Listen to this track by itinerant musician, self-styled last minstrel man and “World’s Worse (sic) Businessman” Abner Jay. It’s “I’m So Depressed”, a cut from his independently produced and distributed album Swaunee Water And Cocaine Blues. The song was also re-issued as a single in 2009 through Portland-based Mississippi records, a label that compiled Abner Jay’s somewhat scattered output.
Abner Jay seems like more of a figure that someone invented rather than an actual person. He was the ultimate self-contained act in the medicine show tradition, traveling in a mobile home that opened up into a makeshift stage, roaming from town to town playing for country folks at flea markets and store parking lots, and selling records from a cardboard box. Amazingly, he performed his material while playing all of the instruments himself in a live setting, including a six-string banjo he claimed was made in 1748 and handed down to him by his grandfather who had been born a slave. Maybe in some ways then, he really was invented, or rather self-invented.
There has been some question as to how to qualify Abner Jay’s music, too. Is it authentic? Could it be described as outsider music? I suppose all of that is determined by how you define each of those terms.. Maybe the clues to Abner Jay’s position on the authenticity spectrum can be found in this song. Read more
Listen to this track by Ottawa-born former folk-psych guitarist turned mystical folkie singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. It’s “Let Us Go Laughing”, the centerpiece to his 1971 album High Winds, White Sky, his second.
This song is a culmination of where Cockburn had come by this time in his career. Behind him were his days at Berklee College of Music in Boston where he studied jazz improvisation and composition in the mid-sixties. Also behind him was his journeyman period as a guitar player and keyboardist in folk rock and psych bands, some of which appeared as opening acts for The Lovin’ Spoonful, Cream, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience by the end of that decade.
But something else had risen to the surface by the time this song was written; a feel for lyrics that reflected his rich inner life and his gravitation toward the spiritual.
Listen to this track by East Village ’60s scenester and folk and folk-rock interpreter Karen Dalton. It’s “In My Own Dream”, a track as taken from her second, and last, album In My Own Time released in 1971.
That album title was apparently very apt for Dalton, who was never comfortable in a studio setting. In some ways, she was the polar opposite of all those artists who are creatures of the studio, trying to perfect a recording for posterity. Dalton wasn’t about posterity. She was about the performance in the moment, never to be repeated again. This proved to be pretty trying in the studio when she came to record, a place where multiple takes in order to find “the one” is the common goal.
But, what was clear was the power of her voice, a favourite on the scene when she traveled north from the sepia dust of Oklahoma, eventually to New York City like so many others. Where others were students of American folk traditions, reproducing their studied interpretations on the stages of Cafe Wha?, Gerde’s Folk City, The Gaslight, and many others, Dalton brought only her voice, her 12-string guitar, and her banjo. And that was more than enough. She was the real thing. No study necessary. Read more
Listen to this track by Vancouver, Washington folk-blues journeyman Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s “The House Carpenter” as taken from Phelps’ 1999 record Shine Eyed Master Zen.
The song is a well-travelled British folk tune steeped in tragedy. There’s nothing like it for a great folk ballad from that tradition. And it doesn’t hurt for a blues tune, either. Because of Phelps’ command of the material, this rendition is potent, seeming to touch on both of those musical traditions all at once.
The song has its roots in Scotland, with the tale varying over the years as many, many folk musicians interpreted it over generations. In some versions, the devil is a character, with the song also known as the more floridly titled “The Daemon Lover”. In earlier versions, the devil lures the house carpenter’s wife away from her home, and her child, with the promise of riches abroad. That’s a bit of a crossover into the world of the blues, too. The devil is a busy guy in many blues tunes from Skip James to Robert Johnson.
But In Phelps’ version the devil in his guise as a deal-cutting, saint-tempting figure of ultimate evil is nowhere in sight. There is a force more insidious at the heart of this version. Read more
Listen to this song by virtuoso stringed instrument-collecting savant David Lindley. It’s ‘Tijuana’ a flamenco-styled folk tale, only one of many styles at which Lindley is skilled.
David Lindley’s chops have been utilized while playing with musicians as varied as Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, The Bottle Rockets, and the Bangles, among many others. This doesn’t include his work with Ry Cooder as well, a fellow slide guitar player and folk music archivist. His best known song, ‘Mercury Blues’ is in many ways only a fraction of his musical interests. Where that song holds the banner of blues rock pretty high, Lindley’s mastery of the blues is really only an extension of his interest in folk music all over the world.
It helps of course that Lindley is exceptionally skilled at a variety of stringed instruments from the lap steel guitar to the bouzouki. This allows him access to all manner of textures when putting across his material. In seeing him recently at the Burnaby Blues and Roots Festival, I was taken on an excursion of North Africa, Greece, the Appalachians, and the Mississippi Delta during the course of a single number.
In this, Lindley’s musical patch is about making a connection between cultures, and a hint that the blues and other Western folk music, however you think of these musical forms, are far older and more widespread across cultural lines than you previously may have suspected. When listening to Lindley’s set at the festival, it was like being lifted up to a high place where I could see that the lines dividing musical traditions are purely illusory. It was like the realization that the world beneath me was one land, one nation, one musical world.
For information on tour dates, and a tour of Lindley’s collection of exotic musical instruments, check out davidlindley.com.
Listen to this song by folk-blues guitarist and singer-songwriter Kelly Joe Phelps. It’s “Tommy”, as featured on Phelps’ 2001 release Sky Like a Broken Clock. For my money, it’s one of the saddest songs ever written, yet beautifully realized.
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This song is full of pathos, and what’s more is that Phelps playing and his voice, although excellent, seem almost secondary to the portrait it paints of the central character. The folk music idiom is known for its tragic figures, for characters who go their own way which often end up facing their doom down to bad choices. Yet, here in Phelps’ tale, the central figure is not arrogant, or lazy, or cruel. He is innocent; too innocent to live in a world where such a state of being isn’t allowed to thrive.
And because he is strange, for reasons of illness or developmental challenges, Tommy is isolated too. So, the line ‘Tommy was a good man, and nobody knew’ is a summation of a worthy character, and possibly an indictment against a society that often lets the best of us go unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. So, it kills me every time I hear it.
Listen 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.
Here’s a clip of Texas blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins with a 1962 performance of his hit put out two years previous, “Mojo Hand”.
Sam “Lightnin'”Hopkins was a part of the early 60s folk-boom, although unlike many of his fellows working in the same musical idiom, he was not an artist rescued from obscurity. Lightnin’ had been a working musician from the 1920s when still a child, recording on a number of labels through the decades before recording this song and the album of the same name, Mojo Hand, on the Fire records label by the early 1960s.
Hopkins had a storied career, and a unique education in the blues, acting initially as a guide to Blind Lemon Jefferson, and subsequently as a partner to his cousin “Texas” Alexander. After a stretch in Houston County Prison Farm, Hopkins struck out on his own, gaining the nickname “Lightnin'” after being discovered in the 1940s by a scout from Aladdin Records. He was teamed with another artist, Wilson Smith who had been nicknamed “thunder” to match. After the duo parted ways, the “Lightnin'” stuck.
Much like the approach of many country blues players, Lightnin’ had a self-contained approach to the guitar, playing lead, bass, rhythm, and even percussion lines slapped out on the body of his guitar. A common drawback was that his sidemen were often confounded by his internal sense of timing, which was not exactly intuitive to an accompanying musician. And a song was never played the same way twice. Record producers often suffered from this phenomenon as well.
Yet, Lightnin’ remained to be a singular and respected voice through the 60s folk-boom and afterward, with his influence on rock guitarists and contemporary blues guitarists including Jimi Hendrix (who also had a self-contained guitar style) and fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughn, who’s song “Rude Mood” was based on Lightnin’s “Sky Hop”, a track which would show that Lightnin’ was just as at home with an electric guitar as he was an acoustic.
In 1959, Lightnin’ Hopkins was contacted by a folklorist, a contact which later allowed him to tap into the burgeoning folk scene and find a wider audience. His ability to play in a traditional style, while often improvising lyrics to suit his situation or current states of affairs made him a hit with the folk crowd as much as it had with the Texas club circuits where he’d honed his craft.
Although he’d seen the evolution of the blues through the years, Hopkins managed to hold onto a singular style, characterized by his dexterous playing and his craggy, storyteller’s voice. He is easily one of my favourite bluesmen.
Lightnin’s career stretched six decades by the end of his life. He died in 1982.
Here’s a clipof 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.
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 Hurtalbum 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.