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Three Little Birds

Three Little Birds

It is certainly true that as one gets older, one tends to notice things like birds more; however, I’m still unable to identify more than a couple or three by sight or sound. I do plan to work on that. I’m much better at identifying the sounds of the many groups of the fifties that were named after birds: The Orioles, The Ravens, The Crows.

But this post is not about bird groups. It’s about songs of birds—birds of different colors.

“Bye-Bye, Blackbird” Dorothy Field and Jimmy McHugh wrote “Bye-Bye, Blackbird” in 1928, for Earl Carroll’s Vanities. It’s been recorded many times over the years, but the Mills Brothers’ version flies the highest.

The song’s a staple of my senior-center gigs. There’s a line those of us who perform at senior centers say about playing the Alzheimer’s facilities: “You only really have to know one song.” The Alzheimer’s residents often can’t remember what they’d done for a living day after day for years. But a few always know all of the song lyrics, and sing along, word for word. I’ve even had lyrics corrected by them a few times: “It’s ‘quiet place’ before ‘fireplace,’ not ‘fireplace’ then ‘quiet place.’” I had wondered whether one of them even belonged in the place, until I saw her with her son and his wife. She nodded and smiled as they introduced themselves.

The residents always like to hear “Bye-Bye, Blackbird,” and are lively, relatively speaking, when I play it. Once, I did it as my big finish: “Blackbird, blackbird, blackbird, bye-bye!” I hit a final chord, and was about to say bye-bye when a resident leaned back in his chair as I passed and asked, “Say, fella, do you know “Bye-Bye, Blackbird”?

mills bros

The Brothers Mills

“Yellow Bird” The Mills Brothers recorded another classic colorful-bird song, “Yellow Bird.” It is smooth and soothing–and sometimes smooth and soothing is just what one needs.

“Blackbird” Paul McCartney’s song is one of his greatest: a lyric dedicated to the Civil Rights movement accompanied by beautiful picked-guitar lines that young, budding guitarists like me all learned to play back in the day. (And, according to my guitar-teacher son-in-law, it’s still on his young students’ radar.)

Paul (and wife Linda) also had a pretty “Bluebird,” which ended up on Wings’ Band on the Run album.

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

Steve on the left; Neil, as usual looking the other way

“Bluebird” Buffalo Springfield packed a lot of fine work into their three albums. There was just too much creativity under one roof to keep it together. It’s hard to pick favorites, but two top candidates could both fall into the bird song category.

Stephen Stills’ “Bluebird” is, I think, his best contribution to Buffalo Springfield. It’s bright and accessible. There are several verses in a rock beat, peppered with Stills’ lead guitar, and then a super-compressed major seventh chord that rings. Then there’s a pause, after which a banjo enters, and the song is recommenced in a gentler, more rural setting. At the other end of the Springfield’s range was Neil Young’s gorgeous duet with strings, “Expecting to Fly.”

Also, on After the Goldrush, his third solo album, another lovely song, “Birds,” talks of flight and feathers. “Danger Bird,” from Neil’s Zuma, is more ominous, a Crazy Horse electrified ballad.

The Wolf in the henhouse

“The Red Rooster” The great Howlin’ Wolf bellowed this blues number in 1961. Wolf never had any trouble with authenticity—he was the rill thang, y’all. But I think he throws himself into this song because he’s not just singing about the red rooster—he is the red rooster, baby. One of many Howlin’ Wolf delights I have to hear every so often.

The Brothers Louvin

The Brothers Louvin

“Red Hen Hop” Charlie and Ira Louvin’s stock-in-trade were sweet ‘n’ sentimental waltzes, melodramatic (but still sweet) gospel songs, and “tragic songs of life” (those were sweet, too), which was the title of one of their albums. So how did this boogie-woogiein’ number make it onto a Louvin Brothers album? No telling, but it’s quite enjoyable to hear the Brothers rock out a little bit about the red hen that Wolf’s red rooster’s makin’ hop.

“When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along” Louis Armstrong did the definitive version of this cheerful song. When I was playing at a hospital, an aide asked if I’d sing a happy song for a cancer patient, a grizzled Vietnam vet. I chose this one, and we both ended up teary-eyed by the end of it. I hope he made it through.

Bob Marley

Bob Marley

Honorable Mentions: There are some great songs of birds, like “Expecting to Fly,” that do not mention the color of the bird. Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” is one. Often, when record nerds are playing “favorite albums of all time,” they forbid greatest hits anthologies. I can understand that—it’s a different type of album, since the artist didn’t conceive of its songs as part of a single work. But some collections, like the Legends anthology of Bob Marley masterpieces, are just too good to omit. One could say that a Bob Marley best-of isn’t necessary, because so many of his albums are listenable from beginning to end. That’s true of the great Exodus album, fully half of which, including “Three Little Birds,” is duplicated on Legends. Exodus was, in fact, named by Time magazine Best Album of the 20th Century. So, for the record nerds who make greatest hits albums ineligible for top-album lists, I’ll readily substitute Exodus for Legends.

Dennis Wilson’s song “Little Bird,” from the Beach Boys album Friends, doesn’t sound like a Dennis song—it sounds like a Brian song. I figure big bro Bri had a big hand in it, at least in the vocal harmony arrangement and key modulations. It’s short and sweet and remains a favorite from this favorite album.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: We have mentioned nice songs of black, blue, red, and yellow birds. But It’s a Beautiful Day’s “White Bird” seemed stuffy and drippy to me even back when I was a young and impressionable hippie wannabe. I can’t imagine I’d like it any better now that I’m an old and impressionable hippie wannabe. And that name is a precursor to later bad band names that are statements: Gene Loves Jezebel, Jimmy Hates Jazz, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah…

Goin’ to California

Goin’ to California

A couple of recent events had me finally getting around to a post about California, and then, on top of that, movie blogger Jay mentioned a road-trip to California that could result in a Cal-themed movie post.

The two events happened within about a week. First, my wife Sweets and I had a rare opportunity to go out on a date—and we took it. We wanted to see a movie, and the only one I really wanted to see was the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As a Brian Wilson fan, I knew I’d love it and had read in reviews that the Pet Sounds-session scenes were recreated with a fine eye and ear for how it happened. But I was concerned that Sweets, only a casual Beach Boy fan, wouldn’t get much out of it. Turns out that I loved the movie, as I expected I would, but my wife may have loved it even more. She really got into the story of this odd savant musician and the way it was told on screen.

Beach Boy Books

Beach Boy Books

And then, my daughter surprised me on Father’s Day with tickets for Sweets and me to see Brian Wilson in concert. I had already seen The Beach Boys live twice (three times if you count Mike Love’s version) and had seen both Pet Sounds and Smile thrillingly recreated live by Brian and his newer friends. I really wasn’t expecting much this time around, but was happy my daughter had come up with such a nice gift. It couldn’t have been better timing for my wife, now voraciously listening to all of my Beach Boys LPs and reading my Beach Boys books. The concert was wonderful (and, indeed, they performed “Wonderful”), with lots of deep cuts and treasures I’d not heard them do live. We are both still listening to a lot of Beach Boys lately, and I’m reading two books I hadn’t gotten around to, Heroes and Villains and The Beach Boys FAQ. We’ll be “havin’ fun all summer long,” looks like, with Beach Boys music and tales.

holland

“California Saga: California” One of the numbers I hadn’t heard live was this one, one of the few songs written for The Boys by Al Jardine. It appeared on their Holland album in 1973 and was released as a single (but didn’t climb very high). Al was part of this tour and sang lead on the song. (Al’s son Matt has taken over Jeff Foskett’s duties covering the Brian Wilson falsetto leads in concert; Mr. Foskett, for some reason, left after many years in the role to join the Mike Love aggregate).

It’s a pleasant song, with bass line and structure reminiscent of “California Girls,” but in a Sons of the Pioneers style

“California Girls” Not much I need to say about this one. Brian performed it in his show, it sounded great, the crowd loved it. It’s a classic. All of the Beach Boys sang on the recording, but only Carl played on it. The rest of the instruments were handled by the Wrecking Crew. It’s the first song Brian wrote after his initial acid trip. Doesn’t sound very trippy, but it is pretty glorious.

poses

“California” This song is not my favorite on Rufus Wainwright’s Poses album, from 2000, but that’s because it’s keeping such wonderful company. Poses, to me, is an improvement over Wainwright’s debut, which had several mind-blowing high spots, but several songs that seemed overproduced and overblown.

“California” provides a nice and poppy counterpoint to the gorgeous title song, “Shadows,” “Greek Song,” and the sublime “The Tower of Learning.”

blue

“California” “Won’t you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” Joni Mitchell sings, “California, I’m comin’ home.” Joni Mitchell’s Blue album was a downer masterpiece, and this ode to her adopted home is perfectly done. This song, along with “All I Want,” “Carey,” and several others from the album were part of the set lists of countless female vocalists of the mid-to-late seventies. If you walked into a happy hour at a restaurant/bar and there was a woman with a guitar, you knew it would only be a short while before a song from Joni’s Blue would be heard. Blue songs at happy hour. What a concept.

I have noted before that Sweets has an unnaturally hostile attitude about the music of Joni Mitchell. We used to fight about it; now it’s one of our running gags. When Mitchell recently wound up in the hospital after an aneurysm, my wife did express some sympathy—but moved no further toward giving her music another spin. It’s all Brian Wilson for her now, anyway.

Brian on Video

Brian on Video

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: “Goin’ to California” is one of the songs John Lee Hooker fumbles through on his Travelin’ Man album. I’m sorry, but I have long tried to appreciate Mr. Hooker and his music. I love raw, “feel” music, and am addicted to the music of quite a few of the Delta blues players, from Charley Patton and Robert Johnson through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. John Lee Hooker sometimes does a good job of delivering his music vocally, but the man just can’t play guitar. He hammers away at one chord, his timing a mystery to any who try to follow. On his solo stuff, it’s not so noticeable, but on this record, you can tell the band is desperately trying to keep some semblance of order to the proceedings. Alas, they do not succeed.

I Put a Spell on You

I Put a Spell on You

I’m not overly superstitious, and I don’t pay much attention to signs, good or bad. But I admit to occasionally choosing for a performance the same shirt I wore for a previous successful show. I daresay that more than a few physicists and accountants have little rituals they observe and could relate a tale or two of some mojo working on their libidos.

Mojo Man Muddy

Mojo Man Muddy

“I’ve Got My Mojo Working” Muddy Waters was such a strong presence in the studio that the landmark recordings he made at Chess bring you right into the room; you’re sitting there in awe among Muddy and his band. An album that actually was recorded live, Muddy Waters at Newport, is so in-your-face it nearly knocks you down. Muddy was the last act at the 1960 Newport Folk Festival, the remainder having been canceled on account of some youthful scofflaws’ disruptions. With his set, Mr. Waters brought blues right into the folk scene, the folkie fans bowled over by his dynamic music.

The last “official” song (pianist Otis Spann sang a near-impromptu “Goodbye, Newport,” written by poet Langston Hughes, as an encore) Muddy and band performed was “I’ve Got My Mojo Working.” Muddy’s gotten himself a mojo hand, but it seems to be doing its stuff on everyone except the object of his affection. “Got my mojo workin’, but it just don’t work on you.”

You can hear Muddy’s mojo in his voice, in James Cotton’s brilliant harmonica playing, and in the band’s lively accompaniment. You can also hear Waters’ representation of it when, twice, he substitutes a motorboat sound for the word “mojo.” You and I can use the motorboat sound on a two-year-old’s belly to elicit giggles, but only Muddy can use it to portray his sexual bravado.

Muddy Waters notes that he got wise somewhere along the way and stopped believing in the power of spellcasting. “There is no way I can shake my finger at you and make you bark like a dog,” he’s quoted as saying in Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues. But he had several popular hits about the spells of the mojo that people always wanted to hear, and he always played them. In addition to “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” there were his first big hit “Louisiana Blues” (“I’m goin’ down to New Orleans, get me a mojo hand”), “I’m Your Hootchie Cootchie Man” (“I got a black cat bone / I got a mojo, too / I got the John the Conqueroo / I’m gonna mess with you”), and others.

wolf

“I Ain’t Superstitious” Chester Arthur Burnett—the great Howlin’ Wolf–was named after one of our least notable Presidents, Chester Alan Arthur. (Interestingly, Duke Ellington’s first and middle names, Edward Kennedy, happened to be the name of a future politician. But I digress.)

Wolf, Muddy’s Chicago peer and rival, recorded this rockin’ blues number in 1961. It was written by Willie Dixon, but is credited to Wolf on His Greatest Sides, the recording I own. Its eerie power is conveyed by Wolf’s penetrating vocal and the band’s stop-time answering parts. Both of these elements were nicely carried over in 1968 by the Jeff Beck Group on their debut album Truth. This early performance by singer Rod Stewart is one of his best, and Beck never topped his wah-wah guitar shenanigans during the remake’s breaks. It’s a cover that is almost as good as the original.

Jeff Beck

Jeff Beck

“Superstition” Jeff Beck hit the subject again in ’73 with his instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s #1 hit “Superstition,” after helping Wonder on the Talking Book album that featured the song. “When you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer / Superstition ain’t the way.”

tea room

“In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” Val Rosing was a British warbler in the ‘20s and ‘30s. You can hear his influence on Tiny Tim as he croons about the gypsy who foretold his love for the gal of his dreams, “when she said that someone in the tea room would steal my heart away.” It’s an impossibly sweet little number, with a zither swooping over accordions and ukuleles—it makes one want to drop in on a gypsy tea room and just see if magic happens.

Rosing was the first singer to record two songs that were much covered into the ‘70s, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” (Jerry Garcia, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) and “Try a Little Tenderness” (Otis Redding, Three Dog Night). In 1938, movie mogul Louis B. Mayer renamed Rosing Gilbert Russell and brought him to America in hopes of making him the English Bing Crosby (Binglish?), but it didn’t work out that way. No one remembers Rosing or Russell.

“In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” was a hit in the U.S. for four different artists, all in 1935, but not poor Val.

nina 2

“I Put a Spell on You” It’s Nina Simone’s version of this Screamin’ Jay Hawkins classic, the title song of her best album, that works its mojo on me, but I do get a kick out of Hawkins’ no-holds-barred histrionics on the original.

One of the many charms of the Jim Jarmusch film Stranger Than Paradise is the fascination Eva, a Hungarian visiting the U.S., where her aunt and cousin live, has for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and his hit “I Put a Spell on You.” This babe in America feels a connection and would love to find Screamin’ Jay—an American treasure her American cousin doesn’t value. “It’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins,” says Eva, “and he’s a wild man. So bug off.”

Director Jarmusch discovered that the royalties he paid to use the song in his movie all went to the record company, so he tracked Hawkins down in a trailer park, paid him for his song, and the two became pals. Would’ve made Eva happy.

Honorable Mention: Cole Porter’s first big hit musical, Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929), featured one of his most enduring songs, “You Do Something to Me.” “Let me live ‘neath your spell / Do do that voodoo that you do so well.”

Drunken Spree

Drunken Spree

Like many introverts, I drank liquor (preference: Cuervo Gold tequila shots) to ease into social comfort. I was a nice, happy boozer; I made friends and not enemies when drinking. I had been performing for many years, never without the aid of at least beer, if not Cuervo. Just before my first gig after I gave up alcohol, I was petrified to think I was “on my own.” But it went fine.

I still have a little alcohol when I’m in social situations—beer, not tequila—but I now generally accompany performances with room-temperature water. Does me just fine, thank you. But some music-makers sing about booze wholly from experience.

T. Johnson, by R. Crumb

T. Johnson, by R. Crumb

“Canned Heat Blues” Blues singer/writer/musician Tommy Johnson wrote the 1928 song about drinking Sterno that gave Canned Heat their name. “Canned Heat Blues,” like many blues numbers, is autobiographical. Ted Gioia, in Delta Blues, notes that Johnson liked to drink most anything he could get his hands on that would get him buzzing, including “beer, moonshine, canned heat, shoe polish, rubbing alcohol, or other equally dangerous concoctions.” Did alcohol help or hinder Tommy Johnson in the creation of his powerful but scant output? My guess is that booze may have contributed to both the power and the scantiness.

Johnson is among the most interesting blues vocalists. His eerie falsetto adds to the ominous sound of many of his songs, including “Canned Heat Blues” and, especially, a song of a more benign drink, “Cool Drink of Water Blues,” one of the most otherworldly vocal performances on record. Maybe it’s because he asked his gal for water and she brought him gasoline. That’s a drinking problem.

skip

“Drunken Spree” Nehemiah “Skip” James was a blues singer with a vocal quality even more haunting and beautiful than that of Mississippi Delta contemporary Tommy Johnson. And where Johnson’s falsetto was part of his trademark yodel, James spent most of his time in his head voice. “Drunken Spree” is just what it says, not as deep and dark as some of Skip’s other masterpieces.

drunken spree

“Scotch and Soda” How did a song recorded by the folk group Kingston Trio become a quintessential lounge song? “Scotch and Soda” wasn’t typical folkie fare.

Although Kingston Trio member Dave Guard took songwriting credit and received royalties, the actual writer has never been identified. The story is that in the mid-fifties Dave and fellow Trio member Bob Shane were visiting Dave’s girlfriend, Katie Seaver, in California (her brother was future baseball pitching great Tom Seaver). Katie’s parents sang a song they’d heard and loved in a piano bar while honeymooning back in 1932. The song was recorded for the group’s 1958 album The Kingston Trio but was not released as a single until 1962. Bob Shane, who later said he didn’t know until afterward that Guard had taken songwriter credit, solos on the record’s vocal.

kingston t

“White Lightning” George “Possum” Jones’ “White Lightning” was one of several of his alky-hits. Others include “Bartender’s Blues,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will,” and “Tennessee Whiskey.”

George Jones, a long time a hopeless lush, knew well whereof he sang. There’s a story of his wife-at-the-time Tammy Wynette taking his keys away so that he couldn’t make the drive from their ranch into town to buy liquor. So he took the golf cart in and loaded up.

“Why Don’t We Get Drunk” Seems to me, from what I know about Jimmy Buffett, that all of his songs are about drinking and boating (not necessarily a good combination). OK, some may involve only drinking or just being on a boat. But there’s a definite theme to the guy’s works. I’m not a big Jimmy Buffett fan—a Parrothead, as they like to be known. But these Parrotheads are fanatics. And alcohol is a huge element in the listening experience. (I’m sure someone has figured out how to stage a waterfront Jimmy Buffett concert, so that all of his fans could be on their boats, listening and drinking—paradise!)

Although “Margaritaville” was a staple at family reunion sing-alongs, I’d never otherwise played or sung Jimmy Buffett songs until I began subbing for the bassist/vocalist in a Parrothead band. I got the call for my first outing with them, and the leader asked me to send him a list of songs that I sing. I did, but warned him that there were no Buffett songs in my repertoire. He replied later with a list of half a dozen songs he’d selected from my list—a Fats Domino song, a Hank Williams, and a few others. I found out later that these songs were OK to include because Jimmy Buffett had at some time or another recorded them or performed them at concerts.

Parrothead shows are a great racket. The folks who come know every song and sing along (more like shout along). They whoop often and do lots of loose-limbed, liberated-by-booze dance moves. And, to the joy of bar owners, they drink. A lot. It’s fun, I have to admit, to look out at the sea of middle-aged white folks in Hawaiian shirts undulating along to “Why Don’t We Get Drunk”; however, I’m fully aware that those cheery baby-boomers would beat the shit out of me if I went into a verse of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You.” (But, hey, it’s a drinking metaphor: “I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”)

Quota Songs: All of the Buffett booze numbers, including “Margaritaville,” “Why Don’t We Get Drunk,” “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” and “Boat Drinks.”

drunk

Honorable Mentions: There are enough beer songs and wine songs that they will appear in separate posts, but there are plenty of great booze songs: “You’re Still on My Mind” by The Byrds; “Tequila” by The Champs; “Gin-Soaked Boy” by Tom Waits; “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg; Ray Charles’ or Joe Cocker’s version of “Let’s Go Get Stoned”; “If the Sea Was Whiskey” by Willie Dixon’s Big Three Trio; “Whiskey River” by Willie Nelson; “Alcohol” by The Kinks; “No Thanks, I’m Drinkin’” by Michael J. Martin; and “Juice-Head Baby” by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Best Song Titles: “Absinthe I Drink You, Absinthe I Eat You” by Taraf de Haidouks is a woozy song that lives up to its name. I also love “Drunk, Broke and Hungry” by Jimmy Witherspoon.

Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominee: Rupert Holmes’ “Pina Colada Song” is among the worst of the “earworm” songs that bore into your brain and drive you to over-drink.

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 Shot the Sheriff

I Shot the Sheriff

At the Sunday acoustic jam circle I used to frequent, a fellow named Dollar Bill specialized in old folk and bluegrass numbers with novel lyrics. Many of the songs involved death, often murder—so many, in fact, that another jammer used to keep a body count as Dollar Bill sang. He introduced one song to the jam as a song about Greek hillbillies. It was a Mark Graham tune called “Oedipus Rex,” and it had a little down-home spin on the Greek tragedy: “Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Rex / Another sad story of death and sex / You killed your pa and you married your ma / They don’t even do that in Arkansas!” I’ve long been familiar with another popular-song riff on the story, Tom Lehrer’s “Oedipus Rex,” which notes that “he loved his mother like no other / His daughter was his sister and his son was his brother.”

tom lehrer

“Miss Otis Regrets” is a Cole Porter classic, a smooth and sedate ballad that gradually unfolds the tale of a high-society woman who won’t be making a lunch date. Over three verses, the woman’s servant delivers the message that Miss Otis shot her lover dead, was sent to jail, and lynched by a mob. Each verse ends with the line “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today.” Brilliant! Porter evidently wrote it as a challenge, a parlor game—but it has become a classic. Many have sung it. Miss Fitzgerald sang it best.

ellacole

The Bobbettes were a doo-wop group who wrote their own songs, which was pretty uncommon. Even more incredibly, they were a quintet of schoolgirls of the ages of eleven to thirteen when they came up with their biggest hit, “Mr. Lee.” They sound like brats as they sing about a man based on a teacher they didn’t like. But they sound like cute and playful brats. It paid off, going to #6 pop and #1 R&B. After a few other tries at hits, they decided to revisit Mr. Lee and sing about how they really felt, with the song “I Shot Mr. Lee.” Rough stuff for some teeny-bopper doo-woppers! “One, two, three / I shot Mr. Lee.” It was their second-biggest hit, but only made it to #52.

On the haunting side of murder songs (because, really, songs about murder should be haunting), the Skip James song “Crow Jane” is timeless and disturbing. Skip’s eerie falsetto tells the story of a man who shot his woman, Crow Jane, and now regrets it. Her crime? She “holds her head too high.” He had enough and killed her, then wails as they lay her in her grave. A masterpiece in the “Frankie and Johnny,” “Little Delia” mold—but much moodier.

skip

Nehemiah “Skip” James did some recording and performing in the twenties and thirties, and then became a preacher, working mostly outside the music trade. In the early ‘60s, James was one of those blues artists who were rediscovered, introduced to the wider world at a Newport Folk Festival (in his case, in 1964), and made several great late-career recordings. The album Today! is an excellent way to get to know Skip James, and includes the beautiful and unsettling “Crow Jane.”

Blues great Bessie Smith, in 1927, pleads with a judge to “Send Me to the Electric Chair.” She doesn’t want bail or jail. She caught him messin’ around, but she sings that she doesn’t “want no sympathy, ‘cause I done cut my good man’s throat.” It’s a story repeated often in blues, from poor Frankie to the present.

Now, about Frankie. I’ve heard many, many versions of “Frankie and Johnny,” no two just alike. But in 1934, folklorist John A. Lomax and his son Alan collected it, in American Ballads and Folk Songs, as “Frankie and Albert.” A footnote states that there were over 300 variants of the song in the collection of Robert A. Gordon at that time, and that “no one has ever heard precisely the same song sung by two individuals, unless they happen to be roommates.” And that was eighty years ago! The footnote adds, “Frankie, the heroine of this tragedy, yet lives, according to report, somewhat aloof to the curious only, in Seattle, Washington.”

lomax

The song’s story is always the same. Frankie gets tired of putting up with Albert—or Johnny—and plugs him. “He was her man, but he done her wrong.”

I can only recall two times that I have heard a song on the radio that made me pull the car over and listen, enraptured. One was a selection sung by The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir. (Don’t let the name fool you; the a cappella sound these ladies make is ethereal. It ran me off the road. The choir appears on the two volumes of Le Mystere du Voix Bulgares.) The other instance involved my first exposure to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The harmonized Freddie Mercury sections just blew me away. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” The music was so astounding that it was only much later that I realized that the song was a killer’s confession. Brian May’s guitar solos are pretty dang nice, too. Still a monument of pop music, the best harmonies outside of The Beach Boys.

bob marley

Eric Clapton’s cover of “I Shot the Sheriff” brought Bob Marley to the attention of the United States. Marley’s song wasn’t changed very much by Clapton in his cover version. But Bob’s vocal quality suits his song, and all of his songs, to such an extent that the original Marley-sung versions are always the best. The song represents injustice of the powers that be, here played by Sheriff John Brown, over those who are not in power.

Honorable Mention: I just watched for the second time a documentary about Jimi Hendrix. It shows parts of several bravura performances of his breakout song, “Hey Joe.” Jimi completely reimagined the Billy Roberts folk song that was a hit for The Leaves in ’66. The Jimi Hendrix Experience hit version is the definitive one.

Dream Jukebox: Although I’d prefer The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” I would settle for “I Shot Mr. Lee.”

 

Although many of these murder songs are love songs, this post was not meant to be a Valentine’s Day-themed post. But, now that we’re here, what are your favorite songs of love and murder?

On the Road Again

On the Road Again

“King of the Road” was a family-reunion favorite song of the road. It’s one of Roger Miller’s best performances on record, loose but smooth—a hobo’s song of life as a town-to-town drifter. It was Miller’s biggest hit, getting to #4 on the Billboard pop charts in ’65. Roger Miller was an Okie, like my family, so he was OK.

My job at our family reunions was to play guitar and lead the singing. My aunts and uncles loved to sing together, and I looked forward to making my annual contribution to the festivities. I didn’t fish or ski, didn’t play golf or horseshoes, wasn’t an outdoorsy guy like most everyone else in the family. But I could play requests, find keys, keep the music going. There were lots of “quota songs” that popped up repeatedly at these gatherings, songs everyone knew and loved but that I’d had my fill of long ago—“Margaritaville,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “The City of New Orleans.” All good songs, just overfamiliar. I could enjoy playing them for my relatives, though, in the spirit of kinship. I just wouldn’t choose to play them on a CD in the privacy of my home.

Another song of the road that always wound up on the reunion playlist was John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Really not a bad song at all, and much loved by those of a certain age—about my age and up—but I have definitely met my lifetime quota on it.

When I play the senior centers, I mostly stick with the ‘30s-era swingy-thingies, like “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “As Time Goes By, and “Blue Skies,” and the old-folks-at-the-home generally know and love them. But when I ask whether they have any requests, it’s often a song not from the ‘30s but from the ‘70s. Yes, sad to say: Seventies music is now music for people in their seventies.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads” is often asked for, and the whole time I’m playing it for them, I’m thinking, “You know, these people in here are not that much older than I am; they listened to John Denver, Stevie Wonder, and maybe even Bad Company, just like I did.” It’s a sobering thought. So I tend to stick with the Ellington and Gershwin stuff. Timeless, right?

heat road

I was drawn to the eerie mood of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again” whenever I heard it on the radio as a young lad. The harmonica and the pulsing bass line set the ominous tone, and the falsetto vocal of Blind Owl Wilson complemented the instruments just right. It was years later that I got the same eerie feeling, and a sense of déjà vu, hearing Floyd Jones’s 1951 song “Dark Road.” I didn’t immediately associate the two songs, but read later that Wilson drew from “Dark Road” to come up with “On the Road Again.” Jones, who’s credited as a co-writer on the Heat song, had derived his song from “Big Road Blues” by Tommy Johnson, which I only heard (and loved) for the first time recently, 86 years after it was recorded. Tommy also wrote “Canned Heat Blues,” which gave the blues-rock group its name.

An additional Canned Heat road-song hit, “Goin’ Up the Country,” was borrowed from an old acoustic blues song. “Bull Doze Blues,” recorded by Henry Thomas in 1928, had the same guitar rhythm and flute part to back the same melody. The Beale Street Sheiks (Frank Stokes and Dan Sane) had recorded a similar song in 1927, about being “Beale Street Bound.” In one verse, Stokes sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin’, what you want me to bring you back?” Al Wilson, forty years later, sings, “I’m goin’, I’m goin” where the water tastes like wine.” The blues is a borrowing style, but all pop music borrows to varying degrees from roots predecessors. There’s truly nothing new under the sun—but there continue to be delightful mergings and mutations.

Stokes & Sane

Stokes & Sane

“Hit the Road, Jack” is on the short list of songs I’ve listened to and performed the most without getting tired of them. I loved Ray Charles’ #1 hit from 1961 the first time I heard it on the radio, and I still enjoy it. The song was written by Percy Mayfield, a singer/songwriter who’s not very well-known for anything else (and, really, not known by most as the writer of “Hit the Road, Jack”). Mayfield did have a few fine R&B hits in the fifties and sixties. The first, “Please Send Me Someone to Love,” from 1950, is a Grammy Hall of Famer. His last, “River’s Invitation,” from 1963, is another favorite of mine. What the river’s inviting poor Percy, who’s lost his lover, to do is to jump in and stay. The late, great Joe Cocker has memorably recorded the song. The Double Six of Paris Sing Ray Charles features the vocal group applying English, French, scat, and vocalese to the hits of Ray Charles, including “Hit the Road, Jack.” (Jacques?)

double 6

Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” like many songs of the road, is about the life of a touring music artist. When Willie sings “The life I love is makin’ music with my friends / And I can’t wait to get on the road again,” we know he really means it. He has spent so much of his eighty-plus years traveling from venue to venue that it probably tears at him even still to stay tethered to his ranch for any extended amount of time.

willie

Running on Empty is Jackson Browne’s concept album of the road tour. Its songs are not only mostly about life on the road as a musician, but they were all recorded live—on stage, backstage, or in hotel rooms after the shows. “Running on Empty” and “The Load-Out/Stay” were both hits, and the 1977 album was his top seller. They say that this one’s among the least favorite of Browne fans; it’s the only one I ever listen to.

Honorable Mention: Bruce Springsteen opened his breakout 1975 album Born to Run with “Thunder Road.” But actor Robert Mitchum co-wrote and sang his own “Ballad of Thunder Road” for the movie Thunder Road, which he also starred in in 1958. Mitchum’s song hit the pop charts twice, in 1958 and 1962. It’s a much lighter creative endeavor than his menacing acting turns in the great Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter.

Eaton, Peel

Eaton, Peel

Amazing Jimmy (“There’s no such thing as a bad song”) Candidate: I picked up a 45 of “Hit the Road, Jack,” performed by Connie Eaton and Dave Peel, that’s bad enough to help me to understand just how lucky Percy Mayfield was to have gotten the song to Ray Charles.

 

There are miles and miles of great road songs. Which ones beckon you?

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