Archive for January, 2009

The Way It Was In ’51

January 27, 2009

1951 belonged to Lefty Frizzell. Just a year after his first record came out, he had four songs in the country top ten simultaneously, joined the Grand Ole Opry, and shared top billing on a tour with Hank Williams. Lefty was just 23, and his future looked bright indeed.

But Lefty enjoyed a drink, and when he drank he got nasty. He also enjoyed the company of young women, and on occasion they were a bit too young. He’d done time in 1947 after a statutory rape conviction, and a similar arrest, this one backstage at the Opry, did his reputation no good. He had some difficulty with the business end of things, too, firing his manager (who later sued him) and his band. By 1953, Lefty’s career was pretty well shot. He kept recording, and toured now and then, but drinking took its toll on his music and his spirit. He did hit the charts in 1959 with Long Black Veil, and again in 1964 with Saginaw, Michigan, but for Lefty, ’51 was the high point. He died of a stroke in 1975, at the age of 47.

There was a Lefty revival of sorts (helped along by an incredible Bear Family reissue) in the 1980s, but his reputation has never gotten back to where it should be. He came to Nashville from the oilfields of Texas, and blended the hard edge of the Texas honky-tonks with the smoother Nashville sound in a way that’s never been matched. Lefty was a huge influence on Merle Haggard, and through him to a whole generation of country singers. If you want to hear more, Look What Thoughts Will Do is a two-CD set that has all the Lefty you’ll ever need.

Here’s a great video of Lefty Frizzell singing one of those 1951 hits, Mom and Dad’s Waltz. Please enjoy.


A Little Local Music

January 24, 2009

Last night at Passim (about which a bit more below), I shared a table with Richard Brown and Margaret Gerteis of the Reunion Band,  and as I spoke to them about the music they’ve been making over the years, I realized how little I’ve written here about local bands and events. Bluegrass and old-time music have a long history in this area, going back to the days of Joe Val, Bill Keith, Jim Rooney, Peter Rowan, Don Stover and many more, and the tradition continues with groups like the Reunion Band. Even their name embodies this tradition, representing the fact that its members have played together in many configurations, including most of New England’s best, over many years,. Guitarist and lead singer Dave Dillon played with Joe Val in the New England Bluegrass Boys, with Richard in the Hudson Valley Boys and with both Richard and Margaret in Stony Lonesome.

You can see the Reunion Band at Johnny D’s in Somerville on March 17 (don’t worry, I’ll remind you), and they’ll be doing some workshops at the upcoming (February 13-15) Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. So for those of you who live in the area, don’t forget about our local scene, and for the rest of you, we may have more mounds of snow than rocky tops, but don’t write us off!

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys gave the sellout crowd at Club Passim a good show last night, with Dr. Ralph in fine voice (I’ll Answer the Call was the highlight for me), and three generations of Stanleys (Dr. Ralph, son Ralph II and grandson Nathan) onstage. A good time was had by all, and as always, Dr. Ralph and the band stayed on long after the show ended, selling CDs, signing autographs, and just generally acting as ambassadors for this great American music. Just in case you weren’t there last night, here’s another Stanley video – Ralph and Carter with How Mountain Girls Can Love. Please enjoy.

Dr. Ralph Stanley At Club Passim January 23

January 22, 2009

If you’re in the Cambridge/Boston area or can get here without too much fuss, Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will be at Club Passim for one night only, January 23. Tickets are a (to me at least) shocking $125 each, but Dr. Ralph doesn’t get up this way very often, especially to a room as cozy as Passim’s. There are still a few dinner table reservations available, and some general admission seats as well.

Dr. Ralph has been making music for over sixty years, and learned how to play banjo from his mother. He grew up in McClure, Virginia, back in the Clinch Mountains, and began performing with his brother Carter in 1946. He carried on with the band after Carter’s death in 1966, but it was not until 2000, when he appeared in the film O, Brother, Where Art Thou, that his audience widened beyond the usual bluegrass and old-time music fans. Dr. Ralph portrayed a Ku Klux Klan leader in the film, and sang an a cappella version of O, Death that earned him a Grammy award in 2002.

There’s only one Ralph Stanley, and if you can raise the price of admission, you’ll never see him in a more intimate venue than the friendly confines of Club Passim. If you’re not around Cambridge tomorrow, the band’s tour schedule is here. Catch them if you can.

Here’s a video of Reno and Smiley with Carter and Ralph Stanley, executing some beautiful four-part harmonies on Over in the Glory Land. The performance is from 1962, and the sound is far from perfect, but it’s a reminder, as if we needed one, of how beautiful this music can be. Please enjoy.

There’s An Orgy At WHRB!

January 20, 2009

WHRB is the student-run radio station at Harvard University, and for many years, each January and May have been Orgy times. At WHRB, “orgy” doesn’t mean what it means at most other places: according to their website, an Orgy consists of  “marathon-style musical programs devoted to a single composer, performer, genre, or subject.”

Among this winter’s Orgy programs are five days of Felix Mendelssohn and four days of Bohuslav Martinu, and while these two might not be of powerful interest to Harry’s Music readers, starting at 5 AM tomorrow and until 10PM, we can hear what the WHRB Program Guide calls “Working Music.” The Program Guide doesn’t give us any song or artist information, but does tell us that “back to the earliest recordings of the 20th century, through the folksy anthems of the 60s, we will explore the evolution of this unique, inspiring, and widely influential artform.”

There’s an everpresent link to WHRB down on the right, under “Web Radio,” if you want to hook up with their internet stream, and they’re at 95.3 on your FM dial if you’re within a dozen or so miles of Harvard Square.

Don’t forget that WHRB is the home of the longrunning Saturday morning show, Hillbilly at Harvard. Stop in any Saturday between 9 AM and 1 PM to see what Cousin Lynn, who’s been involved with the show for nearly 50 years, is up to.

Here’s one I hope they play at the Orgy: Dark As A Dungeon, written by the great Merle Travis (Sixteen Tons is his, too), and performed here by John R. Cash. Please enjoy!

Back On Our Side Of The Fence

January 20, 2009

For now, at least, someone has managed to outsmart HBO and restore the Seeger and Springsteen video (see last two posts) to YouTube.

Watch it while you can.

That Side Wasn’t Made For You and Me After All…

January 19, 2009

Yesterday, I posted a YouTube video of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen singing This Land is Your Land at yesterday’s Obama Inaugural event. Of course the Seeger-Springsteen collaboration alone made it special, but the reason I posted it was that they sang the rarely-heard verse in which Woody discusses and rejects the concept of private property:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Radical, eh? It’s always been my favorite verse, and I was thrilled to hear it sung and even more thrilled that the millions who might have seen the event on HBO, or caught the video later at YouTube, would get closer to the true meaning of this great song.

But it’s not to be: HBO, ironically, has pulled the YouTube video due to a copyright claim. So we only got to see the back side of that sign for a few hours.

Maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe I was getting so carried away with all the talk about change that I thought our work was pretty much done. No way. Not yet. We still need to hear Woody’s message, and all the HBOs of the world added together cannot stop his words from being heard. Listen!

That Side Was Made For You And Me

January 18, 2009

There were plenty of great performances at the Lincoln Memorial today as part of the ongoing Obama Inaugural Celebration, but for me the highlight was Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen restoring Woody Guthrie’s classic This Land Is Your Land to its original, unedited, uncensored glory. Pete and the Boss led the huge crowd in singing my favorite verse along with a couple of others you don’t hear very much:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

It’s been a while since these words hit me as hard as they did today. Listen now.

For those of you who want to see the celebration in its entirety, HBO will broadcast it at 7PM Pacific Time and at 11:30 Eastern and Pacific Time tonight, and will show it at as well. Details here.

Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears

January 10, 2009

The New York Times today reports the death of William Devereux Zantzinger at the age of 69. February 8 will mark the 46th anniversary of Mr. Zantzinger’s attendance in Baltimore at the elegant Spinsters’ Ball, held that year at the Emerson Hotel. Mr. Zantzinger arrived drunk, and spent much of the evening taunting the hotel’s service staff. He’d picked up a toy cane sometime during the day, and he used it to hit those of the staff whose service he found unsatisfactory. Among those whose performance fell short of Mr. Zantzinger’s demands was Hattie Carroll, who was working at the bar that night. She fled from his assault into the kitchen, where she suffered a stroke. Her death the next day left eleven children behind.

Mr. Zantzinger was originally charged with murder, but that charge was reduced to mansaughter, and on September 15, 1963 he began serving his sentence: six months in the Washington County Jail.

Enter Bob Dylan. Dylan’s girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, had become involved with a Theatre de Lys production of songs by Brecht and Weill and when he visited the theatre and listened, he heard a new direction for his own work, especially in their Pirate Jenny. “Woody,” he later wrote, “had never written a song like that.” Dylan studied Brecht’s songs, and looked for opportunities to apply Brecht’s methods, “trying”, he wrote, “to make a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot.”

One of those opportunities came when Dylan learned of Hattie Carroll’s murder by William Zantzinger, and the sentence that seemed almost to vindicate Zantzinger’s callousness. He recorded The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll on October 22, 1963, only five weeks after William Zantzinger went to jail.

The video is from Dylan’s 1964 performance on the Steve Allen Show. Listen.

You Don’t Know Her

January 6, 2009

Cindy Walker was 22 in 1940 when she and her parents, visiting the west coast, drove past the Hollywood headquarters of Bing Crosby Enterprises. Cindy, who’d already been writing songs for ten years, just happened to have one with her that she’d written with Bing in mind. Before the day was out, she’d sung the song to Bing’s brother Larry, who took her right to Paramount Studios, where she repeated her performance for the man himself. The song, Lone Star Trail, was a hit for Crosby, and Cindy Walker was on her way.

She wrote dozens of songs for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys (including Bob’s signature number Cherokee Maiden), did some recording of her own, and, after spending a dozen years in Hollywood, settled into a routine of spending half the year writing in her home town of Mexia, Texas, and the other half plugging her songs in Nashville. By the time of her death in 2006 she’d had over 500 songs recorded, among them hits for Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles (You Don’t Know Me), Webb Pierce (I Don’t Care), Roy Orbison (Dream Baby), Jim Reeves (Distant Drums) and many, many others. When Walker was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, Harlan Howard called her “the greatest living country songwriter,” a title he could easily have claimed as his own.

Ms. Walker’s songs were often written with a specific artist in mind, and as a result there’s no easily defined Cindy Walker style. The best introduction to her work is Willie Nelson’s 2006 tribute, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker. These are songs he cares about, and Fred Foster’s production fits them perfectly. For now, you can get started with Asleep at the Wheel and their guest-filled version of Cherokee Maiden. If you like it, check out their Ride With Bob, featuring 17 Bob Wills classics performed in the same spirit. The Asleep at the Wheel video now has embedding disabled – sorry! Instead you get Eddy Arnold doing You Don’t Know Me, way back in 1956. Please enjoy.

Poor Man’s Dream

January 3, 2009

Tom Russell was driving a cab in Queens when Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter flagged him down. Russell, no mean songwriter even then, sang him an a cappella version of Gallo Del Cielo, a rags to riches to rags saga of a cock fighter and his rooster. Soon Russell was Hunter’s opening act at The Lone Star Cafe, and almost thirty years later is still working, still writing, still among the most vital of songwriters.

Tom started out singing Hank Williams songs in what he called “knife and gun clubs,” tough skid row bars in Vancouver. Since then Tom’s work has defied genre. He’s always gone his own way: for Russell  “songwriting is about building on your roots then finding out who you are … and writing down to the blood and bones.” Listen to one of his songs and you know he’s paid that price.

While Russell’s masterwork is undoubtedly his “folk opera” The Man From God Knows Where, I find myself going back to his records with the Tom Russell Band, led by Andrew Hardin and Fats Kaplin. Here Tom’s songs speak for those who have no voice: a steelworker whose plant has closed, a Vietnam vet who never came home, an old drunk dying in a sad LA hotel room. Tom Russell won’t forget them, and he won’t let us forget them, either.

Dave Alvin once called Blue Wing “one of the best songs ever written anywhere by anyone,” and who’s a better judge? Here’s Tom Russell singing Blue Wing at a festival in Norway in 1993. Please enjoy.