Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Poor Boy Blues

SONG: Poor Boy Blues

BY: traditional, but this version is particular to Ramblin’ Thomas

PERFORMED BY: Ramblin’ Thomas

APPEARS ON: Ramblin’ Thomas & the Dallas Blues Singers: 1928-1932 (Document); The Anthology of American Folk Music, vol.3, “Songs” (Smithsonian Folkways)

There’s a different sense of narrative in much of old-time music, a narrative that’s built on stock phrases & repetition. When we think of the lyrics to old time songs, & particularly old country blues, we’re struck by the preponderance of so-called “floating lyrics”—lyrics that appear in many songs: “the sun will shine in my back door someday”; “the good book it tells you, you’re gonna reap just what you sow”; “my mind was wandering like the wild geese in the west”—a list could go on for several pages. But what does the use of these recurring phrases tell us about blues lyrics?

For me, the “floating lyrics” bring up two points. First, blues is fundamentally improvisational, & this applies to the lyrics as well as to the music. We know that the old blues players were known to extemporize lyrics in the same way the calypsonian singers did. The composition method was essentially oral, not written, & so these recurrent phrases allowed the singer to continue his song in much the way that epic poets would use epithets like “wine-dark sea” or “rosy fingered dawn” in order to continue the narrative flow.

Second, the blues are “universal”—while they are filled with intense personal feeling, there is a sense that the singer is also everyman; the emotional content of these songs is profound because it isn’t circumscribed by individual biography; & the use of these phrases underlines its universal nature.

One such phrase is the simple but poignant “poor boy long ways from home.” In fact, this phrase hasn’t simply recurred in songs, but also in the titles of several distinct blues. The song we’re considering today is “Poor Boy Blues” by Ramblin’ Willard Thomas, but there are also songs called “Poor Boy Long Way From Home” by Barbecue Bob, Bukka White, Gus Cannon, & RL Burnside, among others. The links in the previous sentence will take you to YouTube videos of each song. You can also check out the Bukka White version on my Robert Frost’s Banjo blog right here in today’s post.

I’ve always found Ramblin’ Thomas’ “Poor Boy Blues” to be incredibly moving. It’s a stark song: the slide guitar accompaniment is spare, & the lyrics leave gaps that are filled with questions. Why is the singer in Texas now, & why must he “work or leave,” after he lived as he pleased in Louisiana? Why doesn’t he like land? Other “Poor Boy” songs, such as Gus Cannon’s & Bukka White’s versions, it’s clear that the singer is in prison—in White’s case, on a prison farm. I’m not sure that really fits these lyrics—for instance, the “work or leave” line. Thomas’ “poor boy” seems to be more in the position of an itinerant worker who has to leave home to find his livelihood. But beyond these specific considerations, the song describes a deep homesickness & loneliness, the sense of being “a stranger in a strange land” that many will recognize in their own hearts.

Not much is known about the singer Ramblin’ Thomas. He did record some sides for Paramount in the 1920s, & he was known to be a peripatetic sort, so he came by his nickname honestly, & the fact that he was itinerant no doubt informed the great feeling he brings to this song. You can read more about his biography at the Allmusic site. Here are the lyrics, & you can enjoy the song in the video below!

Poor Boy Blues

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

I was down in Louisiana, doing as I please,
Now I'm in Texas I got to work or leave.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

If your home's in Louisiana, what you doing over here?
Say my home ain't in Texas and I sure don't care.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

I don't care if the boat don't never land,
I'd like to stay on water as long as any man.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

And my boat come a rockin', just like a drunkard man,
And my home's on the water and I sure don't like land.

Poor boy, poor boy, poor boy long ways from home.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth : They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)

SONG They Reminisce Over You

WRITTEN BY Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Tom Scott

PERFORMED BY Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

APPEARS ON Mecca and the Soul Brother

Most people have their lives shaped by a combination of support, adversity, and change. The hip hop generation has been dealing with some serious issues at a younger age than we should have. We deal with the loss of our peers for foolish reasons. We got to live through and experience the community changing right before our eye and watched friends and family members struggle. We also understand the value of having support and appreciation for the people that helped us along the way. Every now and then you have to reminisce and pay respects to the good people in our lives in the past and the present and show them how much we care.

There is no hip hop song that embodies this feeling more than “They Reminisce (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth. It was recorded on their album Mecca and The Soul Brother in 1992. This is one of the five best hip hop songs ever and shows the power of the genre when it’s done correctly. The song is named after Troy ‘Trouble T Roy’ Dixon who was a member of Heavy D and the Boyz. He died in an accident while they were on tour in 1990. The instrumental track produced by Pete Rock features a horn and bass line sample by a song called “Today” by Tom Scott. The horn sample begins the song and sets the vibe. CL Smooth raps three verses in this song. The first one is about his mother and how she overcame the struggles of being a teenage mom. The second is about his grandfather who was his father figure growing up. The third voice is dedicated to their friend Troy that the song is named after. The lyrics are poetic, intricate and yet easy to follow. He does an excellent job of painting a portrait of the people in the song. It’s too bad this group got caught up in the beginning of the G-Funk gangster rap explosion and their positivity couldn’t sustain and give them a more accomplished career. I hope it’s a consolation for them that after 17 years since this song was released there hasn’t been a hip hop song any better. There have been some as good but not better.

I didn’t know much about Trouble T. Roy when he was alive other than he danced with Heavy D. If someone is going to dedicate a song to your memory this is how it should be. We should all strive to leave a positive memory to the people in our lives. If there is anyone listening to this song for the first time after reading this blog I hope it brings a positive memory of someone in your life like it does for me.


Verse One:


I reminisce for a spell, or shall I say think back
22 years ago to keep it on track
The birth of a child on the 8th of October
A toast but my granddaddy came sober
Countin all the fingers and the toes
Now I suppose, you hope the little black boy grows, huh
18 years younger than my mama
But I really got beatings cause the girl loved drama
In single parenthood there I stood
By the time she was 21, had another one
This one's a girl, let's name her Pam
Same father as the first but you don't give a damn
Irresponsible, plain not thinking
Papa said chill but the brother keep winking
Still he won't down you or tear out your hide
On your side while the baby maker slide
But mama got wise to the game
The youngest of five kids, hon here it is
After 10 years without no spouse
Momma's gettin married in the house
Listen, positive over negative for the women and master
Mother Queen's risin a chapter
Deja vu, tell you what I'm gonna do
When they reminisce over you, my God

Verse Two:


When I date back I recall a man off the family tree
My right hand Poppa Doc I see
Took me from a boy to a man so I always had a father
When my biological didn't bother
Taking care of this so who am I to bicker
Not a bad ticker but I'm clocking pop's liver
But you can never say that his life is through
5 kids at 21 believe he got a right too
Here we go while I check the scene
With the Portugese lover at the age of 14
The same age, front page, no fuss
But I bet you all your dough, they live longer than us
Never been senile, that's where you're wrong
But give the man a taste and he's gone
Noddin off, sleep to a jazz tune
I can hear his head banging on the wall in the next room
I get the pillow and hope I don't wake him
For this man do cuss, hear it all in verbatim
Telling me how to raise my boy unless he's taking over
I said pop maybe when you're older
We laughed all night about the hookers at the party
My old man standing yelling good God, almighty
Use your condom, take sips of the brew
When they reminisce over you, for real

Verse Three:


I reminisce so you never forget this
The days of wayback, so many bear witness the fitness
Take the first letter out of each word in this joint
Listen close as I prove my point
T to the R-uh-O-Y, how did you and I meet?
In front of Big Lou's, fighting in the street
But only you saw what took many time to see
I dedicate this to you for believing in me
Rain or shine, yes in any weather
My grandmom Pam holds the family together
My Uncle Doc's the greatest better yet the latest
If we're talking about a car, Uncle Sterling got the latest
I strive to be live 'cause I got no choice
And run my own business like my Aunt Joyce
So Pete Rock hit me, nuff respect due
When they reminisce over you, listen

[Pete Rock]

Listen, just listen
To the funky song as I rock on
And that's word is bond
I'm not playin
Everybody, just coolin
This song we dedicate
To the one and only
Never be another
he was my brother
Trouble T-Roy
It's like that y'all
And you don't stop
Pete Rock and CL Smooth for '92
And we out, later