Thursday, April 30, 2009

Original Song Project: "Boulder Bound", Morgan Young

Here is a little ditty I recorded this weekend while hanging with my kids in Goblin Valley, Utah. My daughter originally came up with the basic melody while singing about butterflies and bacon. Two things she really loves! I added a few flourishes to fill it out and changed the name from Pretty, Pretty Butterflies and Bacon to Boulder Bound, which we were at the time.

It's a one-track recording with no edits and employs a Gibson J-200 in open G tuning and a straight tuned Lee Oskar Harmonica in the key of G and that's all. It's a finger stretcher.

I hope you likey.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Song of the Week: "Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil)", Robert Johnson

Just behind baseball historians, musicologists hold the title of most likely to turn their subjects into superheroes. The ideal candidate for the musicologist is a ghost. A musician who quietly walks into a juke joint, sits down and starts plying his trade in front of a loud and hostile crowd. In a striking moment he quiets the sundry ne'er-do-wells (usually bringing tears to the eyes of the most hardened men and stealing the heart of the most faithful girl). Then the ghost mutates into the warm mist of the night with just his instrument and the satisfaction that he is the best ghost musician in these here parts. "Who was that masked musician?" one breathless woman asks with idolatry coloring her voice. A skittish little bug-eyed man in overalls responds, "That was no ord'nary muse-ishin'. Not like any other we know, at least. That there was the devil himself."

Welcome to the over-legend of one Mr. Robert Johnson. So little is known about the exceptionally talented itinerant musician that he becomes the perfect blank canvass for musicologist and folklorist who have been unable to control their urge to paint the canvass with their own skewed palette. The prevailing myth of Johnson is that he puppy-dogged Charlie Patton and Son House around the Mississippi delta trying to learn all he could from the two masters. But he was shun for his lack of talent and over eager ways and sent packing. Soon after, on a warm summer night in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the young man crossed paths with the devil (disguised as a man) who took the Gibson guitar, re-tuned it, played a beautiful song on the flat-top box, and asked if Johnson wanted it back. In his affirmative response, Johnson had sold his soul to the devil down at the Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest musician ever.

This, of course, is pure rubbish. The few known facts of Robert Johnson's life are quite ordinary. The musicianship, quite extraordinary. Robert Johnson was probably born in or near Tunica, Mississippi some time around May, 1912. He died on August 16, 1938 in Greenwood, Mississippi. His death certificate, signed by a white plantation owner, lists syphilis as his cause of death. This is a little suspect as the person who signed this never met him and certainly didn't perform an autopsy on his body. In addition, assigning "syphillis" as a cause of death to young black men in that day was extremely common and not always accurate. Eye-witnesses (credible and incredible) and rumors suggest he was poisoned by a jealous boyfriend and died an agonizing death over a two-day period. We'll never know for sure. Twenty-six short years, 29 recordings, two recording sessions in Texas, two photographs. That's all we really know for sure. 

Our SOTW, this week, is Johnson's stellar Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil). One listen should be all you need to understand why so much legend has built up around the man. The open E (actually Eb) tune is a wonderful showcase for Johnson's precision slide work, his impressive right-hand percussive strumming technique and his ability to change tempos to add tension to certain moments in the song. The song should be entered into the records as Exhibit A when trying the case of Robert Johnson, guitarist v. the rest of the blues guitarist to ever perform. Johnson makes constant subtle changes to his main riff without ever changing the substance of it. For example, compare his playing of the main riff at :07 with the riff at 1:22 and his still different riff starting at 1:29. Or note how he breaks from the 12-bar normative structure of the song by adding or subtracting bars for affect. Such as when he adds ten seconds of turnarounds at 1:07 to cover his spoken word part. And again, he adds bars at 1:59 as he implores himself to "do it now" and sits back and lets us hear his wonderful percussive right hand slap a syncopated rhythm. Bottom line, the itinerant young man was a master of his instrument. A person who had an intuitive understanding of what was possible. A man who was not contained by the norms of his day. A man who pioneered new ground. A man who progressed so quickly and so much further than those around him that it led people to start rumors -- in his day -- that he had sold his soul to the devil to become the best guitarist in the land. A rumor he appeared to embrace as the subtitle of this song would suggest. 

Now stop and listen to the same song. But don't listen to the Robert Johnson, the master guitarist. Listen to Robert Johnson the singer. He was a singer with tremendous range and tremendous power in his voice. He sings a smooth melody, often breaking into spoken word in mid-sentence, over the staccato guitar riff. (No matter how hard I worked, I would never be able to sing that melody over that guitar riff. In my head, with my abilities, the two just can't be done together. But they obviously can.) The 25 year-old Johnson sings with a passion usually not associated with a man of youth. At the tail end of the 2nd verse, at around 1:16, Johnson lets out a one-syllable howl that lets you understand in no uncertain terms the honesty of his blues. No matter what language, no matter what year you heard this, you can comprehend his deep anguish. The anguish of a man who moans like he knows his death is just days away. Then a two-part spoken interlude that sounds like it comes from two different voices. "Yes. Preach 'em now".

"Yes the blues is a low down achin' disease. Like consumption, killing me by degrees. I can study rain, oh, ohhh drive, oh, oh drive my blues. I been studyin' the rain and I'm gonna drive my blues away. Going to the distillery, stay out there all day."

Take away the ghost, the spirit and the lore which ultimately diminishes Johnson's real skills by focusing attention elsewhere, and we are left with the single most important figure in the entire genre of blues. A man whose massive skills continues to cast a shadow over blues, jazz and rock to this day. Robert Johnson, the man. Not Robert Johnson the ghost. That's all you need.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Original Song Project: "Blame the Beat Poet", Matt Howard

Hi there, my name is Matt Howard I currently reside in the small town of Harrison, Arkansas. This is a song I wrote called Blame the Beat Poet It's a song about two people drifting apart, written in a sort of punk/country style.  The organ and drums were provided by a Yamaha keyboard with an acoustic guitar to fill out the sound.

If you like it I have more songs on my myspace. (

Monday, April 20, 2009

Song of the Week: "Tennessee Flat-Top Box", Johnny Cash

Listen - Johnny Cash performs Tennessee Flat-Top Box

Everyone loves Johnny Cash. Punks adore him. Country and Honky Tonkers revere him as a Mt. Rushmore figure of the genre. People who hate country, love Johnny Cash. Folkies love him. Rock-n-rollers love him. Hippy-jam band cats love him. Honestly, how could you not like the man in black? He was exceedingly original, stiff armed the stiff Nashville machine, embraced musicians like Bob Dylan when others around him were hostile to rock and folk, and produced consistently great quality work. JC even embraced people who were relegated to the trash bin by society as witnessed by his prison concerts.

And no wonder everyone loves him -- his music, his voice, his story-telling skills are just top-notch. As evidence, I offer the man's 1961 sleeper, Tennessee Flat-Top Box. The somewhat autobiographical tale of an unassuming boy who was quietly turning heads by doing things his own way is classic Cash. So is the Tennessee Two's chug-a-chug-a-chug chug rhythm. But what's different about this song is that striking and constant acoustic guitar lead. I'm unsure if the wonderful wooden indian-like lead guitarist Luther Perkins is playing this lead or if a studio musician was called in. In some aspects it is very Luther (the walking leads with heavy emphasis on the polka beat), but in other ways it is not Luther at all (the multi-string slides and the use of acoustic). I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be Carl Perkins on lead. I just don't know. If you do know, please let me know.

I hope you enjoy this song. Cheers.

Friday, April 17, 2009

(Not, Alas) a Monkee’s Nephew

Sometime last year I think it was, I had a dream that Michael Nesmith was my uncle. I don’t remember much about the specifics, or even if I managed to ask him the burning question, “How could you work with Davy Jones for three years without beating the crap out of him?” But I do remember that I was pretty sad to wake up and find that Uncle Nes wouldn’t be at Thanksgiving after all.

I’ve always liked the Monkees, and I firmly believe Micky Dolenz has one of the great rock and roll voices. But Nesmith was the one who made them feel substantial and not just a made for t.v. cartoon.  He was already an experienced songwriter before he was cast as a Monkee.  His song Mary, Mary appeared (somewhat uncomfortably) on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s second album East-West even before the “Monkees” series debuted in September 1966, and in 1967 the Stone Poneys hit big with Different Drum another pre-Monkee Nesmith composition.  By picking an actual quirky tunesmith who was not a central casting teen idol type, the Monkees producers sowed the seeds for the group’s eventual rebellion against the use of outside songwriting and studio musicians. 

While existing in the heart of the Monkees teen-pop bubble, Nesmith was increasingly drawn to country styles.  In May 1968, as the Monkees show was winding down, he recorded a session in Nashville.  Most of these songs were not used on Monkees records, and some would be redone on his own albums in the early 70s.  I like these early versions, which exhibit some of the same generational tension between song and backing that Bob Dylan’s Nashville-era recordings do.  In contrast to his wry and laconic Monkee persona, a lot of Nesmith’s songs are wordy and conversational.  Check out Some of Shelly’s Blues and The Crippled Lion.  While the backings are pure 60s Nashville country (with the addition of harmonica on Shelly’s Blues) the songs themselves are, in typical Nesmith fashion, crammed full of words and chord changes.  In Shelly’s Blues Nesmith dishes out his brand of clear-eyed but syntactically jumbled advice, while The Crippled Lion is a humble and self-aware inwardly directed pep-talk.  The guy would really make a fine uncle.

Video Diary: The Specials "Rat Race"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Busker Days: "Mariama", Yacou and Temomo

It's not the first time I've ventured out at lunch in search of some fresh music or scenery. It's not even the first time I've conducted that search at Powell Street BART Station. I heard it was a great place for street musicians and, anyway, it is one of my favorite areas of town. The main entrance to the station passes by an area dominated by street dancers with thumping tunes, street preachers, bums and sundry ne'er-do-wells, a row of chess tables, many with games in progress, a cable car turn-around rife with queued, eager tourists and a lone hot dog cart, only to proceed down past a large sub-surface public area. It always harkens back to visits to SF in my youth. Situated at the edge of both the tenderloin (to the west) and the financial district (to the east) this is one of my favorite parts of the city.

And last week that search was richly rewarded. Playing down in the west end of the station were two guys from Africa, one from Mali and one from Guinea. Yacouba Diarra, the young Malian and principal vocalist, was playing a ngoni (pronounced "goni"), a large gourd instrument with some eight strings and more like a kora than other descriptions and pictures of ngonis I've seen on the internet. (Another Malian musician, one of the foremost kora players, Toumani Diabate, can be seen playing a 21 string kora here.) The young man accompanying Yacou, named Temomo Mani, is on a bolon, a more percussive gourd instrument that nonetheless has four strings to pluck as well as some bells that jangle freely at the end of the neck. The ebullience and spontaneity with which they play this song, Mariama, made my lunchtime excursion one I will not forget. I hope you enjoy!

To any of you Bambara speaking listeners, translations are welcome!

Video Diary: The Collins Kids w/ Joe Maphis