Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom”

As with many blues songs, “Dust My Broom” arrived in its present form through various other songs, the earliest of which has been identified as “I Believe I’ll Make a Change”, recorded in 1932 by identical twins Aaron and Marion Sparks under the names “Pinetop and Lindberg.” Aaron chose the name Pinetop in honour of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith, the famous boogie-woogie blues pianist, while Marion called himself Lindberg because he could really dance the Lindy Hop! This dance, named after the aviator Charles Lindberg, was a huge sensation during the “Big Band” era of the late thirties and early fourties.

Marion Sparks

The Sparks brothers only managed to record a handful of songs since Aaron was poisoned before he turned 30. Marion spent a lot of time running afoul of the law for bootlegging, gambling, fistfights and even manslaughter. The only available picture of the Sparks brothers is the one on the right, a 1934 mug shot of Marion, courtesy of the St Louis Police Department! In spite of their short stint with music, the Sparks brothers managed to give us the classic blues songs “61 Highway Blues”, made famous by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and “Every Day I Have The Blues”, forever linked with B.B. King and Count Basie vocalist Big Joe Williams.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

In 1936, Robert Johnson, one of the greatest bluesmen who ever lived, recorded “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”, a Delta Blues reworking of the Sparks brothers’ version that captured the drive and intensity of the song. Johnson added some new lyrics and introduced the repeated triplet guitar phrasing that Elmore James later transformed into the most recognizable guitar riff in the history of the blues. Johnson died in 1938 at the age of 27, supposedly poisoned by a jealous husband. He only had time to record 29 songs in his short life, all of them very influential in the development of the blues and Rock ‘n Roll.

Elmore James

Elmore James

Elmore James was born in Richland Mississippi on January 27, 1918, the son of 15-year old Leola Brooks, a field hand, taking the James name from Joe Willie James, a sharecropper and perhaps his father. A musician by the age of 12, James toured throughout rural Mississippi with Sonny Boy Williamson and encountered Robert Johnson, from whom he probably learned “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom.” After a stint in the U.S. Navy during the war, James joined Williamson on the famous King Biscuit radio show performances and, in 1951, the duo auditioned for the small Trumpet Records. James was signed to a recording contract but the only song he recorded at that time was “Dust My Broom.” The single, with a rendition of “Catfish Blues” by Bobo Thomas as the B-side, listed the performer of both pieces as “Elmo” James. The1951 recording of “Dust My Broom” happened when electric amplification was still in its infancy and is one of those rare recordings that changed the course of blues music. The driving dance rhythm, the overwhelming amplified slide guitar and James’ magnificent vocal make it pure lightning in a bottle. Regional record charts show that “Dust My Broom” gradually gained popularity across the U.S. It eventually entered Billboard magazine’s national Top R&B singles chart in April 1952 and peaked at number nine. The success of the single by the relatively small Trumpet Records led other record companies to pursue James in the hope of landing his follow-up hit. Thus, many re-workings of “Dust My Broom”, all with small variations, were recorded by James for different record labels during his career. My personal favourite is a 1959 recording for Fire/Fury records.

Beginning in 1952 James divided his time between Mississippi and Chicago. His backing musicians were known as The Broomdusters and featured his cousin, “Homesick” James. The band was so powerful that people often showered the stage with dollar bills. The Broomdusters rivalled the Muddy Waters group that included Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, and Otis Spann. While “Dust My Broom” remained James’ signature song on stage and on record, he also composed the enduring blues standards “The Sky Is Crying,” “Madison Blues,” and “Done Somebody Wrong.” Ever since the war, Elmore James knew he had a serious heart condition. He died of a heart attack in Chicago in 1963, as he was about to tour Europe with the American Folk Blues Festival. Elmore James was 45 years old.

NOTES: The expression “dust my broom” is understood to mean “move out” of a rented room, sweeping up before you go. Over the years, it has generally been used to mean leaving any unwanted situation behind. “No-good doney” is seldom heard these days and refers to a woman of low standards.

 

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

 

Dust My Broom

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“In The Pines”, a simple song that lives beyond time

Leadbelly

Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) (1888-1949)

“In The Pines” is a traditional American folk song which dates back to at least the 1870s. It is generally believed to be Southern Appalachian in origin (Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgia) but it might have an even older Irish history. Like numerous other folk songs, it was passed on from one generation and locale to the next by word of mouth.The first printed version of the lyrics was published in 1917 and a version was also recorded onto phonograph cylinder in 1925. Starting in 1926, commercial recordings of the song were made by various folk and bluegrass bands. In her 1970 Ph.D. dissertation, ethnomusicologist Judith McCulloh found 160 permutations of the song. It was recorded with titles as various as “Black Girl”, “My Girl”, “In The Pines”, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” and “The Longest Train.”

Bill Monroe (1911-1996)

Bill Monroe (1911-1996)

Writing in the New York Times in 1994, Eric Weisbard called “In The Pines” “a simple song that lives beyond time.” It also lives beyond styles. Over the years, the song was recorded as blues (Leadbelly, Leroy Carr), bluegrass (Bill Monroe, Doc Watson), country (Dolly Parton, The Oak Ridge Boys), rock (Link Wray, The Grateful Dead), traditional (Roscoe Holcomb, Ralph Stanley), folk (Pete Seeger, Odetta), even grunge (Kurt Cobain, Marilyn Manson) and pop (Connie Francis and Tiny Tim). Also dear to my heart is a Cajun version recorded by Nathan Abshire, sung in French and released under the separate titles of “Pine Grove Blues” and “Ma négresse” (My Black Girl). It was Abshire’s greatest hit.

Nathan Abshire (1913-1981(

Nathan Abshire (1913-1981)

Of all these different versions, three elements are common to most if not all : the train, the unfaithful girl and the pines themselves, variously seen as sexuality, loneliness or death. In the song, the “longest train” is said to come from Georgia, where Joseph Emerson Brown, a former governor, operated coal mines in the 1870’s, using prisoners as labourers. It is often suggested that the captain throwing his watch away indicates that the train is an eternal passage from life to death. The “decapitation verse” that I’ve included is often omitted.

Doc Watson (1923-2012) & David Grisman

Doc Watson (1923-2012) & David Grisman

These days, “In The Pines” is mainly associated with Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and Bill Monroe, who both recorded several highly influential versions of the song in the 1940s. For my recording, I relied heavily on Leadbelly’s haunting recordings and decided to include a mandolin as a tribute to Bill Monroe. I also listened ceaselessly to the live recording of the song played by Doc Watson and David Grisman, one of the best mandolin players in the world, in concert in Watsonville, California, in 1998. It is an arresting example of human artistry of the very highest order.

 

Richard Séguin – voice, 12-string guitar, mandolin

 

In The Pines

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Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s “Kidney Stew Blues”

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson

Edward Vinson Jr (1917-1988) was a blues, jazz, bebop and R&B saxophonist and singer from Houston, Texas. He was nicknamed “Cleanhead” after an incident where his hair was accidently destroyed by a lye-based hair straightening product. Hair straightening continues to be very popular among black people of both sexes.

Taking up the alto saxophone as a child, his proficiency at the instrument attracted local Houston bandleaders even while he was still at school, and he began touring with Chester Boone’s band during school holidays. Upon his graduation in 1935, Vinson joined the band full-time, remaining when the outfit was taken over by Milton Larkins the following year. During his five-year tenure with Larkins’ band, he met the very influential guitarist T-Bone Walker, as well as sax greats Arnett Cobb, and Illinois Jacquet, who all played with Larkins in the late 30s.

Even as a teenaged singer and saxophonist, Cleanhead had his own way with the blues. He was good enough to tour with artists like Big Bill Broonzy, who taught him how to shout the blues. He later played with trumpeter Cootie Williams’s band and Jay McShann’s Orchestra, whose innovative young alto player, Charlie Parker, taught Vinsom his pioneering sax technique.

In the 1940’s he infused his alto with bebop and led his own big band. At one time, his sextet included John Coltrane, a giant of the saxophone. His recording of “Cherry Red” in 1944 with Cootie Williams made him popular, but his first recording under his own name was “Kidney Stew Blues” in 1947, which was a huge hit and remained his signature song for his whole career. Reflecting the casual misogyny of the times, most of Vinson’s no-holds-barred songs of this period were simply too raunchy for radio airplay.

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson enjoyed a very long and successful career, playing with some of the best musicians on the planet. He was able to capitalize on the blues revival of the 60s, gaining a new and younger audience at home and overseas. Towards the end of his career, he performed in revue style tours with the likes of Count Basie, Johnny Otis and Jay McShann. He died in 1988 at the age of 70, from a heart attack while undergoing chemotherapy.

Thanks to my brother Gabriel, I was lucky to know the first wave of Rock ‘n Roll in the 50s. I was a teenager when the Beatles initiated the second wave in the 60s. Later on, I wanted to know everything about the music that preceded that of my early years. I discovered the music of the post-war decade, the period from 1945 to 1954 where, in my opinion, the best music of the 20th century was created. This was an exuberant and joyful music (the war was over), a dance music livened by musical arrangements written by the best musicians in the world, a music driven by ferocious vocalists shouting very salty lyrics and musicians who were equally comfortable with jazz, bebop and the extravagant arrangements of the “Big Band Era.” People started calling this new music “Jump Blues” but it soon fell under the newly-named umbrella of “Rhythm & Blues.” Completely addicted by this irresistible music, I drove my car to Ottawa (the internet didn’t exist) and bought every R&B CD I could find. Not satisfied, I drove to Montréal and Toronto, amassing an impressive and costly R&B collection! Around 1954, with the arrival of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, they had to give their music a different name.

 

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

 

Kidney Stew Blues

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Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”

Bob Dylan in the early 60s

There are landmark achievements in anyone’s life that define his or her self-worth. I had two – taking that first ride on my bike without anyone’s help and learning how to fingerpick a guitar. That last one was really hard because I didn’t have a guitar and I couldn’t afford lessons. I taught myself how to play on borrowed guitars and in the late 60s, I saw Mississippi John Hurt on TV, the camera blissfully zooming in on his fingers so I could see what he was doing. I bought Mississippi John’s records and kept trying and trying to play like him, just like I did with my bike. Finally, I could do it on my own.

In the 60’s, every folk artist, almost without exception, had to fingerpick. The popular TV shows about the folk revival featured several fine fingerpickers like Dave Van Ronk, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger and, of course, Bob Dylan.
Much more than the music, the 60s were about the lyrics – for the first time in pop music history, songs were meaningful and addressed serious issues. I vividly remember Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” (war), “If I Had a Hammer” (civil rights), “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (world peace) and “Little Boxes” (conformity). When Dylan left Minnesota and reached New York City, it didn’t take him long to dominate the coffee house/college music scene and when he wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1962, an anthem for the civil rights movement, he became larger than life. There followed several compositions termed “protest songs” where the ills of the day were laid bare, such as “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, “Masters of War” and “Oxford Town”, which we recorded in September of 2015 (see Archives).

I couldn’t help but notice at the time that there was another element insinuating itself into the fabric of contemporary music – a loveless, cold and nomadic value system that was completely against everything I believed in. Certainly, “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)” was at the forefront of this disturbing social shift, as was almost everything written and recorded by the Rolling Stones, but this kind of social angst went much further back and also had a Canadian connection. Nova-Scotian Hank Snow had a huge hit in 1950 with “I’m Movin” On.” and B.C. native Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds”, which he wrote in the early 60s, is certainly one of the most iconic Canadian songs ever written. It was recorded by everyone from Neil Young to Johnny Cash and was a huge success in Scandinavia. In Sweden, the song was a hit for 60s pop band Hep Stars, whose keyboard player, Benny Andersson, went on to world fame as a member of ABBA. In Norway, the song was recorded by The Vanguards, another 60s pop band which featured guitarist Terje Rypdal, who became one of most influential artists in the Scandinavian Jazz field.

Anyone interested in the nomadic, restless 60s should see “Inside Llewyn Davis”, the masterful 2013 film by the Coen brothers. The film follows one turbulent week in the life of a struggling folk singer in 1961. It was nominated for 90 awards world-wide and won 27.

Here is my fingerpicking version of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright).”

 

Richard Séguin – voice and guitar

 

Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright

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Iry LeJeune’s “J’ai été au bal”

Cajun music has its roots in the ballads of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada.The first form of traditional Cajun music started with the arrival in south Louisiana of the Acadians from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1764, Many of these songs can be traced back to France and they drifted to the bayous and the prairie region of Louisiana, forming the basis of what is now accepted as Cajun music.

Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGhee

The first recording of Cajun music, made in 1928 by noted historian and American folklorist Alan Lomax, was “Allons à Lafayette” (Let’s Go To Lafayette) by Joe Falcon (1900-1965) and his wife, Cléoma Breaux (1906-1941) Significant musicians during these early years include two duos: accordion player/singer Amédé Ardoin (1898-1942) and fiddler Dennis McGhee (1893-1989), as well as, some years later, accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” (Dry Wood) Ardoin (1915-2007), Amédé’s younger cousin, and fiddler Canray Fontenot (1922-1995). The diatonic accordion and the fiddle were the main instruments of all Cajun music at that time, to which was added the triangle, known throughout Louisiana as the “’tit fer” (little iron).

Canray Fontenot and Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin

After World War II, there was a surge of patriotism and pride throughout America and everybody, including Cajuns, wanted to be an American. Consequently, people spoke less French and Cajun music gravitated towards the Texas Swing of Bob Wills and the irresistable musical force that was Hank Williams. More than any factor, this cultural shift was halted in Louisiana by the arrival of Iry LeJeune, who brought with him an extensive repertoire of magnificent French songs, a strong voice and a tremendous, driving accordion style. He became one of the most popular Cajun artists of all time and pretty soon everyone danced to the sound of cajun music in all the dance halls of Louisiana.

Fiddler Doug Kershaw with Iry LeJeune

Nearly blind from birth and unable to help with farm work, Iry LeJeune spent his early years at the home of his uncle, Angelas LeJeune, a popular Cajun musician known for his superb recording of “Bayou Pon Pon” in 1929. Iry was allowed to practice on his uncle’s accordion and heard, in addition to Angelas’s music, recordings by the great Creole accordionist and singer, Amédé Ardoin, both of whom influenced him deeply.

On the night of October 8, 1955, LeJeune and fiddler J.B. Fuselier were returning home from a dance in Eunice (Louisiana) when their car had a flat tire. As they changed the tire at the side of the road, both men were struck by a speeding car. Fuselier was seriously injured and LeJeune was thrown into a nearby field, killed instantly. He was not yet 27 years old. He left a wife and five children mourning. Two of Iry’s sons, Eddie and Ervin, followed in their father’s musical footsteps.

Iry LeJeune left a legacy of 26 recorded songs, perhaps a small body of work but absolutely essential to the development of Cajun music. He recorded « J’ai été au bal » (I Went to the Dance) in 1954 and the song was released posthumously in 1957. Years after his death, his recordings remain in print and his songs are sung and played by musicians throughout Louisiana and the world.

The Balfa Brothers (Will, Dewey and Rodney) with Nathan Abshire (accordion)

The 60s Folk revival brought many artists, in particular the Balfa Brothers, the most important and respected of all Cajun musicians, to the northen folk festivals and led to a period in Louisiana.of burgeoning pride in the local Cajun and Creole culture. There was now an interest throughout the State in preserving the French language and the uniquely Louisiana traditions. In 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) was founded and today almost 100,000 students study in French in 26 immersion schools across Louisiana.

Dewey Balfa

Production note: I play the mandolin here as a percussion instrumnt, hitting the strings with wooden kebab skewers! It’s a “fiddler’s trick” that I borrowed from Dewey Balfa (1927-1992).

 

Richard Séguin – voice, mandolin, MIDI guitar (diatonic accordion)
Alrick Huebener – upright bass
Roch Tassé – ‘tit fer

 

J’ai été au bal

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Willie Dixon’s “29 Ways”

“The blues are the roots of all American music.”
Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon

Willie Dixon (1915-1992) was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and his mother often rhymed things she said, a habit young Willie soon imitated. He sang in the Baptist Church from the age of four and, as a teenager, sang in a gospel quintet called The Union Jubilee Singers. Always the businessman, he started adapting his poems into songs that he sold to local musicians.

Dixon moved to Chicago in 1936 and, thanks to his 6’6”, 250 lb frame, became the Illinois State Heavyweight Boxing Champion (Novice Division) and was even Joe Louis’ sparring partner for a while!

Dixon played and sang in various groups, perfecting his technique on the upright bass, until the advent of World War II. He refused conscription into military service as a conscientious objector, saying he would not fight for a nation in which institutionalized racism and racist laws were prevalent. Dixon was jailed 10 months for his beliefs.

Willie Dixon signed with Chess Records as a recording artist but he began performing less, being more involved with administrative tasks for the label. From 1948 to the early 60s, his output and influence were prodigious. By 1951, he was a full-time employee at Chess, where he acted as producer, talent scout, session musician, and staff songwriter. He was also a producer for Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess. From late 1956 to 1959, he worked in a similar capacity for Cobra Records, producing early singles by Otis Rush, Magic Sam and Buddy Guy. He later recorded for Bluesville Records and ran his own record label, Yambo Records, and its two subsidiaries, Supreme and Spoonful.

Dixon is considered one of the key figures in the creation of Chicago blues. He helped far too many artists with way too many great compositions to list here, songs that have lifted these artists to the highest echelons of the blues. Some of the biggest stars of the blues owe their careers to Willie Dixon – Muddy Waters’ signature song “Hoochie Coochie Man” was written by Willie Dixon, as was Howlin’ Wolf’s “Spoonful”, “Evil”, “Back Door Man”, and “Little Red Rooster.” Willie Dixon is so omnipresent that “29 Ways” is the fourth of his compositions that we record on this site even though it’s the first time I speak about him! See the Archives at the right of this page for April 2018 (Little Walter’s “My Babe”), October and July 2017 (Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” and “Bring It On Home.”)

With the simple eloquence that was a hallmark of his songs, Dixon said “The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits. It’s better keeping the roots alive, because it means better fruits from now on. The blues are the roots of all American music.” In 1977, unhappy with the small royalties paid by Arc Music, Chess’ publishing company, Dixon and Muddy Waters sued Arc and, with the proceeds from the generous out-of-court settlement, founded their own publishing company, Hoochie Coochie Music. In 1987, Dixon reached an out-of-court settlement with the rock band Led Zeppelin after suing for plagiarism in the band’s use of his music in “Bring It On Home” and lyrics from his composition “You Need Love”, used in the band’s recording of “Whole Lotta Love.”

In his later years, Dixon became a tireless ambassador for the blues and a vocal advocate for its practitioners, founding the Blues Heaven Foundation, which works to preserve the legacy of the blues and to secure copyrights and royalties for blues musicians who were exploited in the past.

Willie Dixon won a Grammy Award and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. “29 Ways”, like a lot of his compositions, combines humourous witty lyrics with irresistably spirited music. The song became the signature piece of the sorely missed Canadian bluesman King Biscuit Boy (Richard Newell, 1944 – 2003).

 

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

 

29 Ways

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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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