“The Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright III
“Swimming” by Breathe Owl Breathe
“Nightswimming” by REM
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“The Swimming Song” by Loudon Wainwright III
“Swimming” by Breathe Owl Breathe
“Nightswimming” by REM
The other night we were lucky enough to catch a late night set by our favorite local band, Pennyroyal, at the Dakota. We were elated to hear them soundcheck with “Wild Iris”, a song we hadn’t heard them perform in ages. Even more surprising was Angie Oase’s solo opening set, which brought together disparate covers and Pennyroyal favorites. One of the songs was this moving old blues standard, often mis-credited as a Bob Dylan song.
The earliest recorded version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” was captured by John Lomax and his wife Ruby Terrill Lomax at a state workhouse on the southern coast of Texas in 1939. The Library of Congress records the performer as Smith Carson, although he’s known to history as Smith Casey. The eleven songs he performed for the Lomaxes that April day are the sole document of his time on this Earth.
Bob Dylan recorded “He Was a Friend of Mine” for his first album, but it was ultimately cut. His interpretation found its eventual official release on the first of the ongoing “Bootleg Series” collections, and was perhaps the rarest recordings to appear on that overdue compilation. It is likely that Dylan learned the song from Dave Van Ronk, one of the most remarkable and under-appreciated figures in the history of American traditional music.
Some facts about Dave Van Ronk:
*He was considered by promoter Albert Grossman for a folk trio which included Peter Yarrow and eventually became Peter, Paul and Mary. Van Ronk was rejected because Grossman found his unique and personal performances too un-commercial.
*He incorporated New Orleans jazz and ragtime into his performances, connecting the traditional jazz revival of the 50s with the folk and blues revival of the following decade — Van Ronk’s breadth of historical knowledge and his good nature led him to be a mentor to many of the folk singers who settled in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, including Bob Dylan.
*The Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is said to be based on Van Ronk’s experiences (taking its title from his 1964 LP) but it does not represent the rich background he brought to his performances — from barbershop and traditional jazz to classical music and ragtime piano.
*Dave Van Ronk was one of the thirteen people arrested at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969.
*He performed “He Was a Friend of Mine” at the memorial service for Phil Ochs after his death by suicide in 1976.
The song’s singular place in the sixties folk revival is on this 1963 Prestige LP, where it opens the second side. It appeared on the Hymies blog a couple years back here. Van Ronk’s performance of the song, then largely unknown, is dynamically idiosyncratic, reflecting Grossman’s concerns that he couldn’t contribute to a folk/pop group like Peter, Paul and Mary.
Since the sixties the song has become more of a standard, and has been recorded dozens of times. Search its title on Youtube and you’ll find hundreds of homemade performances. A song first recorded by a prisoner, a song with stark spiritual overtones, it is an unlikely favorite but there it is — and always achingly sincere. One does not set out to perform “He Was a Friend of Mine” without the the sorrow of grief in their heart.
This weekend millions of punk rock hearts were broken when Tommy Erdelyi passed away at the age of sixty-five after a fight with cancer. Erdelyi was the last of the original Ramones, having taken that name when the band released its first album in 1976. Growing up with the others in Forest Hills, New York, Tommy was originally to be the group’s manager — he ended up in the drummer’s chair when no one else they auditioned was up to the task.
When I was a kid you couldn’t rent Rock and Roll High School at a Blockbuster or Video Lease (what a terrifying name!) or the neighborhood shop because the it was out of print. This is actually a thing that happened, that there were out of print VHS tapes and people looked for them. We finally found a copy at a strange little corner shop on Hennepin Avenue called Discount Video, which specialized in the sort of stuff weird people would want to bring home and watch.
My weirdest friend thought this was going to be a video we’d watch over and over again (a premonition that did not prove accurate) and so ran the video from his parent’s camera into a VCR to make a dub of the Ramones’ 1979 feature film, which has been in the same place in my mother’s basement ever since. Balden, who last appeared here on the Hymie’s blog when we posted a mix tape he made around the same time, also made himself a copy of The City of Lost Children that night, which was at the time a new release.
In this fairly representational scene, the film’s heroine smokes a joint and imagines the Ramones have appeared in her bedroom. Tommy is relegated to the yard, a position only slightly better than that of bassist Dee Dee Ramone, who is found in the shower. At least it is Tommy upon who Riff Randall swoons at the end of the number. The entire film straddles a strange line between absurdity and aching sincerity, a fine line you could say defined much of the Ramones catalog.
I was fortunate enough to see the Ramones perform around the same time, courtesy of another friend. Their last album, Adios Amigos, was reliably in the player in our house and Joey Ramone’s take on Tom Wait’s “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” something of a personal anthem. By this time Marky Ramone had long passed Tommy as the band’s longest serving drummer. I did not know at the time, nor did anyone, that Joey Ramone was at the beginning of what became a long battle with lymphatic cancer. It wouldn’t be proper to eulogize Tommy Ramone with a track on which he didn’t perform, but Joey’s lighthearted, soaring “Life’s A Gas” would be as apt as any track from those first four albums.
With a nod to his local connections, a better choice may be “Bastards of Young” or “Here Comes a Regular,” songs from the Replacements’ Tim, an album Erdelyi produced in 1985. The thing is, Tommy Ramone was never the sort of reckless his music may have inspired — in fact, he once released an album of bluegrass duos with Claudia Tienan on which he played the banjo, pointing out in an interview that there are a lot of similarities between punk rock and traditional American music. “Both are home-brewed music as opposed to schooled, and both have an earthy energy,” he explained. ” Anybody can pick up an instrument and start playing.”
The bands so curiously defined as cow-punk may agree. The folks from Blackbird Raum surely would — they performed here just last week. A Ramones cover in their acoustic set wouldn’t have been out of place, even though they were performing to a packed room without amplification.
But the most recent Ramones cover here on the Hymie’s stage was yesterday, Sunday evening, when Nato Coles and the Blue Diamond Band introduced several new songs and stretched out on a few favorites. These guys are our favorite local purveyors of the spirit of rock and roll, and we knew — there wasn’t a moment we doubted it — they’d do a Ramones songs.
And they chose “Cretin Hop”:
There may be a time we believe we’ve outgrown the Ramones and their distinctively, unabashedly juvenile music, but they are in fact as indelible as any homemade tattoo. The Ramones’ music celebrated everything magical about rock and roll, even when that magic was kind of stupid (as in “Every Time I Eat My Vegetables It Makes Me Think of You”). They may have been a ‘right place at the right time’ kind of band, but most people who find themselves in that position put a thumb up their butt and complain something is uncomfortable. The Ramones aced their opportunity, casually and clumsily saving rock and roll.
“Someday my Day will Come” by George Jones
It seems unlikely that George Jones meant this single from his 1981 album Still the Same Ole Me to be a gay anthem, but it’s hard to hear it any other way. Tony Washington could have sung the hell out of this song!
Actually, Jones sang the hell out of this song. It’s a testament to his unique talent for conveying feelings that this song could be so mis-interpreted but just as moving.
Gay country music gets a bad rap — tied for some years to ‘out’ acts like pop-oriented kd. lang or novelty songs like “CB Savage” (which we posted here). It’s silly stuff. Willie Nelson contributed to the silliness a little with a cover of Ned Sublette’s “Cowboys are Frequently, Secretly, Fond of Each Other” the year after he contributed a song to the soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain (you know, the “gay cowboy movie”). There’s just a little too much ‘tee hee’ about it all.
It seems like every country singer who gets divorced must deny that homosexuality caused the breakdown of their marriage — just ask Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. It also seems coming out puts a country singer in a new box, maybe smaller than the closet — the “gay country singer” can only go so far. Just ask k.d. lang, or Chely Wright, or Steve Grand, the whose “All American Boy” garnered instant enthusiasm online but whose first album (funded by — ugh — kickstarter) will be under intense scrutiny from two of the most discriminating demographics in America: country music fans and people who write for blogs about LGBT issues.
Vernon Dalhart’s 1939 single “Lavender Cowboy” was banned from the airwaves. Cowboy Jack Derrick’s “Truck Drivin’ Man,” a 1948 single for King Records, was pushed off their airwave and into obscurity for a couple curious lines
When my truck drivin’ man comes into town
I’ll dress up in my silken gown
Billy Briggs recorded a single just a couple years later — “The Sissy Song” — which left listeners wondering what he was really up to. It’s not like there have never been gay cowboy records.
Maybe the ‘wink-wink’ of “The Sissy Song” was a little too much for country music folks, because it was nearly a couple decades before the first openly gay country band made an LP — Lavender Country’s first record is recognized today in the Country Music Hall of Fame (you should visit it!) but on its 1973 release was privately pressed and limited to a thousand copies. It’s songs (“Cryin’ in these Cocksucking Tears” and the lampoon “Back in the Closet Again,” for instance) were a little too much for mainstream folks, let alone good ol’ fashioned country folks.
The post-Stonewall organization of gay communities coupled with the seventies boom in independently released albums produced a lot of fun stuff, from Lavender Country to Geof Morgan (whose “Penis Song” comes from his album It Comes with the Plumbing) to the sometimes forgotten but often awesome independent lesbian-oriented label Olivia Records.
Geof Morgan’s songs are not always as silly as “The Penis Song,” and are often insightful. Although this album also contained a song called “Homophobia,” (which laments how he is unable to connect with his male friends) according to our copy of the mid-70s Smithsonian Folkways compilation, Walls to Roses: Songs of Changing Men, Morgan (who wrote one of the songs) was one of the collections’ only heterosexual contributors.
While around the same time Jim Staford sheepishly beat around the bush, so to speak, in “My Girl Bill,” the Folkways compilation made very clear its intentions of changing common perceptions of gay men, and did so in a folky, country style.
Olivia was a label for women, and its most successful releases were from singer-songwriter oftentimes similar (if more serious) Morgan. Beginning in 1973 they found a remarkable level of success with releases by folk singers like Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. Their clever retort to Anita Bryant, Lesbian Concentrate, is a unique and classic compilation LP — and the label was one of the most admirable independents of the 70s. Other releases on the label were some really funky jazz (like Linda Tillery’s first album), but eventually it fell from fashion. Once very successful, Olivia Records evolved into a cruise line — not a future you would expect for a record label.
Garth Brooks got into all manner of trouble with for a line in a song from his 1992 album, The Chase. “We Shall be Free” features his dreams for a world where people everywhere live in peace with one another. In it he imagines a world “where we will be free to love anyone we choose,” a lyric which led the song to be (according to the liner notes to The Hits) “easily the most controversial I’ve ever done.”
“We Shall be Free” was also easily one of the best songs Brooks had ever sung, although its backlash pressured him into rarely singing the song in concert. One audience that was able to get it out of him was the Muppets, when he appeared on the second episode short-lived, long-forgotten Muppets Tonight revival.
This week we’re going to start putting some paving blocks into the weedy boulevard in front of the record shop. It’s a project we’ve been talking about for a while, but are just getting around to now.
We’re very excited about it, and think it will make the record shop, and the whole neighborhood, a little nicer. This classic Slim Gaillard song is the closet thing we could think of which fits.
What is “commercial” music? We don’t know — our taste is often out of the mainstream. Bobby Womack had a seven-decade career and asked that question himself in this 1971 cover of a Bacharach & David standard.
Womack was one of many performers on the 50s gospel circuit who made the leap to popular music — young folks who have just bought their first record players do not ask for Bobby Womack as often as they ask for Sam Cooke but we did sell every record we had by him in the shop this weekend. Womack passed away at the age of 70, less than a month after having performed at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival (that’s in Tennessee in case you’re wondering). Our local paper carried a fun picture of Womack with his dogs, who look like a French bulldog and a pug.
It’s hard to pick a favorite Bobby Womack song — we chose this cover of “(They Long to be) Close to You” for its opening monologue, plus Communication is a special record because his brothers sing back-up on a few tracks. Together they had been the Womack Brothers and then the Valentinos, and that’s how Bobby Womack got his start in the music industry.
Oh, and sorry about the skip in this copy. It is one of those records Dave bought from Hymie’s when it was still run by Hymie and has probably been being played in our house for twenty years. Honestly, we kind of love our old beat up records because they’re familiar.
And like he said in the monologue, “If I can get into it, it’s commercial enough for me.”
Here is an interesting album that modestly appeared here in the shop last week without much fanfare. There is no release show scheduled for this disc as yet, still it’s something we’ve enjoyed and think many of you may too. And, as our friend Ben Weaver has often pointed out, the cycle of record release and promotion isn’t always conducive to the creating of lasting art.
Fans of Weaver are likely to enjoy Crow Call’s new disc, as are folks who have enjoyed other like-minded traditional music here in the Twin Cities such as Harry Smith-revivalists Corpse Reviver or Charlie Parr. Ellie Bryan’s first disc, Am I Born to Die, was a promising collection of familiar and forgotten folk songs, distinguished by innovative arrangements that were often arrestingly stark. Twice, for instance, she presents “O Death” (familiar to many as the song Ralph Stanley sang in O Brother Where Art Thou a few years ago), recalling the spirit of Doc Boggs as surely as putting her own imprint on the song’s dark narrative.
In pairing with Peter Ruddy to produce Crow Call, Bryan expands the potential range of her music without cluttering up its shadowy narrative. Ruddy’s role, playing 12-string guitar or bajo quinto (a Mexican guitar-like instrument tuned in forths), adds atmospheric richness similar to Charlie Parr’s recent instrumental album, Hollandale. On their original “Oak Trees” his playing is especially beautiful, pushing the song forward with building intensity.
Still, s Marcel Marceau once wrote, “it’s the notes you don’t play that make the difference.” There’s a lot more going on in Crow Call’s self-titled debut disc than Bryan’s solo album, but even the fastest tune, the standard “Pretty Polly,” is clean and uncluttered unlike some of the lightning-fast bluegrass that has become widespread.
Crow Call is most of all remarkable for Ellie Bryan’s confidence, both as a performer on the banjo and as a singer — in this this disc takes giant steps beyond Am I Born to Die, and Bryan ought to any list of local folkies to follow. Her interpretation of “I Wish My Baby Was Born” is one of the best folk songs to appear on a local album so far this year — as a song curiously more often performed by men, Bryan gives the old saw a more convincing recreation than revered figures like Jeff Tweedy (on the third Uncle Tupelo album) or Tim Eriksen, whose recording for the Cold Mountain soundtrack is more along the Appalachian lines of Ralph Stanley than Bryan’s old world version. Its something remarkably like what Corpse Reviver’s Jillian Rae did last year with “Wagoner’s Lad,” a song likely as old as “I Wish My Baby Was Born.”
“I Wish my Baby was Born”
Bryan has recorded several songs from the two best-selling T Bone Burnett soundtracks we’ve mentioned, but it wouldn’t be fair to suggest Crow Call is in any way derivative of those revival records. The originals on this album imply a wider range of influence, from Black Sabbath to the Cowboy Junkie’s Trinity Sessions album. Their originals are slow, driven and haunting, especially “They Know,” which was the first sample we heard from this disc a while back. Ruddy’s slide guitar is surprisingly bluesy on the closer, “In the Pines,” and the appearance of a guest on harmonica, Patrich Donaghue, is a great choice. There’s a lot of range to Crow Call — it’s often amazing what can be done in the simplest folk tradition, something Jack Klatt reminded us of a couple years ago when he recorded his solo album in the tradition of Dave Von Ronk.
With this debut disc (which you can hear in its entirety here) Crow Call offers a little glimpse into what their collaboration will likely produce — we would like very much to hear more from this duo.