DRILLING DOWN…BLUES AND ELVIS (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #58)

ACOUSTICBLUESVOL3

Blues isn’t really a narrow form. Sometimes it can seem that way, but any proper definition of blues singing would, for instance include not just the likes of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, but  Louis Armstrong, Hank and Lefty, Haggard and Jones, Ronnie Van Zant, Teddy Pendergrass and Marvin Gaye, Patty Loveless, Otis Redding, sixties’ era Charlie Rich, Percy Sledge, not to mention Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis. My own favorite unlikely blues LP is the soundtrack to Young Man With a Horn, a collaboration between Harry James and Doris Day which is as It’s-Always-3:00 A.M.-in-the-Dark-Night-of-the-Soul as any record you can name even if you go way further than I’m going here and drill down deeper than the top of your head.

That being said, any collection from the Bear Family titled The Roots of it All: Acoustic Blues is bound to be as thin as a hatpin stylistically. When the set runs to four 2-disc volumes that contain about twelve hours of music, you might think it would slog a bit.

I didn’t find it so.

I didn’t find it so, even though the set wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting when I picked it up cheap a while back. Having only perused the set list on the first two volumes to see what I was getting into, I assumed “the roots of it all” meant sticking to the narrow form’s heyday of the twenties through the mid-forties after which even the Delta moved to the city and electric guitars took center stage. Boy was I wrong.

Turned out the eight discs are dedicated to the decades stretching from the twenties to the nineties, with each decade treated in roughly equal measure.

And here’s the really amazing thing. Except for a small stretch at the end of disc seven, when Taj Mahal’s version of  “Fishing Blues” (not as warm or engaging as the Lovin’ Spoonful’s light-electric version from back in the sixties) ushers in a stretch of blues academia that isn’t entirely ushered out until Keb Mo’s “You Can Love Yourself” (a first cousin of Rick Nelson’s “Garden Party” speaking of unlikely blues) starts a strong closing run nine cuts later, it never, ever flags.

There are too many highlights to mention. If you like classic blues, you should just track down the sets and carve out some time and space to fully engage. I found the scariest stuff on Volume 3, which had versions of Muddy’s “Feel Like Going Home” and Skip James’ “Sickbed Blues” I hadn’t heard before plus a live version of John Lee Hooker’s “Tupelo” from his appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1960, whence the “no electricity” rule was evidently still in full force!

So I was going to hook you up with that, at least, (and I will), but when I went looking, I also found this…

..and was reminded that, until Spike Lee and Chuck D came along, it was almost never the artists who said stupid stuff about Elvis.

And, in case you think the world was ever simple, here’s the version from 1960….

,…with Hooker being accompanied by Spike’s dad on acoustic bass.

That’s just in case you ever wondered whether Spike actually has good reason to know better.

WHY I NEED ROCK AND ROLL…ELECTION DAY SPECIAL (Session #2)

“Don’t look back–something might be gaining on you.”

Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Collier’s, June 13, 1953.

Usually when a quote is too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. One of the nice things about Satchel Paige was that his too-good-to-be-true quotes were almost always things he actually said.

The phrase “don’t look back” has an interesting history in popular music. Before 1964, it was never used as the title of a hit song on any American chart and was undoubtedly rare as either a direct quote or a common sentiment in American music or American life.

I don’t mean to say the idea wasn’t around or even that the common language hadn’t already made some sort of place for it. Hard to judge that. What does seem evident is that it hadn’t made its way far enough into the nation’s everyday speech to become insidious. When that happens, we know what happens next.

Somebody writes a song about it.

Beginning in 1964, somebody did. And somebody or other has been re-writing it ever since.

It’s interesting to think about what happened in the interim between Paige’s quote–with its insinuation of paranoia-that-isn’t-really-paranoia-if-that’s-a-lynch-mob-on-your-trail camped squarely inside a good joke that everybody could relate to–and 1964.

1953 to 1964. H-m-m-m-m.

Too much to take in on election day, probably. So just think about what had happened recently, like maybe a March on Washington where the leader of the current manifestation of a century old Civil Rights movement, who happened not at all coincidentally to be a minister, had actually managed to address the nation’s central sin in such perfect language and in such a public fashion that it could not, at last, be ignored.

Then, of course, the sitting president took a bullet in the head, and the man who took his place–piggy-backing those two forever linked events–pushed through historic civil rights legislation in July of 1964.

During the middle of all that–I haven’t been able to trace the exact moment–a black man named John Lee Hooker, who happened to be one of the dozen or so blues singers the world can more or less inarguably call a genius (and who, in his very essence, represented the precise element of the population that has always made white America want to lock up its daughters, not to mention the element intellectuals are bound to call “primitive” when they suspect something is up that they better get a handle on and have to go fishing for a compliment that’s not really a compliment).

I don’t know if Hooker was channeling Paige or not but he was certainly onto something. As a cultural catch-phrase, “don’t look back” arrived within months of “free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.”

It has stuck around even longer.

Of course, the catch-phrase and the music that surrounded it got hollowed out with time. It’s never gone away, exactly. It’s just been co-opted. It was the title of a bland country hit for Gary Morris in the eighties. A party time cover for Teena Marie. A catchy classic rock number (with at least some of its original power retained) for Boston in the seventies. A UK number for Lucie Silvas a few years back, where it was finally indistinguishable from any other set of words that don’t mean anything (catch it on YouTube if you must).

That’s how it goes with catch-phrases that speak to wounds. What we can’t heal, we keep sticking gauze on.

Eventually, the gauze is the permanent feature. The wound goes back to being out of sight out of mind….Wound? What wound?

But there was a moment in the mid-sixties when Hooker’s phrase crept into the world in a new way.

Oh, it never quite “broke out.” I imagine we were still a bit leery of the notion being put so bluntly, even though it was supposed to be an indestructible part of our national ethos. I haven’t heard Hooker’s original version but it’s hard to believe it’s much better–or bleaker–than honorary American Van Morrison’s 1965 cover. Or that it contains much deeper paranoia than the Remains’ garage rock classic (different song, same title) from 1966.

None of those records made the charts. Maybe that was just the luck of the draw. There were other records as good as those by Morrison (then still with his original band, Them) or the Remains, which didn’t make the charts either. Not many, but some. Enough to make it barely plausible that some sort of underlying aura of suspicion or discomfort wasn’t the only possible explanation.

And, of course, there was D.A. Pennebaker’s monumental documentary of Bob Dylan’s trip to England in 1966–injected under the toe-nails of the national conscience, residing there like a thorn ever since.

Called it Don’t Look Back, they did.

Naturally.

In the last days, there will be warnings and rumors of warnings. Consider yourself warned.

The phrase found it’s apex, though, in 1965, when another African-American musical genius named Smokey Robinson collaborated with his fellow Miracle Ronnie White and came up with a B-side for the era’s (or maybe just history’s) greatest vocal group.

In a scenario as perfect as Satchel Paige’s original quote–and with the same mixture of hope and dread woven deeply into its aural fabric (all the more deeply for being conceived as filler and for being released just as we entered the quagmire in Viet Nam from which the national soul has never really emerged)–it reached #83 on the Pop chart, #15 on the R&B chart, and, riding a rare moment when the Temptations’ third lead, Paul Williams, left Eddie Kendricks and even David Ruffin in the dust, permanent status as a staple on the group’s compilations despite being rarely heard on the radio since….And as the go-to anthem for every election day that has come and gone ever after.

Tomorrow, half of America will wake up depressed, wondering how the country will possibly survive, and the other half will wake up relieved, thankful that catastrophe has been so narrowly averted, reminding themselves that treading water in a shark pool still beats drowning!

And rock and roll will still be the closest thing we have to something we can agree on.

Have a happy…

The Temptations “Don’t Look Back” (Television Performance)