Archive for the ‘Folk/Tradition’ Category

Sorry if that headline is misleading — no Trombone Shorty/Carl Sandburg mashup is in the offing. (That I know of.)

But two quick noteworthy links:

1. Trombone Shorty was on Sound Opinions (great show) recently. The interview was fine (nothing revelatory to anyone who has been paying attention to New Orleans music  in the last, say, decade), but the performances are really excellent. Listen to the entire show here, or just check out the Trombone Shorty portion here.

2. Leading “SJI” blogger and writer Robert W. Harwood has a nice surprise over I Went Down to St. James Infirmary: The first of a batch of monologues recorded for an “SJI” radio documentary includes some great details about Sandburg and early variations on the song. And he even breaks out his guitar! eally cool… Give it a listen here. And if you want to hear more, tell Mr. Harwood so, he’s looking for feedback!



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I was listening to Sound Opinions’ recent episode of “scary” songs (Halloween-connected and otherwise), and was interested to hear a Willie Dixon/Koko Taylor tune, “Insane Asylum.” Check the opening lyrics:

I went out to the insane asylum
And I found my baby out there
I said please come back to me darlin’
What in the world are you doin’ here?

Then the little girl raised up her head
Tears was streamin’ down from her eyes
And these are the things
That the little girl said ….

Full lyrics after the jump, or you can hear it here:

The hosts made no mention of “SJI,” and of course it isn’t really a cover, but I think the reference point is pretty clear.

The Detroit Cobras also covered it:

Those lyrics in full: (more…)

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This Atlantic item by Hua Hsu points to some very good resources mulling the thorny questions of tradition, folk, authenticity, and experties. What follows is a very long post, written more for my own future reference than anything else. So … you’ve been warned.


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Whose song is that?

As you know, this site is interested, however indirectly, in the intersection of folk/traditional musical culture with the legal system that had come into place by the time “Joe Primrose” claimed to have written “St. James Infirmary.” So Without additional comment, I pass along this item from The Awl:

In 1966, the Beach Boys enjoyed a top ten pop hit with “Sloop John B,” their version of a West Indies folk song that the poet Carl Sandberg included in his 1927 book, The American Songbag, and that producer Alan Lomax recorded the Cleveland Simmons Group singing in the Bahamas in 1935, and that the Kingston Trio had covered in 1958.

In 2010, representatives of the Beach Boys are threatening to sue Katy Perry for the inclusion of one line from one of their own songs, 1965’s “California Girls,” in her song, “California Gurls,” which has sold three million copies this summer. (The line is, “I wish they all could be California Girls,” which was not sung by Perry, but rapped in a guest verse by Snoop Dogg.) 1965 was 45 years ago.

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Views differ on whether “SJI” ought properly be traced quite so far back as “The Unfortunate Rake.” My take remains that there’s somewhat of a connection there, so I read with interest today this entry on NineBullets.net. It’s about “The Cowboy’s Lament”/”Streets of Laredo” a song cycle with a connection to “The Unfortunate Rake” that seems more obvious. But:

While it appears to have descended from “The Unfortunate Rake,” the origins go a little deeper all the way back to an Irish ballad “Bard of Armaugh” which later mutated into “A Handful of Laurel” which is the work “The Unfortunate Rake” was based on.

Read (and listen to) more on this subject, here.

“Bard of Armaugh”? I admit, that’s a new one on me. I’ll investigate as time allows, though comments and tips in the meantime are obviously welcome.

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This fascinating, brilliant 20-minute video narrates the history of the “Amen Break,” a six-second drum sample from the b-side of a chart-topping single from 1969. This sample was used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music, and became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle music — a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures. Nate Harrison’s 2004 video is a meditation on the ownership of culture, the nature of art and creativity, and the history of a remarkable music clip.

Via Retro Thing.

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What makes American music American?

Leonard Bernstein gives his answer to the question, in introducing a performance of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” (conducted by Copeland himself, no less) in 1958. In short, he says it’s the nation’s “many-sidedness,” “all the races and personalities from all over the globe that make up our country.”

When we think of that, we can understand why our own folk music is so complicated. We’ve taken it all in … and learned it from one another. Borrowed it, stolen it, cooked it all up in a melting pot….

His full introduction and articulation of this goes on for a couple of minutes, and is worth checking out.

Via BoingBoing.

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A friendly reader named Craig dropped by this site’s About Page with a tip: Listening to LastFM, he heard a track called called “You’ll Never Find a Daddy Like Me,” by Nelstone’s Hawaiians. It was an “SJI” variation, or at least a sorta-kinda related song. A quick Google led me to this post on The Old, Weird America, a blog that riffs and expands on and delves into the famous Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music. (On the Anthology, Nelstone’s Hawaiians are represented by their recording of “Fatal Flower Gardens.” )

Turns out I should have remembered that I’ve read about “You’ll Never Find a Daddy Like Me” before — on Robert W. Harwood’s always-ahead-of-the-game I Went Down To St. James Infirmary blog, part of a series of posts in which he tracks versions of the familiar “Let her go” verse known to “SJI” fans through a variety of other folk tunes from the early 20th century.

Nevertheless, the song is worth consideration here. According to TOWA, The Nelstone’s were an Alabama duo that made a few recordings in the 1920s, and were among the earliest country groups to use Hawaiian steel guitar — although apparently Hawaiian music itself was something of a “craze” by then: “The exotic sounds of Hawaiian guitars and ukuleles were featured everywhere in pop and mainstream music of that time and Hawaiians musician were blending their own styles with jazz and country influences.” Nelstone’s Hawaiians are also discussed on Where Dead Voices gather, a different blog also about the Anthology.

Okay, so to the song itself. A highly jaunty number, musically speaking, it’s highlighted by some fun guitar breaks. It’s not really an “SJI” take, per se, but, as noted, does contain some elements that you’ll recognize:

The only little girl that I ever loved
Has turned her back on me.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her
She’s mine, wherever she may be.
She may ramble this wide world over.
Never find another daddy like me.

This bit sets the stage, and already is distinct from the “SJI” story, as it were: the girl isn’t dead; she dumped him. Even so, the “Never find another daddy like me” line is of interest, as it strikes the prideful pose we know from “SJI.” Later in this version, however, the  narrator is actually revealed as not very convincing in his self-confidence. Promptly, in fact, he turns rather sniveling and pathetic:

She’s out there with some other boy
Should have been with me.

I’ll pawn my watch and my chain, love
I’ll pawn my diamond too
I’ll even pawn my guitar
And it’s all for the sake of you.

You’ll pawn your watch and chain? Your diamond? Your guitar? Pull yourself together, man! You’d certainly never hear an “SJI” narrator saying such things. Quite the opposite, in fact: it’s the rounding up of fancy (and fanciful, really) possessions for the singer’s own funeral that often concludes the song.

Anyway, things wrap up with the slightly less embarrassing passage that appears in many of the “Let Her Go” songs Mr. Harwood has written about:

There’s been a change in the ocean
There’s been a change in the sea
If you give me back my sweet mama
There’ll probably be a change in me.

In all, it’s a pleasant and fun listen, though really it’s more properly part of the “Let her go” cycle than the line of songs that most people (including me) think of as leading to “SJI.” Having said that, the process of listening to this and really dwelling on the “let her go” thing again has led me to another train of thought that I don’t believe I’ve ever quite articulated, and that I’ll try to articulate tomorrow.

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This very comprehensive writeup on Sister Wynona Carr included a line that intrigued me. Discussing a recording session in Philadelphia in 1949 (or thereabouts), Tony Cummings writes:

The session showed her ability to transform blues into gospel. “St James Infirmary” became “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” while “I Heard The News (Jesus Is Coming Again)” was a Christian take on Roy Brown’s and Wynonie Harris’ 1948 smash “Good Rockin’ Tonight”.

Well, I had to hear that “SJI” variation. And luckily it wasn’t hard to do so: “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” was available as an MP3 on Amazon. Details momentarily, but the quick assessment is: Pretty great stuff!

I had never heard of Wynona Carr before. According to Cummings’ writeup, she was born in 1924, in Cleveland, where her earliest public music performances were in area Baptist churches and the like. In her early 20s she formed a gospel group and toured regionally. Soon she got on the radar of a “Jewish atheist” record man named Art Rupe, who had a gospel R&B label called Specialty. One of his groups was The Pilgrim Travelers, whose star apparently is the person who heard Carr and brought her to Rupe’s attention. Rupe is the one who dubbed her “Sister” Wynona Carr, in an intentional echo of Sister Rosetta Tharp. (Carr disliked this, but it stuck.)

“I’m a Pilgrim Traveler” is from her  second recording session, and inserts a radically different set of lyrics over an “SJI”-like melody. This isn’t the only time that’s happened (Josh White’s “Free And Equal Blues” comes to mind, among others), and is in-line with the song’s folk/traditional history as a thing that’s been rewritten, re-imagined, pasted together from disparate parts, etc. (See I Went Down To St. James Infirmary for the definitive take on the formulation of the song we know and the complexities of the folk tradition bumping up against modern copyright law.) That said, in this case the lyrics really don’t riff on, or reference, “SJI” at all, and I guess I can’t immediately think of another example where that’s the case. Maybe you can?

I’ll get to those lyrics in a second, but what grabbed me about “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler” is really its sound. Carr has an extremely charismatic voice, and the arrangement is spare and somewhat dark, particularly compared to some of the more jumpy R&B sound of some of her other early recordings. Both she and the musicians on the session — the guitarist is wonderful — seem quite comfortable fast or slow, swingy or somber. “I’m a Pilgrim Traveler,” which starts with some very spooky “ooh-ooh”-ing from Carr, actually has the sonic tone of some of the more melodramatic readings of “SJI,” the ones that underscore the tragedy of its story. But the lyric is basically a declaration faith, albeit a somewhat weary one. Carr announces that she’s a pilgrim traveler “on the long road home,” who leans on the Lord to help her live in “a heavenly way,” avoiding the “rut of sin” on life’s highway, so she can “make it in” (to heaven, one assumes). Full lyrics after the jump.

I suppose with some imagination, one could consider this a kind of alternate reading of a response to tragedy, maybe almost an answer song, if you stretch it. In “SJI” the narrator walks away from his lover’s corpse and quickly toggles to self-affirmation: She’ll never find another like me; and I’ll look great at my funeral; and so on. In “I’m A Pilgrim Traveler,” one might say we have a narrator who (while not mentioning a specific tragedy) seems less interested in responding to struggle or sorrow by way of braggadocio, than in turning herself over to faith and humility. (“I know I’ll make it if He holds my hand.”)

As Cummings notes, Carr also does a version of “Good Rockin’ Tonight” with totally different, gospel lyrics. And several of her originals are absolutely fascinating exercises in grafting a Christian worldview onto various manifestations of pop culture, often for no obvious reason: “15 Rounds For Jesus” and “The Ball Game” do this with sports, and the astonishingly good “Dragnet For Jesus” references the detective series. For the rest of Carr’s story, check out Cummings’ piece. Great stuff.


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I went down to St. James Infirmary
60 people were waiting there
It was 8 AM in the morning
And we barely had the cab fare

First they handed me a pile of papers
The first page was easy to do
It said who is your health insurer
I wrote ‘none’ and turned to page two

All the same old questions
I answered 20 times before
Did they ever hear of computers?
This is what they were invented for ..

Full lyrics and the actual song — which has a good sound, too — are here, at the site of Polarity/1, the musicians responsible.

I think this is a fantastic development. Truly inspired. Via Danny Schechter News Dissector.

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