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Posts tagged ‘blues’

Danged ol’ hairball blues

The night is dark ’cause there ain’t no moon,
Mama comes home, says we’ll be steppin’ in it soon,
‘Cause our three black cats are hackin’ up their doom,
Yes, just hackin’ up their doom
With the danged ol’ hairball blues.

Wikipedia Photo

Mama’s getting drunk while Daddy’s puttin’ on the dog,
Cause the whole family will the steppin’ in it soon,
Hairballs on the fireplace log, down in our shoes,
‘Cause they’re just hackin’ up their doom
With the danged ol’ hairball blues.

Cats don’t care where they throw them up
When  they’re hacking up their doom
‘Cause they’re hidin’ somewhere in the dark of the room
Even though Mama says we’ll be stepping in it soon
And the whole danged family will catch the hairball blues.

Ain’t no vaccine against hairballs or the blues
‘Cause we’re all gonna step in life in the dark of the moon.
Mama remembers even though Daddy forgets
That the cats bring joys and sorrows to life
In spite of the strife of the hairball blues.

Review: ‘White Tears’ by Hari Kunzru

White Tears pays homage to the blues, the blues that grew out of pain and a mix of organic musical styles that was sung by down and out African American men and women in the 1800s and ultimately recorded by hundreds of performers on 78 records during the early 1900s–Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and others whose names are long lost to most current day audiences even though the influences of the blues run through the heart of American music itself. It has been said that Robert Johnson achieved success as a singer by following an old conjure procedure of selling his soul to a black rider at the crossroads. Whether you believe the legend or not, the music known as the blues carried the souls of its performers as they cried out the cruel injustices of their lives.

Hari Kunzru tells the story of two white students in their twenties who love the blues, though that love may be more of an affectation or an obsession than anything true. Carter is rich. Seth is poor. The music draws them together and they create a music studio dedicated to analog sound and music out of the past. Seth, who’s a bit of a geek without firm boundaries about who he really is, records sounds and music off the streets, and one day he captures the voice of a bluesman he never sees singing a song that will define the two young men’s lives. They run the words through their sophisticated equipment and end up with a recording that sounds like an old 78 record that might have been rescued or stolen from a southern barn or back porch. They put the recording on the Internet and announce that it’s real rather than mocked up. They name the singer Charlie Shaw.

The sound is a sensation.  But then they hear from collectors and other aficionados that Charlie Shaw was a real person who really did record a song that began with the words “Believe I buy a graveyard of my own.” A collector says he heard it years ago. Another collector turns heaven and earth to find the original, and maybe he does. The boys are spooked, to say the least: how can their faked record of a modern-day street singer suddenly be a real song by a person whose name they made up? If Charlie Shaw is real, Carter and Seth have stolen his soul.

At this point, readers will have been experiencing an immersion in the blues, well told through Hunzru’s deep understanding of the music and his very well crafted prose. While the novel remains compelling, it becomes somewhat fractured after Carter is–for unknown reasons–beaten senseless in “the wrong part of town,” and as he evolves into a hospitalized man in a vegetative state, his rich family decides that Seth was just a follower who lived off Carter’s money and really didn’t contribute anything to their business partnership. Denied access to Carter and the studio, Seth drifts, begins to think maybe the past or the blues or the real Charlie Shaw is after him. The novel fractures from the atmospheric realism that was following a plot into some lengthy slice-of-life sequences in which past, present, future–and bluesy reality–meander aimlessly rather than directly serving to storyline.

Yet, new incidents occur (mostly bad and/or unfair to Seth), magical realism or real depending on the moods of the moment and the novel shifts into a thriller chasing down a ghost story. The protagonist for three quarters of the novel is primarily Seth.  But Kunzru changes the point of view throughout the last several chapters in a chilling way. These chapters are powerfully written but, on balance, the strong ending of White Tears seems based more on shifting genres in mid stream and word-smithing trickery rather than the natural unfolding of a story. The message–white boys appropriating black music and making it their own–is a strong theme throughout the book. It’s not a bad theme. The story suffers, however, because of the author’s need to preach a cultural appropriation sermon rather than let his message speak for itself through the characters words and actions.

Nonetheless, it’s impossible to discount the power of the book, the author’s technical mastery of his language, or the journey through the blues. Yes, this book is the blues, and those who love the music will probably read the book from beginning to end, seeing its flaws as little more than the scratchy static on an old 78 record.

–Malcolm

Memory Lane: Where The Southern Crosses The Yellow Dog

I know the Yellow Dog district like a book
Indeed, I know the route that Rider took;
Every cross’, tie, bayou, burg, and bog
Way down where the Southern cross’ the Dog

— W. C. Handy

Once upon a time, if you were a rail fan in the South or even a weary traveler sitting in a southern diner drinking a cup of coffee, somebody might come up and ask you if you knew where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog. If you answered, “Moorhead, Mississipi,” you were okay and belonged in the area. You were in better shape if you also knew the east-west tracks the Southern Railway (now Norfolk-Southern) and the north-south tracks of the Yazoo Delta Railroad (AKA “The Yellow Dog”) crossed each other about 75 feet from the town’s post office.

yellowdogragWhile Norfolk-Southern still uses that line, the dangerous, old-style diamond crossing is no longer active. However the site has been preserved, identified with a historical market that draws rail fans to it like a sacred pilgrimage.

The railroad crossing is part of legendary blues lore, the story being that in 1903, W. C. Handy heard a guitar player singing about that crossing in a musical style he’d never heard before. He was fascinated by it and subsequently wrote “The Yellow Dog Rag” based on this real or imagined blue player at a train depot. Other composers, including Sam Collins in 1927, have written and recorded yellow dog crossing songs. Blues fans can talk long into the night about where the first version came from.

As for “Yellow Dog,” I’ve seen four explanations of the reason that the name was applied to the Yazoo Delta Railroad: (a) “dog” often refers to a branch line, (b) the box cars were painted yellow, (c) somebody saw a yellow dog chasing the train every day, (d) railroad men on the line had to sign contracts with a yellow dog clause in them stating they wouldn’t join a union. All of these might be wrong, but they sound right enough for legends.

When it comes to song names, singers, lyrics, railroad crossings and blues recordings, it’s hard to tell the difference between facts and fictions because they all merge together in a dark bluesy way that just makes any good song and any good exaggeration about it all the better. So what I’m saying here is that this post may contain more fiction that fact, and that that’s a good thing.

–Malcolm

I couldn’t resist mentioning the title of this song in my recent novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman” because it was too good to leave out.

I wish I’d heard the blues at the Red Bird Cafe

Just across the main east-west thoroughfare from Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida, sits the oldest black neighborhood in the state. Known as Frenchtown, the area was beginning to decline when I rode my bicycle on Macomb and Dean Streets delivering telegrams while in high school. Those older than me remembered the days when Frenchtown’s Red Bird Cafe was an important stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, and they spoke fondly of the days when Cannonball Adderley and Ray Charles lived in the area and were famous along the streets for their music.

Red Bird Cafe - Florida Memory photo

Red Bird Cafe – Florida Memory photo

The yellow Western Union tag on my shirt identified me as a harbinger of death as surely as a black car in a military neighborhood. Perhaps it was that tag or perhaps it was luck, but I never ran into any trouble in Frenchtown even though most of my friends thought I was crazy to go there even though the job required it. I usually took bad news because that’s what telegrams were all about in Frenchtown. The recipients often made me open the yellow envelopes and read the messages at their front doors, and helplessly seeing their reactions and sometimes helping them compose a reply was–I think–my introduction to what it was like to feel the blues.

I wish I’d been more daring then, for I went to a Peter, Paul and Mary concert at FSU, but never went to the Red Bird other than to pedal past it on my bike. Surprisingly, I delivered–much to my embarrassment–more than one singing (usually “Happy Birthday”) telegram in Frenchtown where whole families and their neighbors gathered in the small yards to hear that poor, sweaty white boy sing. Who knows what would have happened if I’d ever had to sing such words at the front door of the Red Bird. Maybe somebody with an “axe” (guitar) would have emerged from the crowd and joined in. Never happened. But as I worked on my Conjure Woman’s Cat novella with its strong leaning toward the blues, I couldn’t help but think of Frenchtown and all the music there I never heard in the world where it lived.

If I owned a time machine, I’d get out the yellow Western Union tag that I “borrowed” from the company when I left, and I’d go back to the Red Bird and listen. In real life, all that music was at once so close and so far away.

–Malcolm

http://www.conjurewomanscat.com/