For the past couple of months, I’ve been obsessed.
And what could be the object of this utter fascination? The recorded catalog of the original Carter Family, which came into being on the first of August 1927 and concluded in the middle of October 1941. Now, an astrologer might tell you that those dates correspond, roughly, with the period that the planet Neptune, said to rule music, was transiting through the tropical sign of Virgo. But I’m not an astrologer; I’m just a music fan, and a rabid one at that. Still, that idea kind of intrigues me. Because I am, well, obsessed, and obsessed people will seize upon trivia and minor details and obscure little sidenotes the way that a dog bites into a new chew toy.
By now I think I have a reasonably vague idea of how I fell down this rabbit hole. Because I often can become reasonably interested in the mundane genesis of extraordinary things, I became enamored with the Bristol sessions, that last week of July and first week of August in 1927 when Ralph Peer, a freelance artist-and-repertoire man for the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, showed up in Bristol, a city straddling the Virginia and Tennessee border in the Appalachian region, with two engineers from Victor and a portable recording apparatus, hoping to record indigenous folk musicians. The newly developed Western Electric microphone they brought with them made these field recordings possible, and opened up a whole new possibility of capturing mountain music and rural blues recordings in their home settings, much closer to the environment where the music was birthed and its creators lived.
Peer had a pretty good idea that this musical panning for gold in Bristol might turn up some choice nuggets, and he had an ulterior motive – he grasped the then-novel idea that songs might become lucrative intellectual properties and copyrights, and he was looking for songs for his own company, Peer-Southern, to publish. So what happened over those two weeks of what’s come to be called “the big bang of country music,” specifically the first four days of August, was that Peer and Victor stumbled upon the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, essentially the two acts that, not long after, would lay the foundation upon which the edifice of country music is built.
I’d been somewhat up to speed on Rodgers, but the Carters never quite had gotten under my skin and into my heart. Sure, I knew that one of my big musical heroes, Johnny Cash, had married June, the middle daughter of Maybelle Addington Carter, who was the guitar-playing genius cousin of vocalist Sara Dougherty Carter; to complicate matters, Maybelle had married the younger brother of Sara’s husband, the mountain folksong collector Alvin Pleasant Carter, better known as A.P. (yes, this being Appalachia and all, family trees often looked more like a thicket sometimes). So, over the years I’d heard, again and again, that this original Carter Family – A.P., Sara and Maybelle – was really important, but that realization never quite took anchor with me.
Nevertheless, Johnny Cash always sang the praises of the Carters – that his mother-in-law Maybelle had invented the style of guitar that anyone listening to country music, not to mention rock ’n’ roll, would recognize instantly, a melody line played on the lower, bassy strings, mixed with chords strummed. It’s a sound you know when you hear it – a simple and straightforward melody line that rumbles into your waking consciousness like a freight train, with those delicious little hammer-on and pull-off notes that you instantly associate with country music. Indeed, until Maybelle came along, the guitar had been relegated to a minor role in string-band songs; the far brighter fiddle and banjo provided the ornamental embellishments, and the guitar was just there to provide added texture. Basically, according to some experts in the matter, if it wasn’t for Maybelle’s innovations, we might all be listening to banjo music. Or accordions, God forbid.
I never quite grasped that significance. My loss.
I also hadn’t fallen under the spell of Sara’s voice, an achingly plaintive but gorgeous instrument that still comes across, even over the distance imposed by pre-high fidelity recording, through a barrier of static and hiss, the kind of wall that can eliminate a lesser artist’s appeal for a modern listener. Seduction often is not immediate, and oftentimes we do not recognize we’ve been hooked until it’s too late. So it was with the voice of Sara, who accompanied her twang-inflected singing by playing the autoharp, a boxlike zither with string-dampening buttons that can be pressed to form chords that are then strummed, or plucked. Even when Peer convinced her to yodel, probably because fellow Bristol discovery and Victor artist Jimmie Rodgers yodeled, and he’d become the biggest seller in the genre, and even though Sara by account hated yodeling, there was magic in the way she let the notes tumble forth on her breath. (I should confess that I also kind of fell in love via old photographs of Sara, a beautiful woman in my humble opinion, but that’s another story and future blog post, and I was dumbfounded to realize that we’d both resided in the same county in interior California for many years, even though Johnny Cash once told me during an interview of “visiting family” there many times. And, I guess it’s been a while since I’ve managed to fall in love or cultivate a loving relationship with a real living person, so sort of falling for a twice-married singer who’s been dead almost 35 years can’t be the worst thing that could happen to a guy, no?)
Also, I hadn’t understood the particular genius of A.P., who quite accurately could be described as the father of the hit single. What A.P. did was adapt songs, which had been passed around from musician to musician and hearth to hearth across the mountains and hollows of Appalachia for generations, for the then-novel medium of the phonograph record. These songs carried stories, and being vehicles for information transmitted via oral tradition, they tended to go on and on, sometimes like interminable sea shanties. The temporal limitation of a 78-r.p.m. record was around three minutes, though, so some editing work had to be done to make them fit. A.P. figured out how to winnow each song down to its essentials, and how to frame it by inserting Maybelle’s guitar parts, typically playing the melody line, as a compositional element, often leading into the song and then coming back several times as an instrumental bridge. Then the group would alternate Maybelle’s instrumentals, Sara’s sung verses, and a harmony part with Maybelle singing over the top and A.P. “bassing in” underneath. This process and principle of compression would form the heart of most hit singles from pop music’s golden era of the 1950s, ’60s and beyond – and, as far as I can tell, this is where it started.
Then, there’s the music to reckon with: “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (later, better known as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”), “Keep on the Sunny Side,” “Wabash Cannonball,” “Wildwood Flower,” “John Henry (Was a Desperate Little Man),” “Worried Man Blues,” and much, much more. Even when you think you haven’t heard, say, “I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” you have heard songs that share its template, such as Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” or Kitty Wells’ signature song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” an answer record to Thompson’s hit. The Carter Family catalog spans hundreds of songs, most of them in major keys with simple three-chord constructions. And while many of them sound like rewrites of earlier material, there’s something to recommend each one – a unique vocal harmony here, a Maybelle guitar part there, a stunning little twist of lyric that catches you off guard.
I could go on and on, as I probably will in later posts. Not that you need to know how and why I fell head over heels in love with the Carter Family at this late date, but I feel like telling it. Until then, I give you my warmest regards. –Jackson Griffith
Okay, no apologies.
My MacBook died, and I haven’t gotten round to replacing it, and right now I can’t afford it; got to put my dough elsewhere. But if this chinchilla ranch thing I invested beaucoups bucks in comes up with a big payday like I think it might, I may be back with mad swag – or, maybe not. Who knows?
Look, the truth is, I got burned out on writing, and this space turned into a lot of solipsistic navel gazing and blathery philosophizing on why a middle-aged guy finds himself sober and utterly unable to attract the right person into his life, and is mildly butthurt about that. You don’t need to read that kind of semi-tumescent hornswagglery and phosphorescent psychobabble, and neither do I. So I figured I might wait until I had something to say, and then I’d come back and commandeer a ’puter somewhere and say it.
So here we are. I may be back, or possibly I won’t. Hell, I don’t know if I have anything interesting to say anymore. But I’m not a good judge of that.
It’s my guess that you, gentle reader, may be. So here you go. –Jackson Griffith
Might as well run something up the flagpole here, just to seee who salutes it. I looked at the ticker, and no one’s reading this godforsaken blog, so I can pretty much say anything and no one will bother to respond. Anyhoo, so I’m about to enter into a hermit-like existence for the next few months, writing my masterpiece of Americana, titled “Let Us Now Praise Also-Rans.” Its subject matter will span over 200 years of American history, that subject matter being the losing vice-presidential candidates since 1796, which will cover at least 50 candidates, meaning at least 50 new songs. It will begin with Aaron Burr and will finish with Sarah Palin.
I figure that might make for an interesting narrative thread through American history, or pop culture and American history and other stuff. I’ve already written about half of the first three songs, the first one on Aaron Burr,” titled “How We Will Be Remembered”; the second, as yet untitled, on Samuel Adams; the third, on brothers Thomas Pinckney and Charles Cotesworth Pinkney, both of whom ran unsuccessfully for vice-president. That one doesn’t have a title, either. Partially written means that I have full melodic and chord structures, and some words. Next up, after that, is Rufus King, and then I’ll have to look at my list for what comes after that. I think it’s some Norwegian-sounding guy.
I figure that if I’m lucky, I can write the final 14 or more songs in February, in time for February is Album Writing Month. Working backward from Sarah Palin, the major-party candidates are John Edwards, Joe Lieberman, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Sargent Shriver, Thomas Eagleton, Edmund Muskie, William Miller and the guy who I wanted to write a song about that inspired this project, Henry Cabot Lodge. Oh, and before him, C. Estes Kefauver, who had a high school named after him in a National Lampoon high-school yearbook parody. I forget who’s before that, except that I think the losing candidate in 1920 was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Unlike the three guys who gave me the idea by doing a project on presidents, I don’t expect anything to come from this. But if I can get my act together, you can expect some pretty decent songs. I’ll be launching a new blog and posting rough mp3 versions sometime after the first of the year.
Wish me luck? —Jackson Griffith
Sorry, out of town on business.
And I have things to say, but no time to say them. Later, eh? —Jackson Griffith
Always had a thing for the prog as a bong-cradling sprout in the San Joaquin. Y’know, there’s always been a pronounced Teutonic undercurrent in the upper 209 among guitar-noodling whiteboys, which you can really hear all shot throughout Pavement’s oeuvre. Elsewhere around town, it was grotty funk of the seeds’n’stems hornband variety, a la Brass Construction, Con Funk Shun, Tower of Power, Bar Kays, Cold Blood, and especially War and Earth, Wind & Fire. Stocktone was ethnically diverse, which meant that the prevailing entertainment options were funky. No complaints there; I’m glad I heard all that, especially Parliafunkadelicment and some of the other really unhinged brothas in space shit.
But for those of us who roasted and riffed, the import section was where it was at. Grobschnitt, Jane, all that Brain Records stuff like SFF and Novalis, plus Amon Duul II, Can, Gong, Soft Machine, Nektar, Neu, Kayak, even jam bands like the great Man from Wales, plus a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember right now like Hatfield & the North. Oh, and Kluster, plus Brian Eno and, later, Einstürzende Neubauten. And then there was all the mainstream stuff like Genesis, Roxy Music (my particular fave), Tull and loads of other bands. Too bad I no longer have my onetime totemic import collection (alas, it burned up in a fire, and what didn’t burn up got sold behind my back to a certain janky Midtown record store by a certain janky ex-wife).
Anyway, we used to dream of being in weird Euro jam bands before punk rock wiped all that stuff off the map, getting all comic-book character on mushrooms and unleashing three-day guitar solos on the thirsty hordes. Which, now, seems quaint. I mean, plenty of dorky or non-BMOC guys pick up guitars to level the Darwinian playing field with the jocks, so as to better compete with them for fayre mayden loyns, thus ensuring an artsier and non-hammerhead future for at least part of the progeny. The punch line is, have you ever been to a prog show? It’s a total sausagefest, because all the chicks either opt for discos or less-challenging time signatures and more straightforward lyric content.
My big dream, of course, was to put together a band using some umlaut-heavy but total nonsense German alibi, either call the band Jawohl! or maybe Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung. The latter would be really mind-roastingly, chin-scratchingly groovy, because you could put that mouthful on posters and album covers and stuff, and people would be going, what the ngognog ngogn? And then when the inevitable Bauhaus trimdown or streamlining came along, you could reconfigure everything in a huge Helvetica font and shorten the band name to GmbH, which sounds kinda corporate, since it is like German and stuff for “limited liability company” and all.
Too bad I never got round to that one, so tonight here I sit, alone, typing this. —Jackson Griffith
I am a whipped dog. Got up behind the eight ball (not the drug eight ball, just the metaphorical one), drove down the 99, and just couldn’t put it together. Felt scrummy. Couldn’t tell my Vespula from my Dolichovespula, if you can grok that. Saw some gossip item about Kwim Lardassian dropping $100K on handbags in France, and didn’t even give half a shit, much less one or two. Supe took one look at me and said: “Why’nch you go back home to bed?”
Drove up the 99. Almost to Galt, realized I left my phone back at the office. Drove back. Got it, drove up to Galt, got gas, realized why I never stop the car in that town or any other one named after an Ayn Rand character, couldn’t figure out how to get on the 99 so drove Twin Cities Road to Bruceville Road, then up that through Elk Grove into South Sac, found my way to Franklin Boulevard and then into Midtown and home. Fell asleep, woke up. Coffee.
Sorry if I can’t be more profound. Some days are like that. —Jackson Griffith
What to do, what to do? Take a shower, get cleaned up and head out for some kind of interaction with my fellow human beings, or sit around typing into this keyboard. “He has nothing to say, so I’ve no idea why he won’t take that shower and go greet his adoring public,” said Tweedledee. “Well,” countered Tweedledum, “maybe he’s such a parvenu of ineptitude and inappropriate responses, that perhaps it’s better that he stick to pasting stupid bug videos into that poor excuse of a blog he continues to foist on whatever drabs of public readership he can scare up, because an interaction with that so-called adoring public might be disastrous at this point.”
Rolling, rolling, rolling. Jeebus, like I said in the last post, I can’t muster the discipline to put together long, thoughtful posts comparing the mooks of Jersey Shore with the blues singers of 1927, or meditations on current automobile design, or a report on the food that sustained me in my long exile of impoverished starvation earlier this year and late last year, so consider this a placeholder. I’ve got to wash some clothes in a while, and maybe I’ll get ’round to something more substantial.
Or, maybe not. Who really gives a galoot’s patootie, anyway, in the grand scheme of things? —Jackson Griffith
Yeah, yeah, I should be apologizing all over myself for abandoning you this past week, dear and gentle readers, but something happened to me. No, I didn’t get marooned in Europe by some volcano whose name looks like something a cat might punch out while walking on a computer keyboard, nor did I get beamed up into metallic origami by extraterrestrial praying mantis proctologists. Nope, I got a job, the first steady job I’ve had in like two years.
So please do forgive me while I get back up to speed. The past couple of evenings, I’ve done the internet-age equivalent to what my dad would do when he checked out after a day at the plant, when he’d smolder in front of the tube to a good episode of Barnaby Jones with a nice big bowl of rocky road ice cream. Except I can’t afford the ice cream yet, so I’ll settle for laughing at gossip accounts of entitled Hollywood stars falling out of expensive Eurotrash saloon cars and into the beds of skeevy movie producers in exchange for pepsi or royal crown or whatever these gosh-darned wacky kids are putting up their noses or smoking in their buttcrack tubes or whatever they do at those wild and wacky parties down there in the 90210 and stuff.
Back in a jiffy with more stories and entertainment. Lemme get a few good meals in me, and I’ll bring it. Srsly, I frickin’ promise, or I’ll eat a Dodger cap without the Gulden’s, the official mustard of the San Francisco Giants. —Jackson Griffith
So Stephen Hawking is advising us that any space aliens we might come into contact with here on Teegeeack might not be warm and fuzzy Reese’s Pieces-gobbling buddies? As they say down in San Joaquin County where I used to ramble: blinding flash of duh, there, podna. Of course those aliens are going to be the kind of peripatetic space trash that fouled their home planet so badly that they went in search of new environments to despoil, and they were smart enough to load up on giant ships to zoom across the universe to find us. So the big binary question is, do they just want to zap us, or do they view our planet’s captive herd of humanity as a food source?
If it’s the former, we’re all pretty much screwed, and there’s precious little we can do about it except hide. But if it’s the latter, there are other questions we must ask. As a start: quantity, or quality? Are these aliens giant ravenous lobsters — or reptilians, or chitinous bug-eyed apparitions, or slimy sea-things out of the pages of H.P. Lovecraft — whose appetites for things human will be best served by going for the largest concentration of the obese, or is there some kind of gourmet component, and what might that be?
If it’s the former, I have to say I feel somewhat safe I’m in California, rather than, oh, the American South, where so many years of downmarket Caucasian cuisine with its emphasis on batter-fried everything — chicken, hush puppies, shoes, brains, political theories — and inability to recognize even the most basic salad ingredients have resulted in a target-rich environment with lots and lots of overfed people. Given the sheer amount of human tubbage involved, I smugly figure that it will take those aliens at least a week to munch their way through Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South and North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, Kentucky, parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and Illinois, not to mention Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and of course the Mormon West: Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Wyoming. True that there are parts of California that might suit these hungry aliens’ fancy, but if these aliens are smart, they’re likely to start at Bakersfield and move north up the valley, which gives us time to head for the hills, where the large unhinged crankster population might serve as somewhat of a deterrent.
Complication: gourmand aliens. What if they fancy arugula eaters? Or, gulp, vegetarians? Again, we must presume a modicum of superior intelligence on their part, which means they’re likely to venture to places with large amounts of fit adults whose diets will make them attractive as prey. Which means, of course, that we’re pretty screwed in this part of California, what with the bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables we have around us. Luckily, here in Sacramento, there are enough drive-thru diners mixed in to the fresh-food-eating population to make it more difficult for diet-specific aliens to sort through us all.
Then again, they may not give a damn, and they may just come for us all. Keep a big bottle of Sriracha Rooster Sauce on your person at all times so you can douse yourself with it, in case the aliens have issues with hot food.
There’s a religious angle, too. What about churches with a strong millennialist component, ones that prophesy the return of God and angels to usher the faithful into a new paradise, while damning the rest (read: probably you, me, all our friends) to that great civet coffee-bean roaster at the center of the Earth. What I hope, for some of those churches, like, oh, that big one in Utah, is that when the heavenly mothership is floating over Salt Lake City and the Tabernacle Choir is assembled underneath, that the aliens turn out to be not hungry extraterrestrials with a ravenous appetite for all things human, but celestial expressions of Parliament/Funkadelic circa 1978, and that the head aliens, like an otherworldly George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, hit those crazy pink humans — who were expecting a bearded and long-haired Charlton Heston in a white robe with a holy Winchester rifle — with their bop guns: “Dance, sucka!”
Actually, that’s what this whole wretched Tea Party charade needs. You’ve heard about those secret camps set up by the Cheney regime in cooperation with Wackenhut, or Halliburton, or the Xe formerly known as Blackwater, to herd all the Bushophobes in for reprogramming and Lee Greenwood listening sessions? Here’s a chance for President Obama to use them for the public good. Now I’m not recommending that these Tea Party people be fed mass quantities of psychedelic mushrooms, or that they then be exposed to a 72-hour nonstop jam by reformed versions of Parliament, Funkadelic, Cameo, what’s left of James Brown’s Famous Flames, plus any “free” or outside jazz musicians playing in the tradition of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Sun Ra; I’m just putting the idea out there, to see if anyone might be interested. ‘Tis only simple and humble suggestion from yours truly.
Hell, why not invite the Tea Party to this year’s Burning Man? We could start a public donation for all the cool drugs it will take to help Die Tee-Partei get down with the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. —Jackson Griffith
What? Parrots swearing and whistling like my drunken relatives in the fookin’ lowlands? I guess there are a bunch of these “parrot swearing like a hammered Scotsman” videos. I mean, kee-rist on a fookin’ crutch, how many fookin’ swearin’ parrot videos can you have?
Apparently, a fookin’ assload, mate. It’s fookin’ Friday. Enjoy. —Jackson Griffith