Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Woody Sounding Clarinet

Is it just me, or does Woody Allen suck on clarinet?

I was watching a biography of him on TV last night and they showed him playing his regular Dixie- land gig at the Carlyle Hotel, former home of Bobby Short, the effeminate pianist and Cole Porter interpreter.

In the snippet they showed, Allen played a) off key, b) sloppily) c) with very poor embouchure and d) stiffly. I may be leaving out some letters, but that's enough.

Here's what I mean:

That's awful.

But there he is, gigging away to a full house of rapt listeners hanging on every note in a very prestigious venue. Is anyone really listening?

Clearly this is a case of the Emperor's New Clothes- people think he must be good since he's Woody Allen, But all he's really doing is masturbating. On your dime.

Nothing against Woody, mind you- he's a very entertaining filmmaker.

Just a talentless clarinetist.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Goodbye, Larry Hoppen (1951- 2012)

It's difficult to believe I won't see Larry again. A year ago, we played together on the final day of the Salty Dog Reunion in Ithaca New York. Prior to that, I hadn't seen him in almost forty years.

Larry achieved rock immortality by singing the Orleans' hit, "Still the One" and "Dance With Me", both written by John Hall, Orleans' guiding force and his then- wife Johanna. 

We knew each other in Ithaca NY, in the early 1970's, and although we were never in the same groups, we played together fairly often, especially when he was a member of Boffalongo, a group famous in Ithaca for originating "Dancing in the Moonlight." Larry was the guitar player, singer, sometime keyboard player and even trumpet player in the band. 

When he left town to join Orleans, with Boffalongo band mate Wells Kelly (Wells' brother Sherman, also in Boffalongo, wrote Dancing in the Moonlight),  they returned frequently to Ithaca to play at The Salty Dog, a newly opened bar with a dock right outside, where you could moor your boat and drink a beer. I'm not sure anyone ever did that, but you could if you had a boat and liked beer.

After I left Ithaca, in 1973, I rarely saw Larry. One day I googled him, wrote to his address and we rekindled our long distance friendship. 

Larry Hoppen died last week at the age of 61. He was a few months older than I am. He left a wife and twin daughters. His voice still rings out on oldies stations around the world every day.

Now, amazingly, I'll never speak to, or play with him again.

He was the most musical person, blessed with an incredible ear, a virtuoso on any instrument he chose to play and a unique and powerful vocalist, the kind of talent comes along rarely in any generation. 

Being accepted by Larry as a fellow musician was a moment for me, way back there in Ithaca, when I knew that I was no longer just practicing, I was playing.

The night I found out Larry was gone, my band played Dancing in the Moonlight in a bar in Washington, DC. In Florida, at New Smyrna Beach, John Hostetter played Dancing in the Moonlight. Huey Lewis told me that he played Dancing in the Moonlight.

How many other musicians, from all over the world, whose lives were touched by Larry throughout the years, played something special this last weekend just to send their friend a message that he will be missed?

My guess is all of them.

Billy Benson Builds a Boat

My friend Bill Benson, artist extraordinaire, lives in my old stomping grounds of Ithaca New York in a simple ranch house on a scenic canal on the south end of town.

The canal as seen from the deck. The gate keeps the deer out.
He and Sadie, his wife of thirty- eight years, enjoy a classic kind of BoHo lifestyle there, in a town where you can still actually live that kind of lifestyle comfortably and elegantly. It's a lifestyle that I aspire to, but have only marginally achieved. However, that's another blog.

Next door to Bill's house, which he finished himself- put in the floors, tiled the bathroom and built a crafty deck outside, is his north- light painting studio.

The studio is mostly on one floor. There's a sleeping loft and a small room with a shower and storage area where Bill keeps his tools, turps and varnishes. A two- story window lights the place during the day and the big room is filled with his art in varying stages of completion and medium. Some paintings are framed, some not. Large canvases dominate, but they are surrounded by smaller paintings, all of which are wonderfully seen, wonderfully drawn and masterfully painted.

A stack of new charcoal drawing lie on a drafting table, each covered with an expensive paper overlay.
The drawings are of cows. I'm not going to attempt to describe them here, except to say that I wanted to own them all as soon as I saw them.

Bill showing the cow charcoals
Next door to the studio is a third building- a large shed, a frame really, covered in that ubiquitous blue tarp material and roofed with transluscent white plastic. Inside the shed, literally filling the structure is a sailboat.

When Bill bought it, several years ago, it was in terrible condition. But over those years he has been lovingly restoring his vessel. He hopes that by this time next year he will be sailing Lake Cayuga in his and Sadie's own boat.

It sleeps two, has a brand new engine (hoisted into place by Bill and Sadie one trying afternoon), a small galley, eco- friendly toilet and white decking. The day we visited, he received a package with some sort of brass part he had commissioned from a drawing he had submitted to a metalworker. It looked like a piece of abstract sculpture- something that would fit in perfectly with the rest of the art in the Benson's house.

the new engine
Once the boat is finished, the shed will be demolished. It was put together around the boat, after all, the way Kodak constructed buildings around their gigantic Kodachrome processing facilities (or so I'd always heard.) Sadie will be happy to see it go. "I'm amazed the neighbors don't complain about it more than they do."

"They've gotten used to it," claims Bill.

And, when the shed comes down, the light will change in Bill's studio. "People will date my work from before the blue tarp came down and after," Bill jokes. "'The slight blue cast inherent in his work prior to to 2013 has disappeared,'" he mock- quotes.

The best part is that when their fellow sailors see Bill and Sadie gliding through the water, they'll be looking at an actual work of art, from the vision of Bill Benson, Ithaca's own fine- art visionary.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Only in New Orleans, # 5,000,002

©2012 by Chris Granger, Times Picayune
Yesterday, during Uncle Lionel Batiste's funeral and wake, someone commented on the realness of the mannequin standing against a potted palm. "That's no mannequin- that's him!" was the reply.

In an effort to make Uncle's sendoff as memorable as everything else in his life, his body was displayed standing up.

Article here:

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Missed it by one, but no matter: 100,001 is a very cool, cosmic palindrome of a number.

Thanks, readers, for visiting this page over 100,000 times!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bad Television- Bad!

I think that everyone can agree that current television sucks. I'm not sure whether it is because the people of the United States have become so collectively stupid or because we've become so collectively indifferent. Or both.

Current cable TV is the biggest money making scam since corporations found out that people will pay to wear their logos, instead of the reverse.

Each month I pay out a ridiculous sum of money to have crap beamed into my house. Prior to cable, I paid no money to have way less crap beamed into my house, some of which I actually watched. Not a lot, but some.

Last year I added HBO as a premium because I wanted to watch Treme, a good (not great) show about New Orleans. I assumed that in between seasons there would be something else to watch that would make that investment worthwhile.

I was wrong.

It all sucks. The movies are terrible and their own programming, aside from Curb Your Enthusiam, which stopped filming in 2011, is moribund. What's worse, they postponed this year's season of Treme!

Here's what else I hate: all reality- based TV, with no above- the- line talent that cost pennies to produce, compared to, say, an episode of CSI, especially anything featuring self- entitled loud mouth assholes, such as, but not limited to, anything with Housewives or New Jersey in the title; anything featuring washed- up or even current celebrities not doing what they're famous for; anything where people compete, especially shows that have cooking competitions with close- to- inedible food combinations;  virtually all network shows; all game shows but especially any so- called talent shows; and all made- for- tv movies.

I really hate the fact that I'm paying huge bucks for all of the above, and I still have to endure terrible CGE commercials utilizing songs from my youth to sell erections, cars and myriad other useless products.

In the past, the ad agencies paid the networks to sponsor their shows in return for advertising their products. Now the networks are being paid by sponsors and by us!  And bitching about falling profits!

Why do I do it? Why am I paying this money when I so clearly don't have to?

Maybe I should just get the converter box and go back to a minimum of channels that include PBS, still a beacon of intelligence in a sea of utter intellectual filth.

Hmmmm.... Why not?

Thursday, July 12, 2012


That's what the counter said this AM.

We're counting down to 100,000 visitors to this blog, something I never thought would happen.

Please let me hear from some of you who have visited: criticisms, complaints, maybe even something nice- I'd love to write a special edition for the 100,000th view.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Uncle Lionel Batiste Enters Into Heaven

Uncle Lionel at a Second Line in 2002 © Breton Littlehales


Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 
The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.” 
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) 

-Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Into Heaven

Uncle Lionel bass drummer, ladies man, spirit figure and congenial eccentric/ ambassador, died Sunday, July 8th, 2012. He was eighty, or eighty- one according to some sources. (I used to speculate on his age- it was difficult to tell.) Cancer had ravaged his already whip- thin body but he still made it to dba , the Frenchman Street music venue, on June 26th for one last show. Seated in his wheelchair, surrounded by family members and beautiful women, he requested songs as he sipped a cool drink. As always he was, as they say, dressed to the nines.

© Jerry Moran
Uncle (everyone, including myself, called him Uncle) played bass drum with the Treme Brass Band, a New Orleans fixture. In a town where everyone is an eccentric, Uncle stood out- he wore his watch on his hand, not his wrist, and he always wore sunglasses, especially at night. He dressed elegantly at all times and wore his status as "the coolest man in New Orleans" easily as if to say, "Of course."

© Carolyn Kaster
He began playing bass drum at the age of eleven, and his story is the story of black New Orleans: born in a house in the Treme later demolished to make room for a city project, parading as a child with a social aid and pleasure club, shining shoes on Bourbon Street outside the Dream Room in the Sharkey Bonano heydays. He was even in a kid's kazoo band: they paraded every time Joe Louis won a fight.

When I made my fateful trip to New Orleans or America's Greatest City as it is known here in "L by L" land, in December of 2005, I was looking everywhere for confirmation that the city was not dying and that, somehow, everything would be okay, someday. Here's a link to an earlier blog:

During that visit I went with my friends, the Freeland- Archers, to a dance at the Cafe Brazil, searching for what passes as normalcy in a devastated city where normal is a very disputable term at best. There, on the dance floor, like a cafe au lait Fred Astaire was Uncle Lionel, gliding and sliding to the music of Lionel Ferbos (yes, another Lionel!) squiring a parade of the most attractive women in the crowded club.

I can't even begin to describe the emotional impact this had on me. How bad could things get, I wondered, if Uncle Lionel is here, and still dancing.

What I didn't know was that he had just recently returned to AGC after losing his home in the Lafitte project and gone through a terrible depression. Perhaps he persevered because he was aware how important he was, how symbolic he had become.

Spike Lee featured him in the documentary "If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise", his follow up to "When the Levees Broke", the 2006 Katrina film. He was seen in an episode of of HBO's Treme, and his likeness was used on countless ads and promotions for AGC.

Keith Spera, Times- Picayune

Actor Wendell Pierce who plays Antoine Batiste, the hard- luck trombone player on Treme, was walking on the banks of the Seine in Paris Sunday night when he heard brass band music. A French group was playing tunes from New Orleans, Pierce's home town. "It just shows you the impact of musicians like Uncle Lionel... his legacy will be felt not just in New Orleans but the world over."

That warm evening at dba, at the end, they wheeled Uncle Lionel out of the club. Everyone stood and applauded. Everyone said goodbye. He beamed, smiled his trademark grin and waved, surrounded by family and friends.

Then, last Sunday, he entered Heaven like General William Booth, beating on his big bass drum once again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I Run a Blues Jam

I run a blues jam at a bar. I play blues music on the harmonica and sing.  That's (some of) what I do.

Every Thursday, for the past seven or eight years, I've presided over a blues jam at a venue here in Washington, DC, called the Zoo Bar, across from the National Zoo.

Here's how it works: my band, the Big Boy Little Band, plays an opening set starting at 8:30PM. This set is usually an hour long. During our set, the musicians sign up, list their instruments, let us know if they can sing and if they have to leave early.

Then I go down the list and try to put bands together. Each configuration gets three songs (it used to be four but we'd run out of time) during which they play blues songs, a one- to- three- chord progression, usually structured around the singer's preference. I try to make sure that everyone who signs up, regardless of ability, gets their time onstage.

Does this seem simple? It does to me. There are jams like this all over the country, probably all over the world. But when you're dealing with a cross section of people with widely variant musical ability and opinions, sometimes it gets a little frustrating.

Like the time the the quartet of young (white) gentlemen came in to do hip- hop. When I told them we were a blues jam, the singer offered to "punch [me] out." I declined and told him to sit down or leave. He and his friends left.

Or the country- western singer who called me a name when I said he could only play blues. "Do you know who I am?" I said no, but that there were plenty of blues in country western. "Do a Bob Wills song. Or a Johnny Cash tune," I suggested. "You can use my band."

"Your band is shit," he replied. "Except for your drummer and guitar player. And the bass player." Needless to say, that's pretty much the whole band.  Except for me.

Message received.

Of course, there is a plus side. Many new and good bands have formed at the jam. Complete bands may come down and play- the owner usually bar- tends on jam night and they may catch his ear. It's a great place to meet other musicians. I think most everyone would prefer playing live with other musicians than just playing along with recordings in their basements.

Several nationally known blues musicians have stopped by to play- our audience gets to hear them for free prior to their local appearance at a venue that is decidedly not free.

My band gets to play at least one hour a week (at the minimum) and this has obviously helped us tighten up and keep our repertoire somewhat varied. And we make money. Not a lot, but a little, with regularity.

Despite these highpoints,  I've put together my own list of guidelines. Now, keep in mind that I mostly keep these to myself. They're for me, for my mental health. No need to outline them on a big board or the sign- up sheet. Frankly, they're really just common sense suggestions..

Having said that, I'm going to list them right here. Anyone from the jam who regularly reads the blog will be able to see them but I'll take that chance!

Here they are:

1. If you want to play, you must sign up.
Don't think that because I know you, or you're there week after week that I'll automatically get you up there. I won't.

2. Bring your instrument. If you're a drummer, bring sticks. 
We have had a lot of wear and tear on our amps and microphones for which there is no compensation. Harmonica players in particular have used up at least two of my custom mikes. Plus, I get people asking if they can use my harmonicas! The answer is NO. Bringing your instrument is a sign of professionalism.

3. Play blues.
It's a blues jam. Not a country- western jam, not a rock jam and not a folk jam. It's not freestyle and it's not rap or hip- hop. It's not Reggae. The reason blues works is because of the form: usually 12 bars, a I- IV- V progression and some semi- familiar lyrics that rhyme, and because most forms of western music have some blues within its repertoire. It affords a certain amount of instrumental freedom and everyone gets to be a guitar god for about two choruses.

4. Not everyone gets to play with the house band.
Some do, some don't. If you feel that you have to play with the Big Boy Little Band, it means that someone else who has signed up won't be getting up on that set. Then we get backed up and the jam runs out.

Some jam- meisters do let everyone play with the house band, but they only get one song apiece and are charged $5.00 for the opportunity. I don't want to do this if I can avoid it. Warning: there is some pressure to change this.

5. Be nice.
Don't give me or anyone else a hard time. Questions like, "How come this guy is coming up? I signed up before him!" may be pertinent in restaurants or while waiting at the Whole Foods meat counter, but they are irrelevant to me.

Usually after we play our set, we have a full house of customers and jammers. Part of my job is to keep as many people there as possible, so I try to put up as good a configuration as possible. I also like to give the house drummer a short break as he has just completed an hour set, so there may be a wait.

If you don't want to tip, just say, "No thank you," when someone comes around with the tip bucket. No one wants or needs to hear a lecture on economics from an asshole in a bar.

6. Three songs or 15- 20 minutes, so tune up before you get called onstage.
And try not to decide what to play for 10 minutes.

7. Singers call the tunes.
It behooves you to sing if you want to do a particular song. Instrumentals can just go on and on. Part of my job is to prevent that, and to prevent "train wrecks"- songs that have too many chord changes that not everyone will be able to play. See rules 2 and 5.

The corollary to this is that good drummers and bass players can usually play as many sets as they want. Everyone plays guitar or harp, it seems, but few play drums or bass.

8. Drink or eat something
It's a bar, for chrissakes!

9. Don't come in after 11PM expecting to play.
The jam starts at 9:30 (or so, depending on whether we have any good drummers signed up) and ends at 12:30 AM. By 11 I've pretty much figured it out. (Unless you're a drummer!)

10. Every once and a while, someone way better than you (or me) is going to stop by. 
Don't be angry because you don't get to go up. Just sit back and enjoy them. They're really, really good, or I wouldn't have invited them, and you can learn something from them.
Ten is always a good number for a list, so let's leave it at that. There are a few more things, such as if I think you haven't had enough playing time I'll try and make it up in subsequent weeks, or if I think you sound particularly good that night, I'll try and bring you up with the Big Boy Little Band at the end of the night, but, mostly, I think that covers it.

I run a blues jam at a bar. I play blues music on the harmonica and sing.  That's (some of) what I do.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The One and Only T- Bone Walker

I can't even remember the last time this happened to me
There's an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza goes through ridiculous lengths to have people call him T-Bone. Of course, since it's an episode of Seinfeld, they never do.

There may be many people nicknamed T-Bone (T- Bone Burnett for instance), but there is really only one significant T- Bone:  Mr. Aaron Thibeaux Walker, born this day in Linden, Texas in 1910. He had a great career, partially obscured by one huge hit, Stormy Monday, a record so successful that it is often the only blues most people can actually sing, even if they only know a few lines.

The very fine Classic Blues Video channel has collected over an hour of fine T-Bone videos for the occassion, so if you want take time out this Memorial Day (or, as we blues fanatics say, Decoration Day) and celebrate a little T-Bone'in, check it out:

So, happy Decoration Day, loyal readers- don't forget all those good men and women who served our country, and don't forget T- Bone.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Return of the Oedipal Candidate

There seem to be several reasons these days (and maybe in the old days too- I don't know) why people run for the highest office of the land. The one that makes the most sense is that the candidate feels that he or she is the most qualified person to serve their country on behalf of the American people.

These people, usually career politicians, have affiliated themselves with the party that represents their beliefs most completely, and utilizing that affiliation, they run in opposition to the person that does not affiliate themselves with the same set of beliefs.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work.

But I've noticed there is emerging another type of candidate, that I'll call the Post- Freudian or Oedipal candidate. This candidate's need for office seems centered on showing the world that he is a better man than his father, ultimately, but, like Oedipus, he usually brings ruin to his country and shame to his name.

One such Oedipal candidate was George W. Bush, the son of a one- term president with a reputation for "wimpiness" who failed to quash an evil dictator named Saddam Hussein when he had the chance. So, in classic Oedipal fashion, his son, also a politician, decided that if he achieved this same office, he'd show everyone how wimpy his dad really was, and, by contrast how un- wimpy he is, by finishing the job: ending the threat of the dictator and righting the wrong done by his father.

In this way he would avenge himself on all the intellectual beatings he took from his smarter father and others (I'm sure) and justify all the nights he had to be hauled out of a drunk tank by some influential political colleague of his dad's.

Or not- how should I know?

Of course, in order to do this, he had to involve the entire world in the process since he had also achieved the highest office of the land.

The result: thousands of lives lost, a nation plunged into fiscal crisis and a total lack of true leadership. In other words, not really a great result. However, he did get rid of Saddam Hussein, the very thing that his father did not do. So- mission accomplished, from a Freudian point of view.

I am afraid we're seeing the Oedipal candidate once again in the person of the current presumptive Republican nominee, Willard Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney's father, George, a successful businessman, the CEO of American Motors, devout Mormon, philanthropist and politician ran for the presidency twice (like Mitt), and lost both times in the nominating stage. The second time, he did what many candiddates before and after do. He found himself in a position that was not supported by his party, in this case his opposition to the war in Viet Nam, so he switched his views, claiming that he had "been brainwashed" by military officials and US diplomats, a phrase that resonated badly with his potential constituency.

He lost the nomination, opening the door for the horror that was Richard Nixon, who, ironically enough, appears, in hindsight, to have embraced the policies of a contemporary liberal democrat.

And now, along comes tough guy Mitt. No brainwashing here. Just Bainwashing. (Remember- you that here first, loyal readers!)

Even though he has the same tendency to change positions on the issues that his father had, this no longer matters in the soundbite age in which we live. What matters is not uttering the fatal bite.


Just don't say "Brainwashed."  Don't say it about your Healthcare program in Massachusetts, or your father's pioneering stance on Civil Rights (remember- you're running against a Black man) or his charitable generosity.

Or you'll never get elected.

And you'll never be able to show your old man that you can do what he failed to do.

Calling Dr. Freud! Dr. Freud?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Robert Johnson's 101st

Happy Birthday, Robert Johnson. I said it last year and I'm happy to say it again this year.

Friday, April 20, 2012

King Harvest Has Surely Come (Goodbye Levon)

Levon Helm 
May 26, 1940- April 19, 2012
I thought I'd heard of the Band long before I actually heard the Band, but that was not trueIn 1965 I went to a Bob Dylan show at Constitution Hall here in Washington DC. I was I think 14- either 13 or 14 and staying with my father for the weekend. I remember this because my mother would never have allowed me to go to the concert, let alone buy me the ticket. (Thanks, Dad!)

I also remember thinking, "Wow... great band!"

Dylan With The Band
Of course it was years before I realized whom I had heard that night.

By 1968, the music magazines I read, like Hit Parader or the nascent Rolling Stone, were touting the Band's debut record Big Pink, a seeming offshoot of the so- called Basement Tapes of Bob Dylan's that, believe it or not, I still have yet to hear.

At first we all thought the group's name was Big Pink, but we soon found out they called themselves The Band, which, at the time, I thought was sort of pretentious.

In Danko's Basement ©Elliott Landy
Steve Graham bought the album and we listened to it constantly, especially to Levon Helm: mostly those drum fills on The Weight plus his outstanding (literally- he didn't sing much on the first record) vocal on the same song. Steve played drums, I sang, maybe Brad Beukema played guitar and we tried to get The Weight down, but we never did. Steve got pretty close to those fills though.

By the time the second album came out, I was a senior in high school. It was, if anything, better than the first. Here was the Band's sound: Levon's hardscrabble, Woody Guthrie tones, a deep Steinbeckian appreciation of the hard working man. It was like a vision of America sometime during the depression, evocative in the same way that R Crumb's comics were evocative of a time gone by when cartoons had cars with fat tires and men with big, big feet. In other words, a time that only seemed to have been.
Recording the second record in Hollywood © Elliott Landy
My personal favorite, King Harvest (Has Surely Come) was  troubled and dirge- like, while Rag Mama Rag played like something the Carter Family might have sang in their living room when Jimmy Rogers came over. Those voices, Levon, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, were inlike any other in rock and roll. Three very individual singers worrying their way through those songs, those intense songs! Although the Band had a genuine R n' B background, and the songs and sound of the group were soulful, they were decidedly not in a copycat, minstrel- show way like the Stones or Rod Stewart.

This was the impression the Band made on me at the time and this is the impression I carry with me now.

Like, say, Booker T and the MG's, their's was virtuosity in service to a sound or even a way of life. And, of course, it was all done by Canadians. The only real American was Levon Helm.

If you had to have an American in your band, then have someone who had listened to Sonny Boy Williamson II on KFFA everyday when he was a kid, someone who played drums by watching drum-mer/ dancer/ eccentric Peck Curtis in his hometown of West Helena, someone who played the mandolin and the drums (and anything else) who better than Levon?

Levon in the Ronnie Hawkins Days
Levon to me became the voice of America. Not rock and roll America, or hardscrabble dust- bowl America, but all of America. That distinctive beautiful voice of The Weight or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

The WS Walcott Medicine Show © Elliott Landy
Over the years the Band has dissolved. Just as the others were not really Americans, they were also not really organic, old fashioned musicians or southern farmers out of a Sam Shepard play. They were not bygone relics from medicine shows and Salvation Army bands. Some of them were notorious drunks, and terrible drug addicts, Levon included. There was bitter infighting, especially between Levon and Robbie Robertson, the gifted architect of the group's signature sound. There's no irony that only Robertson and Garth Hudson, the sweet bearded keyboardist/ sax player are the only survivors. Richard Manuel hanged himself. What sort of demons haunted him?

After the Band broke up, having completed The Last Waltz, Levon worked as constantly as he could as an actor, session drummer, band leader and entrepreneur. His lack of writing credits on the group's records and a terrible bout with throat cancer that rendered him practically speechless also left him impoverished. He toured with a band of blues musicians from around Woodstock, playing drums and leaving the singing chores to others, sometimes his daughter Amy.

As a blues drummer, he was nonpariel. I heard him do four kinds of shuffles within one song, and he did them like breathing. What I wouldn't have given for a chance to sit in with "the old man" as my friend Pete Kanaras calls him.

Then two miracles happened: he regained about 85% of his singing voice and started a weekly gig at his Woodstock home called the Midnight Rambles, his version of a medicine show he had seen in Arkansas as a kid, back in the KFFA/ King Biscuit days. The Rambles took off, leading to sellout crowds every weekend. He released a great CD, Dirt Farmer, as if to prove his assertion that much of the Band's music came from him and not Robertson.

My daughter Charlotte went to a Midnight Ramble last year and loved every moment of it. I asked her if Levon sang and she said he just sang two songs.

"Which ones?" I asked.

"Ophelia and The Weight," she replied.

Well, of course! Good time, rollicking (yeah, I said rollicking) Ophelia- perfect! Back to the Ronnie Hawkins days of early Rock and Roll carousing. Then The Weight, the song  that introduced Steve Graham and myself  to the voice. That unique, incredible, unmistakeable voice.

The voice of America. That we hear singing. And will for years to come.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Thinking About Muddy Waters

Muddy would have been ninety- nine years old today, had he not died on April 30 in 1983.

Ninety- nine years ago he was born in abject poverty, like almost all African Americans born in the state of Mississippi in 1913. He was raised to farm, to work in a cotton field, to drive a tractor, maybe to preach, certainly to take care of his family and stay in debt for the rest of his life.

Of course, that's not what happened.

What happened was that he chose a different life, a life doing what he was really good at instead of doing what everyone else did. He chose to become Muddy Waters, blues singer, and he became, simply, the best Muddy Waters there ever was or would be.

He was McKinley Morganfield (what a wonderful name!) originally, born in a cabin in Jug's Corner, MI, and raised by his maternal grandmother. He learned to play harmonica at age thirteen, then guitar from watching bluesmen like Charley Patton and Son House and from the records of local blues celebrities, especially Robert Johnson.

He had mastered the stark sound of Delta Blues well enough that by the time Alan Lomax, then collecting songs for the Library of Congress, recorded Muddy, he was already unmistakably Muddy. The Stovall Recordings (from the plantation where Muddy worked) showcase a young, poised and confident Muddy Waters singing songs he would later re- record once he got to Chicago.

Muddy with the record from Alan Lomax
Lomax made good on his promise to send Muddy a 78 recording of two of the songs so that Muddy could put the record on the juke box of his little joint in the Delta. He liked the recording. He thought he sounded good. So good that he could leave the Delta and go somewhere to make some money as a singer. Some place where there was a community of folks who might also like his sound. "I can do it," he said when he played his record, "I can do it."

He decided on Chicago. Interestingly enough, he had been to Chicago previously in 1940, but had returned to Mississippi in a kind of daze. There must have been something, however, about the record  Lomax had pressed for him that cemented his confidence, because this time, in 1943, he stayed on in the Windy City.

Once in Chicago, young Muddy began right away to make a name for himself in small Chicago clubs, house rent parties, Sunday afternoons at Tampa Red's, in short, wherever people gathered to hear the blues. He made some unreleased recordings for Columbia, was mentored by Big Bill Broonzy, backed up John Lee "Sonny Boy" Williamson and acquired his first electric guitar.

His friend Sunnyland Slim got him an audition with Aristocrat Records. His first recordings were shelved but his third session produced I Can't Be Satisfied (a remake of the Lomax sessions'  I Be's Troubled) b/w I Feel Like Going Home. This record was released and became a huge hit for Aristocrat, soon to change its name to Chess Records.

Eventually Chess allowed Muddy to bring his full band (Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and Elgin Edwards and finally Otis Spann) into the studio, thus providing the instrumental template for rock n' roll bands from then on: two guitars, a keyboard, bass player, drummer and sometimes a harmonica.

The records these men made remain among the greatest blues records ever, copied over and over, dissected and re-mixed, re- released and issued on every kind of media so far invented. They are our American Treasures, the ultimate expressions of urban blues, fronted by Muddy's all- powerful dark Delta voice. Recordings that take you somewhere, and then leave you there just long enough to know you've been and gone.

The first photographs I ever took in my life were of Muddy in 1967. I was sixteen years old and using a borrowed camera. I remember thinking, as I looked at these men, "Maybe when I'm old enough, I'll be able to play like that."

Well, I'm older now than they were then, and I'm still trying.

Happy Birthday, Muddy- you were at the beginning of everything I've ever done of value: photography, harmonica- playing, getting married, raising a family- you were there for all of it. I can honestly say you helped me become the man I am today, and damn it- I'm still learning how to play those songs!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Early Burlesque Performers

These photographs, published here, are from the collection of Professor Charles H. McClaghy. They were bought to my attention by James Michael Folks. Thanks, Michael!