soundstreamsunday: “Stop Breaking Down” by the Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones-Exile on Main Street 1“Unlikely” is probably the right word, that the hairiest, grittiest, straight-uppenest American rock record of the 1970s, maybe ever, would be made by an English band in tax exile in the south of France lolling in sheer European decadence. That the Rolling Stones attained such a state of grace is only partly surprising, though, given the sheer will of their progress to the point of Exile on Main Street: with Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers the writing was on the wall, but it was this double album that sealed their legend, where the channeling was complete, where without seams the Deep South blackness poured through their pasty, pale, drug-addled limey fingers in drums and basses and guitars and voxes and keys and horns. They hadn’t just gone to the crossroads, they’d set up the tent years before and waited it out, for the spirit to finally visit them. “Satisfaction”? “Get Off My Cloud”? Even “Honky Tonk Women,” with its perfect guitar? Those were killing time, chop builders, and the work they’ve done since has had high points too but has never been more than the downhill coast. Exile’s the big meet up, a meticulously made album with no contrivance, a blues turned over with a rock shovel, originals mixing with covers with barely a hint of borderline, as if this is their music as much as it is yours or mine or Robert Johnson’s. And it’s here that they cover one of Johnson’s more unusual songs, less a blues than a prophet’s vision of the rock and roll to come.  The Stones had already covered Johnson on record by the time of Exile — the down tempo “Love in Vain” was featured on Let It Bleed — but the rock and roll suggested in “Stop Breaking Down” is wrung from the song by the Stones, matching the strut of the lyric, “Every time I’m walking down the street….”

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soundstreamsunday: “Traveling Riverside Blues” by Robert Johnson

Robert-Johnson-photoOn the heels of Benny Goodman’s concert at Carnegie Hall in January 1938, promoter/producer John Hammond (Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Ray Vaughan…unbelievable) conceived of a concert that would further acknowledge the debt American music owed its roots, within the hallowed walls of the Hall. Race relations being what they were, so risky was Hammond’s venture that it took the American Communist Party to finance the show. “From Spirituals to Swing” showcased, along again with Goodman and Basie, blues and boogie artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Big Joe Turner, Helen Humes, James P. Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. Absent, although invited by Hammond, was Robert Johnson, an obscure Delta blues guitarist and singer who had been getting some buzz via a minor regional hit called “Terraplane Blues.” Hammond came to learn that Johnson had been murdered that summer, and replaced Johnson with Broonzy, and for all of Broonzy’s subsequent influence on the blues revival of the 1960s, it would be Robert Johnson whose legend would grow (particularly after Hammond et al. produced the first compilation of Johnson’s work in 1960), a ubiquitous ghost, as the bluesman who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for a phenomenal talent. This perception of Johnson may have actually originated with him, and songs like “Hellhound on My Trail, “Me and the Devil Blues,” and “Crossroads Blues,” don’t dispel the self-made myth; yet Johnson’s talent speaks to years of real work, occupying a liminal space in an environment hostile to almost everything he was, and equating this with a meeting with Satan at the crossroads isn’t a stretch: how much would you sacrifice to be the best at the thing you love the most? Johnson gave it his life; what might have appeared from the outside, by those who knew him, as supreme self-involvement that transcended any sustained relationships, and led to his poisoning at the hands of a lover’s jealous husband, was the ultimate tribute to his own self-made gift. He had more to get done on this earth than most, and that had to be a kind of hell as well as a kind of ecstasy. You can hear both in every one of his 42 existing recordings. And the “centennial edition” issued in 2011 offers the set with noise reduction deftly applied, so that the surface pops and scratches from the original master discs are scrubbed without loss or distortion of content. You can hear Johnson shifting in his chair, and, in the length of echoes, the subtle changes in his position relative to the corner that he faced while recording — he is made human, and what he produces in that corner, alone with his guitar, is all the more remarkable. Johnson’s technical ability allowed him to play a rhythm and a lead simultaneously, but while much has been made of his guitar playing, and his odd and varied tunings, he used his voice to equal effect, in service to his songs, here a vibrato, there a growl, here a moan or high-pitched yawp. He employed a handful of templates for many of his songs, but brought to them a loose approach and lyrical dexterity. There is also a strong sense of performance in the tunes. Where Charley Patton was screaming and hollering his blues, and Blind Willie Johnson may have been truly possessed, Robert Johnson was the first post-Delta blues singer, a polished showman using affectation in an almost punk-ish way. It is maybe this that caught the attention of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Billy Gibbons, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton — who had the nerve, in one form or another, to take on Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Ramblin’ on My Mind,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” “Dust My Broom,” “Four Until Late,” “Crossroads Blues,” “Love in Vain” — and what made it even conceivable that such songs could be covered or transformed or influential. Because in a sense Johnson was covering them himself, replaying that ride to the crossroads. Choosing the trip, feeling the night. It is the essence of all rock and roll.

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Back at the Crossroads: The Holland Brothers’ Dueling Devils

One of the highest compliments paid to Chapel Hill NC’s Jennyanykind came from an anonymous reviewer of their album, Mythic (1995),dueling devils

Imagine Syd Barrett composing Astronomy Domine in the mid 90s and you’ll get an idea of what this album sounds like. For that reason, it’s an unusual record, since while most rock bands of the last few years have gone for a pumped up version of that grunge folk popularized by folks like Mark Lanegan, Thin White Rope, and the Meat Puppets, Jennanykind have honed in on the stylistic nuances of bands like Barrett’s Floyd and post-Nico Velvet Underground. A subtle difference, to be sure, but one worth exploring and, done successfully as it is here, one that shows it’s possible to look back for your influences and progress musically. Great stuff.

Jennyanykind were led by twin brothers Mark and Michael Holland. In the early 2000’s they disbanded the group and began exploring their individual interests in roots music, with Mark working in the blues idiom while Michael veered in a bluegrass/ragtime direction. Dueling Devils brings the brothers back together, albeit on opposite sides of an imaginary vinyl recording, each with five tracks of three minutes accentuating their oblique approaches to lo-fi music.

Now, why in the devil would a fan of progressive music spend time with what seems to be its antithesis? I would suggest we reconsider what is called “roots” music on its own terms and within its cultural context. For that, we need to a take a trip to the Crossroads.

On the night of July 4, 2005, I found myself on a spur-of-the-moment trip from Tupelo, MS to Clarksdale, in the company of Jeff Spencer, himself an accomplished guitarist. The ride included a two-hour conversation about music, about Eric Clapton and fellow-Mississippian and King’s X guitarist Ty Tabor, among others. We left the “hilly country” at 7:00 pm and crossed the Tallahatchie at 8:00 (both referenced in Charley Patton’s blues masterpiece, “High Water Everywhere”) and sailed into the ironing-board flat Delta with distant shacks and brewing storm clouds on the horizon. By 9:00 we reached the Crossroads of legend, the intersection of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale. I jumped out of the car just long enough to have my picture made, but once back inside we discovered mosquitoes swarming by the dashboard light. We found ourselves swatting our way out of Clarksdale.

I asked how far it was to the Dockery Plantation, where Patton and, later, a young Robert Johnson had once entertained. “That’s Ruleville,” said Jeff. “I can take you if you want to go.”

Ruleville was another 45 minutes or so out of the way, and in the pitch blackness of a rural Mississippi night there would have been nothing to see. But what I had seen was enough to establish in my mind the environment into which the bluesmen of old had emerged. To a desolate and desperate place of gang labor and shared misery these men stood out as perverse and irresistible individuals, as showmen and shamans. To a culture that moved to the rhythms of call and response, the bluesmen broke all the rules and concocted a style of performance that, to borrow a phrase from folklorist Cece Conway, was “inimitable and unapproachable.” The blues — with variations of ragtime, jazz, and gospel mixed into the musical mojo bag — was designed to never be fully replicated. This was the work of possessed individuals, griots, spell-binding artists, intent on evoking frenzy and amazement. Two generations before Hendrix, Patton was playing his elaborate syncopation behind his head. It was not popular music, strictly speaking.

To illustrate, I’ve recently been listening to “This Is a Low” from Blur’s Parklife album. It is a cultural gem, composed around a nautical map on a handkerchief and the British Shipping Forecasts. It expresses an English band’s homesickness on the road. And it is pop music to the core, with a big, stirring chorus meant to be accompanied by tens of thousands of Brits in Hyde Park, arms raised. It’s the stuff of football supporters’ cheers.

But with the blues we honestly don’t know what the actual roots sounded like. We just make out enough of Patton, or the Bentonian craftsman Skip James, through a blizzard of crackles and pops on the best digital transfers. What we should hear in those sides are works of extraordinary eclecticism. We should hear the hedges being pushed over. We should approach them the way the original listeners found them.

To revisit these idioms, as the Holland Brothers invite us to do, is to return to the beginning of a music that packed a universe of originality into sides limited by three minutes of wax space. Every slide, every pull-off, every microtonal inflection is a dare. “See if you can do this.”

Mark Holland’s songs clearly emulate Patton. Recorded in stereo, he double tracks his voice (e.g. “My Baby Say She Coming”) to get the same disquieting effect of Patton’s original recordings (did Patton have a ghost voice? were his recordings haunted by demons?). He captures the energy of the Dockery frolics of old on “Coldwater Blues,” a rounder that takes him from one end of the South to the other. “Bic Lighter” works from a minor key to tell a story of dependence, where even “light” serves the cause of darkness.

Mark’s strength, both here and with Jennyanykind, is to capture an atmosphere where the veil between the natural and supernatural is rent. Malevolent forces are at hand, but his protagonists persevere and come to a new level of understanding, often at the expense of conventional wisdom (a good example is “Clear Tone Blues” from 2003). The griot was a storehouse of tradition, but his songs often mocked the culture around him.

Michael Holland’s sides pose a different challenge, recorded as they were live, in mono. This heightens the importance of his finger-picking and phrasing (as well as harmonica and kazoo) to emulate the parts of a larger band.  The playful “Dry Bones” draws from biblical characters (Enoch, Paul, Moses, the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel’s prophecy) to show the griot’s awareness of the “light come down.”   He then moves right into Charlie Poole’s rag arrangement of “Leavin’ Home,” a classic American murder ballad.

But his re-do of his own “Peas and Collards” (from an earlier album of the same title) is a swift-moving blues highlight.  It’s about the Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day for health and wealth, made ironic by the fact that the South, for most of its history, has lagged behind most of the U.S. in both categories (the original version runs through a bitter litany of corporate interests whom “money loves”: Chase Manhattan, Exxon, the WTO, etc., but not momma or the song’s protagonist).

Whereas Mark’s sides are dark, straight-up blues, Michael’s are lighter; but both elements were found in Patton and other genre-benders from nearly a century ago.

A young Syd Barrett spent time listening to a couple of Carolina bluesmen named Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.  An aspiring, avant garde artist of today  would do well to spend some time recovering some of the essentials with the Holland Brothers.