Listen to this track by blues and roots alchemist and multi-instrumentalist interpreter Taj Mahal. It’s “Take A Giant Step”, the title track as taken from one-half of his 1969 two-fer double album Giant Step/De Ol’ Folks Home, his third release. The album represented two different approaches on each disc, with one being a full band excursion into the American roots music spectrum. The other is a solo acoustic record.
On both discs, you can hear just how well integrated Mahal’s sound is with respect to country, blues, folk, and pop music. This track may be the prime example of this, written by pop writers supreme Carole King & Gerry Goffin written for The Monkees and recorded by them as a B-side for first hit single, “The Last Train To Clarksville”. This version by Mahal is a far cry from that one, slowing everything down, taking out the pop-psychedelic and far east edges, and replacing them with a languid and world-weary quality that the fresh-voiced Monkees couldn’t really have pulled off in their version, as much as I love it.
This is another sterling example of how an arrangement and vocal performance can add dimension to a song. So, what’s the angle on this tune? I think there’s a decidedly spiritual aspect to be found here that may have been missed earlier, but that Taj Mahal is able to draw out as easily as a bucket of water from a sacred river. Read more
Listen to this track by Bentonia, Mississippi guitarist, pianist, and all-around legendary bluesman Skip James. It’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, a sepia-toned treasure from the age of delta country blues that would be featured on James’ 1966 album Today!
The song would be sourced from his repertoire that appeared many years before in 1931 with his initial recordings on the Paramount label. During that era, Skip James’ career as a full-time musician and songwriter would be scuppered by the Great Depression. When most of your audience doesn’t have a job, it’s hard for them to buy records. So, after recording his Paramount sides, he slipped back into obscurity. This economic reality had impact on many, including Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, among others.
But, like those two other musicians, Skip James would enjoy a second wind in the 1960s, thanks to a bona fide hero’s quest to find the grail of true American culture. Read more
Here’s a clip of modern-day proto-electric rural blues stylist Little Miss Higgins (sometimes known as Jolene Higgins when not on stage), hailing proudly from the heart of the Canadian Praries – Nokomis, Saskatchewan to be exact. It’s a rendition of her affectionate ode to her surroundings, “Middle of Nowhere” originally to be found on her 2007 album Junction City, as well as on the live document, Little Miss Higgins Live Two Nights in March.
A lot of great music has come out of the supposed backwaters of the world. The Canadian Prairies is such a place; geographically isolated perhaps when compared to urban settings. Yet it’s in place like this where tight-knit communities are found to treasure that unique simplicity of living. In the more desolate places, celebrating the joys to be found in simple things is part and parcel toward defining what ‘home’ means. And perhaps the end result leads to a greater attachment, and a deeper sense of belonging.
This is one of the appeals of Little Miss Higgins’ “Middle of Nowhere”. This song is all about defining what ‘home’ means. The place in this song may be a featureless place on the surface, but it is ultimately full of singular character. This makes the song a concentrated shot of the culture and attitude out of the place from which it comes. This can be said for her entire oeuvre, love letters to her home as it is.
Musically speaking, there is of course a heavy debt to the rural blues and country music of the pre-war period. This is a good fit when it comes to LMH’s subject matter, which is about collecting little snapshots of a place that, perhaps in the minds of many who’ve never been there, exists in 1930s sepia-tones. And even to those who are from there, the sense of community bound by common experience isn’t crowded out by slick arrangements.
In short, the music is entirely appropriate to its subject matter, and packed to the brim with unbridled affection and charming self-deprecation.
I had the extreme pleasure of seeing Little Miss Higgins perform with her musical colleague Foy Taylor (also featured in the above clip) perform at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival this year. The performance was charming, raw, hilarious, and just plain warm. LMH was like an ambassador from the rural Prairies, making ‘the middle of nowhere’ sound like a vital, and welcoming somewhere, even for us city-folk.
For another wonderful clip of Little Miss Higgins, check out this blog post from my friend Emme Rogers, which features a clip of LMH’s performing another tune of hers – “Me and My Gin”