Circa 2001 I was DJing at KALX in Berkeley, and we were required to play a certain number of songs per hour from the bin of new arrivals. So I spent a lot of time scouring the racks, and one day came across a compilation called Washington Square Memoirs: The Great Urban Folk Boom 1950-1970. This is not normally in my wheelhouse but, ever striving to be open-minded, I perused it. And there was Josh White’s name next to a song called “One Meat Ball.”
And therein lies tale, a rather long one; stick with me here.
According to the site Folk Den, in 1955,
Harvard professor George Martin Lane (1823-1897), arriving in Boston after a journey, found himself hungry and had only 25 cents in his pocket. He needed to reserve half that money to pay his carfare to Cambridge. With the remaining 12 cents he entered a restaurant and ordered the least expensive item on the menu. It happened to be macaroni.
Lane was aghast to discover that the waiter not only treated him with disdain, but refused to give him any bread with his meal. He turned this experience into a poem — changing the dish in question to “one fish ball, a favorite breakfast food of Harvard undergraduates,” says Folk Den — and then a song. (Wikipedia says that he lifted the melody from the traditional camp song “Sipping Cider Through a Straw,” though I don’t really hear it.)read more…
When I saw that Van Morrison had mentioned Josh White among his early influences in that Guardian article, I decided it was time for a little research, after knowing of him in a very shallow way for three decades. This was two weeks ago now. It may go on for a while; his was an eventful life.
I first heard Josh White back in the early 90s, when I bought a compilation called The Gospel Tradition: The Roots and the Branches for my dad. I must confess that at times I have made it a habit to buy things I was curious about as presents for other people, then listen to them before passing them on to the intended recipient. This was such a case, and I ended up buying the CD for myself. (I think my dad got the cassette? He didn’t go digital until later, if memory serves.)
The Josh White song, “Trouble,” really stood out — partly because it is not in any sense a gospel song. In style it is a stripped down folk blues, with lyrics that have no religious content whatsoever. But mostly it was the sheer haunting beauty, with White’s sweet acoustic guitar accompanying his even sweeter voice:
“Trouble” is brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of a viciously racist justice system, but also mordantly funny:
I went up to the walker and the head boss too
Said, “You big white folks, please see what you can do.”
Sheriff winked at the policeman, said, “I won’t forget you nohow,
You better come back and see me again, boy, about 40 years from now.”
Clearly, this is a work of sublime genius — but after that I didn’t really pursue the thread. I think it was one of those cases where a song is so fantastic you don’t want to risk being let down by the artist’s other work. It was a decade later before I heard another Josh White song; we’ll pick up the story there next time.
“I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers/In my lunch break.”
—Van Morrison, “Cleaning Windows”
“James Charles Rodgers (September 8, 1897 – May 26, 1933) was an American singer-songwriter and musician who rose to popularity in the late 1920s. Widely regarded as ‘the Father of Country Music,’ he is best known for his distinctive rhythmic yodeling. Unusual for a music star of his era, Rodgers rose to prominence based upon his recordings, among country music’s earliest, rather than concert performances — which followed to similar public acclaim.
“He has been cited as an inspiration by many artists and inductees into various halls of fame across both country music and the blues, in which he was also a pioneer. Among his other popular nicknames are ‘The Singing Brakeman’ and ‘The Blue Yodeler.’”
In these waning days of 2020, a great laziness has set in here at Philtration Central. Laziness is not unheard of in these parts, and often seems to grow especially acute at a year’s end. And if ever there was a year designed to grind one down, this was it. So no apologies; in time the fog will lift and normal activities will resume.
For now I would like to share with you a 2015 article from The Independent that I ran across recently. It is headlined thusly: “Van Morrison: ‘People who say others are difficult are usually difficult themselves.’” Seemingly keen to counter his own reputation for difficultness, Van comes across as thoroughly friendly and forthcoming, talking a lot about his influences and early career. It’s a good read and will serve you in good stead when the machine gets cranked up again in 2021.
Happy New Year to all, and to all a good night.
“My mother sang and relatives would come around on a Saturday evening. They’d go to the club first and then come back and have a few drinks and sing songs. ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,’ ‘Danny Boy.’”
“The relationship between ostentatious displays of emotion, singing and drinking was established early on in Morrison’s mind. It was reinforced by his mother’s choice of songs, which ran the full gamut from sentimental to maudlin. Of the generation for whom the obviously trained singing of Irish tenor John McCormack represented the epitome of style, Violet [Morrison] would invariably by the first to suggest ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen’ or ‘Danny Boy.’”
“OK, ‘the full gamut from sentimental to maudlin’ is a clever phrase. But I’ll thank you, sir, to avoid that sniffy tone in the future. Nobody likes a smug hipster.”
“It all started back when I was two and a half years old. Ringo, my father’s friend, would bring over some Hank Williams records and sit on the stairs and listen to ‘Kawliga’ [sic]. My grandfather would keep an eye on me while my mother and father were at the movies, and I would make him play records over and over again.”
—Van Morrison, quoted in Clinton Heylin’s Can You Feel the Silence
“In some part of his memory bank, Morrison may well believe that such was his instinctive love of music that he could enjoy Hank Williams singing about a tobacco-store Indian cigar-holder in love with an antique statue of an Indian maid when barely a bairn. But then, a serious collector like him must also know that he was eight years old when ‘Kawliga’ was released, on the death-ridden heels of that last, fateful ride.”
“Since you’re being so nitpicky, Clint, you ought to have noticed that it’s actually spelled ‘Kaw-Liga.’”
The timing of this project has now become a bit awkward, since in 2020 Van Morrison has finally decided to become political, and not in a good way. I haven’t heard his anti-masking (or anti-lockdown, or whatever) music yet, nor do I really want to, a certain morbid curiosity aside. One day I suppose I will be ambushed by it, and then I’ll find out what I think.
On the other hand, my intention in writing about Van has never been to rave about what a warm and wonderful human being he is. It’s not exactly news that he’s a difficult person, and that’s a part of what makes him interesting. An article I read a while back — which I will have to paraphrase since I’ve lost track of it — said that he is the one person on Earth who takes no pleasure in the music of Van Morrison. It is as if he is simply compelled to do it.
This fascinates me more than a person who makes music for the “right” reasons, who has a healthy relationship of mutual love and respect with his audience. What is it that makes such a miserable bastard aspire to, and sometimes reach, the highest heights of astral grace? This is the question that we will be… well, not answering, but at least exploring.
One record I can say for sure that Van Morrison’s dad owned is Lead Belly’s Last Sessions. (Though is name is often rendered, including on the cover of this record, as “Leadbelly,” the two-word version is the correct one. Supposedly he got the name because he could drink any amount of any alcoholic beverage.) I know this because last night I watched a program called The Legend of Lead Belly, which apparently was made by the Smithsonian Channel as part of a Black History Month series. Quoth the Man:read more…
One artist we know for sure that George Morrison Sr. exposed his son to was Sonny Terry, which almost certainly meant being exposed to Brownie McGhee, Terry’s longtime musical partner. Their catalog is a deep one about which I know little. I found this on YouTube, and it is, um, a hoot:
I don’t think they had anything like that in Belfast at the time. I’m sure they had some great music, but there is nothing in all the world to compare with the magnificent treasure of the music created by African-Americans. Everything that I love about music flows from that great river. Truly something to be thankful for.
Someday, perhaps, we will have true justice in this country, and some of the wrongs that have been done along the way will be redressed. I’m not holding my breath. But let’s keep trying.
This is a holiday, so I’ll keep it short. I hope everyone out there is having a safe and joyful day.
And because I love you, here’s something I found when I was searching for clips of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s appearance in The Jerk. I had never seen it before. Merry Christmas.
Sometime in the early Fifties — that seems to be as much as anyone knows — Van Morrison’s father, George Sr., moved to America. Specifically to Detroit. 40-some years later, his son wrote a song about it.
If I’m parsing this correctly, the idea seems to be that George intended to make it big in the colonies — maybe at an auto factory — and then send for the rest of the family. Instead, he returned home a broken man.
Well you came back home to Belfast
So you could be with us like
And you lived a life of quiet desperation on the side
Going to the shipyard in the morning on your bike
Well the spark was gone but you carried on
Well you did just the best that you could
You sent for us one time but everything fell through
But you still kept on choppin’ wood
And that must have been how it felt at the time, though I am told that George Sr. later owned a record store in Marin County, which hardly qualifies as a life of quiet desperation. I wonder, in fact, if he didn’t end up spending all the money he made in Detroit on records — because legend has it that he returned to Belfast with a gold mine of American R&B that would prove hugely influential on his son’s musical style.
What records exactly? I’m working on that. More in the days to come.
I came across this song while listening to The Philosopher’s Stone the other day. Doing a little research, I learned that the words are actually taken from a poem by one Peter Handke, about whom I know nothing. To the Wikipedia!
Peter Handke is a Nobel laureate novelist, playwright, translator, poet, film director, and screenwriter from Austria. Handke was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2019. In the late 1960s, he was recognized for the play Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) and the novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick).
So not exactly a lightweight. You can read the whole poem here. It is pretty great. It also figures heavily in Wings of Desire, which of course required me to have a screening last night. I think I saw this movie when it came out back in the Eighties, but in all honesty I remembered nothing about it. It is extremely German — high-minded, elegiac, pretentious, at times oddly hilarious. Nick Cave is in it. And Peter Falk, fucking Columbo, playing himself. And Bruno Ganz, who plays the angel at the center of the story, went on to play Adolf Hitler in the 2004 film Downfall — and thus be granted immortality in the form of a million YouTube clips. Somehow this joke never gets old; the latest one is a hoot:
So where am I going with this? Good question, and I don’t have a good answer. The brain is a bit scrambled today, but it seemed like time to post something. Go back to the top of the page and listen to Van’s song again; the real writing will resume in due time.