Some songs for strangers

strange-days

The Doors’ second record is an outcast’s album like no other. Successful as they may have been by the time Strange Days was released in the fall of 1967, they remained industry outsiders and almost inevitably doomed by their own internal anxieties and fears. One of the two explicitly “strange” side openers, “People Are Strange” was a successful single and is still widely assumed to reference a bad acid trip.

Drummer John Densmore (the outsider within a group of outsiders) discredited this claim in Riders on the Storm, his book published in the wake of the band’s bio-pic fueled revival. He describes the song as derived from Morrison’s depression, and inspired by a sunset over Laurel Canyon rather than LSD. The music, arranged by guitarist Robbie Krieger, encapsulates the Doors’ fascination with cabaret, a theme which was carried over onto the album’s jacket, which depicts dwarves, acrobats, musclemen and other performance artists on the periphery of society.

lambchop-hank

Where the song “I’m A Stranger Here” finds its home is, fittingly, unknown. What is certain is that it in the sixties it inspired Bob Dylan, in “She Belongs to Me,” and Taj Mahal, who derived “She Caught the Katy” from it to open his essential second album, The Natch’l Blues.

Lambchop’s recording of the song for a long out of print 10″ EP, Hank, is evocative of the band’s initial outsider status as well as the universality of this old saw. While Kurt Wagner’s Nashville collective would eventually be recognized as “arguably the most consistently brilliant and unique American group to emerge during the 1990s,” they were an indie world anomaly in those early alt-country years.

the-gospel-sound

One of the great, often unsung, heroes of American music is Dorothy Love Coates, whose work as the lead of the Gospel Harmonettes had an undeniable influence on the style of early rhythm and blues and rock and roll recordings. Coates never performed secular music and was outspoken in her advocacy for civil rights and opposition to war, pushing her further from mainstream recognition.

“Strange Man” was a song Coates wrote after her career had become deeply entwined with the civil rights movement. This late 60s single is truly a family affair. Her brother, Fred McGriff, produced the recording and Coates, as pianist, is joined by her daughter Carletta Coates-Criss who plays the tambourine. The song recounts Jesus’ encounter with the Sumaritan woman at the well, as recounted in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John.

In the eastern orthodox tradition, the woman at the well (there known by her baptismal name Photini) is regarded as a Saint, and held as highly as the apostles for her proselytizing of the Savior’s message. Taking the perspective of an outsider, Coates’ song is set in the subversive world of the early Christian faith, almost entirely unrecognizable today but long overdue for a revival.

The song is out of print, but we found it on this collection of classic gospel music released by Columbia Records in the 70s. The label’s longstanding ownership of Okeh Records has provided access to a variety of outsider music, and collections such as this are a valuable resource to music lovers of all stripes.

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