Roots Music Break: The Midnight Special

One of my favorite Creedence songs has long been “Midnight Special.”

It always captivated me with lyrics that hint at a bigger story. Who is Miss Rosie? Why is her dude locked up? Who is “The Man” who gets mad when you complain about not having pork up in your pan?

I considered it a poetic critique of American life on the margins with some implied narrative that was a little fuzzy around the edges — much like “Proud Mary,” which CCR’s John Fogerty wrote — and didn’t investigate it further. Indeed, why would you need to when you’re too busy banging the dashboard to the beat on the back roads of Northern California?

Then, I discovered this:

That’s famous Louisiana blues man and sometimes jailbird Lead Belly singing with the Golden Gate Quartet, c. 1940.

This version of the song gave me goosebumps. There are additional lyrics that provide tantalizing details about the story. There are new, named characters: Sheriff Rocko (?), Eddie Boone, and “Jumpin little Judy.”

Well jumpin’ little Judy, she was a mighty fine girl
Well Judy brought jumpin’ to this whole round world
Well she brought it in the mornin’, just a while before day
She brought me the news, that my wife was dead
That started me to grievin’, then hollerin’ and a-cryin’
Then I had to give the worry about a been a long time

Putting the lyrics aside for a moment, the immediate conclusion one draws from listening to this rich, earlier version is that CCR, in an all too familiar pattern, took a song from an older African American writer, and brought it to a mass audience (and probably cashed in).

But it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. As Wikipedia explains, when Alan Lomax first recorded Lead Belly singing the song in 1934 during a stint in Louisiana’s Angola Prison (read its harrowing history), he also assumed Lead Belly was the author. A clue to the contrary lies in the lyrics of the song, which even in Lead Belly’s version tell a sketchy story at best.

Lead Belly wasn’t the author either — though he certainly deserves a huge amount of credit for his moving rendition. “Midnight Special” was a prison song — a folk tune whose lyrics were likely the product of years of circulation in the prisons of the South. There are many other versions besides Lead Belly’s and CCR’s, and not just covers but other prison versions. You can listen to at least one on the Library of Congress website: Burruss Johnson’s “De Funiac Blues,” recorded at the Florida State Penitentiary in 1939.

One of the details of the lyrics to Lead Belly’s version whose meaning we can almost nail down is that the song’s title and refrain likely refer to a train that ran by a prison in Texas, and shone its lights through the windows onto prisoners. That light symbolized escape, either as a route away from the prison, or a route out of this life.

The lyrics are a fragmentary story for a reason — they are fragments, of the lives of many long-suffering Southern men from the early part of the 20th century, assembled in a song that displays them like a kaleidoscope.

Knowing all this, the song feels like a bit of alternative history, arising from the masses of those who didn’t have the ability to write a more formal version. Maybe my original interpretation wasn’t so far off after all.

Sunday Night Oldies Show: I love NYC edition

Today I spent the afternoon at Rockaway Beach, one of the most “natural” places you can reach on the subway in this crazy city. Once you get over the stifling heat, the interminable ride on the 2-A-S, and the infernal racket therein (excited beach goers escaping hot apartments can be rambunctious), the broken glass and occasional condom in the waves… Wow. New York is amazing, and nowhere do you see the vivacity of this city more distilled than on this strip on the edge of the Atlantic, a kind of collective front stoop for a city with not enough space.

Pregnant ladies in bikinis, back handsprings, tattoos both stylish and ill-advised, I’ve seen it all today.

But to be honest, it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I remembered just how special Rockaway Beach is. I had just walked back to the subway shuttle that runs, Spirited Away-style, through the middle of Jamaica Bay and some rather grody marshes. The day was turning to evening, and high cumuli that had spat rain and made blue penumbrae above the apartment blocks were clearing. I ran into the last car of the train, where a policewoman was holding the doors. I set myself up in the opposite door with my duffle bag and the djembe I was caring around (long story). The car was hot and still — kids whose days had been too long, and their parents, whose days had been even longer.

Then the policewoman left, the doors closed, and the train lurched forward. A dad in the corner seat leaned forward from his family.

“Yo, turn that radio on!” he shouted. And the car was flooded with music. Specifically:

1. Dile (aka Otra Noche) by Don Omar

Within 30 seconds, people throughout the car stood up and began dancing, from middle-aged men in t-shirts and jean shorts down to their calves, to someone’s grandma across the aisle. Some younger women stayed in their seats and moved their shoulders to the beat. The dad who gave the call for the radio started passing styrofoam cups full of something that made people suck air through their teeth. He walked over to talk to “Mr. DJ” to exchange a handshake; DJ explained that a guy owed him money but he had him load up his iPod with 30 gigs of music instead.

I couldn’t help bobbing my head just a little. Actually, I didn’t even know it until the dad called me out.

“Hey, when you gonna play that drum?” he asked.

“No man, I’d just mess it up!” I smiled sheepishly.

“But I saw you moving — you feel the music in your veins, huh?”

Ha. I did.

Yes, New York, your rhythms are in my veins somehow, and this decidedly non-lowrider-influenced Sunday Night Oldies Show is dedicated to you, and all your fine people. Here’s what else I’m listening to tonight.

2.  No Woman No Cry by The Fugees

Sure, The Fugees are no Bob Marley, but when I listen to their version of this song, sitting in an apartment with a fan on trying to fight the 80+ degree Manhattan heat at 1 a.m., I hear the heartbeat of this vast metropolis and the yearnings of 10 million apartment lights on its ragged edges; the breath of the city:

“I remember when we used to rock/in the project yard in Jersey./And little Georgie would make the firelight/as stolen cars passed through the night.”

3. 911 by Wyclef featuring Mary J. Blige

I love this city. That doesn’t mean it’s good for my health. Even in its gentrified form, it’s crowded, polluted, lonely — the individual is so dwarfed — and instills one with the dangerous and absurd illusion of being at the center of the universe. Watch this video and realize that this collaboration between two singers from Yonkers and Brooklyn-NJ, respectively, is as much about the painful love for a sprawling serpentine city as it is about a cursed romance. Maybe they’re one and the same.

Here’s one more for the road:

4. Dile al amor by [the Bronx’s own] Aventura

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show — reminisce and saudade

They Reminisce Over You by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth

Sunday nights are all about reminiscing. Here’s a jam that makes me think of East Coast summer nights — and also San Francisco, because I used to cue up my tape recorder waiting for this one circa 1992-1993. Here in Harlem the trees are green, the days are pushing 80, people are on the stoops and barber shops late into the night, and the shrill roar of local motorcycle buffs tearing down the avenues is coming through my windows. Take it slow, guys…

Ooh Baby Baby performed by the San Francisco TKOs

Speaking of slow, let’s slow it down and take some calls from the request lines. I give you “Ooh Baby Baby” as performed by the San Francisco TKOs, an old fashioned group I only recently became acquainted with. Love the cover art — who else remembers 107.7 KSOL? I like this grittier version better than The Miracles’, which sounds like LA to me, whereas the TKOs sounds like Telegraph Avenue, distant bridge lights, the Emeryville mudflats, the dry season on San Francisco hills.

Rather Go Blind by Etta James

No comment — just please turn this one up. And if you need more check out Beyonce’s surprisingly good Cadillac Records rendition.

Sodade by Cesaria Evora

Finally, a tune from elsewhere — and about elsewhere, the eternal Elsewhere. Because as I understand it, this song is about having a rift between where you are and where you wish to be: pain for the passage of time, separation from loved ones. Saudade (sodade in Cape Verdean Creole), according to Wikipedia, “describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.”  This song drips with it.

I was lucky enough to see the late Cape Verdean legend Cesaria Evora perform this one several years ago in Berkeley. In the middle of the show, barefoot, she took a break to have a drink and a smoke. It was part of the performance but convincing nonetheless.

This may be the ultimate song for Sunday evening.

Music break: Your Sunday Night Oldies Show

First in a new series. I can’t promise I’ve got a voice as smooth as Big Daddy Victor Zaragosa — who shepherded many a San Francisco night to conclusion on the radio in my younger days — but I think I can select them just about as well as your standard lovesick Sunday night call-in. Here are some classics to start you off. Whether you have a nice ride to work on or just a window and a beer, turn it up!

On a Sunday Afternoon by A Lighter Shade of Brown

Night Owl by Tony Allen

NB: You gotta read Tony Allen’s bio. 

Samba Pa Ti by Carlos Santana

I’m sort of obsessed with this song by my fellow Bernal Heights original Carlos Santana. When I listen to it I see the view from Bernal Hill, the light through clouds on the Church Street steeples, pepper trees scattering their leaves all over Folsom Street, music festivals and street fairs and jam sessions, I smell herb smoke drifting through a day trying to decide whether it’s going to be foggy or not, burritos, I hear the neighbor’s Chevy Malibu engine revving, bad little kids shouting at each other on Moultrie Street,  and the rain falling through the leaves of avocado trees.

From Five Miles from Frisco

Slow Jam by Vieux Farka Toure

OK, so you probably won’t hear this song on KMEL’s dedication lines tonight, but I think it’s a logical follow-up to Santana — and conveniently named for Anglophone fans of the son of The Greatest Guitarist of All Time, Ali Farka Toure.

Intelligent boycotts

boycott usa

Photo by Karen Eliot, click for more details.

A recent article I stumbled on today in the Financial Times describes the controversy surrounding Paul Simon’s collaboration with South African musicians on his wildly popular 1986 album Graceland. It contains this priceless quote from musical legend Hugh Masekela, who played on Simon’s tour:

“Some of the most vocal journalists [who criticised Simon] were white South Africans who were living the most privileged lives,” he said. “I had a lot of run-ins with them. I told them to shut the f*** up. You know, one of the first people Nelson Mandela invited to South Africa was Paul Simon. I purposely joined [Simon] because I knew he wasn’t a crook and he wasn’t out to rip off anybody.”

I find the quote and the article instructive as they relate to current debates about certain international boycotts that have drawn comparisons to the successful one against S.A., which helped end Apartheid. Cultural boycotts of countries should be selective to be effective. The wrong kinds of isolation can facilitate a reactionary environment. And it’s generally the privileged that can afford to take the most uncompromising positions, which isn’t always useful.

Agree? Or am I just biased because I spent my childhood summers on blacktop desert highways with the windows down bumping “people say she’s crazy she got diamonds on the soles of her shoes” … ?

Much more good stuff on this subject over at Africa Is a Country.

[Edit: fixed ridiculous typo.]

Somali-language anti-piracy song from last year

Obviously you read Jeffrey Gettleman’s story in the NY Times Magazine last week, “Taken by Pirates.” Perhaps you were curious about the music video he mentioned, put together by the Somali community in the UK to ask for the release of Rachel and Paul Chandler.

Abdiwali and some others at Universal TV then turned to Abdi Shire Jama, who was a freelance interpreter in London and a talented songwriter. Jama thought a music video would help spread the word, so he produced a song called “Release the Couple,” soon broadcast on Universal and YouTube. It begins with a Somali kid with a British accent saying, “I hope this message gets to the people who are responsible for holding Rachel and Paul Chandler.” Then, after a burst of synthetic drums and some squeaky Somali music, five Somali singers break into song.

“Our people fled their homes. . . . The host countries did not look at the color of our skins. . . . We need to show our debt to them, for it is the donkey who does not acknowledge the debt.”

Well, here’s the song. Interesting stuff.

Hat-tip AK.

Music break: How did I sleep on Aurelio Martinez’s new album?

It’s already been a few months, apparently. Aurelio Martinez is an Honduran Garifuna musician who brought his people’s sounds to international ears in a big way, starting with his 2004 album Garifuna Soul. For his 2011 album, Laru Beya, he traveled to Senegal to record some tracks with Youssou N’Dour and other artists, which gives the songs I’ve listened to so far (still getting through the album) a broader feel — this is worldly Garifuna. (Interesting in itself because Martinez has said that part of the reason Garifuna culture has survived so long is because of its insularity in the past.)

The music is, in short, fantastic. One of the most stirring songs I’ve heard so far is “Wamada,” Martinez’s intense, soulful requiem for Andy Palicio, the famous Garifuna musician who passed away in 2008. Have a listen.

Music break: a song for the hypocrites

“Kigeugeu” by Kenyan artist Jaguar. This song has been around for a few months, but I just started listening to it. (Clearly, urgency is not this blog’s forté!)

Kigeugeu means “changing” in Kiswahili — as in the way chameleons change color (Google translate says “vascillating”). The saying is kigeugeu kama kinyonga — changing like a chameleon. The characters in this video — the pastor, the wife, the politician — change according to their circumstances.

I think the song bumps, and is kind of soulful, too.

Apparently, Raila Odinga is also a Jaguar fan.