11 September 2005

Sunday PS: We lose another bluesman*

Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, who lost his house and most of his possessions owing to Katrina, died yesterday at his brother's home in Orange, Texas. According to Reuters, Gatemouth Brown himself had been evacuated just before the hurricane hit. In the Reuters story, fellow New Orleans musician Joe Krown says that Gatemouth was already in serious condition from cancer, but heartbreak over the effects of the hurricane contributed to the end.

Dignity, virtuosity, and versatility are some of the qualities I associate with Gatemouth. (*The asterisk in the header refers to the fact that he was never a blues specialist, going easily from blues to country to jazz to Cajun.) In his brief contribution to the Lightning in a Bottle concert movie, my eyes are held by the beauty of his face while the rest of me enjoys his delicious and outwardly effortless picking on "Okie Dokie Stomp," which I'm listening to while I write this.

This has been a hard month for blues addicts, because we also lost R.L. Burnside on September 1, and Little Milton last month. Talk about withdrawal.

One final note about musicians associated with New Orleans: Certainly they're not more important than others who suffer, but because they are so many, so good, and so well-known, they give many of us another heart-connection with their region. This website is trying to keep up with their situation in the aftermath of Katrina.

Speaking of addicts and withdrawal, my younger son was asking for songs that were pro- and anti-drug use, for inclusion in a health course project for school. Well, the blues is a fertile field for both themes. For pro-drugs, I nominated Champion Jack Dupree's "Junker's Blues" -
(My my ... I'm sick as I can be...)
Some people call me a junker, cause I'm loaded all the time
I just feel happy and I feel good all the time
Some people say I use a needle, and some say I sniff cocaine
But that's the best old feelin' that I ever need.

Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey,
Lord, and so long to gin
I just want my reefer, I just want to feel high again.

(oh yes I'm a junker, I feel all right)

Some people, some people crave for chicken,
And some crave for a Porterhouse steak,
But when I get loaded lord I don't want my milk and cake.

(oh yeah that's what I want now... They call me a junker... Cause I'm loaded all the time... But that ain't nothin, that I feel good all the time...)
Back in 1971, he performed another version of this song with King Curtis at the Montreux Blues Festival. In that version, a policeman takes the reefer right out of his hand. In court, the judge says, "You look guilty as you can be," then says to the District Attorney, "Pass that reefer here to me," after which he declares the defendant not guilty. Dupree ends the song, "That's the only time I feel good, cause a reefer set me free."

To represent the other side, I first suggested J.B. Hutto's great song, "Too Much Alcohol." That song is special to me because it was the soundtrack for my first attempt at making a music video, at the Evanston Township High School television studio 35 years ago.

But then I remembered a stern lyric from John Lee Hooker, off his Endless Boogie album. Judge for yourself:
Kick Hit 4 Hit Kix You (by John Lee Hooker)

I'm gon' tell you a story
About two friends whom I known
And the whole world knowed 'em
The one and only Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin
Who passed on from the needle
They OD'd
Ah what a big loss to this wonderful world
Dope addicts, dope addicts, you better watch yourself
Dope addicts, dope addicts
You got to watch yourself
You one of these days, one of these days
You might pass on
Stop shootin' those needle and stop swallowin' that LSD
Stop shootin' those needles and stop swallowin' those pills
That needle's too heavy, your heart can't take it none
Hey hey
I know, so many young folks
They're hooked, they're doomed to die
So many young folks
They're hooked, they're doomed to die
You better try and kick it
But you can't last long this way
Drug addict, drug addict, you better wake up and get wise
Drug addict, drug addict, you better wake up and get wise
Your days are numbered, your days are numbered
You're dead, you just don't know
You better try and kick it
You better try and kick it
That needle is too heavy for you, it's too heavy
Hey, it's too heavy
It's too heavy for your heart, for your heart
Hey hey
It's too heavy
It's too heavy
You better kick it right now
I know you better kick it
I know it's hard
You better suffer and kick it
You better suffer and kick it
You got to suffer some
To kick
Hey it's too heavy for you.
(I started with a transcription from blues.ru/bluesmen and made some corrections.)
This set me to thinking about lyrics from back in those years when I first started listening to this music. Those old lyrics don't always stand up to contemporary scrutiny! For example, that classic Smokey Robinson song, "You Really Got a Hold on Me":
I don't like you but I love you,
Seems that I'm always thinking of you,
Ooh ooh you treat me badly, I love you madly,
You really got a hold on me.

I don't want you but I need you
Don't want to kiss you but I need to
Ooh ooh you do me wrong now my love is strong now,
You really got a hold on me.
Now we'd say "That singer needs a program!"

Robert Nighthawk's song, "Going Down to Eli's," represents a nightmare reality for too many people. Blues songs don't excuse behavior by reporting it, but did (does) their repetition reinforce terrible cultural patterns? ...
I went down to Eli's
To get my pistol out of bond,
When I got back home,
My woman had gone.

Yeah, gonna murder my baby,
If she don't stop cheating and lying.
Well, I'd rather be in the penitentiary
Than to be worried out of my mind.
Of course, these lyrical time capsules of addiction and codependence aren't the whole story. Big Mama Thornton had another attitude ("Hound Dog," written by Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller):
You ain't nothing but a hound-dog, been snooping round my door,
You ain't nothing but a hound-dog, been snooping round my door,
You can wag your tail but I ain't gonna feed you more.

You told me you was high class, but I could see through that
You told me you was high class, I could see through that
And baby I know, you ain't no real cool cat


You made me feel so blue, you made me weep and moan
You made me feel so blue, you made me weep and moan
'Cause you ain't looking for a woman, all your lookin' for is a home

What other songs could be cited on either side of this ledger?


pril said...

there's a "cocaine" by Johnny Cash, and "Cocaine Blues" by Dave Van Ronk and the Van Ronk one is a love/hate song. Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done". Once i wake up i could think of more. Clapton's "Cocaine" of course, and in rehab we always sang it and changed the chorus to "Lost my job, lost my car, lost my house to cocaine".

Johan Maurer said...

James Cotton's "Rocket 88" celebrated drinking and driving, if I'm not mistaken:

Step in my Rocket. Don't be late
Cause we're pulling out about half past eight
Go around the corner gonna get a fifth
Everybody in my car's gonna take a little nip
Move on out. Movin' and cruisin' along.


Gil S said...

I thought of Needle of death by Bert Jansch.

When sadness fills your heart
And sorrow hides the longing to be free
When things go wrong each day
You fix your mind to 'scape your misery

Your troubled young life
Had made you turn
To a needle of death

How strange, your happy words
Have ceased to bring a smile from everyone
How tears have filled the eyes
Of friends that you once had walked among

Your troubled young life
Had made you turn
To a needle of death

One grain of pure white snow
Dissolved in blood spread quickly to your brain
In peace your mind withdraws
Your death so near your soul can't feel no pain

Your troubled young life
Had made you turn
To a needle of death

Your mother stands a'cryin'
While to the earth your body's slowly cast
Your father stands in silence
Caressing every young dream of the past

Your troubled young life
Had made you turn
To a needle of death

Through ages, man's desires
To free his mind, to release his very soul
Has proved to all who live
That death itself is freedom for evermore

And your troubled young life
Will make you turn
To a needle of death

Johan Maurer said...

For codependence, it is hard to imagine a more direct confession than Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," although she ends with hope: "... That chain's gonna break."

Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" seems unambiguous: "Everybody must get stoned." I remember being in a discotheque on the S.S. France as a teenager. I saw that song on a jukebox. The Beatles' album Revolver was at the center of attention of most of the teenagers there. For some reason I didn't want people to know I liked the Dylan song, so I pretended to choose randomly, but made sure I pushed the right buttons for "Rainy Day Women."

Anonymous said...

Hi! Not much to contribute to the debate - just wanted to thank you for introducing me to Charlie Musslewhite via a posting you did a while back - I've been listening to him ever since!

Johan Maurer said...

When you mention Charlie Musselwhite's name, I suddenly hear his amazing voice in my head:

I've got a rough-dried woman, never finish' anything she starts. She lives in the city, but she's country way down in her heart."

That's the song he started with last July at the Waterfront Blues Festival. Such amazing electricity.

Some of his songs seem to reflect hs own struggles with addiction. There's the old trick of blaming "fast women and whiskey [which] drove this poor boy wild" (in "The Blues Overtook Me").

And these words from "The Cold Grey Light of Dawn":

Neon lights in the jukebox help to ease me through the night,
And I lean hard on the bottle til I can no longer stand upright.


Down the highway then I drive, I'm more dead than alive,
and I turn blue in the cold grey light of dawn.

Anonymous said...

I think of Hank Williams Sr. singing Lost Highway:

Just a deck of cards
and a jug of wine
and a woman's lies
make a life like mine.
Started rolling down
that Lost Highway.

I can never remember who sang the song,
Jose Cuervo, you are a friend of mine.
I like to drink you with a little salt and lime.
Did I kiss all the cowboys?
Did I shoot out the lights?
Did I dance on the bar?
Did I start any fights?

John Denver did a song years ago, "Please Daddy Don't Get Drunk This Christmas." My sister and I used to fast-forward past it on our John Denver and the Muppets Christmas 8-track tape. I noticed that they didn't include this song when they reissued the album on CD.

And I think that nowadays most singers leave out the verse on cocaine in the song:

I get no kick from Champagne,
mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all,
but I get a kick out of you.

Johan Maurer said...

That last song reminded me of one of the songs associated with Cab Calloway, "Minnie the Moocher." Our kids sang innocently along with Cab Calloway when he appeared on the television show Sesame Street. I can't remember now whether he changed the lyrics for that appearance. I hope so.

The subject of changing and bleaching lyrics is a whole other subject. Maybe a worthwhile one ....