Thursday 11 February 2010

Great Railway Journeys Of The Blues

In the old days, the blues was an occupation for vagrants. The road was a recurring theme of great country blues songs like Key to the Highway, Rambling On My Mind, Big Road Blues and countless others. 'Must be prepared to travel' was part of the job description was part of the blues musician's job description. And so, with greater equanimity than he's given credit for, the bluesman became a hopeful traveller on USA's endless highway.

Good times here, but it's better down the road...

Rootless mobility was a by-product of Emancipation, and peaked with the exodus north in the '30s and '40s. Chicago's black ghetto tripled in size, as semi-skilled labourers were enticed North to play their part in the war effort. The blues may have been cradled in New Orleans and raised in Memphis. In Chicago it reached maturity and learned to carry a blade.

[It's grim to think how the city became the premature resting-place of so many musicians. Blind Lemon Jeferson, born in East Texas, froze to death on a Chicago street in winter, 1929. John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson was pick-axed outside a nightclub in 1948.)

In all blues imagery nothing is more poignant than the sound of a freight-train whistle, so redolent of loneliness and homesickness. 'I'm a poor boy, a long way from home,' goes the archetypal blues lament. The sound reverberated in the wail of the harmonica. Guitar and piano provided engine rhythms, or simulated the chime of a bell, just to add to the stock of railway onomatopoeia. If music seeks to emulate the technology of the age, blues music emulates the railway as surely as urban jazz reflects inner city turmoil.

Meade Lux Lewis, the son of a Pullman porter, recorded the celebrated Honky Tonk Train Blues in Chicago in 1927. It's a wonderful account of a train-rise, conveyed purely through the resources of an upright piano. A chord swells and the train starts with a judder. Meade's left-hand evokes the implacable rhythms of the engine, as the criss-cross patterns of the right hand suggest clacking wheels on tracks. Trills in the treble ring as the honky Tonk Train gathers momentum and roars through the landscape. Close you eyes, and you can see the train go uphill, cross a bridge and pass a small country station without stopping. With a jangle of blue sevenths, the engineer toots his whistle from the sheer joy of life. Honky Tonk Train Blues is the most vivid of sound poems. It was popular that it more or less single-handedly created the genre of railway-inspired boogie-woogie.

When I began playing the Cow Cow Blues I was trying to imitate a train, and I originally called them the Railroad Blues. I was trying to get in a part where the switchman (with many of whom I had personal acquaintance) boarded the train from the cow-catcher, on front of the train. the word 'cow' somehow stuck with me - Cow Cow Davenport (as told to Jazz Journal, May 1959).

But even the spectacle of a switchman on top of a cow-catcher pales besides the drama of a hobo boarding a moving train. Wesley Wallace's No. 29 is in the honky-tonk idiom derived from Meade Lux Lewis and has (literally) running commentary from pianist Wallace. Here, fragile flesh and blood is pitted against the might of a moving juggernaut. No. 29 (recorded in Wisconsin in 1930) is an account of the Depression-era custom of train-hopping, or riding the blinds. The practised hobo could jump on a train travelling at thirty miles an hour, and swing off at forty-five years miles. Wallace's musical account of the train ride has a ring of truth.

"I mean that thing was running, she wasn't doing nothing but running hot; something like this" [tinkles on upper ivories]. The names of passing towns - No. 29 runs from Cairo, Missouri, to East St Louis, Tennessee - add to the sense of immediacy. "We're in Logan now," says Wallace. "I wanted to get off that train but she was going too fast. I hauled away and touched one foot on the ground, and my heel right knocked my brains out. I fell off. This is the noise I made when I hit that ground..." The boogie beat stops with a rattling flourish of keys. "I'm rolling now." Wallace goes up and down the scale in free tempo and a woozy head, seeming to convey that it's as dangerous to jump off a speeding piano as a speeding train.

Not surprisingly, this dangerous activity caused the epithet 'Cripple' to become almost as commonplace as 'Blind'. Incidentally, sightlessness isn't an insuperable obstacle to hopping freights. In the excellent documentary, Maxwell Street Blues, Blind Grey, an itinerant, sightless musician described riding the blinds in the old days. But then Blind Grey isn't your typical blind man: he also took photos as a hobby. Nor is hopping freights a thing of the past. Seasick Steve told this writer in 2007, "You can still ride trains. I got on a train two years ago on my birthday. I wasn’t supposed to either, because I’ve had a heart attack, and I’m not supposed to do things like that. So I didn’t tell my wife, but she heard about it later, and she got mad at me."

Jesse 'Lone Cat' Fuller, of San Francisco Bay Blues renown, worked on the Nashville-Chattanooga-St Louis line, where he would ride the freights to get to the job, and was later employed by the Southern Pacific Railway Company. Railroad worksongs formed an important of his repertoire, as in Lining Up The Track, to be sung in time to the rhythm of a swinging hammer:

Got a dollar, got a half
Got a good job at last

Fuller is also the author of The Monkey & The Engineer, a tale of tragedy averted after an engineer's pet monkey commandeers a train. Like Dave Bartholomew's The Monkey, the song confounds the racists by turning the monkey into a symbol of black pride. Alternatively, it might be just a tall tale from the mischievous Fuller.

The railroad provided folk heroes such as the steam-hammering powerhouse John Henry, and the engineer Casey Jones. An obscure singer called Jesse James recorded Southern Casey Jones in Chicago in 1936. James accompanies himself on piano in a rough, primitive style. His glee as he recalls Casey's misfortunes is positively satanic. His tone becomes more gloating, as fights, disasters and deaths escalate. Think again, he seems to say, if you thought Casey Jones is an intrepid, romantic figure. In this version, Casey Jones is a cuckold and won't be much missed anyway.

Little girl said, "Is that a fact
Papa got killed on the icy track?"
"Yes, yes, honey but hold your breath,
You'll get money from your daddy's death."

The legend behind the session is worth relating. A convict, in prison clothes and accompanied by two policemen, turned up at Decca Studios and asked to record. The prisoner was Jesse James. He cut four songs, broke down in a sate of nervous exhaustion, and was escorted back to his cell. Further speculation was encouraged by another song James cut that on same session. On the evidence of Lonesome Day Blues, James was a convicted murderer, and due for the electric chair the next day. This might explain the strange intensity of James' performance. It might be truly said of Jesse James, he played as if it were his last day.

Which is a long way from the domestic life of Casey Jones, as portrayed by Furry Lewis.

Mrs Casey said she dreamed a dream
The night she bought a sewing machine
Her needle got broke and she could not sew
She loved Mr Casey because she told me so

No survey of Great Railway Journeys of the Blues would be complete without Blind Willie McTell's Travellin' Blues, which is one of those songs that contains a microcosm of the world within it. Here McTell presents himself as a solitary and a hobo. He wears his misfortune lightly, and the song is a kind of reportage, a perceptive and amused account of all the encounters of a day.

It starts, "I was travellin' through South America (sic) / Walked up to a lady's house / Called her Grandma / Didn't know her name / She gave me something to eat..." The singer then wanders to the railway and conjures the scene by imitating an outgoing train, complete with ringing bell and whistle, on his guitar. His loneliness is suggested by the words he imagine in the sound of the whistle: "Look a yonder, look a yonder, at the women, at the women." Our vagrant, ragged, poor and horny too, is given short shrift when he tries to bum a ride from the engineer. But the latter, a big-hearted sentimentalist, is won over by McTell's plaintive rendition of Poor Boy, a song within the song, and carried by the guitar interpolation. The engineer relents - "Poor boy, you ain't got no girl" - and allows the singer to climb into the cabin, where he entertains him with salivating descriptions of food (cheese and eggs) and, the two seemed bound up in his mind, his girlfriend, Emerald. Travellin' Blues closes with a blissful declaration, "I love you, Emry / I love you true / I love you Emry / Tell the world I do."

Here is a capsule history of the sounds, sights, smells and tastes of the US Deep South. In just over three minutes, McTell gives us social history, snatches of conversation and quotations from (count them) five songs. The song describes a harsh life, conditioned by poverty and displacement, made bearable by individual acts of kindness and the promise of sensual enjoyment. Eating, fucking, making music and other acts of unrestrained behaviour are the chief pleasures in McTell's world.

Talking about lack of restraint, listening to Bald Head Eagle by Bukka White is like being buttonholed by a larger-than-life stranger on a train, a character whose conversation makes up in witty garrulity what it lacks in purpose or coherence. The two songs share many characteristics: first-person narrative, a free-form structure that contains fragments of other songs, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, and guitar sound effects (again, a starting train and tolling bell). But Bukka's story is more digressive, more Homeric, and more surreal: he's taken with the image of a monkey selling peanuts, and asks the driver to speed up as they pass Ludora, the town "where the women fight and kill over the men" and the tale gets somehow mixed up with pigs and asthma. Primal energy at such close range can be overwhelming.

The Bald Eagle train is an overnighter from Kansas to California. Bukka is travelling on his first trip over the Rockies, perhaps to play at Berklee's Cabale Club, his first paid engagement after the bluesman was rediscovered in 1964. He is as excited as a child,and puzzled and delighted by everything around him.

If you pay attention when they put them lights out, you see them Eagles on every door... My baby was sitting up there in the night bed. Me and my honey done put the lights out. She said, "I don't see how in all the world they could put a Bald Eagle, look like solid gold, on all them doors. I said, "Baby, the railroad company got a thing about it..."

If Bukka's moods are changeable - the Bald Eagle Train next passes a funeral, which gets him thinking about mortality ("Poor boy, what am I going to do, my old buddy is gone") - he is always benign. A comparable figure, Howlin' Wolf, errs on the dark side. Chester Burnett, aka Howlin' Wolf, is a great brooding malcontent who exudes power and menace. Smokestack Lightnin' is nominally a train song, inspired by the sight of trains passing through the night. "We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning," explained the Wolf. But the sight sets off something more primal, and the singer lets out a eerie howl (true to his name), casting an incantation into the night sky, together with ominous warnings provoked by sexual jealousy. Any male rival would be quick to heed his warning, you feel. The Wolf is a force of nature, fully deserving to be called A Back Door Man, The Red Rooster, The Tail Dragger, and all those epithets he gave himself. The eerie restraint of Smokstack Lightnin' actually cranks up the tension. It's unusual structure and atmosphere suggests that in 1956, when it was recorded, the formula for Chicago electric blues was not yet set in stone.

The last Great Railway Journey of the Blues, in this non-comprehensive survey, is Mystery Train by Little Junior's Blue Flames, otherwise known as the greatest record ever made. Just about the antithesis of Chicago blues, this manages simultaneously to capture a strolling Memphis beat and a churning implacable groove, just like a train on the track. It was recorded on November 1, 1953, at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis TN, aka Sun Studios. Less than two years later, a local boy, with help from Scotty and Bill, upped the tempo and it became a big hit as Elvis Presley's fifth Sun single. This marked the birth of rock 'n' roll, and so musical history moved to the next phase, but Junior Parker's record was the catalyst. Parker, so effortlessly cool, is at least as immortal as Presley. Altogether now:

Train I ride,
Coaches long
Train I ride,
Coaches long
Well, that long black train
Carry my baby and gone

10 Great Railway Journeys of the Blues (Dyverse lists)

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