“Everything from Jesus to Jack Daniels”
“No New Friends Please”
“I Hope it Rains at my Funeral”
“It Rained in Every Town but Paducah”
“A Week in a Country Jail”
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“Rainbows all over your Blues” by John B Sebastian
“Somewhere over the Rainbow” by Judy Garland
“Chasin’ that neon Rainbow” by Alan Jackson
“Ridin’ the Rainbow” by Elvis Presley
“The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit D. Frog
Now’s a good time to get up and stretch your legs — don’t worry about the person in the next cubicle, just get started and they’ll join in.
One of our favorite things about Disco For Kids is that a friend’s mom brought this album in, along with a bunch of peculiar local albums from the 80s and some new wave standards like Blondie.
Some of us remember dancing in place to music on album in gym class. It was usually played on one of those awesome Califone portable turntables, and it was usually funny stuff like this — you know, designed to get kids moving, as if that’s really all that difficult.
Sometimes these records are super cool (take a listen to this one we posted a while back). Other times they’re just campy and silly. One of the other things we love about Disco for Kids is the art in the instructional booklet.
Here’s an album that falls into the category of very rare, but not particularly valuable — Joey Ford lent us this album last weekend when he brought his band, Tree Party, into the shop to perform some songs from their new disc, Iced Over (we posted some tracks from that great album here). It’s one of his treasured possessions because it’s an album his Dad made with some friends. It’s from around 1970 or so, guessing from the cover songs that are included and whether or not it has as much collector value as some fancy Beatles 45 doesn’t really matter to us — we loved having a chance to hear this album.
Friendship Dues by Absolutely Nothing was recorded live and in a studio (the sides are labeled “Live / Dead” maybe in reference to the Grateful Dead’s awesome Live/Dead double LP released late in 1969). No engineering or production credits are given on the jacket, so we can only guess where or exactly when — the “Dead” side might well have been recorded in a garage or a dorm room. Absolutely Nothing’s address is in beautiful Pipestone, Minnesota (about three and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities). We learned from Joey that the group on the back of the album were students together at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.
This record’s certified hippy appeal was established while we played this album in the shop this weekend: one of our regular customers, a dedicated Deadhead who waited in line last Record Store Day to buy the Phish album here at Hymie’s, came up to the counter and said, “What is this, man? It’s great!”
Friendship Dues is mostly covers of well-known folk/rock standards of the day, with a strong Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young emphasis (the quartet accounting for four of the album’s thirteen tracks) — other covers include Jerry Jeff’s ubiquitous “Mr. Bojangles” and two Elton John songs.
The first of those, “Love Song,” is mis-credited to John & Bernie Taupin, but was actually written by Lesley Duncan, who joined Elton for the lovely duet on Tumbleweed Connection in 1970 — it is one of few songs on the classic Elton John albums that he didn’t co-author.
While not as often recorded as “Mr. Bojangles,” there are at least a hundred covers of Duncan’s song from the early 70s — in spite of having problems with stage fright she performed with Elton on several occasions. Duncan also recorded a couple of solo albums, contributed backing vocals to Dark Side of the Moon, and was in the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar (check out her official website here). Pretty cool.
Jerry Jeff Walker based “Mr. Bojangles” on a man he met in a New Orleans jail, after being arrested for public intoxication in 1965. Possibly the all-time best song ever written about a dog, it was recorded more times than anyone could count by everybody and his cousin. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took it to the top 10 with a great 1971 recording that also featured a delightful interview with “Uncle Charlie and his dog Teddy,” who howls along to a harmonica. Absolutely Nothing’s performance, like most of their album, owes it sound to the big names in folk music of the day, like CSN or John Denver, who recorded the song about the same time, 1970, on Whose Garden Was This?
Everybody from King Curtis to Bob Dylan recorded “Mr. Bojangles” — if one were hard pressed to find the worst version it would likely come down to Rod McKuen or William Shatner.
“Birds” by Neil Young features the voice of Joey’s Dad, Mel Ford. Joey tells us that he was always behind his camera, so there aren’t a lot of recordings of him, making this album very special for his family. That’s a close-up of Mel from the picture on the back cover.
Joey also tells us that Jeff Rohr, Warren Hanson and his Dad Mel remained good friends — he remembers camping in the Black Hills with the three, their voices echoing off the pines as they sang “Goodnight Irene.”
“For Whatever Reason”
Absolutely Nothing’s album includes a few great original songs on the second (“Dead”) side, including one attributed to “R. Clown” who we assume is Robo the French Clown listed in the hilariously hippy “special thanks” section on the jacket. That song, “But You Know I Love You,” is great. It reminds us a little of Gordon Lightfoot’s great song “I’m Not Sayin’” which is on his first album.
“For Whatever Reason,” above, is another of those great originals, written by Warren Hanson who also plays guitar and sings throughout. It’s too bad they didn’t make a whole album of their own songs.
“Come Back Home” by Jeff Rohr was one of our favorite song on the album. Maybe somebody will hear it or another here and decide to cover them. In this digital age there’s no reason something should be forgotten simply because there weren’t very many copies of the album to begin with — Last year somebody else out there discovered a copy of Friendship Dues and put it up on Youtube here. We’re always glad to hear more of the awesome independent music tradition here in Minnesota, whether it’s folk or jazz or whatever.
“But You Know I Love You”
“Come Back Home”
This album is on the Mark Custom Recording label, which collectors probably know mostly produced amateur recordings for schools and churches. This is who pressed the high school marching bands and such. Here and there amateur folk and jazz records appear on the label that can be really great — probably none of it was pressed in very large numbers. Probably others have special meaning for people like this one does, telling the story of some friends who didn’t want to be rockstars — they just loved playing music together.
Last week the city of Atlanta was shut down by a two-inch snowstorm. Also last week, the Twin Cities shivered through a couple days of sub-zero temperatures, and just after the Atlanta storm heaved another six inches of snow off our walks. All in a winter’s work.
We’re tough folks up here in the Northstar State, and don’t let a soul tell you otherwise — Not only that but this has got to be the best place in the country to run a record store. There’s so much awesome music, both in our past and being made right now, that we wouldn’t even know where to start to introduce someone to it all.
We’re a state of innovators and creators — maybe it’s because we’re stuck inside all winter. Minnesota gave the country scotch tape, the stapler, and post-it notes — Also the toaster, the water ski, Spam and Bisquick. It was the University of Minnesota that performed the first open heart surgery and sent the first enlisted man to serve in the Second World War (Pfc. Milburn Henke of the 34th Infantry Division, who was photographed by the press landing in Dufferin Quay, Belfast, on January 26, 1942).
Private Henke was hardly our first of firsts or of lasts — in the winter of 1861, Minnesota, the newest state in the Union, was the first to offer troops to its defense. Throughout the Civil War, Minnesotans played an important role, no less than at the Battle of Gettysburg, where the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry saved the Union position at Cemetery Ridge, and perhaps with it the Union’s cause, with a courageous charge against a Confederate brigade nearly four times its size. After the war, Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union Army veteran, lived in Duluth until he passed on at the age of 109.
On a lighter note, Minnesotans have set a variety of goofy world records, from our famous twine ball, to the largest cheeseburger, to the largest gathering of zombies (recently lost to some fuckers in New Jersey) and of people with mustaches. Even though Longfellow’s Hiawatha and Minnehaha were fictional, we are surely a state filled with history and colorful characters
And today we want to share a record we’ve been really enjoying. It’s sort of chicken soup for the Minnesotan soul — something to make you feel a little proud of getting to work, or to school, or just to the mailbox on those cold days.
“Helmer Aakvik – The Old Man and the Inland Sea”
That’s the first track on Iced Over the new disc by Tree Party — the song’s eponymous hero was awarded the Carnegie Award for Heroism after surviving twenty-eight hours on a handmade wooden skiff during a rescue attempt. His neighbor, Carl Hammer, was lost in a November storm on Lake Superior in 1958, and Helmer set out to find him. He lost two toes to frostbite and never found his neighbor, but forever entered Lake Superior lore, finishing an egg sandwich and a pint of coffee before he could be taken to the hospital.
You can learn all about Helmer Aakvik and other true Minnesota legends on Iced Over — there’s even a map of the state that gives each story a setting, from our southern prairies all to the northern border where we meet Dorothy Molter, the “Root Beer Lady” of the Boundary Waters.
We don’t want to spoil the whole thing for you, so we’ll share just one more track. It’s the story of John Smith, or Gaa-binagwiiyaas. Most folks knew him as Wrinkle Meat, “the oldest man in the world,” who remembered the Leonid meteor shower of 1833 and walked the woods and prairies of Minnesota well over the age of 100 carrying a blanket for his bed. Hotels welcomed the beloved Chippewa Indian of Cass Lake without charge, but he still slept on the floor, for the beds were too soft.
“Wrinkle Meat — The 137 Year Old Man”
For Tree Party the tale of Wrinkle Meat is a cool shuffle. Even with two great discs behind them, the band has never sounded so confident as when swaggering through the story of Minnesota’s oldest man. On Iced Over the quintet skates gracefully across genres as needed to fit the feel of each of the album’s characters, matching Wrinkle Meat’s grandeur as perfectly as they capture the despair of Chris E. Herschberger, whose ghost haunts the Calumet Inn in Pipestone.
Many of the details in “Wrinkle Meat” came from this chapter in the recollections of Paul Peter Buffalo, an Ojibwe who in the 1970s recorded an enormous personal history that also documented the history, customs, and beliefs of his people. His autobiography is archived today by the University of Minnesota Duluth, made accessible to all through the web.
In the notes to Iced Over, songwriter Joey Ford notes that “Minnesota is well taken care of, with historical societies spread across the state that strive to keep the conversation between past and present alive.” The thing is, we have to do our share or it’s no longer a conversation — the historical societies and museums throughout Minnesota merely hold history until we arrive to thaw it out.
We had never heard of any of the characters featured in Iced Over until Tree Party brought us a copy of this disc last month. Learning about each (the album is so much more fun when you’re familiar with the stories behind each song) lit in us the pilot fire of pride for our Northstar state heritage. Mocked as we often are in the media, for so many imagine our Minnesota as one big Frostbite Falls, we might well be the awesome-est state in the Union.
Joey Ford received a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and we think they couldn’t have made a better choice. Ford took the opportunity to travel the state asking about local folklore, meeting old timers in diners and scholars in museums and historical societies. He wrote songs based on the true life legends he heard, and brought them to Tree Party. The band had already discovered its flair for the theatrical with their second album, The 7 Shot Symphony, a collaboration with Live Action Set which produced an amazing touring cowboy show (check out the video trailer) which won a 2011 Ivey Award for Best Overall Production.
A few years back Sufjan Stevens wrote concept albums for two states — Michigan and Illinois — and we offered our own entries a while later (Minnesota and Ohio). We’re still working on Iowa. Iced Over might actually be the first concept album about Minnesota. The 32nd state has produced its small share of concept albums, from Zen Arcade to the Honeydogs’ 10,000 Years (surely their best) to Grant Hart’s long-labored, awesome adaptation of Milton and Burroughs, The Argument. As rich as Minnesota history is, the closest we’ve ever come to center stage may be in Paul Kennerley’s The Legend of Jesse James, where the shootout at Northfield, narrated by Charlie Daniels, was the highlight of the record (we posted it years ago here).
On Iced Over the rhythm section — bassist Andy Carroll and drummer Marc Bohn — adapts itself deftly to Ford’s vivid narratives. A listener can close his eyes and hear the frigid waves crashing against Helmer Aakvik’s wooden skiff, the calm waters lapping against Dorothy Motler’s Isle of Pines, or the crack of John Beargrease’s whip as he drives his dog team to deliver the mail to Grand Marais.
A little like the dog sled race named for Beargrease, Iced Over is a tour de force for a troupe of top rank musicians — Guitarist Travis Bolton grounds the disc in the very best of doo wop and early rock and roll. Just listen to that short solo in “Dorothy Molter” — it almost takes you back in time to a soda fountain where Molter had her first root beer. Jenna Wyse, whose own group, the Poor Nobodys, specializes in exciting theatrical music, provides vocals that help set Dorothy Molter’s story in a black-and-white memory as well as give other stories their epic sense of adventure. She also performs the accordion and violin, giving a genuine Minnesota flavor and even a polka romp to celebration of World War I hero Byrl Sylvester.
On “Byrl Sylvester — Plainview’s Greatest Hero” the band is joined by a robust brass section. One can almost imagine the celebration of a hero, not unlike the annual accolades our leaders still offer to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
Joey Ford didn’t waste anything with such a band at his back — he wrote each of the songs on Iced Over with Tree Party and got the best out of them, as well as himself. He takes his trademark yodel to soaring new heights on the disc — sometimes it’s silly. Throughout he approaches the stories with due reverence, while balancing the lighter side of local lore. He approaches Wrinkle Meat with a little wry wit and Chris E. Herschberger with an aching sense of loneliness. At his very best Ford is a cowboy singer worthy of one of our all-time favorite records, Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. At his worst he’s over-the-top (we’ve been playing Iced Over a lot lately, and folks always take notice of “John Beargrease — The Fearless Mail Carrier”) — We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Well, that’s not true. Iced Over seems to be hitting it stride with that last track, where the band is joined by an evocative cello and the brass heard on “Byrl Sylvester.” We’re ready for another story — that’s the thing about history, it’s sloggy at first and then you find a reference point, a place where you can put yourself in the story. And then you want more — but that’s where the disc ends. The band runs around the state in “Careless Hap — The Minnesota Romp,” a light yodel-driven instrumental and calls it a night.
We’re already looking forward to the sequel.
Tree Party will celebrate the release of Iced Over this Sunday at the Cedar Cultural Center. Details here. If their new disc weren’t exciting enough, they’ve got two of our favorite fellas in the world opening: Jack Klatt and Ben Weaver!
One of the most monumental figures in American music, Pete Seeger, passed away yesterday in New York City, where he was born ninety-five years earlier. In announcing his death, Seeger’s family says he passed peacefully in his sleep after a short stay in the hospital, that he had been chopping wood just ten days earlier, and that family and friends were at his side. One can hardly imagine a more fitting finale for a man of such grace, humility and kindness, just as one can hardly describe the scale of our loss — Seeger was one of the last living links to a near-lost era, the America before Harry Smith’s Anthology revived our pride in our folk traditions, the America that struggled for worker’s rights, the America that looked to its past for solutions to the problems of the present, the America that looked to its future with reverent responsibility.
Seeger’s father, Carl Louis Seeger Jr., worked in musicology during the discipline’s infancy. His mother was a composer and violinist. In his life-long immersion in the folk music of all people, the younger Seeger would introduce or re-introduce so many things to Americans, ranging from the Wimoweh chorus of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (a Zulu folk song) to the Book of Ecclesiastes. His exploration of world music, dating to the forties, was nothing short of revolutionary — our own little collection of Seeger’s records contains music from Bach, Beethoven and Grieg, as well as Japanese folk tales and songs from the Spanish civil war.
“Viva La Quince Brigada”
Pete Seeger often said with pride that he’d sung for hobo camps and Rockerfellers all the same — and that he loved his country, in spite of a lifetime of political activism that confounded his critics. More than merely a political figure, Seeger was a lifelong music educator (he once said his most rewarding experiences were singing with children at schools) — his records are almost ubiquitous in our collections, there are so many of them! They provided us with an introduction to performing (the track at the beginning is from his 1954 album How to Play the Five String Banjo), to our own history and its lessons, and to our responsibilities towards the future.
Seeger’s successful folk group, the Weavers, saw their career derailed by the McCarthy-era blacklist, only a few years after they sold more than two million copies of their version of “Goodnight Irene” (a record which, yes, did inspire the name of our pal, the everlovin’ record store dog). Activists and folk purists derided the group for diluting its message, but Seeger and his bandmates — Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman — defended their choice, saying it was good to bring folk music to the people.
Seeger and Hays were called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955, after an FBI informant identified both as Communists. While many chose to plead the Fifth Amendment when called before the committee, Seeger refused to testify, citing his First Amendment right — he was found in contempt (though this was overturned six years later).
The Weavers were unceremoniously dumped by Decca Records, their recordings out of print and effectively banned from the airwaves. They broke up (reuniting for occasional anniversary concerts, the last of which was released as Together Again in 1981). Seeger left the group in protest after they provided the music for a cigarette commercial in 1958, and his solo career struggled during these years (it was not until 1967 that he was again able to appear on television).
As ever he was at the center of controversy, performing for the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour his protest song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Seeger’s scathing indictment of President Johnson’s Vietnam war policy was cut from the broadcast by CBS, but eventually aired the following January.
Seeger wrote (often with collaborators) a number of songs that became folk standards — “Where have all the Flowers Gone?” and “If I Had a Hammer” for instance — and helped establish many others. His adaptation of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes has become cinema short-hand for the sixties ever since the Byrds’ cover of it topped the Billboard chart in 1965, and he was one of the first to popularize “We Shall Overcome,” which became the anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
“We Shall Overcome”
Seeger was no stranger to providing protest music — His 1941 album with the Almanac Singers, Talking Union and Other Union Songs contained several that became standards during the era in which working people struggled for the basic rights we take for granted today. Here is their recording of Florence Reece’s song, “Which Side are you On?” which was written during the 1931 United Mine Workers conflict in Harlan County, Kentucky. Her home was illegally searched and her children terrorized, and she wrote the song, based on a Baptist hymn, on a calendar in her kitchen.
“Which Side are you On?”
Other Seeger songs were not so famous, but right on the money. On the 1958 Folkways album Gazette he offered his take on a variety of current events, from the arms race to the overcrowding of classrooms in public schools — here, for instance, is the story of Sherman Wu, a student at Northwestern University who was rejected by Psi Upsilon fraternity because he was Chinese. The fraternity, which said defended itself in part by saying that “an Oriental in the house would degrade it in the eyes of other fraternities and make it more difficult to get dates from the sororities,” was not reprimanded or punished in any way by the University.
“The Ballad of Sherman Wu”
Sherman Wu, the reluctant Civil Rights figure, remained at Northwestern, pledging to another fraternity, and completing a doctorate. While there he went on a date with Ann-Margaret (then still Ann-Margaret Olsson), proving the fraternity’s racist defense groundless. After earning a PhD, Wu worked on the Apollo program (in “reaction jet control systems”) and taught for nearly three decades at Marquette University in Wisconsin.
Another record from Seeger’s enormous Folkways Records catalog delved deeper into the history of the American working people, finding ballads from as far back as the turn of the nineteenth century. The first song on American Industrial Ballads is the heartbreaking tale of a cobbler who finds his craftsmanship will soon become obsolete.
“Peg and Awl”
Another lesser-known piece of music by Pete Seeger has long been a favorite of ours — In fact, selections from his Goofing-Off Suite, were played at our wedding reception nearly a decade ago. On this ambitious 10″ album, Seeger adapts a variety of works to the five string banjo, including Bach’s famous canata “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and passages from Beethoven’s seventh and ninth Symphonies.
Although he would begin to accompany himself on the twelve-string guitar in the sixties, Seeger’s legacy in inextricably linked with that of the banjo in American popular music. His playing was light, less percussive than the folk traditions from which he often drew inspiration, and often beautifully nuanced, as on this performance of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” from the Goofing-Off Suite.
Seeger’s lanky frame was often accented by the unique banjo of his own invention, three frets longer than most. With his bright sense of humor and affable nature, it’s no wonder Seeger was so suited to serve as “America’s tuning fork” (as the President recalled in a statement yesterday). For many his Folkways album How to Play the Five-String Banjo was more than merely an introduction, and for many others his records of childrens’ songs were treasured.
Seeger’s 1974 album with Brother Kirk on the fairly new Sesame Street label featured him performing several folk favorites, as well as “This Land is Your Land” and Bill Steele’s “Garbage,” where he was backed by a troupe of monsters led by Oscar the Grouch (we posted Biff Rose’s sillier version a while back).
Seeger’s epic career was one of our last living links to Woody Guthrie, who he sang with in the Almanac Singers in the 40s. Seeger, perhaps more than anyone else, has been responsible for popularizing Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a song that was originally written in angry response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Tired of hearing it sung by Kate Smith on the radio, Guthrie originally wrote the chorus to be “God blessed America for you and me.” It was and by changed, and was a concert favorite of Seeger’s. He also recorded an album with Arlo Guthrie in 1981 (Precious Friends), and the two pals last performed together in November of 2012. You might, if you haven’t read enough by the end of this epic post, enjoy reading what Arlo had to say about Seeger yesterday on his Facebook page.
“This Land is Your Land”
Some of Seeger’s political statements seem naive today, and his backpedaling over Stalin and other subjects is silly at best. He never claimed to be a political leader, but merely a folk singer and, at times, a teacher of music like his father had been. In the sixties he said, “I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”
“Down by the Riverside”
He is today again united with his wife, Toshi-Aline Ōta, who passed away last summer shortly before their seventieth anniversary, but surely mourned by millions. He played such an enormous role in everything we know and love about music and it’s potential to bring people together. Yesterday several people came into the record shop looking for his albums, and we talked about favorite songs and how long we have loved them. It’s up to us now, to share them with our children.