Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Blank and Blues: Tom Traubert’s Blues

Tom Waits: Tom Traubert‘s Blues


In the mid 1970s, I hated strings. They were all over the place, sugar-coating songs that didn’t need it and would have been better off without it. I didn’t forgive some of my favorite artists for doing this, notably Jackson Browne on his album The Pretender. But there were two artists whose string arrangements were as lush ad romantic as anyone’s, but who I did forgive. Randy Newman really orchestrated his songs, and showed how creative string arrangements could be. And then there was Tom Waits, and especially Tom Traubert’s Blues.

Waits has always been the troubadour of the unfortunate. His characters have been brought low before we meet them, and now they seem to live on discarded cigarette butts and cheap whiskey. Most people walk through a city, and there are these people, begging for what ever they can get, and most people ignore them as best they can. Tom Waits has the gift of seeing them, and seeing fellow human beings with hopes and dreams. And Waits has the further gift of being able to bring these people to life, and making us care about them. The strings here help carry those dreams to the stars, while Waits’ gravelly voice and evocative lyrics remind us of whose dreams these are. This is a delicate combination, and it makes this song almost impossible to cover properly.

Tom Traubert’s Blues incorporates the traditional Australian song Waltzing Matilde for two reasons that have nothing to do with the meaning of the original song. First, as rendered here, Waltzing Matilde sounds like something a person might sing in a drunken stupor. And second, Waits is remembering meeting Danish singer Mathilde Bondo. They apparently had a night on the town together, winding up very drunk in his hotel room. Bondo later acknowledged this meeting in an interview.

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