039: Blind Willie Johnson, ‘Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’

Posted by jeff on Nov 20, 2014 in Other, Song Of the week

I’m not a big fan of authentic blues, and certainly less of an expert. The closest to a real bluesman I listen to is Bo Diddley, and even I don’t confuse him and the real thing. The only really authentic gent I listen to on my own volition is Robert Johnson, who actually is a lot of fun. But this week we’re going to introduce you to Blind Willie Johnson, his music, and his strange, sad life. And even if his music isn’t your cup of moonshine, I’ll betcha the story won’t leave you unmoved.

This is the only known photograph of him, and it seems there’s not a single confirmable fact about Willie’s life. But this is what I’ve pieced together.

He was born near Brenham, Texas, which is outside of Temple, Texas (which is outside of Waco, Texas) somewhere around 1902. His mother died when he was just a li’l ‘un, and his pappy remarried.

When he was about seven, his father was altercating on his stepmother for stepping out with another man. She in response threw lye into Willie’s face (either by accident or on purpose, depending on the account you’re reading).

All the accounts I’ve found say that Willie told his father he wanted to be a preacher and then built himself a guitar out of a cigar box. I’m not quite clear just what the connection is there, but apparently there is one.

His father would often leave him on street corners to sing for money, where his powerful voice left an indelible impression on passers-by. I guess that’s where he developed his chops. Mean streets, Brenham.



Willie was ‘married’ once or twice (not quite clear to me what constituted marriage in those parts), maybe to Willie B Harris and/or maybe to Angline Robinson. One of them is the lady singing with him on many of the 30 songs he recorded.

He was dirt poor throughout his poor, short life, preaching and singing in the streets of Beaumont, Texas (that’s outside of Lake Charles LA, Port Arthur, and Galveston). A real outsider, that Blind Willie.

In 1945, the house of prayer he preached from and lived in burned to the ground. So destitute he had nowhere to go, he lived in the burned ruins of his home, sleeping on a rain-soaked bed. After two weeks, he caught pneumonia and died (although the death certificate credited malarial fever and syphilis for contributing to the effort).

There are reports that his grave has recently been located, but I couldn’t find any confirmation of that.

Blind Willie is considered to be one of the great slide guitarists of his time. According to some reports, he used his knife for a slide rather than the customary bottleneck. He used an open tuning in D, sliding that knife and plucking a bass line with his thumb. Most of his songs had ostensibly religious themes (like ‘Can’t Nobody Hide from God‘), but they clearly owed as much to country blues. He often doubles the melody he’s singing on the guitar, and he uses octaves a lot–on the guitar, singing, the second voice.

The Blues

The Blues

He recorded four or five times, between 1927 and 1930, a total of 30 songs. My favorite song, and his best known one, is from the first session, December 3, 1927. It’s called ‘Dark Was the Night – Cold Was the Ground’. It’s got no words, but I think you’ll agree it doesn’t need any. It’s about as harrowing and eloquent as can be just as is.

It’s been recorded by everyone who’s anyone in the blues. But my favorite cover is by the avant garde group, the Kronos String Quartet.

Our Song of The Week is from the same session, Mother’s Children Have a Hard Time’. Ain’t that the Lord’s truth!

Why’d we pick this one? So that we could dedicate this week’s SoTW to our loving wife, who knows just as well as Blind Willie Johnson, albeit from a different vantage point, just how dear a mother’s love can be.

Well, well, well, ah
A motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go, wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time
Nobody on earth can take a mother’s place when, when mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place when, mother’s dead
Nobody on earth takes mother’s place,
when you were startin’, paved the way
Nobody treats you like mother will when
Your wife or husband may be good to you, when mother is dead, Lord
They’ll be good to you, mother’s dead
A wife or a husband may be good to you,
but, better than nothing has proved untrue
Nobody treats you like mother will when, when mother is dead, Lord
Lord, Lord, Lord
Yeah, well, ah
Well, some people say that sister will do, when mother is dead
That sister will do when mother’s dead
Some people say that sister will do,
but, as soon as she’s married, she turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like mother will
And father will do the best he can, when mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can when mother is dead
Father will do the best he can,
so many things a father can’t understand
Nobody treats you like mother will
A motherless children have a hard time, when mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, mother’s dead
They’ll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin’ around from door to door
Have a hard time

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073: Erik Satie, ‘Gymnopédie No. 1’

Posted by jeff on Nov 13, 2014 in Classical, Song Of the week

I had a visitor in my brain this week, Erik Satie. He drops in every few years, probably during October, though I haven’t kept any statistics. He’s like an old peripheral acquaintance, not an intimate friend, there’s much about him that’s just a bit boring, and he has more to say than I care to listen to.

But he always brings with him this one particular vignette of sound that reminds us why we’re so glad he’s appeared again at our door—a unique piece of music so emotionally precise, so descriptive of a certain autumnal ennui, a state of mind and being, a very particular and fraught set of internal meteorological conditions, wholly irreplaceable, wholly unmistakable.
I first encountered Monsieur Satie on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ eponymous, shallow, lamentably over-popular, first post-Kooper LP. It was as shallow and derivative as it was commercially successful (veryveryvery). The first and last cut on the album were a piano piece by an obscure French composer arranged for guitar, two flutes and bells by BS&T trombonist Dick Halligan.

It took me several years, but as is my wont, I eventually got around to the original by Erik Satie (1866-1925), a French cabaret pianist and avant-garde composer.

Satie was also a creator of hoaxes (an announcement of the premiere of his new anti-Wagnerian opera, which he never wrote), his own compositional system, his own one-man religion (the Metropolitan Church of Art of the Leading Christ, for which he wrote a Grand Mass). He maintained a secret hobby–on small cards he would draw pictures of imaginary buildings made of various metals, and publish ads in local papers offering them for sale. For a number of years he dressed like a priest.

Portrait d’Erik Satie by Suzanne Valadon

He had one intense love affair in 1893 with model, painter and trapeze artiste Suzanne Valadon. He reputedly never touched a woman (or man) after that.

He was associated with Rosicrucianism, radical Socialism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Dada. At various points in his life he hung out with composers Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Milhaud, and Stravinsky, as well as artists Cocteau, Duchamp, Picasso, Braque, Man Ray, Breton, dancer Diaghilev and film director Rene Clair. But none of these lasted very long, neither the ideas nor the movements nor the relationships.

He seems to have annoyed most of them; no one entered his apartment for the last 27 years of his life. After his death, 84 identical handkerchiefs were found in his wardrobe.

A joiner and a loner.

He wrote spoofs, ‘melodramas’, humorous miniatures for piano, and a sort of ‘liner notes’ for his compositions. They became better known than the music, and he eventually was forced to demand that they not be read aloud while the music was being performed.

Satie and Debussy (Photo: Igor Stravinsky)

Ironically, Satie’s reputation has done very well in the last half-century. He experimented with what he called furniture music, meant to be in the background rather than listened to.  Here’s a very fine example, the unspeakably beautiful Gnossienne No.1 (Rogé).

This is considered a forerunner to minimalism, which became a dominant approach to classical music throughout the 20th century, and as such has achieved no small degree of repute (from proponents such as John Cage) and popularity (thanks to the jump-start of good old Blood, Sweat & Tears.) Cage performed Satie’s composition ‘Vexations’ (performed here by Aldo Ciccolini).

The manuscript bears the inscription: “Pour se jouer 840 fois de suite ce motif, il sera bon de se préparer au préalable, et dans le plus grand silence, par des immobilités sérieuses” (“In order to play the theme 840 times in succession, it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand, and in the deepest silence, by serious immobilities.”) Cage interpreted as an instruction that the piece should be played 840 times straight. Who knows what Satie really meant? In 1963, it was premiered by a team of pianists in New York. The audience paid $5 to hear some part of the 18-hour marathon. Only one person stayed the route.

Satie by Jean Cocteau

Be that as it may, Satie’s greatest hit is without a doubt the ‘Gymnopédies’, a series of three short compositions published around 1888. These are three variations on the same theme with barely perceptible differences. The effect is somewhat like walking around a sculpture, viewing it from several angles. The first of them is the one we’re offering up as our Song of The Week. It’s performed here by Pascal Rogé (after carefully considering a number of performers–there are few classical works in which I’m so picky about my preferred version). If you really need to, you can read about the various hypotheses regarding the meaning of the name of the piece, but they’re not conclusive, and I sure didn’t feel any better after reading them.

I do, however, feel a whole lot better after listening to the Gymnopédies, a massage for an aching soul.

On the one hand, it’s a landmark piece for proponents of Ambient music such as Cage, Brian Eno, Phillip Glass and Stephen Reich. Ambient music is a genre that stretches from early 20th century minimalism right up to the New Age pap of today. It “focuses largely on the timbral characteristics of sounds, often organized or performed to evoke an atmospheric, visual” or “unobtrusive” quality–what Satie called furniture music, what is today sometimes called airport music. (“Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”—Brian Eno.)

But ‘Gymnopédies’ is not the bland background music it may sound like from that description. Less is more, and this particular ‘less’ is a whole lot. It touches me very deeply, in a very tender place in my being. It’s evocative, hypnotic, haunting, and if you listen to it not 840 times, but just a few, don’t be surprised if it becomes part of your musical landscape, and comes back to pay a very welcome visit when your soul needs some breathing space.

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206: Lake Street Dive (Rachael Price), ‘I Want You Back’

Posted by jeff on Oct 31, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

P1190319a Lake Street DiveI tripped over this clip several weeks ago and am still floored. It’s the best music I’ve seen seen/heard in a month of Sundays.

It’s Lake Street Dive, an indie band with a unique and undefinable aesthetic covering ‘I Want You Back’, a silly Jackson 5 tune, on a Boston street corner. Drummer Mike Calabrese, bassist Bridget Kearney, and trumpet-playing guitarist Mike “McDuck” Olson. Oh, and vocalist Rachael Price—the eighth wonder of the world. Only chronologically is she only last on the list.

The clip is amazing. One drum, stand-up bass, trumpet, chick singer, some backing vocals. That’s it. It’s amazing enough that they get pristine sound and perfect balance in an almost spontaneous live outdoor take. But the music. Oh, the music. Here, watch it again. In case you’ve forgotten (I had), here’s the Jackson 5 original.

They can knock you out doing the minimalistest rock music you’ve heard since the Stone Age on a Boston Street corner.

31-10-2014 09-09-34They can knock you out next to a lake outside Levon Helm’s studio.

They can knock you out on a glitzy network TV stage, here on Ellen (that’s Rachael in the flared 1950s red dress); here on Conan (that’s Rachael in the very tight white dress).

They can knock you out in a recording studio (that’s Rachael singing her own song).

31-10-2014 08-44-54They can knock you out in a grungy basement (that’s Rachael singing Wings’ ‘Let Me Roll It’; whom would you rather hear/watch, her or Paul?).They can knock you out on a festival stage (that’s Rachael teaching George Michael what sexiness is).

Writer, critics, and the band itself struggle to describe Lake Street Dive.

The band on the band: “The initial idea (2004) was for the band to create a ‘free country band” — as in country music, played free. This concept was quickly abandoned in favor of something that actually sounded good. But its roots remain.” “Pop-y, or perhaps Swing-ish, with a touch of Jazz.” “We want it to sound like the Beatles and Motown had a party together.”

Critics: “Country Punk.” “Sounds Like: Llewyn Davis’s favorite pop group; Motown meets the Brill Building in jazzy, soulful, woulda-been Sixties chart toppers.” They evolved from “a weird alt-country jazz group to a pop-soul juggernaut, with ’60s influences like Brill Building girl groups (‘Stop Your Crying’), British Invasion rock (‘Bobby Tanqueray‘), horn-driven Stax R&B (‘You Go Down Smooth‘), Motown soul (‘Use Me Up‘) and even The Band-like gospel blues (‘What About Me‘)”.

LakeStreetDiveJeff: “Oh, shut up and let me listen to (and watch) Rachael Price.”

My first association with Lake Street Dive was the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker 1952-3 pianoless quartet. No one tries to make group pop music without a harmonic instrument holding it all together—a rhythm guitar, a piano, a vibraphone, something. Mulligan/Baker explored contrapuntal group improvisation, which means that on top of the bass-drums floor, you have two monophonic instruments bobbing and interweaving with enough tightness and tension to create a harmonic fabric. It’s sort of like a trying to build a hummingbird nest by picking up twigs with your mouth, your hands tied behind his back.

lake-street-dive-performs-you-go-down-smoothMy second association was The Band. Not just because of the style of drummer Mike Calabrese, slapping on the kit with such humanity that the drums become not a necessary evil, but musical that’s worth listening to in and of itself (so reminiscent of Levon). Not only because of the tight, precise 2-and 3-part country harmonies kicked up into a whole new level of musical sophistication. Perhaps mostly because of their “D.I.Y. Sensibility”. (I asked a kid what that meant. He crooked an eyebrow with that ‘What planet do you live on?’ condescension. For those who want to avoid the humiliation, here’s a definition for you.) It has to do with an indie ethic vs The Industry, but I think also an organic attitude to the music itself—minimal orchestration, every note carefully and tastefully hand-picked, every phrase hand-crafted. Even the way the guy slaps his drums, just like a real human.

But my third association, and the one that’s stuck to my brain and my ears and my eyes and my kishkes is their singer, one Rachael Price.

9639496192_cb2634293dTry to forget the fact that she’s so stunningly sexy, one moment a librarian, the next a torch singer all aflame. She not only sings Lake Street Dive’s crazy indie-country-pop amalgam so remarkably, she has simply the greatest chops and stage presence I’ve heard/seen since forever. She has all the insouciance of Amy Winehouse, with whom she’s often been justifiably compared. But where Amy employed her Sarah Vaughan influences in the service of the provocative, Rachael is all femininity and sexiness.

In jazz, Rachael Price’s model is Anita O’Day. She’s influenced not only by her vocally, but by her 1950s feminine grace and panache. Here’s Anita in her legendary Newport performances. And here’s Rachael stunningly displaying her jazz abilities: ‘Cheek to Cheek’  (do you hear Anita’s vocals and style are all over it?). And here’s her recording of ‘That Old Black Magic’. Everybody’s sung it. Try to find a better version. Here’s her whole album of standards. Even without the indelible visual aids, Ms. Price is the best young female jazz singer I’ve heard (and I’ve listened to a lot of them).

And her range! Not only organic country punk. Not only classic standards. Check out Rachael Price singing Aretha’s ‘I Ain’t Never Loved a Man’ backed by the Muscle Shoals band. Do you know any other chick who can put over blue-eyed soul like that? I don’t. She’s one consummate vocal artist.

Lake Street Dive — you guys are great, and I wish you all the success in the world.

Ms Price – I bow to you, to your unlimited ability in such a range of styles, your taste, your presence, your sexiness, your prodigious talent.

 If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

057: Anita O’Day, ‘Tea for Two
020: Esperanza Spalding, ‘I Know You Know’
131: Nickel Creek, ‘Somebody More Like You’

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205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

Posted by jeff on Oct 17, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week

Photo: Ken Souser, 1970

James Taylor — ‘Something’s Wrong’

There’s some music I love so deeply, and feel so intimate with, that I refrain from writing about it, as if to do so would be to be to betray a confidence. There’s also music that packs so powerful an emotional charge for me that simply thinking of it wipes the grin off my face, hearing it can easily make me cry. And there’s music that I estimate far above its market value – no matter how many people tell me I’m overstating the case, in my eyes it’s almost as perfect as my granddaughter.

James Taylor’s first album, the one he recorded for Apple two years before “Sweet Baby James” is all of those for me.

James was born in Massachusetts in 1948, grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where his father was dean of the UNC School of Medicine (when he wasn’t off drinking himself into a stupor or hiding from his family and the world in Antarctica), one of five musical siblings. Summers and prep school were back in Massachusetts, but he soon spent a year in a mental hospital to deal with his depression. Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.

Peter Asher & James Taylor

Peter Asher & James Taylor

At 18 he was living as a musician in NYC and had begun using heroin. At 19, ‘sweet dreams and flying machines [his band] in pieces on the ground’, the heroin habit full-blown, his father drove up to New York to bring him home. A moment’s rest was all he needed.

Six months later, late 1967, James moved to London. Just a town like any other, a second brand-new start. A friend hooked him up with Peter Asher, formerly of the popular duo Peter & Gordon, who had hits with ‘World Without Love’, ‘Woman’, and a bunch of other songs written for them by Peter’s sister’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney. After the duo broke up, Peter went to work for the newly-formed Apple. He heard James’ demo tape, played it for Paul and the boys, and James became Apple’s first non-British signing.

He had some songs from his previous band (‘Knocking Round the Zoo’, ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Something’s Wrong’) and needed to fill out the material for a complete album. But with an Apple contract in his hand and pure heroin in his pocket, he was living the high life. “The whole thing was like a swirl. I stayed in lot of different places, I lived with a number of different women, writing a lot of songs like ‘Carolina in My Mind’ and ‘Taking It In’, and forming and breaking off and exchanging volatile romantic attachments.” Wrap your hands around that small change and tiptoe barefoot out the door.

Paul & James

Paul & James

There was also that night when he was playing with a matchstick cabin and a candle, climbed out the window along a ledge, jumped from one rooftop to another and then onto a tree and then into his car for a wild spin and then climbed back into the apartment through the window, only to discover that the cabin had exploded and blown a hole in the table and ceiling above. “I later thought of that as pretty irresponsible.” (James Taylor bio by Timothy White, p. 136.) Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.

Or as he said so perceptively years later in an interview with Charlie Rose, “When you’re 20, you’ve just been issued the equipment you’re going to be using for a whole lifetime—the body, the mind, the skills, the talents, the appetites…”

view (1)Thankfully and surprisingly, James made it into the studio in February, 1968, where he was booked during gaps between the Beatles’ “White Album” sessions. Although the Beatles and Asher recognized the personal, meditative nature of James’ music, Paul decided to couch it in an art-deco setting provided by Richard Hewson, who had done the arrangement for Beatles protégée Mary Hopkins’ hit, ‘Those Were the Days’.

Hewson added brass on the up-beat bluesy numbers, strings and oboes and whatnot on the downers, and a lot of artsy rococo harpsichord connecting tracks to create the faddish impression of ‘concept’ continuity which The Beatles had invented a year earlier in the same studio.JamesTaylorLivingroomThere’s lots of cute trivia we could tell you about the album. Paul plays bass on ‘Carolina in My Mind’, the first time a Beatle was credited as collaborating with another artist. George sings on the cut, uncredited. “It was the Beatles, by the way, that I was referring to when I sang about ‘There’s a holy host of others standing round me’”. George’s ‘Something‘ was inspired by James’ ‘Something in the Way She Moves.’ James admitted to being “stoned for most of the sessions” on speedballs of smack and methedrine. Driving strung-out through London, he knocked a drunk fleeing police eight feet into the air. His friend Suzanne killed herself at this time, but their common friends with whom James was living hid the fact from him till the recording sessions were over (“Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone.”)

217202967_af8f2120a8James has other pre-“Sweet Baby” material, all of it riveting in its unflinching candor: a full video of him on solo guitar at the BBC, and even better a bootleg audio of a concert in Syracuse (here are ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’, ‘Carolina’ and ‘Rainy Day Man’; I’ve also written a posting about his moving treatment of ‘Yesterday’ from this concert). And here’s Apple’s promo video of ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, 1968.

If I could approach the album “James Taylor” objectively, I might agree with all the critics and fans who dismiss it as a rough warm-up for the 1970 landmark “Sweet Baby James,” which contained two mega-hits and created a folk-rock sound (with Carole King on piano) which is still a profoundly influential template of the popular music palette.

But I can’t. I admit I find his 1968 vocals just a bit annoying–thin, reedy. His voice improves immeasurably over the next two years, settling into his oh-so-comforting gentle, warm baritone.


Something’s Wrong

But these songs. ‘Don’t Talk Now.’ ‘Something’s Wrong.’ ‘Sunshine, Sunshine.’ ‘Something in the Way She Moves.’ ‘Carolina in My Mind.’ ‘Rainy Day Man.’ In my mind, in my heart, they’re associated with Hamlet, with Bach’s cello suites, with Bill Evans’ “Live at the Village Vanguard” – looking human life squarely in the eye for the first time and realizing down into the very marrow of your being that it ain’t no bowl of cherries. Who among us doesn’t know that that is the seminal moment of our life, when at 20 we first look out at the world from the vantage of an adult and first realize what actually awaits us?

Some of the other songs are more explicitly existential in subject matter. ‘Something’s Wrong’ is ostensibly merely about sneaking away in the early morning from an anonymous tryst, driven by anomie, restlessness, angst; moving on, yet knowing that to do so is futile. When things get bad I’m bound to pack my bags and just leave them all behind.

But it’s the futility here that is so harrowing. The inescapability, the inevitability, the permanence of this condition. That restless feeling’s been preying on my mind.

Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.
Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.Picture-92
I won’t try to tell you that those are the fines words of poetry ever composed, or that they rival ‘To be or not to be?’ But they’re certainly talking about the same moment in a young man’s life, where he first understands the weight – the cost – of the life awaiting him.

We go along, day by day, year by year, decade by decade, humming to ourselves ditties of complacency and good cheer. We spend our lives trying to kid ourselves, trying to recolor it, trying to suppress. But since that terrible, profoundly horrifying day when we were 20, we have known the score: Something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.
Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.

Now I’m not saying that you’ve been mistreated, no one’s hurt you, nothing’s wrong.
A moment’s rest was all you needed,
So pack your things and kindly move along.

Like dust in the wind you’re gone forever.
You’re wind-blown leaves, you’re a change in the weather.

Just a town like any other, a second brand-new start.
A third or fourth hand wife or lover; no, you won’t break her heart.
Take some bacon, go on and leave your watch chain, she won’t count on nothing more.
Wrap your hands around that small change and tiptoe barefoot out the door.

Yes, something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on my mind.
When things get bad I’m bound to pack my bags and just leave them all behind.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’
112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’
132: James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

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