We talked a bit about 1974 last week, when I told a tale of romance and its aftermath, but the music tied to that post came from a year earlier. This morning, I decided to wander through the Billboard Hot 100 from December 21, 1974, forty-two years ago today, and see what came to mind.
The bulk of the records listed were, without surprise, familiar. I wasn’t actively listening to Top 40 at the time, but stuff drifts in the environment, you know, and becomes familiar whether you really like it or not. In addition, a lot of the stuff in that chart from December 1974 was on the jukebox at the student union, where I still spent a lot of time once I got back to school at the beginning of winter quarter.
And one of the records making its chart debut forty-two years ago today – sitting at No. 68 – is one that I liked a great deal then even though for some reason, I didn’t make any effort to find the record or even learn its title for years. I just heard John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” coming out of the speakers at school, in the car and, I imagine, many of the other places I hung out as the sad year of 1974 began to fade toward 1975 (which turned out to be a far better year). And I heard it a lot, as it went, eerily, to No. 9. And then, as records do, it faded away.
In some ways, I’m surprised that I never thought to find out the record’s title. I obviously knew it was Lennon’s work, but I evidently didn’t need to know more than that. As for buying it, well, I never did buy many singles, and I never gave much thought in those days to picking up Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album.
All I can say is that I wasn’t spending a lot on records in late 1974 and I kept to that in the first months of 1975 (and for a long time after, as far as that goes). And when I did buy, I was focusing on getting the most prominent of the stuff I’d heard during my time in Denmark, including albums by the Allman Brothers Band and the first Duane Allman anthology. So as much as I liked “#9 Dream,” it had to wait to get onto my shelves.
And it was a long wait. Eleven years later, on a January evening in 1986, the Other Half and I did some shopping in Buffalo, the county seat about ten miles south of Monticello. It’s a odd destination, as we rarely shopped in Buffalo; if we didn’t stay in Monti, we’d usually head thirty miles northwest up Interstate 94 to St. Cloud or go the same distance the other way to any number of malls or big box stores in the Twin Cities’ northwestern suburbs.
But we went that Friday evening to Buffalo, and one of the places we went had LPs. I noticed The John Lennon Collection, a recently released anthology of the man’s solo work, and it went home with us. So if I hadn’t ever bothered to learn it before (and I don’t know if I had or hadn’t), I learned by the end of that evening that the track with the haunting refrain “Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé” was in fact called “#9 Dream.” And I was glad to have it – and the rest of the tracks on the collection – with me.
Now, about the song “Stewball.” We offered in this spot yesterday the version of the song recorded in 1940 by Lead Belly and the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet for the Victor label. Pretty much a work song, that was the second of several iterations of the folk song that arose in England in the late Eighteenth Century.
Second Hand Songs notes: “Skewball, born in 1741, was a racehorse bred by Francis, Second Earl of Goldolphin. The horse, a gelding, was purportedly the top earning racer in Ireland in 1752, when he was 11. The song apparently originated as a ballad about a high stakes race occurring in the Curragh in Kildare, Ireland, in March 1752, which Skewball won.” The website gives a date of 1784 for the song, noting that the date “is for the oldest broadside identified of the ballad . . . held by the Harding Collection of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.”
The webpage continues, “According to John and Alan Lomax in American Ballads and Folk Songs, the ballad was converted into a work song by slaves – which is supported by the version of the lyrics published in their book. ‘Skewball’ apparently became ‘Stewball’ after the song migrated to the United States.”
Beyond the work song version of “Stewball,” the original story-song continued to be recorded. A 1953 recording by Cisco Houston is the earliest listed in the on-going project at Second Hand Songs, but Woody Guthrie recorded the tale of the horse race in 1944 or 1945. His version was released in 1999 on Buffalo Skinners: The Asch Recordings, Vol. 4 on the Smithsonian Folkways label.
Then came along the Greenbriar Boys. A trio made up by 1960 of John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Bob Yellin, the group, says All Music Guide, was “[o]ne of the first urban bands to play bluegrass” and was “instrumental in transforming the sounds of the hill country from a Southern music to an international phenomenon.” The Greenbriar Boys released their first two albums of bluegrass tunes in 1962 and 1964, but of more import for us today is a tune that showed up on New Folks, a 1961 sampler on the Vanguard label. Herald, Rinzler and Yellin set the words of “Stewball” to a simple, folkish tune (written by Yellin, according to website Beatles Songwriting Academy) and recorded the song as their contribution to the album:
After that, covers of the new version followed: From Peter, Paul & Mary in 1963 (a single release went to No. 35 and is the only version to chart), from Joan Baez in 1964 and from the Hollies in 1966, according to Second Hand Songs. And I know there are many other covers. Most of those take on the Greenbriar’s Boys’ version (including one by Mason Proffit on its 1969 album Wanted), but there are other covers of the early folk version and the work song version as well. I didn’t go digging too deeply, though, because something else about the song grabbed my attention this week.
Now, I’ve heard the version of “Stewball” using the Greenbriar Boys’ melody several times over the years, notably the versions by Mason Proffit and Peter, Paul & Mary. Heck, I even sang it along with Peter Yarrow at a concert a year-and-a-half ago. But I’d never noticed or thought about the tune’s similarity to another famous song until this week.
Last Tuesday, I ran past Second Hand Songs while looking for an interesting cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”, and when the results came up that put the Lennon/Ono tune in the adaptation tree for “Stewball,” I did a mild double-take. And then I thought about it, running the two tunes through my head. And yeah, John (and Yoko, to whatever degree she was involved in the writing, listed as she is as a composer) lifted the melody and chord structure from the Greenbriar Boys’ version of “Stewball.” There were a few changes, notably a key change and the addition of the “War is over if you want it” chorus, but it was essentially the same song.
And I’m not at all sure why Herald, Rinzler and Yellin didn’t complain. Does anybody know?
Last week, the Texas Gal and I were watching the reality show So You Think You Can Dance, which is – as I mentioned about a year-and-a-half ago – one of our favorite television shows. (For those unfamiliar with the show, as I said then, it’s basically American Idol for dancers.) The audition tour was underway, visiting Atlanta, and a young lady named Audrey Case took the stage.
The music started: bongo drums (I think) and then a woman’s voice crooning, “Do you want to dance,” and the sorting mechanism in my brain kicked in. I thought of the recently departed Donna Summer. Nope. And then Bette Midler’s name popped up, and I had faint memories that she’d released “Do You Want To Dance” as a single. I kept nodding as the audition went on, and immediately after the judges handed the young Ms. Case an airline ticket to Las Vegas and the next stage of the competition, I headed into the study and pulled Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles from the shelf.
And I saw that Bette Midler had indeed released “Do You Want To Dance” as a single in late 1972. Early in 1973, it went to No. 17.
The song has been around for a while. It was one of those that popped up occasionally as an oldie during my prime Top 40 years, and it probably got a bit more attention in the early 1970s when George Lucas selected the original version of the tune as one of the vintage records for the soundtrack of his 1973 movie, American Graffiti. That original version – far more sprightly than Midler’s 1972 cover version – came from Bobby Freeman, who also wrote the song and then saw his recording of it go to No. 5 in 1958.
There have been other covers besides Midler’s, of course. Whitburn lists five more that have hit the charts: Del Shannon (No. 43 in 1964), the Beach Boys (No. 12, 1965), the Mamas & the Papas (No. 76, 1968), the Love Society (No. 108, 1968) and the Ramones (No. 110, 1978). The website Second Hand Songs list a total of thirty-seven covers of the song, and that list includes more familiar names – Johnny Rivers, Kim Carnes, Cliff Richard, Dave Edmunds and others – and some names that are not so familiar, like Susan Wong, the Raimundos and most recently (in 2008), Energy. (I noted the presence on the list of a few Danish artists, like Jørgen Krabbenhøft and the Brødrene Olsen. I may have to do some digging, just because.)
One of the familiar names on the list – with a version that ranks a close second behind Midler’s as I sort out my favorite version of the song – is John Lennon, who added an island sound to the song when he recorded it for his 1975 album Rock ’N’ Roll. And that’s a good place to stop this morning.
Right around this time in 1975, during an hour or two between classes at St. Cloud State, I wandered from The Table over to the jukebox in the Atwood Center snack bar. I started scanning titles, and I’m pretty sure I saw all of the records listed in the Billboard Top Ten from March 29, 1975:
“Lady Marmalade” by LaBelle
“Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton
“Philadelphia Freedom” by Elton John
“Express” by B.T. Express
“You Are So Beautiful/
It’s A Sin When You Love Somebody” by Joe Cocker
“No No Song/Snookeroo” by Ringo Starr
“Poetry Man” by Phoebe Snow
“My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli
“Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” by Sugarloaf/Jerry Corbetta
“Have You Never Been Mellow” by Olivia Newton-John
Keeping in mind that 1975 ranks pretty high on my list of years, that’s not a great Top Ten. “Lovin’ You” hasn’t aged well, nor has Ringo’s “No No Song.” I’ve never cared for the Valli tune or the Sugarloaf/Corbetta record. And I could take or leave “Philadelphia Freedom.” So as I looked over the titles in the jukebox, I was likely looking for something different and interesting.
And I happened to notice the B-side of “Philadelphia Freedom.” Startled, I wanted to find out exactly what it was, so I dropped in a quarter, punched in its number and added two more songs. And this is what came out of the jukebox:
The story is well-known: While working on Lennon’s single “Whatever Gets You Through The Night,” Elton John asked the former Beatle to appear on stage with him. Lennon promised to do so if the record went to No. 1. And after the single topped the chart in mid-November of 1974, John asked Lennon to join him on stage at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving night.
In what turned out to be Lennon’s last appearance on stage, he and John performed three numbers: Lennon’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” which had been a No. 1 hit for John in early January 1975, “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” and “I Saw Here Standing There.” And when John released “Philadelphia Freedom” in early 1975, he put the performance of “I Saw Her Standing There” on the B-side of the single.
I have no idea how many times I played that record on the Atwood jukebox that spring, but it was a lot. Though the performance was a little ragged, it was history, and I recognized that.
I don’t know Rosanne Cash’s work all that well. I’ve got a couple of her albums on vinyl and have found a couple of CDs of her recent work, too. I’m still absorbing the work she did on last year’s acclaimed CD, The List, a collection based on a list of one hundred essential American songs her famous father gave her when she was eighteen. In other words, I’ve listened to a fair amount of her music, but I’m no expert, just a fan.
And as I write that, I realize that I’m still absorbing the album that I’ve long thought – from my admittedly limited view – to be Cash’s best: King’s Record Shop from 1987. In a few years, The List may challenge for the top spot in Cash’s catalog, but I think that – as good as last year’s release was (and it was very good indeed) – the best that The List can do for some time is wrestle King’s Record Shop to a draw.
Now, perhaps I think that because King’s Record Shop was the first album by Rosanne Cash I really heard. Before that, I’d likely heard bits and pieces of her work here and there, but I don’t know that I’d considered Cash as someone to take seriously. And – as is true in the case of quite a few performers – it was Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul that persuaded me to listen more closely to Rosanne Cash, when he listed her song “Runaway Train” at No. 590 in his 1989 listing of the top 1,001 singles.
So what did I find when I tracked down King’s Record Shop? Looking back – with the aid of a little bit of listening again last evening – I found a performer and songwriter at that interesting intersection of country, rock, blues and folk, a place where I’ve been pleased to find a fair number of other performers in the past twenty years, maybe chief among them Darden Smith.
My blogging friend Paco Malo once cited in the comments to one of my posts the description given by Levon Helm of The Band of the music he listened to and played growing up in Arkansas. Having lost those comments, I’m paraphrasing, but Helm basically said the music at home was some country, some blues, some gospel, some folk, and they called it rock ’n’ roll. And that was true enough, meaning that Cash and Smith and others at that intersection aren’t creating something new. My point, though, is that for many years as rock, pop and even country music evolved, some of those influences were forgotten or at least at times ignored in mainstream genres. And when I picked up King’s Record Shop not long after reading Marsh’s book, it was, if not quite a revelation, then at least a refreshing reminder of some of the major strains of American popular music.
Now, all that was twenty years ago or so. But King’s Record Shop – along with some of Cash’s other early work (Interiors comes to mind) – remains to my ears as vital and fresh as her more recent work, including The List. And the heart of King’s Record Shop remains “Runaway Train.” The song was written by John Stewart, and Cash’s recording of it peaked at No. 1 on the country charts.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 17
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, RCA Victor 47-9764 
“My Impersonal Life” by Blue Rose, Epic 10811 
“China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers, Warner Bros. 7728 
“#9 Dream” by John Lennon, Apple 1878 
“Time” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn of a Friendly Card 
“Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, Columbia 07988 
A while back, I picked up Suspicious Minds, a two-disc collection of the work Elvis Presley did at American Studios in Memphis in early 1969, the sessions that resulted in Presley’s three greatest singles – “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “In the Ghetto” – as well as a wealth of other great material. And I was going to comb through the booklet that came with the collection to find a quote or some other tidbit to use here this morning. But the booklet is printed in small white type on black and is for practical purpose unreadable without using a magnifying glass. I have one of those, but I also have better ways to invest my time. So I’ll just say that “Suspicious Minds” – which went to No. 1 in the autumn of 1969 – is to me the best thing Presley ever recorded during his long and erratic career. That’s a hefty statement to make about someone who had 114 records in the Top 40, but to my ears, the body of work from those Memphis sessions was better – in most cases, far better – than anything Presley had done since the Sun sessions during the mid-1950s. And “Suspicious Minds” was the best of all.
“My Impersonal Life” is likely better known for the cover version done by Three Dog Night. The Blue Rose version – the song was written by Terry Furlong of Blue Rose – came to my attention through a CBS compilation called The Music People, one of those classic collections record labels used to sell cheaply to promote new artists and albums. From there, I found Blue Rose’s self-titled 1972 album, and after I ripped and posted that album – this was almost three years ago – I found myself connecting with Dave Thomson, who’d played bass and guitar for the group. Dave has since passed on, and when “My Impersonal Life” pops up these days, I find myself thinking about connections found and lost and the multiple layers of life and the sheer impermanence of things. And then I hear the first line of the chorus – “Be still and know that everything’s all right” – and I’m okay.
It’s become a cliché, I suppose, to call the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” one of the great road trip songs of all time. But it’s still true. If I’m not driving when the song pops up on the player, I wish I were. And if I’m out running errands and the record – which went to No. 15 during the autumn of 1973 – comes on the radio, I generally keep moving until it’s over, even if I have to drive around the block an extra time. I should note that sometime during one of our visits to Texas, the Texas Gal and I will likely go to the little town of China Grove just east of San Antonio with the CD player blaring as we cross the town line. Not like that hasn’t been done a million times since 1973, but I’ve never done it.
The dreamy and mystical soundscape of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” still captures me, more than thirty-five years after its release. I’m not sure what it all means, but it doesn’t really matter. Evidently Lennon wasn’t sure what it all meant, either: Wikipedia says that, according to May Pang, Lennon’s companion at the time, “the phrase repeated in the chorus, ‘Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé’, came to Lennon in a dream and has no specific meaning. Lennon then wrote and arranged the song around his dream”. Pang, by the way, provides the whispered female vocals on the record, which went to No. 9 in early 1975.
I don’t know a lot of the work of Alan Parsons, either solo or as the leader of the Alan Parsons Project, which is just another example of the world containing too much music to know. But I recall getting lost in “Time” when it came out of the radio speakers during the summer of 1981 on its way to No. 15. It’s a record that’s perhaps pretty and sentimental to excess – and I perhaps have a weakness for things pretty and sentimental – but it seemed at the time so much better than the music that surrounded it on the radio. (The records that bracketed “Time” when it peaked at No. 15 in July 1981 were “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” by the Carpenters.) And I still like it almost thirty years later.