Archive for the ‘Folk/Tradition’ Category

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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Some of the most interesting tips I got while researching the SJI essay came from a Dylan fanatic who had learned of the song by way of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” That tune pops up on on this list of songs Dylan “didn’t write.”

As you can guess if you’ve poked around this site much, I think the story of “SJI” is very much about the fluid nature of song-authorship, certainly when you’re dealing with something that’s been “in the tradition” for as long as “SJI” and its antecedants has. And on a more particular note: To whatever extent “Blind Willie McTell” borrows from McTell’s “Dyin Crapshooter’s Blues,” recall that friend of no notes Robert W. Harwood has shown that McTell borrowed that tune from somebody else.

That said, the list is worth a look to somebody (like me) who has some interest in how songs get rewritten, borrowed, whatever, and who is not a certified Dylanologist.

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Although I of course loved Spinal Tap, and while I am a big fan of Harry Shearer’s Le Show, I never saw A Mighty Wind. And I’m not likely to go out of my way to do so. But … I was amused at a passage regarding the music in that movie in this post on Underwire. The post is basically a review of an “unwigged” acoustic performance by Shearer, Christopher Guest, and Michael McKean, of the Spinal Tap songs, with some tunes thrown in from The Folksmen (the fake band they portrayed in A Mighty Wind).

The writer contends that A Mighty Wind “did to folk music what Spinal Tap did to rock.”

Songs like “Loco Man” and “Corn Wine,” said Shearer during the show, poke fun at “the fake folk music being written in office buildings in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.” Noting that half of all folk songs were written about tragedies like train wrecks and coal-mining disasters, the Folksmen wrote one called “Blood on the Coal” that has both:

Blood on the tracks, blood in the mine
Brothers and sisters, what a terrible time
Ole 97 went in the wrong hole
Now in mine No. 60 there’s blood on the coal.


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Things have been a little frantic around no notes HQ lately, hoping to find time soon to deal with a backlog of interesting “SJI” versions and so on.

Meanwhile here’s a brief follow-up to the recent post about tech-folk music: A group called The Mentalists doing the MGMT song “Kids,” on their iPhones, using apps Ocarina, Retro Synth, miniSynth, and DigiDrummer Lite (according to PSFK.)

The first 30-45 seconds will give you the basic idea.

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I’ve been reading a book called Sweet Songs For Gentle Americans, about parlor music in the 19th century. I’m trying to get a better handle on the music business, as it were, in the era before recording. And also on the

I guess if “folk” refers to non-professional musicians performing mostly traditional songs, parlor music is non-professional musicians playing, predominantly, pop hits of the time. I’m not done with the book, so more later, but it’s interesting to read how, say, a professional touring singer from Europe would in effect drive sheet-music sales for the tunes he or she performed.

What I’m thinking about at the moment is that parlor music is home-based entertainment, based partly on performance, on mastering a skill. (And presumably on listening, too, if some family members or guests are not playing along.) But it’s also about tapping into some perceived broader cultural goings-on: The popular hits of the day, as it were. So it’s not folk creativity, per se, but it’s also pretty distinct from listening to records or the radio.

These days the idea of “the  parlor room” doesn’t really resonate. But plenty of homes have a “media room,” and even those that don’t are increasingly likely to contain various tech tools that allow non-musically-trained people to participate in music creation or music making — sort of. I’m thinking of things like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. These things also connect a kind of individual performance and skill-mastery with broader cultural context. The skill isn’t playing an instrument, and I think more of the songs on those games are “classic” rather than current, but still.

Not long ago I read a Wall Street Journal article about a game, if that’s the right word, called Wii Music. Obviously, it’s for the Wii, and was created by Shigeru Miyamoto, whose resume stretches back to Donkey Kong all the way up to being “the brains behind” the Wii console (per the article). Unlike Rock Band Guitar Hero, Wii Music is an “improvisation game that doesn’t keep track of scores.”

Mr. Miyamoto said his goal is to make games more than just a form of entertainment. Wii Music, he said, has educational value as a tool to teach music theory. In the game, players choose from 60 instruments to improvise and record songs like “Yankee Doodle” and “La Cucaracha.” …

Though multiple players can form an ensemble to play music in the Wii Music game, Mr. Miyamoto said the more interesting aspect for him is the ability for a player to record six separate parts to a song with different instruments and combine them to form an original recording.

“Traditional music games are fun as games, but I wanted to relay the joy of music itself,” said Mr. Miyamoto, adding that he hopes the game will help spawn future musicians.

Apparently it isn’t selling particularly well. But you have to figure that one way or another, this kind of thing will catch on. It just seems so in line with the mania for tech-ennabled self-expresssion, with a relatively low skill-mastery threshold. (I’m not insulting game or tech culture, but I think it’s fair to say that a lot of creator-entertainment innovation is fundamentally about making things easier for more people to do.)

Meanwhile, it turns out that some people have already been using the Wii to create original music — and there’s an example right here in Savannah: The Wiitles.

In this performance, at Savannah cafe The Sentient Bean, the group members (each wearing a white lab coat) explain how they’re creating various instrument sounds with Wii remotes and software called Max/MSP, which is running on a laptop behind them. Then they perform a sort of moody and atmospheric tune, as the bop around the stage (and into the audience) with their litte controllers. It’s kind of interesting.

A Youtube commenter offers the assessment: “Real instruments -> overrated.”

The video below is more like, you know, a music video, with the Wiitles performing what I assume is an original composition, a poppy ditty called “Robot Love,” with their Wii-MaxMSP setup. Amusingly, they’ve edited in some stadium-crowd footage to campily suggest that they’re performing before a huge audience.

In a way this video is less impressive because, unlike the live performance, you don’t get as a clear a sense that they’re actually making music by waving remotes around.

On the other hand, this might be the truer encapsulation of a contemporary descendant of parlor music. Hacker-ish use of tech tools to make original music, but broadly referencing mass ideas (the pop song; the arena; the music video), with its ultimate manifestation not being an ephemeral moment of performance, but a fairly slick and cleverly edited media document, uploaded to Youtube and available to a theoretically unlimited audience, forever: That’s media-room music.

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