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.

Music for a Friday

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Credit: Mountain Stage)

I tend to like my music the way I like my coffee: strong, hot, and pretty dark. Maybe that explains my love of the murder ballad.

Murder ballads as we know them are a part of an ancient European ballad tradition that predates both the printing press and standard musical notation. Colonial settlers brought the English versions of many these with them when they came to these shores. Preserved in the isolated hills and hollows of the southern Appalachians, they quickly became embedded in the American folk music tradition.

This is such a deeply rooted form in traditional music that the publication Sing Out! had a regular blog feature called Murder Ballad Monday at their website, which they described as “Reflections on the tougher side of old, weird America … (and the British Isles.)”

Murder Ballad Monday reflects on music and mortality. We explore the murder ballad tradition of folk and popular music, with a deliberately broad definition of the genre. We pursue conversation on the power of music to create meaning and beauty in response to the toughest of times.

Murder ballads share some common characteristics. They tend to claim to tell the tale of a true crime and its consequences, identify both victim and killer, describe the motive and how the deed was done, and often end with the killer in prison or on the way to the gallows. And yes, these are almost always tales of women being victimized by scorned, jealous, or simply rapacious men. Sometimes they conclude with a morality lesson in which the listener is entreated not to go down the killer’s path.

Most, like Pretty Polly, relate the story through the eyes of the victim, though some from the perspective of her killer. Occasionally these examples are sympathetic to him, like Tom Dooley or Sam Hall. Others, like Banks of the Ohio, not so much:

I asked my love to take a walk
Just a walk a little way
And as we walk, oh, may we talk
All about our wedding day 

   Only say that you’ll be mine
   In our home we’ll happy be
   Down beside where the waters flow
   On the banks of the Ohio 

I held a knife against her breast
As into my arms she pressed
She said Willie, don’t you murder me
I’m unprepared for eternity 

I took her by her lily white hand
And dragged her down that bank of sand
There I throwed her in to drown
I watched her as she floated down 

Was walking home tween twelve and one
Thinkin’ of what I had done
I killed a girl, my love you see
Because she would not marry me

Seldom does the woman get the last word in these stories. A notable exception is the modern murder ballad Caleb Meyer, written by Gillian Welch and appearing on her 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. In a long Murder Ballad Monday post about the song at Sing Out!, Ken Bigger writes:

Some people call “Caleb Meyer” a murder ballad. We will too. I’ve also seen people call it a “manslaughter ballad,” perhaps because they are overly persnickety about legal definitions. I’ve been there. As a species of murder ballad, though, I’m inclined to call “Caleb Meyer” a “survivor’s ballad.” 

In short, it’s a murder ballad with a twist in which the victim not only survives, but gets the best of her would be assailant, and does so in a very satisfying and true-to-the-genre way. It’s one of my favorite songs.

You can watch Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings perform it live in the video below.

Music for a Friday

The Fall River disaster of 1874, as depicted in Harper’s. (Credit: ATHM)

For the past week I’ve been driving by the gates of our local General Motors assembly plant on my way to work in the morning, honking my horn to signal solidarity with the striking UAW workers walking the picket line.

Organized labor has taken a beating in this country over the last few decades. I suppose folks have forgotten the abuse and exploitation of workers that made unionizing necessary.

The lyrics of The Granite Mills, a haunting song which I first heard some 25 years ago on a recording by the punk-influenced Amherst, MA folk band Cordelia’s Dad, are a reminder of why we have a labor movement in this country:

In this vain world of trouble,
many accidents occur.
I’m going to sing about one,
as sad as you ever heard.
It was in Fall River city.
They were all burned up and killed,
imprisoned in the factory
known as the Granite Mills.

The origin of the song is a bit of an historical mystery. The Granite Mills tells the story of a disastrous 1874 mill fire in Fall River, MA. Yesterday, Sept. 19, was the 145th anniversary of the catastrophe. A contemporary news account (the original source has been lost) described the incident this way:

FIRE AND GREAT LOSS OF LIFE! DESTRUCTION OF GRANITE MILL NO. ONE! 

A TERRIBLE CALAMITY!

This morning, a little before 7 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded from boxes 72 and 74, and it was soon found that Granite Mill No.1 was on fire in the central part – the spooling room in the fifth story. The fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the friction of one of the mules. It spread so rapidly that the help were immediately bewildered and panic stricken, and could not avail themselves of the fire escape, which was ample to save all. The room was instantly filled with smoke, and the help huddled into the south end where the flames had not come.

Men, women, and children rushed to the windows gasping for air, pushed their arms through the glass and screamed for help. Some in their desperation broke through the glass and frames, and pitched themselves headfirst to the ground, where they were killed instantly or shattered in a terrible way. The sight to the spectators was sickening in the extreme. The screams of the injured and the groans of the dying with the roar and crackle of the flames made a scene of horror which was terrible to every beholder. 

The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery. A version appears in a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Nova Scotia published in 1932, but it puts the scene of the fire in New York rather than Massachusetts. It’s unclear where the lyrics of the Cordelia’s Dad’s version came from (you can check them out here), perhaps the band’s own an adaptation of some of the other examples. For those of you with an interest in traditional music and ballads, The Mudcat Cafe, where I found this background information, is a fantastic resource.

I’ve been singing this song for a long time, almost since I first heard it. My hunch is that the tune was written for the lyrics by Tim Eriksen, the lead singer of Cordelia’s Dad, but that’s just a guess. Sometimes I try to accompany myself on the mountain dulcimer. This morning I picked up my old 1890s-era banjo and tried that for the first time while I ran through the lyrics. I was pretty pleased with how it went.

Click on the video below to see and hear the band perform The Granite Mills at their 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, way back in 2007.