Posts Tagged ‘Sweetwater’

Spiders

May 27, 2022

Originally posted September 15, 2009

Living in an older home, as we’ve done for a year now – ours was built sometime between 1940 and 1948, but we’re not sure of the exact date – there are some things that one has to take as givens. Among those things are bugs and spiders.

Most crawly things don’t bother me too much. Over the years, in Minnesota, I’ve seen crickets inside as well as some beetles, ladybugs and so on. During my years further south, in Missouri, the two older homes I lived in had some roaches in the basement, but that’s almost a given in older homes in that area (as well as in parts further south). I kept each kitchen clean (and a light on overnight where the cat food was), and that pretty well controlled things.

Larger insects can un-nerve me, though. The other week, the Texas Gal and I saw Cubbie Cooper, our youngest cat, tracking something by the dining room wall. It turned out to be a two-inch long beetle with an ugly set of pincers. With a little bit of the “ewwww” factor in play, we dispatched it and then spent a few minutes scoping out corners, looking for more. We saw none.

A bug has to be pretty large to flip my ick switch. Spiders, on the other hand, need do nothing more than exist for me to be unhappy. From the itty-bitty ones that we sometimes scooting across the floor and down the cracks to the two-inch wide creatures that look like a miniature Shelob (I saw one of those in the garage this summer and none, thankfully, in the house), spiders trigger an almost atavistic fear in me.

It’s pretty much the same for the Texas Gal, though, so when an eight-legged creature needs dispatching around here, I’m the one that does it. Now, we’re not infested or anything like that; it’s just that an older home will have its share of uninvited guests. And every so often, I’ll spot a spider making his way across the counter or up a wall. Or the Texas Gal will find one migrating across the floor of the loft while she’s working on a quilt. And the trespasser finds rough justice.

I know, I know. Spiders eat other insects. They’re an important part of the continuum of life. They’re beneficial.

They also give me the creeps. Always have. As I was rinsing a mug the other evening, there was a spider the size of a nickel in the sink. A good-looking one, black with some bright yellow trim on its back. But fashionable or not, it didn’t belong in the sink. The sink is ours. So I got a paper towel, wadded it up, and got rid of the spider. And then I trembled for about five seconds.

A Six-Pack of Spiders
“Spider In My Stew” by Buster Benton, Jewell 842 [1971]
“Black Widow Spider” by Dr. John from Babylon [1969]
“Black Spider Blues” by Johnny Shines from Chicago/The Blues/Today! [1965]
“My Crystal Spider” by Sweetwater from Sweetwater [1968]
“Boris the Spider” by the Who from Meaty, Beaty, Big & Bouncy [1971]
“Mean Red Spider” by Muddy Waters, Aristocrat 1307 [[1948]

This mix is a bit blusier than most of my offerings get. That’s not a problem for me, but I think that some of my readers shy away from the blues for one reason or another. Nevertheless, three of the songs here are rooted deeply in the blues: “Spider In My Stew,” “Black Spider Blues” and “Mean Red Spider.”

The last of those three was one of Muddy Waters’ earlier recordings after he came to Chicago from the Clarksville area of Mississippi. His catalog with Aristocrat starts, as far as I can tell, with No. 1302, a September 1947 recording of “Gypsy Woman” (not the song that the Impressions and Brian Hyland took to the Top 40 in 1961 and 1970, respectively), and Waters’ first real hit was “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” the result of a December 1947 session that became a hit in 1948. “Mean Red Spider” came out of a session that took place nearly a year later, in either October or November 1948, according to the notes in the Muddy Waters Chess box set.

The Johnny Shines track comes from one of the true landmark sets recorded in the mid-1960s, when the first blues boom was beginning to draw a wider audience to the form. Blues historian Sam Charters brought nine different Chicago-based performers or groups into a studio and had each one record four or five tracks. The results were released on a series of LPs titled Chicago/The Blues/Today! The three resulting albums were released on CD in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but All-Music Guide notes that a 1999 box set containing all three albums is sonically superior. As to Johnny Shines, the late performer – he died in 1992 – was known to have been a frequent traveling companion of Robert Johnson, and he continued performing and recording to the end of his life. If one were looking for an introduction to Johnny Shines beyond the tracks on the Charter project, I’d suggest the albums Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop from 1978 or 1969’s Johnny Shines with Big Walter Horton.

Beyond having one of his singles in my collection, I know little about Buster Benton. All-Music Guide tells us that “[d]espite the amputation of parts of both his legs during the course of his career, Chicago guitarist Buster Benton never gave up playing his music — an infectious hybrid of blues and soul that he dubbed at one point ‘disco blues’ (an unfortunate appellation in retrospect, but useful in describing its danceability). In the late ’70s, when blues was at low ebb, Benton’s waxings for Ronn Records were a breath of fresh air.” AMG goes on to note that Benton connected with blues legend Willie Dixon in 1971, and the result was the Dixon-penned hit “Spider In My Stew.” (I’ve seen a date of 1970 for this track, but I’m following AMG’s lead and going with 1971.)

Dr. John’s “Black Widow Spider” comes from Babylon, his second solo album, an effort that I’ve long thought was a little wan when compared to the voodoo-meets-psychedelia whirlwhind that was 1968’s Gris-Gris. Still, the good doctor gets into a groove on “Black Widow Spider” that pulls you through the track, even if the vocals and guitar above the groove aren’t nearly as compelling as anything from the earlier record.

Psychedelia without the voodoo was Sweetwater’s stock in trade, at least on the group’s first album. “My Crystal Spider” fits snugly into that niche, right down to the electronic effects solo in the middle of the track. “My Crystal Spider” isn’t poorly done, but it seems to me that the track – and actually, the entire self-titled album from which it comes – sounds so much like stuff that other San Francisco bands were doing just a little bit better at the time. That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for Sweetwater in 2009’s random rotations; it’s just that the band was not as good as its neighbors were.

AMG says that, according to Pete Townshend, “Boris the Spider” – a John Entwistle tune – was one of the most frequently requested songs at the Who’s concerts. I’m not sure I get the song’s popularity, but that’s okay. I pulled the track from my vinyl of the group’s Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy collection. The song originally came out on the 1966 album A Quick One (titled Happy Jack in the U.S.).

First Wednesday: September 1968

September 5, 2018

In this space ten years ago, I put up a series of monthly posts looking at the year of 1968, then forty years gone. I thought it would be interesting to rerun those posts this year as we mark the fiftieth anniversary of that remarkable and often horrifying year. We’ll correct errors or update information as necessary, but the historic portion of the posts will otherwise be unchanged. As to music, we’ll also update our examination of charts from fifty years ago if necessary and then, when possible, share the same full albums from 1968 as we did ten years ago, but this time – as is our habit now – as YouTube videos. The posts will appear on the first Wednesday of each month.

The month of September was a fairly quiet one in 1968, an intermission of sorts. As one looks at the listings of the month’s events at Wikipedia (which is where I start as I examine 1968), only six events are listed, and five of them are:

The African nation of Swazliand became independent on September 6. A September 11 plane crash in the French Mediterranean killed a prominent French general and ninety-four others. A tour of South Africa by England’s Marylebone Cricket Club was canceled September 17 because South Africans “refused to accept the presence” of Basil D’Oliveira, who was of African descent, on the Marylebone team. Marcelo Caetano became prime minister of Portugal on September 27. And a September 29 referendum in Greece gave more power to the ruling military junta.

The sixth event listed, however, becomes a bit more significant with a second look. On September 7, 1968, Wikipedia says, “150 women protest against the Miss America Pageant, as exploitative of women. It is one of the first large demonstrations of Second Wave Feminism.” (First Wave Feminism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, earned women in the U.S. and the U.K. the right to vote, Wikipedia reports in a different entry, adding that the term “First Wave” was coined retroactively during the 1970s.)

An interesting account of the 1968 protest in Atlantic City is posted at JoFreeman.com, the website of an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. She writes:

The 1968 protest originated with New York Radical Women, one of the earliest women’s liberation groups in the country. About 150 feminists from six cities joined them to show how all women were hurt by beauty competitions. They argued that the contest declared that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks by parading women around like cattle to show off their physical attributes. All women were made to believe they were inferior because they couldn’t measure up to Miss America beauty standards. Women’s liberation would ‘attack the male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression of women symbolized by the Pageant.’

The Atlanta City (sic) convention center opens onto a vast boardwalk between it and the beach. The large expanse of boards easily seen from the entrance makes it a great place for demonstrations. Women’s liberation took advantage of this to stage several guerilla theater actions. A live sheep was crowned Miss America. Objects of female oppression – high heeled shoes, girdles, bras, curlers, tweezers – were tossed into a Freedom Trash Can. A proposal to burn the can’s contents was scuttled when the police said that a fire would pose a risk to the wooden boardwalk. Women sang songs that parodied the contest and the idea of selling women’s bodies: ‘Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.’ A tall, Miss America puppet was auctioned off.

Sixteen feminists bought tickets to the evening’s entertainment. They smuggled in a banner reading WOMEN’S LIBERATION. Sitting in the front row of the balcony, they unfurled it as the outgoing Miss America made her farewell speech, while shouting ‘Freedom for Women,’ and ‘No More Miss America.’ The pageant continued as though nothing had happened. This action was quickly followed by the release of two stink bombs on the floor of the hall. All protestors were removed from the hall; five were arrested, but later released.

The outrageousness of challenging the Miss America icon brought the press out in droves, putting women’s liberation on the front pages all over the country. From this, women learned that a new feminist movement was emerging and flocked to join.

The 1968 demonstration also saddled women’s liberation with the myth of bra burning. Forevermore the press would repeat that women burned their bras. They never remembered where this was supposed to have occurred, let alone that it never happened.

One could argue, I think, that of all the events of 1968, that cluster of demonstrations at Atlantic City had the greatest long-term impact, starting with American society and Western culture. Those demonstrations certainly caught folks’ attention. I recall the derision and bafflement my pals and I and our parents expressed toward the women who dared to interrupt an American institution like the Miss America pageant with their complaints and demands concerning things we’d never questioned.

But those complaints and demands triggered a slow process in much of the industrialized world. My friends and I and our parents watched in the coming years as our world was changed by feminist ideas, and most of us changed along with it. As a historian of sorts, I know how things have changed over the past forty years, but I’m of utterly the wrong gender to truly gauge the long-term impact of what those women began at Atlantic City in September of 1968.

So I turned to my wife, the Texas Gal, whose mother was a working mom in the 1960s, when there weren’t many such moms around. “She was a feminist by necessity,” the Texas Gal says of her mother. That functional feminism, the Texas Gal says, “made me always assume that I would work and that I would be able to fend for myself.”

Beyond her mom’s example, the Texas Gal adds: “The other thing that feminism did, long-term, was make it possible to be a career woman and still be a woman. For a long time, a career woman had to act like a man. Now a career woman can act like a woman: she can wear jewelry and dress femininely, she can like animals and quilting and cooking, and she can still be respected in the boardroom.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting to take my customary look at the Top Fifteen records of the time and see the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” riding at No. 1 for the fourth week in a row on September 7, 1968 (with one more week at No. 1 yet to come). While writers Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati and the rest of the Rascals had their hearts in the right places, it’s worth noting that after singing “People everywhere just wanna be free,” the Rascals later proclaim, “It’s a natural situation for a man to be free,” with no mention of women. One wonders if Cavaliere and Brigati would be so gender-specific were they writing today.

Exclusionary language aside, “People Got To Be Free” is a great single, and it sat atop a good set of singles. Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen from September 7, 1968:

“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Light My Fire” by José Feliciano
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley
“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin
“1, 2, 3, Red Light” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
“You’re All I Need To Get By” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“Stay In My Corner” by the Dells
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge
“Hush” by Deep Purple
“Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues
“Love Makes A Woman” by Barbara Acklin

Actually, that’s not just a good set of singles, that’s a great set. Feliciano’s Latin-inflected “Light My Fire” was an eye-opener, and there’s some solid soul/R&B with the sides by Aretha, Marvin & Tammi, Archie Bell and his boys, the Dells and Barbara Acklin.

And there’s some good rock, too, with Steppenwolf, the Doors, Cream, Vanilla Fudge (the pace of the group’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is about as glacial as rock gets) and Deep Purple (covering a song written by countryish singer-songwriter Joe South).

The only bit of froth that might have made me push the button for another station is “1, 2, 3, Red Light.” The Vogues’ single is pretty light, yeah, but, as I’ve written before, it’s one of those songs that remind me how I felt about a certain young lady (and it doesn’t seem possible that it’s been forty years).

Let’s see if the Billboard top ten albums from the first week of September provided listening as good as the radio did that week:

Waiting For The Sun by the Doors
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Realization by Johnny Rivers
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel

That’s a list that holds up pretty well forty years later. The Johnny Rivers’ album is, as I’ve related here before, one of my favorites and a resident in my all-time Top Ten Albums list. Nothing else here quite approaches that level, but the two records by Cream are superb, as are the albums by Aretha, Feliciano, the Experience and Simon & Garfunkel.

Steppenwolf is pretty good, and the Rascals’ record is a solid collection of their hits (most of which came from the years when the group was called the Young Rascals). And I have fewer problems with Waiting For The Sun than I do with most other albums by the Doors. (It ranks second to Morrison Hotel for me.)

The album I’m sharing today never got to those heights when it came out in 1968, but to me – as I listen in 2008 – it provides an aural landscape that captures that strange, tumultuous, freaky and tragic year as well as anything can.

Sweetwater was an odd band, but that fit right in with the times. As All-Music Guide notes: “An unusual rock group in both the size of their lineup (which numbered eight), the instrumentation employed, and the eclectic scope of their material, Sweetwater didn’t quite get the first-class songs or breaks necessary to make them widely known. Lead singer Nansi Nevens was backed not just by conventional guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, but also flute . . . conga . . . and cello.”

The group’s first release was all over the stylistic map as well. To cite AMG again: “Their self-titled debut album was the kind of release that could have only been the product of the late ’60s, with the music flying off in all directions, and a major label willing to put it out. Sweetwater blended Californian psychedelia with jazzy keyboards and a classical bent, especially in the flute and cello, but did not cohere into a readily identifiable aesthetic, or write exceptional songs, although they were okay. Perhaps Reprise was willing to give such a hard to market and classify band a shot, figuring that in the midst of psychedelic rock scaling the charts that would have seemed unimaginably weird just a couple of years before, who knew what would sell now?”

All of that is true, yet I find a charm in the album as it wanders all over the landscape. I particularly like the opener, an extended take on the traditional “Motherless Child.” Other highlights for me are “Here We Go Again,” with its swirling vocal and harpsichord-like keyboard; “Come Take A Walk” with its mellow flute (and its hippie-ish lyric, too); “My Crystal Spider,” with its odd shifts in style; and “Why, Oh Why” with its frenetic violin.

The only track that’s not particularly complelling, actually, is “What’s Wrong,” a classic 1960s litany of the ails of society, but then, overt preaching is never as fun to listen to as is subtle persuasion.

Overall, Sweetwater is a pretty good listen, if a bit derivative: listeners will notice a very clear sonic resemblance to Jeffeson Airplane. Sweetwater’s not as good as the Airplane, of course, but not many bands were. And Sweetwater was plagued by bad luck: In December 1969, four months after the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock, lead singer Nevins was in an auto accident. Her vocal cords were damaged and she had severe brain injuries; she was in a coma for weeks and needed therapy for years. The band’s second album – for which Nevins had recorded a couple of tracks before the accident – was completed without her and did not sell well. After a third album in 1971, the band broke up.

AMG notes: “The surviving trio of Nevins, keyboardist Alex Del Zoppo and bassist Fred Herrera reunited Sweetwater in 1997, and two years later – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Woodstock – cable network VH1 produced and broadcast a film about the group, with Felicity co-star Amy Jo Johnson cast as Nansi Nevins; the picture sparked a considerable resurgence of interest in the group, and that same year Rhino released Cycles, a limited-edition retrospective of their work for Reprise.”

Tracks:
Motherless Child
Here We Go Again
For Pete’s Sake
Come Take A Walk
What’s Wrong
In A Rainbow
My Crystal Spider
Rondeau
Two Worlds
Through An Old Storybook
Why Oh Why

Sweetwater – Sweetwater [1968]

(The link is to a YouTube playlist of the full album.)

Three From The Car

November 7, 2013

I got distracted yesterday, working on a song. Another member of the St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and I are going to be performing one of my original songs sometime this month, so I spent yesterday working on notation, fine-tuning the lyrics and chords and continuing to sharpen my keyboard skills, which have been pretty much dormant since Mom moved out away from the house on Kilian Boulevard in 2004 and left my piano behind.

The keyboard setup here is pretty rudimentary: I have a full-size Fatar keyboard, which is pretty good, and I run it through an old Yamaha sequencer and into the stereo system. The piano sound is a bit tinny, and the sustain pedal doesn’t hold the tones as long as I’d like, but considering that I’d had no keyboard to play until I jerry-rigged things last week, I’m fine with it. Something a little more elegant would be nice down the road, as I think my musical involvement with the fellowship will continue.

Anyway, I spent a good share of yesterday’s time practicing the song that my musical partner – a long-time choir member at the fellowship – and I will be performing. I bought and downloaded a composition and notation program and got the sheet music printed. And I pulled my book of original lyrics – some of which have melodies – off the shelf and organized that. And when the Texas Gal came home a little later than normal because of some errands, I realized I’d made no plans for dinner. I’d gotten the kitchen cleaned and dishes done but had given no thought to a menu.

She wasn’t upset. She’s quite pleased that I’m getting involved in creating music again. It’s something that she’s been urging me to do at the Fellowship for some time. But that still didn’t put dinner on the table. So we decided on a fast food alternative, a Mexican place downtown, and I headed out into the cool evening. And that’s when things got even more fun.

As I headed down Lincoln Avenue toward the railroad crossing, I heard a record with a joyous piano solo coming from the car radio, which is almost always tuned to WXYG. (The only exception would be for sporting events – Twins baseball, Viking and Gopher football and so on.) As I listened to the piano, I thought, ‘Nice! Joy of Cooking!”  And I was right. The track was “Hush” from the group’s 1971 self-titled debut album.

As I crossed the railroad tracks and headed for Riverside Drive, the next track started, offering a mellow rolling electric piano introduction backed by strings and then flute. I knew I’d heard it before, but I cocked my head, waiting for the vocals. And then I heard a sweet female voice: “Come take a walk . . .” And I listened, mentally sorting possibilities as I headed across the Mississippi River. The track ended just before I pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot, and I thought to myself, “That’s Sweetwater, I bet.” I made a note to check the radio station’s website when I got home with a bag full of dinner, and I got out of the car as a dissonant and rough version of David Bowie’s “China Girl” was roaring out of the speaker.

Twenty minutes later, I got to the computer and pulled up the WXYG website. The song that followed Joy of Cooking was in fact by Sweetwater (“Yesssssss!” I hissed, pleased by my accuracy), a track unsurprisingly called “Come Take A Walk” from the group’s rather jumbled 1968 self-titled debut.

But that was when I got home. In between, as I was heading from downtown toward the river and home, came another pleasant few minutes. It began with an organ wash backed by mellow drums, with the sounds of either an acoustic guitar or a plucked violin then added in front. (I vote for the violin). And after that languid introduction, in came the voices of David and Linda LaFlamme of It’s A Beautiful Day: “White bird in a golden cage, on a winter’s day . . . alone.”

I listened to “White Bird” – a track from yet another self-titled debut album, this one from 1969 – through downtown, across the river, along Riverside Drive, Seventh Street and Lincoln Avenue and up our driveway. The six-minute track wasn’t quite finished as I pulled up to the house, but I didn’t want the burrito and the potato hot dish to get cold, so I let the LaFlammes finish without me and headed into the house with dinner.

First Friday: September 1968

August 5, 2011

Originally posted September 5, 2008

The month of September was a fairly quiet one in 1968, an intermission of sorts. As one looks at the listings of the month’s events at Wikipedia (which is where I start as I examine 1968), only six events are listed, and five of them are:

The African nation of Swazliand became independent on September 6. A September 11 plane crash in the French Mediterranean killed a prominent French general and ninety-four others. A tour of South Africa by England’s Marylebone Cricket Club was canceled September 17 because South Africans “refused to accept the presence” of Basil D’Oliveira, who was of African descent, on the Marylebone team. Marcelo Caetano became prime minister of Portugal on September 27. And a September 29 referendum in Greece gave more power to the ruling military junta.

The sixth event listed, however, becomes a bit more significant with a second look. On September 7, 1968, Wikipedia says, “150 women protest against the Miss America Pageant, as exploitative of women. It is one of the first large demonstrations of Second Wave Feminism.” (First Wave Feminism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, earned women in the U.S. and the U.K. the right to vote, Wikipedia reports in a different entry, adding that the term “First Wave” was coined retroactively during the 1970s.)

An interesting account of the 1968 protest in Atlantic City is posted at JoFreeman.com, the website of an American feminist, political scientist, writer and attorney. She writes:

“The 1968 protest originated with New York Radical Women, one of the earliest women’s liberation groups in the country. About 150 feminists from six cities joined them to show how all women were hurt by beauty competitions. They argued that the contest declared that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks by parading women around like cattle to show off their physical attributes. All women were made to believe they were inferior because they couldn’t measure up to Miss America beauty standards. Women’s liberation would ‘attack the male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression of women symbolized by the Pageant.’

“The Atlanta City (sic) convention center opens onto a vast boardwalk between it and the beach. The large expanse of boards easily seen from the entrance makes it a great place for demonstrations. Women’s liberation took advantage of this to stage several guerilla theater actions. A live sheep was crowned Miss America. Objects of female oppression – high heeled shoes, girdles, bras, curlers, tweezers – were tossed into a Freedom Trash Can. A proposal to burn the can’s contents was scuttled when the police said that a fire would pose a risk to the wooden boardwalk. Women sang songs that parodied the contest and the idea of selling women’s bodies: ‘Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.’ A tall, Miss America puppet was auctioned off.

“Sixteen feminists bought tickets to the evening’s entertainment. They smuggled in a banner reading WOMEN’S LIBERATION. Sitting in the front row of the balcony, they unfurled it as the outgoing Miss America made her farewell speech, while shouting ‘Freedom for Women,’ and ‘No More Miss America.’ The pageant continued as though nothing had happened. This action was quickly followed by the release of two stink bombs on the floor of the hall. All protestors were removed from the hall; five were arrested, but later released.

“The outrageousness of challenging the Miss America icon brought the press out in droves, putting women’s liberation on the front pages all over the country. From this, women learned that a new feminist movement was emerging and flocked to join.

“The 1968 demonstration also saddled women’s liberation with the myth of bra burning. Forevermore the press would repeat that women burned their bras. They never remembered where this was supposed to have occurred, let alone that it never happened.”

One could argue, I think, that of all the events of 1968, that cluster of demonstrations at Atlantic City had the greatest long-term impact, starting with American society and Western culture. Those demonstrations certainly caught folks’ attention. I recall the derision and bafflement my pals and I and our parents expressed toward the women who dared to interrupt an American institution like the Miss America pageant with their complaints and demands concerning things we’d never questioned.

But those complaints and demands triggered a slow process in much of the industrialized world. My friends and I and our parents watched in the coming years as our world was changed by feminist ideas, and most of us changed along with it. As a historian of sorts, I know how things have changed over the past forty years, but I’m of utterly the wrong gender to truly gauge the long-term impact of what those women began at Atlantic City in September of 1968.

So I turned to my wife, the Texas Gal, whose mother was a working mom in the 1960s, when there weren’t many such moms around. “She was a feminist by necessity,” the Texas Gal says of her mother. That functional feminism, the Texas Gal says, “made me always assume that I would work and that I would be able to fend for myself.”

Beyond her mom’s example, the Texas Gal adds: “The other thing that feminism did, long-term, was make it possible to be a career woman and still be a woman. For a long time, a career woman had to act like a man. Now a career woman can act like a woman: she can wear jewelry and dress femininely, she can like animals and quilting and cooking, and she can still be respected in the boardroom.”

With that in mind, it’s interesting to take my customary look at the Top Fifteen records of the time and see the Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” riding at No. 1 for the fourth week in a row on September 7, 1968 (with one more week at No. 1 yet to come). While writers Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati and the rest of the Rascals had their hearts in the right places, it’s worth noting that after singing “People everywhere just wanna be free,” the Rascals later proclaim, “It’s a natural situation for a man to be free,” with no mention of women. One wonders if Cavaliere and Brigati would be so gender-specific were they writing today.

Exclusionary language aside, “People Got To Be Free” is a great single, and it sat atop a good set of singles. Here’s the Billboard Top Fifteen from September 7, 1968:

“People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals
“Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
“Light My Fire” by José Feliciano
“Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley
“Hello, I Love You” by the Doors
“The House That Jack Built” by Aretha Franklin
“1, 2, 3, Red Light” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co.
“You’re All I Need To Get By” by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
“I Can’t Stop Dancing” by Archie Bell & the Drells
“Stay In My Corner” by the Dells
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge
“Hush” by Deep Purple
“Turn Around, Look At Me” by the Vogues
“Love Makes A Woman” by Barbara Acklin

Actually, that’s not just a good set of singles, that’s a great set. Feliciano’s Latin-inflected “Light My Fire” was an eye-opener, and there’s some solid soul/R&B with the sides by Aretha, Marvin & Tammi, Archie Bell and his boys, the Dells and Barbara Acklin.

And there’s some good rock, too, with Steppenwolf, the Doors, Cream, Vanilla Fudge (the pace of the group’s version of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is about as glacial as rock gets) and Deep Purple (covering a song written by countryish singer-songwriter Joe South).

The only bit of froth that might have made me push the button for another station is “1, 2, 3, Red Light.” The Vogues’ single is pretty light, yeah, but, as I’ve written before, it’s one of those songs that remind me how I felt about a certain young lady (and it doesn’t seem possible that it’s been forty years).

Let’s see if the Billboard top ten albums from the first week of September provided listening as good as the radio did that week:

Waiting For The Sun by the Doors
Time Peace/The Rascals’ Greatest Hits by the Rascals
Wheels of Fire by Cream
Feliciano! by José Feliciano
Realization by Johnny Rivers
Steppenwolf by Steppenwolf
Aretha Now by Aretha Franklin
Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience
Disraeli Gears by Cream
Bookends by Simon & Garfunkel

That’s a list that holds up pretty well forty years later. The Johnny Rivers’ album is, as I’ve related here before, one of my favorites and a resident in my all-time Top Ten Albums list. Nothing else here quite approaches that level, but the two records by Cream are superb, as are the albums by Aretha, Feliciano, the Experience and Simon & Garfunkel.

Steppenwolf is pretty good, and the Rascals’ record is a solid collection of their hits (most of which came from the years when the group was called the Young Rascals). And I have fewer problems with Waiting For The Sun than I do with most other albums by the Doors. (It ranks second to Morrison Hotel for me.)

The album I’m sharing today never got to those heights when it came out in 1968, but to me – as I listen in 2008 – it provides an aural landscape that captures that strange, tumultuous, freaky and tragic year as well as anything can.

Sweetwater was an odd band, but that fit right in with the times. As All-Music Guide notes: “An unusual rock group in both the size of their lineup (which numbered eight), the instrumentation employed, and the eclectic scope of their material, Sweetwater didn’t quite get the first-class songs or breaks necessary to make them widely known. Lead singer Nansi Nevens was backed not just by conventional guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, but also flute . . . conga . . . and cello.”

The group’s first release was all over the stylistic map as well. To cite AMG again: “Their self-titled debut album was the kind of release that could have only been the product of the late ’60s, with the music flying off in all directions, and a major label willing to put it out. Sweetwater blended Californian psychedelia with jazzy keyboards and a classical bent, especially in the flute and cello, but did not cohere into a readily identifiable aesthetic, or write exceptional songs, although they were okay. Perhaps Reprise was willing to give such a hard to market and classify band a shot, figuring that in the midst of psychedelic rock scaling the charts that would have seemed unimaginably weird just a couple of years before, who knew what would sell now?”

All of that is true, yet I find a charm in the album as it wanders all over the landscape. I particularly like the opener, an extended take on the traditional “Motherless Child.” Other highlights for me are “Here We Go Again,” with its swirling vocal and harpsichord-like keyboard; “Come Take A Walk” with its mellow flute (and its hippie-ish lyric, too); “My Crystal Spider,” with its odd shifts in style; and “Why, Oh Why” with its frenetic violin.

The only track that’s not particularly complelling, actually, is “What’s Wrong,” a classic 1960s litany of the ails of society, but then, overt preaching is never as fun to listen to as is subtle persuasion.

Overall, Sweetwater is a pretty good listen, if a bit derivative: listeners will notice a very clear sonic resemblance to Jeffeson Airplane. Sweetwater’s not as good as the Airplane, of course, but not many bands were. And Sweetwater was plagued by bad luck: In December 1969, four months after the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock, lead singer Nevins was in an auto accident. Her vocal cords were damaged and she had severe brain injuries; she was in a coma for weeks and needed therapy for years. The band’s second album – for which Nevins had recorded a couple of tracks before the accident – was completed without her and did not sell well. After a third album in 1971, the band broke up.

AMG notes: “The surviving trio of Nevins, keyboardist Alex Del Zoppo and bassist Fred Herrera reunited Sweetwater in 1997, and two years later – to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Woodstock – cable network VH1 produced and broadcast a film about the group, with Felicity co-star Amy Jo Johnson cast as Nansi Nevins; the picture sparked a considerable resurgence of interest in the group, and that same year Rhino released Cycles, a limited-edition retrospective of their work for Reprise.”

Tracks:
Motherless Child
Here We Go Again
For Pete’s Sake
Come Take A Walk
What’s Wrong
In A Rainbow
My Crystal Spider
Rondeau
Two Worlds
Through An Old Storybook
Why Oh Why

Sweetwater – Sweetwater [1968]

A Baker’s Dozen From 1968, Vol. 2

May 4, 2011

Originally posted August 8, 2007

We didn’t take a lot of vacation trips when I was a kid.

Oh, Dad had vacations from his work at St. Cloud State, but we rarely traveled. We might spend a few days at a rental cabin on a lake somewhere north of St. Cloud. Frequently, August found my mother, my sister and I spending two weeks – with Dad coming down for the second week – at Grandpa’s farm in southwestern Minnesota, picking and freezing corn and green beans, canning tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables and butchering chickens.

We did make one major trip, however, in the late summer of 1968. My sister had spent eight weeks studying in France that summer and was scheduled to fly into Philadelphia on her return. My mom’s sister and her family lived in Reading, Pennsylvania, not far at all from Philly, so about a week before my sister’s return, Mom and Dad and I hopped into that same Ford Custom and headed southeast through Wisconsin.

We drove through Wisconsin Dells, with its souvenir shops and snack stands and its gaudy signs advertising boat tours and duck rides and treats, my head turning this way and that as we drove the city’s main street. (The city remains much the same, based on a 2006 visit; the only difference is that water parks abound on the city’s outskirts, along the I-94 route that I’m not sure existed in 1968.)

We made our way along turnpikes through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In a hotel room in Morton’s Grove, we watched on television as the Democratic Party selected its vice-presidential candidate in downtown Chicago – just a few miles distant – while outside the convention hall, police clubbed and savaged protesters in what was later categorized as a “police riot.”

Among the stops as we made our way to Reading were Notre Dame University and its Golden Dome in Indiana; Blue Hole and Mystery Hill in Ohio (the first a pond said to be too deep to measure and the second one of those places where gravity is said to be skewed and water and other things run uphill); the birthplaces of Thomas Edison in Ohio and President James Buchanan in western Pennsylvania.

We toured for a few hours the Civil War battlefield at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, and spent half a day at the battlefield at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The ebb and flow of the 1862 battle at Antietam was too complex for me to grasp it as we drove from site to site there, but the next day, at Gettysburg, I stood on Cemetery Ridge and looked west to where, in 1863, the Confederate lines had been and from where Gen. George Pickett’s men had marched in the charge that has since been named for him.

The air had that odd stillness that seems to descend on every battlefield. It’s a quiet that seems to touch every place where too many men have fallen in defense of one ideal or another. And it weighed heavily at Gettysburg, especially at that point where Pickett’s Charge broke on the Union line, the Confederate soldiers having come nearly a mile through a storm of cannon shells and rifle balls.

That stillness, that weight of history, had gathered at some of the other places we saw on that trip, whether en route, in Pennsylvania, or on our way back to Minnesota. Few places were as somber or as haunting as Gettysburg, though. With my cousins, we visited Valley Forge near Philadelphia and then toured the historic sites in the city: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross house, Benjamin Franklin’s grave. A couple of days later, with my sister safely returned, the four of us left Reading and went to Washington, D.C., for a day.

We toured the White House and wandered freely through the Capitol building (something that is sadly unthinkable today, I would guess), saw our nation’s founding documents at the National Archives and some of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. But the most sobering moments had been late in the afternoon the day before at Arlington National Cemetery, another place where that silence descends, most notably at the gravesite of John F. Kennedy, assassinated less than five years earlier.

From Washington, we drove west, heading across the midsections of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. We visited friends and saw sites related to Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois, and then toured several places related to author Mark Twain in the touristy but congenial small town of Hannibal, Missouri. From there, we headed north toward home.

It was a lot to absorb for a teenage boy, even one as tuned to history as I was. Somewhere along the way, I picked up a copy of Bruce Catton’s short history of the Civil War and dug into that when we got home. (Catton’s longer works are still on my list of things to read, as is Shelby Foote’s history of the conflict.) And as I read, I sorted through the places we’d seen, things I’d learned on that long trip. I guess, almost forty years later, I’m still sorting.

And when Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” popped up while I was compiling a random selection of songs from 1968, I was at first amused. Then it seemed appropriate to hear “We’ve all gone to look for America.” That’s what we were doing in the late summer of 1968, I guess – looking for America – and I think that’s what many of us are still doing today.

As always, bit rates will vary. Enjoy!

A Baker’s Dozen From 1968

“My Days Are Numbered” by Blood, Sweat & Tears from Child is Father to the Man

“I Am A Pilgrim” by the Byrds from Sweetheart of the Rodeo

“Roll With It” by the Steve Miller Band from Children of the Future

“Handbags & Gladrags” by Love Affair from Everlasting Love Affair

“Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles from The Beatles

“I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Jerry Butler from The Soul Goes On

“I Just Want To Make Love To You” by Muddy Waters from Electric Mud

“Good Feelin’” by the Peanut Butter Conspiracy from For Children of All Ages

“America” by Simon & Garfunkel from Bookends

“Through An Old Storybook by Sweetwater from Sweetwater

“I Got You Babe” by Etta James from the Tell Mama sessions

“Do You Know The Way To San Jose?” by Dionne Warwick, Scepter single 12216

“The Weight” by the Staple Singers from Soul Folk In Action

A few notes on some of the songs:

In Friday’s post on horn bands, I mentioned Blood, Sweat & Tears’ debut album, Child is Father to the Man. “My Days Are Numbered” is one of the better tracks on the album and, to my mind, gives a good example of Al Kooper’s hopes for the band before some of the other band members jettisoned him.

The Love Affair’s version of “Handbags & Gladrags” is not the best version out there of that great song; I like Chris Farlowe’s take on the song, and Rod Stewart’s version might be definitive. But the little-remembered Love Affair at least battled the song to a draw.

Electric Mud was Chess Records’ attempt to make Muddy Waters more current, putting the venerable bluesman together with what All-Music Guide calls “Hendrix-inspired psychedelic blues arrangements.” The record sold fairly well, but Waters didn’t like it, and the results are more of a curio than anything substantial today. (Chess did the same thing in 1968 with Howlin’ Wolf, and the results were, if anything, less good.)

Sweetwater was an odd band that featured flute, congas and cello as well as the traditional trappings of a rock band, and its music reflects that, with results ranging from remarkable to “What in the hell were they thinking?” Sweetwater was the group’s debut album, but in 1969 – during which the band was the first group to take the stage at Woodstock – lead singer Nansi Nevins was injured in a car crash and required years of physical therapy. The group recorded two albums without her and then faded away until 1997, when Nevins and some of the other original members reunited.