Saturday Single No. 74

Originally posted May 31, 2008

As the month of May prepares to take her exit, I am – once more – casting about for a song to share on what looks as if it will be a rainy Saturday. There’s sunshine as I write this, but the weatherfolk tell us that rain and thundershowers are quite possible for a good portion of the day.

I’d like to commemorate the month of May, but there are – oddly – very few songs in the mp3 collection that would help me do so. The most obvious is “First of May” by the Bee Gees from Odessa, but we’re on the wrong end of the month for that. There are, unless I’ve missed something, three other songs that deal with May as a month:

“Regions of May,” is a pleasant ballad from Pearls Before Swine, the late-1960s group that centered on the vision and music of Tom Rapp. The song, which came from the group’s 1967 album, One Nation Underground, likely comes across better in the company of the rest of the album.

“Song on a May Morning” is by Canterbury Fair, a California group that focused on psychedelic rock. The track is from the group’s only album, a self-titled 1969 release, and it’s a little bland; besides, it’s hard to hear the words for all the swirling keyboards.

“Hills of May,” is a nice but not all that special folky entry by Julie Felix and comes from her Clotho’s Web album, released in 1972. Felix released numerous folk-styled albums between 1964 and the mid-1970s, with a few popping up since then. Some of them – including Clotho’s Web – have found their way to CD.

Since those three leave me, well, not much moved, what about songs recorded in May? As mentioned in April, I have session data for a large enough chunk of the mp3s in my collection to make such a search potentially interesting.

In fact, one of the earliest-recorded songs I have was recorded in May: Nora Bayes’ “Homesickness Blues,” laid down on May 4, 1916. (One of these days, I am going to share one of these pre-1920 tracks just for the fun of it. Not today, though.)

Some of the acts that pop up in the 1920s are Ernest and Hattie Stoneman, Long Cleve Red and Little Harvey Hull, Alberta Hunter and Fats Waller, Dick Justice, Didier Hébert, the Carter Family and the superlative Bessie Smith, known in her day as “The Empress of the Blues.” She recorded “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” in New York City on May 15, 1929. (I’ve always thought that particular title was written and recorded as a response to the financial crash of October 1929 and the resulting economic upheaval – including the Great Depression – that followed. Based on the recording date listed here – and I cross-checked it against the notes on my vinyl copy’s jacket – Smith’s version of the song predates the crash by at least five months, and I know there was an earlier version by Ida Cox, another classic blues singer.)

Numerous names that were stellar in the early folk, country and blues world pop up as having recorded during May in the 1930s: Bukka White, Charlie Patton, Son House, Blind Blake, Ken Maynard, Alfred Lewis, Gitfiddle Jim, the marvelously named Coon Creek Girls and more. John Lee Williamson, the first Sonny Boy, had a pretty good day at the Leland Hotel in Aurora, Illinois, on May 5, 1937: He recorded at least four blues songs, two of which were the classics “Good Morning School Girl” and “Bluebird Blues.” Also in Aurora that same day (in the Leland, too, one supposes), Robert Lee McCoy made his first record, performing “Night Hawk Blues,” the song that would give him a new name. From then until his death in 1967, McCoy recorded and performed as Robert Nighthawk.

The 1940s find more May sessions from John Lee Williamson as well as recordings during the month from Tampa Red, Jazz Gillum and the great Memphis Minnie (“I Got To Make A Change Blues,” May 21, 1941). Other names of interest that show up as having May recording dates during the decade are Wynonie Harris, Champion Jack Dupree, Dinah Washington (she would find huge fame in the 1950s) and Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

During a session in Charlottesville, Virginia, on May 29, 1950, folk-blues artist Pink Anderson recorded a song – “He’s In The Jailhouse” – that would become far more familiar to a wide audience fifty years later in the 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Other May sessions during the 1950s saw recordings by blues and R&B performers Wynonie Harris, Mabel Scott, Big Maybelle and Big Joe Turner. Rock & roll makes an entrance in 1956 when a May 9 session in New Orleans finds Little Richard recording “Ready Teddy,” “Hey Hey Hey Hey” and “Rip It Up.” The last May session of the 1950s in my collection has French songbird Edith Piaf recording “Milord” on May 8, 1959 in New York.

In the early 1960s, May sessions list the names of vintage blues performers Daddy Hotcakes and the team of Edith North Johnson & Henry Brown. From there, the names of the performers become more familiar: the Ronettes, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Tim Hardin. In 1966, Bob Dylan and the Band account for one of the most famous of the May recordings in my lists: The version of “Like A Rolling Stone” from the May 17 concert in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester, England. (Man in crowd: “Judas!” Bob Dylan: “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!” Then, to The Band: “Play f—ing loud!”)

And maybe we should stop right there. Over the next forty-two years, a few more May recordings pop up in my collection. (Only about ten percent of the collection, at most, has annotation that detailed.) Some of those names on those recordings are Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, George Harrison, Derek and the Dominos, Bruce Springsteen, Carole King and Emmylou Harris. Interesting names, all, but finally, not as interesting as that slice of history known as the “Albert Hall” concert.

So here’s Bob Dylan and The Band’s May 17, 1966, version of “Like A Rolling Stone,” today’s Saturday Single.

Bob Dylan & The Band – “Like A Rolling Stone” [1966]

(Ripped from The Bootleg Series Vol. 7, No Direction Home: The Soundtrack, 2005)

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