Saturday, September 22, 2012

Storytelling: Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town


I’m currently reading Kenny Rogers’ new autobiography, Luck or Something Like It. If you’re into music history, it’s a very nice compilation of adages, lessons, experiences and memories along Rogers' road to stardom and fame.

In one anecdote, Rogers tells about how a friend from Mercury Records (Frank Luffell) came to his house to play the Roger Miller recording of a Mel Tillis song entitled, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” One of the most powerful songs he’d ever heard, Rogers says “this soulful narrative became an anthem for the unseen victims of war, those who were injured but not killed. They were unnoticed and unheralded.”

I did a little further research on the song in the excellent book by Dorothy Hortstman entitled Sing Your Heart Out, Country Boy. She provides song lyrics and comments on them by the artists who wrote them, or a friend or heir. In the case of “Ruby,” Tillis says it was based on a true story of a man from his home town in Florida who had been injured during WWII in Germany and then sent to England to recuperate. He met and married a nurse. Back in the States, his health problems kept recurring, and he became temporarily paralyzed.

Tillis stated, “Ruby stood by him till she could stand it no longer. Then she started fixing her hair, putting flowers in it, painting her lips, and walking back and forth in front of the pool room. She was lonesome, needed attention. She was a good girl, actually, but the way I wrote it. I put the blame on her. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on because I was only 12 or 13 years old. Twenty-three years later, I realized what was happening. I just changed the wars and brought it up to date and wrote the story in about an hour. Eventually, it was a couple of years ago, he killed her and himself too. That’s a true story.”

Even though Kenny Rogers sings about “that old crazy Asian war” in the song, couldn’t it really refer to any conflict, as well as the torment and agony experienced by the bedridden or paralyzed war veteran? Having sung many classic story songs and ballads during his days with the New Christy Minstrels, Kenny Rogers admits a real affinity for the form and says that many of the most memorable songs in both pop and country are ballads like this (from the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.”) Rogers declares that, “A story song, to have any impact, demands that you listen to the lyrics and imagine the scenario in your head.” “Ruby” and many other story songs launched Kenny Rogers. Essential listening of his repertoire includes “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Reuben James,” “Coward of the County,” and many more.

In his autobiography, Rogers declares, “I guess I was born to sing these kinds of plaintive, often tragic tales.” Because they also had another hit on the radio at the time (“Once Again She’s All Alone”), record producer Jimmy Bowen came up with the wise business decision of putting Kenny’s name in front of his band’s (First Edition) so as to separate the records and get airplay for both. With its topical war reference and tragic narrative about a forgotten solider, “Ruby” went to No. 2 on the charts. Kenny Rogers and The First Edition followed “Ruby” with another successful and compelling ballad called “Reuben James” about a black man raising a white child.

Storytelling: Bourgeois Blues

Taj Mahal: Bourgeois Blues

When I saw the topic of this week’s post, I said to myself: “...but ...every song has a story”. It may be the story of the author of the song, it may be the story of the performer finding (his) way to the song or to the stage to perform the song, but there’s a story there somewhere.

I am coming online at the last minute this week because I have my own story: my PC crashed and it has taken me all week to get back online. Not only did my PC crash, but we also got hit by lightening, which took out our phone lines.
Ah, such is the state of today’s bourgeois: can’t do nothin’ without a connection to the Intertubes.

In this song, Taj tells us right off the bat that he is going to tell us a story, so it seems fitting that I use this as my "story-telling" posting. In doing so, he follows much more in the tradition of the live performance, where the artist often "intros" the song with a comment - in contrast to the studio recording that it actually is. As you probably know, it is a Leadbelly song, and it relates part of the story behind a night out during his visit to DC, where he was treated (!) to a taste of Washington society’s reaction to a mixed-race ensemble looking for a bite to eat.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Storytelling: Eddie Rode the Orphan Train

One of the themes that I seem to explore on this blog is why some performers who I like are popular and successful, and others are not. In 2002, the rock critics published a list of the top albums of the year. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was #1 (which I agreed with), followed by Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and Flaming Lips in slots 2-4. At 6 was Steve Earle, and the top 10 was completed by Beck, Queens of the Stone Age, and Robert Plant. Number 5 was Jim Roll’s Inhabiting the Ball. Jim Roll. The legendary Jim Roll, who filled stadiums and sold millions of CDs. O.K., you probably know that isn’t true. So what is Jim Roll doing on this list?

In fact, Inhabiting the Ball is an incredible album, and I’m glad I took a flyer on it based on the Amazon review. His songwriting is superb, and the music is excellent. I haven’t heard much of his debut album, but his second disc, “Lunette” was produced by Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos, which I have written about previously, and is quite good. For Inhabiting the Ball, Roll joined forces with two well-known novelists, Rick Moody and Denis Johnson, who wrote the lyrics for most of the songs, including the great “Bonnie and Clyde” (a family favorite) and “Inflight Magazines.” Chuck Prophet plays on a few of the tracks.

But my favorite cut is “Eddie,” written all by Roll, based on the life of the grandfather of a friend. It tells the tale of a boy, sent on an “orphan train” from SoHo to Arkansas. Orphan trains were common from the mid-1800s until the Depression. Orphans and abandoned or homeless children from cities in the Northeast were sent to foster homes, generally in rural areas. In some cases, the children were adopted and cared for by their foster parents as family members. But in other cases the children were treated as no more than servants, even slaves. And that was Eddie’s story—he became free farm labor, and nothing more.

When his foster family, surprisingly, had a child, it was given Eddie’s room, and Eddie received nothing in their will. But the story has a somewhat happy ending. Despite this cruel and distant upbringing, and the likelihood that he had rage buried “deep inside,” Eddie “raised his kids with patient eyes detached and mild.” And the narrator named his son Ed, “and like his great grampa he rides trains/at night he rides the iron Ghost, by day he eases someone’s pain.”

The music is simply beautiful Americana, featuring acoustic bass, accordion and banjo, and it sounds timeless.

As best as I can tell, the fifth best rock album of 2002 was Roll’s last. He runs (owns?) a recording studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan and may still perform occasionally. Surprisingly, there is actually a cover of “Eddie Rode the Orphan Train,” by the somewhat more well-known Jason Ringenberg (of Jason & the Scorchers). It is also good, and a bit more twangy. Roll plays on and was a producer of Ringenberg’s “Empire Builders” album, on which the cover appears.

I do think that Robert Plant character will make something of himself someday, though.