Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

RIP: Mose Allison, 1927-2016

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Jazz-blues singer-songwriter and pianist Mose Allison is yet another extraordinary example of the ways in which the best (and by that I mean, the only good) American popular music made by white people borrows, steals, and is inspired by music that is tied to a root of African or African-American origin. American music is, as the narrative goes, where “the races meet;” the space where we walk right in, set right down and let it all hang out. While that is often the case, Black, Latino, other non-white, female, LGBTQ, and disabled musicians will tell you a different story; the contradictions are a part of the story too and must be aired out consistently to get the full picture. This is perhaps related or not to how Allison, a Mississippi-born white man came to sing cotton-picking songs on the piano and inspired a generation of rock musicians to look back and discover Bukka White, Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Dixon. When Allison opened his mouth to accompany his piano songs in 1963, he reached The Who, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, the Clash and the Pixies… and that’s only a fraction of the artists he touched.

 

Read the entire article at Down With Tyranny!

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, ,

Furry Lewis: Born to Blues

 

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and the unbelievable, actual surname of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the Depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him though Lewis was not a fan. No stranger to film and television, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88.

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. His “Judge Harsh” blues from Good Morning Judge, never fails to restore my cheer). People rely on the blues to chase away their own; when I play Furry Lewis, I don’t stay down too long. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby,” or the he way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony).  His recorded output is generally optimistic, and bring a smile, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Tell me baby, what ever have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

Covering in song the spectrum of life in all its colors—from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow—he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee.“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said.  And for that, I am most grateful that he was born to sing and play the blues.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video,

Born to Rock: Lead Belly

leadbellyLead Belly was born around this day of January in 1888 or nine. This is a portion of his story, adapted from my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

“I’m obsessed with him. He’s my favorite performer,” said Kurt Cobain. “No Lead Belly, no Beatles,” claimed George Harrison, and the same may as well be said for Led Zeppelin, whose Jimmy Page was rocking “Cotton Fields” back in 1957. According to Van Morrison, “If it wasn’t for Lead Belly, I may never have been here.” And yet, Lead Belly—born Huddie Ledbetter near Mooringsport, Louisiana in 1888—is rarely the first traditional American musician historians credit with the creation of rock ‘n’ roll or the bands of the British Invasion. His contribution to rock is as fundamental and profound as those of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, so why is it we don’t hear that much anymore about his legend? Perhaps it can be blamed on the boll weevil he sung about—and it indeed may have something to do with cotton—though the diminishing of Lead Belly’s influence on rock is likely just another case of the forgotten origins of song.

The Louisianan’s sound first came to impact the young lads who would go on to form the classic rock bands of the ’60s via the British Isle’s mid-’50s skiffle craze. Rooted in the jug band style of the 1920s, skiffle’s homemade and improvised style relied on the wacky sounds of household items like washboard, comb, and homemade instruments—the stuff that makes for its irresistible, ecstatic sound. Glaswegian Lonnie Donegan’s frantic version of “Rock Island Line”, first popularized by Lead Belly, swept across the land like skiffle-mania, boosting guitar sales and launching a thousand bands, like young Jim Page’s combo as well as the Quarrymen (who we all know by now birthed the Beatles).

For Morrison—who’d already developed a taste for the blues voices of the American South—skiffle provided confirmation of the potential for what an Irishman could do with a Black American folk sound. The Lead Belly repertoire meeting English skiffle marked the beginning of his long association with rock ‘n’ roll; though stateside he was more of a singular phenomenon, as well as a folker.

Coming up through traditional, mythological American folkways, it is said that folklorist John Lomax discovered Lead Belly during the singer’s stay at Angola, the Louisiana state penitentiary (it was his third incarceration). It was there that Lomax and his son Alan recorded songs by him for the Library of Congress, some of them passed on to Lead Belly through his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson; among them was the standard “Goodnight Irene”, which eventually became Lead Belly’s calling card.

As one version of the story goes, Lomax pressed a record of Lead Belly and presented it to the state’s governor, who was so taken with it that the prison doors unlocked for his release. So off went Lomax and Lead Belly, at this point close to 50 years old, to New York and toward a career in show business.

As a late-comer to the game, Lead Belly was not in on the earliest rush of race records in the 1920s and 1930s, and so it was his less-than-polished Lomax recordings that would come to define him; that may be one contributing factor toward explaining a present-day resistance to a full embrace of Lead Belly as pre-rock ‘n’ roller. Additionally, Lomax’s song-catcher practices are a source of controversy and a sore subject among blues researchers. Objections to the way Lead Belly was discovered, promoted, and recorded are cited; indeed, shortly after his initial agreement with him, it appears Lead Belly found the arrangement with Lomax unacceptable too. Though not long after severing ties with Lomax (he would eventually resume relations with the Lomax family) Lead Belly accepted a press opportunity to be photographed, costumed in black and white prisoner’s attire, performing his role of ex-convict made good. By the end of the ’30s, he’d gone on to find success writing topical songs (“The Bourgeois Blues”) and fell in with the left-leaning protest singing community—though he didn’t necessarily abide its progressive politics. His association with fellow travelers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, found the FBI hunting him as well. What Lead Belly, the folksinger, really desired was to launch a career in Hollywood, but that wasn’t meant to be.

None of these political or personal, salient or picayune points debated by historians or surveyed here concerned the queen of civil rights music, Odetta. She cut straight to the emotional delivery and content of Lead Belly’s songs and made his work her guidepost throughout her long career; she was the bridge to folk rock. “When I started in the years of folk music, it was a discovery,” she said to an audience at UCLA in 2008. As part of a self-directed exploration of her cultural heritage, she came upon the Lomax recordings in the 1950s and recognized in Lead Belly’s songs the sound of slavery, “my people,” she said. Her earliest recordings include Ledbetter arrangements of “Alabama Bound” and “Take This Hammer”, released in 1956 and 1957 respectively; she is famously credited for inspiring Dylan to pick up the acoustic guitar. Dylan’s recording debut (prior to his own solo album, on which he name-checked Lead Belly) came as a harmonica player, for calypso and Lead Belly fan Harry Belafonte, who cut the traditional “Midnight Special” for his 1962 album of the same title. Belafonte had previously recorded Lead Belly’s composition “Cotton Fields” in 1959, one of the songs that gets covered and covered by artists diverse as Buck Owens to Buckwheat Zydeco (young Jimmy Page played it with his skiffle band). By 1969, when Creedence Clearwater Revival covered both “Cotton Fields” and “Midnight Special” for their Willy and the Poor Boys album, doing Lead Belly had become a rock ‘n’ roll requirement or at the very least a very trendy thing to do—even the Beach Boys had a hit with “Cotton Fields.”

In 1970, Led Zeppelin got the Lead out when they turned “Gallis Pole” into “Gallows Pole” on their adventures in acoustic folk album, III (they later revived it in their Page and Plant incarnation). First recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Gallis Pole”, the song is based on “The Maid Freed from the Gallows”, likely of Scandinavian origin and run through the British ballad tradition. Page first heard the song as arranged by Fred Gerlach. “He’d been influenced originally by Lead Belly,” Page is quoted as saying in Led Zeppelin: The Definitive Biography, though Zeppelin was certainly not unaware of Lead Belly. “He was one of the main movers when I was a kid,” says Robert Plant (quoted in Lead Belly: A Life in Pictures, also the source for the endorsements by Harrison, Cobain, and Morrison above). Plant and his collaborator, Alison Krauss, first bonded musically at a Lead Belly tribute concert. Perhaps there is more to the story of how they got the Led in their name than goes the legend of John Entwistle’s joke about the potential for a supergroup to fall flat, “like a lead zeppelin.”

But like cotton, the King of the 12-String could not remain king forever. Them old cotton fields back home were beginning to recede from popular consciousness as songs of urban discontent began to take their place. In addition, the Rolling Stones, who had previously brought their audience to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, were now touting Robert Johnson. Their 1969 version of his song “Love in Vain” preceded to the market place the 1970 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2, with its new cache of Johnson songs. The Johnson and Delta influence remains a big deal to this day, its legends and iconography completely enmeshed with blues culture as we know it. Lead Belly’s prison songs, children’s songs, and field and work songs didn’t fit so neatly into bluesology, and rock became a Lead-free zone, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1977, Ram Jam put some Southern rock funk into Lead Belly’s “Black Betty,”  though the Top 20 single wasn’t a hit with critics or (according to lore) with racial equality groups. The track played Lead Belly’s rock potential to maximum effect (though it is regrettable if anyone got hurt by it). As the ’80s arrived, punk rock and new wave took Lead Belly underground with it, as Bongwater, Michelle Shocked, and X became keepers of the flame. Proudly in synch with the pulse of the people and the hard times that echoed his original era, X turned “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” into an elegy for a loved one and revived “Rock Island Line” with their folky side project, the Knitters.” A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly joined Little Richard and Fishbone on “Rock Island Line” and Beach Boy Brian Wilson came back for another pass at Lead Belly on “Goodnight Irene”, though the project did more for boosting the rock cred of Guthrie (who got the Springsteen and Mellencamp treatment) than it did for Lead Belly.

From there, it was on to the Pacific Northwest and under the bridge where Kurt Cobain lived. The Nirvana man brought his tape of Lead Belly songs to his band’s earliest rehearsals; he and fellow founding grunge scenester Mark Lanegan shared an enthusiasm for him, as heard on their duet of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (found on Lanegan’s The Winding Sheet album). Nirvana’s definitive performance of the song on Unplugged was an immediate highlight of that show, when Cobain’s guttural wrenching was assumed to be tied to his personal life and precarious emotional states. It’s hard to top that one, though when Alvin Youngblood Hart rejuvenated “Gallows Pole” in Lead Belly-style on his 1996 album, Big Mama’s Door, he brought back Lead Belly’s quickness and dexterity on his instrument full circle: Just man and guitar.

Lead Belly lived out his final days in New York, eventually succumbing to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 1949. Had he lived another year, he would’ve seen his signature song, “Goodnight Irene”, turned into a million-seller, a #1 hit as interpreted lightly by the Weavers. The overlooked genius of Lead Belly is that his songs and mighty rearrangements continue to transgress genres and generations, from folk to rock, from Pete Seeger to Jack White. Just think what we would’ve missed had Jimmy Page pursued a career in research science as he’d intended rather than picking his way to the top of the “Gallows Pole.” By the 21st century, the White Stripes played “Red Bird” and “Take a Whiff on Me”, and if the show went well, they’d close it with “Boll Weevil”, yet another folk tune popularized by Lead Belly. I’ve heard of Two Gallants playing “Mother’s Blues” aka “Little Children’s Blues” live, though only time can tell who’ll be the next in line to shine an ever-lovin’ light on the songs of Lead Belly.

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Origin of Song, rock 'n' roll, Rock Birthdays, , , , ,

Memphis Minnie’s Blues

In what is perhaps the best-known story of a blues woman as legend, Big Bill Broonzy tells of the “cutting” contest he lost to Memphis Minnie following her 20-minute performance of “Me and My Chauffeur Blues.” So carried away was she with the jam, Minnie was carted offstage by the judges who were said to be bluesmen Tampa Red, Muddy Waters and most unlikely, Mississippi John Hurt. Meanwhile, as Minnie was catching her breath, Big Bill was making off with the two bottles of hooch earmarked to be taken home by the grand prize winner.

“…She can make a guitar speak words, she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk, and whistle the blues,” Broonzy wrote in his memoir. Man enough to admit he’d been whupped by a gal, the story behind their supposed tussle in 1930s Chicago has over time been revealed to be a conflation of repeated guitar stand-offs between Broonzy, other bluesmen, and Minnie who was known to routinely trounce all-comers throughout the South and Midwest with the antics on her ax. While  Broonzy would go on to be remembered as the musician who brought the blues to England and influenced an entire generation of rock’n’roll guitarists, Minnie’s legacy is less tangible and entrenched. For reasons not entirely clear and despite repeat testimonials from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, Minnie’s only had a few, cheapo boxed sets and a recent tribute compiled; there have been no lovely vinyl reissues, collector’s editions, or special treatments given to her recorded legacy. As for what we know of her history, most all of it comes down to Paul and Beth Garon’s 1992 volume, Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie’s Blues, available once again in an updated and revised edition with a forward by Jim O’Neal (City Lights, 2014). Twenty-two years after its initial publication, the most profound details of Minnie’s story still reveal a hard travelin’ blues woman—singing and performing her ribald, daring, and well-honed songs in the early part of the 20th Century—as a player who has yet to be honored and enshrined in equal measure to her accomplishments.

READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW OF WOMAN WITH GUITAR: MEMPHIS MINNIE’S BLUES AT BLURT ONLINE:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Book news, Poetry, Reviews, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, video, Women in Rock, , , , , , ,

Furry Lewis Born Today, 1893

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and God-given name of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him and Lewis hated it (it crossed some lines). He appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88. His “Judge Harsh” blues made a real impression on me in 2004 (The Year of Our Injustice) which was also around the time Fat Possum released Good Morning Judge (there are plenty of other Lewis titles available but I like that one).

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. Listen for the way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony. His delivery and his guitar style are unique (check the move he calls “spanking the baby”).  His outlook was generally optimistic, though his lines and the rhymes will break your heart.

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said. Personally, I rely on his blues to chase away my own. When I play Furry Lewis, I find I just can’t stay down too long. Covering the spectrum of life in his songs, from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow, he’ll turn your face red and your money green. Of course he also had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee. And it’s for that, I thank him most of all.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , , , , , , , ,

Remembering Mike Bloomfield

photo by Mike-Shea

Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981

Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.

So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?

(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).

Filed under: Blues, Bob Dylan, film, Interview, new article, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , , ,

Happy Birthday Etta James

Etta-James2Today is the birthday of the great R&B singer, performer and songwriter, Etta James. Californian by birth, Jamesetta Hawkins entered this world on January 25, 1938, the child of a wayward mother and a father she liked to say was the pool player, Minnesota Fats (her belief was never exactly disproved). Shipped off to live with relatives who could better care for her in San Francisco’s Fillmore District (“The Harlem of the West”), she was discovered and rechristened Etta James by Greek-American Johnny Otis. Both Otis and James created identities as specifically California blues artists that they grew into international followings. Together they cut “Roll With Me, Henry” (an answer song to Hank Ballard’s “Work With Me, Annie”) and a few more sides before she left Modern Records for her ‘60s tenure with the Chess brothers in Chicago.

Known for her hits “At Last,” “Tell Mama,” “Wang Dang Doodle” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” among many other greats, she was an inspiration to drag queens (the disco artist Sylvester learned how to party in her apartment), rock’n’rollers (most famously Janis Joplin) and anyone with a pair of ears. Etta herself was at one time inspired by the charismatic speaking of Malcolm X; she joined the Black Muslims, as a way to get clean from drugs (it was a battle she waged for the better part of her life).  As Jamesetta X, she attended Temple 15 in Atlanta where Louis Farrakhan was minister.  ”I became an honorable Elijah Muhammad Muslim…No more slave name.”  She believes her example may’ve had some influence on her friend Cassius Clay turning toward the organization, though in her case, the faith didn’t stick (she lived to tell these stories and more in her autobiography, A Rage to Survive). Often sidelined by trouble, she resurfaced in the late ’80s after appearing in the Chuck Berry tribute film, Hail, Hail Rock’n’Roll, to largely resume her career and thrive. She received awards from all quarters, from the Blues Foundation, Grammy, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. She also ultimately got to grips with her addictions. First Lady of the Blues, James passed away a few days shy of her 74th birthday in January of 2012. We miss you Etta James:  The blues just ain’t the same without you.

Above, “I’d Rather Go Blind” was written by Ellington Jordan and James, and is among her most beloved recordings. Below, Alicia Keys and Bonnie Raitt paid tribute to James at the 2012 Grammy Awards. Keys was also born on January 25, as was the pre-war Tennessee bluesman, Sleepy John Estes.
Read more about Etta James and Alicia Keys in Keep on Pushing

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, Keep On Pushing, Malcolm X, Rhythm & Blues, Rock Birthdays, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, Soul, video, , , , , , ,

Just Got Back From Texas…

Preservation of the stories of music’s most unsung participants is my job, though there are times I’ve questioned the motivation and sanity behind my choice in career.  Thanks to a quick trip to Texas, MEOWcon_header-e1365515867432 I can recommit to my own calling, writing the stories of the under-looked and unjustly underappreciated people of  arts and letters who make history everyday by living creatively and pursuing their own truth, sometimes at great risk:  They are paying the wages of our liberation.  The freedom singers profiled in Keep on Pushing had plenty of experience with perseverance and faith-keeping; it’s partly why I went in search of their stories at such a deeply troubled time in our history.  I also could venture a guess that ninety percent of the interviews archived here feature artists who persist, despite the revelation, there are no free refills for the taking: They are the ones who inspire me not only to write and storytell, but to live authentically myself.

Following a four-day weekend in Austin for MEOWCon  and Texas Book Festival,  the  importance of documenting our untold stories and the theme of living history were driven home to me at every turn. It was a much-needed validation and dare I say vindication of a life spent in music’s trenches, a role which author, folklorist and professor David Ensminger assures me is vital and necessary.  As “culture workers,” we share a passion for recording and preserving the contributions made by artists who have gone unembraced by mainstream media and the consumer culture, while digging for lesser-told stories by musiciains of renown. mojo-hand book 0419 Ensminger also maintains the Center for Punk Arts and holds a vast archive of flyers and ephemera, most of it viewable online. Appearing in conversation at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday to talk with me about his two new music history books:  Left of the Dial, a collection of interviews with punk legends, and Mojo Hand: The Life and Times of Lightnin’ Hopkins,  the biography he co-authored with Tim O’Brien, as people who experienced punk’s dawn firsthand, we agreed we can identify with the outsiders who conceived, lived, breathed its ethos but more importantly, made the music. They aren’t much different from the outlaw blues heroes of yore who also adhered to an anti-authoritarian credo,  while kicking against the confines of a society designed to keep them on the outside (or in the parlance of the prison system, on the inside). And yet, these cross generational musicians not only survived the system, they lived to make life-changing music;  in many cases they also did it with incomparable style (particularly in the case of the one-of-a-kind playing and haberdashery of Lightin’). As we talked, Ensminger and I tuned into Texas musicians who found the heat on them so oppressive, they migrated to California, where it was easier to be themselves. And yet, wherever these Lone Stars roamed,  their spirit shone through in the music, with its yowling chords of liberation and the harmonica of injustice, never veering far from South-bound roots.  In an interesting twist, Ensminger and I delivered our talk on fringe musicmakers in chambers at the State Capitol (we had no doubt the irony of our presence there would not be lost on our subjects from Lightnin’ and the Big Boys, to the Dicks, the Stains and MDC, while I prayed it would not be noticed by the state’s right wing nut cases).

Across town at MEOWCon, a couple hundred women convened for the first-ever event organized to honor women’s history and contribution to rock, roll, and other popular music, with the intention of bringing along younger women and empowering them with tools for equal opportunity. After 50 years of taking part in rock’n’roll collectively, many of us still find rock’s smoke, mirrors and glass ceiling firmly in place, discouraging our participation in it on all levels, from music to media.  It’s only when we come together that we realize, we can and have done every aspect of the business well, and yet the history of our success has largely gone unrecorded. This theme of under-documentation emerged again and again at the three-day conference.  It was present while Suzi Quatro suzi-quatro-col-3played (where was the national press for this rare stateside appearance by one of rock’s living, vital foremothers?); it took a direct hit during Kathy Valentine’s keynote address (as she pointedly asked why she and her band the Go-Gos still hold the record for being the only female band to have written and recorded a number one album?) and it was upended during the panel and performance by the women of These Streets:  Seattle grunge players who’ve taken it upon themselves to document the scene they were wholly a part of, yet the role of women rarely gets a mention in texts devoted to the ’90s music explosion there.  I would say the same for the Q&A with Frightwig, the reunited band from ‘80s San Francisco who though under-appreciated in their first incarnation will go down as vastly influential, especially as they continue to bring new meaning to what it means to be a mid-life, punk generation woman playing on in the 21st Century.

Meeting and mingling with women who paved the road for us, from Patricia Kennealy Morrison and Robin Lane, to solid sisters like Julie Christensen, and young women like Aly Tadros, Shelby Figueroa, and Wendy Griffiths of Changing Modes to whom we hand the torch, was an experience I hope to repeat, and document more extensively.  Thanks to Carla DeSantis Black for the putting together the whole shebang:  Many years ago, the editor/publisher of ROCKRGIRL printed my piece on Jane Weidlin, and today it lives in an anthology titled A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World: Writings From the Girl Zine Revolution.  I’m humbled to have witnessed and survived that revolution, and recommit to finding more untold stories of women—and the men who support us—rising, as we document and preserve our herstory.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Blues, video, Women's rights, , , , , , , ,

“Five to One” Again

(Preview of the book,  Shaman’s Blues: The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors, by Denise Sullivan, coming soon)

“Five to One,” was the outgrowth of a philosophical conversation among enthusiastic film students Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, and their friend Alain Ronay. Though it remains a lyric that was never fully explicated by Morrison for the record, the original conversation among student artists reportedly concerned a generation at odds with the established order at the height of the Vietnam era (“they got the guns but we got the numbers”). Driven by drummer John Densmore’s strict timing, there is a tension evoked as Morrison explodes into rebellious nuggets of truth— “Trading your hours for a handful of dimes”—blowing holes in the bubble once known as the American Dream. The song is also the source of the epigraphic phrase that would go on to be associated with Morrison and the Doors for all time: “No one here gets out alive.”

Morrison’s  twist on the subject of power, his credibility as an outlaw street poet, and the Doors’ deep grooves would eventually weave their ways into the rebel music of the next generation and beyond, from punk rock  to hip hop. Like Morrison at his finest, hip hop artists tell stories, some real, others fantastical, born from urban legend and rooted in folk and oral tradition. Hip hop’s more conscious artists seek to shine a light on societal ills, and work toward changing and correcting them; many have paid a price for their points of view by becoming ostracized from the mainstream or hunted by law enforcement. Like the bluesmen and rebel poets before him, Morrison shall remain a touchstone for the  those who work in the tradition of prophetic and poetic verse, though his impact on hip hop, remains largely overlooked and under-explored.

The Cactus Album by 3rd Bass was an early example of the Doors’ embrace by hip hop artists (samples of “Peace Frog” and An American Prayer were used for its Bomb Squad-produced tracks in 1989). Since that early appropriation, DJs, producers, and emcees continue to pay homage with samples, mash-ups, and even covers (Snoop Dogg played with “dog without a bone,” in his own “Riders on the Storm”); there would likely be even more were the Doors not extremely protective of its legacy and cautious of approving tracks. “I’m the main spoiler in that area,” admits Densmore. He was however, willing to make a big exception.

In 2001, the Doors’ music made a massive leap into hip hop consciousness when producer Kanye West pulled a sample of “Five to One” to create the music bed for “Takeover” by Jay-Z. Conceived as a dis of fellow rapper Nas, “Takeover” launched a rap battle royale and series of answer songs and copycat tracks. “He sent me…a letter, explaining how what they were trying to do was what we were trying to do in the ‘60s, talk about social change, and I went, ‘Wow, and I got educated,” said Densmore who has done his best to maintain the integrity of the Doors’ catalog by holding out on commercial uses.

“You know a long time ago, Jim Morrison kinda blew up at us, because we were considering, “C’mon Buick, light my fire.’…Because the dough looked good and we were young,” he recalled.  “Jim didn’t primarily write that song, and I thought God, he cares about the catalog, what we represent in general, the whole thing. And he’s dead. And I’m not. So I’m not gonna forget that.”

Jim Morrison died on July 3, 1970 in Paris, France. Largely estranged from his bandmates, family and friends who were in the midst of the US Fourth of July weekend, final arrangements for his burial at the Père Lachaise  Cemetary were postponed until July 7.

Filed under: anti-war, Blues, cross cultural musical experimentation, France, Hip Hop, , , , ,

Furry Lewis Born Today

Good morning, judge. What may be my fine?

Fifty dollars and eleven twenty nine

So sung Walter “Furry” Lewis, born on March 6, 1893 in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. He sung of injustice regularly, dispensed mostly by the uneven hand of Judge Harsh, the arbiter of “Good Morning, Judge”- fame and God-given name of the guy who did the sentencing in Lewis’ part of town.

They arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

The arrest me for murder and I ain’t never harmed a man

Arrest me for forgery and I can’t even sign my name

Lewis’ story isn’t much told, though the chapter in Rythm Oil by Stanley Booth tells it as it’s known. Lewis worked on Beale Street during its high cotton days; he lost his leg jumping a freight train; spent the depression, the war, the ‘50s, and part of the ‘60s working sanitation detail for the City of Memphis. It was in his retirement that he was rerecorded and began to perform again. Allen Ginsberg loved him, and so did the Rolling Stones; Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him and Lewis hated it (it crossed some lines). He appeared on Johnny Carson’s show and acted in the Burt Reynolds movie, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings. Died in ’81 at 88. His “Judge Harsh” blues made a real impression on me in The Year of Our Injustice, 2004, which was around the time Fat Possum released Good Morning Judge (there are plenty of other Lewis titles available but I like that one).

Furry Lewis’ songs and old-time style will pick-you-up when you’re down. Listen for the way he ends his jams abruptly and without ceremony. His delivery and his guitar style are unique–check the move he calls “spanking the baby.”  His outlook was generally optimistic, though his lines and the rhymes can break your heart.

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Tell me baby, what eee-ver have I done?

Blood in my body done got too low to run

“I may be weak, but I’m willing” he said. I rely on his blues to chase away my own; turning on his music, I find I just can’t stay down for too long. Covering the spectrum of life in his songs, from white lightening and black gypsy to high yellow, he’ll turn your face red while personally guaranteeing to turn your money green.  And above all, he had a new way of spelling Memphis, Tennessee: Double m, double e, great God, a, y to z. 


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