Friday, July 20, 2018

July: Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)


Tom T. Hall has been called the Nashville Storyteller.  To me, he’s the last great storyteller Nashville will probably ever see.  There is a significant difference between a songwriter and a storyteller.  A storyteller, in three to five minutes usually, can make you care deeply about the characters in the song; whereas a songwriter can bring the world in different ways, with the art of wordsmithing.  Tom T. Hall has many song hits to his name, whether recorded by him others, and an each single one, I have cared deeply about those characters.

The first time I heard "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)" was on an album of oddities and b-sides by The Drive-by Truckers. I even assumed they wrote it. That’s the problem with digital music, there is no glorious artwork to pull out, with wonderful liner notes for one to peruse at their pleasure.  When I first heard it, I knew Patterson Hood was busily beating his anti-war drum because Iraq was going hot and heavy.  Honestly, I didn’t think much of it then, but it steadily grew on me.  When I discovered Hall wrote it, I was instantly over the moon, especially as I listened to the words more and more.

Tom T. Hall wrote it in protest of the Vietnam War. That was his intent and it is clear, as plain as day.  Vietnam has always loomed large in my life.  I don’t know why.  The war ended the year I entered it and none of my immediate family ever served in Vietnam. I think there might be a connection there.  My father served in the Guard and stayed in college, hence he had a deferment.  Maybe there is some lingering residual guilt there, to be honest, however, in that place in time, I might have done the same. Vietnam was weird for our country. First modern loss.  First time seeing body bags on the runway from a war. First time seeing the glaring duplicity of the draft.  First time seeing young men and women being spit on, all for serving their country, so the very people protesting them had the right to protest.  First time a sitting president made sure his family made millions upon millions, by supplying weapons to the very soldiers who were dying by the scores, just to keep that war humming.  The first time an incoming president sabotaged a peace treaty, just so he could get elected.  Out of all this madness and chaos, however, came some the best music this country has ever produced.

I would place the song in either the early days or about halfway through the Vietnam War.  The reason why I’ve assumed the time, is because there is no all out bitterness at those who have served, like in the latter years.  It’s about a good old boy who lost his legs in the war and is traveling home on a plane.  A man asks him if it was worth it and stewardess inquires if he was scared. The soldier responds in the manner that is expected of all who serve, whether if they believe it or not.  The story continues about all his fears and worries awaiting him ahead.  The parents, the former girl, the family and a July fourth parade.  

Tom T. Hall may have been going strictly for antiwar, but I took other things away from the song.  The shock of returning someplace without mortars, automatic fire, mines and grenades.  In WWII they called it shell shock.  In Vietnam it was the thousand yard stare.  Now we simply call it PTSD.  Adjusting to that must be horrendous and have it fall on anybody, especially young, healthy Americans, well that is the biggest heartbreak of all.  Another thing was the young soldier anticipating all the problems at home.  Parents heartbroken, girl no longer his, and just what was he going to do with the rest of his life.  Countless young soldiers deal with this upon coming home.  You would think the land of milk and honey would have a program/programs to help these men and women adjust, instead spending money to send more off to war, wouldn’t you?  I keep returning to that bottle in his lap.  It haunts because I have struggled with my own demons.  Whether it be drink, drugs, or anything else, nothing will stop those demons and nightmares from coming out to play, except maybe love.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

July: Riot in Cell Block #9

purchase [The Robins: Riot ... ]

The Robins and Elvis Presley were hot a little before my time. Now, that doesn't mean I couldn't have developed an affinity for their music. I mean, hey, you can believe that Elvis is still alive. So ... certainly, their songs have a life of their own that periodically shows sparks. The Robins? - they were a 50s band that  Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller poached to put together the Coasters, with whom they had a string of early rock hits.

Leiber/Stoller were pretty successful in the 50s and 60s both as song writers and producers. In addition to writing "Riot" and various other Coasters hits, they penned "Hound Dog" of Presley fame, "Yakety Yak", "Stand By Me", "On Broadway" and a total of about 70 hits that earned them a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the 80s.

One of the Leiber/Stoller hits that keeps coming back in various versions is about a jail riot that starts in cell block 4 and continues for almost 2 days until the authorities use gas to subdue the inmates.
It's the 48 hours from July 2,1953 to July 4, 1953.

Take a minute to consider the appeal of a song like "Riot", paying attention to the reputation that rock music had at the time: a bad influence on our youth.

The riot started down in cell block number 4
Spread like wild fire across the prison floor
Scar-face Jones said, "It's too late to quit"
Pass the dynamite 'cause the fuse is lit

Y'all gotta stop that stuff goin' on over there
If ya don't stop that riot, y'all gonna get the chairSI said, "Hey now boys, get ready to run
Here come the warden with an automatic gun"
Is this anything you want your kids listening to?

The version I first heard is the Johnny Winter one.

However, of course, the Blues Brothers. (But they've got the dates wrong!)

And Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen (with Jerry Garcia, who also covered it with his band... um... the Grateful Dead...)

And then the Beach Boys reworked it as Student Demonstration Time

July: Walking The Dog

Rufus Thomas: Walking The Dog

At this point, Rufus Thomas is probably best remembered for this fun, nursery rhyme influenced song, but it was only one of his hits, mostly novelty dance songs, often about dogs or other animals, in a long musical career that started as a child tap dancer on the streets of Memphis in the 1920s, and included stints in minstrel shows in the 1930s, as a vaudeville performer in the 1940s, as a songwriter, performer and DJ in the 1950s, as a popular recording artist in the 1960s, and he continued to perform and record thereafter, often billed as “The World’s Oldest Teenager” and “The Funkiest Man Alive,” until not long before he died in 2001 at the age of 84.

Thomas recorded for Sun and for Stax, the minister at his wedding was Aretha Franklin’s father C.L. Franklin, he worked for 20 years in a textile factory, he acted in Jim Jarmusch and Robert Altman movies, and he performed with Prince, at the 1996 Olympics, and with the Blues Brothers Band. And his daughter Carla Thomas is considered the Queen of Memphis Soul (and who I missed when I wrote this.)

Pretty much everyone has covered “Walking The Dog,” from the Stones, to the Everly Brothers, to the Flamin’ Groovies, as well as Aerosmith, Roger Daltrey, Bruce Springsteen (in an epic 14 minute plus version), Ratt, The Grateful Dead, and John Cale. And many, many more.  Even in Finnish! But Thomas’ version, with its New Orleans influenced style, and the joy that he brings to the silly lyrics, is still remembered because it is just that good.

And yes, it mentions July.

As I was writing this piece, I thought back to walking our family dog, Strummer, who died back in 2014. In July. You can read more about him, and our relationship, here.

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Sure, you know this, of course you do. You may have sung it as a child; it certainly sounds as if you should have sung it as a child. I didn't but, when I first heard it, I sort of wish I did, or had. I first came across it on the remarkable Kristin Hersh solo album, 'Hips and Makers', in 1994, somewhat of a sidestep from her earlier and later career as, arguably, THE Throwing Muse. (No argument really, but reference is always made, compulsorily, to her half-sibling in the band, Tanya Donnelly.) Tucked in towards the end of a slew of songs of sparse self-immolation comes this cover of an old english folk song, Roud 413 no less. (Me, neither.) It stands out by virtue of its simplicity, perhaps the trigger to her later album, consisting entirely of traditional appalachian ditties, 'Murder, Misery and then Goodnight', also strongly commended. Many of this songs on that set too have a link back to the ballad traditions of Britain.

So what have cuckoos to do with July? Well, everything apparently, or sort of, at least over here. Let me direct you to the lyrics, except, being from the canon of trad.arr., often the lyric varies from version to version, as there is some uncertainty as to whether they "never holler cuckoo till the 4th of July" or whether they "sucketh white flowers to keep her voice clear", the lines apparently interchangeable. This may help. But, as I was saying, it was deemed so essential that a cuckoo's song be heard to beckon in the start of summer that the venerable Times of London traditionally published,  and may well still do, yearly letters around when readers had heard their first of the year. Indeed, a book has put these together. And for those who are thinking the 4th of July late for summer, and I write on the 15th after a full 8 weeks without rain, the suggestion is that the July versions of the song emanate from singers trying to appeal to an american ear.

The list of performers who have included this song in their repertoire is huge, not unexpectedly including the greats of folk song on both sides of the pond, from Jean Ritchie to Shirley Collins, Doc Watson to Martin Simpson, let alone Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. More surprising are versions by rock/blues screamer  Janis Joplin (in Big Brother and the Holding Company) and rapper Buck 65. Here, however are a few more elegant versions, three of my, other than Kristin, favourites.

Archetypal englishman in L.A., Richard Thompson, together with Eliza, daughter of Martin, Carthy and Canadian legend Garth Hudson:

 A radically different version from blues muso-ethnologist Taj Mahal:

And Laura Veirs, with a fairly traditional take:

Hell, I haven't even included Townes, Rory and many, many more. (And some of these, mentioned and/or featured may offer the flower sucking over July. So sue me!) But, before I send you to the record store, all this romanticism should not take away the ugly truth about this bird.

Do you know, if you like the Kristin, buy the whole damn album!

Friday, July 13, 2018

JULY: Fourth Of July

Purchase Shooter Jennings, "Fourth Of July" 

Shooter Jennings, heir apparent to the legit country music crown, is doing his goddamnest to keep the weird in country weird. I'm talking real weird, the opportune word here being weird. Jennings is, of course, the son of country royalty Walon Jennings, and he's done his best to give a one finger salute to the Nashville establishment and make music his own way. And while it might not always be country, it's also rarely anything else you might recognize.  He's done things his own way, and he's shredded out some of the best, and the strangest, country tracks you'll ever actually enjoy.

Shooter's has one boot deep in tradition, as you'll hear on the tag line in this track, featuring a very drunk, but also very royal, George Jones, slurring out "He Stopped Loving Her Today." What else you'll hear, way out in the the other realm, is a bit outta space and outta time. Shooter doesn't really do music you'd feel comfortable labeling. This is evident in almost anything you might randomly pick from his Spotify profile. So yeah, hopefully, at this point, you're digging in. But, go deeper into his albums and you'll see how Jenning's "eff you genius" cuts across genres without approval, permission or apology. Jennings makes music his own way, which is a terrible cliche, but I can't think of a better way to describe how the crown prince has found his own feet in the whirlwind and followed up on what his father, the king, laid out out for him to follow. Case in point: he cut an album with Stephen King, 2010's Black Ribbons, which is one of the most interesting, spaced out, deeply current-events-rooted and sonically wild concept albums I've ever heard. Though, the unique factor is true for pretty much anything Shooter Jennings has recorded. If you haven't done it yet, listen up.
I promise you'll love what you hear.

And even though we're not talking about the track, as this is about "Fourth of July", his kicker "Fuck You, I'm Famous", from the same album is a beautiful antidote to our current near-dystopia scatter shatter, end of the world blues...Happy 4th of July, kids...hope those explosions outside are just kids shooting off fireworks..and not the revolution we really need.

July: Shine On Harvest Moon

Milton Brown: Shine On Harvest Moon


Leon Redbone: Shine On Harvest Moon


Asylum Street Spankers: Shine On Harvest Moon


Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster: Shine On Harvest Moon


The term “classic” is certainly overused, but I think it’s fair to say that Shine On Harvest Moon has earned it. The song was written and originally recorded in 1908, and countless artists have performed it since. At this point, you could also call it a folk song, and I can live quite comfortably with that as well. The versions I have chosen show only a small part of the range of possibilities for performing the song.

Milton Brown is one of the subjects of a fierce argument in the field of western swing music. Bob Wills is widely known as the father of western swing. In fact, however, Wills, though not heard here, cut his musical teeth in Milton Brown’s band. So adherents feel that the title of creator of western swing should belong to Milton Brown. On the basis of this 1935 performance, I would say that one can hear western swing beginning to take shape, but we are not quite there yet. To be fair, however, I would have to listen to a lot more of both Brown’s and Wills’ music before giving a real opinion. It’s an assignment I would not mind at all, given the time.

I am sure I must have heard other versions of Shine On Harvest Moon, but this one by Leon Redbone was the first to make an impression on me. This is actually one of the best known songs Redbone recorded. He specializes in finding forgotten gems from the American songbook, and giving them the folk orchestra treatment heard here.

I included the Asylum Street Spankers here because, first of all, they do a great job with the song. But this version also restores the original female lead vocal, and the delivery here is close to how the song was originally sung. Also, the Spankers restore the original order of the months. Most performers nowadays sing, “January, February, June and July” But the original lyric is heard here: “April, January, June or July”, with April stretched somehow to three syllables. The Spankers opt for a musical feel that somewhat recalls Redbone’s version, but adds the klezmer feel of the clarinet line and the doubletime verse at the end.

I was done with this post, or thought I was, when I came across my last selection, by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Here is an instrumental version during a theme dedicated to lyrics. This version is just so sweet I had to include it. This is small combo jazz from 1959, at a time when bebop and cool jazz were all the rage, and free jazz was about to make its appearance. But this performance harkens back to an earlier time. I would put this on a short list of tunes to play for someone who is just hearing jazz for the first time.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

July: Armstrong

Nanci Griffith: Armstrong

It isn’t a particularly profound or original observation to point out that 1969 was a pivotal year. There were Woodstock and Altamont and tons of amazing albums, Nixon’s inauguration, the Stonewall Riots, the Mets won the World Series, the U.S. secretly bombed Cambodia while the antiwar movement gained strength, the Beatles had their picture taken on Abbey Road and performed for the last time, the Manson family went on a murder spree, Sesame Street debuted, and Ted Kennedy pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. Just for starters.

But if you had to pick the number one event of 1969, you’d probably pick the small step for man, and giant leap for mankind—Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, which took place in July, 1969. I was 8 when it happened, and I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch history being made. (Most of the other times I was allowed a late bedtime that year related to the Mets). As a kid in those days, there was little more exciting than watching rockets launch—we’d stare at the TV, waiting for the countdown, and what seemed like the slow climb of the rocket into space.  Which may be why MTV's early branding included videos of rockets and moonwalks. The moon landing was something truly amazing, especially when you consider that the watch I’m wearing now probably has more computing power in it than the entire Apollo 11 mission used.

While watching the landing, John Stewart, formerly of the Kingston Trio, wrote a song, “Armstrong,” which is about how despite all of the problems in the world, and our differences, everyone watched, or heard, about Armstrong’s amazing feat. I can honestly say that I never heard the song, but here it is:

(That’s the single version, which is different from the version released a few years later on Stewart’s album, Cannons In The Rain. I never heard that version either.)

The song has been covered a few times over the years, but the one I did hear was by Nanci Griffith, on her album Clock Without Hands. In fact, the album features three Stewart covers, including “Armstrong,” and Stewart plays acoustic guitar on the track. (Pete and Maura Kennedy, who I saw at Clearwater, contribute mandoguitar and vocals). It is a pleasant folk song, and Nancy Griffith’s distinctive vocal style works well. And the lyrics mention July.

The Dexateens, an underappreciated band from Alabama, released a song called “Neil Armstrong” a few years ago on their excellent album Hardwire Healing, which was produced by the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and David Barbe, who was in Sugar and has produced Truckers albums. Matt Patton, the Dexateens' bass player now fills that slot in the Truckers. Unlike the Stewart song, though, the Dexateens seem to be focusing more on how the moon shot, and his celebrity, affected Armstrong. And the lyrics also mention July.

Apparently, there are some people who believe that it was actually Louis Armstrong who was the first man to walk on the moon. He wasn’t, of course (although he sang “Moon River”), but he died in July—on the 6th, in 1971, at his home in Corona, Queens, about a mile from Shea Stadium, where the Mets lost 5-1 to the Expos.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018


Can it really only be 16 years since the Decemberists first peered around the corner into existence? Strangely, and I speak as a fan, it seems so much longer. Not, it is true, to the taste of all, the vocals of bandleader Colin Meloy being possibly the main hurdle to mass approval, together with their unworldly appearance,  the senior common room at a Cahoots/The Band theme night, and their downright odd arrangements, a quirky mix of the archaic with the unexpected, conspire to a niche version of world famous. Which is just fine in my book. And 'July, July' is perhaps the standout track on debut LP 'Castaways and Cutouts'.

Colin Meloy reminds me of Richard Thompson in a strange way, a catalyst of tradition and electricity. But maybe not so strangely. (Yes, I am going to talk about Meloy mainly, rather than the band, regardless of how tremendous are his cohorts, instrumentally, and they are, without him as prime singer and songwriter, they are meaningless. His band and he calls the tunes.) Constantly ploughing his own singular furrow, undoubtedly indebted to the british folk revival of the 60s and 70s, yet ears attuned to influences elsewhere. He has produced a series of solo albums, EPs really, devoted to such disparate bedfellows as Shirley Collins, Sam Cooke, Morrissey and the Kinks. But are they so very different? In Meloy's hands, often just his guitar and marmite voice, sometimes with spectral backing vocals, the similarities become immense.

See what I mean? OK, so 'Summertime' is hardly unique to Cooke, but what a version this is, drawing into focus what a great song it is, a steamy Tennessee Williams 3 acts in a few simple verses. And so too the songs of Stephen M. and of Ray Davies, let alone the trad. arr. seamed by Collins. I have to question, mind, quite what Meloy now has to say about the increasingly bizarre rants of the erstwhile Smiths frontman, whose image he has allegedly inked on his skin.

The Decemberists, of course, plough similar, albeit augmented by the trappings of electric rock music, chucking in accordion and stand up bass where necessary, and now, in 2018, the introduction of synthesisers and similar new-fangled. And now, instead of ancient mariners, they sing about village idiots.

Having caught them live in Birmingham (UK!) on their 'King is Dead' tour, I found myself initially uplifted, ahead of finding their cerebrality perhaps fits better with the recorded than the live. And there is then a strange dichotomy between the earnest lyrical scene-setting and Meloy gradually morphing into a demented ringmaster, corralling the crowd into choral participation. (I should add I am the frowning geezer in the crowd who never sings along, when asked to, or claps or waves a lighter. I can't abide all that stuff.) However, when they recently revisited the canon of 60s/70s folk in the guise of 'Offa Rex', their collaboration with folkish gamine, Olivia Chaney, this I wanted to see, so wanted to see. Still do. Interestingly they are keeping mighty quiet as to who the support on their forthcoming UK tour might be, my hope and money on Chaney..........

A final thought, for those who have ploughed through the vids above, and can't quite get it. This helpful instruction manual might help.

Still with me? Probably the best place to buy.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

July: Mercy on Broadway/Laura Nyro

purchase [ New York Tendaberry]

As Darius notes, there are plenty of great July 4th songs to choose from, but that was never my personal intention in selecting the <July> theme. shows ~ 2000 songs with July in the lyrics (some repetition), so there's a lot to consider. Somewhere in that long list, among others that I would/could write about, I picked out "Mercy on Broadway". A song I wasn't familiar with, but a name that I was.

When I think Laura Nyro, I think "Wedding Bell Blues". On the second round around, I think "Eli's Coming" [Three Dog Night]

and "Stoned Soul Picnic" [The Fifth Dimension]

and "And When I Die" [Blood, Sweat & Tears].

For these, it's someone else's version of her powerful song-writing that comes to mind first. But rather than diminish Nyro's legacy, the fact that these greats chose to cover her work and hit the top of the charts with them only embellish her rightful place.

On the one hand, I want to lament our loss - Nyro died age 49 of ovarian cancer - the same age as her mother of the same. That IS sad. On the other hand, she left behind a style and a musical repertoire that is still strong decades later, a larger legacy than most can aspire to.

Come to "Mercy on Broadway". Yeah, it includes the per-requisite <July> in the lyrics - more than once in fact (unlike some of the other 2000 in the July lyrics list, where the word shows up once), and she uses month names in various other songs as well - in tune with the seasons?

Nyro was a New Yorker, so her reference to Broadway is apropos. Her references to the fare of the side-streets is equally real - she played the streets and subways of the city in the 1960s.
But it's the combination of her vocal shifts and, as Elton John put it, her "rhythmic and melodic changes" that place her apart. It's her cross over between R&B, jazz, blues and pop that made her songs so accessible to all the other bands. Like several other songs she wrote, it builds/morphs from jazzy blues to full out rocking by the end of the song.

For the record, the Christine Spero Group put out an entire album of Nero songs, but it doesn't include "Mercy".