Archive for August, 2020

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

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

In 1965, Bob Dylan released “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, which he sang while playing an electric guitar, backed by Mike Bloomfield (electric guitar), Al Kooper (electric piano) and session musicians Paul Griffin (piano), Harvey Brooks (electric bass) and Bobby Gregg (drums). The lyrics describe a hallucinogenic vision of Juarez, Mexico, where the narrator encounters poverty, sickness, despair, prostitution, indifferent authorities, alcohol and drugs before finally returning to New York City. The lyrics make reference to works by celebrated authors like Malcolm Lowry, Edgar Allan Poe, Jack Kerouac and Arthur Rimbaud.

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

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

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

Alrick Huebener

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

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

or incredibly romantic phrases like:

The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face

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

Roch Tassé

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

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

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Taylor 30th anniversary guitar

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

Richard Seguin – voice and acoustic guitar

Police Dog Blues

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