Saturday, July 22, 2006

A Few Pieces of Driftwood

Jimmie Driftwood was a middle-aged Arkansas schoolteacher who, among other things, had been adapting and rewriting old songs, as well as writing original music, about American history, to help his students learn not only about America, but to love its history and the study of history.

I'm not sure in which order these things happened, but Driftwood's life got much more interesting when one of his songs attracted enough to lead to a contract with RCA records and result in a cover version of that song by an up-and-coming country singer named Johnny Horton. That song, The Battle of New Orleans, went on to become one of the biggest hits of the late 1950's, hitting number one for six weeks in 1959.

As much as I love that record (and all of Horton's tragically few hits), Jimmie Driftwood's records are great on another scale entirely. Accompanying himself with the distinctive sound of his homemade guitar ( along with a few other instruments), and his equally distinctive voice, Driftwood sang with an honesty and directness I'd love to hear on records these days.

Today, I've uploaded two of my favorite examples from his many albums (at least seven that I know of, released from 1959-66 or so). The first "Rattlesnake Song" tells a familar folk tale, of the lover saving her beloved from a deadly bite by sucking out the poison. However, in this case, the song is rendered unique by the strange lyrical additions he makes to each verse, throwing in not only the fairly standard nonsense chorus, but throwing rhyming nonsense syllables into the middle of every few words.

The other song, Fidi Diddle Um A-Dazey, is easily my favorite Driftwood recording. In less than two minutes (including the time it takes to repeatedly sing the nonsense chorus)he tells the highlights (or lowlights, if you will) of a family's life. And what a story: a randy wife stays eternally pregnant, having 16 children in 12 years, until her constant desires literally kill her husband, at which point she marries a hugely fat man. He, in turn, snores so heavily that the house collapses on all of them, killing the woman and her new man, but sparing the children, who discover enough money (a million dollars!) in the fat man's pockets to sustain them. And it's catchy as hell, fun to sing along to, and one of these days, when I can master that guitar lick while singing, I'm going to sing it live.

When he was in his late '80's (in the mid 1990's), it was written that Jimmie Driftwood would still welcome anyone who showed up at his home in Arkansas and visit with them in his home. He died at age 91 in 1998. I wish I'd known of his hospitality a few years earlier, because I'd have love to have met him.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Change of Pace

For the most part, I really do understand why the songs I've posted here are "obscure". My tastes are hardly in the mainstream, although that's clearly to the mainstream's detriment.

But then there are other songs I come across, songs which were perhaps even promoted as possible hits, on real, healthy and even giant labels, but which failed anyway. Case in point, today's next upload, "Barefoot and Pregnant" by Joan Armatrading.

Now I know she's never had a hit, but both Phoebe Snow and Tracy Chapman have had major hits which sounded like they could have been right off of a Joan Armatrading album. And not to take away from either of those other singers, both of whom I enjoy, to my ears, Joan is the superior singer and writer. I came across this promo single in a huge batch of records I bought one day about 17 years ago, and on the strength of this song, I've subsequently bought everything Armatrading has released. This song remains my favorite, but I've not been disappointed.

Where to start....

I guess with the driving rhythm, pushed forward at times by the acoustic gutiar, or by the percussive nature of certain vocal sections, but mostly by the fantastic drumming. I don't know who's playing the drums, and drums are not something that usually catch my attention. Here, on the other hand, I've replayed sections of the record at times, just to hear one of the fills.

As a folkie, I'm really taken with the acoustic guitar interplay on this record as well, and the occasional touches of classic three part harmony. The electric piano is a nice touch, too. But tying it all together, and pushing it from an interesting arrangement into a great all-around record are the masterful lyrics and the equally classic lead vocal. There's an entire story of a relationship here, in just over 3 1/2 minutes.

It's probably too fussy and intellectual of a recording to have been a hit, but it came out when records like "Poetry Man" and "Midnight at the Oasis" were hits, so it certainly could have caught on somewhere. But it didn't. What a shame.

A Thoroughly Unpleasant Man

"I Ain't Changin'" by Jamie Marlowe.

Now, here we have the real "difficult listening" file. I don't recall where I got this record, and at some point it went into the "stack of records to listen to when I get a chance". First time I heard it has to have been close to 20 years ago, if not more, but I've never forgotten it. I immediately had both the song title and the name of the "artist" seared into my memory.

I hope this was a vanity pressing, because if someone actually released this as a money-making venture on a "real record label", they were probably better off in another buisness. The annoying qualities of Mr. Marlowe's performance are matched by the wretchedness both of the lyrics and of the person those lyrics describe. To whoever drew the big "X" on the record label: it was richly deserved.

Ick. On the other hand, as I said, I've never quite forgotten this record either, and now, perhaps, it can infect you, too. Tell me what you think!

Gettin' Tipsie

Next up, and not wholly unrelated to Ms. Layne, is Miss Tipsie Lee, who was apparently even younger at the time of this recording than Ms. Layne seems to have been trying to sound: according to the label, Tipsie was "13 years old" when this record was made, and I can certainly believe that.

But as much as some others might quickly lump this into the "difficult listening" file, I find that there is something magical happening here. There are points in the song where it feels to me that the train (heard at the beginning and the end of the song) is about to slip right off the track. The energy in Tipsie's lead vocal is infectious, in a way that I rarely hear in the voice of a grown singer, and I'm a big fan of records where you can hear the intake of breath before a big vocal.

I found this record at the late, lamented record store "Toad Hall", of Rockford, Illinois, easily the best record store I've ever been in. Three buildings, two of them combined storefronts. However, the owners had taken over the basement and what had once been upstairs apartments, and virtually every space in the buildings, even closets, where stuffed with records, except those places filled with books and magazines. The third building housed nothing but 45's and 78's.

Sadly, the owners both died in the past three years, and the store is no more.

They Don't Make 'Em Like This No More!

Today, I'm uploading a bunch of songs to the Bashleo/Gmail site.

First up, a song which serves to remind me that musical releases haven't been much fun for a long time, and that record labels in the '50's and '60's could be expected, on a regular basis, to release something wonderfully insane, and to hold legitimate hopes that at least a few of those releases would be a hit. This (being a hit) wasn't the case for the song I'm describing here - in fact, it may have been a b-side, but it doesn't stop me from wishing that someone, anyone, would start releasing songs and recordings that are this goofy, again.

The song in question is "Dum-Dum" by Joy Layne, from 1957. I found this on eBay last month, in an ad which also contained a sound clip of the record. 45 seconds or so of it, and I was hooked.

The seller tried to make his sale based on the record being idiotic, but that thought never would have occured to me. Instead, I heard this record as a classic novelty record, set to a latin-style beat then common and popular (and again, quite wonderful). Everything about this record works for me. The vocal is appropriately off the wall and just barely in control, the bass voice (is it Thurl?) adds a nice touch, the arrangement is well done - hardly a throwaway for such a weird song, and fairly complicated - and the lyrics are genuinely weird:

The verse begins: "Love me, you yes; Love you, no me; Love maybe y0u me, too..."
The chorus ends: "Is, Am, or Ain't You Is My Darling?"

I think we've all said, thought and/or been asked those things in our lives.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


Newly uploaded to the Gmail site are three of my newest 45 rpm acquisitions. All three come from labels associated with the song-poem field, but I suspect that only one of the three is technically a song-poem.

That one would be "Atom Dynomic Dance" by that man about town, Phil Celia. One doesn't come across a twist styled record suggesting a dance based on an atom bomb explosion every day. Not only the words strike me as some amateur's attempt to clever, but the fact that the melody (at least as sung by Mr. Celia) doesn't quite fit the chord changes, tells me that this wasn't designed to be promoted as an actual hit. The Tin Pan Alley label on the record helps, too. And is "Dynomic" even a word? Okay, everybody! "Let's Go Boom and Mushroom, Let's Be an Atom Blast...!"

Next up is Barney Spencer and the Vellaires, on the Vellez label. I have only a few records on this label, and each of them is odd in its own unique way. This is just a cute little song, pushed over that line between fun and really fun by the singer's Scandinavian accent. I have a suspicion that this was a vanity release, but I could be wrong.

And then there is "Shakespeare Rock", by the Eligibles. Records on the sometimes song-poem related label Fable never cease to amaze me, whether they are song-poems or not. The lyrics of this one strike me as far too knowingly ironic, and it also seems too well arranged, musically, to be a throwaway song-poem. I suspect this record was meant as a deliberate joke, and whether I'm right or not, it sure as hell makes me laugh. It's well done, all the way around. I'll let you discover its charms yourselves.

Comments welcomed and greatly appreiciated!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Cool Yourself Off! (The Perfect Record, Part Three)

Just in time for summer, I've just uploaded a little known, ridiculous novelty song from the early 1960's (one which came out on a major label, no less), called "Beer Beer Bottla Beer" by A.C. Ducey.

I first heard this song on the Dr. Demento show around 1980, it immediately went into heavy rotation, and I spent the next 20 years looking for a copy, finally securing one on eBay a few years ago. I don't actually drink beer, finding it quite vile, thank you, but that doesn't stop this record from being one of my all time favorite records.

That's not Thurl Ravenscroft singing, but for more than a moment one might think it is, even though I now suspect that the vocal has been slowed down for effect. And as one might have gathered, I'm a sucker for an eccentric bass vocal performance.

There is so much to love here, from the double tracked vocals, which start and stop more or less at random, to the understated arrangement, to the minimilist lyrics ("whattaya mean, wait'll next year" being my favorite moment), to the clinking of beer bottles as the instrumental sections begin. I can't imagine a way this record could be improved!

I hope this will become one of your favorite songs, too, whether you enjoy beer or not.


I don't really have any clue how many or how few of you are out there reading this little site, but if you've been here from the start, or read the archives, you may have come across my post about "The Moreland Tapes", connected to the posting of the song "Head Cheese". You can read it here:

Well, since the last time I posted, I've learned a lot about the singer of that song (and of the other song referenced in that post, "Reputation"). Another piece of writing I did about these tapes came to the attention of a relative of the Moreland family, and I eventually heard from two of Merigail (correct spelling) Moreland's relatives.

This quite quickly became the most bittersweet of meetings: I was, on the one hand, able to learn that Merigail, whose voice I'd adored on these tapes for so many years, actually made a handful of records, copies of which I was sent. I even learned that she was(perhaps briefly) a Chicago area celebrity, co-hosting her own "American Bandstand" style show, locally, while still in High School in the late 1950's. On the other hand, I was deeply saddened to learn that her life was cut short by Lupus, at around age 48, in 1991.

She apparently worked as a singer for much of that short life, and I may yet get to here more of her recordings. But for the time being, I have spent the last six or seven months, listening, obsessively at times, to a single she released on a small Chicago label, in 1960. There were actually at least three singles, under then name "Merri Gail", one in 1955, and two in 1960, but this one is the "shoulda been" hit, and the quality of her singing just gives me chills at times. And she was all of 16 or 17 at the time.

I've uploaded both sides of this 45 to the bashleo/gmail site. The version of "Unchained Melody" is first rate, with a great arrangement (love that accordian), and a sexy, longing vocal that seems more knowing than I'd expect from someone so young. Also, the growth in ability and technique from "Reputation", just three years earlier, is astonishing.

But as great as I think "Unchained" is, it was only the B-Side to the completely wonderful (if oddly named) "Oo-Lee, Oo-Lee, Papa, Oo-Lee". There is not a thing about this record that I don't adore right down to my bones, and it's flown right to the top of my favorite records of 1960, along with "Cathy's Clown", "It's Now or Never" and the Olympics' "Dance By the Light of the Moon".

For "Oo-Lee", before even considering the lead vocal, there is the goofy way the song starts in the middle of a musical phrase, that great bass voice, more coloring from accordian, and a swinging late '50's take on doo-wop. The lyrics are a bit ridiculous in places, but Merigial just sings the hell out of it, suggesting a depth of emotion behind the words that makes me believe she meant every word of it. And the dichotomy between the softly longing vocal of the choruses and the demanding, pleading vocal in the bridges is great, too.

It pales next to the tragedy of her short life, of course, but I was truly hoping to someday find Merigail Moreland, meet her, and tell her how much I've loved her recordings, and I've been very saddened to learn that this can never happen. Is it possible to have a crush on a singer who was grown before I was born, and who has been gone for 15 years, based on nothing more than her recordings?


Well, after nearly six months of some fairly overwhelming work and family demands, I'm hoping this is a fresh start, and that I can start posting new words and music at least a couple of times a week, if not more often. Those of you who give this site a second chance should be rewarded with some fairly frequent new (old) stuff to listen to.