‘You May Be High . . .’

May 22nd, 2019

When the Rolling Stones recorded “You Got To Move” and released it on Sticky Fingers in 1971 (with the title offered as “You Gotta Move”), they credited the song to Fred McDowell, a Tennessee-based farmer and blues singer who’d somehow been given the name of Mississippi Fred McDowell. It was not an unreasonable decision, as McDowell had recorded the tune in 1965 for his second album on the Arhoolie label, which was released a year later and listed him as the song’s writer.

Here’s that version by McDowell:

(It’s worth noting that McDowell was an anomaly in the blues revival of the late 1950s and the 1960s: He’d never recorded before, while many of the blues artists celebrated during that revival had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether that made McDowell’s previously unrecorded music more “authentic” – as I’ve seen written in at least a couple of places – is for others to judge. It was certainly new to listeners, and, despite McDowell’s frequent use of an electric guitar, clearly linked to the Delta tradition.)

But McDowell did not write the song. Second Hand Songs lists the song as “traditional,” noting four recordings that predate McDowell’s 1965 recording. (McDowell’s 1965 recording is not listed at all; his 1969 live version with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers is listed, another reminder that as useful as the website is, it’s not complete.)

Those four earlier listed recordings came from the Willing Four in 1944, the Two Gospel Keys (Emma Daniels and Mother Sally Jones) in 1947, Elder Charles Beck & His Religion In Rhythm in 1949, and Blind Gary Davis with Sonny Terry in 1953. One can assume two things, I think: There were other recordings as well before McDowell recorded his 1965 version, and the song no doubt predates the Willing Four’s version. By how much, who knows?

And I’m going to make a third assumption: That crediting the song’s creation to McDowell on his 1966 album was an error by someone at Arhoolie. McDowell would certainly have known that he’d learned the song elsewhere, and everything I’ve read about McDowell tells me that he was an unassuming, almost humble man. I have my doubts that he’d have claimed the song as his.

(At Second Hand Songs, “You Got To Move” is called “traditional,” and on the CD version I have of Sticky Fingers, it’s credited to McDowell and Davis. I don’t know what credits there are on more recent versions of the CD or the LP.)

McDowell recorded the song at least a couple more times: The previously mentioned 1969 recording with the Hunter’s Chapel Singers for an album titled Amazing Grace, and in a 1971 performance in New York City that was released as a live album two years later.

There are, of course, other covers out there, some by artists I know and others by artists unfamiliar to me: The Party Boys, Mike Cooper & Ian A. Anderson, Mick Taylor, Herman Alexander, the Radiators, Corey Harris, Jorma Kaukonen, Townes Van Zandt, Cassandra Wilson, Aerosmith, and Koerner, Ray & Glover are just some of them.

Most of those are faithful to the Delta sound of McDowell’s version; some of them reach back to what I assume are the song’s Gospel origins; and some are hybrids. Here’s one of the latter, the version offered by Sista Monica Parker on her 2008 album Sweet Inspirations.

‘You Gotta Move’

May 21st, 2019

I was going to write this morning about Mississippi Fred McDowell, the Rolling Stones and covers of the blues tune “You Got To Move,” but I’m getting a late start to the day. So I’m just going to throw out a preview. Here’s a remastered version of what the Stones did with the tune – they titled it “You Gotta Move” – on their 1971 album Sticky Fingers, a track that intrigued me during my early college days.

Saturday Single No. 641

May 18th, 2019

I used to collect letter openers. Not in any organized sense, like collecting promotional letter openers or state souvenir letter openers. I just bought or accepted letter openers wherever they caught my eye.

I had a couple nice ones. One was made from some kind of stone and came, I think, from Mexico. I don’t remember where I got it. I only know that I dropped it and it broke. Or maybe it broke the day I moved from Monticello to St. Cloud for the summer of 1987. Some college kids were helping with the move, and one of them made his stack one box too tall.

The box on top was the one with the letter openers, and that might have been when the stone one broke. I know it was when another one broke. That was the letter opener I’d bought for my grandfather in Barcelona in 1974. I got it back after he died in 1981, and on a June day in 1987, it got dropped and broke into three pieces.

I imagine the box with letter openers is in another box somewhere in the garage or maybe somewhere among the clutter on my side of the family room. And I don’t really collect letter openers any more, but I do have five of them in the brass jar on the table less than a foot from me as I write:

One of them celebrates the University of Virginia; I got it from the Other Half in 1987 when she returned from an archeological dig at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Another celebrates Boston; I think that came from my parents in 1999 after they toured New England. A third is hand-made, a green and white plastic artifact crafted in seventh-grade shop class at South Junior High and given to my grandfather for Christmas 1965. Another is made of iron; it’s an eight-inch replica of a Civil War musket that I got at Gettysburg during a 1968 vacation.

opener

The fifth is more ornate: It’s essentially an eleven-inch dagger with a scabbard that my sister bought for me in Barcelona during the summer of 1968. It’s what prompted me to buy a letter opener there for my grandfather six years later (though the one I bought for him was smaller and less ornate).

I rarely use any of them for opening mail. We generally do that upstairs, and there’s a utilitarian silver opener in the coffee mug on the kitchen cart.

I have no tracks on the digital shelves about letter openers, but there are plenty about letters. Here’s one from 1967 I found in the massive Lost Jukebox collection, “Today (I Got A Letter)” by the Fifth Order, a garage rock band that hailed from Columbus, Ohio. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

A Stop In 1975

May 16th, 2019

We’re going to scan the digital shelves here today and play around in 1975, checking out five tracks from that long-gone but fondly remembered year. We’ve got a little more than 1,800 tracks to play with, so we’ll sort them by time, put the cursor in the middle of the column, and go.

Our first stop is a track titled “Thirty-Piece Band” by guitarist and singer Ellen McIlwaine from her third album, The Real Ellen McIlwaine. Recorded in Montreal and released on the Canadian Kot’ai label – after her first two albums came out on Polydor – the album is generally a decent mix of covers and originals. She’s not well-known – never having hit any chart that I’ve ever seen – but her records from the 1960s and 1970s were nice additions to a collection. According to Wikipedia, she released a couple albums in Japan in the early 2000s. “Thirty-Piece Band” is two-and-a-half minutes of churning solo guitar work topped off in the middle by some vamping and less than coherent lyrics. It’s not one of McIlwaine’s best moments.

On we go, landing on Linda Ronstadt’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox” from Prisoner In Disguise, an album that went to No. 4 in the Billboard 200 after being released in September 1975. Ronstadt’s cover of James Taylor’s 1971 album track has always been my favorite track from Prisoner; her restrained vocal and the light steel guitar are far more effective than anything else on the album, including the hits (“Love Is A Rose,” “The Tracks Of My Tears” and “Heat Wave”). From this point on (with just a few exceptions), Ronstadt seemed a lot more vehement and got a lot less interesting.

The late Larry Jon Wilson pops up here from time to time with his southern wit. This time, it’s “The Truth Ain’t In You” from his debut album New Beginnings. A mostly spoken tale of an early 1960s college-age pursuit of a young woman, the track rambles on nicely, winding around three times to the chorus: “You don’t love Jesus and the truth ain’t in you.” Fun, like much of Wilson’s work was.

In 1975, Gordon Lightfoot followed up the mega-success of 1974’s Sundown – buoyed by two Top Ten singles (“Sundown” and “Carefree Highway”), the album was No. 1 for two weeks during the summer of 1974 – with Cold On The Shoulder, an album similar in approach but, to my ears, less distinctive. Part of that judgment, certainly might be that I know Sundown better, having listened to it more frequently. The tune we fall on today is “Now & Then” from Cold On The Shoulder. It’s your basic softer Lightfoot song, a tuneful reverie of love now gone that slips on occasion into cliché, backed with chiming guitars and perhaps a few too many strings. Pleasant listening, but not as satisfying as his best work.

Albert Hammond has popped up here from time to time, at least once for his hit “It Never Rains In Southern California” and one other time for his “99 Miles From L.A.” Today, we get “Lay The Music Down” from the 99 Miles From L.A. album. A song of lost love told in the context of musicians and their songs, “Lay The Music Down” is backed, says Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic, by “mild disco rhythms.” I don’t get that, but okay. It’s a decent track but no more than that.

Time

May 14th, 2019

A Facebook friend of mine posted this morning a photo of herself and her daughter from some decades ago, noting that, “Lately, the years of my life seem to be flying by so much faster. Telephone poles whizzing by my train window, the scenery just a blur.”

I understand, though I did not always. I’ve told the story before, back in 2007:

During my college days – it must have been in 1975 – Mom was away for a few days, and Dad and I were batching it. One evening, we headed downtown to the House of Pizza – without question my all-time favorite pizza place – for dinner and a couple of beers. As we sipped our beers after dinner, the conversation turned to the passage of time.

“You know,” he said, “for someone your age” – I was twenty-one – “time seems to go slowly. As you go on, you’ll see that it begins to speed up. And by the time you get to be my age” – he was fifty-five – “it begins to move so rapidly that the years just fly, and it’s hard to keep track of it.”

I’m sure I nodded, not comprehending. He’d had a heart attack the previous autumn, and it could be that he was feeling that first chill of mortality. Maybe not. But something spurred him to talk for one of the few times I recall about how he felt about at least a part of his life. And I guess that’s why it’s such a clear memory.

As it turned out, Dad had another twenty-eight years left. I’ll turn fifty-four next week, just one year younger than Dad was that evening when we had pizza and beer. . . . I have no conclusions to draw, just the observation that my father was right, and the days and months and years seem to be accelerating, carrying me and those I love along.

I’m sixty-five now, and each of the eleven years since I wrote that has flown more rapidly yet, sweet years flitting past. I never got the chance to tell Dad he was right.

A search for “time” among the 77,000-some tracks in the RealPlayer pulls up more than 2,800 results. That includes artists’ names and album titles, of course, so some of those go away. But there are plenty of tracks still from which to choose.

Having waded through about half of the options, I came across a song called “Of Time And Rivers Flowing” that showed up in 1998 on the album Where Have All The Flowers Gone – The Songs Of Pete Seeger. I’ve never mentioned it, which I find a little odd, as the performance on the tribute album came from Richie Havens.

Of time and rivers flowing
The seasons make a song
And we who live beside her
Still try to sing along
Of rivers, and fish, and men
And the season still a-comin’
When she’ll run clear again.

So many homeless sailors
So many winds that blow
I asked the half-blind scholars
Which way the currents go
So cast your nets below
And the gods of the moving waters
Will tell us all they know.

The circles of the planets
The circles of the moon
The circles of the atoms
All play a marching tune
And we who would join in
Stand aside no longer
Now let us all begin.

We can stand aside no longer
Now let us all begin.

Saturday Single No. 640

May 11th, 2019

Here are the top ten albums in the Billboard 200 released fifty years ago yesterday, May 10, 1969:

Hair by the original cast
Blood, Sweat & Tears
Galveston by Glenn Campbell
Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan
Donovan’s Greatest Hits
Cloud Nine by the Temptations
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly
Bayou Country by Creedence Clearwater Revival
Help Yourself by Tom Jones
Led Zeppelin

Four of those ten, the LP database tells me, never showed up in the vinyl stacks: the records by the Temptations, Iron Butterfly, Tom Jones and Led Zeppelin. I had some other Zep and a Temptations anthology, and I once made the misguided decision to buy Iron Butterfly’s live album. (The live version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” was even more aimless than was the studio version.) No albums by Tom Jones ever showed up in the vinyl stacks.

A few of those – the BST, the Campbell, the CCR – are great albums. Nashville Skyline is enjoyable, but somehow seems slight; if we’re listening to Dylan from 1970, I prefer New Morning. And the Donovan album is pleasant, but my judgment on his work has been the same since it first came out of the radio speakers in the mid- to late 1960s: It’s for the most part a series of trifles with little substance.

The most interesting of those ten might be Hair. I think the cast album was more a marker of a social moment than a record one listened to (unless one had seen the musical, I suppose), but what I noticed about the music was the number of cover hits it inspired: “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” went to No. 1 for the 5th Dimension, “Hair” went to No. 2 for the Cowsills, “Good Morning Starshine” went to No. 3 for Oliver, and “Easy To Be Hard” went to No. 4 for Three Dog Night. The Happenings tried to get in on the trend, too, but their medley of “Where Do I Go/Be-In/Hare Krishna” stalled at No. 69. And there may be other covers I’m not aware of.

As to current listening, a fair number of tracks from those albums are among the 3,900-plus tracks on the iPod: a couple from Nashville Skyline, a couple from Galveston, and seven each from Blood, Sweat & Tears and Donovan’s Greatest Hits. (Yes, I said Donovan’s works are basically trifles; that doesn’t mean they’re not fun to listen to.)

As it happens, I drove to the train station in Big Lake the other day to head to a Twins game with Rob, and I let the Blood, Sweat & Tears album keep me company. Even with David Clayton-Thomas’ tendency to over-sing, the album is pretty high on my list. (How high? In my top fifty, maybe.) I had kind of forgotten how jazzy things get during the instrumental breaks.

And I was also reminded as I listened that Blood, Sweat & Tears was the first album I got after I got my tape player during the summer of 1969. I’ve long since added it on vinyl and CD, which puts it pretty close to the front of the line in terms of music I’ve listened to the longest.

So here’s “Smiling Phases” from Blood, Sweat & Tears’ 1969 self-titled album. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

Taking Time

May 10th, 2019

I haven’t been entirely lazy during the last week. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve been scanning old family pictures that my sister and I have found in various boxes, spending a couple hours each day at the desk sorting out the in-focus shots from those more fuzzy.

Along with that, I’ve been attaching the occasional scanned photo to the pages of appropriate relatives at my family tree at Ancestry.com, where I’ve been digging for a while.

The one thing I have not done this week is anything regarding blogging, whether about music or anything else. I general write early in the morning, but this week I’ve been sleeping in, perhaps because I still need down time. After all, the doctors did say when I had my surgery in January that, although I could resume normal activities in April, it would be about a year before I’d be fully recovered. And I do tire easily.

So I took a week for me. And in the past few days, I’ve been thinking about what I might write about when I come back to this space. I’ve got no major plans for today. I have an idea for tomorrow’s Saturday Single. And I think that next week, Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson will be featured here at least once, as I don’t think I’ve ever written much about them.

But for today, I’m just happy to open the file and put down some words. As for music, I took a look at the Billboard Hot 100 from fifty years ago today – May 10, 1969 – and found at No. 100 a record I featured here a little more than eight years ago, which is an eternity in blog time. Here’s Wilson Pickett’s not-entirely-successful cover of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” which peaked at No. 64.

Forty-Nine Years

May 4th, 2019

May 4, 1970: Four Dead In Ohio

Allison Krause
Jeffrey Miller
Sandra Scheuer
William Schroeder

Here’s Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young with the version of “Ohio” that was included on the live album 4 Way Street, assembled from 1970 performances in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and released in 1971.

‘And they’re off!’

May 3rd, 2019

DerbyI’m not sure when I got the game. I might have been twelve. But at some store – Woolworth’s? Kresge’s? I don’t remember – I saw the Kentucky Derby Racing Game and wanted it enough to either wheedle its price out of one of my parents or pay for it with my own limited funds. (More likely the former.)

It really wasn’t much of a game, as a glance at the photo above reveals. The winner was the horse whose number came up on the spinner fifteen times. No favorites, no dark horses, no upsets. Just spins of a plastic arrow. I played it frequently for a while, then sporadically for a longer while, then not at all.

Eventually, it sat in a closet at the house on Kilian Boulevard waiting for its now-adult owner to deal with it. I think it was among the toys I took to a dealer at an antique mall out by the freeway a year or so after Dad died.

What did intrigue me about the game were the names of the seven horses: Swaps, Needles, Iron Liege, Tim Tam, Tomy Lee, Venetian Way, and Carry Back. Those, I learned after some time playing the game, were the winners of the Kentucky Derby from 1955 through 1961. Earlier versions of the game – and it seems to date back at least to the 1930s – seem to have had only five horses (based on listings at Ebay) and, of course, differing rosters of horses, including Citation, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway, Gallant Fox and likely more.

And I became fascinated for a time with the act of naming thoroughbred horses. The names seemed so odd and random. And since I was also deeply into naming sports teams (and designing their logos) in those days – a hobby I’ve mentioned before – I began compiling a short list of horse names. That list is long gone, and I recall only one of the names: Walter’s Warrior. (Even at 14 or so, I was a major fan of alliteration.)

I still find the breeding and naming of thoroughbreds interesting. I spent some time the other evening digging into the breeding line of this year’s Kentucky Derby favorite, Omaha Beach. (The horse was scratched from the race – and the other two Triple Crown races – yesterday because of a throat ailment.)

And I’m currently reading Christopher McGrath’s book Mr. Darley’s Arabian, which details the long lineage of a horse brought to England from Aleppo (in today’s Syria) in the early 1700s, a horse that McGrath says is the ancestor of nearly every thoroughbred raced today in England, North American and Australia. (Two other Arabians were also in the genetic mix early, but those lines, McGrath says, have nearly faded away.)

Beyond my general curiosity about a wide range of things, I know that one of the things that got me interested in thoroughbred racing, lineage and names was discovering the names of those seven horses in my Kentucky Derby Racing Game years ago. (The saga of Secretariat when I was nineteen did not hurt, either.) I don’t know if newer versions exist of the game (either as a board game or digital doodad), but it’s nice to think that some urchin somewhere will someday open a racing game that features Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Always Dreaming, and Justify along with the winner of tomorrow’s 145th running of the Kentucky Derby.

Keeping to the topic (in terms of the title, at least), here’s Little Richard with “Last Year’s Race Horse (Can’t Run In This Year’s Race).” It was originally intended for the unreleased 1972 album Southern Child and showed up on the 2005 release King of Rock & Roll: Complete Reprise Recordings.

‘Dance Into May!’

May 1st, 2019

Here’s a piece that ran here ten years ago. I’ve edited it just a bit. Happy May Day!*

It’s May Day again

No one has left a May Basket at my door this morning. I’m not surprised: How long has it been since anyone actually left a May Basket anywhere? I suppose there might be places where that sweet custom lingers, but that’s not here.

I do recall spending hours with construction paper, blunt scissors and schoolroom glue at Lincoln Elementary School, painstakingly putting together May Baskets with my classmates. I was not an artistic child. My skills were such that my baskets – year after year – were lopsided creatures with little gaps and clots of dried white glue all over. And the May Baskets I made over the years never got left on anyone’s doorstep.

May Day has long been marked as International Workers Day, but on this May Day I do not know of any workers who will march in solidarity today. In Europe, certainly (and perhaps in other places as well), there will be such marches. I do wonder how relevant those marches and those marchers are in these times. How lively is the international labor movement these days? Probably not all that lively, and these may be days when a more vital labor movement would be useful, as societies and priorities are being reordered.

As to specifically celebrating May Day, though, I recall the days of the Soviet Union: May Day was one of the two days a year when there were massive parades across the expanse of Moscow’s Red Square, past the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb. It would have been a spectacle to see, of course. One thing the Soviet Union could do well was put on a parade.

Looking further back into May Day history, Wikipedia tells me that the “earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian [times], with the festival of Flora the Roman Goddess of flowers, [and] the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane.” May Day, in pagan times, the account continues, marked the beginning of summer.

Current celebrations still abound in the land of about half of my ancestors, according to Wikipedia: “In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of Pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of maypoles, and young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: ‘Tanz in den Mai!’ (‘Dance into May!’). In the Rhineland, a region in the western part of Germany, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole, though the males are still allowed and encouraged to do so.”

Well, there is no dancing here today, at least not around maypoles (possibly around the kitchen if I am bored while waiting for the toaster). If I look real hard in the refrigerator, I might find a bottle of Mai Bock from one of the area’s breweries. That would be cause enough to celebrate.

Happy May Day!

A Six-Pack For May Day
“First of May” by the Bee Gees, Atco 5567 (1969)
“For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Glenn Yarbrough, from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her (1967)
“May Be A Price To Pay” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980)
“Mayfly” by Jade from Fly on Strangewings (1970)
“Hills of May” by Julie Felix from Clotho’s Web (1972)
“King of May” by Natalie Merchant from Ophelia (1998)

I imagine I’m cheating a little bit with two of those. But to be honest, I thought I’d have to cut more corners than I did. I was surprised to find four songs in my files with the name of the month in their titles.

How could I not play the Bee Gees’ track? It was, I think, the only single pulled from the Gibb brothers’ sprawling album Odessa, but it didn’t do so well on the chart: It spent three weeks in the Top 40, rising only to No. 37. Clearly out of style in its own time, what with the simple and nostalgic lyrics, the sweet, ornate production and the voice of a singer seemingly struggling not to weep, it’s a song that has, I think, aged better than a lot of the singles that surrounded it at the time. Still, I think “First of May” is better heard as a part of Odessa than as a single.

Speaking of out of style at the time, in 1967 Glenn Yarbrough’s honeyed voice was clearly not what record buyers were listening for. His For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her was a brave (some might say desperate, but I wouldn’t agree) attempt to update his sources of material, if not his vocal and background approaches: Writers whose songs appear on the album include Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, Phil Ochs, the team of Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley and, of course, Paul Simon, who wrote the enigmatic and beautiful title track. I don’t think the new approach boosted Yarbrough’s sales much – at least one single was released to little effect in Canada and the UK; I don’t know about the U.S. – but the record enchanted at least one young listener in the Midwest. The album remains a favorite of mine, and Yarbrough’s delicate reading of the title song is one of the highlights.

The Alan Parsons Project track “May Be A Price To Pay” is the opener to The Turn Of A Friendly Card, the symphonic (and occasionally overbearing) art-rock project released in 1980. Most folks, I think, would only recognize it as the home of two singles: “Games People Play” went to No. 16 in early 1981, and the lush “Time” went to No. 15 later that year. The album itself was in the Top 40 for about five months beginning in November 1980 and peaked at No. 13. That success paved the way for the group’s 1982 album, Eye In The Sky, which peaked at No. 7 in 1982, with its title track becoming a No. 3 hit. As overwhelming as The Turn Of A Friendly Card can be, I think it’s Parsons’ best work.

I don’t know a lot about Jade; I came across the trio’s only album – rereleased on CD with a couple of bonus tracks in 2003 – in my early adventures in the world of music blogs. All-Music Guide points out the obvious: Jade sounded – right down to singer Marian Segal’s work – very much like early Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny. That’s a niche that a lot of British groups were trying to fill at the time, and Jade filled it long enough to release one album. “Mayfly” had more of a countryish feel than does the album as a whole.

According to AMG, “Julie Felix isn’t too well-known in her native United States, but since 1964 she’s been a major British folk music star and has been compared over there with Joan Baez.” Well, that seems a stretch to me, based on Clotho’s Web, the album from which “Hills of May” comes. The album is pleasant but has never blown me away.

One album that did blow me away when I first heard it in, oh, 1999, was Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia. Supposedly a song cycle that traces the character of Ophelia through the ages, the CD was filled with lush and melancholy songs, some of which were almost eerie. Repeated listening only made the CD seem better, if a bit more depressing. It’s a haunting piece of work, and “King of May” is pretty typical of the entire CD.

*The information at Wikipedia may have altered over these past ten years. If this were a newspaper piece, I’d check. But it’s a blog post and not a very important one, either, so I’m leaving that stuff as it was ten years ago.