diverse music changed as it was handed down through generations and, as these different ethnic groups intermingled, they produced a hybrid music now commonly known as Folk, Bluegrass, Cajun, Blues and Old-Time Music. The only thing these styles have in common is that they are all played on non-electric instruments.

When I was a teenager, I came to acoustic music through Bob Dylan and was quickly captivated by the Celtic music of guitarists like Bert Jansch (1943-2011). One of the most satisfying occurrences of my life is to witness the vitality that has been injected into acoustic music by some excellent young musicians, and the great respect for tradition that their new music exemplifies. Gillian Welch is one such musician.

Through her parents, Gillian Welch was introduced to the music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family. She wrote “Orphan Girl”, a song of faith and family, as part of her first album, “Revival.” Her sparse nd dark compositions, accompanied by the outstanding guitarist Dave Rawlings, put her at the forefront of contemporary acoustic music.

Richard and Melanie

On this arrangement of “Orphan Girl”, I take great pleasure in introducing the exciting new singing voice of Melanie Phipps. Melanie lives with her family in the La Pêche area of Québec. Like myself, her earliest recollections of music came from her mother, who sang to herself while she worked. Music was a part of family gatherings growing up and she later joined a number of choirs in Montreal, Ottawa, Chelsea and Wakefield. Melanie is well know in some of the Wakefield clubs, where she occasionally sings. She plays the ukulele and has also started writing a few songs so I look forward to more collaborations with Melanie in the not too distant future.

Melanie Phipps – vocal
Richard Séguin – acoustic guitar, mandolin

Orphan Girl

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Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”

Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash (1932-2003) was one of the most popular artists of all time, selling more than 90 million records worldwide. Although primarily associated with country music, he also embraced rock ‘n roll, rockabilly, blues, folk and gospel. Cash has the rare honour of multiple inductions into the Country Music, Rock ‘n Roll and Gospel Music Halls of Fame.

Rebellious by nature, Cash stood for the poor, the deprived and the downtrodden, singing songs of sorrow, moral distress and redemption. He always wore black on stage and became universally known as “The Man in Black.”

The Cash family was poor and had a hard life during the Great Depression. Johnny’s older brother Jack worked in a saw mill to help ends meet but in 1944, he was involved in a horrible accident at the mill and died at the age of fifteen. The twelve-year-old Cash was devastated and struggled with guilt over the loss of his brother all his life.

Alrick


In 1954, Cash signed with Sun Records in Memphis, where Sam Phillips already had Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Howlin’ Wolf under wraps. Cash’s first recordings, “Hey Porter” and “Cry, Cry, Cry”, met with immediate success on the country music charts. Further hits, including “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk The Line”, ensured that Cash, like Elvis, priced himself out of Sam Phillips’ limited budget. Both artists signed lucrative contracts elsewhere.

In all his illustrious and successful career, Johnny Cash made the bravest and most impactful decision of his life in 1968 when he released live recordings made at Folsom State Prison in California. The recording was a huge hit, reaching # 1 on the Billboard country and pop charts. Further prison concerts and recordings solidified Cash’s outlaw image and endeared him with a large cross-section of the population world wide. In 1972, Cash met with president Richard Nixon at the White House to advocate prison reform. Ever on the side of the disenfranchised, Cash released the album “Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian” in 1964. His activism for Native Americans met with the typically bigoted resistance from radio stations, the recording industry and the media but Cash persevered.

Richard and Roch


Cash’s career was rejuvenated when he released the critically and commercially successful “American Recordings” in 1994. Cash sang the songs with only his guitar as accompaniment, while on “Unchained” in 1996, he was accompanied by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Both albums featured stark songs by more contemporary artists and both albums won Grammys.

Our version of “Folsom Prison Blues” is played in the traditional blues format, an approach championed by Keb Mo.

Richard Séguin – vocal, guitars, mandolin
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – drums

Folsom Prison Blues

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Little Walter’s “My Babe”

Little Walter

Little Walter (Marion Walter Jacobs, 1930-1968) was a blues singer and songwriter whose simple but revolutionary approach to the harmonica altered the course of contemporary music. Frustrated with having his harmonica drowned out by electric guitars, Little Walter started cupping a small microphone and his harmonica in his two hands and plugging the microphone into a public address system or an amplifier. The resulting sound was unbelievably loud and his bends and howls on the harmonica, even his breath, came out as something overpowering. It was a sound never heard before and impossible to reproduce on any other instrument. Afterwards, everyone wanted to play like him. He was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

Little Walter left his rural Louisiana home at the age of twelve and rambled, playing with artists like Sonny Boy Williamson and Sunnyland Slim before getting to Chicago in 1945. He joined Muddy Waters’ band in 1948 and, listening to landmark recordings like “Long Distance Call” and “She Moves Me”, it is well understood that Little Walter was dramatically changing the sound of the blues. He left Muddy’s band to record on his own in 1952 and his first recording, an instrumental called “Juke”, reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, the only harmonica instrumental ever to do so. Little Walter had fourteen top-ten hits on the Billboard R&B charts between 1952 and 1958 (including another #1 hit, “My Babe”, in 1955), a level of commercial success never achieved by Muddy Waters nor by his fellow Chess blues artists Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.

Alrick


“My Babe”, like most of the repertoire of postwar Chicago blues, was written by Willie Dixon, the bassist and A&R man (artists and repertoire) at Chess Records. The song is based on the traditional gospel song “This Train (Is Bound For Glory)”, recorded in the late 1930s by the sublime Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Ray Charles had controversially pioneered the gospel-song to secular-song approach with his reworking of the gospel hymn “It Must Be Jesus” into “I Got A Woman”, a number one hit on the Billboard R&B charts in early 1955. Shortly after, Little Walter recorded “My Babe” and the single eclipsed Charles’ record by spending five weeks at #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, making it one of the biggest R&B hits of 1955.

Richard and Roch


By the late 50s, Little Walter branched out as a session man and recorded his howling harmonica for artists like Jimmy Rogers, Memphis Minnie, Bo Diddley, Otis Rush and Robert Nighthawk. Unfortunately, this period coincided with his decline in fame and fortune. Little Walter, a small slight man in the rough and tumble macho world of Chicago blues, was an alcoholic and had a notoriously short fuse. This led to violent altercations which he seldom won – the knife scars on his face are a testament to that.

Little Walter toured Europe in 1964 and 1967. Returning home, he was involved in one last fight while taking a break from a performance at a nightclub on Chicago’s seedy South Side. Early the following morning, on February 15, 1968, he died in his sleep from wounds sustained in that fight. Little Walter was 37 years old.

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

 
My Babe

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