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Trav’lin’ Light

Trav’lin’ Light

There are many, many songs of travel to specific locales; maybe I’ll get to some of those places—New York, Paris, Minot, North Dakota—eventually, but right now we’re just concerned with travel in general.

“I’ve Been Everywhere” This song of travel got me thinking about an extroverted uncle who married into our family of relatively reserved folks. For many years, my mothers’ family—her seven sisters and brothers and their kids—gathered every year at a lake for a family reunion. Lots of boating, horseshoes, dominos, and, of course, eating. When Uncle Jerry came along, he introduced several new things to the reunion mix: beer; jokes, which he had a library of that he delivered with verve; and karaoke.

Uncle Jerry had found his calling in karaoke. He’d been a successful salesman, of retractable walls, of all things. He got interested in karaoke at the VFW post (he was a Viet Nam vet), and then got himself a machine. He wasn’t a singer, but he could sell the right types of songs with his flair for performance. And what he truly was exceptional at was hosting. Through his emceeing skills, he built a little empire and was able to drop the whole retractable wall thing. He was The King of Karaoke! He went from the VFW to other clubs to bigger and bigger private parties (and bigger and fancier karaoke machines), able to be buddy and raconteur with any type of audience. And he brought his karaoke machine to our reunions at the lake.

When Uncle Jerry was killed in a car accident a few years ago, it was truly shocking to us all. But he left behind a cadre of protégé karaoke hosts, all hoping to live up to the King.

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My favorite of the songs Uncle Jerry sang in his booming bass was the tongue-twisting “I’ve Been Everywhere,” with its string of American towns that made up the verses. It was a pop and country hit for Hank Snow, after he talked the Aussie songwriter into replacing Australian cities with North American ones. I recall hearing it on café jukeboxes when I was a kid, when I desperately tried to keep up with the torrent of towns named. Johnny Cash had the voice of experience that perfectly suited this song, but then his version was used in a TV commercial.

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“Wandering” I think a lot of James Taylor’s version of this traditional folk song from his 1975 album Gorilla. I’m not always too crazy about the Sweet Baby James treatment, particularly of soul and R&B hits, which he makes a bit too bland and polite and, yes, white. On Gorilla, for example, is his hit cover of “How Sweet It Is.” Probably my least favorite song on the album. But there’s a plain-spoken poignancy about James Taylor’s delivery on “Wandering” that adds a lot of heart to the resigned, first-person tale of the drifter who has wandered “from New York City to the Golden Gate.” It has a Woody Guthrie sense about it. He can’t find a place for himself in the world, geographically, socially, philosophically. And Sweet Baby James really sounds like he’s feeling it, in his dry-as-a-bone North Carolina voice and in his equally crisp acoustic-guitar picking.

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“Trav’lin’ Light” This is a song many singers love, so much so that a couple have named albums after it. Anita O’Day’s specialty was her daring and dazzling phrasing through lightning-fast passages. But she also had a unique softer side, and she recorded a nice, restrained “Trav’lin’ Light” in 1961. Her Trav’lin’ Light album was a tribute to Billie Holiday, who had had her wonderful way with the song a couple of decades earlier. About 65 years after Billie’s hit, Queen Latifah called her 2007 collection of ballads and jazz and blues standards Trav’lin’ Light, and her version of the song is quite sultry.

Mr. 5 by 5

Mr. 5 by 5

Jimmy Rushing, Mr. 5-by-5, did a fine version of the song as well. (No jokes, please, about the rotund Mr. Rushing traveling light.) The song’s lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, are actually not about travel at all but about lost, missed love.

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“Traveling Miles” The album Traveling Miles is a tribute to Miles Davis recorded by Cassandra Wilson in 1999. It’s got songs by Miles, about Miles, and associated with Miles. His “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” a winding, eerie number from his Bitches Brew album, is given lyrics by Wilson and retitled “Run the Voodoo Down.” She sings that “when it comes to traveling” she’ll “run the voodoo down.” The song “Traveling Miles,” with lyrics as well as music by Cassandra Wilson, is meditative. “Traveling miles / Crossing time / Shifting style / Traveling miles…and miles.” The players complement and highlight Wilson’s sultry, dark voice throughout the album, especially Stefon Harris, on vibraphone for Miles Davis and Victor Feldman’s “Seven Steps” and Wayne Shorter’s “Never Broken.”

Sheet music: "Caravan"

Sheet music: “Caravan”

“Caravan” Juan Tizol, while a trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, wrote two classics that became staples of Ellington’s band and many others. “Perdido” is a catchy tune, but “Caravan,” from 1936, evokes the mystery and allure of travel about as well as any popular song.

Hejira “Hejira” is defined as a journey from something undesirable. Restless travel is the theme of Joni Mitchell’s 1976 album, from the title song to “Refuge of the Road” and “Blue Hotel Room” and others. She wrote the songs while on the road.

Honorable Mentions: Back when all my friends were converting from Elvis fans to Ricky Nelson fans (before becoming Beatlemaniacs), I stayed true to The King. I never got into Ricky. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.” However, my friend Rick does a nice version of “Travelin’ Man” that gives me an appreciation for the lanky heartthrob.

Other travel songs worthy of note: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Travelin’ Band”; Billy Wayne Grammer’s “Gotta Travel On,” one of the first songs I ever learned on guitar (right after “Tom Dooley”); “Ease on Down the Road,” from The Wiz; “Where Can I Go without You?” by Peggy Lee

 

My True Story

My True Story

If I could pin down any doo-wop song as my favorite, it would be The Jive Five’s “My True Story.” Its verse is nothing special; it follows the usual “ice-cream changes” that 90+% of doo-wop songs do (you know: C down to A-minor, to F and then G, like “Heart and Soul”). But each chorus’s repeated falsetto up-swoop is rapturous, and I feel like I could listen to it forever. I find myself whistling it, long after listening to it.

The “true story” involves a love triangle that includes a guy named Earl, which not only conveniently rhymes with “girl” but also happens to be the first name of quite a few doo-wop singers (though not any of the Jive Five). The sad story that makes the singer “cry, cry, cry” is a sensitive one for him. Taking off on the Dragnet intro, he sings, “The names have been changed, dear, to protect you and I.” (As a grammar nerd, I can’t help but sing “me” to myself every time I hear the line. But as a doo-wop fan, I un-correct my correction, quickly enough not to screw up the meter.)

Another tragic autobiographical miniature is “The Story of Wild Man Fischer,” and it really is his true story. Larry “Wild Man” Fischer was a mentally unstable street performer discovered by (and maybe exploited by?) Frank Zappa in the late ‘60s. His sad tale, sung sans accompaniment, as all of his best little gems were, is a series of one-liners tracing a decline: “In the year of 1965, I was committed to a mental institution.” Each of these one-line intros is followed by a frantic spoken rant that is then quickly modulated back to the next year’s line. “In the year of 1966, I was committed to a mental institution again.” A little disturbing to listen to, but also hard to turn off.

The thing about Wild Man Fischer is that, although it is a guilty, at times uncomfortable pleasure to listen to this unhinged fellow laying it all out on tape, many of his songs are catchy as hell. They maybe could’ve been hits if they’d been developed and spruced up a bit and—no, what am I saying? Their charm is their nakedness, just the Wild Man letting go. A couple of them, “Monkeys Versus Donkeys” and “Which Way Did the Freaks Go?,” were on my kids’ most-requested-record list when they were young. They sang along, mimicking Wild Man’s phrasing and inventing appropriate dance moves. Fond memories, thanks to the late Larry Fischer.

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Randy Newman often sings his twisted tales in first person, but we know that he’s at a reasonably sane remove, just playing characters—sometimes buffoons, sometimes jerks, sometimes lost souls. But in the song “My Life is Good,” (from Trouble in Paradise, 1983), the pompous ass at its center is addressed by name: “Rand.” Newman sings that “Mr. Bruce Springsteen” had a proposition for him. “I’ll tell you what he said to me. / He said, ‘Rand, I’m tired. Why don’t you be The Boss for a while?’” Rand(y), of course, is putting us on, but we wonder just how much. I first heard the song when it was new, on the excellent video Randy Newman at the Odeon. It is quite an entertaining performance, alarmingly convincing. Just play-acting. Right, Rand?

Avenging Andy

Avenging Andy

Andy Pratt came out with several nice albums in the seventies, but his only brush with the Billboard Top 100 came from his debut, Andy Pratt, in 1973. The first-person narrative “Avenging Annie” is an odd song, in which the companion of “Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw” boasts of being “the avenger of womanhood.” Andy-as-Annie uses a bright falsetto on the choruses, but the verses are in the baritone range, and on the line “So I joined up with my outlaw, and headed for California,” he (she?) gets down to a bass F#. I love the song, but I’m not surprised it only got to #78 on Billboard.

Favorite Music Memoirs: I love to read almost as much as I love to make and listen to music. Consequently, good books about lives in music are a real joy. The best of these tend to be books by writers about great musicians, since most musicians, unfortunately, aren’t great writers. But some artists have still managed to do more with their own stories than just lay out the facts. (However, several of those listed here got assists from “real writers.”)

Mezz Mezzrow's True Story

Mezz Mezzrow’s True Story

  • Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow—Mezz was not a great musician, but he has a great story. He was a white Jewish Chicagoan who loved black culture and immersed himself in it—basically becoming black. His entire book is written in hepcat language, and is a delight.
  • My Life in New Orleans by Louis Armstrong—Satchmo also has a great story to tell, and paints a fascinating picture of the New Orleans neighborhood where he came of age.
  • Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan—This book’s randomness can be a little bit frustrating. Bob, the song and dance man, picks and chooses bits from his kaleidoscopic life—with all of his idiosyncrasies on display. In his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column, Nick Hornby writes, “In fact, after reading the book, you realize that Dylan isn’t willfully obtuse or artful in any way—it’s just who he is and how his mind works.” Ready for Volume Two!
Woody's True Story

Woody’s True Story

  • Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie—You can hear Woody’s plain Okie voice on every page of this peripatetic memoir.
  • Life by Keith Richards—OK, not great lit, but Keef captures the flavor of life with Mick, the other Stones, and the ladies and rivals.
Ms. O'Day's True Story

Ms. O’Day’s True Story

  • High Times, Hard Times by Anita O’Day—This one’s a look at the ups (from great performance experiences and heroin highs) and downs (from not-s-great shows and heroin busts), as well as a look at the life of a woman in a male-dominated enterprise.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “I Write the Songs.” In a clunky way, the lyrics really seem to be more about the power of music, but they sound pretty self-aggrandizing. I hated it right out of the gate. On top of that, this song in first person about writing songs was introduced to the world by Barry Manilow—but he didn’t write it!

The writer who committed this assault was Bruce Johnston, Brian Wilson’s post-crackup stand-in in The Beach Boys, first on tour and later to augment the studio recordings. The Boys never recorded “I Write the Songs,” but they did put another Bruce Johnston drippy-fest, “Disney Girls,” on their Surf’s Up album. It was a hit for Art Garfunkel and for the dreaded Captain and Tennille. (By the way, why in the world does spell-check recognize and approve Tennille but not Thelonious? A damn shame.)

Dream Jukebox Candidate: The splendid “My True Story” by The Jive Five

What autobiographical songs resonate with you? Which music memoirs have you enjoyed?

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