Saturday, October 7, 2017

TRUE STORIES: BACK O' THE NORTH WIND/BRIAN McNEILL

True Stories inevitably conjures up, at least to me, the wide and wonderful world of trad.arr., of broadsheet ballads and bards, distributing the events of the day in song, all the news that's fit to sing. OK, I accept that veracity may on occasion be debatable, particularly if the spirit world is involved, maidens becoming ravens and back again, fairies chasing fleeing horsemen, all of that, but a lot are based on the received wisdom of the day.

Brian McNeill I have mentioned the once, seemingly his only appearance in these pages, one-time fiddle (and other stringed instrumentation) powerhouse of Scotland's mercurial Battlefield Band. During and since his time with said band: he left in 1990, he has been far from idle, writing a couple of detective novels, putting out 12 largely solo records, as well as a handful with and as a member of fiddle supergroup, Feast of Fiddles. O, and lest I forget, the short-lived Clan Alba, the 2 drummer, 2 (bag)piper, 2 harps, bass, fiddle and guitar behemoth, set up by Dick Gaughan and doomed to near obscurity, courtesy the odd behaviour of their distribution company, the story of which would make a song in itself.

Back o' the North Wind was McNeill's 4th solo project, and the 1st after leaving Battlefield. It is a song cycle based on telling the true tales of those scots who elected to seek their way across the atlantic, seldom by choice. In his own sleeve notes he writes:
     "Over the centuries they (the scottish people) seem to have been prey
      to a perpetual outward force, pushing them to all parts of the globe.
      If it's a wind, then it's one that has many names, some harsh -
      poverty and persecution - and some hopeful- betterment, restlessness,
      a desire to know what's over the next hill, the next ocean."
And thus, in a variety of styles are portrayed the true stories of the celebrated and those not, from  Bonnie Prince Charlie's saviour, Flora McDonald to McNeill's Uncle Jim, from John Muir, conservationist and founder of Yosemite, to Andrew Carnegie. Here's the song about John Muir:


I remember thinking this a wonderful album when it came out, in 1991, thinking it would make a great show. I was thus both delighted (and disappointed) to learn that it had become such, an audio-visual show, of which I had been earlier unaware.

McNeill is still out there and on the road. He has for some years curated saturday afternoons at the venerable Cambridge Folk Festival, in a showcase for new scottish artists and any other of the performers passing by at that time. I recall a phenomenal set in which he played alongside Larry Campbell and David Bromberg, trading acoustic licks at 100mph. He is unimposing figure, greying now, his noteworthy girth barely contained by his trademark  braces, just, I think, visible in this clip, which shows his gentler side and the mastery of one of his many instruments.


For a more detailed background to this hero of mine, here's a an excellent documentary/showcase in the From the Artists Studio series.

Get Back O' The North Wind here


                   

Friday, October 6, 2017

True Stories: Mississippi Goddam


Nina Simone: Mississippi Goddam
[purchase]

When I decided to write about this song, I had no idea that a couple of days later, Nina Simone would be nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Simone is one of those prodigiously talented artists who is widely influential, but has, I think, sort of fallen out of the conversation because of the course of her career, and her long illness and death back in 2003. I’ll admit that I was one of those who had heard her name, was familiar with a few songs, but really new very little about her until I watched the 2015 documentary about her, What Happened, Miss Simone?

What happened was a sad combination of being an outspoken, black civil rights activist a few years before it wasn’t a career killer, mental illness, spousal abuse and poor advice, which resulted in Simone leaving the public eye for years, just when her music and message would probably have been successful. And it is likely that “Mississippi Goddam” was the turning point in her career, for better and for worse. I recommend reading her bio somewhere, or seeing the movie (or one of the other movies about her that are out there).

The song was written by Simone, reportedly in an hour, as a reaction to both the killing of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, about three months apart in 1963.

Evers, a World War II veteran, became a leading civil rights activist, ultimately becoming the NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, where he led efforts to desegregate schools, beaches, parks, buses and the state fair, while also leading voter registration drives. He became a particular target of the White Citizen’s Council, and Evers survived two assassination attempts in May and June 1963 before being gunned down in his driveway. He was taken to a white hospital, where he became the first African American patient admitted to an all-white hospital in Mississippi, but he died within an hour of admission.

Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the White Citizen’s Council, and later on, the KKK, was arrested and charged with the murder, but all-white juries would not convict the piece of crap. It was not until 1994 that he was convicted and imprisoned, and he died behind bars in 2001, at the age of 80.

Evers has become a member of the pantheon of civil rights martyrs, and in addition to Simone, songwriters such as Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs have written songs about him (one of which, I featured in the second piece I ever wrote for this blog). He has a college named after him, statues of him have been erected, and stories, books and films have chronicled his life and death.

A few months after Evers’ shooting, some KKK cowards dynamited a black church in Birmingham, killing four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11) (a friend of Condolezza Rice), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14) and injuring 20 more. The death of these four young girls has been credited with opening the eyes of many to the need for change. That being said, although the FBI had identified suspects, J. Edgar Hoover blocked any prosecutions at that time. Three of the four murderers were convicted much later, one in 1977, one in 2001 and one in 2002. The fourth escaped prosecution by dying in 1994. Not surprisingly, this incident has been memorialized in song, writing, sculpture and film.

Simone’s song was first released in a live version, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1964. While the music is jaunty, its lyrics are not, and the performance includes a few pointed asides from Simone. Although the song became an anthem for the civil rights movement, Simone believed that it damaged her career, and that the music industry turned against her. It isn’t one of those songs that singers trot out anymore when they want to hearken back to the civil rights era, maybe because it isn’t a great sing along, and that’s too bad.

I heard “Missisippi Goddam” on the radio the other day in the car, and I was struck by how Simone married what sounds like happy music with such angry lyrics. It wasn’t the impetus for this theme, but when I realized that it fit, I had to write about it.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

True Stories: Frankie and Albert



 

purchase [the Taj version]

Back when I was first learning how to play on stage, one night a friend of mine showed up with a friend of his and they played an impromptu version of Frankie and Albert. My guitar playing friend was good enough to manage on a one-man show. His friend, no less - he covered the rhythm section on a book - beating on the cover with a pencil and slapping it closed from time to time.
This is that kind of a song - so down to the "roots" that that all it needs to get its message across is the basics, and the story itself.
 

The provenance of the song appears to be muddy: credited to Bill Dooley and then Hughie Cannon and then made famous by Mississippi John Hurt, Leadbelly and [phew] ... go check the excellent and extensive link from planetslade below.



It's been covered all over the place - maybe best by Taj Mahal.

But is it a True Story? What is it's historical basis?
The song goes back to the early days of the blues, so I always assumed it must be based on some true account. The story is too elemental not to be so: the story of how he done her wrong ...


The panetslade site seems to have a pretty complete coverage of the history. They sez that the song about Frankie and Albert and the song Stagger Lee have tended to get mixed together - both based on <True Stories>. Do see the site by clicking the link above for their informative and entertaining details. It's extensive.


Some alternative versions


 
Jim Kweskin and Frank Muldaur above

Mr Harold Allen below



 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

True Stories: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Gordon Lightfoot: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

[purchase]

I have enjoyed all of the hit songs I have heard by Gordon Lightfoot, but many have a 1970s commercial sheen in the production that has kept me from exploring his work further. My research for this post has me rethinking that position. Certainly, from the sound of the song, you can tell that this was released on a major label. There are no quirks or mistakes that can either ruin or give an intimate and personal quality to an independent recording. Still, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a song whose haunting quality grabbed me when I first heard it when it is was new, and the years have not changed that. What I found in researching the song is that many artists have tried and failed to create a quality cover of the song. I found folk versions that overdo the subtlety and lose the song’s haunted sound as a result. I found punk and hard rock versions that lose the song’s empathy by overdoing the drama. And there are jam band versions that lose track of the song altogether. Also, Gordon Lightfoot’s words have power, so instrumental versions exist for no reason that I can understand.

Our new theme is True Stories, and yes, there was a wreck of a ship called the Edmund Fitzgerald. Over the next two weeks, we may hear songs on happier topics, but some of the greatest tragedies in history have inspired great songs, so I am sure there will be more of those as well. The Edmund Fitzgerald sank, with all 29 hands lost, on November 10, 1975. You can find a great account of the incident here. Newsweek had a report of the wreck in their issue of November 24 that year, in which they misspelled the name of the ship, as the Edmond Fitzgerald. Gordon Lightfoot has said interviews that he felt this dishonored the men who died in the wreck and that this was why he wrote the song. The song must have come to him almost fully formed, because he recorded it in December of the same year. Lightfoot spelled the name of the ship correctly, but the song scanned and rhymed better when he changed the ship’s destination from Detroit to Cleveland. The old cook in the song was a Lightfoot invention, and some of the dialog in the song was not part of any official record. But the bottom line is this: Lightfoot’s song is the reason the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is still remembered today, forty years later. And as popular as the original song was, no one has had even a minor hit with a cover in all these years. You have only to think of all of the other hits that have been covers in that time to realize how remarkable that is.