Posts Tagged ‘Canned Heat’

How Long Ago It Truly Was

October 12, 2011

Originally posted December 2, 2008

I talked to my mother yesterday as she celebrated her eighty-seventh birthday. She’d been able to get to a meeting of her women’s group for the first time in a while, and she was in good spirits. We chatted briefly about that, about the gifts that the Texas Gal and I had brought her on Saturday, and about plans for the week ahead. After we hung up, I sat at my desk and tried to put into perspective how long ago 1921 actually was.

There are a few ways to do that. One is purely historical: World War I had ended just more than three years earlier and was still known simply as the Great War, as its sequel was still eighteen years in the future. Babe Ruth was twenty-six and had just completed his second season with the New York Yankees. The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming was still seven years in the future; its widespread use as a literal lifesaver would come some years after that.

Another way of thinking about how removed we are from the year of 1921 is technological. Mom was born in a farmhouse not far from the little town of Wabasso, Minnesota. There was no electricity in the house; more than a decade later, the family was living on another farm near the small town of Lamberton when the area was first wired through the work of the federal Rural Electrification Administration.

I look at the stuff on my desk as I write. The only things on it that would be recognizable to someone visiting from 1921 would be my coffee mug and the small woven mat I use as a coaster, the box of tissues, the case with a pair of eyeglasses, the antique brass urn from India I use as a pen holder, maybe some of the pens (there may be a pencil or two in the holder as well) and a small, flat stone found in the Mississippi River. Everything else, from the computer, the monitor and the CDs to the headphones, the portable telephone and the two plastic pill bottles, would be strange, ranging from the disconcertingly odd to the utterly alien.

I recall a drive in 1975 or so. My folks and I had driven down to Lamberton and were taking my grandfather – my mom’s father – out for dinner for his birthday; the nearest nice restaurant was in the town of Sleepy Eye, about thirty miles away. As we drove along U.S. Highway 14, Grandpa and I looked out the window and saw a jet plane leaving a distant contrail just above the northern horizon. As we watched the airborne white line fade into the blue sky, Grandpa shook his head. “You know,” he said, “I drove away from my wedding in a horse-drawn buggy. And I saw men walk on the moon.”

My mom was born just six years after that horse-and-buggy wedding, and it’s astounding to think of the changes she’s seen – not all of them changes she’s approved of – as she’s lived into the cyber-age. (She doesn’t use a computer, though I occasionally show her something of interest on a computer either at my home or in the library at the assisted living center. She was fascinated by the fact that I could find pictures online of the small town in Germany from which her grandfather emigrated. I occasionally send emails for her to her distant cousins there, and she occasionally buys things on the ’Net with my help.)

And as I wrote this morning, I thought of one other way of putting into perspective how long ago 1921 was, a view that takes into account my own fascination with music history: In 1921, Robert Johnson was ten years old.

A Six-Pack of Futures

“The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” by Mickey Newbury from ’Frisco Mabel Joy, 1971

“Future” by the Panama Limited Jug Band from Indian Summer, 1970

“Future Shock” by Curtis Mayfield from Back To The World, 1973

“Future Games” by Fleetwood Mac from Future Games, 1971

“Future Blues” by Canned Heat from Future Blues, 1970

“The Future” by Leonard Cohen from The Future, 1992

A few notes:

Mickey Newbury’s music has popped up here once before, as an epitaph for Dave Thomson of Blue Rose. Newbury is one of those artists whose work I always intend to share here but always forget about when doing my minimal planning. ’Frisco Mabel Joy is a forgotten gem – some call it country, others folk-rock and still others tag it as singer-songwriter. But it’s a great album, and “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” is only a taste of it. I’ll try to remember to post the whole album very soon.

Speaking of forgotten, that wasn’t the case with the Panama Limited Jug Band, which supplied the second track here. I hadn’t forgotten the group because, honestly, I’d never heard of them until early this year, when Lisa Sinder at the blog, Ezhevika Fields, posted Indian Summer, the group’s fourth “and best,” Lisa says, album. The whole album is filled with trippy pieces, entirely in synch with the aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. If I had to categorize the album, I’d call it a poor man’s Jefferson Airplane: Interesting but not nearly as good as the original. “Future” is pretty representative of the album.

The Canned Heat track is an adaptation of a much older blues track, as was a lot of the group’s catalog. In this case, the original recording of “Future Blues” was done in 1930 by Willie Brown, the same Willie Brown whom Robert Johnson name-checked in “Cross Road Blues.” As was typical of their approach, Canned Heat’s members had the tune do some work in the weight room and then put it on speed before sending it out into the world in 1970.

Speaking of typical approaches, the future Leonard Cohen envisions will be one dark and unhappy place to live, at least according to the title song of his 1992 album, The Future. Musically, it’s a fascinating track – as is the entire CD – but lyrically, it’s a downer. Cohen’s songs have never been particularly cheerful, but what’s most fascinating to me about “The Future” is the matter-of-fact delivery that Cohen gives it, as if he’s saying, “Of course the future will be an obscene train-wreck. What else did you expect?”

Saturday Singles Nos. 93 & 94

August 19, 2011

Originally posted October 4, 2008

There are few opening riffs in rock history as identifiable – or as delightful – as the flute that opens Canned Heat’s 1968 recording, “Going Up The Country.”

Just hearing the first notes of the riff brings a smile to my face and images to my mind, generally images from the 1970 film Woodstock, which used Canned Heat’s recording to set the stage for the documentary about the massive festival in upstate New York. The song existed before the festival, though, having been released in December 1968 as Liberty 56077, when it went as high as No. 11 on the chart, the second of three Top 40 hits for Canned Heat.

The recording, with Al Wilson’s reed-thin vocals interwoven with the (evidently uncredited) flute solo, pretty well sums up the hippie ethos of getting back to the land with the aim of partying well: Witness the couplet, “I’m going where the water tastes like wine/We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time.” With its lilting melody, it’s an infectious song, and it’s one that to me seems at odds with the bulk of Canned Heat’s blues and boogie catalog.

We can be sure of one thing: Al Wilson and his bandmate Bear Hite (who rivaled Wilson as a collector of old blues on 78 rpm records) had some music by Henry Thomas in their collections.

How do we know? Well, drop to the bottom of this post and click on the link for “Bull Doze Blues,” one of twenty-three songs recorded in Chicago between 1927 and 1929 by Henry Thomas. The flute used by Canned Heat on “Going Up The Country” was clearly inspired by Thomas’ playing of an instrument called the quills, created by lashing together different lengths of cane, thus looking much like a set of panpipes.

So who was Henry Thomas? Most sources agree he was born in Big Sandy, Texas, in 1874.

He was, says the Handbook of Texas Online:

“[O]ne of nine children of former slaves who sharecropped on a cotton plantation in the northeastern part of the state. Thomas learned to hate cotton farming at an early age and left home as soon as he could, around 1890, to pursue a career as an itinerant ‘songster.’ Derrick Stewart-Barker has commented that for his money Thomas was the best songster ‘that ever recorded.’ Thomas first taught himself to play the quills, a folk instrument made from cane reeds that sound similar to the quena used by musicians in Peru and Bolivia; later, he picked up the guitar. On the twenty-three recordings made by Thomas from 1927 to 1929, he sings a variety of songs and accompanies himself on guitar and at times on the quills. His accompaniment work on guitar has been ranked ‘with the finest dance blues ever recorded’ and, according to Stephen Calt, ‘its intricate simultaneous treble picking and drone bass would have posed a challenge to any blues guitarist of any era.’ The range of Thomas’s work makes him something of a transitional figure between the early minstrel songs, spirituals, square dance tunes, hillbilly reels, waltzes, and rags and the rise of blues and jazz. Basically his repertoire, which mostly consists of dance pieces, was out-of-date by the turn of the century when the blues began to grow in popularity. Thomas’s nickname, ‘Ragtime Texas,’ is thought to have come to him because he played in fast tempos, which were synonymous for some musicians with ragtime. Five of Thomas’s pieces have been characterized as ‘rag ditties,’ among them ‘Red River Blues,’ and such rag songs have been considered the immediate forerunners and early rivals of blues.”

Canned Heat’s Al Wilson was not the only 1960s musician pulling inspiration from Thomas’ work. The Lovin’ Spoonful and Taj Mahal both reworked Thomas’ “Fishing Blues” into recordings, and Bob Dylan gives Thomas writing credit on his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album for the song “Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance,” which derived from Thomas’ “Honey Won’t You Allow Me One More Chance.” I recall reading a statement from Dylan that he first heard his tune “from an old blues singer in Texas.”

Did Thomas always get credit for the songs he either wrote or inspired? Not really. Canned Heat’s tune is credited to Wilson alone on the recent CD The Very Best of Canned Heat. I don’t have a Lovin’ Spoonful LP with the group’s version of “Fishin’ Blues” on it, but all of their recordings of it listed at All-Music Guide are credited to “Traditional.” And on De Ole Folks At Home, Taj Mahal credits “Fishin’ Blues” to Henry Thomas and J. Williamson, whoever that might be. There are probably other versions of Henry Thomas’ songs out there, but those four recordings are the ones I’m familiar with.

It was not uncommon in the 1960s, when that era’s generation of musicians was sharing and discovering old tunes, to not know the provenance of a particular piece of music. Given what we’ve learned since then, many of that era’s performers have gladly credited long-ago musicians for their creations. The prime examples may be the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, musicians never shy about acknowledging their influences. Canned Heat’s Al Wilson is long gone – he died in 1970 – but I’d like to think he’d have credited Thomas for his portion of “Going Up The Country” if he’d known.

(An aside: On the CD, The Very Best of Canned Heat, the song in question is listed as “Goin’ Up The Country” instead of “Going Up The Country.” I check Canned Heat’s original LPs and I’ve gone with the spelling there: “Going Up The Country.”)

Credited or not, it’s clear that Henry Thomas had at least some influence on the music we listen to today. What’s fascinating is that, with a birth year of 1874, Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded. And since he wrote and developed his music in the years before the blues developed fully – that happened, most think, around 1900, and Thomas’ music evidently was developed in the 1890s, though not recorded for another thirty years – Thomas’ music is an aural canvas of the music African-Americans were listening to one generation after emancipation.*

No one seems sure when Thomas died. There are reports of his being seen along the railroads and in the less-pleasant portions of big cities – especially in Texas – in the mid-1950s, when he would have been close to eighty years old. We’ll most likely never know when he crossed over. But we have his music, and it’s available in a number of anthologies. The one I have is Texas Worried Blues: Henry Thomas/Complete Recorded Works, 1927-1929, on the Yazoo label (a great label to explore for vintage blues).

So here are Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” and Canned Heat’s “Going Up The Country,” today’s Saturday Singles.

Henry Thomas – “Bull Doze Blues” (1928)

Canned Heat – “Going Up The Country” (1968)

*The statement that “Thomas is evidently the earliest-born African-American whose music was ever recorded” – which I read in a Web-based piece that I can no longer find – is in error. A little more than two months after this piece was originally posted, a helpful reader whose expertise is in Nineteenth Century recordings sent me a lengthy list of recorded African-American musicians whose birth dates predate that of Henry Thomas. That list is included in a later post available hereNote added August 19, 2011 and amended November 9, 2011.

A Baker’s Dozen From 1967

April 20, 2011

Originally posted May 11, 2007

Every once in a while, some of the music bloggers whose work I read – and I read far more than the few that are linked here – talk about the influences on their music listening. And among the chief influences for many of us, it seems, are older siblings. They brought records home and played them, and we younger sibs heard the music on a regular basis. We may not have always liked it, but eventually, that music – and I’ve read this on many a blog – becomes part of the soundtrack of the younger sib’s life and is cherished as such.

The Texas Gal says she can easily trace some of her preferences to her older sisters, who are ten and five years older than she. And I can trace some of mine to my sister, who is three years older than I. It wasn’t that she bought a lot of music. I don’t think listening to records was ever as large a part of my sister’s life as it became in mine. I do recall her on occasion in the early to mid-1960s spending a relative pittance for a grab bag of ten or so 45s; you usually got one or two hits and lot of misses in those bags.

(All the 45s in the house of our youth eventually came to me, and I think those grab bags were the sources of my copies of Lesley Gore’s  “It’s My Party,” Chubby Checker’s “Limbo Rock” and a few other well-known songs. On the other hand, one of those grab bags also provided “You’d Better Keep Runnin’” by Frank Gari. Who? Exactly.)

It was my sister’s albums, however, that became part of my soundtrack. Again, she didn’t have a lot of them, but I heard those she did have as she played them and then when I played them during my senior year of high school and my first year of college. That next summer, she got married and took her records away with her. I’ve found most of them over the years since, on vinyl mostly, and now a few on CD: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Judy Collins’ Wildflowers, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, a unique record titled Traditional Jewish Memories and more. The one record I’ve missed from her collection and have not been able to find is John Denver’s Whose Garden Was This, but only this week, an on-line friend provided me with the album in mp3 format, so I at least have the music.*

But the two records of my sister’s that I likely played most often were two by Glenn Yarbrough, given to her by a boyfriend. They were The Lonely Things, which is a collection of Rod McKuen songs, and For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, a 1967 album on which Yarbrough covers current folk and folk-rock tunes. I have a CD of the latter album, and I love it still. But it does remind me of the first time that I recall my life colliding with adult realities.

My sister spent a portion of the summer of 1968 studying in France. About midway through her absence, that boyfriend stopped by and took me out for a Coke. As we sat, he told me that when my sister came home, he would not be in town. He and a buddy had joined the Army, and he asked me to inform my sister of that when she came home from France. I was not quite fifteen, and here was this young man – whom I liked very much – entrusting me with such an important task, such an unhappy message. I don’t recall when I told my sister, or how I told her, but I imagine I did it quite artlessly.

(Within a year, the boyfriend came home from Vietnam badly wounded, and his role as my sister’s boyfriend ended sometime after that. His buddy died in Vietnam, one of fourteen men from St. Cloud to die there. Sometime in this past year, I saw in our local paper that the former boyfriend had passed away. I called my sister and told her; she was glad I did.)

Anyway, today’s Baker’s Dozen is from 1967, and it starts with “Crucifixion,” the closer to one of those Glen Yarbrough records, a song that always makes me think of a message delivered in 1968.

“Crucifixion” by Glenn Yarbrough from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by Cannonball Adderly, Capitol single 5798

“Shake ’Em On Down” by Mississippi Fred McDowell from Mama Says I’m Crazy

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” by the Buckinghams, Columbia single 44182

“People Are Strange” by the Doors from Strange Days

“To Sir With Love” by Lulu, Epic single 10187

“Red Balloon” by Tim Hardin from Tim Hardin 2

“Smokestack Lightning” by John Hammond from I Can Tell

“Rollin’ & Tumblin’” by Canned Heat from Canned Heat

“Sit Down I Think I Love You” by Buffalo Springfield from Buffalo Springfield

“Lonely Man” by Spencer Wiggins, Goldwax single 330

“This Wheel’s On Fire” by Bob Dylan & The Band from The Basement Tapes

“Statesboro Blues” by the Youngbloods from The Youngbloods

A few notes on some of the songs:

“Crucifixion” was written by Phil Ochs, one of the leading talents of the protest-song era in the early 1960s. Supposedly a parable of assassination, it’s a frightening tale that asks, of course: Do we ever really learn anything? I fear I know what the answer is. Ochs’ version, on his Pleasures of the Harbor album, is good, but probably because of familiarity, I prefer Yarbrough’s take.

It struck me as funny that both hit versions of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” popped up on the RealPlayer. At least it shows that it truly is a random selection.

Mississippi Fred McDowell – who actually was from Tennessee, and who knows how that happened? – was one of the rarities of the blues boom of the early 1960s: a performer of traditional music who had not been recorded during the 1920s and 1930s. His stuff was new and vibrant when he was discovered working on his farm in the 1960s. He was also a rarity in that he at times played electric guitar, a fact that severely displeased some blues purists.

John Hammond is actually John Hammond, Jr., the son of the legendary talent scout and executive for Columbia Records. Hammond’s album I Can Tell was recorded at Muscle Shoals with the backing of the famed sessions musicians there. Also lending a hand on the record – though not necessarily on “Smokestack Lightning” – were Duane Allman and Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson of The Band.

Spencer Wiggins was a Memphis native who recorded a series of powerful deep soul singles during the 1960s but never got the hit – and the attention – he deserved. Much of his work is available on CD and is well worth seeking out.

As always, bit rates will vary. Enjoy!

*I was in error here. There was a fairly good copy of Whose Garden Was This sitting in the stacks as I wrote, but I either didn’t check the stacks or it was misfiled. In any event, it was nice to get the digital files without having to go through the minor drudgery of ripping the album myself. [Note added April 20, 2011.]