Music for a Friday — ‘Gunfighter Ballads’

Boy do we need a diversion right now. At this rate October is going to last until 2022. From the debacle that was the first presidential debate to the revelation that the president has contracted COVID-19, we’re off to a helluva start.

So let’s change the mood and talk about one of the great albums of all time, Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Released by Columbia Records in September 1959, the album was recorded in a single eight-hour session earlier that year.

In an appreciation over at the website Medium, Brian Braunlich writes:

It’s truly odd listening to an album like Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs in the midst of the Corona crisis. The tunes are not hopeful or optimistic for the most part, but the feeling of listening to these warm campfire tunes is nostalgic for a more hopeful time, when the villains were simple (and human), the stories easy to follow, the problems invented or retold and not lived. It’s … kind of comforting.

“El Paso” on this record is evidently the first Country song to win a Grammy, and it’s well deserved. A beautifully tragic story filling its space with rich details of Rose’s Cantina, the beautiful Fellina’s eyes, the slow fade of death. It soars, a perfect classic country song.

Robbins as a songwriter is responsible for the real gems here — “El Paso,” but also “Big Iron,” which kicks the album off on a strong note. “The Master’s Call” later is another strong contribution. But the remainder of the more traditional country ballads or tunes here are well presented by Robbins and his band.

While I was familiar with some of the songs, “El Paso” in particular, I only recently became acquainted with the full album, picking up a vinyl copy at the urging of my college-senior son who has long been a fan. In fact, the first time I heard “Big Iron” was during a jam session in my living room, performed by that same son. He also does some mean Johnny Cash stuff, but that’s a story for another post.

It’s a classic album for a reason. Pick up a copy if you can, and for the full impact, make it vinyl. Check out this really good video from Esoteric Internet, giving the story behind the album and, in particular, the archetypal gunfighter song, “Big Iron.”

And here’s the song itself.

Music for a Friday: A song of emigration

An immigrant family on the dock, Ellis Island, 1925. (Credit: Getty Images)

In January 1988 The Pogues released If I Should Fall from Grace with God, their third studio album and what would end up being their best-selling. The first single off that album, “Fairytale of New York,” may be the best known, and while it has become iconic, to my mind it’s not the best song on the record. That honor goes to the subject of this post.

“Thousands are Sailing” is a beautiful song of loss, longing, bitterness, joy, and hope. In short, in two 16-line verses and three varied choruses, the song captures the experience of emigration like few others.

While the specifics reference the 20th century Irish experience, the sentiments, I suspect, are universal to those who have come to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Guitarist Phil Chevron’s lyrics take us from the days of 19th century “coffin ships,” where as many as 30 percent of those set sail from Ireland to America died in transit, to Ellis Island, and then the 1980s when the “open door” policy is replaced with a system of immigration quotas and lotteries which forced many Irish to come illegally and live their lives in the shadows. The first chorus paints a picture of both the perils and the promise of a new world:

Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of them will never see
Fortune prevailing
Across the western ocean
Their bellies full
Their spirits free
They’ll break the chains of poverty
And they’ll dance

It’s a brilliant song that will stay with you long after it’s over. You can listen to it here.

Music for a Friday

The late Ted Hawkins, who died in 1994.

Damn, what a week this has been.

The Senate cravenly kowtowed and bootlicked its way to impeachment’s inevitable end. Rush Limbaugh received the same honor previously bestowed on Norman Rockwell, Rosa Parks, and Maya Angelou. The president used the occasion of the National Prayer Breakfast to reject the teaching of Jesus that we love one another and vent his spleen at his political foes. Kirk Douglas died. And Iowa, as a friend poetically put it in a social media post, “left a brown puddle in the middle of the mattress.”

I mean, let’s be honest, if the highlight of the week is the courage of Mitt Romney, you know it’s been a rough one. Frankly, I feel more than a little sick. And this song “Sorry You’re Sick,” by the late Ted Hawkins, has got the cure. The first verse sets the scene, but the chorus!

Good morning, my darling, I’m telling you this, to let you know that I’m sorry you’re sick
Though tears of sorrow won’t do you no good, I’d be your doctor if only I could.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I’ll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won’t suffer no more.

Hawkins was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, eventually playing to huge crowds overseas in the late 1980s. But with setbacks and disappointments here in the states, he turned to busking on the sands of California’s Venice Beach. Bill Dahl tells the story:

Hawkins existence was no day in the park. Born into abject poverty in Mississippi an abused and illiterate child, Hawkins was sent to reform school when he was 12 years old. He encountered his first musical inspiration there, from New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair, whose visit to the school moved the lad to perform in a talent show. But it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. At age 15, he stole a leather jacket and spent three years at Mississippi’s infamous state penitentiary, Parchman Farm. 

Roaming from Chicago to Philadelphia to Buffalo after his release, Hawkins left the frigid weather behind in 1966, purchasing a one-way ticket to L.A. Suddenly, music beckoned; he bought a guitar and set out to locate the ex-manager of Sam Cooke (one of his idols). No such luck, but he did manage to cut his debut 45, the soul-steeped “Baby”/”Whole Lot of Women,” for Money Records. When he learned no royalties were forthcoming from its sales, Hawkins despaired of ever making a living at his music and took to playing on the streets. 

Fortunately, producer Bruce Bromberg was interested in Hawkins’ welfare, recording his delightfully original material in 1971, both with guitarist Phillip Walker’s band (“Sweet Baby” was issued as a single on the Joliet label), and in a solo acoustic format (with Ted’s wife Elizabeth occasionally adding harmonies). The producer lost touch with Hawkins for a while after recording him, Hawkins falling afoul of the law once again. In 1982, those tapes finally emerged on Rounder as Watch Your Step, and Hawkins began to receive some acclaim (Rolling Stone gave it a five-star review). Bromberg corralled him again for the 1986 encore album Happy Hour, which contained the touching “Cold & Bitter Tears.” 

At the behest of a British deejay, Hawkins moved to England in 1986 and was treated like a star for four years, performing in Great Britain, Ireland, France, and even Japan. But when he came home, he was faced with the same old situation. Once again, he set up his tip jar on the beach, donned the black leather glove he wore on his fretting hand, and played for passersby.

“Sorry You’re Sick” comes from that first major release on Rounder, and is a joy to listen to. It is the perfect treatment for this bad week, and every bad week. Give it a listen.

Music for a Friday

R.E.M. 1985 (Credit: Edward Colver)

A college campus in the early 1980s was an interesting time to become aware of “pop” music. To clarify, I knew it existed, I just didn’t listen to any until I got to college in 1982.

The musical environment of the home I grew up in was heavy on classical, leavened with Broadway cast albums and a bit of jazz. The musical environment of the community where we lived was saturated in what we now call “classic country” and bluegrass, neither of which I had an appreciation for at the time.

Sure, the sounds of mainstream FM radio were all around, but I had what I considered a healthy and justified disdain for all that. (As I wrote here, I came to an appreciation of Bruce Springsteen much later). But college, and college radio, was ear-opening.

Friends in my dormitory introduced me to metal pioneers Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin but also the so-called “New Wave of British Metal” from Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Saxon, and the like. Other friends were my gateway to punk: The Clash, Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Stiff Little Fingers.

MTV, which had debuted less than a year earlier, was a constant presence on the television in my dorm’s common room. (Yes kids, back in my day the only television in the dorm was in the common room. Deciding what to watch was an exercise in diplomacy and compromise.)

Our little college radio station, WLVR, opened up even broader musical horizons. By our senior year, a buddy and I were hosting a drive-time Friday morning show. Our musical choices were … eccentric.

R.E.M. is one of the bands that hit my consciousness back then like a thunderclap and has stuck with me ever since. And while there’s no end of songs I could single out in this space, I want to point to one, Driver 8, which captures for me nearly everything I love about the band, especially in its early years.

Driver 8 was the second single off the band’s third album, Fables of the Reconstruction, released in September 1985. In a long appreciation of the song posted at PopMatters, Robert Loss writes:

What if the song’s dream is about mobility? Freedom not as an ideal, but as the tangible freedom to move about, which might also mean the ability to participate, to argue, to be heard, to vote? Someone living in cities, plugged into the circuitry of the American Wow, might scoff at the uniqueness of this, but if you live somewhere else—a small town in the South, or anywhere remote; a dusty town in Kansas or a snowbound Montana mountainside village—it might be a breathtaking idea. So breathtaking that when the opportunity arises, you jump at the chance.

That’s how the song starts: a headlong jump forward, springing from one of Peter Buck‘s signature guitar melodies. The riff begins with a heavy downbeat, then races ahead, climbing, stumbling into syncopation, and just when it seems to have reached its zenith, it reaches a little higher before tumbling, and beginning all over again. The entire song has that impulsive feel, light and fleet, shuffling along on Bill Berry‘s simple backbeat and Buck’s arpeggiation, barely weighted by Mike Mills’ punctuated bass lines and the melancholy in Stipe’s voice. 

Like so many of R.E.M.’s songs, from “Chronic Town” through “Document”, including the album this song originally appeared on in 1985, Fables of the Reconstruction, “Driver 8” entwines words within the whole of the song. Stipe’s vocals barely stand out above the guitars and his delivery is almost off-hand, as if you just happened to catch him singing. It’s not that the words’ meanings don’t matter, but if you’re looking for a clear story, you won’t find one. You’ll catch images and hear flashes of dialogue instead, and sometimes even those are willing to risk coherency, for example, “He piloted this song in a plane like that one”. We hear this for the pleasure of the sound, for the emotion and beauty of the sum. …

“Driver 8” suggests a story more than it tells one, and it’s probably more correct to say that it suggests many stories. The people who live them in the song speak quickly, or someone speaks for them, about them, or they say the same thing over and over—the conductor’s words to the driver, which you can hear growing more insistent—and some don’t speak at all. (What does the woman “selling faith on the Go Tell Crusade” have to say about herself? Would she call it “selling faith”?) They’re a loosely defined community, which is to say, a nation, bound together by what can seem like not much at all, but bound together nonetheless. 

I actually included the official video release at the end of a post I wrote back in the spring of 2017, having been exhausted by the first three weeks of the then new Trump administration. I needed it as a mental break from what was then and has remained a virtually nonstop barrage of norm-breaking assaults on both democracy and basic human decency.

So here we are, almost three years later, and I still need this song. Driver 8, recorded live at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, in June 1984.