Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rabbit Box

SONG: Rabbit Box

BY: Vic Chesnutt

PERFORMED BY: Vic Chesnutt

APPEARS ON: Little (Texas Hotel)

It has taken awhile for the news of Vic Chesnutt’s death to sink in. As many know, this uniquely talented singer-songwriter died on Christmas day as the result of an overdose; whether this overdose was intentional or not may never be known, tho Chesnutt apparently had some history of suicide attempts. His death is also being seen as an indictment of the U.S. healthcare system, as he’d accrued quite large amounts of debt despite being insured. Chesnutt was in poor health—he had been paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident in 1983.

Such a devastating event would have been enough to turn many away from any thought of a creative career, but in Chesnutt’s case, the accident seems to have focused his resolve in terms of music & songwriting—despite the fact that his injury compromised his strength & dexterity & forced him to rely on relatively simple chord shapes for his composing. In many ways, Chesnutt turned this liability into a virtue, because the directness & spareness of his guitar-playing makes it all the more immediate & compelling in the context of his songs.

His lyrics are always wonderfully literate—he had considerable gifts as a writer, & was also a voracious reader of poetry; he favored Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens & Whitman, & in fact set two Stevie Smith poems to music (“Not Waving, But Drowning” & “One of Many.”) However, saying that his lyrics are “literate” shouldn’t suggest any sort of preciousness, nor should it suggest that his words are anything other than immediate—immediacy is one of the great characteristics of his art.

Chesnutt’s 1990 debut album Little is to my mind one of the great singer-songwriter documents. He had spent the mid to late 80s performing both in bands & solo in Athens, GA, where he was spotted by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who produced Little—in Chesnutt’s own words, “Mr Stipe…single handedly toted me to this cozy hotel.” The songs on the album do in the main tackle “little” subjects—small incidents, especially remembered from childhood; these small incidents, however, always seem to expand in Chesnutt’s handling to a suggestion of much larger issues.

His song “Rabbit Box” is a fine example of this. Ostensibly a song about two rather mundane childhood incidents, we can see how the stories of trapping a possum & a kitten in the live trap he’d made & shooting pigeons he believed to be doves speak to the chaos of childhood discovery—not necessarily a “wonderful” thing as portrayed in a sentimental vein, but something that can be disturbing & unsettling. There is also more than a bit of suggestion of randomness in these stories, & especially in the case of his dove hunting, of random violence. As Chesnutt sang in the song “Speed Racer” on the same album:

the idea of divine order is essentially crazy
the laws of action and reaction are the closest thing to truth in the universe

Of course, there is some sly humor in “Rabbit Box” as well—note the audience reaction at the end of the song in the video below. This humor doesn’t undercut the song’s bigger themes, but in some ways serves to deepen them by making them more real.

Chesnutt’s death is a great loss. I suspect that his star may shine more brightly as time goes by—in his life, he was much more a “cult figure” than a star. If this is your first encounter with his music, I hope it will spur you to seek more. If, like me, his music has been important to you, I hope you will celebrate his tremendous legacy even in the shadow of his death.

Rabbit Box

while I was still in elementary school
I discovered Daddy's tools
and amassed a small pile of scrap lumber
and I built a rabbit box; set it facing north
but caught a possum and a kitten
both of which were a bitch to set free
cause I thought they were going to bite me
but we all three escaped safely

once I took my single shotgun
put on some camouflage
hid in the neighbor's pasture by the cow pond
finally after a long time
a bunch of doves flew by
and landed in a huddle on the power line
so I aimed with an eagle eye and fired
but it was two pigeons that fell like bean bags into the weeds
well they sure looked like doves to me

Vic Chesnutt

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

White Christmas - Bing Crosby

SONG White Christmas

WRITTEN BY Irving Berlin


APPEARS ON The 78-rpm soundtrack album for the film Holiday Inn

I know, I know, but somebody had to do it, so I volunteer.

This is the quintessential American Christmas song. Bing Crosby's version of it is the best selling single of all time. Versions ranging from Bing's original to The Drifters to the Mantovani Magic Strings to fer pete's sake Andrea Bocelli blast at you from the sound systems of every shopping mall in the US and Canada.

Irving Berlin wrote the song in 1940, but the circumstances under which it was written changed every time Berlin told the story (typical Berlin behavior!). The first public performance was by Bing Crosby on his The Kraft Music Hall radio show on Christmas Day, 1941. Crosby recorded the song for Decca Records in May of 1942, and was released on July 30 as part of the soundtrack for the movie Holiday Inn, both in the movie and on a 78-rpm album. The song spent eleven weeks at the top of the Billboard charts in that year. It was re-released for the holiday season in 1945 and 1946, and went back to the top of the charts both times, making it the only single with three separate runs at the top of the US charts.

What's the appeal? Mostly nostalgia. The song was released at a time when many American men were going to war in the South Pacific, and visions of an old-fashioned Christmas complete with snow and sleigh bells and all were bound to appeal to boys and men far from home in conditions the exact opposite of those portrayed in the song. After that it just became a natural part of the Christmas season in the American public venue - on the radio, on TV, and in the movies. I even saw it named in a mystery short story, supposedly playing in the background of a ransom tape sent to the parents of a kidnapped child! Let's face it, this song is mapped into our national DNA.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

Just like the ones I used to know 

Where the treetops glisten, 
and children listen 

To hear sleigh bells in the snow 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

With every Christmas card I write 

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white 

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas 

With every Christmas card I write 

May your days be merry and bright 

And may all your Christmases be white
Naturally, the video selected is the segment from the movie Holiday Inn, with Bing and Marjorie Reynolds, although the singing voice was dubbed in by Martha Mears. Is there anybody in the Western World who hasn't seen this scene at least once? Heh, heh! I doubt it. Have a great holiday, Just A Song contributors and fans!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nina Simone : Four Women

SONG: Four Women

BY: Nina Simone


APPEARS ON: Wild is the Wind (1966)

While I had really good men in my life to shape and guide me, much of who I am can be attributed to the number of strong women around me. They helped shape my character and personality as much as any other factor. I guess that’s why I find African American women of all ages such fascinating creatures. They all seem to have an aura that is a product of carrying a race through struggle. You can even see it in the younger ones that haven’t approached the age to take on this responsibility. There is something about a sister when you look into her eyes that makes me want to find out there she's been and what she's been through. They are all different shades and sizes with different attitudes and personalities. The way they approach life is directly related to their backgrounds and upbringing. Some are soft spoken and choose to speak when necessary. Some are loud and boisterous and everyone knows when they are in the room. Some are emotional and cry quickly for reasons men have problems understanding. Others have grown accustomed to having to be so tough that it's hard for them to show any emotion outwardly even though they feel it deep inside. Some are educated with book knowledge. Others went to the school of hard knocks. Some are outgoing and like to have a good time. Others are reserved and prefer to be alone. I think they are all beautiful in their own way and this song reminds me of that.

Nina Simone recorded the song Four Women in 1966. It was released on the album 'Wild is the Wind'. Ms. Simone sings about the physical and mental design of four different women. They are Aunt Sarah, Safronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches. I don't know this for sure but I am willing to bet that these were not actual women that Nina Simone knew personally. In her description of each person she describes them in a way that explains who they are and why they are the kind of women she is singing about. When I was reading about the song I discovered that some people in the African American community felt the song was drawing on stereotypes. I guess you could feel that way if you took every person described in the song in a literal sense. I think the part that those people missed was the fact that although she described four women with different backgrounds and personalities, the one thing that they have in common is that all of their journeys are connected by our history in America. It's a testament to how our lives and outlook have been shaped over time.

I was late to the discovery of Nina Simone's music. This song was recommended to me by a friend and I have been hooked on it ever since. This remains my favorite song of hers because of the subject matter.


My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shoals of Herring - Makem & Clancy

SONG Shoals of Herring


PERFORMED BY Tommy Makem & Liam Clancy

APPEARS ON This was a tune they did in concert; I can't find it on an album or CD.

A couple of hours ago I heard a sad piece of news: Liam Clancy, the last of the legendary Clancy Brothers and long-time musical partner of the late Tommy Makem, passed away earlier today. He was 74.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were the voice of Irish traditional music to the US popular audience. If you thought of Irish music in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, these were the voices you heard. Their records were everywhere, they were on all the variety shows - Ed Sullivan, of course, and the Johnny Cash show among others - and all the folk festivals. They were certainly no strangers here in Newport, both with the Newport Folk Festival and the various Irish heritage festivals which pop up here and there through the year.

Liam Clancy on his own was a gifted musician who had a strong following in the Folk Music community. He was good buddies with Bob Dylan, and he often sang with and sang on the albums of Dylan, Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, Odetta, and others. He was the youngest Clancy brother and by far the most popular; he was also the only Clancy brother to have documentaries made of his life - the 2006 Irish Television documentary The Legend of Liam Clancy and the 2009 full length biography by Alan Gilsenan called The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy,

I chose the song "Shoals of Herring" because I heard Liam and Tommy sing this on many occasions here in Newport, and because the song was written by one of my favorite songwriters and folk artists, Ewan MacColl. Besides being a tourist town, Newport also has a considerable commercial fishing fleet, and songs of the sea and of fishing for a living are big here. It may be why Liam and Tommy always sang it when they visited us. It's not a landlubber's fantasy about life out on the sea; it's a working fisherman's song about his life of hard work, long days, and long stretches out to sea.

With our nets and gear we're faring
On the wild and wasteful ocean.
Its there that we hunt and we earn our bread
As we hunted for the shoals of herring

O it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbor I was faring
As a cabinboy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

O the work was hard and the hours long
And the treatment, sure it took some bearing
There was little kindness and the kicks were many
As we hunted for the shoals of herring

O we fished the Swarth and the Broken Bank
I was cook and I'd a quarter sharing
And I used to sleep standing on my feet
And I'd dream about the shoals of herring

O we left the homegrounds in the month of June
And to Canny Shiels we soon were bearing
With a hundred cran of silver darlings
That we'd taken from the shoals of herring

Now you're up on deck, you're a fisherman
You can swear and show a manly bearing
Take your turn on watch with the other fellows
While you're searching for the shoals of herring

In the stormy seas and the living gales
Just to earn your daily bread you're daring
From the Dover Straits to the Faroe Islands
As you're following the shoals of herring

O I earned my keep and I paid my way
And I earned the gear that I was wearing
Sailed a million miles, caught ten million fishes
We were sailing after shoals of herring
I found this video of Liam and Tommy singing "Shoals of Herring" in February of 1977 at the National Stadium in Dublin. Obviously the boys sang this often; listen to the audience singing along!

And with that I bid a fond farewell to Liam Clancy, the last living member of a legend. With his passing an era has truly ended.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cool Drink of Water

SONG: Cool Drink of Water
BY: Tommy Johnson
PERFORMED BY: Tommy Johnson

APPEARS ON: Tommy Johnson: Complete Recorded Works 1928-1929 (Document); Rory Block: Gone Woman Blues (Rounder)

If someone wanted to create a fictional blues legend, it would be hard to improve on the real life legend of Tommy Johnson—the “other” & lesser-known blues playing Johnson from the Delta region. In fact, Tommy Johnson shares much with Robert Johnson (the two were not related); in both cases, there’s was a story circulating that each had sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to master the blues—however, while we don’t know for sure whether Robert Johnson was behind this story about himself, we do know that Tommy Johnson played an active role in telling how he had come to mastery of the blues. Both were exceptional guitar players & singers—Tommy Johnson was known to play the guitar behind his back, behind his head, & toss the guitar in the air mid-song—all this happening roughly 40 years before the heyday of Jimi Hendrix; of course, Charlie Patton, who was Tommy Johnson’s contemporary, also engaged in this sort of showmanship. The most important thing is that—showmanship aside—Johnson could really play.

His voice was also remarkable. For my money, he had the most compelling falsetto in old-time blues—a sound that brings to mind the great “high lonesome” voices of Appalachian music, but in a much different setting. The effect is similar, however—that tingling sense of existential despair that rings true whether it’s sung by a white banjoist from the mountains—Roscoe Holcomb, for instance—or the African-American man from the Mississippi Delta.

Johnson’s lyrics are often quite interesting in themselves, even above his ability to put them across vocally, & you could make an argument for today’s song, “Cool Drink of Water” having perhaps his most compelling lyrics. A song of betrayal & displacement that leaves a lot of gaps for the imagination, it begins with the enigmatic & chilling statement “I asked for water, & she gave me gasoline.” The song goes on to describe how the singer is trying to get back home by “riding the blinds.” For those who don’t know, this meant catching a (free) ride on a train by riding on the front platform of a passenger car’s baggage car. The fact that baggage was piled up against the door meant that the seat was relatively secure, because the door wouldn’t be opened. Still, the rider was vulnerable to a shower of water or hot coals if the fireman decided to dislodge him—you can read about this & other ways to catch a train hobo-style here on the Hobohemia page. The fact is that while riding the blinds was safer than riding the top or riding the rods, there is no way to ride with much real safety on the outside of a fast-moving train!

Johnson only recorded 16 songs—a real shame, because he never recorded after 1929, tho he lived until 1956. Apparently, he believed (erroneously of course) that he had signed away his right to record. Sadly, he was also a severe alcoholic. He wrote the song “Canned Heat” about drinking Sterno, & there is every reason to believe this is autobiographical.

The sound quality on Johnson’s recordings isn’t what we might wish, but the power of his playing & singing does come thru. Oh yes, & that is mandolin you hear in the background, played by Charlie McCoy; the mandolin is a much under-rated blues instrument!

Rory Block also does a fine cover of this on her great Gone Woman Blues album; Block’s voice has a spectacular range & she’s really able to do justice to Johnson’s music. Of course her amazing guitar playing helps too! She does change the line “this train ain’t none of mine” to “this train don’t run no more”—unfortunately, an appropriate revision in the contemporary U.S.

Hope you enjoy the song.

Cool Drink of Water

I asked for water, and she gave me gasoline
I asked for water, she gave me gasoline
I asked for water and she gave me gasoline
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Crying, Lord, I wonder will I ever get back home
Lord, Lordy, Lord

I went to the depot, looked up on the board
I looked all over, "How long has this east bound train been gone?
Lord, Lordy, Lord

Lord, I asked the conductor, "Could I ride these blinds?"
(Want to know, can a broke man ride the blinds)
"Son, buy your ticket, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"

"Son, buy your ticket, train ain't none of mine"
"Son, buy your ticket, 'cause this train ain't none of mine"
Lord, Lordy, Lord
"Train ain't none of mine"