Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

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, , , , ,

We’re On The Freedom Side

There’s a new version of the labor standard, “Which Side Are You On?” going around: Sung at the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition actions, it’s also been used as the intro and outro marching song at some of the Black Brunch protests.

Malcolm X was a freedom fighter
And he taught us how to fight
We go’n’ fight all day and night
Until we get it right
Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on?

In the early ’30s when the United Mine Workers of America began to organize around Eastern Kentucky (in an effort to end practices like payment in scrip and pay docking toward rent in substandard housing) it was Florence Reece, a Kentucky miner’s daughter and wife who wrote the original lyrics to “Which Side Are You On?”.  It remains a labor movement standard.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair

Blair was the sheriff who rousted Reece’s family during the strike among Harlan County mine workers, just one of the struggles which contributed toward the region earning its nickname “Bloody Harlan County.”   In the ‘70s, workers struck again and Reece reprised the song for striking miners (preserved in this clip from Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning documentary, Harlan County U.S.A.).

The song’s melody is said to be based on a hymn, “Lay the Lily Low.” Some researchers believe it is the same song that forms the basis for the traditional “Jack-a-Roe,” (also known as “Jack Munro”), its best-known version performed by the Grateful Dead. But I think that somewhere in the Kentucky mountains, singers have been intoning this strange melody for hundreds of years, its deep minor tones more reminiscent of the mystic drone of a Gregorian chant than anything known to folk or gospel. Whatever its melody’s true origins, “Which Side Are You On?” was first repurposed during the Civil Rights Movement by topical singer-songwriter Len Chandler (you can hear his recorded version on the album, WNEW’S Story of Selma).

Come all you Northern liberals,
Take a Klansman out to lunch
But when you dine instead of whine
You should serve nonviolent punch
Which side are you on? Which side are you on?

Chandler told me his story, of how he came to be a topical singer in Greenwich Village, then moved on to marching with Dr. King from, Selma to Montgomery (he appears in archival footage in the new film, Selma). “I’d write a song like that and then I’d be singing it in a mass meeting that night. People would be playing and singing for forty five minutes, until you were just worn out,” he said. Fifty years later, he remains in pursuit of social justice through action and song (Chandler’s full story appears in Keep on Pushing). I learned from listening to Chandler’s songs and to his songtalk, and by studying the work of freedom singers like Odetta, Bernice Johnson and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, that group singing among activists gives people who may start the night as strangers a chance to bond. Communing over songs, we become more bound to purpose. Singing together is energizing, nourishing, and feeds the spirit; it provides strength to move forward, together as one. But group singing for justice serves a further purpose beyond what some mock as a moment to join hands and sing “Kumbaya”:  In the fight for non-violence, singing has the ability to disarm.

Hamer practiced the power of song when she sang alongside Chandler and other SNCC volunteers at the mass meetings and marches, through her representation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic Convention and on to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women at the forefront of workers organizing, who’ve pushed for voting and employment rights, and led the fights to end war, poverty, and racism across the planet all know well the power of song: Whether Hamer, Reece, or Ani DiFranco (who updated the song in 2012 then titled her collection of socially conscious songs, ¿Which Side Are You On?) or the Black Lives Matter and Blackout Coalition organizers, women are allied in a long and storied legacy of traditional and gospel song.  With songs we have contributed to toppling apartheid in South Africa, had voting rights granted in the US, fought warlords in Liberia and begun to make corrections to the broken justice system in the USA. With songs that have traveled the road from blues to hip hop, we will continue toward freedom for all people. It’s good to hear the timeless soundtrack to justice making a comeback. Now, which side are you on?

Filed under: anti-war, Civil Rights, Coal Mining Songs, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Origin of Song, , , , , ,

For Cinco de Mayo: The Mexican American Rock y Roll Connection

It all started with Ritchie Valens and “La Bamba” and The Champs and “Tequila”  in 1958, though it would be another decade before Santana took Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” and freaked it out in 1970. Los Lobos brought Spanish language to LA punks with “Anselma” in the early ’80s and to the masses in 1987 with a remake of “La Bamba”; in 2002, they tore it up Chicano style with “Good Morning Aztlán.” Of course, these names of Latino rock royalty can twist a phrase en español—it is their birthright. But what about los gringos without Latino roots who’ve brought a Mexican vibe to their rock ‘n’ roll? And the bands that feature lesser known Mexican-American musicians, plus los otros conquistadors of south-of-the-border sound? Well, they are the subject of this Cinco de Mayo post, claro que si.

There are any number of starting points I could choose to begin the story of Latin rock and the use of Spanish language in rock ‘n’ roll, but since I’m not a scholar of the stuff and just an admiradora, I’ll apologize upfront for any mismanagement of details, mangling of the language, and my Anglo-centric survey of the music. Let’s just say for the sake of ease we start with 1948 and Don Tosti’s recording of “Pachuco Boogie”, a swingin’ tune about the rebellious zoot-suiters featuring a conversation or street rap in Caló, the urban dialect of the Pachuco subculture. The Pachucos donned the zoot suit and started a ’40s fashion and attitude riot that asserted individuality and anger in the face of having been stripped of a cultural identity. What, you are asking yourself, does this have to do with music? Well, Southwestern Chicanos adopted the baggy trouser/knee-length jacket uniform that had previously been seen on the Harlem jazz scene, and Don Tosti earned the nickname “the Godfather of Latin Rhythm and Blues.” Alongside Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music,” who also sang of Pachuco life as well as farm laborers’ rights, Tosti opened the door for an ethnocentric brand of music to cross into the mainstream (“Pachuco Boogie” was a massive seller), though it wouldn’t be until the late ’60s that the Chicano Movement would come to organize in the name of cultural identity. “Suavecito”, the 1972 hit by Malo (the group led by Santana’s brother Jorge), is an example of Caló y Latin rhythms coming together in one classic R&B/rock ballad. But what happened between “Pachuco Boogie” and the day when Santana threw down at Woodstock before even releasing a debut album?

Well, that would be the invention of Latin rock by California son, Ritchie Valens, a rocker whose “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna” are ’50s standards, but who happens to be most remembered for the music of his cultural heritage. As we know, the music died on February 3, 1959 when Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, Valens, and the pilot died in a plane crash in Iowa, yet “La Bamba”, the el hefe of Spanish language rock songs, lives on. Starting out as a hundreds year-old Mexican folk song, Valens rocked it up and delivered a three-chord wonder that eventually any garage or punk-rock band could play. The Plugz, an LA band by way of El Paso, featuring Tito Larriva and Charlie Quintana, self-released their cranked-up version of “La Bamba” in 1981. The Plugz also recorded two long-playing rare classics, Electrify Me and Better Luck, before morphing into the Cruzados and then eventually going their separate ways, but not before their “El Clavo y La Cruz” and “Hombre Secreto” (as in “Secret Agent Man”) gave the right touch to Repo Man, the punky midnight movie about “the LA experience.” In 1987, Los Lobos were asked to re-record some Valens songs for the soundtrack to La Bamba, a Hollywood bio depiction of the Richie Valens story starring Lou Diamond Phillips. It was then the band, formed in 1973 in East LA, rose to a new level of fame (their take on “La Bamba” went to number one). Debuting in 1976 with Si Se Puede! benefitting the United Farm Workers, and inspired by music diverse as Bob Dylan and Traffic, R&B, Mexican folkloric music, Jimi Hendrix  and Marvin Gaye, Los Lobos are as American and rock’n’roll as they come, while they continue to clutch the roots of their musical  heritage, masterfully incorporating traditional corridos and norteño sounds into their alternately furious rock’n’roll and  laid back jams.

Los Lobos were also inspired by the Eastside sound of Thee Midnighters and Little Willie G (more on them in a minute), as well as Carlos Santana y Jerry Garcia, and the Sir Douglas Quintet, distinguished by Augie Meyers’ Vox Continental organ sound and the soulful singing of Doug Sahm who started their band in San Antonio, Texas. Their greatest hit, “She’s About a Mover,” as released in 1965. Sir Douglas Quintet belonged to the handful of US groups who brought the spirit of the British Invasion (English musicians doing American music), back into the hands of Americans by tricking the public into thinking they were playing British-styled music like the Beatles and the Stones, rather than American music by Americans. It was Sir Doug that officially added the Tex-Mex sound to the American music mix, while Sahm would also go on to sing of the border and other Mexican concerns (“Michoacan”). In later years, Sahm and Meyers would also join forces with Mexican-American rock and genre-straddling songwriter Freddie Fender and accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez as the Texas Tornados.

The Farfisa organ sound and the count-off uno, dos, one-two, tres cuatro would become recognized around the world that same year as the opening to “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Led by a Texas-born son of Mexican immigrants, Domingo (Sam) Samudio, the song is about nothing really and was said to be named after his cat. Domingo worked as an itinerant musician and reportedly as a carny before forming the Pharaohs, who took their name from Yul Brynner because he looked tough as the character in The Ten Commandments, one of those epic 1950s Bible movies. “Wooly Bully” became a staple of the frat-rock genre though it was more distinctive than just serving as the soundtrack to AnimalHouse-style hijinks. The song spent an incredible 18-week stand on the charts, and by the end of 1965, it was named Billboard magazine’s Number One Record of the Year and had helped dislodge singles on the charts by the aforementioned pesky British bands of the era. Sam the Sham’s “Li’l Red Riding Hood” was certainly another fine moment for the band, but it lacked the Tex-Mex organ sound that would crop up on the great singles of the ’60s made by another legendary group of Mexican-Americans: “96 Tears” by Question Mark & the Mysterians, who hailed from Michigan and were fronted by Question Mark aka Rudy Martinez and featured a teenaged organ player, Frank Rodriguez, Jr. The organ riffing would also inspire the group’s “Can’t Get Enough of You, Baby.” In 1998, Smash Mouth from San Jose, California, had a hit with the song alongside their hit remake of “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” by War, a mixed-race funk band whose big hit “Low Rider” was a hats-off to cruisin’, Chicano style.

Of course, when it comes to cruisin’ Chicano style, the band for that is East LA’s Thee Midniters. Known for their instrumental jam “Whittier Boulevard”

The band and their especially soulful singer Willie Garcia, better known as Little Willie G, was a big inspiration to the future members of Los Lobos. The song was a natural to cover for Los Straitjackets, the contemporary (mostly) all-instrumental band that performs in Mexican wrestler masks. Okay, so copping a Spanish name and wearing a mask does not make a Mexican rocker. But by virtue of using the article “los” in their names, Los Straitjackets, as well as Texas rockers Los Lonely Boys, are filed in American record stores with the other “los bands,” like Los Bravos, the rock group from Spain whose 1966 hit, “Black Is Black”, did not contain a word of Spanish. Nor to my knowledge did the Zeros, the Mexican-American band from San Diego, ever sing in Spanish, though as members of the class of ’77,
they are distinguished as first-wave punk rockers; they also sprung Robert Lopez, aka El Vez, the Mexican Elvis. Somewhere, there exists a rare single of their anthem “I Don’t Wanna” backed with “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu”, a cover of the first Righteous Brothers hit made even more famous by Mitch Ryder.

I have only scratched the surface of the Latino influence on rock, precisely because it is inescapable and inextricable. I never got to point toward the “Spanish” sound on all those Brill Building and Phil Spector hits, or delve deep into the Afro Cuban percussive roots of rock (best exemplified by Bo Diddley borrowing the rhumba-like clave beat), nor did we open the pandora’s box of disco that partially paved the road to hip hop and other forms of dance music.  There is so much to uncover, from Devendra Banhart’s musings en español on Cripple Crow to the Mission District’s #1 son, Jerry Garcia (that is if you don’t count figure #1a, Tijuana-born Carlos Santana). I had planned to wax on about Jack White’s and Beck Hansen’s Mexican-American neighborhood origins as well as the exact definition of un perdedor as heard in Beck’s “Loser,” but I will leave that to you to explore. While were are here, let’s not forget the great Spanish-lover, Joe Strummer, whose Mexico City childhood allowed him to open his corazón to the Spanish-speaking world, and they to him. I had hoped to remind you to remember to forget U2’s lame-o uno, dos, tres, catorce countdown to “Vertigo”, but who am I to talk when all I can offer are my own gabacha sign-offs, ay, caramba y que lástima. Yo no soy una roquera, lo siento. Pero, in the hands of the Mars Volta, Ozomatli, Zack de la Rocha, La Santa Cecilia, Cambio, y todos los músicos, there is mas y mas y mas y mas musica: Rest assured, La Raza rocks on. Wishing all a safe and sane Cinco de Mayo.

The research compiled in this column was originally published some years ago in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, cross cultural musical experimentation, Immigration Reform, income disparity, Latino culture, Origin of Song, , , , ,

RIP: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter passed away on Easter Sunday at the age of 76. “Hurricane” was Bob Dylan’s protest song concerning the story of the middleweight boxer and the flawed judicial process that sent him away for an unjust term. The recording was a landmark: Over eight minutes long, it was released at a time when the media perceived Dylan to have moved away from topical subjects and protest songs; moreover, the song played a contributing role in Carter’s case to have his sentence overturned.  Here was clear-cut evidence of music attempting to forge change actually doing so.

As a listener, the song forever changed me: I will never forget the moment I heard the song on the radio, its content crashing with my understanding of the American judicial system, the clarity of the message and the dissonance it created so upending to me as a young person, I froze.  For many years, I could only refer to Dylan’s line from the song as a way to describe what I felt: “Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game.” Not knowing what to do or say or think about these matters, without access to organizations for change or discussion about it, “Hurricane” would become why I would write about music with meaning, though I would not know that for many years to come.

The following, reprinted in the spirit of the memory of Carter, picks up threads I’ve written on Dylan’s post-“political period,” the time in which he wrote and recorded “George Jackson” and “Hurricane.”

While Dylan’s late ’60s and early ’70s performances were scarce and scarcely political, his albums Self Portrait and New Morning were the personal reflections of a more inwardly directed songwriter. Though he stepped out with the Band for Planet Waves and a tour in a new era of big-time rock ‘n’ roll concert business, he retreated again, against the backdrop of a marital disintegration that famously produced Blood on the Tracks in 1975. By summer of that year, he was ready to come out again, swinging.

“Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he’d never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time
He coulda been the champion of the world”

Speaking to criminal injustice, Dylan took on the plight of  Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, serving time on a triple murder conviction in a New Jersey state prison. Impressed with Carter’s book, The Sixteenth Round, in which the boxer outlined his history as a vocal supporter of black rights and his framing by New Jersey law enforcement, Dylan was moved to visit him on the inside. As the story goes, following a five- or six-hour talk with Carter, Dylan set about writing a tribute with Jacques Levy, his collaborator at the time.

“Look, there’s an injustice that’s been done and Rubin’s gonna get out, there’s no doubt about it,” Dylan told author Larry Sloman. “But the fact is, it can happen to anybody.”

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan's prison visit to Carter.

This photo is a re-recreation of Dylan’s prison visit to Carter.

“Hurricane” transcends simple topical protest song. Broadcasting as clearly as pistol shots in that New Jersey night, Dylan sets the scene and creates a detailed picture of a world unfamiliar to the majority of his listenership—many of them now younger than his original folk peers, and for the most part unacquainted with the political world, much less the combustible state of race relations in Patterson, New Jersey, circa 1966. Certainly the name Rubin Carter would be remembered in boxing and prison justice activism even if his story had not been the subject of a Dylan song. Yet the song comes by special stature, not only for increasing awareness among rock fans of the shortcomings of a criminal justice system in need of reform, but for reinforcing a perennially misunderstood concept: All human life is of equal value, no matter a person’s race, class or crime–real or imagined.

During his 1975-’76 Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan and friends performed “Hurricane” onstage every night. The entourage, including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T Bone Burnett, Bob Neuwirth, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, rolled into Madison Square Garden in December of 1975. They were joined that evening by singer Roberta Flack and boxer Muhammad Ali for a benefit billed as “The Night of the Hurricane.” Ali addressed the crowd playfully, in characteristic rhyme. “I’m so glad to see you all with the cause because you have the connection with the complexion to get the protection,” he said from the stage.

Carter also spoke that night, his words delivered through the house PA via telephone. “Muhammad… on a serious note, my brother Bob Dylan once wrote, ‘Walk upside down inside handcuffs, throw up my legs and kick them off. Say all right, I’ve had enough. Now what else can you show me?’” Carter said, quoting from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” “Speaking from deep down in the bowels of the state prison of New Jersey, the fact that I’m speaking to you and the other brothers and sisters in the audience, that’s revolutionary indeed.” Praising the love of his wife and daughter, Carter said his hope was alive. “I knew that if I remained alive, that if I kept myself well… I knew they were going to come to my rescue, and tonight, here you are.”

The song’s intensity, a unity of frantic fiddle and verse, stirs feelings of empathy and compassion; it becomes a companion for believers in the cause to free Rubin Carter, as well as others wrongly imprisoned behind false testimonies and racial bias. Following the release of the song as a single in 1975 and the formation of a grassroots movement for Carter’s freedom based on the false evidence used to convict him, the boxer was released on bail and granted a new trial the following year. His conviction was finally overturned in 1988. Eventually all charges against Carter were dropped and he was exonerated; Carter went on to become an activist for falsely accused prisoners.

Richie Havens, a frequent interpreter of Dylan’s songs who opens all his shows with “All Along the Watchtower” (to name just one of Dylan’s pointed “post-protest” era tunes), says that “Hurricane” remains his favorite among all of Dylan’s songs. “That was an incredible job of going in there and winning, getting him out of there. Unbelievable,” Havens told me in 2008.

“Hurricane” is my favorite song by Dylan too: It spoke to matters for me that as a young person in 1975,  I had little experience with, and yet I felt the truth in the lines, especially the one about the criminals in their coats and ties and how they put the wrong man behind bars. I couldn’t wait for the song to come on the radio so I could stop whatever I was doing for an entire eight minutes and be transported, away from whatever real or imagined injustice was happening in my own adolescent world. Dylan’s exciting “return” to protest was my first meaningful engagement with a protest song.  Though it took many years for me to unpack its importance to who I am personally and professionally,  it was this song that set me in a direction for further discovery of folk and story songs, topical singing, freedom movement, liberation, and message music, the kind that holds secret, hidden histories of ourselves and our country that you won’t often find written about in history text books; rather these relevancies to American social, political and cultural history are handed down in oral tradition, read in books like Carter’s and heard in Bob Dylan’s songs.

a version of this originally published on May 24, 2011 in Crawdaddy!

 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Bob Dylan, Concerts, Keep On Pushing, Obituary, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, video, , , ,

In The Name of MLK

mlkIn one of those weird, under-reported facts, the origin of the third Monday in January when all 50 states are set to observe the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929) is not widely acknowledged, but it is in fact a musician we may largely thank for the creation of a federal holiday in the name of MLK.  Back in 1980, Stevie Wonder wrote his pointed song “Happy Birthday,” then launched a 41-city U.S. tour (and invited Gil Scott- Heron along) to promote an idea first mooted by Rep. John Conyers in 1968. The city to city tour was ultimately the key in collecting the millions of citizen signatures which had a direct impact on Congress passing the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, declaring the day for MLK. Of course it took some more years, more activist effort, more songs, and more applied pressure for the idea to catch on and the day to become a reality.

“Happy Birthday,” which served as the Wonder-campaign theme (and is now the “official” King holiday tune) is the last track on Wonder’s Hotter Than July album which also features “Master Blaster,” his tribute to Bob Marley.  The reggae giant was also scheduled for the tour until he fell too ill to participate. Stepping into the breach was Scott-Heron whose 2011, post-humously published memoir, The Last Holiday, details his own journey with music and activism; he retraces the long and winding road Wonder took to bring home a US federal holiday with the help of a song.  In a a strictly horrific twist of fate, the tour brought Gil and Stevie to Oakland, California, where they were playing in the name of King (as did Rodney Franklin and Carlos Santana) on the night John Lennon was assassinated.  The story of the evening is better read in Scott-Heron’s book, though here’s a clip of Wonder delivering the news to the assembled crowd, back in the time before we carried our own tracking devices.

Observed for the first time in 1986, some states were late to the party, however, by the turn of the 21st Century, all were united in some form of remembrance. On Monday January 20, cities all across the country will attempt to honor Dr. King’s dream the best they can, given our nation’s state of economic and moral poverty.  In King’s birthplace of Atlanta, Georgia,  the King Center, has a full weekend schedule of events culminating on Monday (the King Center’s events are dedicated to discussing and teaching non-violence). In San Francisco on January 20, there is an all-day celebration of King’s life, its theme Now is the Time, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 11 a.m. — 5 p.m. Among the events scheduled are author readings sponsored by Marcus Books, America’s oldest black-owned bookstore engaged in a final push to preserve culture and community in the City’s historic Fillmore District. San Francisco is generally struggling with displacement of its African American population, as well as other issues related to the City’s techsploitation of housing and services. City of Santa Monica hosts Southern California’s largest King Day event; this year’s theme is Unity in the Community. I am permanently dumfounded by the American shame that is Skid Row LA:  Just spitting distance from the unfathomable displays of wealth that define Beverly Hills, Hollywood and the Westside, human life and dignity are compromised there everyday.

Much like Dr. King’s vision, justice and equality in our democracy remain very much a dream. But wherever we go, whatever we do that day, let us not only continue to dream of love and peace, but to take an action toward eradicating poverty, eliminating racial injustice, and loving our fellows, in the name of MLK.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Bob Marley, Concerts, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Georgia, income disparity, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Sometime in New York City, 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono came up with a Christmas song for the ages, its subject peace on earth during wartime, its melody extraordinarily similar to “Stewball,” a hoary folk song about a racehorse. Behind its veil of bluegrass, “Stewball” has deep roots plus class and race resonances (if you’ve got the time to delve into these matters, there’s more where this came from, including clips and further linkage), but only a tangential connection to the “Happy Xmas” song.

In his final major interview, Lennon explained, “‘Happy Christmas’ Yoko and I wrote together. It says, ‘War is over if you want it.’ It was still that same message—the idea that we’re just as responsible as the man who pushes the button. As long as people imagine that, somebody’s doing it to them and they have no control, then they have no control.” Lennon and Ono had used the slogan “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” in their 1969 billboard campaign that sold peace to the people just as aggressively as consumer goods and war were promoted in the public sphere.

Recorded in October at the Record Plant and assisted by producer Phil Spector, the Plastic Ono Band (who for this session included Jim Keltner, Nicky Hopkins, and Hugh McCracken) were joined by the children of the Harlem Community Choir (they sing, “War is over if you want it”). The single was released in the US on December 6th and held until the following November of 1972 for release in the UK.

Spector’s influence is clearly a presence on the track—you can hear his signature claustrophobic effects, similar to those on the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”  But there is another ghost of rock and roll past in the room: The song borrows the feeling and the melody of “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace, a well- known Lennon favorite.

As for the slogan War is Over, the Doors had previously  used it in their 1968 anti-war song, “Unknown Solider” as had W.S. Merwin in his anti-Vietnam poem, “When the War Is Over,” published in 1967.  “Happy Xmas” bears traces of all the aforementioned melodies and influences, in addition to their somber moods, along with the note-for-note cadence of “Stewball.” Opening with a whisper to their children from whom they were estranged at the time (“Happy Christmas Kyoko, Happy Christmas Julian”), the lyrics open with a rather pointed question (“And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?”) and wishes for a better world to follow. All is forgiven by the final uplift.

As most readers know, Spector is currently serving time in a California state prison for using a firearm to murder Lana Clarkson. Legend has it Johnny Ace shot himself by accident, and the persecution of peacenik Lennon as well as his end have been well-documented. Ono continues to work for peace and against gun violence.  The song “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” itself has inspired many covers,  none of them worth mentioning, and at least one (Billy Bob Thornton) worth calling out as being unmentionable. The only version worth a bleep I’ve ever heard is the original:  It just might be the best rock’n’roll song to capture the spirit of Christmas. Though if, by now you are seeking something a bit cheerier to spin, I wouldn’t blame you, so I’ve included a clip of “Run Rudolph Run” by Chuck Berry—original rock’n’roller and another Lennon-inspirer. Merry Christmas Everybody, and God Bless Us, Everyone.

Filed under: anti-war, Arts and Culture, Folk, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, , , , , , , , ,

We Shall Overcome (Again)

This piece is adapted from an column that appeared in Paste in late 2011.

Alongside organizers, activists and orators, music people of all orientations have long brought the soul, sound, and heart to social and political movements. During 2011’s income disparity protests, the lionhearts of contemporary music  turned out for the Occupation: Ever-ready artist/activist Michael Franti showed up to “Yell Fire.” Talib Kweli, longtime resident in the trenches of conscious hip hop, dropped some rhymes, weighing in with a powerful piece called “Distraction”: “Skip the religion and the politics and head straight for the compassion, everything else is a distraction,” he rapped. Tom Morello, who as The Nightwatchman, shows up with his ax wherever injustice is served, came out to lead a chorus of “This Land is Your Land,” the old Woody Guthrie song that’s easy enough to sing along to, even if you don’t know the words. And the generally apolitical Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel delivered a rare, impromptu set of songs to the delight of Occupiers. In particular, the line “we know who are enemies are” from the fan favorite, “Oh Comely,” drew cheers from the crowd. Mangum’s appearance, if not his topically unspecific songs, provided the people with entertainment and support, the kind of unique companionship that only a song can provide in the cold, cold night.

“Our idea was to go down and raise their spirits,” said David Crosby, who with Graham Nash sang for the Zuccotti Park crowd. “What music is doing is unifying the people, bringing them together,” Nash told Rolling Stone.

“Everybody has a point, everybody has an idea everybody has a perspective on the world,” said rapper Lupe Fiasco when asked about musician participation in OWS. Stressing that celebrities are just like the rest of the occupiers, except in a higher tax bracket, he noted, “The leader is Occupy; it is the movement.”

Hip hop organizer and mogul Russell Simmons was among those on the street with the 99 percent; part of his role there was shepherding visitors like the Rev. Al Sharpton and Kanye West through the New York encampment.

The historic Occupy moment for social and economic equality was called by scholar Cornel West a “democratic awakening,” while throughout history, every freedom movement has had its own soundtrack or anthem for the long march home. And yet, there was not one dominant or lead song to emerge from the throng, an echo perhaps of the mass chorus of a movement without one soloist. Back in the high days of student organizations, protest and topical songs—the ’60s civil rights, free speech, anti-war and black power movements—marchers relied on folk tradition (reviving the old songs with the intention of forging something new). Rewriting spirituals for the secular world—or at least a world in which all faiths and traditions get equal respect—was an area mined by Pete Seeger, who along with Joan Baez, helped to turn “We Shall Overcome,” into an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement (most memorably, Baez sang it at the 1963 historic March on Washington; Seeger sang it at OWS).

Originally based on the gospel song, “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” composed by the Rev. Charles Albert Tinley and dating back to the African American Methodist Episcopal Church of the early 1900s, “We Shall Overcome” has changed shape through the years; also contributing to the version as we know it were elements of the spiritual “We’ll Overcome (I’ll Be All Right)”, another hymn from the immediate post-slavery period. But it wasn’t long after its arrival in church hymnals that “I’ll Overcome Some Day” was picked up by striking miners and laborers who went on to use it throughout their organizing fights in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. Sung by miners in the North as well as tobacco workers in the South, “We Shall Overcome” became a staple at the Highlander Folk School, the training ground for civil rights workers. Highlander teacher Guy Carawan helped to popularize the song among the forming Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960 and the song was spread far and wide by Seeger who changed up the verses a bit. By and by, the melody to “We Shall Overcome” came closer to echoing another slave time spiritual, “No More Auction Block” (once sung by Paul Robeson and Odetta and used by Bob Dylan as the tune for “Blowin’ in the Wind”) than Tinley’s “I Shall Overcome” did. In essence, two folk standards emerged from one spiritual.

But more than its fairly tame melody, the strength of “We Shall Overcome” lies in its extraordinarily bold lyrical affirmations: We are not afraid/the truth shall make us free/we shall live in peace. These sentiments are as ripe for the current moment, as they were when the United Farm Workers used it in their fight for their rights, as when South Africans sang it in their struggle against Apartheid, and when Czechs sang it during the Velvet Revolution that overthrew communism. “We Shall Overcome” has been deployed in struggles in India and Ireland. It’s been sung by Bruce Springsteen and was recorded for his Seeger Sessions; Seeger, now in his ’90s, is still singing it. Though I’d say it’s time for someone from the youngest generation of American singers, songwriters and activists to adopt and adapt it, and lead the singalong. “We Shall Overcome” needn’t be consigned to folk’s moldy or buttoned-up past; rather, it’s protest gold, a song that hasn’t lost its value for over 50 years and counting. If it seems strange, update it. If it seems square, give it a beat. But traditional songs need to get sung and sung loud, as if your life depended on them because in fact there are people whose do: Overseas wars cost not only money but lives; poverty is killing people here at home. Workplace and housing discrimination, poor schools, environmental degradation, job disintegration—these are just some of the grievances that will end up in songs as the movement keeps moving on.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew what music could bring to a non-violent protest effort: he asked gospel great Mahalia Jackson to accompany him and Harry Belafonte to help organize his efforts. Belafonte’s life is a demonstration of just how important a role a singer can play in effecting change as well as how education in the arts can save young lives Nina Simone; Curtis Mayfield; Bob Marley; Peter, Paul and Mary; Sam Cooke; and many, many more singers and musicians contributed to positive social change and quite possibly political change with their music. You may laugh at this notion of change, but people from all walks of life, all genders, all religious backgrounds, colors and sexual orientation, here and elsewhere in the world, are standing up to the indignities served up to their communities.

So here’s to you, activists and musicians: To Michael Franti, Pete Seeger, Tom Morello, Talib Kweli, Boots Riley, Ozomatli and Ben Harper:  Every movement, from abolition to women’s suffrage to labor and civil rights has its songs, and this moment in time has its songs too. Thank you—to the singers and your songs—songs that one night might be the only thing between the darkness, cold, tear gas and rubber bullets raining on someone’s soul. Thank you for singing, so that we shall all overcome, someday.

Origin of Song columnist Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip-Hop.

Filed under: anti-war, Hip Hop, income disparity, Occupy Wall Street, Origin of Song, Protest Songs, Songs for the Occupation

The Rock’n’Soul of Jesus

In 1969, Norman Greenbaum had a worldwide hit and US number three with “Spirit in the Sky.” Greenbaum sold over two millions copies of the single in which he claimed he had a “friend in Jesus,” never mind that he was Jewish. “Spirit in the Sky” was not the first or the last time Jesus hit the charts, but its success marked the unofficial beginning of a Jesus movement in and outside of rock that impacted the popular arts, from Broadway to Bob Dylan, in the ‘70s.

Partly a reaction to the hippie culture and also a part of it, the Jesus people, or Jesus freaks, as they were proudly known within their movement, generally sought to return Christianity to its origins. The seeds of today’s Christian right as well as its progressive left-wing were both sown in the loosely established communities/communes, and in some cases cults, which sought to throw off religious strictures as well as its staid music. Ironically, the so-called devil’s music conservatives railed against in the beginning is massively marketed today as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), a major tool to keep young people interested in faith, but that isn’t the subject of this post. Rather, for Good Friday and Easter Weekend, I give you songs sung by generally secular rockers who went sacred at the height of the Jesus music movement of the ’70s, a 10-year period bookended by “Spirit in the Sky” and “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the last time Dylan had a hit single—#24 in 1979).

In 1966, John Lennon joked the Beatles were bigger than Jesus and caught hell for it, though by the time he invoked Christ’s name and sang of his own crucifixion in 1969’s “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, all was forgiven and only a few outlets banned it as sacrilegious. By the end of the year, the Beatles were all but said and done, and it was the Quiet One who revealed himself to be the spiritual seeker of the group. Sporting a look that was rather Christ-like, George Harrison spent four weeks at number one in the US and five weeks at number one in the UK at the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971 with “My Sweet Lord,” the song that kicked off a kind of Jesus-mania in ’70s rock.

Speaking to his Krishna consciousness, while throwing in a couple of hallelujahs, Harrison was famously accused of copping the “doo-lang” backgrounds from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” (a song about a boy which has been known to double as a spiritual). And yet, Harrison disavowed the influence, claiming his inspiration came from “Oh Happy Day”, a top five 1969 hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers. “Oh Happy Day” grew from a Northern California gospel choir’s homemade record derived from an English hymn dating back to the 18th Century (Spiritualized revived “Oh Happy Day” in the late 20th Century). Gospel music had been rockin’ souls since at least the 18th century in the Americas, where African rhythms joined field, work, and folk songs alongside hymns from the British Isles—making way for  a form of expression that gave voice to the inner lives of the oppressed. In his book People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, author Robert Darden speaks to theological ideas and arguments toward fighting what he characterized as demonic institutions like slavery and Jim Crow law by evoking a more powerful spirit.

Here’s an example of how a song traveled in the Year of Our Lord, 1971,  a big one for Jesus’ greatest hits:  In May, Gene MacLellan’s song “Put Your Hand in the Hand”, the title song from the debut album by Canadian rock group Ocean, became a million-seller and high-charting Billboard hit (I’ve seen it listed as a number two as well as a three). The song was originally cut by “Snowbird” Anne Murray and went on to be recorded by Jesus-loving artists from Elvis Presley to Loretta Lynn. “Put Your Hand in the Hand” itself hearkens back to the first gospel song to score a number one crossover hit: “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, as done by Laurie London in 1958. Mahalia Jackson would also put the song in Billboard’s Top 100. Jackson was of course gospel’s reigning queen throughout the civil rights era, until the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, essentially dethroned her. The story of how Aretha, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and other church singers turned gospel into soul is among the greatest told tales in music history as are  the stories of the blues, a music where heaven and hell and Jesus and the devil go head to head regularly. Rock ‘n’ soul were built on gospel and blues foundation and remain inextricably intertwined, their resonances  in rock proving to be everlasting (I write about gospel, blues and soul more extensively on this site and in my book, Keep on Pushing).

The Jesus rock of Ocean did not turn out to be quite as enduring, though the Jesus music movement continued to gain momentum in the ’70s thanks to, well, Jesus and the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice album project turned hit Broadway play bearing his name. In May of 1971, songs from Jesus Christ Superstar with Ian Gillan (Deep Purple) in the role of Jesus were also making their way to the charts. Murray Head (as Judas) and his version of “Superstar” were sitting at number 20 and peaked at #14 in the US in June. Another song from the show, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, the him being Jesus, and the I being  Mary Magdalene (as sung by Yvonne Elliman) rose to #28, also in 1971.

Even the Rolling Stones got into the Jesus spirit that year:  After the darkness that marked Altamont, they traded “Sympathy for the Devil” for “when the Lord gets ready” and “You Got To Move” by Mississippi Fred McDowell (on Sticky Fingers). Here’s a clip of them in 1975 performing it with Ollie Brown and Billy Preston joining in on vocals.

In 1972, the gospel-based Staple Singers busted the crossover charts with Be Altitude, featuring the hits, “I’ll Take You There”, “Respect Yourself”, and the lesser-known “Who Do You Think You Are (Jesus Christ the Superstar)?”

In 1972, the Off-Broadway play, Godspell, scored a hit off its original cast album with “Day By Day” which went to #13 on the pop charts. Following the West End success of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 it was turned into a hit film, directed by Norman Jewison. Here’s a clip of Carl Anderson in the role of Judas, rockin’ the Jehovah out of the title song, followed by Murray’s Head’s chart hit version.

Curiously, it’s another Norman—not Jewison nor Greenbaum but Larry—who is widely considered to be the godfather of the aforementioned Christian rock. Bob Dylan followed his work, and Black Francis grew up on it. A bit of a wild card, Larry Norman is generally well-regarded as an artist, remembered as a risk-taker, an experimentalist, and an iconoclast who didn’t cotton to the status quo in rock or Christian music. Also contributing to the coalescence of contemporary Christian music was Explo ’72, a festival concert that gathered over 75,000 young Jesus people in Dallas to see Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Larry Norman, and gospel artist Andrae Crouch for a kind of “religious Woodstock,” so-called by the Reverend Billy Graham, who was in attendance. According to author Andrew Beaujon’s book Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock, Explo set in motion the beginnings of the contemporary Christian music industry. Soon after, specialty labels formed, and the contemporary Christian music market was born to boom. “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music” was Norman’s answer to conservatives, who thought rockin’ for Jesus was not in concordance with the road to salvation. Though surely as the Jesus rockers were dismissed from the inner sanctum of evangelical Christiandom, they had also impacted the sound of church hymns too: Catholic mass went “folk” in the ’70s  and some of those freshly arranged hymns remain in church repertoire today.

In 1972, Rhodes Scholar Kris Kristofferson sang “Jesus Was a Capricorn” on the album of the same title. He didn’t stay a Jesus rocker for long, though he had a definite claim in Jesus, given he was named for him—twice. “Morning Has Broken”, a Top 10 Cat Stevens hit in 1972, was based on the Gaelic hymn “Bunnesan” that’s been sung in churches as “Morning Has Broken” since at least 1930s. The Englishman of Greek origin has long since converted to Islam, first as a non-singer, now singing again. “Jesus is Just Alright” as covered by the Doobie Brothers was also a chart hit in 1972, though the Byrds had already recorded the Art Reynolds song in 1969.

Though by far, the biggest news in Jesus rock of  the ’70s was  Bob Dylan’s conversion to Christianity. Before developing his own distinct song style in the mid-‘60s, his lyrics vigorously opposed to injustice, Dylan had started out his career adapting old spirituals for his own form of protest song. By the mid-‘70s his Rolling Thunder Revue was as devoted to seeking justice for falsely accused prisoner Ruben “Hurricane” Carter as it was to the freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Following that harrowing passage, Dylan, in characteristic retreat mode, embraced Christianity. Born again, he cut two gospel albums, 1979’s Slow Train Coming and Saved (1980produced by self-proclaimed Jewish atheist Jerry Wexler.  “Gotta Serve Somebody” from Slow Train Coming won the Best Male Rock Vocal Grammy and has since been covered by gospel artist Shirley Caesar,

blueswoman Etta James, Neville brother Aaron, Texas troubadour Willie Nelson, marvelous Mavis Staples, and Hammond B-3 giant Booker T. with the M.G.’s. while John Lennon (“Serve Yourself”), and Devo (undercover as a Christian rock act, Dove) famously parodied it. At the time of recording, Dylan was pilloried:  His 14-night stand at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater in 1979 featured nightly picketers stationed outside the theater. The reviews were radically divided. On 1981’s Shot of Love, Dylan answered some of his critics on songs which mixed secular and sacred and yielded at least one of his most enduring spiritual works, “Every Grain of Sand.”

In part owed to the controversy inspired by Bob Dylan’s gospel period, some believers choose to keep distinctly sacred references to Jesus out of their songs while others use his name as an invocation. Dylan faithful Patti Smith famously opened her rendition of “Gloria” with the line, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”; she titled a song and an album “Easter”, while “Ghost Dance” features the holy incantation, “we shall live again.” Her friend and collaborator Robert Mapplethorpe’s Catholicism left its fingerprint on her; she continues to be inspired by poet and artist William Blake whose portraits of the divine move beyond confines of religious dogma.

Punk and alternative rock depictions of Jesus are not unheard of: Joey Ramone sang “I’m Not Jesus”, and Jesus rode beside Paul Westerberg in “Can’t Hardly Wait”, while a rather unholy trinity of bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jesus Lizard, and Jesus Jones all named themselves after the big man. Flaming Lips, Ministry, and Spacemen 3 have got their Jesus songs too; they are but a small sample of alterna-Jesus references. Indie rock has its share of artists like Pedro the Lion and Sufjan Stevens whose Jesus-inspired work stays more on the downlow, like that of U2, Bruce Cockburn, Moby, Midnight Oil, Polyphonic Spree, and Lambchop: All make allusions to JC and Christianity while enjoying success in the secular world. In rap, the Lord’s name is occasionally given a shout-out, but none took on Jesus better than Kanye West whose 2004 single, “Jesus Walks” dared to speak of the very subject we’re talking about: With the Jesus movement in rock long in decline, to sing about him was often considered the equivalent of career suicide, yet West’s success was an exception. “Jesus Walks” peaked at  #11 Pop and #2 R&B, sold over half a million copies, and was certified gold.

In 2008, the gospel songs of Dylan were compiled by the music’s greatest stars on Gotta Serve Somebody. The career of gospel songstress Mavis Staples has achieved a full-blown rock revival following her contemporary albums produced by Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy. Southern California roots band Dead Rock West  revived the Staples classic, “This May Be the Last Time” (the song the Rolling Stones borrowed for  “The Last Time”), alongside works by Blind Willie Johnson and the Jesus and Mary Chain on their gospel-inspired collection Bright Morning Stars. Though the charts may never again see the high number of Jesus jams the ‘70s saw, if you’ve got the time to seek, you’ll find plenty more from where these came.

I chose to end with this clip from Gotta Serve Somebody, The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan because it features writer Paul Williams, speaking to Dylan’s Christian period.

A version of this piece originally ran in my Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song.

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Gospel, Origin of Song, , , , , , ,

Naïve Melody

Back in the ‘80s, I’d often drive by a billboard that read, “If you lived here you’d be home by now.” I liked the sound of that, even though the sign was used to sell on-ramp-adjacent condos near a high-density traffic patch on a freeway commuter route. You have to figure the campaign was conceived by a Don Draper-styled (m)ad man (or more likely his underpaid female assistant), though whoever came up with it knew about creating the essential connection between consumer goods and comfort: It’s what we human creatures crave, and if cash can buy it, it’s hard for the body to resist. Which I guess is why I like the line, “Home is where I want to be / But I guess I’m already there,” from Talking Heads’ song, “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody).”  It’s one of their atypically earnest love songs; the melody is simple and the groove flows in unity with the words. “This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” isn’t cluttered with Talking Heads-style nervous energy or ticks; rhythmically it’s in the pocket, and the whole jam is comforting and warm—two words I generally don’t associate with their music. Best of all, this “home” isn’t asking you to buy it; you can live there as long as you like. It might just be the best song they ever made.

“This Must Be the Place” earned its parenthetical “naïve melody” for the way it was recorded: The band used instruments that were otherwise not assigned to them. Tina Weymouth traded her bass for Jerry Harrison’s guitar, who in turn cradled the bass; David Byrne plays the keyboards. Special guest Wally Badarou sits in on keys, and downtown performance artist/percussionist David Van Tiegham bangs on bottles and other items. Placed as the last track on Speaking in Tongues, the album would become the band’s first million seller, and might’ve been overlooked were it not released as a single following “Burning Down the House.” It was further enshrined in the band’s mythology when they performed it on the Stop Making Sense tour. Preserved on film by director Jonathan Demme  the Stop Making Sense performances (widely considered to be a  masterpiece of the concert movie genre) marked a unique time in the band’s history: Working in an expanded lineup and at the height of their creative and live powers, the circumstances at home in the band were less than harmonious. Tensions were highest between Weymouth and Byrne, though it didn’t dim the dance that takes place between him, the band, and a lamp in the live show. The studio track has enjoyed many further subsequent celluloid uses, perhaps most notably in both Wall Street films, though it’s funny that the Talking Heads most unironic song is used with a twist: “Never for money, always for love,” as the line says.

Since its recording in 1986, the song remains one of the most-covered of all Talking Heads tunes—it may in fact be one of the most done songs by an alternative band from the mid-‘80s, period. Versions of interest include those by MGMT, Animal Liberation Orchestra, and the String Cheese Incident. Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin was performing it and turned in a meek version on Cover Girl back in 1994. The Arcade Fire really got the contemporary revival of the song going somewhere in the middle of last decade when they too started performing it live; they released a version of it recorded at Irving Plaza in New York with David Byrne as the b-side to their 2005 single, “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out).” TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone paid homage to the song, bearing out Talking Heads’ status as the ultimate touchstone for East Coast art-rock stylists. But here’s the real test: How many ‘80s classics can survive a kid’s chorus? Talking Heads and these kids at New York City’s PS 22 pass the test.

“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)”” was the cozy final track on Speaking in Tongues which made way for the Little Creatures album, an even warmer, some might say folksier, version of the Talking Heads. With cover art by primitive painter Howard Finster, the Talking Heads expanded on their urbane landscapes and reached into the Americana tool kit of twang; they told tales of newborn babies for their now older audience who they helped educate, listeners who may’ve come up hard and punk, but who now weren’t averse to a little slide guitar in the mix. But while the Talking Heads had finally arrived at the top, the bottom was officially falling out of the band and within a couple of years, the split was official.

Upon nearly finishing my research into the origin of this song, I consulted David Bowman’s book titled This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of Talking Heads in the Twentieth Century to see if I could find any further clues and insights into their most enduring track. He writes, “The notes wrap themselves in each line like a perfect piece of sushi.” How totally ‘80s to drag sushi into the mix, though I kept reading and found this: “The notes are like taking a different freeway home and enjoying the view so much you don’t care whether the trip was longer or shorter than your regular route.” Exactly. Evoking a spirit similar to the one I feel when I think of the song and that “If you lived here you’d be home by now” billboard, there is no doubt Talking Heads hit home on the head:  “I guess this must be the place.”

Portions of this piece appeared in in the author’s Crawdaddy! column, The Origin of Song

Filed under: Origin of Song, , , ,

Lives and loves: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

“He wrote me a note to say we would make art together, and we would make it with or without the rest of the world,” writes Patti Smith of Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, her memoir of their lives and great love. Concerning their time as young artists discovering New York City and themselves in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, not only would both of them make art together, they would eventually become nothing short of internationally recognized, particularly among artists, freethinkers, and members of their blank generation. But while Mapplethorpe’s life was cut short by AIDS in 1989, Smith lived on to keep the fire of rock’s poetic origins alight, Mapplethorpe’s influence on her inseparable from the origin of inspiration in her art and life.  Without his prodding—his love—it’s quite possible that an entirely different Patti Smith than the one we know would have emerged. In Just Kids, Smith reveals Mapplethorpe’s commitment to art, his companionship, and his collaboration in the years leading up to her debut album Horses was invaluable to its creation: Not only did he capture the image of the poet/rock star-to-be on its cover, but it was he who first encouraged her to sing.

Produced (reportedly with some difficulty) by John Cale and performed by the Patti Smith Group (with songs written mostly by Smith and co-writers Tom Verlaine, Allen Lanier, and members of her group, specifically Lenny Kaye), Horses launched at least a hundred punk bands, if not a generation of kids with punk attitude, and it remains fully alive today. Infused with the spirit of Smith’s dead poet/rock ‘n’ roll heroes—particularly Arthur Rimbaud, the libertine poet whose spirit she’s kept moving through rock ‘n’ roll—the first word of the first song is “Jesus,” as Smith cleverly fuses her own invocation to Van Morrison, proclaiming rock ‘n’ roll “Gloria: In Excelsis Deo.” Whether intertwined with the Catholicism of Mapplethorpe’s youth or with Rimbaud’s travels to Ethiopia and his relationship to Rastafari, Smith made bold statements, particularly for a young woman who claimed to be shy by nature; she summoned the spirits of two men named James (Hendrix and Morrison) with three Bobs (Marley, Dylan, and Neuwirth) or four if you count Mapplethorpe, and her own strong desire to merge poetry with performing rock ‘n’ roll.

“I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this… yet, I harbored that conceit,” she writes in Just Kids. Her connection with Hendrix was slightly more intimate: She was invited to the opening of his recording studio, Electric Lady. “I was excited to go. I put on my straw hat and walked downtown, but when I got there, I couldn’t bring myself to go in,” she writes. “By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned.” He talked to Patti, revealing that he didn’t like parties either. “He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play… Eventually, they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio. ‘The language of peace. You dig?’ I did.” And then he was off, to catch a plane to England, from which he never returned. Smith read the news of his death about a month later while on a trip to Paris—on one of her rare respites from her gigs as a bookstore clerk/rough living artist/caretaker of Robert.

In New York, she happened to meet singer-songwriter and painter Bob Neuwirth in a coffee shop (she recognized him from the Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back), and becomes just a little more inspired to try her hand at turning her poems into songs. “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,’ he said as we exited the bar,” she writes. But when she reports to Mapplethorpe of meeting Neuwirth, the photographer snaps back, “Maybe he’ll be the one to get you to sing, but always remember who wanted you to sing first.” Mapplethorpe doesn’t approve of Smith’s Marley-inspired pot smoking either, but the pair go on to spark up some sacred herb together, in the name of enhancing creativity.

Trying on her voice, reading her poetry aloud, Smith dove into performance mostly without Robert’s help, as he was moving deeper into the world of street hustling (this time it’s Patti who is disapproving). She reads for unappreciative fans of the New York Dolls and gets heckled by drunks before finding her sea legs and accompanists—first guitarist Lenny Kaye, and then Richard Sohl on piano. But when it’s time to record a single, it’s Robert who pays for the studio time at Electric Lady. For the recording, they choose “Hey Joe”, a song made famous by Hendrix. While Jimi closed his set at Woodstock with it, Smith and co. use it to usher in the era of the punk rock seven-inch. Recording at Jimi’s place, “I felt a real sense of duty,” she told the Observer in 2005. “I was very conscious that I was getting to do something that he didn’t.” Though Horses’ de facto title track “Land” was famously inspired by William Burroughs’ The Wild Boys, the lesser-acknowledged last third—“La Mer (de)”—makes reference to Jimi (“In the sheets there was a man”), as well as Rimbaud. “Elegie”, the final song on Horses, is also for Hendrix: It was recorded on September 18th, the anniversary of his death. “I think it’s sad, just too bad, that all our friends can’t be with us today,” she wrote, the words closely echoing those from Jimi’s “Well, it’s too bad that our friends can’t be with us today,” from  “1983… (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” from Electric Ladyland. As for fellow inspirer and rock star ghost Jim Morrison, “Break It Up” was based on a dream Smith had about him covered in plaster—like a statue.

Patti Smith - HorsesThe making of Smith’s own image as a rock star poet was yet another Mapplethorpe collaboration. “You should take your own photographs,” she once told him, and eventually he turned his attention away from jewelry, objects, and installations and towards photography. For the Horses cover Mapplethorpe knew exactly what he wanted, and so did Smith: “I flung the jacket over my shoulder, Frank Sinatra style; I was full of references,” she writes. Though still developing as a photographer, Mapplethorpe was clear that he would work only in shades of black and white. Illuminated only by natural light, he got the image of Patti in 12 shots.

“Patti, you got famous before me,” said Mapplethrope in 1978 as he and Smith walked the streets of Greenwich Village. “Because the Night”, the song Smith wrote with Bruce Springsteen, blared from a series of storefront radios, “fulfilling Robert’s dream that I would one day have a hit record,” Smith writes. The song rose to lucky 13 on the pop charts, but Smith was burning out on the biz before she’d barely gotten stared in it. Following the recording of the album Wave, produced by her friend Todd Rundgren and again cover photographed by Mapplethorpe, she retreated from New York and rock to live as a wife and mother in Detroit, where her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5, hailed. But the hiatus didn’t really take, and by 1986, she was ready to make a comeback. With the encouragement of her husband, she called her old friend Robert to see if he would shoot a portrait for the album, Dream of Life; Mapplethorpe, who had become a major art star in the interim, took the photo of Patti as a 40th birthday gift. But the reunion between artists was fated to be brief, and the sessions that took place yielded some of his final photos.

Mapplethorpe’s patron and partner Sam Wagstaff succumbed to AIDS during the making of the album (Smith and Smith recorded “Paths That Cross” in Wagstaff’s memory). She had sung “The Jackson Song” (for the Smiths’ son) in which Mapplethorpe is also referenced (“little blue star that offers light”) to Wagstaff as a lullaby in his final days. Recording for Dream of Life continued, and she wrote “Wild Leaves” for Robert on the occasion of his 41st birthday. Somewhere in this mix, Smith and Smith also penned an enduring protest anthem, “People Have the Power”—the kind of song people sing when they need to raise a little spirit to keep on keeping on. Dream of Life was finally released in June of 1988, 10 years after the success of “Because the Night.” Mapplethorpe died in March of 1989, and Smith wrote “Memorial Tribute” (“little emerald soul, little emerald eye”) for him (it appears on the 1993 No Alternative AIDS awareness compilation).

In 1994, Fred “Sonic” Smith died, followed by the death of Patti Smith’s brother Todd and her bandmate Richard Sohl. Soon to turn 50, she returned to Electric Lady for the recording of the 1996 album Gone Again, a tribute to her dead friends and loved ones. Kurt Cobain was mourned (“About a Boy”) and soon to be gone Jeff Buckley sang on “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a song that survives as part of the Patti Smith Group’s concert repertoire. Following an eight year gap after Dream of LifeGone Again, recorded in Fred’s memory, proved to be Smith’s real comeback. Now without Fred or Robert, she was supported as ever by guitarist Lenny Kaye and by new friend Oliver Ray, a young poet and guitarist who joined her band and photographed her. Michael Stipe (who had been inspired to become an artist himself upon hearing Horses) was also on board as a road friend when Bob Dylan invited her to tour with him. Back on the swing shift as a musician, there was no time to write the book she promised Robert on the day before he died that she would one day write.

In 2010, 35 years after its debut,  Horses was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress, archived for posterity alongside sonic artifacts by Little Richard, Willie Nelson, and Ethel Merman. That same year, Just Kids won the National Book Award. Moved to tears as she accepted the honor, Smith recalled what it was like to work as a bookstore clerk, dreaming of what it might feel like to author a book with the award-winning seal one day. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said by way of acceptance. For the reader, Just Kids is the kind of book that serves not only as a history of a bygone age or a how-to as an artist, but as inspirational literature. It is a reminder that we are all members of the human family and artists of the everyday. If we are lucky, we have friends, relatives, and inspirers, our own set of losses, and our own unique memories, as well as a collective conscience from which we draw. There are dreams to be accessed and visions to fulfill, all day, everyday, whether through words, music, pictures, or the creation of an artful life. As Allen Ginsberg told Patti upon the occasion of the death of Fred “Sonic” Smith:  “Let go of the spirit of the departed and continue your life’s celebration.”

While Mapplethorpe depicted dark against light—and vice versa, his increasingly sexually explicit images landed him in much hot water. But there is something innocent in his early photograph of Smith that portends more about the new wave of rocker than words could have ever described at the time: Smith is an original and reverent, androgynous yet vulnerable, regular but inscrutable. Mapplethorpe’s true image of her on Horses ripples through the contemporary persona who conducted the interviews for Just Kids: Patti Smith in black and white has her humble and “bravada” sides; the disheveled waif converges with the mensch in designer clothes. Open but reserved, she is a wizened poet who’s still girlish, gangly, and awkward—and still very much in love with art and life.

 

Filed under: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Origin of Song, Poetry, Punk, Reggae, , , , , , ,

Tweet Tweet

Recent Posts

Browse by subject or theme