I’m battling another bit of cold/sinus crap, the Texas Gal and I are dealing with some impending changes in our health insurance, and I’m keeping up perhaps a bit too obsessively with the news coming from Washington, D.C.
So I’ve not been in the best frame of mind this week. And that’s why it was pleasant on Wednesday evening to get together with a few of the other musicians from our Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship to plan our musical offerings for the next few weeks.
We try to do that on a regular basis, but things got a bit stretched in December, what with holiday activities, so we were pretty much scrambling week-to-week as we put together the music since January began. So it was good to put a little bit of order in place, and it was good – as it always is – to work on some music for the next few weeks.
One of the tunes we’re planning to do in a couple weeks comes from a folkish trio of women who call themselves Red Molly. The trio – Laurie MacAllister, Abbie Gardner and Molly Venter – released five studio albums, a live album and an EP between 2005 and 2014. Since then, they’ve been on what they call a hiatus, working on solo projects.
The tune – “May I Suggest” – might seem out of touch with the way these times seem to be flowing, but I think that along with being concerned about that flow, we also need, more than ever, to be aware of the good things that still fill our lives from day to day. And Red Molly’s “May I Suggest” might help folks do that. I know it does for me.
It’s from the trio’s 2008 album Love and Other Tragedies.
The Texas Gal is in the kitchen, sorting a bushel of pickling cucumbers she picked up at the local farmer’s market this morning. Yes, she has cucumbers in her garden in the side yard, but just to make sure she has enough for an early batch of pickles each summer, she orders a bushel from a woman from Browerville, a burg of about 800 folks about sixty-five miles northwest of here.
The vendor called yesterday and said those cucumbers would be available at the farmer’s market today, and the Texas Gal brought them home a little bit ago. By that time, I’d gotten the canner and its accessories and about eighteen quart-sized canning jars up from the fruit cellar. And in a couple of hours or so, the smell of pickling brine will fill the house, and by sometime this afternoon, the first batches of pickles – combining the Browerville cucumbers with the first ones this season from our garden – will come out of the canner to cool.
It’s remarkable to realize that until we moved into the house not quite eight years ago, the Texas Gal had never gardened and never done any canning. She learned quickly, even with some missteps along the way, both in the garden and in the kitchen, and one side of our fruit cellar is almost always pretty well stocked. Well, the shelf space devoted to pickles is pretty empty right now – one lone jar of Hot Texas Mustard Pickles remains from last year – but that’s intentional: Over the winter and into the spring, we gave away everything else we had left on the shelves from the past few years to clear the space for this year’s batches.
It’s not just pickles, of course. Over the past few years, she’s canned green beans, wax beans, tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, chili starter and various relishes that are staples here. She’s also tried some things that weren’t as successful, like the sweet and sour curried vegetables from last year. It was an interesting idea, but the reality was a little less tasty than we hoped.
This year’s canning efforts, however, will be mostly devoted to pickles. There will be green beans and wax beans galore from her portion of the community garden, but most of those will go to the Dream Center, a residence for ex-felons on the North Side that we help support through our Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The same holds true for a lot of the tomatoes we’ll get, although I imagine she’ll make and freeze some pasta sauce, as the large batch she made and froze two years ago is now gone.
But that will come later in the summer, probably in mid-August at the earliest. Today and tomorrow, it’s pickling time. I’ll contribute where I can, but my role is mostly limited – as I’ve noted here in other summers – to the literal heavy lifting, moving the filled canner from burner to burner and lugging jars of cooled, sealed and labeled pickles to the fruit cellar as the last part of the process.
So with all that, it seemed like a good time to look for a tune with “kitchen” in its title. I dismissed twenty-seven versions of “Come On In My Kitchen” and looked further. And I came upon “Mama’s In The Kitchen” by Toni Childs. It’s from her 2008 album Keep The Faith, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
By now, I’m sure that anyone who comes by here knows that B.B. King is gone. The blues legend passed on at the age of 89 at his Las Vegas home late Thursday evening (May 14). And blogworld and Facebook are filled with tributes, memories and clips of King’s performances both live and in the studio. I spent a fair amount of time reading and listening yesterday.
I was lucky enough to see B.B. King in concert once; he was the headliner at a blues program offered in 1995 at the Minnesota State Fair. He was nearing the age of seventy, he told us, and so he sat down as he performed, but the notes still came clear from the guitar he called Lucille, many of them shining with that silvery vibrato wrung from his dancing left hand.
But the music he brought forth and offered the world for almost seventy years was only part of the story of B.B. King. As I read a very good account of King’s life, written by Tim Weiner of the New York Times, this caught my eye:
B. B. stood for Blues Boy, a name he took with his first taste of fame in the 1940s. His peers were bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, whose nicknames fit their hard-bitten lives. But he was born a King, albeit in a shack surrounded by dirt-poor sharecroppers and wealthy landowners.
That shack was in Berclair, Mississippi, which Weiner describes as “a hamlet outside the small town of Itta Bena in the Mississippi Delta.” And by the time he passed on in his Las Vegas home nearly ninety years later, he was a multi-millionaire. That arc from poverty to riches might be nearly as important to King’s story as is his music. I say that because from everything I’ve read over the years and then over the past day, none of it – the money, the adulation – really changed Riley B. King. He was, from what I’ve seen from far more than one source, one of the nicest men a person could ever meet.
And that’s good to know. I mean, I listen to and enjoy a fair amount of music made by people who I know were mean-spirited. So it’s nice to know that part of B.B. King’s legacy is that the good cheer with which he played his often broken-hearted blues was real.
There is, of course, a fair amount of B.B. King’s music on the digital shelves here, and more in the vinyl stacks. Sifting through it to find one track to feature here this morning was a little daunting. Then I came across a track from King’s 2008 album, One Kind Favor, an earthy album of covers produced by T Bone Burnett.
“Sitting On Top Of The World” is a song first recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks (though Second Hand Songs notes that “[m]ore than half of its melody was in Tampa Red’s instrumental composition ‘You Got To Reap What You Sow’ from the previous year”). Since then, it’s been covered by folks ranging from Howlin’ Wolf and Bob Dylan to Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys and Mitch Miller. King’s version from One Kind Favor seems to make for a nice curtain call, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.
I’m supposed to sing tomorrow in church, but there is a tickle at the back of my throat that worries me.
I noticed it yesterday when I was practicing. My voice in the higher portion of my (somewhat limited) range was not as strong as it generally is, and I was straining to hit the D just above Middle C. That’s not good, as the verse of one of the two songs I’m scheduled to sing begins on that note, as does the chorus of the second.
So I’m a little worried.
As I wrote a while back, singing in public is something that’s come back to me only in the past year, since I’ve been comfortable once again sharing my voice – and sometimes songs I’ve written – in public. It’s not something I’ve done a lot over the years.
I sang in junior high and high school choirs, of course, and in a choir at St. Cloud State for one quarter (as a one-credit activity). After that one quarter, I decided I’d invest my activity credit in work at the campus radio station. From that point on for many years, the only singing I did was along with the radio or while practicing on my guitar. During college days, I often worked on my music while I was perched on the little bank on our lawn just yards from Kilian Boulevard, singing softly and occasionally dropping my head to reach the harmonica rack and offer the world what can only be described as Bob Dylan Lite.
Dylan wasn’t my only influence. In the late months of 1990, as the U.S. was preparing for what turned out to be a brief war with Iraq, I wrote an anti-war tune titled “One Wall Is Enough” and in a burst of bravery sang it at a piano one evening in a coffeehouse in Columbia, Missouri. When I was finished and sat sipping coffee (thinking that it hadn’t gone too badly and that the applause from the sparse crowd had been genuine), one of the proprietors of the place joined me at my table.
“Nice job,” he said. “You want to know what I heard?” I nodded. “Well, there was some Dylan, of course, and the song construction was straight from Buddy Holly and Lennon-McCartney.” I nodded again, because he was right. “And I heard some Lightfoot and some Van Morrison. And I heard something in the lyrics I’ve never heard before, and I figure that’s got to be you.”
As vague as it was, that might have been one of the better compliments I’ve received in my life.
That coffee-house lark was an exception; otherwise, from the time I left St. Cloud State until the mid-1990s, any performing was limited to gatherings of friends and a one-off performance for a student group at Minot State. It was during the 1990s that I came across Jake and the band he was collecting, and during the years I played with Jake’s guys, I sang lead on a few things: The Band’s “The Weight,” Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” and the Darden Smith/Boo Hewerdine composition, “First Chill Of Winter.”
From the time I was turned away from Jake’s group in early 2001 until last December when another church member and I performed “First Chill Of Winter,” I sang for no one (except the Texas Gal from rare time to rare time). Since that first church performance, I’ve sung there a few times on my own and several times with that other member (and with the choir frequently). Happily, my efforts have been well-received and the compliments I’ve gotten seem genuine.
And I’m supposed to sing tomorrow, but the tickle in the back of my throat this morning makes me think that’s unlikely. I’m a little bummed out about that. I’d selected two songs that fit mid-October nearly perfectly and also, it turns out, fit well into a Saturday post here.
The first has been mentioned here over the years (and shared long ago during the years of downloading): The cover of Eric Andersen’s “Blue River” by Andersen, Jonas Fjeld and Rick Danko (with Danko handling the lead vocal) from the trio’s 1991 Danko/Fjeld/Andersen album.
And then there’s Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” as recorded by Kate Rusby, a British folksinger whose stellar work I’ve recently discovered. Rusby’s cover of Denny’s beautiful tune came out on a CD single in 2008.
And there, in the hope that I’ll be able to perform them tomorrow, are your Saturday Singles.
So, what do we know about “Another Man Done Gone”? The tune has led me on a merry chase (well, maybe not so merry, considering the subject matter of the song) since I posted the version of the song that Jorma Kaukonen recorded for his 1974 album Quah. The first item on my list was to find out where the song came from.
In the notes to the 2003 CD reissue of Quah, Jeff Tamarkin writes that “Another Man Done Gone” is “another one of those ancient blues standards whose origin is shrouded in mystery. Although credited on Quah to Ruby Pickens Tart, Vera Hall and folklorists John and Alan Lomax, other versions have assigned its authorship to any number of persons, among them Johnny Cash, Sonny Boy Williamson, C.C. Carter and Woody Guthrie – or Public Domain.”
The earliest version I’ve been able to find of the tune is the one performed by Vera Hall that was recorded by John Lomax in Livingston, Alabama, on October 31, 1940.
I believe that’s the Lomax recording. According to the information at Discogs, Alan Lomax also recorded two versions of the tune during visits to prisons in the south around the same time, but I’ve not heard those or seen the documentation. Someday, maybe.
In the meantime, we have Hall’s haunting a capella version as a starting point. Odetta offered a similar version on her 1957 album Odetta Sings Ballads And Blues. I was puzzled by the last verse of Hall’s version of the song, which sounds like “I’m going to walk your log.” A discussion at the Southern music board WeenieCampbell.com, where folks better informed than I share their ideas, seemed to come to no conclusions as to what the verse means. The phrase “walk your log,” the discussion said, sometimes appears in blues and folk songs as meaning “I’ll get the better of you” (perhaps from log-walking and -rolling contests, one poster theorized), while another poster thought the line might be “a tribute from a fellow prisoner, who will pick up the workload/log of his departed comrade.”
As versions of the song multiplied during the folk/blues boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s, some other lyrical elements showed up along the way. The spare version that Johnny Cash offered on his 1963 album Blood, Sweat and Tears includes the additional lines “They hung him from a tree/ they let his children see” and “When he was hangin’ dead/ the captain turned his head.” By the time Kaukonen recorded “Another Man Done Gone” for Quah, the lines “They set the dogs on him/they tore him limb from limb” had become part of the song.
As I wandered through discography websites and versions of the tune this week, I came across a couple of head-scratchers. The spooky and somewhat weird 1959 version by Lorrie Collins turns the tune into a song of lost love and credits Johnny Cash as the writer. (Lyrically, it is a different song, though the melody remains the same.) I don’t know who Cash originally credited in 1963, but the current listing for Cash’s version at AllMusic Guide now credits the quartet of Tart, Hall and the Lomaxes. (Tart, if you’re wondering, was an Alabama folklorist whose work was similar to that of the Lomaxes and who assisted them during their travels in that state.) The other puzzle I found came from the credits of Harry Belafonte’s 1960 album, Swing Dat Hammer, on which the writing credit goes to Anita Carter of the Carter Family, which I find odd, as the Carters never recorded the song, as far as I can see.
Well, anyway, it’s a haunting song still, and versions of it keep showing up. The bluesman Sugar Blue included a nice version on his 1979 album Cross Roads; Irma Thomas added some lyrics for a post-Katrina version that was included in the Paste Magazine Sampler Issue 24 in September 2006; the Mercy Brothers, a Boston duo, recorded an intriguing version of the song for their 2008 album, Strange Adventure; and there are no doubt others out there worth hearing that I missed.
One of my favorite current versions of the tune hews pretty closely to Hall’s version from 1940. The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a group from Durham, North Carolina, described by Wikipedia as “an old-time string band,” included the song on their 2007 album, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind.
As promised yesterday, we’ll continue today with the next installment of Floyd’s Prism, and when we search in the mp3 stacks for tunes with “violet” in their titles, we get a minimal result: only thirty-six titles.
And most of them have to be discarded, as is generally the case. First off the pile are a couple of singer-songwriter albums: Madison Violet’s Americana-tinged 2009 album, No Fool For Trying, and Sarah Alden’s 2012 effort, Fists Of Violets, which is more difficult to characterize.
Then, we lose some individuals tracks whose titles come close: “Violetta” from the 1962 album A Taste of Honey by exotica master Martin Denny; “Goodbye To the War; Goodbye To the Violets” from the 1973 album Weltschmerzen by the People’s Victory Orchestra & Chorus; “Violets for Your Furs” from Frank Sinatra’s 1954 album, Songs for Young Lovers; U2’s “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” from the 1992 album, Achtung Baby; and versions of Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn” from the Robbs (1967), Rick Nelson (1969), Mary Chapin Carpenter (2009) and Andersen himself (1966, as noted here yesterday).
That leaves us with six tracks, which was our target. So on we go.
The British-based folk rock band Eclection recorded only one album during its two-year (1967-69) existence, but the self-titled album, released in 1968, is pretty good and not as Brit-centered as one might expect. In the liner notes for the 2001 reissue of the album, Richie Unterberger wrote, “The combination of male-female harmonies, optimistic lyrics with shades of romantic psychedelia, folk-rock melodies, acoustic-electric six- and twelve-string guitar combinations, and stratospheric orchestration couldn’t help but bring to mind similar Californian folk-pop-rock of the mid-to-late 1960s.” The track “Violet Dew” doesn’t quite cover all of those bases, but it covers a lot of them. Perhaps the most noticeable thing as I listen this morning is the remarkable voice of singer Kerrilee Male, who left the band later in 1968 to go home to Australia and seemingly, from anything I can find online this morning, never recorded again.
Shawn Phillips’ work from the early 1970s has shown up frequently in this space (though perhaps not for a while), but his later work not so much. That’s unfortunate, as Phillips’ later work is worth hearing. The difference, I suppose, is that his work from the latter portion of the 1970s does not carry the same time-and-place weight for me as does his earlier stuff; I didn’t hear much of the later work at the time it came out. Still, nearly every time something pops up from his late 1970s albums, I’m glad it did so. Today, it’s “Lady in Violet” from his 1978 album Transcendence, about which I said in 2007: “It’s a pretty good album, of a piece with the rest of his work, although the lyrics don’t seem to stand up as well . . . . Musically, it’s enjoyable with a breath-taking moment or two.” Whether any of those moments show up in “Lady in Violet” is your call, I guess. I think they do.
Without doubt, the finest offering among the six surviving “Violet” tracks is “Violet Eyes” by Levon Helm. Found on his 1980 album, American Son, the track offers harmonies and an overall feeling that echo the best albums of The Band. According to All Music Guide, the track was recorded in Nashville: “While recording a few songs for the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which he played Loretta Lynn’s father, Levon Helm and friends just kept the tape rolling.” And as I listen this morning, I wonder why no solo tracks from Helm showed up on my long-ago Ultimate Jukebox. So, in what I imagine could be – perhaps should be – the last instance of Jukebox Regrets, I’ll acknowledge that “Violet Eyes” and “Even A Fool Would Let Go” (from Helm’s 1982 self-titled album) should have been part of the Ultimate Jukebox.
Maybe it doesn’t happen so much anymore (or maybe I just don’t see it), but a few years ago the simple mention of Coldplay at a forum or bulletin board – during a time when that band was perhaps the most popular band in the world – would spark arguments, dismissive comments and utter vitriol aimed at Chris Martin and his mates. I never understood that. I don’t count Coldplay among my favorites, but I don’t find the group’s music unlistenable. And I do like very much several tracks from the group, including “Violet Hill” from the 2008 album Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends.
To label something as “glossy Americana” might be a contradiction, but that’s what I hear when I listen to the 2011 CD Barton Hollow by the duo called the Civil Wars. The album by Joy Williams and John Paul White offers mostly rootsy ballads that seem to have been worked over until they shine, which is not an awful idea, but some part of me wants a few unsanded and unvarnished bits in my folk music. Still, I find Barton Hollow enjoyable, and that holds true for the instrumental “The Violet Hour” this morning.
I’m not sure how I got hold of Jeremy Messersmith’s 2010 album, The Reluctant Graveyard. There are a number of public relations firms that email me regularly, offering CDs or downloads, so I’m assuming that’s how I heard of Messersmith, who is based in Minneapolis. And having done some digging and some closer listening this morning, I have to add Messersmith – who’s gained a lot of critical acclaim in the past few years – to that long list of musicians to whom I should pay greater attention. As to this morning’s task, “Violet!” is one of the better tracks on The Reluctant Graveyard. Here’s the (rather quirky) official video:
After “Windmills of Your Mind” was used – as noted here Tuesday – as the main theme for the 1968 movie The Thomas Crown Affair, covers of the Michel Legrand tune came spinning from many places – in English, with the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman; in French, with Eddy Marnay’s lyrics; in Dutch; in Danish (as “Sjælens Karrusel,” a 1970 single performed by Pedro Biker that I, sadly, have not yet heard); and eventually, in recent years, in Slovenian and Italian.
(Those are the languages listed today at Second Hand Songs, which is usually pretty comprehensive, but there certainly could be covers in other languages out there.)
The vast majority of the covers listed at Second Hand Songs are, of course, in English; the website lists seventy versions of “Windmills of Your Mind,” beginning with a 1968 cover by Merrill Womach, who is described at Wikipedia as “an American undertaker, organist and gospel singer.” I’ve never heard Womach’s cover, but other early covers I have heard include those from jazz drummer and singer Grady Tate, guitarist George Benson (who kicked the tempo up way too fast) and rock group Vanilla Fudge (who psychedelicized the tune) in 1969.
(The song has also been covered numerous times in French, too, with the most popular cover – if I’m reading things right – being the 1969 version by Vicky Leandros.)
Also in 1969, Dusty Springfield released the tune as a single, recorded during her brilliant Dusty in Memphis sessions; the record went to No. 31 on the Billboard chart in June of that year. I don’t recall hearing Springfield’s version, and the record doesn’t show up on the Twin Cities radio charts available at The Oldies Loon. But a couple of readers who stopped in this week – Steve E. and Marie – noted that for them, Dusty’s version is the definitive take on the song. Steve E. wrote, “For me, the song belongs to Dusty Springfield. Her version got a lot of airplay in Southern California in summer 1969, and I love both her vocal and the arrangement.”
Despite the large number of covers the song has generated over the years, only two versions of the tune have made it to the pop charts (through 2009, anyway, which is where my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles calls it quits). Springfield’s, as I noted above, got to No. 31, and a version by country/pop singer Jimmie Rodgers (“Honeycomb”) went to No. 123 in 1969. It’s not a bad cover, but it’s distinguished more by being Rodgers’ thirtieth and last record in or near the Hot 100 than by anything else.
The past decade has brought out quite a few covers of the tune. Of those I’ve heard, perhaps the most interesting was the trippy 2008 version released by the Parenthetical Girls, an “experimental pop band” (according to Wikipedia) from Everett, Washington. You’ll note I said “most interesting” and not “most listenable.” I also sampled recent versions of the song by singers Melissa Errico, Stephanie Rearick and by Barbra Streisand (from her 2011 album What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman), and wasn’t impressed by them, either.
So which is my favorite? Well, somewhere out there is an instrumental version of the tune that I heard on occasion, probably on what would now be called Adult Contemporary radio, right around the time the original version of The Thomas Crown Affair was released. I’m just not sure whose version it was. It might have been the cover by Henry Mancini off his 1969 album A Warm Shade of Ivory, but I’m not putting any money on it. In the absence of surety, I’ll go with Steve E. and Marie and enjoy Dusty Springfield’s take on the song.
It was sometime during late 1987, and Robbie Robertson’s first solo album was on the stereo in my apartment in Minot, North Dakota. I was letting the record play in the background as I did something else – reading, most likely – and the second track on Side Two began.
The loosely structured “Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is one of those songs with spoken portions and several different sung verses, and it caught my attention. I heard most clearly the second spoken portion:
Take a picture of this The fields are empty, abandoned ’59 Chevy Laying in the back seat listening to Little Willie John Yea, that’s when time stood still You know, I think I’m gonna go down to Madam X And let her read my mind She said “That Voodoo stuff don’t do nothing for me.”
That might have been the first time I’d heard of Little Willie John. Or I might have heard of him in conjunction with “Fever,” his 1956 hit (No. 24 pop, No. 5 R&B) covered and taken to No. 8 by Peggy Lee in 1958. I’m not sure when I first heard about Little Willie John, but I do know that I still know very little about him or his music. Beyond the facts that he had some R&B hits – I have a CD’s worth of them in mp3 form but none on vinyl – and that he died in prison, my data banks have been pretty empty. And I’m going to have to rectify that very soon.
So why spend four paragraphs writing about things I don’t know? (Readers of an acerbic bent might suggest that I frequently spend many paragraphs writing about things I don’t know.) Because this morning, the RealPlayer popped up the Allman Brothers Band doing “Need Your Love So Bad” from 1979’s reasonably good Enlightened Rogues. I knew it was a cover, and – my curiosity piqued – I did some looking.
The song was written in 1956 by one Mertis John Jr., says Wikipedia, and was first recorded by his brother, Little Willie John. Released on the King label, “Need Your Love So Bad” went to No. 5 on the R&B chart, the second single by John to do so. (“All Around The World,” John’s first single in the R&B Top 40, had gone to No. 5 in 1955.)
John went on to place fifteen more records in the Billboard R&B Top 40 and sixteen in the Hot 100, and I may dig around in those someday, but my interest this morning was in covers of “Need Your Love So Bad.” Performers who have covered the song include, according to All Music Guide, the Allman Brothers Band, Fleetwood Mac, Sting, Pee Wee Crayton, Whitesnake, Tracy Nelson (recording with Mother Earth), Brenton Wood, Joe Cocker, Gary Moore, Ruby Johnson, Eva Cassidy, Georgie Fame, B.B. King, Bonnie Tyler and seemingly many more.
Digging around at YouTube, I first found a cover of the song recorded live in 2008 for the BBC by Adele and Paul Weller, and that was pretty good. But then I found the late Eva Cassidy’s version, a duet with Chuck Brown from the 1997 release Eva by Heart, which AMG says was Cassidy’s “only true studio album.”
And I don’t need to go any further than that this morning.
As I wander through the forest of mp3s that has grown on my external hard drive, I sometimes find it hard to see the trees. Trying to decide on a single tune or title as a subject for writing is difficult when there are more than 50,000 recordings covering the digital hills and valleys.
So I devise ways to sort the lumber into segments that help me make some sense of it. One of them – by year – is obvious and frequently used. (The total of mp3s from my favorite year, 1970, now stands at 3,177.) So is sorting by title, which I use when I am considering writing about cover versions of a song. And the other day, I had the RealPlayer sort all 50,000-plus mp3s by title, and the results pointed something out to me that I kind of knew but hadn’t really thought about, if that makes any kind of sense.
I like songs about Memphis, Tennessee.
A rough count this morning showed that I have more than fifty recordings of songs with “Memphis” in the title. That total is vague because I’m not sure if I should count the five or so versions of Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again,” as it’s not really about Memphis, unless it’s a Memphis from an alternate universe. At least fifty recordings, however, are about the real Memphis, the home of rock ’n’ roll that was the gateway out of the South for millions.
More than any other large city in the U.S., Memphis calls to me. Someday, I hope, the city will be a gateway for me into the South, as I still have hopes of getting there and then heading south into the Delta to explore a territory that already seems familiar in daydreams and reverie. I’d spend time in Memphis, too, of course, absorbing what I could of that city’s history from the Stax Museum to the Lorraine Motel, from Graceland to the famous ducks at the Peabody.
Given the southward pull I feel, it’s no wonder, I guess, that I collect songs with the city’s name in their titles. The earliest recorded such tune I have is Bessie Smith’s 1923 recording, “Jazzbo Brown From Memphis Town,” and the most recent is Sheryl Crow’s “100 Miles From Memphis,” which was released last year.
It’s easy enough to fill in most of the intervening decades: From the 1934, we have “Memphis Shakedown” by the Memphis Jug Band. Nothing from the 1940s comes up, but the end of the 1950s, we find Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee,” and the 1960s were thick with songs that were in one way or another about the city atop the Mississippi bluffs: A couple of favorites are 1968’s “Memphis Train” by Rufus Thomas and “L.A., Memphis & Tyler, Texas” by Dale Hawkins in 1969.
The 1970s bring us, among others, Dan Penn’s “Raining In Memphis” and Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way From Memphis,” both from 1973. In 1981, Jesse Winchester gave us “Talk Memphis,” while John Fogerty’s 1985 track called Elvis Presley the “Big Train (From Memphis)” and John Hiatt released “Memphis in the Meantime” in 1987.
And the early years of the 1990s were chock-full of Memphian melodies, starting with the obvious, Marc Cohn’s brilliant “Walking in Memphis.” Also released between 1991 and 1994 – during the early years of that decade’s revival of country music, I’d say – were “Maybe It Was Memphis” by Pam Tillis, “Wrong Side of Memphis” by Trisha Yearwood, “Memphis Pearl” by Lucinda Williams and my favorite song among all of these, “Memphis Women and Chicken,” written by Dan Penn, Donnie Fritts and Gary Nicholson.
Penn’s performance of the song, from 1991’s Do Right Man, is good, but the first version of the tune I ever heard was by T. Graham Brown, who covered the song on his 1998 album Wine Into Water. (That was also the year, as it happened, that The Band covered Bobby Charles’ “Last Train to Memphis” on Jubilation, the group’s final release of new music.) And Alvin Youngblood Hart went “Back to Memphis” in 2000.
Continuing on into the first decade of this century, songs about Memphis continued to appear: The Hillbilly Voodoo Dolls released “West Memphis Three” in 2001 (which maybe shouldn’t count, as West Memphis is actually across the Mississippi River in Arkansas), Etta James sang of the “Wayward Saints of Memphis” in 2003, and Old Crow Medicine Show released “Memphis Motel” in 2008.
And early today, I discovered a new version of my favorite Memphis song. In 2008, one of the song’s co-writers, Gary Nicholson, released an album titled after his alter-ego, bluesman Whitey Johnson. So here is Nicholson – with the assistance of, I believe, Colin Linden – from Whitey Johnson with “Memphis Women and Chicken,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.