Friday, March 03, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: HILLBILLY PROTEST

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 3, 2006

Norman and Nancy Blake do what they do best on their latest album, Back Home in Sulphur Springs -- simple but irresistible interpretations of old-time rural Southern tunes.

There are songs about ramblin' and jail, sentimental reflections on happy little homes and the fair, sad-eyed sweethearts that singers always tend to leave there, even a couple of shipwreck ballads.

And Chattanooga-born Norman Blake is still one of the finest old-time country pickers operating today. His arsenal -- including guitar, dobro, mandolin, and fiddle -- has the voice of a hillbilly sage. When he sings, you can almost imagine him personally witnessing the past 200 years of southern history.

But there's an edge to this album, a hard-nosed reminder that while the Blakes might exalt the little cabin home and sunny Southern mornings, they are truly citizens of 21st-century America.

It's first apparent in the third track, "He's Coming to Us Dead," the story of a father whose son is killed in a war. The grief-stricken old man warns the soldiers who help unload the casket: "He broke his poor old mother's heart, her sayings all came true/She said this is the way that he'd come back when he joined the boys in blue."

Although the scene obviously is relevant today, the quaint trappings of the train and the telegraph office give away the fact that the song dates back -- at least -- to the late 1920s.

The credits on this album say the song is "traditional." However, many people credit "He's Coming to Us Dead" to G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, "first wave" country stars who recorded it in the late '20s.

"He's Coming to Us Dead" is making a "comeback" of sorts. The 1966 version by folkie faves The New Lost City Ramblers appears on the recently released Classic Railroad Songs on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The liner notes for that CD say the song originally was published in 1899 by Gussie Davis, a black songwriter who also is credited for "Goodnight Irene."

What's remarkable about the song is that there are no words about patriotism, heroism, or duty to your country -- just death and grief and broken hearts.

But in case there's any question about where the Blakes' politics lie, you can find the answer in the CD's "hidden" track, a protest song called "Don't Be Afraid of the Neocons," which names names, points fingers, and generally goes far beyond the Dixie Chicks in criticizing the Bush administration -- singing about Iraq, Cindy Sheehan, Hurricane Katrina, and Dick Cheney's underground bunker. But the outrage in the lyrics is leavened by Norman's gentle hillbilly humor.

"Now Georgie Bush he is the man/He landed in Afghanistan. 'We'll get Osama,' was his crack/And now we're stranded in Iraq...."

There's even a verse about the president's fondness for Saudi royalty: "Now Georgie, he is kind and meek/He kissed the king upon the cheek/They walked the garden hand in hand/While the oil and blood dripped on the sand."

"Neocons" reminds me of those historical ballads still sung today about the Garfield assassination or the sinking of the Titanic -- not to mention the fine Irish tradition of antiwar songs.

The chorus appeals to a traditional backwoods loathing of government that predates any person or event in the song: "Don't send your money to Washington/to fight a war that's never done/Don't play their games, don't be their pawns/and don't be afraid of the neocons." This protest only strengthens Nancy's sweet mandolin version of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

And come to think of it, what's with those shipwreck songs? There's not one but two on this album. "The Mermaid" is a traditional song with a theme going back to Homer (no, not of Homer and Jethro). "The Empress of Ireland," written by Patty Bryan, is about a tragedy that occurred on the St. Lawrence River in the spring of 1914, when the Empress of Ireland collided with a Norwegian ship, the Storstad. More than 1,000 died.

In the American folk tradition, shipwreck songs are often allegories for divine retribution against vain and corrupt societies. "God moves on the water!" went the chorus of one popular Titanic ballad.

Do I sense a subtle metaphor at work here?

Also recommended

* Old Time Black Southern String Band Music by Butch Cage & Willie B. Thomas. This is nothing but party music -- well, at least the way they used to have parties in the rural South in the days before stereos.

Recorded back in 1960 by folklorist Harry Oster, Cage and Thomas were part-time Louisiana musicians who earned extra cash by playing for dances, parties, and sometimes even church services. Both men died in the 1970s.

Amazingly, this is the first time most of these tracks have been released.

Cage played fiddle while Thomas played guitar. Both sang -- sometimes in unison, sometimes practically tripping over each other. The result is a rough, spontaneous, good-time sound that makes a listener wish he'd been invited to some of those parties.

There are some familiar songs here: "Since I Laid My Burden Down" (sometimes called "Glory Glory"), "Ain't Gonna Rain No More," Misspi Fred McDowell's "You Gotta Move," and "Careless Love," one of those great American tunes that's been traded back and forth between the races so much that its genealogy doesn't even matter.

Other notable songs are "Rock Me Mama" (featuring Cage's finest fiddle work on the album), "The Dirty Dozens" (the "shake-your-yas-yas-yas" lyrics at that time were considered risqué), and "The Piano Blues," which is 100 percent pianoless.

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