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Fixin’ To Die

Fixin’ To Die

One of the more uncomfortable moments I’ve viewed on network television occurred on The Today Show recently. I almost never watch these morning shows; morning’s my time to read and write—TV’s for evenings. But I was on the road, in my hotel room preparing to leave and do a seminar, when I flipped to The Today Show. Host Matt Lauer was noting that it was National Honesty Day and mentioned that, just like his Honesty-Day share of last year, he really hates the orange couch in the studio’s lounge. His co-hosts shared their equally trivial moments of honesty.

Then it got to happy-go-lucky weathercaster Al Roker, who said, “Y’know, I just turned sixty and I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the end of life.” Matt and the others were so taken aback that they spluttered and stuttered to the commercial break. Al’s candid little Honesty-Day moment was a downer, and not the kind of fluff that fits the cheery morning-show atmosphere.

And, to be honest (though Honesty Day has passed back into the usual not-totally-dishonest days), since I turned sixty, I, like Al, have spent more time thinking about death. It’s unavoidable, really: My parents have both died, and many aunts and uncles and parents of friends are gone. And an alarming number of friends, people my age, have died. I don’t get morbid about it or dwell on it, but it’s always there, lurking.

Warren Zevon

Warren Zevon

“Keep Me in Your Heart” Warren Zevon recorded his concept album about death, Life’ll Kill Ya, two years before he was diagnosed with late-stage mesothelioma. He must’ve seen something coming.

His final album, The Wind, was recorded post-diagnosis, when Zevon knew his remaining time was short. It’s not a gloomy or angry album. In fact, it’s less dyspeptic than most of his other stuff. He covers “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” invites several guest stars to help out on songs, and closes with the ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart,” a nice, thoughtful way to go out. “Shadows are fallin’ and I’m runnin’ out of breath / Keep me in your heart for a while / If I leave you it doesn’t mean I love you any less / Keep me in your heart for a while.” Zevon was only 56 when he died.

Warren Zevon’s known for some advice he offered on pal and supporter David Letterman’s show toward the end: “Enjoy every sandwich.” Words to live by.

bill

“Blood Count” The last song Billy Strayhorn wrote, two months before he died at the age of 51 of lung cancer, was “Blood Count.” David’ Hajdu, in his Strayhorn biography Lush Life, comments on the song’s bass line “evoking the rhythmic drip of intravenous fluid.” The song became part of his mentor Duke Ellington’s tribute album, …And His Mother Called Him Bill, recorded shortly after Strayhorn’s death, when Duke was still grieving.

The album closes with Duke at the piano alone, playing his favorite Strayhorn number, “Lotus Blossom,” while the other musicians can be heard in the background packing up their instruments.

lhasa

“Rising” A few years ago, I came across a mysterious, dark song, sung in Spanish, called “De Cara a la Pared.” The singer was Lhasa de Sela. I was wondering how I’d never heard this singer, this song, before, but it turns out that I had. Must have, anyway, because the song was used in the John Sayles movie Casa de los Babys, which I’d seen on video years before. It didn’t register then, but it did when I heard it again. The voice is smooth, bright and, at the same time, dark. The music is hypnotic and repetitive. Dreamlike.

I immediately searched for more of her music and found her wonderful second and third albums. In the process of the search, before I heard any songs other than “De Cara a la Pared,” I learned some things about Lhasa. Her father was Mexican, her mother Jewish-Lebanese. They lived in Mexico and Canada. Lhasa toured Europe in a circus with her sisters after recording one of her albums. She made only three albums in twelve years, the first in Spanish, the second in multiple languages, and the third, recorded in 2009, in English. She died at 37 on New Year’s Day 2010, of breast cancer.

When I listened to Lhasa’s third album, I was overwhelmed by its beauty and sadness–even though I was listening while driving through rush hour traffic. It stayed with me throughout the day, and after I listened to it again driving home from work, it stayed with me through the night. I was drawn in to the music and engulfed by its desperation and longing.  This effect was certainly heightened by my understanding that Lhasa recorded the album knowing she had breast cancer and was dying from it.

And then I found out that the cancer was diagnosed after the album was complete. I was reading themes of death into it. Still, the song “Rising” from that album is almost unbearably sad, even though I now know its lyrics about being “caught in a storm” and “breaking, breaking” were not about her apprehension over death.

Bukka White

Bukka White

“Fixin’ to Die” There are many notable songs of death written and sung by artists who lived long after the song was created. Bukka White’s 1940 song “Fixin’ to Die,” in fact, helped give new life to White, at least as a recording and performing artist, when Dylan covered the song on his debut album in ‘61. The song was written shortly after White’s release from Parchman Farm, the Mississippi state pen. White died in 1977 at the age of 67.

Honorable Mentions: Son House is another bluesman (and another Parchman Farm inmate and sixties rediscovery) with a classic song of death, “Death Letter.” The song recounts the story of the singer learning of and lamenting his lover’s death. House lived to the age of 86.

Ralph Stanley is still kickin’, nearing ninety. In his seventies, he sang the folk song “O Death” a cappella for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? And won a Grammy for it.

In his biggest pop hit, “The Thrill is Gone,” B.B. King sang, “Although I still live on, but so lonely I’ll be.” I don’t think King was a lonely fellow, but he did live on to 89, and we were blessed to have him so long.

I’ve Got a Thing About Trains

I’ve Got a Thing About Trains

In the New Mexico chapter of his 2013 book Eighty Days, about Nellie Bly’s 1890 trip around the world, author Matthew Goodman quotes a contemporary Rand-McNally guide on the Navajos’ fascination with trains. We can well imagine that Navajo fascination with trains was mixed with anger, sorrow, resentment, and dread. Trains helped the American Nation leap forward; trains quickened the Navajo Nation’s decline. On the 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, Harry and Miriam sing, in Xhosa, a tune called “Train Song.” The album’s liner notes say that the song is about African tribesmen who “see a train for the first time, and describe its movement.” It’s a beautiful, mysterious song.

The idea of train travel has fascinated many, and the mysterious aura of train travel has grown over recent decades as trains have been replaced by interstate highways and cheap air fares.

hank w

I, like so many others, have always loved the mystique of trains, possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. Used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. But I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago. Is it a coincidence that my two favorite Hank Williams songs, “Lonesome Whistle” and “Ramblin’ Man,” are also train songs? Actually, trains have little to do with my preference for those songs. But trains may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

My youngest grandson, at age three, is going through a train phase. A train runs past a park not too far from his home, and Nana tries to time visits to the park so that they can watch the train go by. He has trains at home, and it’s hard to get him off the train at the zoo. He has a one-track mind these days, one could say (but should resist saying).

Songs about trains have been popular for as long as trains have been around. There are big-band numbers—“Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “The Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe”; rockers—“Long Train Running,” “Casey Jones”; country and bluegrass standards—“Orange Blossom Special,” “Wabash Cannonball.” Familiar songs. Over-familiar, unless you can maybe find versions by Tiny Tim or Spike Jones.

cash train

The popular artist most associated with trains—since Jimmy Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman, anyway—would have to be Johnny Cash.  Of his many train songs (he even had three or four train-themed albums), from “The Wreck of the Old ’97″ to “Down There by the Train,” I choose “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” from the 1969 album Hello, I’m Johnny Cash as my favorite. A good song that says it all about The Man in Black.

Bukka (from Booker T. Washington) White is at the top of my blues favorites list. White’s 1940 recording “Black Train Blues” is powerful and eerie, despite the fact that it’s just Bukka White’s voice and guitar, accompanied by Washboard Sam (on washboard, duh).  No frills, no tricks, just raw emotion, but under the masterful control of the performer. I love every song on the 14-song Parchman Farm album, and “Shake ‘em on Down” is the best blues recording ever made.

Bukka White

Bukka White

Louis Jordan has a couple of nice train songs. There’s the 1947 “Texas & Pacific,” which I hadn’t heard until I ran across a 78 of it. And Jordan, of course, recorded the huge R&B and pop hit “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” (1946), a much better-known song. The two songs are very similar; “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”’s edge is its hook, later swing-harmonized by Asleep at the Wheel. Many also have covered Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” but Wolf’s 1956 original is the best.

The closest I get to a rock tune on my favorite-train-song list is The Kinks’ “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” from their kaleidoscopic The Village Green Preservation Society (1969). It has a rock beat, but, as most Ray Davies compositions do, it also has an element of theatricality to it.  The song and the album convey the songwriter’s nostalgia for earlier, simpler times.

The Peter Tosh-written “Stop That Train” from the 1973 Bob Marley and the Wailers album Catch a Fire is a nice train song from a country that doesn’t generally bring trains to mind.  Another Jamaican train song, “Draw Your Brakes,” graces the soundtrack for The Harder They Come, which is not only on my “best reggae album” list but also my “best soundtrack” list.  I’ll have to look into the Jamaican railroad thing a little more, since it’s really not a large country, but I see on Wikipedia that railways did once “enjoy a prominent position” in Jamaica, if no longer.

harder they come

There is one train-related recording from the nineties that I enjoy. It had been a bubble-gum hit in the sixties for The Monkees.  Cassandra Wilson’s wonderfully slowed-down and moody arrangement of “Last Train to Clarksville” is a gem that replaces the jangly and jittery guitar with tremolo-fuzz guitar and gives the song’s story a bit of mystery with Wilson’s sultry tone and the added seventh to the melody of “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.” I don’t reckon she could manage to add much mystery to “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” but I’d like to hear her try.

Top Song Dog Thelonious Monk recorded his song “Locomotive” several times, but it isn’t one that’s often covered. Monk’s recording of 1967 has become my absolute favorite Monk recording, possibly my favorite recording, period. I’m not sure why this particular one rose above all of my other “favorite Monk recordings,” which contain so many incredible contributions from players such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Monk himself. But Monk is exceptional here, as is his longtime sax player Charlie Rouse. This recording of “Locomotive” is part of the longest-perpetuated family ritual: On every vacation we’ve taken, from 1990 through today, we play the song as soon as we’re safely outside Dallas. It’s a good luck charm, and I seem to recall that the one trip we took without first locating our “Locomotive” recording, we experienced unseasonable rain, stomach bugs, and all sorts of other vacation-spoiling maladies. Perhaps that’s a myth; perhaps I just love the excuse to listen to the song.

Honorable Mentions: To inject a little more novelty into the proceedings, I must make note of the theme from the TV show Petticoat Junction and the train sequence from the opening of The Music Man. 

There are also the feel-good pop hits “Love Train” and “Peace Train” (Climb on board, y’all, and quit beatin’ the crap out of each other!).

Senior Center Specials: A couple of train standbys I sing at the senior living gigs are the wartime big-band hit “Sentimental Journey” and the 1924 blues standard by Richard M. Jones, “Trouble in Mind.” They also like to ask for “City of New Orleans,” but I never can remember all the words. Need to learn ‘em (or cheat).

Great Song Title: The Valentines’ “Woo Woo Train,” a doo-wop number from 1956 (my grandson would love that title)

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