Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

December 21, 2012

Sharing Music

“How come everybody wanna keep it like a Kaiser?
Give it away, give it away, give it away now!”
~-Red Hot Chili Peppers

Music is meant to be shared, passed around and tweaked like messages in a game of “Telephone.” That’s how it grows. I believe that there is just one song, and people began playing it in different ways depending on whether they were happy or sad, what instruments were at hand and who their teacher was. Nowadays variations and fragments of the vast and ancient Song are shuffled together through the arts of songwriting and mixology. There is quite a rich and global heritage of music available to even the humblest of Western consumers, largely as canned recordings.

I’ve got no complaints about the branch library, airwaves and Internet being stocked with free un-live music; it is a huge benefit to me. Still, I want to keep the more organic means of growing the Song well and vital.

One of those means is the distribution of sheet music. The oldest surviving written music is from about 1400 BCE, a hymn left behind by the Hurrian people in what is now Syria. The notation on the clay tablet resembles modern guitar tablature, but for lyre. Here is Michael Levy’s rendition (with lots of background information and links buried in the Youtube notes):

Of course, no one knows exactly what “Hurrian Hymn No. 6” originally sounded like. It’s an interesting fact, that no one even knows at what speed “Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony” was first performed, or what pitch it used for middle C. Every orchestra plays it a little differently. Music distributed in written form is inevitably subject to performers’ interpretation, whereas a “cover band” of the current era may opt for rigid fidelity to recorded material. Reproducing an exact guitar tone through a board of pedals and a stack of speakers is a project in an of itself, although it is all worth it when one gets to experience a good-as-real Pink Floyd show (now available in Australian and British flavors).

Beck Hansen was disappointed when he read a songbook based on one of his albums, and found it to contain a lot of vague directions for teasing weird sounds from recording equipment and synthesizers… so, Beck decided to write an album strictly for release in written form, for all the bands, musicians and combos in the world to take a stab at. “Song Reader,” released earlier this month, is a book of twenty songs, scored in various formats for various band setups. Like popular music from before the era of recording, the music must be reasonably easy to play, for once you have bought the music, you must go on to find people who can play it!

“Song Reader” is an invitation to learn, play and share. “I thought a lot about making these songs playable and approachable, but still musically interesting,” says Beck. “I think some of the best covers will reimagine the chord structure, take liberties with the melodies, the phrasing, even the lyrics themselves.” No one can claim to have laid down the definitive recording of any of these songs, but many musicians and acts have submitted their performances to, the Internet home of the project.

People used to pass around songs with no music at all: just plain lyrics were printed on pamphlets called broadsides, or even bundled up into songbooks. This is one of my favorite ways to learn/write a song: give me some solidly rhythmic words, and a melody and chords will fall right into place around them. I once wrote guitar music to go with J.R.R. Tolkein’s songs included in “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” novels, and of course that has been done for the movies, too. Lately I am perusing a 1921 book, “Songs of the Cowboys” by N. Howard “Jack” Thorp. Full of lonesome and violent cowpuncher tales, the book is included in a collection of public domain songbooks at

Passing songs around in incomplete form helps to keep music growing, because it demands creative participation. In my family, the main musical event of the year is singing Christmas carols. Singing together reminds me of my grandma Stade and pretty well gets me blissed out. However, many of us are not Christian and ostensibly should not celebrate Christmas. Actually, Christians did not invent Christmas — they adapted it from Pagan celebrations such as Saturnalia and Yule. So, today, Pagans are taking back Christmas by Paganizing Christmas carols! The results range from beautiful to humorous to kind of obscene. Cern has posted some re-Paganized carols in an online songbook, in the format of lyrics with chords (how the chords are played is up to the imagination of the musicians.)

 Later on, by the fire,
 Cone of Power, gettin' higher
        G7       Dm          G7        F
 It's a Magickal Night we're having tonight,
 D7           G7            C
 Dancing in a Wiccan Wonderland

It bears mentioning here that estraven/innana has been sharing links to Christmas music over on “View from the Loft,” for your listening pleasure. She knows some weird old tunes, so you will probably find something new there.

Music is meant to be shared so that it can grow. 70+ year copyrights are clearly supporting publishing-company profits over creative growth (ie, the advancement of human culture.) IMHO, by the time you are very old, you should have full rights to the songs of your childhood. The U.S. Constitution allows for copyrights of limited term, but Congress has the ability and willingness to extend copyright every time the Disney company stands to lose control over Mickey Mouse. That seems to constitute an unlimited copyright, something unconstitutional and therefor illegal. The copyright law is as invalid as it is unjust, and it should be regarded as nothing more than a cruel, small-minded and criminal threat aimed at capturing the world’s Song and other branches of human culture for private profiteers.

This post points to works that were meant to be shared, or are actually so old as to be public domain, or can be passed off as First Amendment-protected parody. You can always play cover tunes in your own living room, too. So, there is a good deal of free space to play in around the edges of copyright protection. The attempt to dominate the growth of the Song for the sake of private profit is as laughable as it is full of hubris.

Anyone can help feed the Song, by supporting musicians as well as exchanging instruments, music and ideas. Being in the music is the fullest human experience — engaging more of your brain than writing about philosophy or having sex. There’s no need to feel cowed by a phony ideal of originality or the standards of professional musicianship — music is for all people, and music is to be shared.


November 24, 2012

“Happy Birthday” Copyright Protects Legacy of Plagiarism

I’ve been investigating some old folk tunes to see which ones are in the public domain. “Goodnight Irene” and “The Pines” still sound good after all these years, but is it lawful for me to self-publish my own covers of these tunes, or is a recording house going to sue me into a lifetime of poverty for such bold theft?

The Public Domain Information Project publishes a little list of public domain songs, which could helpfully confirm that a work is out of copyright. “Goodnight Irene,” unfortunately, is not on there. I was intrigued to discover “Good Morning Children,” a song that goes:

Good morning to you,
good morning to you,
good morning dear children,
good morning to all.

Well, I can only imagine that being sung to one particular tune. Wikipedia and Google were able to flesh out the picture for me, no problem.

The origins of “Happy Birthday” can be traced back all the way to 1859. Horace Waters, remembered mainly as a piano maker, published a little tune called “Happy Greeting to All.” Follow the link and press the “play” button to hear the tune.

Happy Greeting To You sheet music

The chorus is recognizable as being much like “Happy Birthday,” and its lyrics follow the same repeating, repetitious, redundant pattern. Waters went on to publish “Goodnight to You All,” and, in 1875, “Happy New Year to All.” What a creative dynamo!

An aside:

Waters ripping off himself probably didn’t look too odd at the time, when lots of music was written through the folk process. To write a song, you “stole” someone else’s song (or your own!), rewrote the lyrics, and adjusted the music to suit your own playing style and band setup. As copyright enforcement became stricter and the public domain receded into the past, folk songwriting has been effectively outlawed. Our moral sense of a song being “ripped off” has even adjusted to harmonize with the law.

Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” and “Travellin’ Riverside Blues” strike me as a couple of folk process tunes that no one would dare to call unoriginal, although “Hellhound” resembles Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” and “Riverside” is a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a song that “came out of the cotton fields.” You can easily find all of these songs on Youtube, if you’re inclined.

The modern songwriting process must treat each piece as original and unrelated to any other song, forged from the collision of beats, chords and melodic riffs in massive high-energy studio cyclotrons, and yet the result is only about as good as Britney Spears.

“Happy Greeting to All”or a variant was picked up by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, who rewrote it as “Good Morning to All” for Mildred’s kindergarten class. The sisters published their song without the birthday lyrics in 1893. According to legend, the kids at school were so enthralled by the song that they in turn reworked it into “Happy Birthday” for singing at parties.  It saw print numerous times, and by 1924 the birthday lyrics were printed with it as an alternate verse. However, no one can name the person who wrote the birthday lyrics any more than we can know which cowboy first sang “Bury Me not on the Lone Prairie.”

In the early 1930’s, “Happy Birthday” was everywhere, being delivered by singing telegram and even sung on the Broadway stage. A third Hill sister, Jessica, decided that she’d had enough of people using her sisters’ song, and she was going to act to protect it. In 1935, the publisher of “Good Morning to All” copyrighted “Happy Birthday to You,” and even formed a new company specifically to enforce that copyright. The supposed composer of “Happy Birthday to You” was Preston Ware Orem, a piano-playing songwriter best known for weaving American Indian themes into orchestral music. Somehow the deal to protect the Hill sisters’ work included giving up their claim on authorship. Although everybody was stealing “Happy Birthday,” Orem looks to have crossed a line into plagiarism by actually taking credit for someone else’s song.

When a work is published, it is automatically copyrighted unless the author specifies a different license (such as the Creative Commons license, or simply releasing the work into the public domain.) Thus, the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” were copyrighted in 1924, not 1935, and the melody copyrighted 1893 at the latest. The publisher’s copyright and its extensions were not valid… not only because the company tried to copyright a song already copyrighted with a different composer’s name attached, but also because authorship of the lyrics is just plain unclear (neither of the songwriting Hills ever specifically claimed to have written the birthday verse.)

The phony 1935 copyright is now held by Warner Music Group, which collects about $2 million per year taxing the most-recognized song in the English language. Legal scholars view the copyright as invalid, yet artists are not exactly encouraged to challenge the music group and its Goliath parent.

And so “Happy Birthday to You” becomes a glaring example of how intellectual property law can be twisted to work against the interests of artists and instead promote the interests of those who already have some money. Copyright laws have also limited the techniques available to artists, from the folk writing process to sampling, and in their current form they constitute a real cultural attack. Joe Hill wouldn’t be framed for murder and executed today, they’d lock him up forever for copyright infringement. Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the Civil Rights movement, was actually held back from going to video for several years, partly because of a scene which featured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a birthday cake.

“Happy Birthday to You” is not under any legitimate copyright. It is rightfully part of the common heritage of all people.

November 23, 2012

The Dirt Worshiper Sings

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paragardener @ 5:01 am

I don’t just talk about the blues. I have them almost all the damned time. Some people call that a condition of mental illness, ’cause 1) they want to imagine that living in so much pain is crazy and 2) if it’s mental illness, it is okay to drug the problem away.

Sometimes the difficulty is personal. This is a song about one lover telling the other, “things are going to get better, we won’t always be so broke” but the narrator doesn’t totally believe it.

When my neighbors dressed in black skin cross the boundary into the suburbs, they constantly get pulled over, searched, and caught with infractions from expired insurance to unlicensed guns. We all need to train up to resist police searches, or expect latexed hands up our anuses in the future.

The blues afflict people of all walks of life and social stations. Abraham Lincoln was known as the President with the blues, or “melancholia” as it was often called back then. Yet, Lincoln had some depth of character… what strange and bleak fantasy-scapes flash by when a Bush has a moment of clarity and perceives the emptiness of their meaningless life?

I know of people who have never questioned or had to doubt or peeked into the abyss of despair. They go on to obtain corporate jobs, raise children by the book, mow the lawn regularly and support mainstream politicians. I think I’m better off with the blues.

March 7, 2012

Sky Worship

Filed under: music, science — Tags: , , , , , , — paragardener @ 6:21 pm

Sometimes, from my Detroit home, I can see most of the stars of Orion or the Big Dipper. It probably helps, that vast areas of the city are depopulated or street lights don’t work. Goddess damn, I love this city.

How alienated you are from the sky is some gauge of how alienated you are from nature. For example, I sometimes watch a TV documentary about astronomy and/or old superstitions, and the question is asked, “Do the phases of the moon have an effect on human behavior?” To ask this question at all indicates some cluelessness. Go camping for a month and you will have a certain answer.

Not too long ago, Freelearner showed my on her i-Pad astronomy app how the full moon rises at sunset and sets at sunrise and the new moon rises and sets with the sun. Not only is the full moon bright, it’s out all night. On a clear night, there is light everywhere and campers can wander flashlight-less, stay up late and get into mayhem. On a new moon night, you’ve got only campfires and starlight to see by. People without electricity have to stay close to home. (The reason for the moon’s phases synching with its position on the day or night side of the Earth is really obvious once you see it. Get out two balls and a table lamp and figure it out — remember Earth turns once a day, the moon takes a month to travel around it, and watch those shadows…)

Singers, poets and other drama queens love talking about the stars. Enjoy some tunes about outer space.

Spaceman by 4 Non-Blondes — how did they know to write a personal theme song for me?

Moon in the Sky Called the Moon by B-52’s — a great live recording, but no video.

Big bonus points for referencing the Van Allen Belt in song!

See the Constellation by They Might Be Giants.

Crap, another morning wasted blogging. Time to go and slave under the accursed Day Star. May you come back as a guy made of dots and lines!

January 30, 2012

Youtube Playlist

Filed under: music — Tags: , — paragardener @ 7:14 am

All the Youtube videos from the Springtime Country Blues Explosion were put together with a few bonus tracks and posted as a Youtube playlist. That is all.

January 25, 2012

American Music Held Up on African Roots

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:39 am

The best American music combines European techniques (three-note chords, tightly structured songs) with African techniques (freely sliding pitch, polyrhythm). There is a cultural myth that America is the heir to Western Civilization, a torch passed to us through an unbroken line of progression from the wise forefathers of Classical Greece. That’s great and all, but we have also absorbed plenty of culture from the natives we nearly exterminated, the slaves we bought or kidnapped, and the great books of Asia which we’ve been reading translations of over the last 150 or so years. So, here I explore African music and its influence as a partial antidote to Eurocentrism. You may, however, find this post hopelessly Bluecentric (I’m actually looking for musical examples to help me understand passages from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues ).

One crucible of America’s distinctive music was cosmopolitan New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to participate in drumming parties at Congo Square, and blacks soon got a hold of reed and brass instruments and learned to play them by inventing jazz. I sure wouldn’t condemn it, but I don’t really dig jazz. Every so often, I hear some prig on NPR say that “jazz is the only truly original American art form,” and I want to slap them through the radio. Blues? Rock and roll!?

The blues is jazz’s country cousin. While Jim Crow laws were being passed and white terrorism was raging, railroads and post offices were connecting the rural South to the rest of the country. Blacks could buy a guitar through Sears and Roebuck, then hang out on the front porch singing about “I’m gonna leave my baby, ’cause she mistreats me all the time” (double meaning: “I’m gonna leave this plantation and the shitty white family that runs it.”) The early bluesmen wove together work songs, religious music, white folk/country, and rhythms from a deep memory of Africa.

The earliest wave of slaving had taken many Africans from Senegambia, a dry region of West Africa heavily influenced by Arab culture. The griots there are a caste of professional musicians. Griots might play on the street, or play to coordinate group projects, or play for royalty (singing long, praise-filled histories of the royal family). The satirical songs of a griot scorned are much feared, perhaps especially by the powerful.

Here is griot Lamin Saho singing about peace, love, and unity between the peoples. He’s using the kora, the leader among all the instruments of that region.

You can hear a little of the Arabic tendency to torture a melody in Saho’s singing. Check out how one hand plucks an insistent bass line, while the other indulges in crazy runs of lead notes. Country bluesmen often pick a bass pattern with thumb, and lead notes with fingers. The most intricate country blues players may indeed come from the Southeast, where most of the Senegambian slaves ended up. Also, said slaves almost certainly introduced the banjo to this continent, probably with fretless models.

I wanted to embed a video of a guitar-playing bluesman from the Piedmont region of the Southeast here, but this is too incredible not to take its place: here is North Carolinian George Higgins somehow playing bass and lead parts on the harmonica!

Speaking of harmonica, one can speak through a harmonica, or blend a vocal line into harmonica music almost seamlessly. In old-time black American music, kazoos are not unheard of, and neither is moaning into a jug. Black slaves were mainly denied horns, just like drums, because they were loud enough to serve as a signal for revolt. Still, there may be a tenuous connection between idiosyncratic wind instrument playing here in the States, and the talking horns of Africa. Sometimes made from animal horn, sometimes from a gourd, the talking horn can be played like a brass instrument (by farting with one’s lips), or by singing into it.

Here are some songs utilizing talking horn — I suggest “Humans are Not Food.” I can only assume that the talking horn is that instrument that sounds like a big old kazoo has been shoved up the bell of a trombone. It’s funny that the one example of singing horn I can find is an African band playing American-style jazz!

Here’s the Memphis Jug Band doing “Cocaine Habit Blues,” aka “Take a Whiff on Me.” I’ve been messing with an old brown jug, but I can’t seem to draw a note out of it.

Later waves of slaving moved from Senegambia down the African coast, to the stretch once known as the “slave coast” (it’s that long stretch that faces southwards toward the Atlantic.) As a well-forested land, the slave coast provided big trees for making big drums. The area is a center for African drumming and rhythm. Communal music, involving the whole village, is the thing. Anyone can clap their hands or join in simple harmonies. Slaves taken from here tended to come in later, farther west, and were used more in the field than the house (thus, they had even less opportunity to get ahold of instruments.) Here is just a bitty example of community music-making from Nungua, Ghana.

When I heard this, it seemed instantly familiar. It’s like the fife and drum music of Mississippi. So check out the Ed Young Fife n Drum Corps, rocking a 60’s folk festival.

Properly, a Mississippi fife ‘n’ drum corps would play at a picnic, at night in the middle of a field. Male dancers surround the musicians, maybe getting in a grind with the bass drum, and everyone else hangs around on the dark edges. My favorite part is when a fifer gets down, slaps the ground, and wipes the dust on his forehead… the meaning is lost, though, when you move the action onto stage. On the plus side, ladies such as Sharde Thomas can lately be full participants (you can look up her Rising Star Fife and Drum band, a strong family outfit that has been going on for decades with different players. It rocks, especially because Sharde is a fireball of energy.)

How did blacks keep their excellent rhythmic skills through slavery and the attendant restrictions on instruments? Probably by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet. It was a happy day when some miserable black draftee finally had a snare drum stuck in his hands!

There is one more musical idea I’d like to explore, polyphony. Basically, it means that people are making up melodies as they go, but listening to one another. You can hear it in the scattered “response” part of an old call-and-response work song, or in a Beck track where Beck has overdubbed his voice three or four times. The masters of polyphony are the Aka pygmies. These people were not slaved much (I guess, if I were working slaves, I’d want bigger, tougher-looking slaves), however, their neighbors picked up their polyphonous and yodeling ways. (Yodeling is slipping in and out of falsetto, also called “whooping.”)

Here are some girls singing a lullaby:

That’s what forest people sound like. Take the soul of that music and throw it in a prison:

This topic could go on forever and ever. One thing I’ve definitely learned, is that there is no traditional old “true blues”: the blues was going through changes since it came together and will go on changing as long as someone is playing it. It reflects a world in constant change. Just as dinosaurs faded and birds rose, old music is forgotten and reborn in new forms.

To leave you with, here is a haunting piece of traditional acid jazz, the initiation song of the central African Ongo.

November 30, 2011

Cornel West on the Blues Sensibility

Filed under: music, Soapbox — Tags: , , , , — paragardener @ 4:35 pm

Right on, brother West! Even the bits that were over my head.

September 16, 2011

Happy 86th, B.B.!

Filed under: music — Tags: , , — paragardener @ 5:44 pm

B.B. King, Ambassador of the Blues, turns 86 today. After completing his Farewell Tour in 2006, he’s just continued touring and is touring the United States currently — you can check it out on his official website. He gave a guest performance on an album just released in August. How many blues stars from “the glory days” are still alive at all?

My favorite B.B. song is “Everyday I Have the Blues,” because I do. Most of the versions on Youtube are too fast or have too much cheesy pop orchestration, so I had to settle for this one with no video:

I think that BB survived so many of his cohort because he takes it easy much of the time. He plays relaxed, sings relaxed, he seems to stay out of thickets like hard drinking and violence, and he’s nice to people. Happy birthday, BB!

July 28, 2011

Blues of the Moment

Filed under: music — Tags: , — paragardener @ 5:00 pm

I’m currently learning Goin’ Fishin’ by Taj Mahal and Back Door Man by Willie Dixon (written for Howlin’ Wolf).

Goin’ Fishin’ is in drop-D tuning and uses the chords D, G and A with a few decorations. The part that’s killing me is the weird timing of the vocal.

The eldest Backdoor Man is in the key of E. Willie Dixon wrote it for Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf, to sing. The song seems to lend itself to some type of musical chaos, eh?

Willie Dixon was the quiet genius behind Back Door Man and quite a few other hits in the Chess Records family: Hoochie Coochie Man, I Just Want to Make Love to You, Spoonful… Here is a 1970 recording of Back Door Man with Dixon singing and probably playing bass. And there is Dixon singing “Nervous,” though his bass playing betrays rock-solid confidence:

I sentimentally enjoy The Doors’ Back Door Man, but man, they botched it. You can find plenty of Doors B.D.M.’s in the infosphere, but check out T-Model Ford jamming with two honky compatriots, Bill Abel & Bert Deivert (2 guitars and a mandolin playing in T-Model’s driveway).


“The blues is like the devil it comes on you like a spell

It will leave your heart full of trouble and your poor mind full of hell.” — Lonnie Johnson


“You guys, having some satanic guitar pick isn’t gonna make your rock any better… because Satan’s not in a guitar pick, he’s inside all of us… in your hearts. He’s what makes us not want to go to work, or exercise, or tell the truth. He’s what makes us want to party and have sex with each other all night long. He’s that little voice in your mind that says ‘fuck you’ to the people you don’t like.” ~open mic host, Pick of Destiny

June 13, 2011

Springtime Country Blues Explosion, Part Three

Filed under: music — Tags: , , — paragardener @ 5:19 pm

It’s the cusp of summer and the world is filled with possibility. Kick back on the front porch with a mint julep. Or take a moment to appreciate the local big box store standing proud in the sunlight, a stylishly molded brick bloc overflowing with brand-new “shiny” and surrounded by heat-hazed asphalt desert. Contemplate the scale of the Airbus-380 or the July 8th final launch of the Space Shuttle. This is the grandeur of a civilization just about peaking.

A big plane.

by Xeper, shared under a share & share alike license.

Our way of life is built on compounding interest, speculation, and the systematic exploitation of nature without regard for any physical limitations of our world. This system worked really well for about 400 years, helping Europe and her diaspora to dominate the globe, inflict the blues and achieve unheard-of levels of wealth. Poverty sucks, and poor people generally live with instability, harder jobs and more stress. Still, many poor folks in our civilization have multi-room dwellings, indoor plumbing, 4-burner stoves, a hypnotic flashing light box, and a chariot of cheetah-like speed. Lots of people, across the big human picture, have lived in huts or longhouses with grandparents and aunts and uncles all together in one room! No power tools, no frivolous plastic doodads…

Parts of that life look kind of nice to me, sort of like camping all the time. Still, it reminds me that I have a lot to lose.

world oil production -- leveling off?

Thanks to Their sources: 1950-1964 compiled by Worldwatch Institute from U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of Energy data; 1965-2009 data from BP, "Statistical Review of World Energy June 2010." You're welcome to create your own projection of the future.

Obama was on TV the other day, assuring me that there will be no double-dip recession. Supposedly we have entered recovery and it’s onward and upwards, baby! Realists, such as army intelligence and combat coordinators, understand that world petroleum production is peaking. The curve of world oil production should resemble the curve of oil production from any given oil field, or from any oil-bearing region — it’s always a rough bell curve. Natural gas and quality coal are on the same track. Even copper and uranium are near their peak production (the point on top of the bell where production briefly “levels out”), and it takes more energy to extract the last of these depleted resources from feeble ores and “tar sands.” Meanwhile, populations keep increasing, interest keeps on compounding and the Federal Reserve keeps creating dollars at an ever-increasing rate… how can the masters of politics and finance hope to create the vast new growth it would require to pay off our debts and put value behind our currency? In this depleted world?

The economy is not going to get better. Not for long, and not in any big way. The physical resources to underpin exponential economic growth just aren’t there. Consider downsizing to a shotgun shack, trading your Cadillac for a black mare, and quitting your at-will employment for the stability of operating your own stillhouse. This is going to be a good century for the blues.

(NOTE: long post! feel free to flip through the videos)

Mississippi John Hurt

John Hurt was a sharecropper who played largely for his own enjoyment. In the 1920’s, he played for square dances in an integrated combo and laid down 12 tracks in two recording sessions. Then he returned to sharecropper anonymity for about 30 years, before blazing into glory once more during the 1960’s folk revival.

Ain’t No Tellin’ (aka Pallet on Your Floor)

Candy Man Blues

Charlie Patton

Patton made his name as a dance-hall performer in Mississippi, where he inspired musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker and generally was an early apostle of the blues. He recorded from 1929 to 1934, up to 41 tracks in a year. He then died of heart disease, which wasn’t even reported in the local newspaper.

Green River Blues

Screamin’ and Hollerin’ The Blues

Blind Willie Johnson

Willie Johnson was born sighted. According to legend, one night his father accused his stepmother of cheating and beat her badly. To get back, she grabbed a handful of lye and threw it in Willie’s face, blinding him! From a young age, Johnson wanted to be a preacher and guitar player. His music combines spirituals, blues, and some kind of early gospel. He lived and worked in Texas throughout his life.

God Moves on the Water

John the Revelator — like about half of Johnson’s songs, this one is a duet with his wife. Unfortunately, no one is sure which wife!

Blind Blake

Blind Blake epitomizes ragtime guitar. Although he recorded 80 tracks from 1926 to 1932, almost nothing is known about him — not even his real name!

Georgia Bound

Police Dog Blues

Willie Walker

Though he played with Rev. Gary Davis and had a strong reputation in the South Carolina of almost 100 years ago, Willie Walker only recorded two tracks! Sam Brook is on backing guitar.

South Carolina Rag, Take Two

Memphis Minnie

Minnie ran away and became an itinerant street singer at age 13. She started in the Delta, but meandered to Memphis where she made her permanent home. She recorded well over 100 tracks before and after The War, with failing health the ultimate killer of her 40+ year career. She’s the only old-time blues woman remembered as the type of guitar genius who makes other guitarists just sick.

Drunken Barrelhouse Blues

There is a Memphis Minnie collection of restored wax at

Blind Boy Fuller

The Old South must’ve been full of blind black men, just milling about blindly and playing instruments on every street corner. Fuller was already making a living playing on the street when Rev. Gary Davis (blind) tutored him, contributing to his rapid commercial success. He died in his 30’s. About a year after getting a stomata put into his bladder (related to drinking?), the hole in him attracted a fatal infection.

Meat Shakin’ Woman

Weeping Willow

Elmore James

James began making music at the age of twelve, with a one-string slide guitar aka diddley bow. He was a moonshiner, and various bandmates dropped dead from their heavy drinking routine. He created a signature guitar sound tinkering in his adoptive brother’s electronics workshop. By the time “Dust My Broom” made him a star, James already knew of the heart condition which would kill him…

Dust My Broom

Mance Lipscomb

That’s Mance as in “emancipation!” Lipscomb was a sharecropper playing for weekend parties, until the folk revival of the 1960’s swept him up. Here is his song Sugar Babe.

Jimmy Reed

Reed started out as a street singer, was drafted into the Navy through World War II, moved back to Mississippi and married, and moved to Gary, Indiana where he worked as a meatpacker. It was in Gary that Reed established himself as a great musician and landed a recording contract. Like Blind Willie Johnson’s wife, Mama Reed appears on many tracks as the uncredited backup singer.

Baby What You Want Me to Do

Skip James

After building roads and levees on “the lonesome road” of labor camp work, Skip James settled down to hold the distilling concession on a sharecropping plantation. He recorded an album’s worth of material in 1931, but then the Great Depression took full effect and no one could afford to buy cylinders down at the furniture store anymore. He lived on in obscurity, preaching and perhaps bootlegging. In 1964, folkie blues enthusiasts found James in a hospital and set him up touring in the folk revival. He was known for disdaining folkies and music lessons and guarding his playing techniques closely (hint: 3-finger picking, open D-minor tuning).

Devil Got My Woman

Hard Time Killing Floor Blues: bringing it all back around to the theme of the post.

BTW — the ongoing bottomless slide of the economy? It wasn’t caused by market over-regulation or high taxes. It wasn’t caused by a lack of health care or education or even the terrible Drug War. Liberals and conservatives stand united behind Wall Street-oriented policies for the fastest possible exploitation of Earth’s resources (including its people) and assume that magical new technologies will get us out of any corner. Their compromise in the 80’s and again in the 00’s has been to cut taxes and simultaneously spend more. When the media talks about the economy, they are sharing the Wall Street / Washington happy talk delusion (debt will never outrun growth) and causing most people to consider it as a sane worldview. In the face of this inane and suicidal optimism, somebody has to carry the negativity and talk/sing about what is happening.

The questions I’m asking myself are, how can I hold on to my quality of life? And: what can I do to shift the hurt onto the assholes who created it, instead of students, teachers, retirees, and (sometimes unemployed) workers?

Older Posts »

Blog at