Sonny Boy Williamson Sings “Good Morning Little School Girl”

good_morning_school_girl_single_coverListen to this song from 1937 by bluesman and harmonica pioneer Sonny Boy Williamson I, “Good Morning Little School Girl”.  The song was a monster, a blues standard subsequently recorded by artists ranging from fellow bluesmen John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins, to blues and R&B revival bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Yardbirds, to rock acts like the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, and Van Morrison, among many, many others.

This song was recorded by the first bluesman to carry the ‘Sonny Boy Williamson’ moniker, John Lee Curtis Williamson, who was a blues harp (that’s blues lingo for ‘harmonica’, of course) player from Jackson, Tennessee, the same Jackson that Johnny Cash and June Carter sang about, and birthplace of first wave rock ‘n’ roll figure Carl Perkins. And this was his first and biggest hit, making a wave on the R&B scene for decades after it was initially recorded in this rural,  folk-blues style.

A second bluesman,  Rice Miller, would take up the name Sonny Boy Williamson (known later as “Sonny Boy Williamson II”) post world war II, and carry it after the first Williamson died in 1948.  But, “Good Morning Little School Girl” would remain in the blues lexicon for good, with the original Williamson’s style changing the way blues harp was played forevermore by everyone.  Blues harmonica players like Little Walter, Sonny Terry, and even non-harp players like Muddy Waters, would be fundamentally influenced by this track, and by Williamson’s work in general.

The song itself changed quite a bit lyrically over the decades, but the basic intent is the same.  The narrator is obsessed with an object of lust forever out of reach, yet the obsession remains.  This of course is a common theme in the blues which would carry over into R&B, rock n’ roll, and in soul music too.  This tune may in fact be one of the earliest templates of this form.  If Sonny Boy Williamson’s take on it seems restrained by modern standards, you might want to take a listen to the more up-to-date version by Buddy Guy who underscores the point a little bit more overtly just by the sheer power of his delivery.

This tune might seem a bit suspect by today’s standards in terms of theme.  But, I don’t think this song is ultimately about anything deviant.  I think this is more about a feeling that love, or lust for that matter, happens to do to someone when an object of affection is out of reach.  That is, it reduces things to a very basic level, where all adult thinking is thrown out the window in favour of the fantasy.  In the Paul Butterfield version, the lyrics are “you can tell your momma and poppa I’m a little school boy too”.  And in a sense, he is. The primal urge has stripped him of his adulthood in this song, even if the object of his lust isn’t necessarily a literal school girl.

And such I think is the power of the blues; to boil things down to their basics, for good or for ill.


Shelby Lynne Performs “Leaving”

Here’s a clip of Alabama-born country-soul songstress Shelby Lynne with her 2001 song “Leaving” as taken from her critically-hailed album I Am Shelby Lynne.  Apart from being a knock-out song, it shows that the lines between country and soul music are pretty blurry.  Radio station and big box record store conglomerates take note: music is bigger than your categories.

Shelby Lynne
The album ‘I Am Shelby Lynne’ was a triumph for its creator in many ways. For one, it was the first album she put out over which she had full creative control, pulling in something of a more soulful spirit apart from the expectations of the country music establishment. Second, it won her a series of industry kudos, which included a 2001 Grammy for ‘best new artist’ who had ironically just put out her sixth record. And third, it proved to be a hit with the burgeoning Americana audience which had been building steadily when the record was released.

The first time I heard this, I’d been reading about Shelby Lynne and her record in a number of music publications. At the time, it had made a big splash in the press as a record that bent the rules of country, and dared to bring in outside influences like soul, adult pop, and even a touch of jazz.  In hearing this I wondered if this was an Aretha Franklin song that someone else was tackling.  This to me owes a huge debt to soul music and R&B, yet something in Lynne’s delivery makes it a country song too.  But,  I can definitely hear late-60s Aretha all over this. In short, this tune sold me.  It matched everything I was reading about in the music papers – a rare thing indeed! After hearing this tune, I went out and bought the album that very week.

There’s something so universal in the story being told, and Lynne’s weary-voiced narrator is both tired yet strong at the same time.  It packs a punch too, in that it represents such a complex web of emotion – sadness, anger, steadfast resolve and more.  As a great example of songs about break-ups, this one is something of a treasure, a gem among lesser songs that make the reality of breaking up a black and white issue, when most times it is anything but.

I must admit, it’s taken me a long time to come around to the charms of country music.  Most of the reasons for that might be because country can be such an uptight genre, trying to rebuff any attempts at messing with its formula.  It tends to be placed in a musical ghetto, with country music radio stations enforcing the rules.  But, in hearing this, I was reminded that most of the genres I appreciate – rock ‘n’ roll,  soul, blues, and even jazz – were pioneered and crafted by musicians living or hailing from the same places that country music comes from, the American South.

And it’s a great trend more recently, that many musicians are going forward with this in mind.  And by this, I don’t mean “hat” country artists (you know they’re country because they wear cowboy hats all the time…) who are making bland pop music and putting a pedal steel  and dobro on top of it and calling it a country record.  No.  I mean artists like Shelby Lynne, Norah Jones, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Rodney Crowell, The Dixie Chicks, Steve Earle, and others  who recognize that country music is a part of a continuum, influencing and being influenced by many other musical forms, yet still being a part of its own tradition too.  Notice that most of those acts I just mentioned don’t wear cowboy hats?

They don’t have to.

For more information about Shelby Lynne, check out

And check out Lynne’s latest record, Just A Little Lovin, which is something of a tribute to another creatively bold and genre-defying artist, Dusty Springfield.


Eels Perform “Railroad Man”

Blinking Lights and Other Revelations EelsHere’s a clip of Americana-Indie outfit and songwriting vehicle for Mark Oliver Everett (AKA ‘E’) Eels, with their 2005 song “Railroad Man” as taken from the album Blinking Lights And Other Revelations.

Trains and railroads are singular metaphors in rock n roll, and in the traditions that feed rock n roll.  Usually, they refer to the passing of time, and ultimately of the inevitability of death.  Yet, when Johnny B. Goode was learning guitar, he played beside the railroad tracks, ‘strumming to the rhythm that the drivers made’.  Maybe this is where the music sits in the grand scheme of things, at least where the metaphor is concerned.  Maybe getting in tune with the rhythm of one’s life, whatever that rhythm is, holds the key to it as well.  And if Johnny B. Goode can figure it out, why not the rest of us?

Mark Oliver Everett understands this very well, having written this tune which is about taking your time while on the line, walking along the tracks at your own pace.  Yet still in this song, there is a sense that the way the tracks lead may not be suited for a vintage train, one that is not in such a hurry.  This is a pretty easy connection to make, especially in changing times when life is getting faster and faster, seemingly with every passing day.  Yet, ultimately I think this is a song about hope as much as it may be counted among the songs about getting older.

And i know i can walk along the tracks
It may take a little longer but I’ll know
How to find my way back

This is a statement about self-sufficiency, about not letting the world set the pace, but rather about setting one’s own place, and letting the world react however it will.

For me, E is like Beck for the more introspective listener, and certainly one of the most eloquent songwriters working today.

For more information about Eels and Mark Oliver Everett, check out the Eels official website.


The Pretenders Play “Boots of Chinese Plastic”

Here’s a clip of Akron Ohio’s Chrissie Hynde, along with drummer Martin Chambers and a new line up of the Pretenders with their most recent cut “Boots of Chinese Plastic” as taken from this year’s Break Up the Concrete.

It’s clear that Hynde is drawing from a deep well here, the same one possibly that Bob Dylan has been drawing from lately, given this song’s quick-fire lyrical bursts and it’s hyper-rockabilly flavour.  The song title is a variant on Dylan’s early track “Boots of Spanish Leather”.  Yet, Hynde is clearly conscious of the comparison with this song; it’s a parody, albeit an affectionate one.  And with a band of younger players behind her, there is something of the original fire on this track that graced the Pretenders’ celebrated first album made with guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon.

For many years, Chrissie Hynde was an American ex-pat, making her living in London first as a journalist for the NME, and later of course in forming this band at the end of the 1970s.  More recently, she returned to her native Akron.  And so returns to roots here are on several levels.

Because the stripped down country-inflected rockabilly she employs here is decidedly American, not a million miles away from what Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy have done in terms of feel.  And this, and for many other reasons, seems to make for something of a return to form too, and a long wait since 2002’s Loose Screw.

Welcome home, Chrissie!

For more music from the newest album Break Up the Concrete, check out the Pretenders MySpace Page.


The Gourds Play Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice”

Here’s a clip of bluegrass homeboys The Gourds with their take on Snoop Dogg’s slice of life snapshot of Compton track “Gin & Juice”. This cover is taken from the band’s 2001 disc Shinebox.

This is easily one of my favourite cover versions of all-time, and certainly more then just a novelty tune.  Among other things it’s a great party tune in it’s own right, and proves that even the most seemingly cover-proof tune is coverable by the talented and the determined.

Not actually from Compton
The Gourds: Not actually from Compton

The Gourds hail from Austin Texas, calling themselves something of an alternative country band, even if stylistically they’re pretty traditional.  Even so, it’s hard to argue with the fact that these guys aren’t treading a predictable path.  In addition to this cover version, they’ve also covered Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” side by side with originals and traditional material.  But, this is the song which gained them attention on college radio stations, most likely for the same reasons I shook my head in wonderment the first time I heard it.

There was a spate of ironic cover versions which seemed to crop up around the same time as this tune, some better than others.  And this is certainly not meant to be taken too seriously, so much as it’s meant to get people dancing.  Yet, one thing that stands out for me is how the incongruity of it seems to point out just how far removed white culture still remains to be from black culture in the minds of many,  while at the same time pointing out how the differences between people aren’t really significant in any meaningful way.  The result comes off as being extremely funny, as the subversion of expectations tends to be.  Yet, I think there’s more there.

What I mean is that it is downright odd to hear a white, southern voice singing hip hop lyrics in the context of an Anglo-celtic musical form like bluegrass.  Yet, when you really boil it down, the events which take place – partying with friends who may indeed be of the fairweather variety – are pretty universal, barring some of the rock star excess elements, maybe. Despite the cartoon ‘bitches and whores’ in this song, to me this tune is really about the value of friendship, even when surrounded by those who wouldn’t know what real friendship is.

Luckily along with what could be considered some serious subject matter, the song rocks like a bastard as well as being interesting on a sociological level.  And it’s probably this that the band has intended things to be.

For more music and information, check out the Gourds MySpace page.

And also, investigate the official Gourds website too.


Neko Case Sings “Hold On Hold On”

Here’s a clip of Americana darling and sometimes power-pop pin-up Neko Case with her song “Hold on Hold On” as taken from her quite superb Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album from 2006.

Case-ing the joint: In addition to a solo career, Neko Case also lends her vocal and writing talents to power-pop collective The New Pornographers, based right here in Vancouver although members live all across North America.

The arrangement here really brings out the country flavour in the song, which is hinted at on the album.  But, there’s something about this song, and the album as a whole which stops me from calling it a country record.  Perhaps more significantly, there’s something which keeps me from calling it an alt-country record too.

To my ears, it just kind of a ‘voice’ album, if that can be its own genre.  I think this is the crux of it; Case’s voice is centre stage, and the style of what she’s singing is entirely secondary.

This is not to say that you can’t taste what’s in the sauce.  There is country to be found here, yet also 60s folk- pop (the Mamas and the Papas spring to mind in places…), which explains maybe where Case is coming from as a writer.  Yet, for me her voice makes this song, and the album what it is, with melodies which seem to pour out of her in the moment instead of having been written beforehand.  And on this one, you kind of hope that the song will go on and on.  But, it leaves you with an impression of a feeling, making you wonder why that feeling seems so familiar.  That to me is great writing.

The Sadies are owed a debt on this, having co-written it and played on it on the album.  Among other artists who appear on Case’s record include Calexico, Howie Gelb of giant sand, and one of my heroes Garth Hudson, the keyboard savant of the Band.

For more Neko Case, check out the Neko Case MySpace Page.


Ruthie Foster Sings Odetta’s “Woke Up This Morning”

Here’s a clip of Austin Texas-born Ruthie Foster with her  take on “Woke Up This Morning”, a civil rights anthem if ever there was one.  The song was originally done by Odetta, a giant of the folk-singing, civil rights era.  Odetta seems to be one of many influences on Foster, who pulls in nearly every branch of American folk music into her performances, including jazz, blues, gospel, and soul. Foster has been on the scene for over ten years, with her debut album Full Circle coming out in 1997.

Ruthie Foster comes from a family of gospel singers. During a stint in the US Navy, Foster developed her skills as a performer and is currently a mainstay at roots music festivals all over North America.

Ruthie Foster is something of a link to the past, not just because of her connection with folk songs from another era, but in her rootsy and honest approach to the material whether original or not.  I got word of her through MOJO magazine (a tried and true method for me in finding new artists in any genre), where she was compared to Aretha Franklin.  And you can certainly hear the gospel intonations here, and a few of Aretha’s textures too.

Usually when an artist is compared to the giants in the field, it spells disappointment.  Yet, with this cover version, you can feel that Foster is really connected, really passionate, about what she’s singing about.  I don’t get the feeling that she’s self-conscious in terms of the influences attributed to her.  And this may be her saving grace, besides her obviously powerful voice.

She is currently on tour, booked well into 2009 and appearing with established artists such as Eric Bibb, Robben Ford, and the Blind Boys of Alabama.  Her most recent album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster is out now.

And for a further sampling of her music, check out


Golden Smog Perform ‘Looking Forward to Seeing You’

Here’s a clip of Mid-West Americana supergroup Golden Smog, made up of members from the Jayhawks, Wilco, Soul Asylum, Big Star, The Replacements, and other bands from the Minneapolis area, with a track originally appearing on their 1998 third album Weird Tales“Looking Forward to Seeing You”.  On this particular ocasion, the band are performing at a Barack Obama rally in February of this year.

The word ‘Supergroup’ tends to be a bit of a tricky term.  It’s a term which can often imply a war of egos that produces something of a novel listening experience, but ultimately not a very deep one.  Or, it can mean that the members of said supergroup are so self-conscious about their not sounding like a war of egos that the music doesn’t end up with any kind of personality.

With this band, neither case applies.  What does come across is the sound of a few guys playing music just for the hell of it, even if the guys in question are extremely good songwriters. On the Weird Tales album and on this song “Looking Forward to Seeing You”, there’s a loose atmosphere and an earthy approach to the production that gives the record loads of personality, and imbue the performances with a refreshing, casual feel.  The album has a real ‘recorded it in the front room after dinner and a few glasses of red wine’ vibe, with the Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Neil Young being some of the main musical reference points.

The connections between the musician stem from their involvement in the mid-Western Americana scene, with the respective full-time bands and the pressures of success in the background of this, their hobby band, their fun band.  Members of Golden Smog (named after Fred Flintstone’s on stage jazz singer moniker in the Flintstones TV show, while he sings with jazz musician Hotlips Hannigan‘s band…) are many, as the group tends to be a bit of a revolving door in terms of personnel, although Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks are two frequent contributors.

The band started off in 1989 as a covers band, playing entire sets dedicated to the Eagles, or to top forty radio hits. From here, the group became a vehicle for songwriting of members who came and went, some of those writers being secondary writers in their full-time groups. Since ’89, five albums and a ‘greatest hits’ has been recorded under the Golden Smog name, with an active band website and frequent live appearances.

For more information, check out the Golden Smog MySpace page.

Also, check out the Golden Smog artist page on their label, Lost Highway.


Mississippi John Hurt Performs “Candy Man Blues”

Here’s a clip of once-lost bluesman and acoustic guitar slinger Mississippi John Hurt with his double-entendre laden song “Candy Man Blues”, as featured on his Avalon Blues album.   The record was cut in 1963 soon after he was ‘rediscovered’, actively sought out by blues archivists after 30 years of having quit music.

John Hurt was a native of Avalon Mississippi, working as a farm hand during the day and playing what is now considered ‘old time’ music in his spare time.  In 1928, aged 36, he got a chance to record with legendary early jazz and blues label Okeh records. He recorded two sessions that year, in Memphis and in New York City, with the label adding the ‘Mississippi’ in front of his name for authenticity.  He made eight recordings.  One of the songs he recorded, was this one, “Candy Man Blues”, with plenty of sauciness added into the lyrics before records by African-American musicians became mainstream. He was paid $240 for the Memphis sessions, which he then spent to go to New York for more.

Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James
Mississippi John Hurt shared a similar story to bluesman Skip James (pictured here next to Hurt, with guitar) who also had a limited recording career before passing into temporary obscurity. James’ sides were recorded in 1931, garnering the attention of folk purists in the 60s, who found him and got him back into the studio. In some ways, the folk boom was the best retirement plan these guys had, not only reviving their careers, but also in making sure that they received compensation for what they’d contributed to American culture. Like Hurt and fellow bluesman Son House, Skip James re-recorded his material in a modern studio before his death in 1969, including his song “I’m So Glad” which was duly recorded by blues-rock trio Cream in 1966.

The twin problems of poor sales, and then the failing of the label itself during the Great Depression later on curtailed Hurt’s lasting career as a full-time musician.   He returned to Avalon and picked up where he left off, with farm work during the day, with the odd non-professional gig at parties and other community gatherings at night.  He was otherwise lost to history, at least for the time being.

Fastfoward to 1963: archivist and blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins having heard Hurt’s 1928 recordings was determined to go to Avalon to see if the voice behind the music was still around.  Hoskins found the bluesman still living modestly, convinced him that he had an audience, and returned with him to Washington DC at the height of the 1960s folk-boom. Old time music and rural blues had been given an injection of life, with a new audience of students looking to hear original American folk players like Hurt, suspicious of the lack of depth and perceived dishonesty in modern pop music at the time.

In making public appearances, Hurt began the second phase of his career as a professional musician, recording his material in the studio for a new generation. An appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival the same festival which featured a young Bob Dylan, solidified Hurt’s status as a true original, his skills as a guitarist remaining undiminished.  He was a star at 72 years old, enjoying another two years of fame before his death in November, 1966.

Hurt’s sound would continue to have an impact on musicians long after his death, including Bruce Cockburn, Beck, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and others.  These artists, among others, contributed tracks to the Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt album in 2001, produced by songwriter Peter Case who is a lifelong fan himself.

The thing I love about this story is that something which had been the victim of bad timing (the Great Depression) eventually benefited from very good timing (the Folk-boom on American college campuses in the early 60s).  And I think its great when cultural treasures are discovered and given their due, which is an ongoing trend in blues in particular, a tradition which knows enough to value its own history.

For more about Mississippi John Hurt, check out his MySpace page.

To contribute to the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, a charity set up to aid disadvantaged youth, visit the official site for more information.

Kelly Joe Phelps Performs ‘Plumb Line’ From His Album Tunesmith Retrofit

Here’s a clip of understated master blues ‘n’ folk guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps with ‘Plumb Line’, a track off of his newest record, Tunesmith Retrofit, which was recorded right here in Vancouver, BC (where Phelps often plays live solo shows, especially at Capilano College where I last saw him…). The record was co-produced by Vancouver-based Steve Dawson, who knows a few things about roots music himself, being a fellow performer.

I first heard of Kelly Joe Phelps when living in England, and regularly reading MOJO magazine. I was looking for roots music in the blues tradition which is older and more stripped down than the electrified, 12-bar blues I’d already heard. I wanted to hear something that brought out the textures which are hinted at in Robert Johnson and Skip James records. I like dusty, crackly records too, of course. But, I was looking for something contemporary that struck a balance between earthy grit, and delicate, pristine playing.

On the strength of a review, I picked up Phelps’ 1999 album, Shine Eyed Mister Zen which soon became one of my favourite albums of all time. I just love the songs – with the storytelling tragedies as found in early country and folk musics, plus with the visceral punch of blues. And his voice – kind of like James Taylors’ voice as left at the bottom of an ashtray – pulled me in too, full of pathos and wounded beauty. What’s not to like?

Kelly Joe Phelps; taking American roots music and making it his own.
Kelly Joe Phelps; taking American roots music and making it his own.

Phleps is an incredible talent, one of those guys who is able to make a record of songs that sound downright ancient, even though they’re his originals. It’s hard, I imagine, to find one’s own voice within a form that is of indeterminable age, avoiding the trap of imitation. Yet while Phelps plays in the styles of legendary figures like Doc Boggs, Mississippi John Hurt, and others who wrote and played in the same vein over half a century ago, the songs and his superlative playing come across on their own strength. He’s an artist who plays the blues, conjuring up dust bowls and killing floors with ease, while remaining to be a singular voice that isn’t shackled by the limitations of what the genre might impose on someone of lesser skill.

For more music, check out the Kelly Joe Phelps MySpace page.