Archive for June, 2009

The Incredible String Band At The Movies

June 26, 2009

I went to see Olivier Assayas’s most recent film, Summer Hours, the other night, and was stunned to hear the Incredible String Band’s Little Cloud playing over the last scene and end credits. The ISB are not exactly what you would call fashionable these days: Joe Boyd, who managed and produced them, wrote in his excellent book White Bicycles that “history has deemed the ISB terminaly unhip, forever identified with an incense-drenched, tripped out folkiness.”

The ISB started out as a threesome, with banjoist Clive Palmer, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson: that’s the lineup on their first, eponymous record, released in 1966. Palmer quit the group, leaving Williamson and Heron to create a gentle, whimsical, remarkably original LP, The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers Of The Onion, that for me was one of the best records of a year (1967) that had plenty of great ones.

Williamson and Heron continued to make their eccentrically eclectic music for some years, and put out some great records. In fact, I hereby sheepishly confess that the first Dolly Parton song I ever heard was an ISB cover of My Blue Tears. During the ’70s they just kind of faded away – “with ever declining audiences and less and less interesting records,” as Boyd put it.

Summer Hours is about the fragmentation of a family and the loosening of the bonds that made it a family; an accounting of losses and discoveries, of transitions and travels and secrets forever buried. I hope it finds the audience it deserves. Little Cloud serves it as a closing affirmation, an acknowledgment that our tears might be more than a show of grief; they might (like the little cloud’s rain) be a harbinger of new growth as well.

The video is from Julie Felix’s BBC show, circa 1968, the song is Painting Box, from The 5000 Spirits. Please enjoy.

Here Comes Father’s Day!

June 20, 2009

Father’s Day is tomorrow – can you feel the excitement building?

No? I didn’t think so. Mother’s Day is the biggest day of the year for restaurants, florists and phone calls, and number two for greeting cards. Father’s Day? Not close.

It’s not too tough to figure out why – mothers are the ones who are there when you need them – they feed you when you’re hungry, patch up skinned knees, and (see my Mother’s Day post) make those coats of many colors.

Fathers are more of a mixed blessing. If they’re filling their traditional role, they’re out working somewhere. So while mom is nurturing the little ones, dad is off trading mortgage securities, selling used cars, or mining coal. It pays the rent and puts food on the table, but it’s nothing to get sentimental about, and getting sentimental is what makes those holiday cash registers ring.

When fathers are not filling their traditional role, it often means that they are no longer a member of the household. This circumstance isn’t going to get those Father’s Day cards moving off the shelves, either.

So it seems that fatherhood is not particularly well suited to a commercial holiday. It just doesn’t lend itself to a nice, simple, sentimental approach. Bad for florists, good for songwriters. Given the freedom to acknowledge a complex relationship, good songwriters have given us some pretty good father songs. I’ve got my own favorites: Judy Collins’s My Father tells how a man kept his fractured dreams alive in his children, Jerry Jeff Walker’s My Old Man is a wistful look at the loneliness a drifter leaves in his wake, and Coal Miner’s Daughter defines the “we grew up poor but we were loved” genre.

But for me, no song says it all better than Papa Was a Rolling Stone. The great songwriting team of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield wrote this, and the Temptations’ version has become a classic. For my money, “and when he died, all he left us was alone” is the best line they ever wrote. Here’s a 1972 video of the Temps performing what was maybe their last great song. Please enjoy – and give the old man a call tomorrow, OK?

It’s Harry Smith Frolic Time Again!

June 13, 2009

Harry Smith – filmmaker, folk music anthologist, all-around eccentric American genius. Once in a while it’s good for this blog to return to its roots and say something about the man who made it all possible, and what better occasion than the upcoming 7th Annual Harry Smith Frolic.

This year’s frolic takes place on the Green River at Camp Keewanee in Greenfield Massachusetts, on the weekend of July 10-12. The festivities begin on Friday at 5 PM and go pretty much nonstop until Sunday at 5. The highlight, of course, will be the midnight Saturday reenactment of Volume 3 of the Anthology, preceded as always by a potluck supper Saturday evening. If past performance is any indication of future results, then it’s safe to predict that a good time will be had by all.

Harry’s creation of the Anthology began almost inadvertently. Needing money, he asked Moses Asch of Folkways records to buy part of his vast collection of 78 RPM records. Mr. Asch suggested that Harry compile an Anthology of the recordings that might provide a steady stream of income rather than a one-off lump sum. So he did. The Anthology came out, almost unnoticed, in 1952, but built an influential following over the years, eventually becoming what Greil Marcus called “the founding document of the American folk revival.”

Harry named Volume 3 “Songs,” and it included quite a variety of performers: Dock Boggs, The Memphis Jug Band, Henry Thomas, Blind Lemon Jefferson and about a dozen more – some of whom were rediscovered after the Anthology brought their work to the attention of a new generation of listeners. Among the most successful of these second careers was that of Mississippi John Hurt, whose low-key performing style made him a favorite among the young white audiences who made up the revival’s audience. Here he is in a clip from Pete Seeger’s old Rainbow Quest TV show, reprising his Volume 3 performance of Spike Driver Blues. Whoever reenacts this one at the Frolic has a tough act to follow! Please enjoy.

Kenny Rankin R.I.P. – Hope It’s Oh So Peaceful There

June 10, 2009

Kenny Rankin died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 69. You can find the NY Times obituary here.

Kenny Rankin might not be exactly the kind of singer you’d expect to find here at Harry’s Music. He considered himself a jazz singer, and I won’t argue with that, but back in the day when labels didn’t mean quite as much as they seem to now, Kenny was just part of the crowd.

His covers of Fred Neil, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot brought him enough folkie credibility to get heard in folk-rock circles, and many of us stayed with him as he widened his musical reach, and continued to value his good taste, superb musicianship and limitless integrity. I’m sure his first LP, Mind-Dusters (available on CD as heartbreakingly expensive Japanese import only), was the only record I ever bought that had liner notes written by Johnny Carson, but Kenny’s music was like that – it brought people together who otherwise might never have known how much they had in common.

We no longer have Kenny Rankin, but we can still enjoy his work. Here’s Kenny performing his Oh, So Peaceful Here – later a hit for Helen Reddy. Please enjoy.

Rachel Alexandra, Tenbrooks, and Molly

June 4, 2009

Rachel Alexandra, the three-year-old filly who beat the boys in the Preakness Stakes, will not run in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. A win would have made her the first filly ever to win two Triple Crown races, but her owners feel that she’s had enough tough races this spring, and anyway, she’s proven that she can beat these guys. Maybe they’re right, but her absence makes what would have been a very interesting race into something of a bore.

A great filly running against colts in a big race has always been a cause of great excitement, and one of the most famous such occasions was a match race between the undefeated mare Mollie McCarty and the great champion Ten Broeck, held at a distance of 4 miles on July 4, 1878. Mollie McCarty had run out of horses to beat in California, and the Louisville Jockey Club lured her east with a purse of $10,000. Thirty thousand watched Mollie take an early lead, but she quickly faded and was soundly beaten. The effort must have taken something out of Ten Broeck, though, because he never raced again.

The race inspired a number of songs, one of which, thanks to Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, survives. Here is a superb version from Delfest 2008, with Del McCoury, David Grisman and Sam Bush in the band and Vince Gill taking the lead vocal. Please enjoy!

White Bicycles

June 2, 2009

That’s the title of Joe Boyd’s not-quite-new book (published in 2007, but I finished it just yesterday) , and anyone interested in the rise and fall of 1960s rock and folk rock needs to read it.

Boyd was the stage manager at Newport when Dylan plugged in and Seeger freaked out (his version of the story rings truer than any other I’ve read or heard); he was at the heart of the Boston/Cambridge folk community in the early 60s; he discovered Nick Drake and produced the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd, among many others. He knew everyone, did everything and went everywhere.

While Boyd writes warmly and often affectionately of most of the artists he worked with, he clearly had a special relationship with Sandy Denny. Denny is best known as writer of Who Knows Where the Time Goes, but was a vocalist of rare gifts. The last album she made with Fairport Convention, Liege and Lief, managed to show a preservationist’s reverence to traditional English folk music and to transform it beyond recovery, both at the same time. Its brilliance has not been matched since.

She left to form Fotheringay, a group that included her less talented husband, Trevor Lucas, on lead guitar. It was never an adequate showcase for her talent, and she broke the band up in 1970. Alcohol had always been a problem for Denny, and as her marriage crumbled, she drank more heavily and was finally killed in a drunken fall that caused a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 31. I think Joe Boyd was in love with her. I know I was.

Not too many Sandy Denny videos out there – here’s the best I could find – Crazy Lady Blues. It’s not perfect, but hell, neither was she. Please enjoy.