Monday, August 31, 2009
I just got back from my first high school reunion.
About 40 people met in a funny looking building out in the middle of nowhere. This was fitting because my high school consisted of about 40 people in a funny looking building in the middle of nowhere.
It was started in 1969 by an African American woman looking to get her kids safely through school. When the last one graduated, ten years later, she shut it down.
But it was a helluva good school while it lasted.
The woman who ran it was smart and tough. (She was an African American woman starting her own school in 1969. You do the math.)
The teachers were almost all amazing.
The kids were trouble. That’s why we were there.
(Actually, I wasn’t much trouble, but I was sufficiently weird to qualify.)
One of my weirdest qualities, was, of course, one that I just might share with you—a vaguely unnatural interest in Chuck Berry. I was singing his virtues to my high school friends and everyone else I met long before "My Ding-a-Ling" and "Reelin' and Rockin'" brought him back to the mainstream.
At the reunion one friend described me doing the “scoot” at school. (The "scoot" is the one where he sticks one foot out in front and dances forward, backward, or wherever he wants to go while still soloing on the guitar. It's often confused with the "duckwalk" where he squats down and, well, walks like a duck.) This is an episode I’ve expunged from my memory banks, but I have no doubt it happened. (I have not been able to expunge a moment at Octoberfest, 1974, where I did a drunken scoot on top of a table in Munich. Luckily, beer prevailed, more giant ones were ordered, and everyone hailed Chuck Berry.)
When my friend mentioned my feeble scoot I tried to change the subject by describing the Brazilian who did it on stage and was so warmly received by Chuck Berry. I aped his performance. My friend laughed. “You got a lot lower in high school,” she said.
That’s for sure.
Chuck Berry recorded some pretty sweetly sentimental songs about school and high school. My favorite might be "Time Was," which wasn't his, but which he seemed to like.
When we had fun on the school yard swing
When we exchanged graduation rings
One lovely yesterday
It’s nice to have gone to a high school that makes you feel just like those songs.
(This version of School Day shows a great performance with a backup band that-- but hey, I would have been scared %$^less, too).
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
“Deep Feeling” has always been one of my favorites. On my first Chuck Berry record, “The Golden Decade,” it stuck out as something pretty special on the first side. I remember an older friend who didn’t really know Chuck Berry telling me that he’d heard a remarkable blues song on the radio, listened transfixed, and then found out it was Chuck. Later I’d hear “Blues for Hawaiians,” and maybe another song or two recorded on the little Fender 400 Hawaiian/ Country Western guitar that Berry bought sometime in the 1950s.
I never saw him play it, of course. I figured it was long gone until that great final scene in “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” where you hear “Blues for Hawaiians,” a cappella, as the camera pans in over the guitar shaped (muck filled) swimming pool, through the door at Berry Park, to find our man sitting stiffly at the little pedestal guitar, doing a solo number on a 30 year old number.
(Steel guitar afficionados took notice. Here's a link.)
During the movie Eric Clapton says that he should play more ballads at his shows—that people would love it. I’ll add: he should have the steel guitar on stage, too, just in case the fancy strikes him. But I know you don’t tell, can’t tell, Chuck Berry what to do.
But this morning I go downstairs and find the guitar still tuned to an open E, and the glass slide still sitting there, and it occurs to me for the first time in my 100 or so failed attempts to pass over “Dust My Broom” and try “Deep Feeling.” The sliding notes are all deeply embedded into my memory and nervous system. I pick up the slide. I poke for the notes. I reach up for the zinging high note. I let the slide pour down the fret board like water from a pitcher.
It sounds terrible. But I’m a late bloomer.
Maybe by the time I’m 82 I’ll have it down!
(Go about 2:50 into this and you'll hear someone who does have it down!)
Monday, August 24, 2009
Sunday, August 23, 2009
I was a little sad, towards the end of my drive to see the gently rolling hills that meant I was leaving the Delta for drier land. But there’s tomorrow. And the day after that.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Being old fashioned, my favorite Jerry Riopelle records are the first three he released, which seem to lean more towards country than the harder rock that seeps into later records. The first ,called simply "Jerry Riopelle," was stark, simple, mostly acoustic. There are great songs like "Take a Chance," "Darlin' Daughter," and "We can go the Distance." (One song, "To Tell The Truth," seems to have been recorded drunk, in the rain.) The second album, called, not surprisingly, "Jerry Riopelle, The Second Album," was a little more commercial, with a brighter, fuller sound. Riopelle plays what he calls "stomp piano," ofteimes pounding out chords like he's at a drum set. If there aren't tacks on the hammers, it sometimes sounds like there are. In addition to original songs like "Candy Barr" and "Roll with the Feelin'" there are great covers of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations" and Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." Both of the first two albums were issued on Capitol Records. The third, called "Saving Grace," was issued on ABC records, a third chance for an artist who probably didn't sell too many of the first couple of records. It's worth purchasing for the country western song "Buyin', Beggin', and Stealin'." You can find these on vinyl, but the best way to get them right now is to buy a box set called "The Works" that has everything Riopelle recorded through 2000. You can find links to it on his website.
Friday, August 21, 2009
I first heard about Abe’s in an e-mail from my brother Paul after he made a trip to the very same tables a few months before me. It's worth sharing:
“…and on into Clarksdale, Mississippi, "Ground Zero," the birthplace of the blues and so many bluesmen and women. I won't go on and on, but I could. Morgan Freeman is from Clarksdale. He says that he spent his youth thinking, "I've got to get out of Mississippi, and I'm never coming back." But now he lives in Clarksdale, and, incongruously, he's opened a truly fine French restaurant in this scruffy little town. We dropped in for a Martini, but I had to eat at Abe's Bar-B-Q at "The Crossroads" - Hwy 61 and Hwy 49 - a tiny BBQ place known round the world as maybe the best. The menu says proudly "Swine dining." Pulled pork and coleslaw on a Wonder Bread roll with beans on the side. Can't be described. Not much on the menu for vegetarians, as Liz discovered. Also in Clarksdale, the slightly eccentric Cat Head record and book store, where the proprietor knows everything about the blues and where everyone is playing. Some of us could spend some long happy time in or around Clarksdale, Mississippi.”
Being one of those people, I added three hot tamales to my sandwich order, largely because of a Robert Johnson song about hot tamales.
Hot tamales and they're red hot,
Oh, we got 'em for sale
Hot tamales and they're red hot,
Oh, we got 'em for sale
We got one for a nickel
Two for a dime
Would sell you more
But they ain't none of mine
Hot tamales and they're red hot
Oh, we got 'em for sale.
If they were good enough for Robert, they are better than good enough for me-- spicy red, rolled in a corn husk, with delicious savory meat inside. I could order half a dozen more right now. I recommend the sandwich, too. And I recommend the ribs and rib tips, even though I didn’t eat them, and Morgan Freeman’s restaurant, Madidi, even though it was closed and I didn't get to go. (You, on the other hand, can do your research and make your reservation on line. http://www.madidires.com/)
The group performing calls itself “All Night Long.” I made the bad assumption that I would learn more about them on line after the show. (Hell, even I have a website!) It wasn’t to be. But they were worth seeing and hearing. When I first sat down I had an obstructed view of the stage. I assumed there was a bass player. No—the guitarist was keeping a pulsing bass going while he finger picked the lead and rhythm. He switched guitars to play slide numbers. I didn’t catch names, so I have to refer to the other singer and harmonica player as “Big Sexy,” which is the tag he got from the guitarist. He made the harmonica wail and bark. The drumming was rudimentary and perfect—a steady, wet beat with very little flourish. I don't have my scribbled notes, so I can only tell you they played Fishing Blues, and songs by Bukka White and R. L. Burnside.I left during their second set, but later heard what sounded like a different group of musicians take the stage for a while. I thought of going back, but I was satisfied to listen in bed through the worn planks of my cabin, Electric Blue.
Down below I called Pinetop Perkins ageless. Check out this guy (courtesy of Doug, in Iowa). The fingers may get careless for a little in the middle-- but man! 82 and counting!*
*Of course, Pinetop Perkins, an evergreen himself, was about 93 in his clip! Dang!
The fifth or sixth blues record I ever bought was a used record by Elmore James that included the song “Canton, Mississippi Breakdown.” I doubt Elmore James gave it that name. My bet, based entirely on uninformed speculation (a specialty of mine), is that James recorded the song—an instrumental based on the lick from “Dust My Broom”—to warm up his band or just fill time. But I’ve always loved it. It’s a hard core, hard driving version of the tune, with none of the lilt or vibrato that James used on other versions I’ve heard.
Driving into Canton reminds me of driving into little Italian towns long ago before tourism totally restored those places. A lot of the storefronts leading into the central square are empty. (There’s undoubtedly a thriving WalMart somewhere nearby.) The buildings are old and attractive. The road dips and curves a bit towards the central square where things are brighter. You can tell that tourist dollars are helping a bit there.
I wanted to take a picture but my batteries died and my camera shut itself down after the first shot. I didn’t see any likely stores, so I asked a young woman on break from a sandwich shop. She brightened and walked me around the square to find batteries, then remembered the Family Dollar store a block away and sent me there. She asked me if I liked Canton. I told her about the song, and said I figured I had to stop and see the town. “Well congratulations!” she said, “You’re here!”
This business of walking me around kindly was not an isolated incident in Mississippi. At a small restaurant in Clarksdale one of the regular customers got up to fill his own coffee cup, then went from table to table filling other customers cups. At another restaurant in Indianola I asked directions to Yazoo City, answered questions about where I was from and how I liked Mississippi, and then received detailed instructions from several locals who were eating there about how to find the home of this or that old blues figure. One customer even phoned the restaurant after leaving to pass on driving directions to a “Blues Marker” in a town 20 miles or so down the road. A woman at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale warned me that a bright green t-shirt I purchased for my five year old boy might “ruin his life!” (I guess the color wasn’t manly enough. The alternative was pink; I was defending his masculinity as best I could manage.) The owners of my lodgings in Clarksdale chatted for half an hour about local restaurants and activities. The woman at Abe’s Bar-B-Que had one of the nicer smiles I’ve seen in a year—but so did the woman at Wendy’s.
I’m a quiet person born and raised in the north. I know I’m a long way from home in Mississippi.
But Mississippians have a way of making you feel at home despite yourself.
I can't find a video anywhere of Elmore James, but here's his son doing his signature tune:
Clarksdale is in the north central part of the Mississippi Delta-- a place of legend, where Son House and Skip James kicked about, and where Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the corner of Highways 49 and 61. (I sold my own soul and my battle against high triglycerides to three hot tamales and a b-b-q pork sandwich, but again, more about that later.)
The Mississippi Delta was, in the 1920s and 1930s, one of those intense hot spots of world culture—a relatively small place where the arts suddenly go crazy and flourish beyond calculation. As a college student I spent a year and a half in Florence, Italy, which underwent a similar flowering 500 years ago, with Dante, Cimabue, Arnolfo di Cambio, Giotto, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Botecelli, Bruneleschi, and countless others outdoing each other to create great art, literature and buildings. When you walk in downtown Columbus, or Seattle, or Boise, hundreds of years later, you still see their influence.
The Florentine artists were assisted in their vision by economic circumstances and politics. The reigning Medici bankers/dictators were generous patrons of the arts and financed much of the artistic explosion that happened there, along with the popes in Rome, and royal families across Italy and Europe. The artists competed for money and fame.
In the Mississippi Delta it was just the opposite. The wealthy farming families and corporations did everything possible to beat down the working people, forcing them onto plantations where they subsisted as share croppers, or onto work gangs building the levees that made drier land and plantations possible. The harsh lifestyle of the black workingman created opportunities for the traveling entertainer—men who carried their guitars from town to town, playing at “juke joints,” dances and camps, and occasionally making records to satisfy the growing market for “race records.”
It was a short burst of activity, mostly in the 20s and 30s. By the early 1940s the last of the local legends were packing up ad moving north to Chicago. A bunch of them—Pinetop Perkins, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon, Elmore James—ended up at Chess Records, where many of them influenced our man, Chuck. B. B. King's from the delta, too.
Right now the Delta is enjoying a quiet revival based on tourism and the blues. There are festivals and blues clubs everywhere. Old towns are sprucing up. You can visit museums and historic sights. There are places to stay drenched in the history of the music, and young performers carrying on the tradition. There’s great food. There are friendly people.
Go. (After you've been to St. Louis!)
Here's Pinetop, age-- well, ageless.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
(I think, given 100 spots, I'd have found one for Jesse Edwin Davis.)
Some of these people probably deserve to be there. I'd certainly name Jimi Hendrix. But leave out our man Chuck Berry? It's like naming the "top presidents" and leaving out George Washington!
(It's almost like LISTING George BUSH!)
None of these guys show up on any list without Chuck Berry. And none of them get there without B. B. King, either.
Thanks for the snack, MSNBC.
I was strolling through http://www.chuckberry.com/forum and saw an old post by Charles, Jr. about a group of artists travelling the route of "Promised Land." Here's a link to the article.
Chuck Berry inspires creative fanaticism. Those of us who are not blogging are doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things. See, as a glorious example, the recent post by Anders on the same forum (http://chuckberry.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2710). Anders built his vision of Chuck's "Airmobile" from the song "You Can't Catch Me." As you can see,'tis custom made. (I have always imagined something sleeker and lower, with a young Chuck Berry at the wheel. But my vision was obscure, and fleeting, and it never occurred to me to make it concrete!) Anders admits, "Maybe a bit insane..." And though I agree, I would add that it is a bit insane in the best possible way.
Anyway, this gives me an excuse to recycle earlier thoughts about "Promised Land." The song hits enough southern locales-- Norfolk, Virginia; Raleigh in North Carolina, Rockhill, South Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia (just to get started)—- that it should be required reading in high school geography. In his autobiography Berry says he wrote the song in prison. “I remember having extreme difficulty while writing “Promised Land” in trying to secure a road atlas of the United States to verify the routing of the Po’ Boy from Norfolk, Virginia to Los Angeles.”
Maybe the song should be heard in history class, too. When the "Po' Boy" gets close to Montgomery, Alabama, there’s something like a bus boycott-- struggle and a breakdown, anyway. (Things are always breaking down in Chuck Berry songs-- something that makes them so real.)
Had motor trouble
That turned into a struggle
Half way across Alabam’
And that ‘hound broke down
And left us all stranded
In downtown Birmingham
It might mean nothing that Berry was released from prison a month after the white terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in September 1963, a landmark event in the civil rights struggle, or that the song was recorded a few months later— but check the glint in his eye in this clip, which is so true to the record that I’m betting it was recorded soon after the record came out. Anyway, this is a guy who wanted to ride "'cross Mississippi clean" in 1964.
Last, (and least only because it's got no video,) is a version of the song by The Band.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Friday, August 7, 2009
Down in Mississippi
Cotton grows tall
On the other hand baby
Boll weevils wearing overalls
“Down in Mississippi,” by Jimmy Reed
The "Po' Boy" in "Promised Land" rides 'cross Mississippi clean, but next week I get to take a business trip to the Delta. I’ve never been, and I'm looking forward to it.
I start work in Richland, Mississippi, birthplace of Elmore James. Chuck Berry regularly plays the Elmore James song "It Hurts Me Too." Here's Elmore. Alas, no video.
One of my first Elmore James records begins with a song called “Canton, Mississippi Breakdown,” an instrumental done to the lick from “Dust My Broom.” (Chuck Berry used the “Dust My Broom” lick on at least a dozen songs, including “Bio.”) It was probably just something he knocked off to warm up with, but it got seared into my brain 35-40 years ago, so it’s part of me now. When I leave Richland, I'll drive north through Canton on my way to Clarksdale, where Robert Johnson used to play.
My Chuck Berry addiction took me pretty quickly to the blues of T-Bone Walker and Elmore James, and then to the older blues of Robert Johnson and Son House. House talks about Johnson on this tape.
If Chuck Berry is a “Father of Rock and Roll,” then Robert Johnson and his associates were its hip young granddads. A huge amount of the stuff Chuck needed was there in Johnson's music—the rhythm style, the double string guitar licks. You probably already know "Dust My Broom."
Robert Johnson ( http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSIC/blues/rjbio.html) recorded “Dust My Broom” in 1936, just 20 years (and several centuries) before Chuck Berry recorded “Roll Over Beethoven.”
Elmore James took Johnson’s most famous song north to Chicago. (According to Wikipedia, James may actually have written it.) James and Muddy Waters (and T-Bone Walker) electrified the blues. Chuck Berry took their hard core blues and worked it over for a younger crowd.
Anyway, much more when I get back.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
You can find a lot more (video and great photos) at http://chuckberry.com/forum
Saturday, August 1, 2009