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Posts Tagged ‘Woody Guthrie’

Murder Songs Vol. 5

November 18th, 2010 6 comments

In this instalment of Murder Songs, we look at three real-life characters, from the 1890s, 1930s and 1950s.

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Woody Guthrie – Pretty Boy Floyd (1940).mp3
Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy” Floyd was a real-life criminal who came a cropper at the hands of law enforcement officers in 1934, at the age of 30. Wikipedia tells his story in some detail, including murders he might have committed or not. His fame rested with his career as a bankrobber. Like his contemporary John Dillinger, Floyd was regarded as something of a Robin Hood, stealing from those that steal from the poor, and then giving back to the poor; a victim of circumstance rather than a perpetrator of greed. This is how Woody Guthrie regards Floyd. He credits Floyd with one killing (the chainsaw beating the gun), but never mind that, because he redistributed the wealth. Anyhow, society’s anger should not be directed at the likes of Floyd, but at the bankers. In the age of enthusiastic foreclosures, Guthrie’s conclusion rings true even today: “Yes, as through your life you roam, you won’t never see an outlaw drive a family from their home.” So Floyd might have been involved in the killing of a couple of Feds and bootleggers, but, Guthrie suggests, that shouldn’t be held against him: “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” The latter and their supporters are the bad guys here. Oh, to hear Guthrie sing about bail-outs and bonuses today…

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Long before Mickey and Mallory, there were these two...

Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska (1982).mp3
Where Bruce killed a man in Wyoming just to see him die…  Here, Springsteen’s narrator is teenage serial killer Charles Starkweather. The story begins in 1958 as the narrator picks up his cheerleader girlfriend in his car (so far, so Bruce), and from here on in, “ten innocent people died”.  The girlfriend was 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate. The killing spree kicks off in Lincoln, Nebraska, “with a sawed-off .410 on my lap. Through to the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path”. In real life, the first three victims were Fugate’s mother, stepfather and baby step-sister. The natural born killers are caught, and in the song, our friend isn’t really sorry, because it was all good fun. Now he is facing his execution (Caril Ann was jailed until 1976), and he isn’t in a mood for repentance. “They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” Murder songs don’t come much more chilling than that.

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The hanging of John Hardy on 19 January 1894

Carter Family – John Hardy Was A Desperate Little Man (1928).mp3
A traditional folk ballad, the tale of John Hardy has been told many times in various versions since it was first recorded in 1924. The version by the Carter Family may be the definitive one. The real story of John Hardy is quickly summarised: John Hardy kills one Thomas Drews in a gambling dispute in West Virginia in 1893, is arrested, tried, and sentenced to hang, as he did on 19 January 1894 before a crowd of 3000. The song imagines Hardy in his cell, now, as the title tells us, “a desperate little man”. The devil alcohol was to blame, as Hardy pronounced from the gallows. In fact, he was so drunk as to be oblivious to being arrested in a bar. Seems that Hardy has killed more than one person, but they all must have deserved it, because “my six-shooters never told a lie”. He gets visitors, from as girl in blue and a girl in red. The former stands by him, but the girl in red “said, ‘Johnny, I had rather see you dead’.” And, whether she is a metaphor or not, shortly she will get her wish.

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The Originals Vol. 22

April 17th, 2009 6 comments

With Elvis out of the way, we return to randomly selected lesser-known originals (or, in one case, near-original) of hits by The Animals, Rosemary Clooney (and Shakin’ Stevens), Captain & Tennille, Bob Seger and the Beach Boys. Please feel free to comment!

Ashley and Foster – Rising Sun Blues (1933).mp3
Georgia Turner – Rising Sun Blues (1937).mp3
Woody Guthrie – House Of The Rising Sun (1941).mp3
Leadbelly – In New Orleans (1944).mp3
Bob Dylan – House Of The Risin’ Sun (1962).mp3
The Animals – House Of The Rising Sun (1964).mp3
Orchester Günter Gollasch  –  Es steht ein Haus in New Orleans (1973).mp3
animalsThe moment Hilton Valentine’s distinctive guitar arpeggio kicks off House Of The Rising Sun, the song is instantly recognisable. It is now The Animals’ song, even though not wildly dissimilar previous versions by folkie Josh White, Nina Simone, and Bob Dylan preceded that by Eric Burdon and pals. Burdon has said that White’s version inspired the Animals’ version, but at other times he has credited the English folk singer Johnny Handle for the inspiration. Dylan, for his part, was miffed that people thought that he had covered the Animals’ version. Ironically, fellow folk-singer Dave Van Ronk has accused Dylan of “borrowing” his arrangement.

leadbellyThe song itself is an American folk song of uncertain date, adapted from an old English tune said to go back to the 17th century. It used different lyrics, though those credited to Georgia Turner and Bert Martin in the ’30s formed the early basis for the version we now know best. Turner’s version featured here was recorded by the great musicologist Alan Lomax in 1937, when she was 16. The oldest known recording, by Clarence Tom Ashley with Gwen Foster, dates back to 1933, using different lyrics. The song was recorded under alternative titles — blues legend Leadbelly went for the title In New Orleans — before House Of The Rising Sun stuck. By the time Josh White recorded it, the lyrics had been changed so much that the best-known version now excludes Turner and Martin from the songwriting credit.

Dylan has also claimed songwriting credit (no doubt to Van Ronk’s mirth), but the Animals’” version — recorded in one take — is credited to “traditional” with arrangement by keyboardist Alan Price. Apparently the record company ordered it was not possible to include all five members’ names on the single’s label, so Price’s went on by dint of alphabetical order, using the first names of the band’s members. It seems that Price has cheerfully collected the royalties without caring to share them with his four ex-friends.

The Animals have been accused of changing a prostitute’s lament (even Dylan sings it from her perspective) to a gambler’s cautionary tale to satisfy radio-friendly requirements. That may be so, but they were not the first to take the gambler’s position. Apparently Lonnie Donegan did so on his 1959 version, which might or might no have inspired Valentine’s guitar part.

The song has been so ubiquitous, it was even recorded in East Germany, by the Orchester Günter Gollasch. Under a regime where rock music was regarded as subversive, Gollasch must have been willing to take his chances. It is a quite excellent version.

Also recorded by: The Callahan Brothers (as Rounder’s Luck, 1934), Ray Acuff (1938), Woody Guthrie (1941), The Weavers (?), Glenn Yarbrough (1957), Lonnie Donegan (1959), Frankie Laine (as New Orleans, 1959), Miriam Makeba (1960), Joan Baez (1960), Nina Simone (1972), Johnny Hallyday (as Le pénitencier, 1964), The Supremes (1964), Marianne Faithfull (1964), Friedel Berlipp (1964), The Telstar’s (1964), Los Speakers (as La casa del sol naciente, 1965), The Brothers Four (1965), Waylon Jennings (1965), Jay and The Driving Wheels (1965), The Barbarians (1965), Marcellos Ferial (as La casa del sole, 1965), The Five Canadians (1966), Herbie Mann (1967), Trudy Pitts (1967), Ronnie Milsap (1967), Catherine McKinnon (1968), Tim Hardin (1969), Nat Stuckey (1969), Jimmy Powell (1969), Jimi Hendrix (1969), Oscar and the Majestics (1969), Mike Auldridge (1970), Frijid Pink (1970), Conway Twitty (1970), Geordie (1973), Idris Muhammad (1976), Hot R.S. (1977), Santa Esmeralda (1978), Alan Price (1980), Dolly Parton (1980), Skid Row (1981), Jan Walravens (1984), Adolescents (1987), Tangerine Dream (1988), Alejandra Guzmán (as La casa del sol naciente,1989), Tracy Chapman (1990), Theodis Ealey (1993), Don McMinn (1994), Sinéad O’Connor (1994), Peter, Paul and Mary with B.B. King (1995), Eric Burdon Brian Auger Band (1998), Don Angle (1999), 386 DX (2000), Blind Boys of Alabama (using the words of Amazing Grace, 2001), Toto (2002), Sarah Brooks with Joe Beck (2002), Muse (2002), Helmut Lotti (2003), Jet Jet Six (2003), Rock Nalle & The Yankees (2004) a.o.

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Stuart Hamblen – This Ole House.mp3
Rosemary Clooney – This Ole House.mp3
Shakin’ Stevens – This Ole House.mp3

stuart-hamblenThe story goes that in 1949 actor and cowboy-country singer Stuart Hamblen was hunting with John Wayne in a remote part of Texas when they happened upon an abandoned, crumbling hut, miles from the nearest road. Intrigued, they entered, finding the corpse of an old mountain man. Hamblen wrote the lyrics right there, on a sandwich bag. As a song about dying, Hamblen’s recording was upbeat yet poignant.

clooneyHamblen sang the song from the first person perspective. Rosemary Clooney in her 1954 hit version became a spectator to the man’s death, giving it a rather indecorous upbeat treatment. In Clooney’s version, it seems that the death of the man is a matter of gratification. The record-buying public didn’t mind: her version topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (two concurrently released versions in Britain notwithstanding). In 1981 Welsh rock & roll revivalist Shakin’ Stevens (Shakey!) resurrected the dead man’s epitaph in similar bouncy fashion, also topping the UK charts.

hamblen-candidateAs for Stuart Hamblen, shortly after writing This Ole House he experienced a religious conversion at a Billy Graham rally, became a broadcaster of Christian material. Having lost as a Democrat congressional candidate in 1933, he ran as the Prohibition Party’s candidate for US president in 1952, picking up 72,949 sober votes.

Also recorded by: Alma Cogan (1954), Billie Anthony (1954), Rex Allen & Tex Williams (1954), The Statler Brothers (1966), Les Humphries Singers (1971), Billie Jo Spears (1981), The Brian Setzer Orchestra (1998), Bette Midler (2003), Wenche (2005), Brenda Lee with Dolly Parton (2007) a.o.

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Willis Alan Ramsey – Muskrat Candlelight.mp3
America – Muskrat Love.mp3
Captain & Tennille – Muskrat Love.mp3

willis-alan-ramsey Popular music is not brimming over with songs about the romantic pursuits of rodents. Willis Alan Ramsey got his break as a 19-year-old in 1972 when he stayed in the same Austin, Texas hotel as Leon Russell and Gregg Allman. Precociously, he knocked on their doors, introduced himself, and impressed them so much that they invited him to record at their respective studios. Ramsey eventually signed for the Shelter Records label which Russell co-owned. He made only one album (recorded in five different studios), and then became a songwriter of some renown instead. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Jimmy Buffett, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lyle Lovett and Shawn Colvin. The most successful of the songs on his poorly selling, self-titled album was intended as a novelty number — how can a song about rodent porn be otherwise? — written in 15 minutes.

Ramsey’s Muskrat Candlelight was first covered in 1973 by soft-rockers America (who I consider to be hard done by in reputation on the back of the much reviled Horse With No Name – see HERE). Unaccountably, America changed the title to Muskrat Love, which is how husband and wife duo Captain & Tennille adopted it three years later for their US #4 hit.
Also recorded by: nobody else, it seems.

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Rodney Crowell – Shame On The Moon.mp3
Bob Seger – Shame On The Moon.mp3

rodney-crowell Many of our performers of lesser-known originals never hit the big time, especially when they wrote the successfully covered song (which goes some way to explaining why their originals aren’t better known). Rodney Crowell isn’t one of them. A successful country singer, especially in the alt-country genre headlined by Earle and Van Zandt, he is still churning out records. Among his country credentials is his former marriage to Roseanne Cash, and a recording (and reworking) with his ex-father-in-law of I Walk The Line. Some might include him in this series as progenitor of the Keith Urban hit Making Memories of Us. Not many would associate him with having written and first performed one of Bob Seger’s biggest hits.

Crowell’s version appeared on his self-titled 1981 LP, to no attention at all. A year later, Seger’s version reached the US #2. It features former Eagle Glenn Frey on the harmonies. It was also his only sizeable hit on the country charts.
Also recorded by: nobody else again, it seems.

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The Regents – Barbara-Ann.mp3
Beach Boys – Barbara Ann.mp3

barbara-annBarbara Ann became one of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits at the same time as the Beatles released Rubber Soul. For the Beatles, December 1965 was a new beginning; for the Beach Boys, Barbara-Ann bookmarked the end of their surf pop era, appearing on the covers album Beach Boys Party! (which included three versions of Beatles songs), as Brian Wilson was already preparing the massively influential Pet Sounds.

The Beach Boys didn’t want Barbara Ann to be a single release. Beach Boys Party! was an informal affair, a very laid back jam session recorded to fulfil a contractual obligation. The group, and whoever else was around, were playing whatever came to mind while they were getting drunk. At one point, Dean Torrence of surf-pop duo Jan & Dean, who had previously recorded Barbara Ann in 1962 and was recording in an adjacent studio, popped in. Torrence suggested the song and sang lead on the recording with Brian Wilson. Torrence left half an hour later, and was not credited on the album. Obviously, the light-hearted Barbara Ann, with its fluffed lines and subsequent laughter and with session drummer Hal Blaine on ashtrays — listen closely at 1:05 — did not quite meet the sophisticated production values which had already been evident on recent recordings, such as California Girls. And still, Barbara Ann reached the US #2.

regentsBarbara-Ann (it was originally hyphenated) had been a 1961 US #13 hit for The Regents, an American-Italian doo wop group from the Bronx. They went on to have only one more Top 30 hit, Runaround. Barbara-Ann — written by bandmember Chuck Fassert’s brother Fred for their eponymous sister —had been recorded as a demo by The Regents in 1959. When they couldn’t land a record contract, the group folded. A couple of years later, a group called The Consorts, which included a Regents’ member’s younger brother, dug out the demo and played it at auditions. One record company, Cousins, liked Barbara-Ann and released it — but not by the Consorts, but the Regents’ version. The Regents hurriedly reunited, and the song quickly became a local and then a national hit.

Also recorded by: Jan & Dean (1962), The Who (1966), Martin Circus (as Marylène, 1975), Vince Vance & the Valiants (as Bomb Iran, 1979 — John McCain’s favourite), Red Squares (1989), Blind Guardian (1991), Travoltas (2003)
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