Crossroad 32: Islands

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Islands

King Crimson

Robert Fripp & Boz

Robert Fripp & Boz

Islands is the fourth album from King Crimson, released in December 1971, and Islands is its final track.

Well, almost.

The last plaintive note from Marc Charig’s cornet leaves the mellotron drifting solo into silence. Late, eyes closed and dreams close (for that is when this is played). Too comforted, too comfortable to raise yourself to raise the needle. The silence plays on and is interrupted by one of those very popular (with record producers not listeners) “hidden tracks” – in this case “studio sounds” – then back to silence – briefly – until the soft thud of the needle at the end of the line enters its relentless cycle.

“Someone, … change the record!”

But neither mind nor body could manage that effort. And no-one does. So, on and on and on … endless repetition of the amplified “needle-at-track’s end” sound.

Many senior high school nights ended by drifting off to Islands.

It seems this wasn’t a unique response … in his 1971 review of Islands in Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs had this to say:

But it’s only in the final, title track, all 9:14 of “Islands,” that King Crimson get to the best of their music and the heart of their dilemma. It’s a pastoral, lyrical, open-ended and open-tuned piece that washes over you like slow tides or an extra-warm bath late in the evening, and just like that bath it has a tendency to put you to sleep in the tenderest, most sanguine way. In fact, I recommend it for that very purpose, with no sarcasm intended.

Islands wins the Award of the Month, and perhaps of the Year, for Best Last Record To Put On Before Retiring.

… click here for the full review 

What are the links between Islands and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?

Dam! Apart from the impact on me – peaceful, emotive, numinous – I can’t find a connection. Well I guess that is connection enough, isn’t it?

Scale, space, and solitude are also shared traits. Both are evocative, silhouetting the infinitesimal against the infinite, the fleeting against the eternal, being against nothingness, self against the other. They echo for me the beautiful opening of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence – where paradoxes illuminate time and space.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour   (Click here for the full poem)

 

Alas, there doesn’t seem to be anything less than 2 degrees of separation between the musicians playing these songs but what about this …

In a Q&A on Pat Metheny’s website he was asked whether he would consider collaborating with Robert Fripp. Metheny’s terse response: “I have never really felt any closeness with his music – so I don’t think it is likely.”

No? The connection that is a disconnection?

Then perhaps perhaps the link comes from the lyricists – Jimmy Webb (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) and Peter Sinfield (Islands) – both have written some extraordinarily nonsensical lyrics, most famously Webb’s Macarthur Park.

I’ll leave it to you.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Islands cover by Alice (Carla Bissi) & Tim Bowness (No-Man) from the 2003 album Viaggio in Italia

* Islands cover by Jakko Jakszyk, Mel Collins, Danny Thompson, & Ian Wallace.

* Robert Fripp Documentary (from 1985 I think). Part 1 (14m 18s); Part 2 (14m 12s)

* Careful With That Axe – Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft. Part 1 (7m 10s);  Part 2 (6m 30s); Part 3 (9m 39s); Part 4 (8m 07s); Part 5 (6m 32s); Part 6 (7m 54s); Part 7 (7m 02s)

 

Destination next?

North:   Will O’ The Wisp by Miles Davis
East:     Get Thy Bearings by Donovan
South:   Still by Pete Sinfield
West:    That way goes to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.

Crossroad 32

Crossroad 31: The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

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The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny

The CD that has this track – beyond the Missouri Sky (short stories) by charlie haden & pat metheny  – was somewhat of a speculative purchase.

The cover art and the title – spacious, melancholic, poetic – drew me in. Sort of lit a sense of fondness & nostalgia for my own home town*. Feelings that only exist by virtue of going beyond its boundaries and limitations.

* Penrith in outer Western Sydney when it was sparsely populated and largely rural

Interest was almost sure to convert to sale …  and the names of the artists sealed it. I trusted it would be a quality offerheard quite a lot of Charlie Haden over the years extending back to school days and some of Pat Metheny. 

I trusted it would be a quality offering.

beyond the Missouri Sky (short stories) by Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny

beyond the Missouri Sky (short stories) by Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny

Both Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny grew up in Missouri – about 100 miles from each other. And composer Jimmy Webb’s roots are not all that far away in the neighbouring state of Oklahoma.

The song has been recorded by many, the first by Joe Cocker in 1974. I had never heard the song (as far as I remember) until I played this album.

It was late, quiet, the track started and the world seemed to stop – a song that seemed as spacious as the Missouri sky. Timeless, a momentary visit to a parallel universe where joy and melancholia can be felt simultaneously.

Webb composed this song around the the title of the highly acclaimed 1966 book from Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

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What connects The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress with Highwayman?

Jimmy Webb is the link – composer of both songs (and many others).

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Pat Metheny’s Official Website

* Charlie Haden Official Website

* Interview (mostly about Charlie Haden) with Jack BlackCharlie Haden’s son-in-law. (16m 58s)

* 1959: The Year That Changed Jazz – A documentary (58m 58s) that focuses on 4 jazz albums released in 1959. Charlie Haden played on one those albums – Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Haden is also interviewed in the documentary. The other 3 albums are: Miles Davis Kind Of Blue; Charles Mingus Mingus Ah Hum; Dave Brubeck Time Out.

* Playlist on YouTube10 Clips:

Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny – Live, Germany 2003;
Jimmy Webb;
Joe Cocker from his 1974 album, I Can Stand A Little Rain;
Joe Cocker – Live. Unsure where, I think it is 1983.
Glen Campbell – Live  2001
Joan Baez from her 1987 album Recently;
Judy Collins from her 1975 album Judith;
Radka Toneff – I think this is from the 1982 Fairytales album;
Linda Ronstadt accompanied by Jimmy Webb; (the sound is distorted)
Karin Allyson from her 2004 album Wild For You

Destination next?

North:   Song Of The Moon by Lucia Popp (from Dvorak’s Rusalka)
East:     Islands by King Crimson
South:   Highwayman is on that road
West:    One Day I’ll Fly Away by Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden

Crossroad 31

Crossroad 30: Highwayman

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Highwayman

The Highwaymen

Johnny Cash is the only individual member of The Highwaymen who has been singing to me since I started collecting records. In fact, well before I bought first vinyl LP, I was listening to Cash. He was one of Roger’s (my father’s) favourites.

I heard the others – Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson – much later. But country music didn’t really interest me too much then.

Highwaymen - Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, Cash

Highwaymen – Nelson, Jennings, Kristofferson, Cash

Nor do the Highwaymen – but somehow their first album is in my shelves and I just love the title song – Highwayman – written by Jimmy Webb.

Jimmy Webb of course is a prolific songwriter. He wrote Highwayman in around 1977 – waking from a dream (after some “professional drinking” with Harry Nilsson) in which he was a highwayman being chased by grenadiers. (Link: Webb’s story of the song.)

The Highwaymen took their name from the song. The four icons of country music had decided to do a project together while they were recording a TV special in Switzerland. Thy began recording in 1984. Marty Stuart played the song to Cash suggesting it would  be perfect for this new country super-group – 4 verses, 4 souls, 4 singers. Then Glen Campbell (who’d recorded the song in 1978 but his record label refused to release it) played it to all four of the super-group – and they immediately had the group’s name, the title of their first album, and a song for their first single.

How are Highwayman & Stone linked?

Both songs track a journey of reincarnation – birth, life, death, rebirth.

Stone (Ronnie Lane)

I’ve been tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.
I’ve known good times and disaster.
But now I’ve found a teacher, and the teacher has a master,
The master is perfection, so he’ll help us get there faster.

Highwayman (Jimmy Webb)

And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Live Forever – In the Studio with the Highwaymen: Documentary filmed when making their 3rd album. Part 1 (7m 58s); Part 2 (9m 02s); Part 3 (8m 43s); Part 4 (8m 59s); Part 5 (6m 28s)

* Highwayman performed by Jimmy Webb.

* Highwayman – Jimmy Webb & Mark Knopfler 

* Highwayman – Glen Campbell

* Albert Lee peforming Highwayman

Destination next?

North:   The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress by Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny
East:     The Highwayman by Loreena McKennitt (Alfred Noyes poem)
South:   Hurt by Johnny Cash
West:    Stone is that way.

Crossroad 30

Crossroad 29: Stone

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Stone

The Faces

Stone is from The Faces first album, The First Step … well, that is the case if you were in Great Britain when it was released in 1970.

If you were in America, you probably were given the impression that this was another album from Small Faces. The band’s management was concerned that changing the name (due to the new personnel – Steve Marriott left, Rod Stewart & Ron Wood joined) could be detrimental to sales. The band stuck firm to their resolve to change names in Britain, where they became The Faces.

Stone comes from the songwriting talents of Ronnie “Plonk” Lane (1946-1997) and the teachings of Meher Baba. Lane was introduced to Meher Baba by Pete Townshend from The Who and he later described Stone:

… he encapsulates the whole story of what I believe is the true story of creation in this beautiful perfect little song based on a chart that Meher Baba had done called the Circle of Evolution.

creation

The song was included on Pete Townshend’s first* solo album, Who Came First (1972). For this album the song was called Evolution and it was missing a few verses. (* Townshend had done some earlier private release solo material.)

Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane (image from LastFM)

Pete Townshend & Ronnie Lane (image from LastFM)

The connection between Peter Townshend (The Who) and Ronnie Lane brings to mind my old schoolmate – Greg Totman. The branch in the “family tree” of British Rock containing these two was brought to our neighbourhood and my peers in Penrith by Greg – well that’s how I experienced it. For this reason (and a few others*) Greg pops into my mind whenever I listen to Jeff Beck, The Faces, Small Faces, The Who, The Yardbirds – I just can’t help it.

* A notable one is his hosting of a small party where Ogden’s Nutgone Flake played a central part – See Short Memories #288-291.

Stone & Blind Prayer are connected by …

The Faces and Rod Stewart’s paths were pretty much synchronised from the moment he and Ron Wood joined the 3 remaining Small Faces … well, until Stewart’s light started shining more brightly as a soloist.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Evolution from Who Came FirstPete Townshend (vocals: Ronnie Lane)

* Evolution from a 2004 Ronnie Lane Tribute Concert – by Pete Townshend.

* Ronnie Lane Documentary (unfortunately I can’t locate Part 1); Part 2 (35m 17s); Part 3 (13m 40s) – a very interesting documentary.

* The Forgotten Music Of Ronnie Lane – a really good appreciation (with clips) by Josh Lieberman

* Ronnie Lane – written by John Pigeon.

* Top 10 Ronnie Lane Songs – Stone didn’t make the list

Destination next?

North:   Song Of A Baker by Small Faces
East:     Highwayman by Highwaymen
South:   Eyesight To The Blind (The Hawker) by The Who
West:    Blind Prayer is back there.

Crossroad 29

Crossroad 28: Blind Prayer

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Blind Prayer

Rod Stewart

I seem to prefer debut albums (over later efforts) of most artists – maybe it’s the lack of polish allowing a glimpse of authenticity, or maybe it’s the innocent passion, or simply the visibility of human foibles and flaws.

Rod Stewart’s 1969 debut album stands out for me – head and shoulders above everything his solo career has produced – in fact everything he’s done except, perhaps, for the debut album of The Jeff Beck GroupTruth. (I must admit, though, I really stopped listening after his 1974 album, Smiler.)

The Jeff Beck Group - Aynsley Dunbar, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood

The Jeff Beck Group – Aynsley Dunbar, Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood

Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood join the Small Faces and soon become The Faces

Rod Stewart & Ron Wood join the Small Faces and soon become The Faces

In fact, Stewart’s debut album for me is right up there with the very best of the era and genre. The album is called An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down (In America it was simply called The Rod Stewart Album).

It is certainly not polished.

Blind Prayer is the 3rd track. It’s more a lament than a prayer. HIs pleading carries the rawness, simplicity, and even the reluctance you’d expect from a rough and ready streetwise character like Stewart:

I never knew how much love could hurt me
Good God it ain’t never come my way before
Oh but, but you know what I’m trying to say
Really what I’m trying to say is
God please don’t take her away from me!

Blind PrayerBlack Girl are connected by …

Long John Baldry gave Rod Stewart a kick-start in his career and continued to encourage him. Here is what Stewart said of LJB in 2004:

Long John Baldry launched me on my musical career. I was 18 and playing harmonica and singing a Muddy Waters song in a railway station, when Long John Baldry ran over to me from the other side of the tracks. I had just been to see him play at a club; he was one of the top Bluesmen in England. But John didn’t sing Muddy Waters songs – he knew Muddy Waters, had performed with him and with RamblinJack Elliott too. And now he was asking, ” Would you like to join the band?” For me, just shaking his hand – knowing all the great musicians whose hand he’d shaken before – was mind-blowing. (Reader’s Digest Dec 2004)

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* A short documentary & interview on The Faces from 1970. (8m 15s)

* BBC Imagine – Rod Stewart: Can’t Stop Me Now (1h 23m). A really good portrayal of Stewart and some great material from his early days with Long John Baldry, Jeff Beck etc.

Destination next?

North:   Black Girl is that way.
East:     Stone by Small Faces
South:   Country Comfort by Elton John
West:    I’d Rather Go Blind by Etta James

Crossroad 28

Crossroad 27: Black Girl

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Black Girl

Long John Baldry

Long John Baldry was tall – 6 feet 7 inches (about 201cm). His influence on British music was immense.

His profile doesn’t seem to match either his influence or his stature.

He was right there at the “birth of the British blues” – he appears on the very first British Blues album: R&B From The Marquee a recording from Alexis Korner’s Blues IncorporatedDespite the title and the fact they played regular spots at the venue, the album was not recorded at The Marquee but at Decca Studios in North London.

The band didn’t have great commercial success but it was a very fluid outfit that gave some big talent a kick along. Led by the co-fathers of British Blues – Alexis Korner & Cyril Davies – at various times the line-up included Long John Baldry, Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce, Dick Heckstall-Smith, Danny Thomspon, Graham Bond, & Ginger Baker.

But others who got the nod from Alexis to take the stage with the band included Brian Jones, Paul Jones, Keith Richard, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon, & Eric Clapton.

Long John Baldry was right in the mix of all this and became even more central with the bands he led, especially Steampacket (Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger, Mickey Waller, Vic Briggs, Rick Brown (Fenson)) & Bluesology (among others – Reggie Dwight, Caleb Quaye, Elton Dean, Neil Hubbard, Marsha Hunt, Marc Charig).

Rod Stewart, Long John Baldry, Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger (Photo: DEZO HOFFMANN)

This album – It Ain’t Easy – is Baldry fifth release. It was released in 1971. One side was produced by Rod Stewart and the other side by Reg Dwight (who by this time had renamed himself Elton John … taking the first names of two of his colleagues from Bluesology, John Baldry & Elton Dean).

I am pretty sure I bought It Ain’t Easy in 1973 – and there were two tracks I played incessantly – the brooding Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield and this great version of Black Girl.

Black Girl – or In The Pines or Where Did You Sleep Last Night? – is a traditional song that dates back to the late 19th Century. It tells a harsh and haunting story.

My Daddy was a railroad man
Killed a mile and a half from here
His head was found in the driver’s wheel
And his body ain’t never been found.

Maggie Bell joined Baldry on vocals for this track. The lead singer of the Scottish band Stone The Crows added another dimension – on the CD re-issue of the album one of the bonus tracks is Black Girl sans Maggie Bell – there is no comparison.

The link connecting Black Girl Take This Hammer is …

Lead Belly is the connection. Apart from Lead Belly making this song his own, Long Jogn Baldry was a Lead Belly tragic.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Interview with Long John Baldry about Leadbelly. (Audio – 6m 37s)

Photography & Music blog – post on British Blues.  

* Cyril Davies – this website includes a great biography of Cyril “Squirrel” Davies. Well it’s more a history British blues – very interesting.

* Tribute Site For Long John Baldry

* A performance from Steampacket – circa 1965 – that’s Rod Stewart & Julie Driscoll on backing vocals, Brian Auger (keyboards) also gets some good screen time.

* Cyril Davies Allstars – C.C. Rider – circa 1963 – LJB lead vocals.

* Black Girl Playlist – YouTube – 13 versions of the song (apart from the one posted above). They are from: Lead Belly; Long John Baldry & Kathi Macdonald live in 1993; Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys; Nirvana; Dave van Ronk; Bob Dylan; Elvis Costello, Rufus Wainwright & Renee Fleming; Tiny Tim; Odetta; Joan Baez; John Phillips; Susheela Raman; Grateful Dead

Destination next?

North:   Indian Rope Man by Julie Driscoll, Brian Augur & Trinity.
East:     Morning Dew  by Jeff Beck
South:   Blind Prayer by Rod Stewart
West:    Take This Hammer is back there

Crossroad 27

Crossroad 26: Take This Hammer

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Take This Hammer

Leadbelly

Lead Belly with Stella (12 string guitar). (Photo: Joe Albert)

Lead Belly, LeadbellyHuddie LedbetterKing of the 12-String Guitar.

This giant in American music history is supposedly the very first singer to address the “race” issue (in song) under his own name. The song was The Bourgeois Blues and was written after Lead Belly visited Washington DC to record for the US Library of Congress.

He first recorded it 1938 and it documents his experience of racism in the nation’s capital (and probably most other places).

In 1936 Lawrence Gellert had published his Negro Songs Of Protest which documented hundreds of songs, many speaking to the issues. The singers & composers who taught Gellert the songs insisted on anonymity – primarily to avoid retribution

But Lead Belly spoke out loudly in The Bourgeois Blues.

Home of the Brave, Land of the Free
I don’t want to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.

Well me and my wife was standing upstairs
I heard the white man say “I don’t want no niggers up there”

Take This Hammer, though has more traditional roots evoking the ghost of the legendary spike-striker John Henry, whose name is synonymous with weilding steel.

Lead Belly added a “whaa” to the end of each line. He told of his reasoning:

Every time the men say “haah”, the hammer falls
The hammer rings, and we swing, and we sing.”

Undoubtedly the men he is talking about are his fellow prisoners doing hard labour on the chain gangs. Lead Belly spent a fair bit of his adult life in prison – murder, attempted murder – but he wasn’t limited to prison songs, political songs, & work songs.He was also a great entertainer of children.

In 1971 or 1972 I found this album – Take This Hammer – in my parents’ collection of 12″ vinyls.

Take This Hammer

The album was recorded by Moses Asch and edited by Alan Lomax (Side 1) and Frederic Ramsey Jr (Side 2). A great discovery.

More than any other singer, he demonstrated to a streamlined, city-oriented world that America had a living Folk Music – swamp primitive, angry, freighted with great sorrow and great joy.

The link connecting Take This Hammer Black and Blue is …

They are both work songs, spirited and defiant.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Badass Of The Week: Leadbellya Leadbelly biography from a different perspective, a good read.

* Official website of the Lead Belly Foundation.

* Lead Belly In New York Town – a post in a blog built by students at NYU, called Researching Greenwich Village History

* Pig River Records – Script of an interview/exchange between Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly – to hear the sound bites that are mentioned you need to copy & past their URLs into your browser.

* Take This Hammer  – YouTube playlist – 7 intepretations from: Big Bill Broonzy, Odetta, Johnny Cash, Lonnie Donegan, The Spencer Davis GroupHarry Manx, & The Notting Hillbillies (who sample it in their Railroad Worksong.)

* Alan Lomax Remembering Lead Belly (6m 27s).

* Lead Belly talking about the blues with Alan Lomax (7m 57s). This includes a performance and explanation of the song The Red Cross Store Blues.

* More Lead Belly talking and singing (with Alan Lomax) Circa 1940 (12m 07s)

* Leadbelly – the 1976 feature film directed by Gordon Parks.

* The Lomax-Lead Belly Chronology – significant dates & events for both.

* The film of Take This Hammer above comes from this – the only film of Leadbelly performing – it includes Pick a Bale of Cotton; Grey Goose; & Take This Hammer.

Destination next?

North:   Black And Blue is that way.
East:     Black Girl  by Long John Baldry
South:  The Gallows Pole by Odetta
West:    Sinking Of The Reuben James by Woody Guthrie

Crossroad 26

Crossroad 25: Black And Blue

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Black And Blue

Chain

Chain is one of Australia’s iconic bands. They started out in Perth as The Beaten Tracks. In 1968 their then lead singer – the great Wendy Saddington – suggested the name Chain – derived from the Aretha Franklin hit, Chain Of Fools ... and so, Chain it was from then.  Well, initially I think it was The Chain.

Wendy’s stay with the band lasted only a few months and, unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any recordings of Chain while Wendy was on vocals.

Wendy Saddington & Phil Manning  (photo Philip Morris)

Wendy Saddington & Phil Manning (photo Philip Morris)

Black And Blue was released in March 1971 and spent 21 weeks in the Australian charts – peaking at 10. The band at the time was Matt Taylor (vocals, harmonica), Phil Manning (guitars), Barry “Big Goose” Sullivan (Bass), Barry “Little Goose” Harvey (Drums) – the four of them co-wrote Black And Blue.

Matt Taylor & Phil Manning ( from www.matttaylor-chain.com )

Matt Taylor & Phil Manning          ( from http://www.matttaylor-chain.com )

Later in 1971 they released their album Toward The Blues

This was about the 7th incarnation of the band and they had built a big reputation in Melbourne and were regulars at major festivals.

One of those festivals was very close to home, Odyssey Pop Festival held at Wallacia in January 1971. The festival had a great line-up of Australian bands, including Chain – who (I think) performed Black And Blue. It is hard to imagine anyone singing an Australian convict’s chain gang chant with greater authenticity than Matt Taylor.

Odyssey Festival 1991 - Wallacia

Odyssey Festival 1991 – Wallacia

What connects Black and Blue to Bring It On Home?

Sonny Boy Williamson is one of the great harmonica players and thinking of harmonica playing one of the first images that came to mind was Matt Taylor from Chain … even before people like Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, John Mayall, or Magic Dick.

This is version of Black And Blue released as a single – performed (well … synced) in 1971 on the Australian Music TV show – Move. I don’t think Chain were all that comfortable doing this type of appearance.

Here is the album version.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Manfred Mann’s Earth Band covered Black And Blue … I’m not sure that the Manfred Mann approach really suited this song.

* More than 40 years later – January 2013 – Matt Taylor is still pumping it out.

* The Odyssey Pop Festival – Wallacia 1971 – the story of the festival on the excellent Milesago website.

* Rainbows Gatherings: suite des Pop Festivals. Web page of Emmanuel – Yves Monin (he took the photograph of Wallacia – above). This webpage has a number of images from the event.

* It’s only 25 sec but for anyone who was there … or anyone from the area and the era, this might interest:

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Destination next?

North:  That’s where we had to Bring It On Home
East:     I’ll Be Gone by Spectrum
South:  Take This Hammer by Leadbelly
West:    Rocks And Gravel by Harry Belafonte

Crossroad 25

Crossroad 24: Bring It On Home

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Bring It On Home

Sonny Boy Williamson II


Another Willie Dixon song … that’s 3 in a row!!

This one is being performed by Sonny Boy Williamson II –  whose real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. The Alex is pronounced Aleck.

He was the youngest of 21 children in the Miller family.

There is plenty of conjecture about how, when and why he took up the name Sonny Boy Williamson … especially as John Lee Williamson had the nickname “Sonny Boy”.  Who had the name first is disputable but “Rice” Miller has become known as the second Sonny Boy Williamson or Sonny Boy Williamson II … and King of the Blues Harmonica.

One of Sonny Boy’s great “tricks”: instead of dragging the harp laterally across the front of his mouth, he’d stick the harp end-first into his mouth and play it, no hands.

On 21st November 1941 Sonny Boy Williamson II along with Robert Johnson’s stepson, Robert Lockwood Jr played live for the debut broadcast of King Biscuit Time – a radio show broadcast on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. King Biscuit Time became the longest running American radio program in history – it is still going today and is approaching episode 17,000.

The show’s original band – The King Biscuit Entertainers – included Sonny Boy, Robert Jr, Pinetop Perkins & Peck Curtis.

Houston Stackhouse, SBW, & Peck Curtis - image www.nepr.net

Houston Stackhouse, SBW, & Peck Curtis – image http://www.nepr.net

The show’s sponsor, King Biscuit Flour, increased their flour sales from 2 car loads every 6 months to 2 car loads a week!! Now, that’s a great endorsement for sponsorship.

Sonny Boy & Robert Jr started playing with amplification in about 1938. They fed their instruments through car radios and juke boxes so they could be heard by larger crowds. They were helped in this by a close friend who was a radio repairman. His name? Elmore James.

Crossroad 4 featured The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper. That album includes a song called “Sonny Boy Williamson” written by Jack Bruce and Paul Jones to pay homage to the great blues harpist. In the “Other Stuff You May Like” section below, there is a link to Paul Jones’ performance of this song.

Connecting Bring It On Home and Built For Comfort is …

Well Willie Dixon is again a connector.

Also Sonny Boy was Howlin’ Wolf’s brother-in-law for a while.

It was Sonny Boy who taught Howlin’ Wolf to play the “Mississippi saxophone”. The lessons took place, as Howlin’ Wolf put it,  “while Sonny Boy was kissin’ on my half-sister Mary”.

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* Sonny Boy Williamson – Lonesome CabinI can’t find much footage of Sonny Boy in action but here is one – just him and his harp.

* And here’s another – My Younger Days

* And another fabulous piece – SBW II performing Got My Mojo Working with Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Otis Spann in 1963

* King Biscuit Time Show on KFFA Radio – this takes you the page on Radio KFFA’s website that has the last 10 episodes of the King Biscuit Time Show.

* A lovely (and too short at 2m 10s) video with Chris Dreja (Yardbirds) & Paul Jones (Manfred Mann) talking about Sonny Boy Williamson. There’s also some nice footage of Sonny Boy taking the stage in his signature full British regalia – suit, bowler hat, umbrella, & brief-case. Paul Jones co-wrote (with Jack Bruce) the song “Sonny Boy Williamson” perfumed on the Live Adventures of Bloomfield & Kooper album.

Sonny Boy Williamson by Paul Jones  – this is the song mentioned above, performed by Paul Jones. It was released in 1967 as the B side to his single I’ve Been A Bad Bad Boy.

* A great blog post about King Biscuit Time from New England Public Radio. This post contains a link to some silent colour film footage of Sonny Boy & Robert Lockwood Jr doing their thing for the radio show. Oh what the hell … here is that link!!

* Robert Plant interviewed in Tutwiler, Mississippi at a dedication to W C Handy but Plant mainly talks about Sonny Boy. (4 min 16 sec). Sonny Boy Williamson is buried at Tutwiler.

* Robbie Robertson talks about meeting Sonny Boy Williamson 

* A short documentary about Sonny Boy Williamson IJohn Lee Williamson. Part 1 (7m 30s); Part 2 (6m 53s)

Destination next?

North:  Temperature by Little Walter
East:     Built For Comfort is that way
South:  Black And Blue by Chain
West:    Eyesight To The Blind by The Who

Crossroad 24

Crossroad 23: Built For Comfort

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Built For Comfort

Howlin’ Wolf

Howlin' Wolf (from bbc.co.uk)

Howlin’ Wolf – Chester Arthur Burnett (photo from bbc.co.uk)

Built For Comfort appears on the album that Howlin’ Wolf  didn’t like.

Howlin wolf album

This album did not sell well.

Chess Records reckoned they made a mistake with the cover. Telling everyone that the artist doesn’t like the album probably did not help sales.

Howlin’ Wolf – born Chester Arthur Burnett – not only didn’t like the album, he didn’t like the cover either.

But he did like his electric guitar.

I liked the album – at the time I bought it, I loved it.

And I still love it …

It recalls an exciting age personally and historically. And this album is an experiment that had a pretty rough outcome – like many of the things with which we experimented in teenage years in the late 60’s.

Although a great innovator himself, Howlin’ Wolf did not seem to appreciate some developments in the playing of the electric guitar. On the album itself (Track 2 – Tail Dragger) he talks about the electric guitar having a “qwail” sound that he dislikes. And in the biography, Moanin’ At Midnight, the guitarist Peter Cosey tells of Howlin’ Wolf looking at him at saying:

Why don’t you take them wah-wahs and all that other shit and throw it in the lake on your way to the barber shop?

Sounds like he did not like long hair on men, either.

Listening now I can understand why Howlin’ Wolf (and many others) didn’t like it. Compare the two versions of the song (below) both from Howlin’ Wolf. The version from this album was the first version I heard.

Built For Comfort fits nicely with the stature of both Willie Dixon (who wrote and first recorded the song) and Howlin’ Wolf, with whom it become synonymous. Both were very big men … well over 6 feet tall and approaching 300lbs (136 kilos).

Another Dixon song that appears on this Howlin’ Wolf album pays homage to their physiques – Three Hundred Pounds Of Joy.

So what’s the link between Built For Comfort and Hoochie Coochie Man?

Simple – Willie Dixon wrote them both.

This is is the version from the 1969 album (the one he didn’t like).

And this comes from the 1966 album The Real Folk Blues.

 

Other Stuff You Might Enjoy.

* The Howlin’ Wolf Story a great documentary (1h 24m) . I had technical problems with this at about the 23m mark – had to reload a couple of times. It may have been me but if you have problems too, you can see the show here in 8 parts – The Howlin’ Wolf Story.

* Willie Dixon singing Built For Comfort.

* Dion’s version.

* Taj Mahal

Destination next?

North:  High Water (for Charley Patton) by Bob Dylan
East:     Hard Time Killing Floor by R. L. Burnside
South:   Hoochie Coochie Man.
West:    Bring It On Home by Sonny Boy Williamson 

Crossroad 23