Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tangled Roots in the Urban Hothouse

“I wouldn't live in New York City if they gave me the whole dang town
Talk about a bummer it's the biggest one around
Sodom and Gomorrah was tame to what I found…” Buck Owens

“Goin' to New York, get on the New York quiz show
Gotta win myself some all o' that dough
I'm goin' to New York, I'm goin' to New York
I'm goin' to New York, I'm goin' if I have to walk…” Jimmy Reed

“New York City, You’re a part of my life in every which way
New York City, Everything I ever meant - everything I say
New York City, I cant break loose…” Al Kooper

New York City is many things for many people--financial capitol, international crossroads, cultural dynamo, concrete jungle, a city in a hurry but never so much it won’t pause to admire itself in a glassy skyscraper or bodega window. Thirty-six percent of New Yorkers are foreign-born; 170 languages are spoken in the city of hoagies and fuggeddaboudit. Musical culture in New York is particularly rich, reflecting massive waves of immigrants over the centuries as well as acting as magnet to American musicians and an apt metaphor for romance, temptation, and dissolution.

The pressures of daily life and the mix of cultural resources make for a unique creative soil in the urban hothouse. Irish immigrants and their descendants have sustained vital Celtic-based music around the boroughs; Eastern European Jews brought klezmer music in the great migrations of 1880-1920, and the revival of klezmer in the last 40 years has not just been due to their descendants but to the appeal the improvisational and rhythmic energy and bluesy tonalities holds for many American musicians; the Italian immigrants brought their mandolins and luthier traditions that heated up the fermenting music of ragtime and early jazz orchestras and gave New York its greatest guitar makers in John D’Angelico, Jimmy D’Aquisto, and Robert Benedetto.

New York is not the first city to come to mind when discussing blues music, but the large African-American population has been a crucial market for blues and R&B musicians with shows at the Apollo among the landmark recordings for many stars. Jimmy Reed’s 1961 album at Live at Carnegie Hall (actually a studio recreation of the concert), the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1966 album Blues at Carnegie Hall, a Son House Carnegie show during the revival of his career in the 1960’s, were just part of a long tradition at that concert venue dating back to 1882 with soprano Sissieretta Jones’ Carnegie debut; W.C. Handy, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Joe Turner, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Leadbelly, Ike & Tina Turner, Big Bill Broonzy all shook the rafters at Carnegie Hall.

I moved to New York City in 1990 to study creative writing and to teach English; music was a passion informing my poems, playing guitar something I did when alone. I loved blues and jazz, folk and folk-rock, knew next to nothing about primitive country music, Appalachian ballads, or even mainstream country music aside from a few hits too big to avoid and country-rock hybrids that blossomed in the late 1960s. By 1994 or so, I was starting to learn about a growing interest in banjo music, string band music, and traditional ballads working its way through younger musicians in the city. They were seeking out elders from the 1950s/60s folk revival such as Peter Stampfel and the late Dave Van Ronk for lessons, listening to Dock Boggs and Dave Macon and Clarence Ashley, and applying what they’d learned from a youth spent on 3-4 chord rock and punk songs to material that was one of the sources of those louder, faster pop musics.

Just as the folk revival was partly a response to pop-culture blandness of the 1950s, rock and roll a response to folkie purists in the 1960s, and punk a response to bloated corporate rock of the 1970s, what has become a second blooming of folk revivalism took root in the 1990s as an alternative to the prevailing sounds of commercial music. Such a dialectic is one means by which music stays vital and relevant; hybridization, the combining of forms and styles to yield new paths to aural delight, is another. Today in New York, on any night of the week you can go hear (or play with in various jams) bluegrass bands, old-time string bands, primitive banjo and fiddle players, classic country and country-rock bands, country blues, urban blues, and artists who mix any and all of these sounds up for whatever their personal muses demand of them.

Since forming my own performing group, American String Conspiracy, in 2003, I’ve been working the community garden of the New York folk-roots-country scene, playing shows with my band and working as a sideman in other bands, going to jams, listening to musicians I admire and stealing whatever I can glean from their fingers. I am in a music-lover’s paradise, and I didn’t have to die to get there. Like the tourist who asked Arthur Rubenstein (or Jascha Heifitz in one early version) for directions to Carnegie Hall, all I had to do was practice.

Three of my fellow practitioners of American music have been sources of great delight and inspiration during my labors: Will Scott, Joe Cassady, and D.B. Reilly. I know them all, have played with them or shared stages with them, and I have no intention of pretending to write about their music from any “objective” or “unbiased” point of view. On the other hand, none of them can afford to add me to their payrolls, and they play great shows to packed audiences and record wonderful albums without my help. I’m just in my own bloggy fashion trying to sow the seeds of musical charms where I can, an aural Johnny Appleseed if you will.

Will Scott is one of my oldest and dearest friends in music. After a decade in New York, Will recently moved to Philadelphia, but he performs regularly in NYC. We both studied slide guitar with a great teacher and musical mentor, Preacher Boy Watkins, and I first met Will at a birthday show/jam for Preach. Will sang one of his signature songs at the event, “Louisiana Lullaby”, and that was all it took to make me a fan. It’s a mournful, nostalgic ballad to an old lover and a landscape left behind, a highpoint on his terrific 2009 cd Gnawbone (Weather Tone Records WTR0032). I would not call Will a prolific composer, but rather a meticulous craftsman who puts an enormous amount of care into each word and measure of music. He spent a lot of time and gigs developing the material on Gnawbone, and the result is one of the best cds I’ve heard in many years. I’m used to seeing Will play solo shows, or backed by an acoustic bass or a drummer. Watch Will and drummer Wylie Wirth performing the title cut Gnawbone at 55 Jay St. in Brooklyn. Here's a solo performance of the tune for the TV show Cooking for Bachelors, which really seems to be about Drinking with Cute If A Tad Scruffy Musician, at least in this episode. Still, Will’s slashing slide guitar work is well documented, and he has steadily garnered praise for his playing. He spent his Midwestern youth playing electric lead guitar in blues bands and not singing at all, but his decision to get deeper into country blues and his own voice was a wise one. He’s a true soul singer.

The cd presents his songs and singing in a fuller context, with expert production and guitar support from Preacher Boy (who adds keys, mandolin and percussion as well), Joe Magistro on drums and Jim Whitney on bass, for a sinuous, near-psychedelic blues band sound. The opening cut, “Jack’s Defeat Creek”, sets the tone with shimmering vibrato guitar and plenty of backbeat and bass. “Come on sunshine/ I’m on my last dime,” pleads Will, sounding like the dime won’t outlast the rain. The song is not a blues by structure, but the good Lord or the Devil or both decided that Will would never escape the blues no matter what the song might be. “Gnawbone” is even better on the album, with a rolling Afro-Latin accent over the 4/4 drums and more great guitar work from Preach. Command of rhythm is one of Will’s not-so-secret ingredients, live or in the studio, in both his singing and guitar work. He’s spent a lot of time with the music of Son House, Robert Johnson, Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough and the rough and tumble “Mississippi hill country” sound. His covers of Preachin’ the Blues and other classics are stunning live, but the real payoff is how he brings that desperately blue feeling to his original songs.

The best example of this might be his song “Stain Lifter” which along with the title cut are the key songs on Gnawbone. A quiet, finger picked meditation on mortality and the tentative grip on spirit every body holds, “Stain Lifter” is transfixing, even frightening, in the same way Johnny Shines has described Robert Johnson singing “Come On In My Kitchen”--devastating beyond the measure of any applause. Here is a solo live version from a California show in 2009. But be forewarned: Will Scott can deliver chills at any moment, with any song. for more proof of same.

Joe Cassady takes a more laid-back approach to the classic three chord American song, favoring a country-rock musical palette and understated approach to singing. He runs Avenue A Records with some fellow musicians, has several fine cds with his band The West End Sound (I own What’s Your Sign from 2006 and The Chymical Vegas Wedding from 2010). As you might guess from just the two cd titles, Joe can work contemporary vernacular and stranger poetics into his songs with equal skill. His everyman twang invites close listening without forcing the issue--he’s one of the friendliest singers I’ve heard, befitting his generous personality. The invitation, however pleasantly voiced, is not for the faint-hearted or the escapist. The opening song on The Chymical Vegas Wedding (of Joe Cassady and the West End Sound) is “Broken Down”, an easy country shuffle with vibrato guitar and banjo that surveys decay in a town, a bar, and too many hearts, a litany and lament for the inevitable losses in life. “He had something he needed to say/ but every time he tried, words got in the way/ She just smiled and said, ‘It’s okay, it’s just broken down, broken down‘…” is typical of Joe’s direct lyricism that honors sadness with plainspoken dignity. Check out this live version from a tour of Scotland.

Joe can get odder but no less tuneful, and “Van Gogh’s Ear” poses such rhetorical questions as “What if Oedipus killed his mother/’cause he really wanted his father?/ What if Jesus had killed Pilate/ bloodied his hands in the twilight?” and proceeds to question the ridiculous and the sublime, the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Shakespeare, while Aaron Gardner’s bass and Robert Bonhomme’s drums bounce out a light country funk and maestro Shu Nakamura throws in acoustic guitar fills. A funny song about the awful absurdity of life--”Let’s light up and just move along.” The uncertainty principle of the space/time continuum needs more such songs.

“Holy Hell” is a crowd pleaser on stage and no less rocking on the cd, with biting slide guitar and stuttering banjo from Nakamura and a joyously blasphemous chorus. Like many of Joe’s best songs, the lyrics embrace the comic and tragic, the ordeal of marriage as a holy hell celebrated without apology. “Rorshach of Love” is another take on the ironies in relationships, an musical update of the classic “Six Days on the Road” with a surreal tale of a lover as inkblot--”This must be what it was like when Rorshach fell in love.”

While Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, and Guy Clark all inform the songs, Bob Dylan’s influence emerges in the final song “Living Ghosts,” a hymn to regrets, losses, people and memories that won’t die. Like Dylan, Joe Cassady embraces love and friendship as balm to life’s tragic wounds, as well as music itself. Profound feelings wrapped in simple, elegant songs--it all sounds so easy, and while it is easy to enjoy, it is rather more difficult to offer with the grace and wit Joe Cassady summons. for his catalogue and concert dates

Love Potions and Snake Oil, D.B. Reilly’s cd (2009 on Shut Up and Play! Records), is a case of truth in advertising: “Instantaneous Cure For All Afflictions: Contains 10 Songs” reads the tin-box cover, and after repeated listens and sharing several stages with D.B., I’m here to testify that I’ve never succumbed to pellagra, the grippe, the chilblains, or even lumbago while listening to these 10, yes 10, songs. Originally from Virginia, at some point in the past D.B. brought his Cajun accordion, his banjo and guitar, and his sardonic drawl to New York City, how or when I don’t care, and he isn’t prone to telling. He is prone to mixing up Cajun/zydeco beats, Hank Williams-inspired honky-tonking, and a tender ballad style into an infectious and irresistible sonic tonic. D.B. is an American Romantic, like Hank Williams himself, with more than a streak of mischief--Tom Sawyer all grown up and ready to rock after all the girls are kissed. “One of These Days (You‘re Gonna Realize)” kicks off the album with an accordion-driven romp, but he follows with two lovely ballads, “Don’t Give Up On Me” and the exquisite “Save All Your Kisses” where comparison to Jackson Browne at his finest seems appropriate. The jubilant “I Got A Girlfriend” features more accordion and Hiro Suzuki’s perfect lead guitar, and by this time D.B.’s album title has been more than justified. He sings and writes like a man who has learned more than a few lessons in love, at what cost I tremble to imagine, and he’s determined to set those lessons to music. Men, do not leave your women alone with this cd or with D.B. Reilly and his band in the flesh. Enjoy this video montage set to “One of These Days” with all the whiplash wit of his between song patter.

Like many musicians struggling to find reasons to make a joyful noise in our pre-apocalyptic age, D.B. embraces the contradictions with no hesitation and plenty of swing. “We’re All Going Straight To Hell” confronts fundamentalist doom and gloom with a another kind of gospel. “Now he said, “We’re all going straight to hell,“ and maybe that’s true/ But the pleasure in his voice and his hand in my pocket/ makes me think that he’s coming, too…Now when I arrive at the pearly gates/on my dying day/ if they tell me that preacher was right/ This is what I’ll say: /You can all go kiss my ass/ You can all kiss my ass/if that’s what heaven’s like, I’ll think I’ll pass/You can kiss my ass.” He gets a lot of Amens in concert for this one.

The cd concludes with another love potion, “Love Me Today.” As much as his songs can be savagely satiric, the disarming sincerity--the complete lack of superficial irony--of his love songs are the most impressive achievement on Love Potions and Snake Oil. Like many a clever salesman, D.B. saves the best for last, a heart-melting acoustic guitar/accordion arrangement behind his plea, “Daylight is losing, like it always does/ to the night-time world and dreams of love/ Don’t fill my head with ideas, and those pretty things you say/ Don’t promise to love me forever/ just love me today.” Piano drifts in like a midnight mist, djembe and conga keep the beat soft and seductive, for a stunning finale. Good for whatever ails a heart. if you dare.

So this is my modest near-spring harvest from the fertile concrete fields of New York City. It's a hard land to plough, but the fruit can be extra sweet for the sweat involved. All this listening to songmiths has got me thinking about songs and songsters, the musicians who carried folk music from the 19th to 20th centuries, from the head, hands and heart to the wax cylinder and shellac disc. I've got some listening and reading to do. I couldn't be happier about that.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Songs from the Saddle: Cowboy Chord Conspiracy

Cowboy look is the one I sought
Can't change now cause the clothes are bought
To be a true cowboy was my fate
I can't help it if I was born late
( I couldn't make it as a Punker )
--“I Want To Be A Cowboy” by The Vandals c. 1982

The L.A. punk band The Vandals got regular airplay on my favorite college radio station in the early 1980s, especially the song quoted above, “I Want To Be A Cowboy.” That parenthetical aside was whined as the finale while the band crashed to halt. The song is a witty poke at fashion and musical pretenses, but ultimately a harmless novelty like so much of punk music proved to be. The Vandals are still a going business concern, though the membership has undergone transitions over the years, still grinding out punk rock with sarcastic lyrics that sound more and more toothless with the passing years. Cowboy hats, cowboy music and poetry, and cowboys themselves are still with us, and in some ways the cowboy aesthetic is in a bit of a renaissance as part of the whole roots/Americana/alt-country/pop country movement in music. I love a good punk rock song, and I love my cowboy boots (I’ve rarely been without a pair in 40 years). If forced to choose between the two, I’d keep the boots for sure.

America is a culture dedicated to myth-making, like any other culture, but the special circumstances of American history and geography have given its myths some peculiar characteristics. Founded by commercial speculators, economic refugees and religious/quasi-political dissidents, colonial America almost immediately produced accounts of its own experience to justify its existence in one way or another: the Mayflower Compact, William Bradford’s Of Plimouth Plantation, narratives of settlers captured by Native Americans, John Smith’s A True Relation of Virginia and A General Historie of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles, and various other historical and literary works gradually coalesced into a foundational epic for a new country and new nationality, as if the Aneid or the Iliad were composed by many bards singing of multiple heroes and trials. The young country being born required myths to establish its place in the community of nations, to obscure the fact that it was being carved out of land already occupied by others and being built partly by slave labor, and to justify continued expansion of its borders, political power and economy to imperial dimensions.

Once the Appalachian Mountains were breached and settlement of the mid-west and its great river valleys picked up speed, the foundational myths were augmented by 19th century updates. The frontier scout/trapper/explorer (18th century Daniel Boone followed by 19th century Davy Crockett), the river boatman (Mike Fink), the military hero (Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison) entered the national narrative, each in their peculiar way charged with spreading American civilization and removing such impediments to progress as Native Americans, invading British armies, Frenchmen, Mexicans, and the fearful wilderness itself. The indigenous tribes could be conquered and annihilated and removed to reservations (the tales of which helped Jackson and Harrison to the White House). The British armies could be defeated and sent home (Jackson the best-known political beneficiary of their defeat). The French and Spanish settlers, some of whom were descendants of immigrants arriving 100 years prior to the English, could be incorporated into new states and territories via diplomacy, like the Louisiana Purchase, and conquest, most notably in the Mexican-American war of 1848 that followed the Texas war of secession from Mexico in the previous decade.

This was the literary and historical crucible in which the cowboy was formed. The term as we now understand it first appeared before the U.S. Civil War, in the 1850s, as the earliest American settlers of the southwest established their ranch claims and began raising cattle more or less on the Mexican model of grazing large herds on open range, tended by mounted vaqueros, a tradition begun in Spain with roots in Muslim horse culture. After the Civil War, which had put western expansion on temporary hold, the cowboy as job and mythic subject came into his prime years, which would last about two decades. The man on his horse, close to nature, working a difficult and sometimes dangerous job in a country where law is tentative and personal honor is paramount, was and is a real phenomenon, and Pecos Bill is his best-known mythical expression. Folklorist B. A. Botkin’s Treasury of American Folklore, published in 1944, shows the connection Pecos Bill and other cowboy heroes/villains have to earlier figures such as Davy Crockett and Mike Fink. Cowboy boasts followed the templates of Crockett and Fink:

I’m that same David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half-horse, half-alligator, a little touched with the snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning…. (Crockett’s Brag, first published in 1833, Botkin p.56)

I love the women and I’m chockfull o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snapping turtle…I can out-run, out-jump, out-shoot, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough ‘n’ tumble, no holds barred, any man on both sides of the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back agin to St. Louiee. (Fink’s Brag, Botkin p. 57)

There wasn’t anything that Bill couldn’t ride, although I have heard of one occasion when he was thrown. He made a bet he could ride an Oklahoma cyclone slick-heeled, without a saddle. He met the cyclone, the worst that was ever known, upon the Kansas line. Bill eared that tornado down and climbed on its back. That cyclone did some pitchin’ that is unbelievable, if it were not vouched for by many reliable witnesses. Down across Texas it went, sunfishin’, back-flippin’, side-windin’, knockin’ down mountains, blowin’ holes out of the ground, and tyin’ rivers into knots…Bill just sat up there, thumpin’ that cyclone in the withers, floppin’ it across the ears with his hat, and rolling a cigarette with one hand. He rode it through three states, but over Arizona it got him…He came down over in California. The spot where he lit is now known as Death Valley, a hole in the ground more than one hundred feet below sea-level, and the print of his hip pockets can still be seen in the granite. (The Saga of Pecos Bill, Botkin p. 183).

Fink and Crockett were actual men as well as folk-tale heroes, so their adventures and boasts retain a historical scale to some degree. Pecos Bill doesn’t appear to have such historical roots, and the monumental scale of landscape his stories occupy is such that it almost demands such an outsized heroic personality. It’s a commonplace observation by now that the boast is a literary form in West Africa that has evolved into the pose of the rapper/hip-hop poet, but boasting is also the folk literary genre animating many “tall tales” of North America, be they about Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, the less rememberd Febold Feboldson and Big-Foot Wallace. Like any oral literary tradition, such boasting and tales were often incorporated into song and poetry.

Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi records a snippet of a song sung on a long river barge trip that might stand for a transitional ballad, with roots in English ballads, performed by a rough fellow in buckskin, a sort of proto-cowboy song:

There was a woman in out towdn
In our towdn did dwed’l [dwell]
She loved her husban dear-i-lee,
But another man twyste as wed’l [twice as well]

Singing too, riloo, riloo, riloo
Ri-too, riloo, rilay----e
She loved her husband dear-i-lee
But another man twyste as wed’l

In Twain’s account, the singer is shouted down after fourteen verses, whereupon he commences a boast about being the son of a hurricane and an earthquake, eating nineteen alligators for breakfast, and so on.

John Lomax was the first major collector of cowboy songs and tales, beginning in the early 20th century, but much of his material dates from 30-40 years prior at least. Cowboy boasts were sometimes that of a “bad man” which meant a rough, tough, and dangerous man but not necessarily the outlaw/criminal:

Raised in a canebrake,
Fed in a hog trough,
Suckled by a she-bear,
The click of a six-shooter is music to my ear!

“I eat humans for breakfast” was another common boast in cowboy folklore. Often, liquor fueled the fiery oratory.

Raised on six shooters till I get big enough to eat shotguns,
When I’m cool I warm the Gulf of Mexico and bathe therein,
When I’m hot there’s an equinox cal breeze that fans me fevered brow,
The moans of widows and orphans is music to me melancholy soul.
--From “The Boasting Drunk in Dodge” c. 1883 (Botkin p.61)

So cowboys were both agents of civilization and uncivilized rogues, men who made the wilderness safe for farms, towns, womenfolk and families, but who themselves could not be trusted in a civilized society. The best cinematic equivalents of this irony are the roles John Wayne played in The Searchers, Ethan Edwards, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Tom Doniphan. Edwards takes years to track down a niece captured by Indians, using all his frontier skills and capacity for violence to find her and return her to relatives in Texas (after being persuaded not to kill her for becoming a “white squaw”), but there is no happy ending for him in the confines of home and hearth and family, on which he turns his back in the film’s final shot. Doniphon kills a notorious outlaw in the pay of cattle barons, but he allows a citified lawyer to take the credit for the act which propels him eventually to the US Senate, while Doniphon dies in obscurity.

The theme song to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which featured clip-clopping hoof beats and Hollywood orchestra, was a big hit for Gene Pitney:

When Liberty Valance rode to town the womenfolk would hide, they'd hide
When Liberty Valance walked around the men would step aside
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

From out of the East a stranger came, a law book in his hand, a man
The kind of a man the West would need to tame a troubled land
'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood
When it came to shootin' straight and fast---he was mighty good.

Many a man would face his gun and many a man would fall
The man who shot Liberty Valance, he shot Liberty Valance
He was the bravest of them all.

It was not exactly an authentic cowboy song, but it was one of the first western-themed songs I can remember hearing and loving, years before I saw the movie itself. It’s a derivative of the outlaw ballad, and the villain is the only character named in the song, while “the bravest of them all” remains anonymous. The bad man has enduring appeal in any costume and era. They make necessary the heroes who otherwise would remain everymen of no consequence.

The very first cowboy song I recall loving was “Streets of Laredo“, which my father would sing as a lullaby as he strolled the halls of our four-bedroom ranch house in the old New England town where I grew up. The bedroom my brother and I shared had cowboy wallpaper (our choice as I recall) with cowpokes riding bucking broncos, branding cattle, fighting Indians and sitting around campfires. (Historically, cowboys had few serious violent conflicts with Indians, who preferred to charge fees for cattle drives crossing their territory. The U.S. Army fought the Indian wars, not cowboys.) I went to sleep every night with cowboys on my mind.

I loved watching western movies and still do. Television in my youth had old movies galore, and weekend days (and, eventually, late nights) I spent with John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Audie Murphy, and other cowboy movie stars as they rode, shot, whooped, and died into cinematic immortality. Some cowboys sang in their movies, and I found this a little confusing--who had time for a song when outlaws were about? Singing was a little too feminine, although I was too young to think in such terms. Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey had the horses, the guns, the strife with bad men, but they never seemed to sweat. Even the poor young cowboy who knew he’d done wrong in “Streets of Laredo” was “shot in the breast” which sounded awfully girly to me.

Still, my dad’s baritone and his Irish-American melancholy sounded perfectly haunting when he sang the song, and I prefer remembering him singing the song to any recorded version I’ve ever encountered. Johnny Cash did an admirable job with his weathered, cracked old pipes on the tune for one of his late albums, American IV: The Man Comes Around. Cash had the tough-but-weary thing down cold, so despite his early life on a cotton farm, his career in the US army and then as a professional musician, he could deliver a cowboy song with force and feeling. He paid a lot of attention to American experience at large, not just his own personal version of it, and his theme albums from the 1960s, Ballads of the True West and Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, though recorded during one of his most difficult periods of addiction and emotional turmoil, are among his most interesting and even courageous albums.

The True West album has the delightful “Sam Hall” (credited to Tex Ritter) as well as an earlier version of “Streets of Laredo”. Both songs derive from English ballads, “Streets of Laredo” from “The Rake’s Lament” and “Sam Hall” from a similarly titled ballad in which Sam is a chimney sweep bound for the gallows for robbery.

Oh me name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep, chimney sweep
Oh me name it is Sam Hall chimney sweep
Oh me name it is Sam Hall and I've robbed both great and small
And my neck will pay for all when I die, when I die
And my neck will pay for all when I die

I have twenty pounds in store, that's not all, that's not all
I have twenty pounds in store, that's not all
I have twenty pounds in store and I'll rob for twenty more
For the rich must help the poor, so must I, so must I
For the rich must help the poor, so must I

By the time Sam gets to America and learns American ways, he’s changed from a poor working stiff with a Robin Hood streak to a genuine bad man:

Well, my name it is Sam Hall, Sam Hall.
Yes, my name it is Sam Hall; it is Sam Hall.
My name it is Sam Hall an' I hate you, one and all.
An' I hate you, one and all:
Damn your eyes.

I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said; so they said.
I killed a man, they said an' I smashed in his head.
An' I left him layin' dead,
Damn his eyes.

But a-swingin', I must go; I must go.
A-swingin', I must go; I must go.
A-swingin', I must go while you critters down below,
Yell up: "Sam, I told you so."
Well, damn your eyes!

I saw Molly in the crowd; in the crowd.
I saw Molly in the crowd; in the crowd.
I saw Molly in the crowd an' I hollered, right out loud:
"Hey there Molly, ain't you proud?
"Damn your eyes."

Then the Sherriff, he came to; he came to.
Ah, yeah, the Sherriff, he came to; he came to.
The Sherriff, he come to an he said: "Sam, how are you?"
An I said: "Well, Sherriff, how are you,
"Damn your eyes."

My name is Samuel, Samuel.
My name is Samuel, Samuel.
My name is Samuel, an' I'll see you all in hell.
An' I'll see you all in hell,
Damn your eyes.

Unsentimental acceptance of fate and consequences is part of the cowboy character’s appeal, no matter what side of the law he may inhabit. Doubt, ambivalence, and most of all betrayal are the sins which the cowboy finds hard to forgive. John Hardy, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid all achieved ballad immortality by seductive vice and violence, not virtue, although Jesse James had a “darling loving wife”, John Hardy’s daughter in her dress of blue said, “Poppy, I’ll be true to you” to her father in his death-row cell despite his crime of killing a Chinese gambler over a losing hand staked by Hardy’s mulatto female companion, and Brooklyn-born Billy, by all accounts a calm and cold-blooded killer, was the “boy bandit king” of “fair Mexican maidens” playing their guitars and singing his praises.

I don’t recall where I first heard the “Ballad of Jesse James“. It was very likely a Burl Ives recording--a Burl Ives album is one of the first I remember from growing up, probably a release from around 1955. I vividly recall “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (what child would not remember candy mountains and lemonade springs?), and it is probably Ives’ burly baritone that put “that dirty little coward/that shot Mr. Howard/and laid Jesse James in his grave” deep into my memory. He also famously recorded “Streets of Laredo” under it’s alternative title “Cowboy’s Lament” as well as “John Hardy”. My brain is probably mixing his “Laredo” with my dad’s, but I have no recollection of “John Hardy” until much later. “The Ballad of Billy The Kid” version I recall hearing first is the marvelous Ry Cooder rendition on his classic Into the Purple Valley lp from the early 1970s. Cooder plays slide guitar and mandolin on it, and the song was one of the first songs I taught myself on slide guitar off his recording.

Cooder changed the song considerably for his version, moving it from ¾ to 4/4 time, dropping the prominent diminished chord and the final verse. The song itself is not a folk song but was written by Andrew Jenkins in 1927 during a period when commerical country music was first establishing itself. It was a hit for Vernon Dalheart, one the biggest stars of his day who was a professional entertainer and Broadway/vaudeville performer with little connection to cowboys, the American west or rural culture. Dalheart’s charming version can be heard on My Rough and Rowdy Ways: Early American Rural Music, Badman Ballads and Hellraising Songs Vol. 2 (Yazoo 2040), one of the best compilations I’ve heard but lacking in genuine cowboy-type songs and instead favoring more general bad man ballads and blues. “The Ballad of Billy the Kid” is more of an exercise in nostalgic preservation than an authentic folk song, recorded just before the singing cowboy became a movie-screen presence, but well into the period of interest in cowboy lore and ballads that John Lomax helped initiate in 1910.

My Rough and Rowdy Ways Volume 1 (Yazoo 2039) has Ken Maynard, the original singing cowboy, singing “Jesse James” in a 1930 recording. Maynard first gained fame singing two songs, “The Lone Star Trail” and “Cowboy’s Lament“, in the early talkie western The Wagon Master (1929). His voice, no match for a pro like Dalheart, has an amateur nasal twang and breaks on some notes, but Maynard’s honest affection for the song comes through just fine, and the film led to recording session in 1930 that produded 10 cowboy songs. Maynard was a rodeo rider and stunt man in westerns--the “most daring horseman of the movie cowboys” according to Douglas Green in his book Singing Cowboys (Gibbs Smith, Publisher, 2006)--who convinced Universal studio honcho Carl Laemmel to make the first true musical western film, The Fiddling Buckaroo, in 1933. Maynard was not as good a singer as he was horseman--his high tenor voice is thin and plain, and on “Jesse James” his guitar playing is only adequate strumming. The cd that accompanies Green’s book includes Maynard singing “The Lone Star Trail” from the 1930 session.

I am a lonely cowboy, and I’m off the Texas Trail
My trade is cinching saddles, and pulling bridle reins
But I can twist a lasso with the greatest skill and ease
Or rope and ride a bronco most anywhere I please

Oh I love the rolling prairie that’s far from trail and strife
Find a bunch of longhorns, I’ll journey all my life
But if I had a stake boys, soon wed I would be
For the sweetest girl in this wide world just fell in love with me

The very unadorned amateur quality of Maynard’s song gives it lasting interest--whatever limits his acting skills on screen might have had, on record he sounds like a true cowboy singing a song rather than a actor/musician singing a song about cowboys. That tone of authenticity is not easily achieved or maintained in a genre that was largely nostalgic for a lost world by the time films and recordings fixed the iconography of the American west. The song’s lyrics display many of the signifiers of cowboy life and identity--self-sufficiency, delight in occupational skills and horsemanship, love of natural surroundings, and a longing to earn enough to settle down with a good woman.

Green’s book is a fun and informative read, full of color pictures, film still, posters and biographies of all the major singing cowboys and cowgirls, and the cd makes audible the progression of cowboy songs from folklore artifacts to slicked-up Hollywood product. Patsy Montana, Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey, the Sons of the Pioneers, Rex Allen and other stars are represented on the cds 10 cuts, and many more in the biographical chapters. If Maynard stands for the primitive source, Rex Allen’s smooth baritone and string-laden accompaniment on “Too-lee Roll-’um”signal the end of the singing cowboy on film at least. Allen’s career in film closed out the genre in 1954 with Phantom Stallion, the last musical western. Like Maynard, Allen had real spurs on his boots--he was raised in Arizona, performed in rodeos, and knew the west well. He turned to music and had hits before his film career--”My Dear Old Arizona Home” was a Tin Pan Alley composition but still a lively western swing hit in the 1940s for Allen. “Too-lee Roll-’um” is a smooth ballad.

Too-lee roll-’um, tee-rail-’um, tee-rile-’um, tee-ro
I’m an Arizona cowboy, and the desert’s my home

I was born in Arizona, among the cactus and hills
And the memory of my childhood is warm within me still
A mother and dad and the old folks at home
Where cattle is king and the longhorns still roam
Where a horse and a man become partners at dawn
And night found me singing this cowpunchers song

Too-lee roll-’um, tee-rail-’um, tee-rile-’um, tee-ro
I’m a lonesome old cowboy, and the desert’s my home

The sentiment is irresistible when Allen sings the introduction and verse; female voices pick up the refrain and the song turns cinematic, nearly operatic. Hollywood and the recording studio have civilized the cowboy, suitable for mixed company, ready for the museum. Allen had a long career after Phantom Stallion, as actor, recording artist, narrator of several Disney films, and ambassador for the cowboy life-- is dedicated to his legacy.

I recently bought three collections devoted entirely to cowboy songs, and I’ve had great fun listening to them even as some issues of authenticity and sentimentality in the genre became clear. When I Was A Cowboy: Early American Songs of the West Vol. 1 (Yazoo 2022) contains 23 songs recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and is a sonic time capsule (like many of Yazoo’s anthologies). The cd begins with the Cartwright Brothers 1928 recording of “Utah Carroll”--

In a far off western country, where friends are few and dear,
Where cattle roam in thousands and skies are always clear

We were rounding up one morning, and the work was nearly done
When the cattle all stampeded in wild and maddened run
‘twas the boss’s little daughter, was holding on that side
She tried to check the cattle, ‘twas a wild and dangerous ride

Beneath that lassie’s saddle, early on that fatal morn,
I placed a scarlet blanket, a mistake I’ll always morn
When the cattle saw that blanket, it breaked their maddened brains
They bore down on the lassie, and death rode wild again

The boss’s little daughter rode the best horse all-around
But he stumbled in a dog-hole and threw her to the ground
The cattle thundered toward her, and she surely would have died
But someone spurred his cow-horse like lightning to her side

He hung down from his pony and caught her from the ground
But the cinches broke beneath him and once more hurled him down

From desperate Utah Carroll, a blanket waving gay
He led off from an angle, and the cattle came his way
This task of his accomplished, and the child safe on the side
He stopped to face the cattle, a wild and maddened tide

His pistol flashed like lightning and sounded loud and clear
He failed to stop the cattle, but he dropped a leading steer
A thousand hooves were pounding, and a thousand slashing horns
Snuffed out the life of Utah, the bravest hero born

In a far off western country, where friends are few and dear,
Stands a humble little headstone, where the skies are always clear
And the rancher’s little daughter, now often comes to pray
For the man who died so freely, to save her live that day.

The song is a classic narrative ballad, with a melody Woody Guthrie borrowed for “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Bernard and Jack Cartwright were from west Texas, but I’m having difficulty finding out much more about them. Jack apparently is strumming a guitar and singing, Bernard playing the melody on fiddle in tandem with the vocal. Guitars came late to balladry--ballads were originally sung a capella, then with fiddle accompaniment, then banjos before guitars became popular and affordable. The Cartwright recording retains the marks of this cumulative development of a genre and style, and the lyrics maintain the ballad tradition of swift narrative conveyed through concrete detail with minimal adornment and stock phrases to aid the rhyme. Marty Robbins, Arlo Guthrie and others have recorded the song (mostly based on Robbin’s very different re-write of the same basic story), but I much prefer the primitive sound of the Cartwright Brothers. You can hear why at which has a free download of this public-domain classic.

So cowboy songs are folk songs, about work and danger in a beautiful if sometimes savage land, about honor and sacrifice as much as outlawry and hell-raising. Other classics are on the Yazoo cd such as Ken Maynard‘s “Cowboy‘s Lament”, Carl Sprague’s “The Mormon Cowboy” and “ The Last Longhorn”, and Edward L. Crain’s “Bandit Cole Younger.” Maynard’s melody is the not quite that used by Johnny Cash or Burl Ives or my dad on “Streets of Laredo” but a plainer and probably earlier one. “The Bandit Cole Younger” concerns the famous outlaw meeting the even more famous James brothers on “the ‘brasky plains” and the Northfield Bank robbery in “Minnesotio.” These early folk ballads have simple chord changes organized around couplets--the often sound like half a song repeated over and over, a mnemonic device of the oral tradition with melodic conventions freely adapted to ¾ or 4/4 time and whatever tale needed telling. Many of the songs are in fact waltzes, and it’s easy to imagine a group of cowboys around a fire after a long tough day’s work on the open range entertaining one another with tall tales, boasts, and song, maybe waltzing with one another if the mood struck them.

Did real cowboys sing to one another? Of course they did. Up to 25% of cowboys were African-american, maybe another 10% were Mexican-american, and the mix of song traditions and skills made for a fertile musical culture in an era when most music really was folk music and all of it was delivered live. The oldest songs with the deepest roots speak in detail about the cowboy life and its appurtenances, dangers and rewards. Guitars on cattle drives were probably a rarity--too fragile, expensive and quiet for the most part. Mexican guitars may have been available--the Spanish southwest had a very active guitar/violin folk music tradition before its acquisition by the United States after the Mexican war. But the occasional fiddle was a more likely cowboy instrument, perhaps a mandolin as well, both smaller instruments that were more popular than the guitar in the 19th century. The Cartwright Brothers’ “Texas Ranger” is a chilling example of ballad singing with only fiddle accompaniment, Jack’s voice and Bernard’s violin in unison on a mixolydian melody with its weird flatted seventh interval lending spooky blues feeling without using the bluesier pentatonic scale

While many cowboy songs are implicit celebrations of valor or rascality, many more sound inconsolably sad, as melancholy and fatalistic as a Delta blues can be. The difficulty, danger and low wages probably made a sad song a necessary expression of cowboy life, and folk music is one of the main culture vehicles for acknowledging the sorrows of life as a means of transcending them. When an oral tradition is vital and primary, the presence of death immediate, laments are a crucial poetic form, and lamentations work their way into the Iliad, Beowulf, La Poema del mio Cid and Anglo-celtic ballads. But the heyday of the cowboy was surprisingly brief--barbed wire and the extension of railroads made open range grazing and big cattle drives mostly unnecessary by 1885 or so. Cowboys didn’t disappear--we still have real working cowboys today on the big ranches of the western United States and Canada. Still, the tone of much cowboy music seems directed at the loss of a way of life, not just the death of a working man or bad man but of am entire culture and a view of the terror and wonder of the land.

A few years ago I was browsing used record albums in a thrift shop--yes, I still own a turntable and hundreds of lp records--and came upon a dozen records in the New World Records Anthology of American Music series, one of the best finds of my life. I bought them all, of course. Among them was the double lp Back In the Saddle Again, 28 cowboy songs from 1928 through 1979, with wonderful liner notes and an essay by Charles Seeman, “The American Cowboy: Image and Reality.” Seeman makes many of the same observations I have made regarding the persistent appeal of the cowboy in story, music, and film. He points to the English ballad tradition behind many cowboy songs, and he writes of the actual lives of true cowboys who lived, worked and died while creating a distinctive American folklore.

Cowboys were not an illiterate lot; many were relatively educated men,
seeking adventure in the west, escaping from the past or simply the pressures
of civilization, . Some of them wrote a great deal of cowboy poetry, much
of which found its way into newspapers and stock-growers’ journals.
often this verse became attached to old familiar folk or popular melodies
and entered oral tradition as folk songs…
(Seeman, copyright 1983)

The two lps have some of the same songs and/or artists as the Yazoo cd, but the range of dates on the recordings puts the progress of cowboy songs into some further historical perspective.

Cowboys had an awareness of the drama, the theatrics, of the life they led. Wild Bill Hickok, a real scout, gambler, gunslinger and occasional lawman, gave the New York stage a try, and Buffalo Bill Cody had a longer and more lucrative career in show business than on the western plains. The early cowboy singers and actors in the 20th century were often the real deal, and show business offered a way to preserve their culture as well as to make a living. Side one of Back In the Saddle Again begins with a rousing 1928 version of “The Old Chisholm Trail” by Harry McClintock, born 1883 and a working cowboy among other occupations in his life of rambling. The song was collected by John Lomax in numerous versions incorporating hundreds of couplets, many quite bawdy, that Lomax edited into a coherent version that has become the standard since its publication in 1910 in Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. (Jesse Chisholm of the title was a real Cherokee “Indian cowboy” from Oklahoma who ran a string of trading posts, located along the cattle drive route from San Antonio to Kansas City.) It’s probably the best known cowboy song of all, and McClintock‘s spry rendition sounds like the template for Woody Guthrie‘s version recorded in the 1940s.

Cut 2 is from 1957, “The Pot Wrassler“, a ballad about a cook on a cattle drive sung by Henry Jackson unaccompanied. Jackson, born in 1924, grew up in Illinois, learned cowboy songs from an old cowboy working in Chicago stockyards, and eventually became an artist working with western themes in paint and sculpture. He recorded in the 1950s for the Folkways label. Cut 3 is a live performance by Van Holyoke (b. 1928) at a the 1979 Border Folk Festival in El Paso Texas, of “The Gol-Durned Wheel”, more of a chanted poem than a proper song about cowboys who attempt to ride a new-fangled bicycle with bruising results.

So in the space of 3 songs, the arc of the cowboy life is traced from a lived oral tradition and occupation to its codification in secondary sources to its enshrinement and celebration in festivals before paying audiences. The “folk boom” of the 1950s was the process by which much of American oral tradition and primitive/rural culture achieved recognition and preservation while America itself became literate (and, sadly, post-literate), urban, removed from physical labor and the homely reminders of mortality.

The two-record collection concludes with thoroughly modern cowboy singers--Glen Orhlin’s 1974 “The Cowboy”, Chris LeDoux’s “Rusty Spurs” from 1979, and “Cowboy Song” by Riders in the Sky, recorded in 1980. Orhlin was also a working cowboy, and his song maintains the plain-spoken twang and calm melancholy of his predecessors, with simple acoustic guitar accompaniment in the standard “cowboy chord” style. He was near 50 at the time of recording, with weather in his voice and longing in his lyrics. Ledoux is quite a bit younger, and is currently one of the biggest cowboy music stars. “Rusty Spurs” is country music with a rodeo theme, fiddle, harmonica, piano, bass, drums and guitar behind him. The song reminds me of someone eager to be seen as a cowboy--the right jeans, boots, shirt, hat, all clean and tucked in and pressed. Not much rust or dust showing in the music, but still pleasant listening. “Cowboy Song” is further diluted/augmented with pedal steel guitar, corny background vocals, banjo, and sentimental paens to the cowboy life studded with longhorns, roundups, western skies and a “whoopee ti-yi-yo” that threatens to become annoying in a song straining to fulfill a genre and failing in the effort. The sadness is gone, the sentiment has turned sentimental, and the song is about the singer more than the subject. It’s the one false moment in an otherwise compelling collection.

Boots, Buckles & Spurs: 50 Songs Celebrate 50 Years of Cowboy Tradition (Sony/BMG Legacy) is a 3 cd-set of cowboy music produced in conjunction with the National Wrangler Finals Rodeo for its 50th year anniversary in 2009. The first National Wrangler Finals Rodeo was in Dallas, Texas, in 1959. Las Vegas is currently the host city, and that alone should set the bunkhouse triangle jangling out a warning. Nevada has plenty of cowboy mojo to its name, but Las Vegas is a city of fakes and frauds, an imitation of life that exists on taxpayer beneficence and the temptation of the gullible and the greedy. The tradition the music celebrates is far closer to the subject of the Vandal’s sneer than that of Carl Sprague, Ken Maynard or the Cartwright Brothers (unless they are named Adam, Hoss and Little Joe), let alone Bill Hickok or Cole Younger.
Most of the 50 songs are by country music artists in cowboy pose. The vintage recordings are the expected stars and songs: Patsy Montana singing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” (Montana was from Arkansas, went to college in California, and hit upon the cowgirl persona as a way to break into the music business); Gene Autrey’s “Back in the Saddle Again”; “Dusty Skies” by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, a band that had more in common with Bill Basie than with Bill Cody; “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” by the Sons of the Pioneers; “Stampede” by Roy Rogers with those Sons backing him; Elton Britt’s “Patent Leather Boots”, a yodeling ode to cowboy fashion that reeks of unconscious narcissism; pop country singer Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call”. These singers all had well-received careers, and the songs are firmly in the Hollywood cowboy tradition. Aside from Bob Will’s lazy-swinging tune, they are all as corny as the painted skies and machine-blown tumbleweeds of a Hollywood soundstage.

The rest of the music is by well-know country stars for the most part--Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Charlie Daniels, David Allen Coe--and current avatars of cowboy music like Canadian Ian Tyson, Michael Martin Murphy, Chris LeDoux, Trent Willmon. Songwriting aces Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen and Rodney Crowell each get a song. Most of the music is mainstream country with western-themed lyrics, slickly produced, radio-ready. For all these biases toward slick production and well-known hits and “I’m not a real cowboy, but I play one in this song” type singing, the collection holds a lot of interesting and sometimes thrilling music. It’s a reasonable but by no means comprehensive survey of the cowboy in contemporary country music.

I’ve always had a soft spot for “Wildfire” by Michael Murphy, his 1972 hit about a young girl and her horse:

She comes down from Yellow Mountain
On a dark, flat land she rides
On a pony she named Wildfire
With a whirlwind by her side
On a cold Nebraska night
Oh, they say she died one winter
When there came a killing frost
And the pony she named Wildfire
Busted down its stall
In a blizzard he was lost
She ran calling Wildfire, Wildfire, Wildfire
My favorite version is on Innocence & Despair: The Langley Schools Music Project, an amazing collection of songs performed by rural Canadian school children, some of whom lived on isolated farms and ranches--they sing as if they rode their ponies to school that day, heartrending sincerity and pathos. Murphy's lushly orchestrated original is almost as good.
Guy Clark’s “Rita Ballou” about a wild woman--”hill country honky-tonkin’ Rita Ballou” a cowboy’s heart-throb--is another gem, like most Clark-penned songs. A Texan gone to California, Clark has made a career as luthier, songsmith and occasional performer and recording artist. Not a cowboy, but Texan with a talent as huge as his home state, Clark has a stable of classic country songs to his credit, and the collection might have also included his “Desperados Waiting for A Train” and/or “The Last Gunfighter Ballad” and improved its ratio of cool to corn.

Marty Robbin’s sweet tenor is heard on the horse homily “Strawberry Roan” which is a waltz at a similar tempo as “El Paso” but about a very different kind of love, for a horse that can‘t be tamed. The lyric is based on a poem published in 1931, by one Curley Fletcher:

I"m a-layin' around, just spendin’ muh time,
Out of a job an' ain't holdin' a dime,
When a feller steps up, an' sez, "I suppose
that you're uh bronk* fighter by the looks uh yure clothes."
"Yuh figures me right-I'm a good one, I claim,
Do you happen tuh have any bad uns tuh tame?
He sez he's got one, uh bad un tuh buck,
An fur throwin' good riders, he's had lots uh luck.
He sez that his pony has never been rode,
That the boys that gets on 'im is bound tuh get throwed.
Well, I gets all excited an' asks what he pays,
Tuh ride that old pony uh couple uh days.
According to his daughter, Fletcher was a bit fussy about his poems and did not like them set to music, but he did colloborate with several musicians on some songs, and “Strawberry Roan” became one of his more famous works. The Robbins song smooths out the lyrics quite a bit:

I was hangin' 'round town, just spendin' my time
Out of a job, not earnin' a dime
A feller steps up and he said, "I suppose
You're a bronc fighter from looks of your clothes."
"You figures me right, I'm a good one." I claim
"Do you happen to have any bad ones to tame?"
Said "He's got one, a bad one to buck
At throwin' good riders, he's had lots of luck."
I gets all het up and I ask what he pays
To ride this old nag for a couple of days
He offered me ten; I said, "I'm your man,
A bronc never lived that I couldn't span."

Another highpoint is Suzy Boguss singing Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon” which Judy Collins also recorded early in her career. Tyson was half of Ian & Sylvia, a hit-making folk duo in the 1960s. Sylvia loved Appalachian ballads and old bluesy hollers, Tyson leaned more toward love songs and cowboy songs, and once they dissolved their musical partnership and marriage, Tyson headed for the Canadian west where he still lives, ranching, riding, and writing cowboy songs. Tyson himself sings “Leaving Cheyenne” which is a variant of the traditional “I Ride an Old Paint”. It’s yet another cowboy waltz, done right with hearfelt vocal, restrained mandolin and fiddle and dobro along for the ride.

The Waylon/Willie/Cash material is exactly what you’d expect at this point and in no need of my comment. Chris Ledoux hits a rock tempo with “Hooked for an 8 Second Ride” about at rodeo bull rider, and like so much contemporary country music, the song is big on guitars and drums and rock and roll hooks, with a little twang in the vocal to place it in the right market, but it’s about as “authentic” as Johnny Mercer’s “I’m An Old Cowhand” without the irony. The overwrought guitar crescendo finale is just a sad comment on the business of country music.
The low-point of the set is definitely Moe Bandy’s “Bandy the Rodeo Clown”--if clowns terrify you, this song will set you running like a spooked mustang. It is a creepy, sentimental uptempo cowboy version of “Mr. Bojangles” sung in the first person to no good effect. The song was written by Lefty Frizzell, who had a special way with creepy sentiment that could work for 3 minutes. Moe Bandy just murders the song with smarmy vibrato, a busy arrangement no has-been rodeo clown could ever summon on his own, and not a trace of humor or irony.

Fortunately, the cowboy and cowboy songs and poetry are alive and well beyond Las Vegas--done by real cowboys and by musicians with real taste. The cowpoke has a few rides left in him yet before embalming, and not on any mechanical bull or Las Vegas casino stage. I’ll return to the theme in a future blog, after I have a chance to do a little more listening and research. Meanwhile, I’ll take my leave with a few lines I learned from my dad fifty-plus years ago:

Get six jolly gamblers to carry my coffin
Six pretty maidens to bear my grey pall
Throw dozens of roses on top of my casket
Roses to muffle the clods as they fall

Then beat the drum slowly and play the fife lowly
Play the death march as you bear me along
Take me to the green valley and lay the sod o’er me
For I’m a young cowboy, and I know I’ve done wrong

Friday, January 8, 2010

Not Dead But Merely Dreaming: A Cowboy Prelude

I began this blog during a period of intense underemployment. Shortly after completing the posted batch of essays, I was hired by a company where I continue to work (quite happily). Between the job and my musical activities, I have not had the time and inspiration to write more blog entries. Fortunately, I've been very busy writing songs and music, both for my band and for a theater company. Despite appearances, I've never considered the blog as dead, but merely sleeping and dreaming of musical delights not yet expressed.

Unlike many blogs I encounter, I want this one to have a purpose beyond exercise of my typing skills and momentary impulses. For quite a few months now, I have been doing research for a number of blog topics, and I'm just about ready to wake up and get blogging once more. My next topic will be Cowboy Songs. I've been picking up some cds, doing some on-line listening, reading up on the history of singing cowboys, and watching movies of the cowboy life, musical and otherwise. I hope to post the first fruits of this most pleasant research this weekend.

As a preview, here's THE COWBOY'S DREAM by one D. J. O'Malley, to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean:

The Cowboy's Dream

Last night as I lay on the prairie
And looked at the stars in the sky,
I wondered if ever a cowboy
Would drift to that sweet by and by.

cho: Roll on, Roll on,
Roll on, little dogies, Roll on, Roll on,
Roll on, Roll on,
Roll on, little dogies, Roll on,

The road to the broad happy region
Is a dim narrow trail so they say;
But the bright one that leads to perdition
Is posted and blazed all the way.

They say there will be a great round-up,
And cowboys, like dogies will stand,
To be marked by the riders of judgment
Who are posted and know every brand.

And I'm scared that I'll be a stray yearling
A maverick unbranded on high;
And get cut in the bunch with the "rusties"
When the Boss of the riders goes by.

For they tell of another big owner
Who's ne'er overstocked, so they say,
But who always makes room for the sinner
Who drifts from the straight narrow way.

They say He will never forget you
That He knows every action and look;
So, for safety, you'd better get branded
Have your name in the great Tally book.

In that strange way that art and life coincide without intentional guidance, I find that this lyric captures a certain feeling I have been having myself, even though I don't know the song and only found it on line when the title phrase popped into my noggin a few moments ago. When I was a boy, my bedroom wallpaper featured cowboys doing cowboy-type things--riding broncos, branding cattle, twirling lariats and so forth. These would be the last images I'd see before sleep, and the first in my dreams. As the cowboy moved from bucolic occupation to iconic Americana, his lived experience became literary--in dime novels and memoirs, folktales and songs, and most effectively I think on stage and in cinema where his shadow looms largest. I'll look at as much of this process as a blog entry can bear in my next post.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Guitars and All That Jazz Allows

Over the last century, the music we now call jazz has gone from a social music for the lower classes and society's fringes to enshrinement as "America's music" while branching into various styles, defining and redefining itself and its signal features, winning and sometimes losing audiences, engaging intellects and passions, inspiring dancers, singers, listeners and musicians "all over this world" in the words of the spiritual I'm currently listening to this very moment of writing. Jazz is an umbrella term, not an easily defined music, and some examples sound at times mutually exclusive of one another--the connection between Cecil Taylor's highly percussive free jazz piano style and the introspective lyricism of Chet Baker's trumpet is not immediately obvious to most listeners, even though both men were born in 1929, came of musical age in the 1950s and the wake of Charlie Parker and other bebop innovators. As I play neither trumpet nor piano (well, I don't play piano in public anyway), I will not attempt to describe the connection beyond asserting they represent two schools of jazz romanticism, two ways of swinging, and a fundamental commitment to improvisation.

My first real experience of jazz was hearing Miles Davis late at night on WBCN-FM in Boston, the title cut from his seminal 1969 album Bitches Brew. It sounded more like caged animals in a fight to the death than music to ears obsessed with Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks. Memorable, but frightening--if this was music being played by the coolest dj (Eric in the Evening) on the coolest station, I was a long way from cool myself. Cool was all I had going for me at 15, in my own mind if no one else's, so I saw I had some work ahead of me. Partly guided by intuition and partly by what was more available on radio in those days, I set about listening to rhythm & blues and blues music, trying to understand why black music sounded as it did, how it related to the rock and roll I loved. The early years of Rolling Stone magazine helped a lot, and names started to accumulate in my head for investigation: Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman--all trumpet and saxophone players as it happened, and some of the leading (and competing) exponents of jazz in the 1960s. My ears and mind were stretching out to accommodate these new sounds. Just as I had done with rock and blues, I started reading books and album jackets and noticing names--Coltrane had played with Davis, Shepp with Coltrane, Cherry with both Coleman and Coltrane. Davis thought Coleman was bad, but Davis had played with Charlie Parker, and Coleman was supposed to be influenced by Parker. Mystery piled on top of mystery in my ears. I didn't get it. Jazz was supposed to "swing" but sometimes all I heard were the caterwauling beasts, everyone blasting at one another or in totally different directions, and no beat I could determine. I needed help.

I got some in college. Much to my dad's dismay, I took a course in the history of jazz my sophomore year. I had no idea this would be such a turning point in my life, just wanted to satisfy a certain curiosity about what I was hearing versus what was often claimed for this music. The course included much listening and reading, and the professor gave an accessible overview of music theory and musical forms in the process. I learned about scales and chords and the piano keyboard, about ragtime, spirituals and blues and their role in the birth of jazz, about 2/4 and 4/4 time and syncopation and triplets and polyrhythms. I learned to recognize a blues or an aaba song form by ear. We studied the early work of King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and I grew to love trumpet players and saxophone players as much as any of my rock guitar gods.

When the semester reached the swing era, some profound connection took hold in my brain. I mean this literally. My nervous system changed, my thinking changed, in some ways replicating the change jazz worked upon America starting around 1930 at the dawn of the Swing Era--which was the twilight of the "Jazz Age" of the post-WWI, pre-Depression years. Ellington had been accelerating his rhythmic drive--his 1931 "Rocking in Rhythm" is practically a manifesto of a new kind of physical liberation that, once unleashed, was unstoppable and culminated eventually in rock and roll (among many other things). Benny Goodman understood probably better than any white American what was taking place--he quickly began working with the great arranger Fletcher Henderson and some of the leading black musicians of the day, initially in the studio but then in groundbreaking public performance. By 1939, Goodman, through the efforts of John Hammond, Sr., hit the musical mother lode when he hired the young Oklahoma guitarist Charlie Christian.

Goodman had already taken some brilliant black jazzmen into his band, such as vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, pianist Teddy Wilson. He'd recorded with Bessie Smith. He could swing and play the blues with great authority. Like many musicians of his day, he'd been somewhat skeptical of the electric guitar, the most recent innovation on an instrument that had long been relegated to solo playing, rhythm parts, duo and trio playing even in the hands of great improvisers like blues/jazz pioneer Lonnie Johnson and the white jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. The Dopyera Brothers had invented the acoustic resonator guitar in the 1920s to get more volume, Gibson had produced larger and larger archtop guitars that began to replace the banjo in rhythm sections, and Adolphe Rickenbacker had developed electrical lap guitars played Hawaiian style which began to interest blues and country musicians as well as a few jazz players. Floyd Smith recorded "Floyd's Guitar Blues" on such a lap guitar with big band accompaniment. The Argentine guitarist Oscar Aleman was playing swing jazz in Paris on a resonator guitar, contemporary with Django Reinhardt's gypsy swing on his distinctive Selmer acoustic guitar. The guitar was maturing into a vital soloing voice in jazz. Another mid-west jazzman, trombonist/arranger Eddie Durham, occasionally doubled on guitar for Count Basie. Durham was one of the earliest to go electric, and the younger Christian was right behind him.

The 1930s were a great period of cultural flux, spurred by economic hardship, political tensions, and technological advances, and music was a microcosm for much of the dynamism in the world at large, as it often is. Young men like Christian, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie were pushing themselves and their instruments into new rhythms and tempi and approaches to harmony and improvisation, and older and younger musicians responded, some skeptically, some with great delight. Christian had gained a following playing in the mid-west; joining Goodman brought him to national attention as soloist in the most popular band of the day, touring coast to coast, recording, appearing on radio broadcasts (many of which were recorded and comprise about half of Christian's recorded legacy). Christian had some fine tutors, had picked up some valuable pointers from Durham, but like many artists at the cusp of technological innovations, he had precious few direct predecessors on his instrument and looked to saxophone and trumpet players for musical inspiration. In particular, he loved the playing of Lester Young, the tenor saxophone star of Count Basie's band. Young was the most advanced swing musician of his generation, and Christian took notice, learning his solos and applying his rhythmic and harmonic audacity to guitar.

Goodman had two general ways of working, his full orchestra of around 20 pieces and smaller groups of three to seven players. Christian was a featured soloist in both settings, but the small groups in particular were where his playing can be best appreciated. I was completely taken with the sound of these small groups, no less than when I first heard the Beatles. The guitar made perfect sense alongside clarinet, vibes, piano. Goodman kept adding players, too--the trumpet great Cootie Williams took a leave from Duke Ellington to play with Goodman. Hampton left to lead his own band, and Goodman's tenor man George Auld became a small-group regular. Wilson left the fold, and Goodman would use Count Basie when he wasn't touring with his own band. Goodman even brought in Lester Young and trumpeter Buck Clayton as well as Basie and his rhythm section for a small group recording session, which must have been a dream-come-true for Christian. The music these men made together is some of the most exuberantly joyous and creative collaborations I've ever heard--they seem to bring out the best in one another whether in the studio or on the air.

I began teaching myself guitar while in college, but I stuck with folk/blues songs even as I devoted much of my time and meager resources to collecting and listening to jazz records. I did listen to Christian, especially on blues numbers, tried to get a feel for the rhythm overall and how he'd place his notes in relation to the pulse. I listened to Lester Young, both with Basie and his later recordings from the '40s and '50s. I went to Ellington's work, for Cootie Williams, Bubber Miley, Ray Nance on trumpets, and Johnny Hodges on sax. I followed the revolution in swing that yielded bebop and Charlie Parker and the young Miles Davis. It was starting to make sense, this thing they called jazz. Sadly, Christian didn't make it to the revolution he foreshadowed, dying of tuberculosis in 1942. His entire recorded output covers about two years time, 1939-1941. I bought a book of his guitar transcriptions shortly after college, and despite my limits as reader and player, I used it as best I could. I still work with transcriptions of his solos as one of my practice routines, but I'm not a jazz musician by any means. Jazz-influenced, certainly, but I'm just not skilled enough to play jazz.

It's not for lack of interest. I love all eras of jazz, and before I graduated from college, I'd found a way into the more modern sounds of Miles Davis. My term paper for my jazz history course was on rhythmic developments in the music of Miles Davis, and I'd picked up his album IN A SILENT WAY in part because it listed a guitarist, John McLaughlin, in the credits. McLaughlin is a big part of the hypnotic, meditative quality of that album, and his guitar tone is clean, his playing relaxed in the steady grooves set up by drummer Tony Williams. I could hear the connection to Christian's work of 30 years earlier, even if Davis had streamlined the harmonic variation of pop song chords and blues changes into a few scales and chords. So, this jazz thing was good for guitars after all. And McLaughlin was on a few other Davis records, including that monument of aural intimidation, BITCHES BREW. I took another listen to that double album, and while its ferocity hadn't changed, my brain had. More drummers, long 20 minute songs, bass clarinet solos, three pianos, trumpet, soprano sax--so much to hear and absorb, and yet I began to understand the music as a cooperative conversation, not competing but complementary voices. McLaughlin's even-toned guitar wove among the instruments, soloing here and there, playing chords behind other solos--one song is even named after him. At a party my junior year, someone put A TRIBUTE TO JACK JOHNSON, the third Davis lp to feature McLaughlin, on the record player, and the room exploded with dancing. McLaughlin has a much more aggressive style on this 1970 recording, distorted, bluesy, funky, and Davis by this point was freely drawing on James Brown and playing to rock audiences. This is dance music, but so was Benny Goodman's. The dancing was different, but the palpable excitement of the music, the joy approaching ecstatic abandon, was the same.

I started to follow McLaughlin. He recorded an album with former Davis sideman Wayne Shorter, SUPERNOVA, which also featured guitarist Sonny Sharrock (who played uncredited on JACK JOHNSON). This was closer to free jazz than jazz-rock or what would soon be called fusion music. The song structures seemed limited to a melodic theme and a tempo, and then everything was up for grabs and potentially part of the conversation. Then McLaughlin formed his Mahavishnu Orchestra, started playing a double-neck Gibson, and came to play a concert at my college. I bought a ticket, sure I was going to hear jazz, not sure exactly what that would mean this time.

Five men came on stage--electric bass, violin, keyboards, drums, and McLaughlin with that Gibson. After a few moments silence, drummer Bill Cobham hit a huge gong several times, and McLaughlin started softly picked shimmering chords on the 12-string neck. The bass and keyboards entered, the violin added some tremelo riffing, and on some unspoken cue, the volume quickly swelled and the music soared with startling grandeur unlike anything I'd yet heard, the jagged beautiful theme "Birds of Fire" from the band's new album. It was loud but not chaotic, strange but not inaccessible, and utterly transformative for me as listener. McLaughlin had taken the interest in scales and open improvisation pioneered by Coltrane and Davis, the volume and directness of Jimi Hendrix, the the complex meters and meditative quality of Indian music, into his guitar.

He was not the only musician of this moment of cultural synthesis and innovation, but he did embody something for guitarists in particular, both jazz players schooled in swing and bebop and Christian's followers such as Barney Kessell, Tal Farlowe, Bill D'Arango, and the ambitious rock improvisers in the wakes of Michael Bloomfield, Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman. Certain musicians seem to personify a complete approach to music. A jazz virtuoso like Joe Pass or Lenny Breau, capable of improvising through the most difficult chord changes with deceptive grace and swing, can sometimes sound almost too good, too perfect at realizing the possibilities of a song. This is only in the seeming, of course, and is more a matter of the listener's awe than the performer's perfection--Art Tatum is the only jazz musician I know who was ever affectionately called "God" the way rock fans dubbed Eric Clapton. Still, by summing up much of what has preceded them, virtuosi can sometimes distract from innovation, experiment, even the fortuitous failures that refine fresh forms of genius. Each generation has to be willing to break with the past as well as honor its genius, or art and life cease to grow. For me, McLaughlin was pointing the way into unexplored territory, new sounds and rhythms and possible music.

Sometimes you can feel these moments as they occur, and sometimes it takes years to understand a new genesis. When I was 18, 19, 20 years old and devoted to my musical obsessions, I never imagined I'd actually call myself a musician one day. I wanted to write poetry; guitar was what I did when no one was around to listen. Unknown to me, I had a soul brother out there, hearing some of the same sounds, feeling some of the same excitement, but with a crucial difference: he was going to be a musician and in fact already was on that path. His name was, and still is, Joe Morris. He was growing up in near New Haven, Connecticut, playing guitar in teenage rock bands, and getting more and more curious about sounds and how they might be organized and things he did not yet understand but could feel about music and about life. Joe was, shall we say, an independent mind from his early years, with an uncompromising temperament that sometimes brought challenges along with rewards. His early guitar playing was in the aggressive blues-rock tradition; he loved the Allman Brothers and their jazzy improvisational approach. He loved school far less, and it led to some "quiet time" for Joe in a school for children reluctant to attend school, but he credits this period with one of the key insights in his emotional and artistic life. Staring out the window one day, he saw a flock of black birds flocking around a tree, a swirl of collective flight and landings, no single form predominant, no bird in any other bird's way, a continual conversation of independent beings forming an intuitive and beautiful whole.

This was around the same time I had a revelatory moment about poetry and language, through my listening to jazz, most specifically the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. I felt that in the example of Coleman and his great quartet of the 1950s, I could catch a glimpse of what I might accomplish as a writer. Just as free jazz makes a commitment to improvisation--that any note or beat might be incorporated into a conversation and gradually cohering statement, without pre-existing forms or conditions--a poem might free itself from pre-existing intentions to mean something particular, to fulfill a traditional form, and take music as its compositional model. Any word might come next, any phrase might pause and let another intervene, any thought might enter the uncoiling expression. I was discovering something already posited to a degree by Jack Kerouac in the 1950s (not coincidentally around the period of Coleman's ascendancy), but in my own terms toward my own expressive ends.

Joe Morris quit high school; I graduated from my Ivy League college with a degree in English. There was (and still is) a small but vital jazz scene in New Haven, and he was listening, learning to play, taking the train to New York City to go to jazz clubs where Shepp and Sanders were pursuing the "New Thing" they'd pioneered, and where they inspired a new generation of free improvisers in the then bohemian Soho loft-jazz scene. Like Christian studying Lester Young, Joe took a serious listen to Archie Shepp's tenor saxophone playing and began absorbing the harmonic freedom and new ways of swinging into his guitar playing. Very fortunately for me, Joe moved to the Boston area, started playing around town with other experimental musicians and documenting his work on his own record label, Riti Records. I moved to Cambridge after college, started writing poetry in earnest if not in achievement, and going to hear music as I could afford. I can't quite recall the first time I heard Joe, which is a bit odd for me as I tend to remember such things, but I do remember where I heard about him--"Joe Morris is the guy," I heard in my favorite record store, Bojo's Used Records in Harvard Square, said. "He's making the new music." This was in 1977. Bojo himself said it, and Bojo was seriously cool, a gentle-voiced hippie interested in everything musical. That was recommendation enough for me.

Boston has the benefit of several schools with major music education programs, attracting young musicians as students, older ones as faculty, and attendant audiences. I caught up with Joe Morris in one of the small clubs then open in Boston or Cambridge--quite possibly the 1369 Jazz Club in Inman Square near where I lived in Cambridge. I quickly became a fan. He was indeed doing something new, playing a black Gibson Les Paul with a plain, clean tone in a classic swing-to-bop sonority, but unleashing notes that leapt and stuttered and chattered all over the guitar in phrases of completely unpredictable lengths and contours, with a bassist and drummer equally involved in the maelstrom. This wasn't jazz-rock or fusion music, a style that had quickly lost its edge and become more of a commercial genre than experimental cauldron. Nothing about it said "rock and roll" or "blues" in an obvious way, and it didn't swing in the post-bop modernist rhythm either. The music was truly free, spontaneous, conversational, collective, and experimental, risking and inviting chaos and finding new order by doing so. Here was the musical correlative to what I felt must be possible in poetry, although in writing I was a solo act--my "bandmates" were the poets I loved from every age who inspired me to write and whose attentions I strove to command in the realm of imagination. I wanted poems to be conversations with John Keats and Wallace Stevens and W. B. Yeats and their poems, as spontaneous as any passionate utterance on matters of the heart and spirit. I didn't want to sound like my predecessors, but to add something new to their dialogue with eternity.

Life is awfully funny when it's not killing you alive. By a process too complicated to recount here, I became friends with Joe--we were living close to one another in Cambridge--and we spent some wonderful times in a long and fascinating periodic conversation of our own about creativity, imagination, and life. I began to get my poems published, work that directly drew on those shared views about what excited and inspired us to be artists. Joe's example of relentless creative curiosity gave me a lot of courage to follow my own impulses. He didn't often explain his own music, but he loved to talk about music and musicians that inspired him--Cecil Taylor but also Charley Patton, Archie Shepp but also Bob Dylan's first album. As much as I love Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, even Charlie Christian, it has been the depth of Joe Morris's vision of music and the breadth of his creative efforts that have helped me most in my own struggle to be an artist, first as poet, then as musician. It would be impossible in a single blog to summarize his musical activities over the last 30 years or the respect and praise he has earned for his work. Trust me when I say he has gotten the best reviews from the best jazz critics I've ever read--Gary Giddins compared his playing to both Cecil Taylor and Bill Monroe in the same review. That is pretty good company in my book, and it should be in yours.

Joe Morris music is fundamentally spiritual. A lot of study and practice are behind it, and watching him play a squirrelly sequence of 32nd notes with immaculate swing in a groove of his own devising is technically astounding, but never the point of his play. As he has explained to me enough times that I can hear his voice doing so as I write, his music is about African spirituality transplanted and nurtured in America, about the family of music and humanity, and the redemption of suffering through sacrifice and good work. "I don't really play jazz," he sometimes says, "I play something new that is about jazz, that relates to jazz." He has done so in various contexts, most often in small groups of three to five players, sometimes with larger groups, sometimes in solo or duo settings. His recorded catalogue is now vast, spanning several decades and labels including his own Riti Records, Hat-Hut, Soul Note, Knitting Factory Records, 4 A. D., ECM, and other labels. Google him for details. I want to note three of his cds before I wind down to a coda.

SYMBOLIC GESTURE, a 1994 release on Soul Note 12104-2, is a trio recording with Nate McBride on acoustic bass and Curt Newton on drums. Joe excels in this setting, and the familiar trio format might be a good starting place for listeners new to fiercely improvised and open music. Joe has many ways of organizing a song, from writing out all the parts to completely improvised forays, and he (and his chosen bandmates) are such accomplished improvisers that it's not always easy to tell what is scored and what is spontaneous. The opening track, "Invisible," sounds like a group improvisation, and is a marvelous example of his modest tonality and balanced musical conception. For the first five minutes or so, all three musicians let the phrases pour out. The guitar begins with short phrases in abrupt rhythms, McBride's bass digging in with more continuous lines, Curt Newton rolling out beats all over his kit with a swing a bit like Elvin Jones at times, Ed Blackwell at others, not "keeping" time in a traditional sense but swinging a percussive approach to melodic improvisation. The guitar phrases get longer and the drums respond with shorter phrasing. At about 5 minutes, Joe starts using dissonances, plucking and scraping the strings a bit but still swinging the music. He returns to some long single string runs, then drops out and bass and drums converse for a minute or so. The bass lines relate to the rhythmic variety and drive of the drumming but also the melodic contours of the guitar as it rejoins the ensemble. They pick up the 3-way conversation about what it can mean to swing without the net of a 4/4 pulse and song form, and ease the music down to a gentle but no less swinging coda. In the 9 minutes, I don't hear a single chord from the guitar, or predictable phrase or jazz cliché. "Do you ever bend a note?" I once asked Joe. He had to think for a minute before answering. "No, not really," he said. His melodic conception is pointillist, his improvisations fundamentally rhythmic, and the security of his technique gives him great freedom. For all this pushing the edge of avant-garde improvisational music, so often what results is directly as emotional as Charley Patton or Son House, as collectively coherent as pygmy ritual chants.

"Invisible" leads directly into the second song, "Lowell's House." Here is a sterling example of Joe's thematic writing, bluesy without being an overt blues, and building on a classic guitar trio sound without just reiterating it. The title summons one of Joe's most important musical mentors, the visionary Lowell Davidson who took Joe under his wing in the early years in Boston. Davidson was an experimental pianist aligned with Ornette Coleman who recorded a single album on ESP, dying at age 49 in 1990. "Lowell's House" is a haunting tribute with a lovely mid-tempo swing under the theme that opens up as the musicians begin to elaborate. It's a theme/variation/theme approach to improvisation with some surprising turns throughout the 14 minutes. Newton never loses the beat even when he overtly leaves it or stops playing altogether. McBride plays a throaty bass solo with great delicacy and feeling, and when Joe comes back he again summons blues values without blues lines. The final theme sounds more celebratory than mournful, rising heavenward with a 3-note final motif. If music is the place where the soul of man never dies, as Sam Phillips said when he first heard Howling Wolf, this song carries at least part of a great soul in it as well as the temperaments of its three musicians. I think this is a clear expression of the African spirituality in Joe's music, a testimony of the ancestor's continued place of honor. The remaining 3 songs all hold similar virtues and unique pleasures, jazz without being "jazz." You can get a sample of Joe in trio flight here from a Toronto show.

What next? So hard to choose. There's a great solo acoustic cd, NO VERTIGO, that will thrill fans of Derek Bailey and Paco De Lucia alike. There are several cds featuring the fine alto sax of Rob Brown. One such cd from 1999 also includes Karen Borca on bassoon and Andrea Parkins on accordion and sampler--MANY RINGS on Knitting Factory Records. The sound here is headlong collective improvisation, no boundaries but the imaginations of the players involved. Brown has a rich tone and a fleet mind, and I hear more Charlie Parker than Ornette Coleman in his sound, but Brown follows his own muse and lyricism. Jimmy Lyons' work with Cecil Taylor also comes to mind, and while no one in the group is playing with the huge range Taylor demanded from the piano, the scale of improvisational interplay seems rooted in his work. Free jazz accordion? Of course. Why not? If you can't go there, it isn't really free. The opening cut, "Drawn to the Magnet," establishes an ensemble sound, with each musician asserting his or her voice within the whole. Then the music opens up a little more on the title song "Many Rings" with Brown beginning solo and then leading the group, trading phrases with Borca's bassoon. The guitar hangs back a bit, then joins the fun. Don't wait for a regular beat with music like this, just listen to heartbeat in each voice--it's there, I promise. "Chapel Level" begins with keyboard sampling, horns quickly asserting themselves, guitar lurking in the background in its lower registers. Brown goes for some barnyard squawking reminiscent of the oldest recorded jazz, then slow mournful slurs--his sonic invention throughout is bracing. "Situation to Be In" starts with Brown in the upper register and a kind of yearning lyricism that guitar, bassoon and accordion pick up--this is a ballad with an edge that gets keener as it goes, the guitar defining it with sudden acceleration. Music like this certainly defies description, which is exactly why I'm trying to do so. I feel the same exuberance and pulsing joy as when I hear the Goodman Sextet tearing through "Sheik of Araby." The 8 cuts are smartly organized for maximum pleasures, variable lengths and pacing, challenges presented to one another and to each musician's own self-invention. Karen Borca is a revelatory bassoonist. This is Joe Morris music at its most uncompromising and yet most accessible level. The music soars and sputters and ruminates and never takes time for granted. You will not confuse it with anyone or anything else.

Lastly, but not finally, I want to cite ELOPING WITH THE SUN (Riti CD 007), recorded in 2001 with bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. Joe plays banjo and banjo-ukelele, while Parker plays the zintir, a Moroccan two-stringed bass lute, and Drake plays a frame drum. Parker is a stalwart of the downtown NY jazz scene, and long-time associate of Joe and Rob Brown, veteran of Cecil Taylor, and important band leader. Drake is never at a loss for things to do, either, and widely hailed as one of the finest drummers on the cutting edge of jazz. Each musician takes up an instrument far simpler than those they ordinarily play. The sound is primitive, the grooves seriously hypnotic. Joe's banjo is strung with nylon strings for a far more African sound than that already African instrument usually holds. If you need music for your séance, consider throwing this cd in the changer. Just be sure you want the ghosts to come, because they will. On the song "Dawn Son" they seem to be playing the instruments, discussing among themselves how curious those humans are at times. Zintir begins, joined by rapid banjo runs, calmed and the pushed by the drums. Banjo and zintir initiate "Dream" together, the drums waiting to join for a minute or so. Each of the five songs takes its own time to establish its cause and character musically, but the sound is consistent and limited by apparent design in choice of instruments and of improvisational approach. That's what trances do--shut down one part of experience to open up another.

I thought I was going to write more about guitars when I started, but I knew I was headed toward Joe Morris, and having wandered through just a small portion of his music, I'm content that this is the song I have today, made from available thoughts and what interests me moment to moment. to my best ability. The point isn't the guitars, or jazz, or even music, but feeling more alive, more capable of compassion, more dedicated to beauty where it lives and love where it needs to go. Joe doesn't even play guitar on some gigs and records any longer--he began playing upright bass some years back and now often plays with Rob Brown (a sample can be viewed here with the great Roy Campbell on trumpet and Whit Dickey on drums) or groups he leads from that instrument. But the devotion to a larger music and a curiosity about new ways of reaching the sublime still mark his work. He's back living near New Haven with his wonderful family and a dizzying menagerie of life forms reptilian and mammalian who share their space. I don't see them often enough, but the conversation is always going on in my head with his music, and between us when we can do so. That's my practice, or at least the part of it not available in my Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt transcriptions.