Lucia, could you move that piece of wood on your left shoulder all the way out of the frame, please?
Folk music, as it came to be called, began centuries ago and was passed on from generation to generation until recording began and made a more permanent record, so to speak. In the early 1960s an offshoot began called freak folk, sort of avant garde, sometimes minimalist, sometimes maximist, but never quite like Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, or even WC Handy. The spearheaders were inadvertently Peter Stampfel and Steven Weber who called themselves The Holy Modal Rounders. In the early 1900s a rather strange gentleman actually began the movement without knowing it. His name was John Jacob Niles and his songs have been recorded endlessly since then, but never exactly as HE performed them. The rest of the playlist contains the famous and infamous of artists pushing the envelopes or just finding comfort with a no borders attitude. So now let's listen to what the folk this is all about...
Below is a jukebox containing all the songs I picked this week. After you read about them below, go back and listen to whatever you like by just clicking on that title in the jukebox, or stream the whole playlist by clicking on the "play" icon at the top. It's free and it's the entire song. We're not selling anything. We're just in the business of hopefully making your days better by listening to great music.
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1. "John Henry" — John Jacob Niles (2:08)
American composer, singer, and collector of traditional ballads, John is one of the cornerstones of folk music history. Born in 1892 he lived until 1980 primarily in Kentucky, although he traveled the world singing and educating all those in his path. There is footage of him singing live in the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. It is amazing to see and hear Niles. This will have to do for now. But you now know who Tiny Tim’s vocal role model was.
Great folk singer, but ... possible werewolf?
2. "Sixteen Tons" — Merle Travis (2:50)
One of the greatest guitar fingerpickers in all of music history, the style ‘Travis-picking’ is named after him. One of his compositions, covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford in 1955, was a gigantic all-time hit. Travis’ original version was released in 1946, but it took the more elaborately produced and arranged Ernie version to reach each and everybody. However, it's always nice to hear the original composer’s rare version and that's what Al do.
Merle's jackets and guitars left no chance you wouldn't know it was him.
3. "Blues In the Bottle" — The Holy Modal Rounders (3:24)
This was the anthem of “freak folk” when it debuted in 1964 as the lead-off track on their very first album on the Prestige label. It certainly had a unique sound in terms of how their voices sounded and the way they played their instruments. They were quite the unique duo. They lasted til 1967 when they split into two other bands. Their influence changed a lotta things in Greenwich Village and they were both briefly in The Fugs in 1965.
4. "Breathe" — Willy Porter (3:36)
I heard this in the early days of iTunes around 2003. It totally floored me and I went to see Willy the next time he played Boston. We had a nice chat and became friends and mutual fans. Willy pioneered recording each set every night and then selling CDs of it after the show. He is one of those guitarists that you hear and scratch your head, wondering how only two hands can produce all that motion. This track is a great example of that. There’s a studio version on his self-titled 2002 album and a live version (included here) on his High Wire album from 2003.
5. "I Can't Stand the Rain" — Dale Ann Bradley (2:56)
This is from her 2006 solo album Catch Tomorrow. At first she mimics the tempo of the original version by R&B diva Ann Peebles, but by the second verse has taken it into the speedy 2/4 time change of classic bluegrass. By that time, you begin to wonder who got what from whom. Bradley, a born Kentuckian, started out with The New Coon Creek Girls in 1994. As time went by, things turned around and it became Dale Ann Bradley and Coon Creek (as men had joined the band as well by then) and so it remains today. Dale writes many of her own tunes but can’t resist rock covers that get bluegrassed in the transformation such as this one, U2’s "I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For" and "Stuck In the Middle With You," originally done by Stealers Wheel.
6. "Thoughts of Polly" — Appaloosa (4:07)
This has been in the column before, but fits the subject matter. This was a Boston band that snuck up to my office at Columbia Records in 1969 to audition for me IN MY OFFICE! I signed them and their self-titled album was released that year. This track features BS&T’ers Bobby Colomby and Fred Lipsius on drums and alto sax respectively and yours truly producing and sitting in on this track on a trendy electric keyboard from that time period called a Rocksichord. The actual band was made up of acoustic guitar, violin, cello and electric bass. The song was written and sung by John Parker Compton and was a standout from that album. They were ahead of their time back then and still sound pretty darn good today. I believe this is sadly out of print and that’s just another reason for including it here.
John Parker Compton, Appaloosa lead singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist, 1970
7. "She Is Like the Swallow" — Lucia Micarelli feat. Leigh Nash (3:37)
Lucia was born in Queens (!), New York in 1983 and studied violin at Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. Her debut album was released in 2004 and she began to tour, opening for and joining onstage Jethro Tull, Chris Botti and Josh Groban. In 2010, she debuted on the HBO series Treme where she starred as street violinist Annie. I have included a live video of her onstage in a blatant attempt to lure you into what I know is an excellent performance.
8. "Seaweed" — The Fruit Bats (2:25)
It began in Chicago around 1995 in the mind of one Eric Johnson (not the guitar virtuoso or the other Eric in Archers of Loaf). Bandmates Dan Strack and Ben Massarella talked Eric into recording an album for their label, Perishable Records, in 2001 and so it began with the release of Echolocation. Twelve years later and a total of four albums altogether was enough for Johnson. He formally announced the end of Fruit Bats and went about scoring films and playing a farewell tour in the Pacific Northwest. This song is from their second album, Mouthfuls, released in 2003. I will never tire of this track. It’s very catchy, folky, and has a bizzare lyric. The instruments play a wonderful arrangement with a great blend. This is Freak Folk Perfection.
9. "What Would You Like for Breakfast" — Al Kooper (4:11)
I wrote this about 2001 and recorded the demo you now hear. Lyrically, this is very Dylan-influenced but kinda its own thing musically. It’s one of those ones where I played all the instruments. This will surely be on my box set Unreleased, skedded for 2016, which contains all unreleased stuff from my ENTIRE career. Consider this a teaser and a preview; it's pretty folky with an underlying blues feel.
One-man band recording at home, 2001
10. "Wild Seed" — Danny Tate (3:48)
Around the mid-'90s, some label sent me an artist to hang with for a week to see if there was any artist-producer relationship there. The week culminated in the making of this demo together. Danny played acoustic guitar and sang all the voices. I played the rest of the instruments and put together this arrangement. I think it came out pretty good but Danny chose another producer and sadly their album sank into the obscurity sea. Thought I’d fish this out for you this week as it’s being considered for the Unreleased box.
RIP, Gerry Goffin and Horace Silver — lyrics and music respectively, who both changed my life in ever so many ways.
Horace Silver (l) and Gerry Goffin (r)
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