Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

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.


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?

May 5, 2011

Springtime Country Blues Explosion, Part Two

Filed under: music — Tags: , — paragardener @ 5:47 am

Back again to prepare you for the coming blue time. Truth be told, I’m putting links to blues songs together for my own selfish purpose, which is to assemble the recordings transcribed in the book “Anthology of Blues Guitar” by  Woody Mann, a white longhair who learned guitar from Rev. Gary Davis. It would be trés expensive to purchase all the albums contributing works to the anthology, plus it’s not terribly helpful to support dead artists. It’s more about honoring their legacy (my apologies to the odd survivor). So, I’ve put together links to free recordings of the songs as best I can find them, plus a few of my own favorites. It’s kind of a best-of, a cornucopia of country blues, a down-home rollick in the oppressive misery of it all.

Tommy Johnson

Sick! Johnson plays with thumb and forefinger picking independently, creating distinct bass and lead parts. The really fiendish part is some subtlety in the rhythm or flow, which knocks me off balance and may be a literally unique aspect of Johnson’s playing.

Bye Bye Blues:

Big Road Blues
Big Road Blues guitar lesson — I often find a free lesson on Youtube. Sometimes the supposed lesson is just a teaser, but this one transmits a lot of information:

Son House

“The Father of the Delta Blues.” House plays a heavy, slide guitar (bottleneck) style. Like most bottleneck players, House prefers an “open” tuning — one chord strummed across all 6 strings. For awhile, I did as House and left my guitar in open G all the time: “DGDGBd.”

County Farm Blues:

Death Letter Blues — This video is just about its own lesson. The camera zooms in on each of House’s hands, so you can see exactly what he’s doing:

(Speed increases)

G|---0-2/3-0------0---| X3



Here’s some guitar tablature for Death Letter. I think of guitar tablature as the “human music box.” Each line represents a string, and you follow the lines along the page as if they’re the spinning rim of a music box cylinder. When your eye combs over a number on a line, you press a string (according to which line) against a fret (according to the number) and pick, pluck or strum as needed. Further symbols indicate { // } sliding, or { b } bending or what have you. Like much tablature on the Internets, this one is kind of fragmentary and pretty much demands a recording to follow along with (or, a totally ingrained memory of the song).

Sunday Morning Blues is a mutant descendant of Death Letter, played by me on guitar and Nate Markham on drums & production. It’s the only recording I have of me, so if this isn’t one of the finest blues, I include it here as one of the rarest!

Lead Belly

Lead Belly was a flexible, hardworking guy who played a variety of instruments and sang various kinds of songs – children’s songs, lefty folk songs, tough-guy blues (and he really had done hard time, in an honest-to-goodness singing chain gang). He mainly played a fingerpicked twelve-string guitar, tuned down about a fourth from standard (that’s fairly near half an octave, limboing under even Black Sabbath’s slack strings). The sound is deep and rich, and is sometimes compared to a piano.

Leadbelly’s C.C. Rider

Where Did You Sleep Last Night (The Pines)
The Pines guitar tab, based on the Nirvana cover.

Muddy Waters

I Be’s Troubled:

Rollin and Tumblin’ — compare to Robert Johnson’s Travelling Riverside Blues. Rollin’ and Tumblin’ is an ancient standard:

Reverend Gary Davis

I Am the Light of This World:

Make Believe Stunt:

Advice on practice:

R.L. Burnside

R.L. was a North Mississippi / Hill Country player until his fairly recent death. I like this style for its frankly mind-numbing hypnotic effect. Here he’s playing with sidekick Kenny Brown on slide guitar. Going Down South:

The Scissormen play to a Hill Country slide standard, and member Ted Drozdowski wrote up some pretty sound tips for playing this style.

There are legions of generic “bar blues” bands in circulation, more power to them since they keep people in live music, but the blues I really fetishize is deviantly individualistic. The way to learn to play is, sit down with an instrument and fool around until you can make music on it. You don’t even need to know how to tune a guitar, though you sacrifice some flexibility when you leave standard tuning behind. Later you can get with a few friends and work on meshing your styles.

At a protest vs. Gov. Snyder’s Emergency Financial Dictator law, I saw a lady playing Sousaphone, vamping a snippet of a fight song over and over, playing along with a hippie drum circle. Completely different music, completely the right attitude.

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