Listen to this song by widely acknowledged gospel-blues pioneer and Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s “Didn’t It Rain”, a gospel standard in this case delivered live in Manchester, England in 1964. This peformance is featured on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours.
This 1964 version of the tour featured some of the pioneers of urban and rural blues at the time, including Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and others. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s segment was filmed by Granada Television at disused Wilbraham Road station, fixed up to look like an American sharecropper’s porch in the American South. Two-hundred onlookers in the audience sat opposite the station platform that served as a stage. In typical British tradition, it rained during the performance. But, after it rained, Sister Rosetta performed this tune, a tale of Noah and his ark, of redemption, and condemnation.
Among other things, this performance reminded audiences of what they’d come to know as rhythm & blues and even rock ‘n’ roll in their purest forms. But even then, not many people at the time were fully aware of her role in creating a sound that served as a pillar for those musical movements, set in place when Elvis was still potty training. Read more
Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Read more
Listen to this track by New Hampshire native transplanted to New York City and singer-songwriter progenitor Connie Converse. It’s “One By One” one of seventeen home-taped songs she recorded sometime at the end of the 1950s. After many years of awaiting discovery, this song and Converse’s other material was commercially released in 2015 on the album How Sad, How Lovely.
Converse’s songs and her general approach to making music — by writing, singing, and playing it herself — have become cited as the earliest example of the singer-songwriter genre. Now, that claim is perhaps tenuous if you want to take it apart on a musical level. Lots of people were writing their own songs and singing them by the fifties. But, when connected to the scenes in the late sixties and into the seventies, maybe you can see why this claim has been made, so common are the threads found in her music when compared to, say, Judee Sill, Tim Hardin, Bridget St. John, or Nick Drake. Like those writers, Connie Converse dealt in contemporary themes while referencing traditions of the past, along with a love of imagery and wordplay that goes beyond the confines of pop music of her times. In Converse’s case, it was early twentieth century parlour songs, folk ballads, hymns, and cowboy songs.
But, like some of those examples given earlier of singer-songwriters, Converse had a limited body of work due to its lack of commerciality. And in addition to that, there’s a certain amount of mystery surrounding the fate of Connie Converse. 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 track by incomparable High Priestess of Soul herself Nina Simone. It’s “Sinnerman”, a traditional gospel-blues song of misty and mysterious origins as captured on her 1965 record Pastel Blues. The song closed that record, an epic length encapsulation of nothing less than the Fall of Humanity, the hope for redemption, and the fear of damnation.
Covering this tune was likely a product of Simone’s upbringing in the church. But, it is also likely that “Sinnerman” was well-covered on the Greenwich Village folk scene, of which Simone was also a part. The Weavers recorded a version of it, which may have been responsible for it being something of a standard of the ’60s folk boom. It has since become a well-covered standard across a number of musical spectrums.
This one is the real thing; over ten minutes long, and with Simone’s full-powers behind it, and making it her own. It would have an impact well after this version was recorded. Read more
Listen to this track by one-time mystic-folky singer-songwriter, later to turn political and social commentator, Bruce Cockburn. It’s the live version of “Dialogue With The Devil”, a highlight from his 1977 live record Circles in the Stream. The original version appears on Sunwheel Dance released five years earlier.
The song taps into where Cockburn was at during the earliest part of his career as a solo artist, writing songs with a sort of C.S Lewis meets Mississippi John Hurt approach. Not many artists have hooked into that kind of vibe, of course.
But, Cockburn was interested in the nature of spirituality, how it’s manifest in human experience, and what symbols and stories, particularly those couched in natural imagery, helped to reveal it. I think he was also interested in how American rural blues playing and English folk styles converged, which is certainly revealed in his work at the time, with this song being among the greatest examples
As far as this song goes, the scene is one we’re familiar with. It’s a variation on the story in the Gospels of a meeting between Jesus and the Devil in a remote location, with a tempting offer from the latter; no less than fame and fortune in exchange for surrender. But, in Cockburn’s story, what is the nature of that dialogue, and what is the temptation? More importantly, does it have any bearing on where Cockburn would turn as an artist? Read more
Listen to this track by saxophone immortal John Coltrane and his classic quartet (Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano). It’s the perennial holiday favourite “What Child Is This”, or as it is credited: “Greensleeves”, with those two pieces having the same melody, with lyrics added by hymn writer William Chatterton Dix in 1865.
This song was recorded during a specific and very celebrated phase in Coltrane’s career, when things were really gelling with his band, many of whom believe was the greatest collection of musicians in jazz over a long-term recording period between 1961 and 1965. This period corresponded with Coltrane’s work on the Impulse! label, with whom he’d stay until his untimely death from liver cancer in 1967.
The song itself has an even older pedigree than Coltrane’s classic period of course. It has been connected with King Henry VIII, he who provided a number of creative ways to get out of being married during a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to do. In the meantime, evidently, he was a songwriter. I’m not so sure about the facts on that one. It seems kind of unlikely to me.
It’s a melancholic, beautiful little tune no matter who wrote it. “Greensleeves” is about being rejected by a true love, which is a pretty solid theme no matter what era it comes out of. And in a Christmas context as “What Child Is This?”, it’s used to tell the story of the birth of Jesus; not just about the joy of that event, but also through its minor key suggests the shadow of human brokeness, too. So what makes Coltrane’s take on that so compelling? Read more
Listen to this track from folk music enthusiast and Santa Claus BFF Bob Dylan. It’s “Must Be Santa” a track from his album Christmas In the Heart, released around Christmas time 2009.
On this track, Dylan and his band rock out the popular children’s tune in an accordion-driven jam, the accordion in question actually played by Los Lobos’ David Hildago. The effect is a kind of a zydeco-meets-polka, matched with an exuberant call-and-response vocal exchange.
Is a straight ahead Christmas album kind of an unexpected move from the guy who wrote “Idiot Wind”, “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35”, And “All Along The Watchtower”?
Well, maybe a little.
But, Dylan has always followed his own path, even from the earliest days of his career. And, the conception of this album and the rendering of the songs on it followed a path that Dylan has always followed anyway.
And which path is that?
Listen to this track by the celebrated Bard of Barking and one-time One-Man Clash, Billy Bragg. It’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”, a story of a young marriage, loneliness, violence and tragedy; perfect subject matter for a folk song, then. The song is taken from Billy’s 1986 album Talking to the Taxman About Poetry.
Where Bragg is well-known for his politically-oriented material, particularly around this time at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s era as British Prime Minister, this song proves that what Billy Bragg does best is to use songwriting as a means of telling stories. This is certainly one of his best, a song about a downtrodden woman, having married young, and finding herself alone after her ex-husband attempts to kill her, before abandoning her.
But, Bragg hasn’t set up a cardboard cut-out figure so that he can talk about abused and abandoned women; he lets the story of the woman in this song do that for him.This is a woman worn down by her miserable situation. But, she’s also a person reaching out to the hope of a new life, mostly through the songs on the radio, and through the contents of a Four Tops cassette. We identify with her, which leads me into what’s really at the heart of this song. Read more
Listen to this track by London-based experimental chamber folk-pop collective Pillarcat, joined on this track by Lamb vocalist and solo artist in her own right, Lou Rhodes. It’s “The Fragile and the Few” as taken from the band’s full length album Weave.
Pillarcat is led by singer-songwriter Stephen Hodd, who seeks to mix the textures of John Martyn, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich, Sigour Ros, and beyond into his work. The title Weave then is honestly come by, and the resulting sound is at once cinematic, pristine, atmopheric, and evocative.
Hodd wrote and produced the record himself, drawing on a pool of guest talent that includes the aforementioned Lou Rhodes, but also violinist Ben Lee, virtuoso drummer Emre Ramazanolgu, and vocalist Gitta. Spanish guitarist Pablo Tato and Italian drummer Alberto Voglino round out the regular membership of Pillarcat, making the band something of a cultural amalgam when joined with Ireland-born Hodd.
I spoke with Stephen via email about recording an ambitious record on a limited budget, about experimenting with sound while getting an accessible feel, and about what comes next for the band.
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