Tuesday, January 01, 2008:

The Roots Canal: Honeydripper (the movie)

I just thought I'd bring this blog back to life momentarily by suggesting that everyone go out and see John Sayles' new movie, Honeydripper, about the evolution of blues into R&B and rock'n'roll -- not just because it's a fantastic movie but because it's a historic one for anyone who cares about the forgotten roots of American popular music. I saw it this afternoon in New York, where it's currently in limited distribution (along with Los Angeles), but it's due for a rolling national release in January and February. (Tuwa, it's opening at the Hippodrome in Gainesville on February 22nd.) Here's the trailer:

The film is set in rural Alabama in 1950, right in the middle of that incredibly fertile period when jazzmen, bluesmen and other musical pioneers created an exciting new kind of music that went on to sweep the world. Danny Glover gives the performance of his career as a fading bluesman who now runs a juke joint and is watching his music get passed by, as young people flock to the newfangled juke box in the joint next door. To make a long story short, he saves his bar by hiring a young guitarist played by 22-year-old Gary Clark Jr., who knocks everyone's socks off by playing -- what else? -- Good Rockin' Tonight.

Keb Mo plays a mysterious street musician whose character has a surprise twist at the end. Charles Dutton, Stacy Keach, Mary Steenburgen and a bunch of other actors I wasn't familiar with were uniformly outstanding. Ruth Brown was supposed to play an aging blues singer, but when she became too ill to perform she suggested her friend Mable John (a former Raelette!) to cover her role. (Brown actually died on the last day of filming.) The musicians were great, of course; in fact, they played a few gigs last year as the Honeydripper All-Star Band. (The soundtrack will be released February 5th on Rhino Records.) There's also an important part played by the coolest handmade guitar you've ever seen; if you're interested in that sort of thing, here's an interview with the guy who made it.

Now I suppose I shouldn't quibble, but I don't fully agree with Sayles' interpretation of music history. R&B and rock'n'roll didn't grow out of rural blues, but from the jazzy urban jump blues that became popular in the 1940s as jazz musicians started playing in small combos like Louis Jordan's Tympany Five. In this otherwise terrific interview with Sayles, the writer quotes him as saying:
“There was no single moment when R&B, blues, gospel, jazz, and country all came together to create this thing called rock ‘n roll, but a big change came with the advent of the electric guitar."
Actually, the dominant instrument in early R&B and rock'n'roll was the saxophone, particularly the honking-and-screaming style pioneered by Illinois Jacquet in the early '40s. You put that together with the boogie-woogie piano that became popular in the late '30s; the Texas-style blues guitar of people like T-Bone Walker and Goree Carter (and later Chuck Berry); and some great blues shouters like Big Joe Turner and you had rhythm and blues. All it needed was for Wynonie Harris to add a gospel-inspired back beat to Roy Brown's Good Rockin' Tonight in 1947 to ignite the rock'n'roll revolution. That really was the "single moment" when it all came together.

This isn't my theory; it's all laid out in Morgan Wright's Hoy Hoy website which first turned me on to this music and inspired my earlier post on Good Rockin' Tonight. Just for new readers, I've made those songs available again. Listen to Roy Brown's remake (which he called Rockin' at Midnight) and then Elvis's version, and you'll understand why some people think Elvis was nothing but a second-rate Roy Brown impersonator!

Okay, I can't quit without posting a couple of songs for y'all. Gary Clark Jr.'s performance in Honeydripper reminded me a lot of Goree Carter. If you ever wonder where Chuck Berry got his guitar style, listen to this 1949 performance and wonder no more:
Goree Carter and His Hepcats -- Rock Awhile

Here's one more. John Sayles is credited with co-writing three of the songs in the movie. (Does this guy ever run out of talent?) One was called China Doll, after a character in the movie. Another was one of the movie's big gospel numbers. The third played over the closing credits and seems to express Sayles' musical philosophy: The Music Keeps Rolling On. It's performed by Barrence Whitfield, who I'd never heard of before but here's an apropos song of his since I saw Honeydripper on New Year's Day:
Mercy Brothers -- The New Year Blues

Here's something else that's pretty interesting. The filmmakers created a station on Pandora called Honeydripper Radio of music inspired by the movie.

And if you want to know more about the movie's title, check out my earlier post on the original Honeydripper, Joe Liggins. I've made those songs available again, too.

Finally, here are some youtubes of Mable John and Gary Clark Jr. performing with the Honeydripper All-Star Band in New York last summer:

Saturday, August 25, 2007: on hiatus indefinitely.
Sunday, July 22, 2007:

the hands of a government man

Talking Heads -- Born Under Punches (live in Rome, 1980)
On the cusp of Remain in Light, before Speaking in Tongues, Talking Heads explored moody funk: dark, brooding, and danceable, as evidenced by this Metafilter post about a concert in Rome in 1980 with Adrian Belew (formerly of Frank Zappa and David Bowie, soon to be of King Crimson).

Belew's work here hints at an influence on Byrne's guitar work which showed up as early as Stop Making Sense but, more importantly, the songs stand on their own merits: featuring a meaty slapping bass, ethereal laments, wailing feedback.

The lyrics are elliptical, as any Talking Heads fan could tell you: perhaps they're about shallow consumption; perhaps they're about drug use; perhaps they're a paranoiac nightmare of an encroaching surveillance state. If they are, does it undercut the exuberance that the performance is at least partly planned, calculated to be worth recording? (And what does it mean that it was recorded and passed around in increasingly inferior versions--from broadcast TV to videotape to glitchy upload on Youtube to glitchy lossy mp3? Byrne could write something clever and pointed about it; for my part I'll just hope the concert gets a professional DVD release.)

Other highlights on that concert: "Drugs," "Crosseyed and Painless," "The Great Curve."


Wednesday, July 11, 2007:

children and cartwheels and chandeliers

Elizabeth Mitchell -- Who's My Pretty Baby
At ten years old, there was nowhere Elizabeth Mitchell would go that couldn't be gone there by cartwheels or somersaults. At ten and a half she learned how to walk on her hands and was sure that her feet would never touch the ground again. She insisted that her parents lower the counters throughout the house. They refused, so she insisted they buy her stilts. Her parents did not want to take down the chandeliers or to clean footprints from the ceiling, and it seemed sure the situation was headed towards a crisis. Luckily, Elizabeth's uncle was clever enough to buy her a guitar for her birthday. It was a challenge for Elizabeth to play A maj with her feet, but G maj was impossible. B7 was whatever was a step beyond impossible. Elizabeth decided she could sit "like normal," provided no one saw her; and that her feet could touch the ground as she sat, provided she washed them afterwards.

Each day her parents would make excuses to pass her door and overhear her practicing, and each day when she was done she'd put the guitar away and walk on her hands to the kitchen to find a snack. And each day her mother would say "don't ruin your appetite for dinner, honey," and each day Elizabeth would say "yes ma'am."

And then one day her parents heard her practice stop and the door open, and Elizabeth came walking down the hall but not to the kitchen, and on her feet, not on her hands. She was carrying her guitar and she walked into the living room where her astonished parents sat, and she stood there in front of them and said "Mom. Dad. Listen to this." And then she played something which sounded like all the joy and energy of an eleven-year-old channelled into music.

You Are My Little Bird is an album for children. Jordan @ Said the Gramophone posted "Three Little Birds" in March, and then Folkways sent me the CD as part of a package of promo materials. I do like it, but am sure that my niece would like it even more.
[Elizabeth Mitchell @ Folkways; various reviews @ Ryko Distribution]

Labels: , ,

Friday, July 06, 2007:

9Seven for IV 121 -- Before Finish

9Seven for IV 121 -- Before Finish
Receiving a transmission, captain.
[Onscreen: a trio of Japanese travelers in a steampunk spaceship, stars and planets floating distant in the viewport behind them, contextless and serene. They begin to speak. Their words, constellations of sounds, also float: unmoored, drifting, supremely calming. They are not cosmonauts but monogatarinauts.]
--Ensign, decode.
The computer can not understand it fully, captain. ... CRM 114 ... C57D ... 1701 ... Baratu.
[The transmission ends. Captain raises his eyebrows.]
I will attempt to reestablish contact.... No response, sir. Records indicate the transmission arrived from Audiogalaxy.
--I wish to know more, ensign.
I'm sorry, Captain, there is no further information.
--Then let us hear it again.

[Anyone know anything about this band? Please post it in the comments.]

Labels: , ,

Friday, June 29, 2007:

Hum Dum Dinger

Jimmie Davis -- She's a Hum Dum Dinger From Dingersville
What kind of slide does Jimmie Davis use? It's not a knife on electric guitar, aggressive, thick, chunky, distorted. It's not a knife on electric guitar, gruff and impetuous, with a sense of timing all its own, dropping flats and sharps in where it pleases. It's not a dobro, not a lap steel, not a sonic papaya smoothie. It's not medicine bottle on nylon; it doesn't sound like Valium on dreamscape lullaby.

No, it's got a slight bite to it and it's played with finesse. It's a sweet and durable melody, even if the lyrics (like Davis' politics) haven't aged well.
[Available on a number of albums, including The Voice Of The Blues: Bottleneck Guitar Masterpieces and The Roots of Rap.]


Wednesday, June 13, 2007:

of mountains and monasteries and music

Jed and Lucia -- Off the Ground
Jed played guitar in a band. On the weekends when they weren't booked and weren't practicing, he would drive his car out of the city to climb mountains. His favorite was Mt. San Isidro, a moderately tall and moderately difficult mountain which he would nevertheless climb solo. In the early afternoon one day as he reached the summit, he found there a building that had never been there before. It was a modest structure, made of wood and stone, and inside he found it attended by silent men with shaven heads. They let him wander about, unbothered, and when he lay down his pack and removed his coat and gloves they did not comment or even seem to notice. In one hall he found an empty room with a pallet on the floor and a low-cut rock for a pillow. He moved his belongings into it and had potato soup and a small cup of water for dinner. Over time he learned the customs of the place, beyond the overwhelming silence: where and when to bathe, how to help with custodial duties, what to cook and where to gather the ingredients. The ingredients were usually potatoes and dinner was usually potato soup. The soup was made from potatoes and water. Depending on the cook, it might be flavored with additional water.

Jed came to enjoy the silence because it allowed him to reflect more on its absence: on what to say and when to say it, and what to play and when to play it. On his seventeenth day at the monastery he found himself unable to shake a stupid couplet from a song he'd last heard years ago and last enjoyed never. He had found his mantra, though he did not know it.

Over and over it played: "won't you take me back to school / I need to learn the golden rule." The melody was facile, trite, the instrumentation facile, trite, the vocals soppy and ineffectual. The song itself was the very definition of rubbish, and in fact he could find nothing about it to recommend it. Nor could he stop thinking about it. He began to reflect on what this obsession might mean, on what melody might mean, on how rhythm could fit with melody to expand its meaning and leaven its sweetness.

After six weeks of meditation he decided to share his discoveries. "Music reveals itself through study, showing truth not only about specific instances but also about governing principles in general."

There was a silence, and he imagined this insight might be well received. It stretched on until he imagined it might not.

The man to his right spoke. His voice was hoarse, and cracked midway: "Dammit, Jed, we are not Sufis. And this is not a talk show." This was followed by another silence.

Then, from across the room: "He has not spoken for seventeen years."

It was a stinging rebuke.

That night he wondered if he could manage longer than six weeks of silence. He wondered if he wanted to. He missed his guitar; he missed creating.

In the morning he pulled his pack from the corner, put on his boots and coat and gloves, and made his way from the monastery. Halfway down he slipped, caught himself, slipped again, began to tumble. He woke up, which was more than he'd expected just moments before. He was in a bright cloudiness with a burning pain in his chest: covered in snow. He dug himself out, gasped for breath, coughed up icy water. Once he realized he could breathe he realized also that he had twisted his ankle. He limped down the mountainside, making it to ground level just before dusk. He carried on until it was dark, then made camp and slept in his coat and snowboots. The pack felt too comfortable as a pillow; he emptied it and put a rock inside.

In the morning his ankle was still swollen. He had decided on North as a direction and continued that way, concentrating on music, trying to tease out further revelations. He was bitten by a snake while within sight of the highway. On the highway itself he passed out, trying to work a bassline into that rattle he had processed as merely a fast tempo, a rhythm in search of a melody. A descending bassline could work, ascending could as well--eight to the bar? four to the bar? three to the bar? Simple repeating, repeating with variations, alternating patterns? The world was full of possibilities.


The desert was flat and Lucia was not yet hypnotized by interminable monotony; she slowed her car from well ahead and recognized the shape on the asphalt as human. She dialed 911 on her cell and approached the person with her finger on the call button. When she pressed it, it was to report a man delirious and feverish, leg swollen until the pants were tight around it.

Jed was airlifted to the hospital, his leg cut open to relieve the pressure from the swelling, a chunk of calf removed due to necrosis.

Lucia met him at the hospital as an excuse to miss a family reunion. She had not been on good terms with them since she had abandoned polyrhythm in favor of monorhythm: they were shocked about her behavior, worried for the future, unsure what to think but sure that somehow they had been deceived and betrayed.

Jed and Lucia began to chat, as people do when in a room together. Over a course of months Jed had new skin grafted on followed by extensive rest and physical therapy to learn to walk again. It was tedious and painful but the food was good. They began to get to know each other. Jed had ideas for some melodies. Lucia had ideas for some rhythms. They decided to form a band.

[Jed and Lucia probably have a Fanatic Promotion page, but I got the email about them so long ago that I lost the URL and Google isn't turning it up]

Labels: , ,