The Anthology at Tom Waits Concerts

Waits_folk

from "KPFK Will Air Folk Fest"
The Pasadena Star Bee, July 3, 1974


Tom Waits is on tour — a rare enough news story in itself. 

But note that the music piped into the theater before and after the shows, to date, has been The Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. 

I've often pointed out the folk lineage of various Tom Waits songs, showing connections between:

Cold Cold Ground and Stephen Foster,

Georgia Lee and Blind Willie Johnson,

Swordfishtrombones and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, 

Better Off Without A Wife and Chubby Parker, The Carter Family, and John Lomax, and,

Down There By the Train and Uncle Dave Macon and Henry Thomas (although I really "buried the lead" on that one — scoll down).

... I have a lot more of these up my sleeve and I may get some of them written up some day ...

Anyway, it's interesting to see Waits tip his porkpie to The Anthology so explicitly. 

But it would be absurd to say I've finally been "proven right."  Waits has often been pretty generous in acknowledging his debts to other musicians, and folk has always been in the mix. 

Thanks to Ray for pointing out the use of The Anthology at the recent concerts, and to TCCBodhi and Dave R. at the Raindogs discussion list for providing independent confirmations.

_


The Illinois-Wisconsin Border

Johnsburg
St. John's church, Christmas Day 2000
Johnsburg, Illinois


Tom Waits doesn't release songs like Day After Tomorrow, which is one reason people listened so closely when it appeared on his 2004 album, Real Gone.

The song's narrator is a 21-year-old combat soldier on a battlefield where he sees himself like "the gravel on the road," like an expendable resource in someone else's project.

It's what we might call a protest song, which is not Tom Waits' style. When the morning newspaper appears in a Tom Waits song, it's usually to complete a still life with eggs and weak coffee. But Day After Tomorrow is a beautiful anit-war song — politically disheartening, spiritually uplifting, and about as moving as anything Waits has ever done.

Like me, the narrator-soldier of Day After Tomorrow is from northern Illinois:

I got your letter today
And I miss you all so much here
I can't wait to see you all
And I'm counting the days, dear
I still believe that there's gold
At the end of the world
And I'll come home to Illinois
On the day after tomorrow

It is so hard
And it's cold here
And I'm tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town
Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won't believe
Shoveling snow and raking leaves
And my plane will touch down
On the day after tomorrow

On my first listening, the "Wisconsin border" passage clunked in my ears. For one thing, "Rockford-town" isn't an expression I'd ever heard, and the song doesn't tell us anything about Rockford beyond what can be guessed from Google Maps.

So, the soldier's hometown seemed to lack credibility, a little as if a blues song had referred to Avalon, Mississippi as "an unincorporated community in the extreme northwest corner of Carroll County, part of the Greenwood Mississippi Micropolitan Statistical Area." The soldier seemed to have a wikipedic knowledge of his own hometown.

Of course, on my second listening, I remembered that Waits' wife, Kathleen Brennan, grew up in Johnsburg, Illinois, which is close to Rockford and even closer to my own home town. Since the early 1980's — and increasingly, as time goes on — Waits and Brennan have worked as a team under the name "Tom Waits," much as Gillian Welch and David Rawlings have said that they are a band called "Gillian Welch."

Thinking of the lines as having been written by an Illinoisan subtly changes the meaning of the words. If I and my family are any measure, referring to a town "up by the Wisconsin border" carries a meaning and significance you can't read off a map.

When I was a college boy in Tucson, Arizona, I went to at least a hundred poetry readings, including perhaps a half-dozen readings by a poet named Alberto Álvaro Ríos. Each time, he would tell the same old story about growing up in Nogales and playing a childish game of walking in two countries at once — literally, one foot in the USA, one foot in Mexico.

I quickly grew tired of the story. So what? So you grew up in a town that straddled the border! Today, of course, I'm able to see a significance I'd mostly missed as a callow youth. The border really does matter, even if it hadn't mattered much to me at the time.

Kathleen Brennan is from just this side of a border, a place where someplace else is always just over the horizon. Maybe such people know exactly where to locate their mythological worlds — over on the other side. Maybe they also tend to know exactly where myths are sorely lacking — here on this side.

In Day after Tomorrow, Waits and Brennan's soldier suddenly finds himself thinking of his hometown, old Rockford town, as if it were that mythical world on the other side of the border. He's displaced alright. His folks back home wouldn't believe how shoveling snow and raking leaves now seem to him like that gold at the end of the world.

It might seem funny that anyone would think of Wisconsin as a default location for some kind of Valhalla. I can't speak for Kathleen Brennan, rather obviously, but when I was growing up in Illinois, my family always had Wisconsin on its mind in a way. Not Indiana or Iowa, but Wisconsin.

For one thing, my parents were from there — they met during WWII while bowling in downtown Milwaukee. They still had siblings in Wisconsin towns both very large and very small. Even for those of us born in Illinois, going to Wisconsin was driving "back" as much as driving "up."

Mostly, we went back for holidays, weddings, and funerals. As a result, my parents' respective home towns seemed like bizarro worlds where people spent every day of their entire lives wearing clip-on ties, going to lengthy Catholic services, and then getting ecstatically drunk. In my mind's eye, John Prine's Wedding Day in Funeralville is always obviously about those places.

It's wedding day in Funeralville
Your soup spoon's on your right
The King and Queen will alternate
With the refrigerator light
There'll be boxing on the TV show
The colored kid will sing
Hooray for you
And midnight's oil
Lets burn the whole damn thing

Wisconsinites know about Illinoisans crossing the border to party. They were called FIBs (F**king Illinois Bastards). FIBs were known for driving drunk, littering, and being loud and disorderly — even more so on all counts than native Wisconsinites.

Once, a relative was bitterly complaining about FIBs, so I pointed out that the airwaves in Illinois were fully saturated with appeals to Escape to Wisconsin — constantly. Every Illinoisan who crossed the border was awarded an Escape to Wisconsin bumpersticker and encouraged to hurry back. He should, I said, contact his own state government about their success in attracting us FIBs ... his face took on a vivd expression of disillusionment.

I felt very uncomfortable about being seen as an outsider when my veins flowed with so much German-Catholic Wisconsin beer ... I mean, blood ... and when my mind was so invested in my Wisconsin roots. Like Alberto Rios, my family and I never quite got beyond straddling that border, growing up in two places at once.

John Prine's song "Lake Marie" is about a character like that — his body on the border, his mind so swimming with that border's past and present that it orders his world. It's a very weird song, almost a nonsense song, that makes sense on a level no other song makes sense.

The song has a mysterious power to make you hit the repeat button over and over and over again, endlessly. I suspect that power might derive from the song's evocation of place — it conjures the experience of occupying that particular borderland in a way you never thought possible.

For one thing, it confuses its facts as only someone thus conflicted can confuse them. Its inaccuracy is authentic.

Many years ago along the Illinois-Wisconsin Border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
— white babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
— and living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes —
They named the larger and more beautiful lake Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

I see now that the song is apparently about Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, which was founded by a family that did indeed have twins — Elizabeth and Mary. But the twins were never abandoned to the Indians.

But two white sisters were held by a group of Potawatomi Indians in 1832 — one of the most famous and influential incidents in the nasty, confused series of massacres and skirmishes known today as the Black Hawk War. Both pairs of sisters lived within about a 10-mile radius of Johnsburg, Illinois.

It's troubling how little the schools I attended taught me about the pre-European history of this place so full of Native-American-derived place names, as well as cigar-store-Indian kitsch. But those place names and that kitsch and the beauty of the Wisconsin landscape swam around in my head my entire life.

John Prine's "this Indian tribe," who named lakes according to how well they could be seen from the highway, gets it exactly right. There was no telling how long ago any of this history happened, or whether it really happened at all, or whether it ever even stopped happening.

Later in the song, the Black Hawk War is somehow seen, if not quite recognized, on the evening news in the work of European settlers like Illinoisan John Wayne Gacy and Wisconsinite Jeffry Dahmer.

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking, the narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay! Naked bodies!
Their faces had been horribly disfigured by some sssssharp object
Saw it on the news
In the TV news
In a black and white video —
You know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows. SHADOWS!
That's what it looks like

It's already been a quarter century since Tom Waits wrote the song "Johnsburg, Illinois". Back then, Brennan and Johnsburg were new to Waits, comparatively, and Brennan didn't yet have the kind of intimate involvement in the writing that she does today. Well, that's what I gather anyway.

Waits seems to have deliberately painted Johnsburg as a place that exists mostly in his imagination — the kind of Midwestern farming community any Californian might imagine. He plays a character who can't tell the woman from the photo, the community from the Rockwell painting.

She's my only true love
She's all that I think of
Look here, in my wallet — that's her

She grew up on a farm there
There's a place on my arm where
I've written her name next to mine

It's almost a joke, inviting us to say "No, that's not her — that's a PICTURE of her." The song, just like the photo in his wallet, is how he shows us the image of her that he carries around with him.

Of course, it could very well be that this confusion between the person, or town, and their image is what romance is all about. Who the hell wouldn't want such a song written for them? And what chamber of commerce wouldn't thank a writer for naming such a song after its town?

At that stage in Tom Waits' career, Johnsburg is not yet really recognizable. It's not Brennan's Johnsburg — the sleepy little grid of streets, the town here on this commonplace side of the border. After all, she didn't write the song. For that matter, she hasn't tattooed HER OWN name into his body. He has marked himself with his own understanding of her.

In a sense, the soldier in that oversees war in Day After Tomorrow has gone from thinking of his hometown as a resident would to thinking of it as an outsider might. The war experience has transformed him from a resident of the border town, like Brennan, to a dreamer of a mythical place, like the Waits of 25 years ago.


Oink Joint Road

Oink joint road

 

In central Minnesota, on US 10 between Verndale and Wadena, you'll see a sign for Oink Joint Road.

There must be a story there ... but I don't know what it is. Probably, a hog farm is up that road, and when the owner had a chance to name it, he experienced a flash of inspiration.

In any case, when I see the sign — and I pass it about twice a year on the way to a friend's cabin — I usually picture Tom Waits whipping out his note pad and jotting down ... Oink ... Joint ... Road.

Tom Waits has made a living by collecting colorful things people say and squeezing them into songs — he has said he's "in the salvage business":

Coulda been on Easy Street, coulda been a wheel
With irons in the fire and all them business deals
But the last of the big time losers shouted before he drove away
"I'll be right back, as soon as I crack the one that got away"
A lot of songwriters do that, of course — write lyrics by collage, basically. I happen to think of Waits because he's kind of obvious about it, and it usually works beautifully.

By contrast, Bob Dylan sometimes seems to collect phrases from the ordinary speech of ordinary people. Not the striking phrases that Waits might gather — Oink Joint Road, Little Red's Recovery Room, Beulah Land — but dull, dead things that come alive in Dylan's voice:

Someone's got it in for me
They're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is, I wish they'd cut it out quick
When they will, I can only guess
I'll always insist that Dylan learned his collage method from folk songs and the blues (and, in turn, everyone else mostly learned it from him). The "floating stanzas" that he found in those old songs act a lot like the cliches of everyday speech, in that they just hang in the air waiting to be snapped into place by a singer.
Who's a-gunna walk you side-by-side
And tell you everything's alright?
Who's a-gunna sing to you all day long
And not just in the night?
The result of stitching together a lot of floating stanzas can be, over the course of the song, a strange, nonlinear train of thought that begins to make a kind of sense only slowly, in the gradually accumulating mood of the song.

And, as it turns out, that's exactly the key to how Dylan modernized vernacular song, making it work as both pop culture and impressionist verse at the same time.

And ... well, anyway. It takes about four and half hours to get from Minneapolis to our friend's cabin, so you have plenty of time to over-think things ... and Oink Joint Road does present itself ...

 



Georgia Lee

Madonnachildjpg    Pieta

Back in the 1990's, Tom Waits wrote a song called "Georgia Lee". If I remember the story correctly, he wrote it after the body of a 12-year-old girl was found not far from his house.

She'd been dumped there in a patch of trees, and her death barely made the newspapers. This was around the time of the Polly Klaas case — or during some other headline-making search for an abducted girl — and Waits was disturbed at the possibility that kids like Georgia Lee don't get as much coverage because they're too poor, or too black, or too troubled, or they're not photogenic enough, or ...

While he was giving Mule Variations its final edit, Waits cut "Georgia Lee" from the track list. Tom's daughter — who was near the age Georgia Lee had been when she died — was appalled. Here Georgia Lee is used up, murdered, and thrown away and nobody gives a damn ... until, finally, somebody bothers to write a song about her ... and it GETS CUT FROM THE ALBUM?

So, Waits sighed heavily, restored the song to Mule Variations, and wistfully remembered his simple, care-free bachelor days when nobody meddled with his art except record company executives, producers, accountants, lawyers ...

Anyway, with that background, I'll get to the main point, which will take a while to explain. The lyrics begin:

Cold was the night and hard was the ground
They found her in a small grove of trees
And lonesome was the place where Georgia was found
She's too young to be out on the street

[Chorus]
Why wasn't God watching?
Why wasn't God listening?
Why wasn't God there for Georgia Lee?

Probably, the first line pays homage to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground," a much-admired gospel/blues record from 1927.

Johnson's recording is a slide-guitar instrumental, basically — the sparce vocals consist of humming, or moans of grief. Occasionally, Johnson says "Ah well." The recording is clearly a profound contemplation ... but ... of what?

The full title of the song Blind Willie Johnson was riffing on is "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was the Ground on Which Our Lord Was Laid." For a long while, I wasn't sure whether it's a contemplation of Jesus buried in his tomb or the humble circumstances of his birth. After all, the body of Jesus was placed on the cold ground twice — once at when he was born, and once when he died.

Either story, or both stories — thought of together, as bookends — could elicit the overwhelming grief of Johnson's recording. The homeless child born in a stable, or the murdered holy man buried in a cave. To this blind, black gospel artist in the 1920's, either story might sound awfully sad and awfully familiar — even if most Americans, today, tend to miss the intense sense of pity that gives the Christmas story its meaning ... bad for sales, presumably.

Eventually, I decided "Dark Was the Night" was a contemplation of the crucifixion and the burial. After all, that's what Samuel Charters says in his liner notes.

I hadn't thought much about those three days between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection until I'd puzzled over "Dark Was the Night." Those days are about the grief and complete absence of hope that give the Resurrection so much of its emotional impact.

I was reminded of this again when listening to Bruce Springsteen's version of the old Negro spiritual "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

Although the song is about the New Testament story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, it makes one reference to the Old Testament after another. That's puzzling at first, but the song comforts an old Jewish woman upon the death of her son. It's a song against despair, to be sung for Mary during those same three days, when she knew about the Old Testament and all too much about the crucifixion, but nothing about any resurrection.

Anyway ... despite all this thinking about the Crucifixion, the Nativity lingered in my mind whenever I heard Blind Willy Johnson's "Dark Was the Night." And this confusion of the two bookend images of Jesus lying on the ground eventually reminded me of something I'd seen in art history classes in college.

There's a long European artistic tradition of depicting the baby Jesus with the features of an old man, and of depicting Mary holding the crucified Jesus (the pieta) so as to echo a Madonna-and-child. The Nativity and Crucifixion are mixed up together. In the way I hear "Dark Was The Night," Blind Willie Johnson and Michelangelo share that ambivalence, that refusal to decide.

All that is what I thought about Johnson's recording at the time Mule Variations was released ... and here was Tom Waits, referring to "Dark Was the Night" at the start of "Georgia Lee" — a song about a dead African American child. Whether intended or not, "Georgia Lee" revives this confusion between the pieta and the Madonna and child, and does it through Blind Willie Johnson.

Tom's song also evokes "Dark Was the Night" in a subtler way.

While Waits writes a lot of wonderfully sad songs, "Georgia Lee" may be the only completely hopeless song he's ever written. Like "Dark Was the Night," it's as if "Georgia Lee" were recorded during the Three Days. It's a song about the total absence of hope, about despair. The chorus more or less says so, outright, in the unanswered question it leaves hanging in the empty air.

 

Editor's Note: This is installment 24 of 28 entries in which I seek to post something to The Celestial Monochord every day ... every stinkin day ... for the entire month of February.


If You Can Blog A Better Post ...

Still thinking, from yesterday, about Tom Waits and his adaptation of old folksongs ...

He doesn't really adapt them or arrange them to suit his style — as many a folksinger does — he strips them down to their "idea" and their "feel" and then writes an entirely new piece, beginning there, with the song's essence.

During the years in which I followed and contributed heavily to a Tom Waits discussion list, I was always finding examples — ad nauseum, as was occasionally pointed out to me. Often, the connection was interesting but flimsy.

Among the more convincing examples I found was "Swordfishtrombones." It's the title song of the 1982 album in which Waits finally left behind the drunken beatnik routine (which he'd grown to dislike), and began to reach for something more explicitly artful. I think he and his wife Kathleen Brennan sought direction the way everybody else does — by digging up the roots.

Before the Dylan Era, the song "Swordfishtrombones" might have been called a play-party nonsense song, while today it's impressionistic. It relates the wildly shifting fortunes and apparently supernatural misadventures of a soldier just back from a war:

He went to sleep at the bottom of Tenkiller Lake
And he said, "Gee, but it' great to be home."
. . .
He packed up all his expectations
He lit out for California
With a flyswatter banjo on his knee
A lucky tiger in his angel hair
And benzedrine for getting there
They found him in a eucalyptus tree
Now, I've witnessed people coming home from wars, and this sort of behavior looks sorta familiar. Certainly, half a pint of Ballentine's each day is on the moderate side.

Anyway, in the end, the song acknowledges the far-fetched character of some of its claims by drawing attention to itself as a piece of writing. It's just a tall tale:

Now, some say he's doing the obituary mambo
Some say that he's hanging on the wall
Perhaps this yarn is the only thing
That holds this man together
Some say that he was never here at all

Some say they saw him down in Birmingham
Sleeping in a boxcar going by
And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you'd have to tell a lie.
When I first heard the woundrous Bascom Lamar Lunsford sing "On a Bright and Summer's Morning," I decided I knew where "Swordfishtombones" had come from. It turns out Waits' soldier was once a hunter, and is now imbibing in some sex and alcohol, but the song is essentially the same sort of travelogue. Some stanzas from Lunsford, the guy who wrote "Mountain Dew":
The money that I got for the venison and skin
I hauled it to my daddy's barn
It wouldn't half go —
It wouldn't half go in

I went upon the mountain
Beyond the peak so high
The moon come round with lightning speed
"I'll take a ride," says —
"I'll take a ride," says I.

The moon come around the mountain
It took a sudden whirl
My feet slipped and I fell out
And landed in this —
And landed in this world
The clincher, of course, is the last stanza, which Waits has changed only slightly:
The man that made this song and tune
His name was Benny Young
If you can tell a bigger lie
I'll swear you oughta be —
I'll swear you oughta be hung

There are a lot of versions of this song, under a lot of names, so I can't say what Waits was listening to — but he got it from one of em. I can come up with boat loads of these, given some time, but if my fellow Waits fans quickly got their fill, I'd imagine you would too.

Maybe, if you wanted a moral to this story, we could remember all the hand-wringing that went on about Bob Dylan's supposed plagiarism of Junichi Saga and Henry Timrod, and wonder aloud whether there's anybody left who hasn't decided all that kurfluffle was a lot of horseradish.

 

Editor's Note: This is the ninth installment of my attempt to post something half-way Monochordy every day for the whole month of February.

How's it going? Am I slowing down here? ... well, the important thing is that I'm still standing! Boo-ya! As T-Model Ford said, "I been shot! And I been cut! I been kicked in the head! I been hit with a chair! Nobody gets me down!"

 


I'm a Stern Old Bachelor

Stern Old Bachelor

Over the past few months, I've bought nine inexpensive 78 rpm records — the first 78's in my music collection.

Most of my 78's relate to my research into Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, although I don't yet have "The Moonshiner's Dance" (Gennett 6305) — if you own it, please contact me. One of the "extracurricular" records is by Chubby Parker, which I bought just because he's a denizen of Harry Smith's Anthology.

It's an odd buy, since the label is the same on both sides. It claims to be two helpings of the B-side, "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor," although playing the record reveals it actually has the correct A-side, "Oh Suzanna." And in fact, the "Oh Suzanna" side is considerably more worn than the "Bachelor" side, so I guess Gennett chose their A's and B's correctly. Presumably, somewhere in the world, there's a Chubby Parker 78 claiming to have two sides of "Oh Suzanna."

"I'm a Stern Old Bachelor" is a comic novelty song, which celebrates the delights of being unbound by holy wedlock. (I wish I could make an MP3 for you, but I don't have the technology.) Parker recorded it for Gennett on February 26, 1927 ... in a couple weeks from now, it will be the 80th anniversary of that recording, but I need something to write about TODAY.

It seems to have been one of Chubby's signatures on the WLS Barn Dance radio show, although "Nickety Nackety Now Now Now" was really his theme. (You may remember "Nickety Nackety" better from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds). Both were later reissued on Slivertone, the record label of Sears Roebuck (the worlds largest store, hence the WLS call letters).

Next, "Bachelor" showed up in John Lomax's 1934 book, "American Ballads and Folk Songs." In June 1938, the original Carter Family recorded the song on their last recording session before taking off for Texas and Mexico to be on border radio with XERA. Because the Lomax and Carter texts share a couple extra verses not found on Parker's recording, I assume the Carters got the song primarily from Lomax. In any case, it's an uncharacteristically silly performance by Sara and Maybelle.

Here are the lyrics to "Stern Old Bachelor". The lines in italics are sung by the Carters, but not by Chubby Parker.

I am a stern old bachelor
My age is forty-four
I do declare, I'll never live
With women anymore

I have a stove that's worth ten cents
A table worth fifteen
I cook my gruel in oyster cans
And keep my things so clean


[chorus]
Oh little sod shanty
Little sod shanty give to me
For I'm a stern old bachelor
From matrimony free

When I come home at night I have no fear
I smile and walk right in
I never hear a voice yell out
Or say where have you been

On a cold and stormy night
In a cozy little shack
I sing my songs and think my thoughts
With no one to talk back


I go to bed when ever I please
And get up just the same
I change my socks three times a year
With no one to complain

At night when I'm on peaceful sleep
My snores can do no harm
I never have to walk the floor
With an infant [a baby] in my arms

And when I die and go to heaven
As all good bachelors do
I will not have to grieve for fear
My wife will get there too
When I first heard Parker's recording — despite his high nasal voice and crisp banjo picking — I immediately thought of the Tom Waits song, "Better Off Without a Wife." You know the one:
I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howling at the moon
Going out when I want to
Coming home when I please
Don't have to ask permission
If I want to go out fishing
Never have to ask for the keys
They're more or less the same song ... well, I should say that "Better Off Without a Wife" could easily be a thorough re-imagining of "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor." I believe Waits used to do this often — take a good old folksong, boil it down to the essence of whatever makes it good, and then build an entirely new song around that same essence. See my post on "Cold Cold Ground."

Now, you may ask whether, in 1973, Tom Waits was listening to Chubby Parker or Sara and Maybelle Carter, or reading song books by John Lomax. It's a little-known fact that Waits started out at California folk clubs like the Troubadour and the Heritage. Apparently, Waits and Ramblin' Jack Elliott would occasionally hang out together in the 1970's (one suspects a nightcap or two may have been involved).

In any case, although my evidence for a direct link between the two songs is slim — and there must be dozens of other comic bachelor songs for Waits to take some cues from — there's no reason to doubt that Waits and the music of the Carters or Chubby Parker could easily have crossed paths in the early 1970's.

 

Editor's Note: This is the 8th day of my 28-day experiment. I'm trying to post something every day for the whole month of February. If it's something worth reading, well ... all the better.

 


Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. Ford Washington McGee

I'm listening again to the original Carter Family's final, brilliant sessions of 1940 and 1941. It turns out they recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which I mostly know from Harry Smith's Anthology, performed in 1930 by Rev. Ford Washington McGee and his congregation. It's currently also available at the great music blog Long Sought Home.

I never understood the song before because of the chaotic revival meeting atmosphere created by McGee and company, which makes the lyrics pretty impossible to decipher. I mean, what ABOUT fifty miles of elbow room?

Well, focusing on the version by Sara and Maybelle Carter — with all the loving orderliness and earnest precision we've come to expect from them — the words are easy to figure out.

It turns out the song has pretty much the same theme, or belongs to the same gospel tradition, as the Tom Waits song "Down There by the Train," which was recorded by Johnny Cash on his first American Recordings album. In this tradition, the purpose and the power of the song are in the limitless, extreme, radical inclusiveness of salvation.

Maybe a kind reader can help out this old Catholic-atheist with the terminology and a Biblical passage ... in any case, these songs insist that your station in life doesn't matter, your race or gender don't matter, and not even the gravity of your sins matter — NOTHING can keep you from living in paradise, so long as you repent, so long as you meet us "down there by the train."

The emotional power of these songs is in the radical character of the forgiveness they promise. They are all about the total and extreme nature of the idea that heaven is open to ANYBODY. There's so much room for absolutely everybody in Heaven that its gates are a hundred miles wide — entering Heaven, you have fifty miles of elbow room.

If you're in need of a reminder that there's something good in Christianity, turn off your TV and spin some old 78's.

FIFTY MILES OF ELBOW ROOM

Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth
The four-square city stands
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands
One hundred miles its gates are wide
Abundant entrance there
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus:
When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There'll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here
And long for elbow room
I want to reach for altitude
Where fairer flowers bloom
It won't be long til I shall pass
Into that city fair
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

Chorus
[ Recorded by the Carters, October 14, 1941 in New York, NY ]

I insist that Tom Waits' song "Down There by the Train" is loosely based on an old negro spiritual, "When The Train Comes Along." Versions of this earlier song were recorded by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and by Uncle Dave Macon. The lyrics below are from Uncle Dave Macon's recording in Richmond, IN on August 14, 1934. Macon provided the vocals and banjo, with Kirk McGee also on banjo and Sam McGee backing up on guitar.

WHEN THE TRAIN COMES ALONG

Some comes walkin' and some comes lame
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Some comes walkin' in my Jesus' name
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus:
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh lord, I'll meet you at the station
When the train comes along

Sins of years are washed away
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Darkest hour is changed to day
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Doubts and fears are borne along
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Sorrow changes into song
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Ease and wealth become as dross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my boast is in the cross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Chorus

Selfishness is lost in love
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my treasures are above
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Cold Cold Ground

Tom Waits in a tree    Stephen Foster not amused
Tom Waits (in a tree) and Stephen Foster (not amused)

 

A collection of thousands of recordings originally made on cylinders has just gone online. I've only just begun to explore the collection, but it seems like a gold mine.

For one thing, the audio quality is often surprisingly good. The medium is often casually called "wax cylinders" — at first they were only playable a dozen times or so before they wore out. But listening to this collection reminds me that the technology improved quickly — the wax was made harder and was then replaced with early plastics. The Wikipedia entry for cylinders is well worth the read.

Anyway, point is ... the collection includes several versions of Stephen Foster's plantation song (or coon song, or ethiopian song) "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground." There's an impressive 1916 banjo instrumental, a 1914 quartet that sings the lyrics, a 1912 military band that puts the song in a medley, and a 1903 version that's in the collection but not online, apparently. [Editor's Note: See comment below.]

When I first heard "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground" in December 2000, I immediately felt that a favorite Tom Waits song, "Cold Cold Ground," was probably directly inspired by it — although, if that's the case, Waits thoroughly re-imagined the old Foster version.

Musically, the two melodies both have a mournfulness and that "formal feeling" Emily Dickinson wrote about. There may be more specific musical similarities that I'm not bothering to shake out — their key, a chord progression, etc.

Lyrically, the two songs are clearly siblings. They share that almost morbid interest in nature that people sometimes have during a time of great loss (I think of Walt Whitman's elegy to Abraham Lincoln). The two songs are also fully fixated on The Grave.

In a 1987 interview, Tom Waits said his song is "Just kind of a harkening back to earlier times; a romantic song thinking about home, and all that" — not a bad summary of Stephen Foster's signature themes. Waits' work has often reminded me of Stephen Foster, in that it seems rescued from some crumbling sheet music lost in an old piano bench somewhere.

I should mention that Waits ditched Foster's racist condescension and the fake black dialect. But Waits is at least as maudlin and nostalgic ... and is that a bad thing?

 

Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground
(by Stephen Collins Foster)

Round de meadows am a ringing
De darkeys' mournful song,
While de mockingbird am singing,
Happy as de day am long.
Where de ivy am a reeping
O'er de grassy mount,
Dere old massa am a sleeping
Sleeping in de cold, old ground.

chorus:
Down in de cornfield
Hear dat mournful sound:
All de darkeys am a weeping
Massa's in de cold, cold ground.

When de autumn leaves were falling,
When de days were cold,
'Twas hard to hear old massa calling,
Cause he was so weak and old.
Now de orange tree am blooming
On de sandy shore,
Now de summer days am coming,
Massa nebber calls no more.

Massa made de darkeys love him,
Cause he was so kind,
Now dey sadly weep above him,
Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow,
Cause de tear drop flow,
I try to drive away my sorrow
Pickin on the old banjo.

 

Cold Cold Ground
(by Tom Waits)

Crest fallen sidekick in an old cafe
Never slept with a dream before he had to go away
There's a bell in the tower, Uncle Ray bought a round
Don't worry 'bout the army in the cold cold ground

Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground

Now don't be a cry baby when there's wood in the shed
There's a bird in the chimney and a stone in my bed
When the road's washed out, we pass the bottle around
And wait in the arms of the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground

There's a ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope
And a briar patch of berries takin' over the slope
The cat'll sleep in the mailbox and we'll never go to town
Till we bury every dream in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Give me a Winchester rifle and a whole box of shells
Blow the roof off the goat barn, let it roll down the hill
The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream
I find we'll lay down together in the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Call the cops on the Breedloves, bring a Bible and a rope
And a whole box of Rebel and a bar of soap
Make a pile of trunk tires and burn 'em all down
Bring a dollar with you, baby, in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Take a weathervane rooster, throw rocks at his head
Stop talking to the neighbors until we all go dead
Beware of my temper and the dog that I've found
Break all the windows in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

 



The Moon and Tom Waits: Part 2 of 2

Tom Waits Father
Tom Waits and his dad, Frank.

Ever since I first noticed in 1999 how often Tom Waits refers to the Moon, I've wondered what else could be said about it, other than Tom Waits likes to refer to the moon. At least one valiant attempt to really get something said has been made, but I don't think a "big picture" has ever been drawn. I'll give it a try.

Waits has said he likes his songs to have some weather, a map in case you get lost, and something to eat in case you get hungry. This strategy — of, sort of, getting enough furniture into his rooms that you can live them — winds up being crucial to how his fans react to his work. People who love Waits clearly love doing the work involved in sorting out his references. They ask, what's Mulligan stew? Where's Murfreesboro? What's a big black Mariah? Who's Wilson Pickett? And the moon is part of this same song writing strategy — often, Waits even gives you the phase of the moon, maybe so you can find your way around in the dark.

Reading over the list of moon references, I'm reminded of my own aim for The Celestial Monochord, which is like the challenge some artists set for themselves — if you only stick to one medium and one theme, you could explore the whole world through them. It hardly matters what you choose — you can pull the entire universe through a little buttonhole. The iterations, the returning to the subject over and over again, eventually polishes the subject into a mirror that will reflect whatever you put in front of it. The moon face is ever-changing but repetitious, and seems to invite an artistic project like that. Waits chose the moon as one of his Great Themes — but really, it could have been anything.

Waits has always been an outlandishly romantic writer. Of course, especially lately, I mean romantic in the sense that the love notes he sings to his wife Kathleen can be heartbreakingly sweet. But, especially early in his career, I also mean that other romanticism — an unrestrained belief in impractical fictions, a body-and-soul dedication to lovely baloney. For example, Waits has said that he's embarrassed by his early work, when he pursued the romance of the Great American Drunk (and he made sure that life and art did uncanny imitations of each other). And so, what could possibly be a brighter sign spelling "romance" (in both senses) than the moon? In a recent song, Waits asks, "What could be more romantic than dying in the moonlight?"

Waits is one of those musicians I mentioned earlier in the context of Mike Seeger — a middle class adventurer in revolt against his class, one who "can come most fully into possession of himself only in disguise." As a young man, in the name of searching for his own true nobility — the diamond in his mind — he fashioned himself into one of The Common Folk that lived in his imagination. He renounced his Nobility in order to find it again.

In this context, I think about a line from "Shore Leave," in which a sailor on leave writes home wondering "how the same Moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there." It's a reminder that the moon really does have a "universality" to it — it's leveling, a commonality. The very same moon has been seen by Plato, Genghis Khan, Galileo, Hitler, Shakespeare, George Bush, Regis Philbin. It's the ultimate folk image, because it's been independently, organically rediscovered by everybody who ever had eyes.

I think Waits has used the moon's commonness, it's dailiness (actually its nightliness, which suits Waits better) to insinuate himself among us, among the ordinary — something he has needed both artistically and personally. The image of the moon — with its powerful combination of romance and ordinariness — is an emblem of that transcendent quality which Waits has always sought in being just plain folk.


The Moon and Tom Waits: Part 1 of 2

Tom Waits Vineyard
Tom Waits in wine country.

In 1999, I made a partial list of references to the Moon in Tom Waits songs. Since then, I've seen a few others do the same, but I don't think a complete list has ever been made. I estimate it would be about 100 entries long — averaging over 3 lunar references every year for more than 3 decades.

Below is only about 40% of the known references. I don't know whether you can make it through this, but I hope it will vividly convey the way Waits returns to the Moon, over and over, sort of turning it around in his mind to see it from as many different angles as possible.

The moon's all up, full and big — apricot pit in an indigo sky.

You wear a dress, baby, and I'll a tie, and we'll laugh at that old bloodshot moon in that burgundy sky.

Outside another yellow moon has punched a hole in the nighttime.

Looks like a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.

The moon's a yellow stain across the sky.

November only believes in a pile of dead leaves and a moon that's the color of bone.

The Moon is a cold chiseled dagger and it's sharp enough to draw blood from a stone. He rides through your dreams on a coach and horses and the fence posts in the moonlight look like bones.

And then they all try to stand like Romeo beneath the moon cut like a sickle, and they're talkin' now in Spanish all about their hero.

The moon's a silver slipper, it's pouring champagne stars.

Every time I hear that melody, something breaks inside, and the grapefruit moon, one star shining, can't turn back the tide.

I know I'm gonna change that tune when I'm standing underneath a buttery moon that's all melted off to one side (Parkay). It was just about that time that the sun came crawlin' yellow out of a manhole at the foot of 23rd Street and a dracula moon in a black disguise was making its way back to its pre-paid room at the St. Moritz Hotel.

Everything has its price. Everything has its place. What's more romantic than dying in the moonlight?

The Moon ain't romantic, it's intimidating as hell.

Cheater slicks and baby moons, she's a-hot and ready and creamy and sugared and the band is awful and so are the tunes.

It's 9th and Hennepin, and all the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes, and the moon's teeth marks are on the sky like a tarp thrown over all this.

The moonlight dressed the double-breasted foothills in the mirror, weaving out a negligee and a black brassiere.

Just then Florence Nightingale dropped her drawers and stuck her fat ass half way out of the window with a Wilson Pickett tune and shouted "Get a load of this!" and gave the finger to the moon.

Now the moon's rising, got no time to lose — time to get down to drinking and tell the band to play the blues.

And Zuzu Bolin played "Stavin' Chain" and Mighty Tiny on the saw threw his head back with a mouth full of gold teeth and they played "Lopsided heart" and "Moon over Dog Street."

I like to sleep until the crack of noon, midnight howlin' at the moon, goin' out when I want to, and comin' home when I please.

They be suckin' on Coca Colas and be spittin' Day's Work until the moon was a stray dog on the ridge and the taverns would be swollen until the naked eye of 2 a.m.

I talked baseball with a lieutenant over a Singapore Sling, and I wondered how the same Moon outside over this Chinatown fair could look down on Illinois and find you there — you know I love you, baby.

It's funny you know, cause every now and then — yeah, every now and then, when the moon's holding water, they say old Joe will stop and give you a ride.

Wasted and wounded, it ain't what the moon did — I got what I paid for now.

I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west, I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast.

And the evening stumbles home with his tie undone, and the moon sweeps 7th Avenue as usual. You lie awake at night, you remember when ...

Well, Jesus gonna be here, he's gonna be here soon. He's gonna cover us up with leaves, with a blanket from the moon.

You gotta roll out the carpet, strike up the band, break out the best champagne when I land. You gotta beat the parade drum, hit all the bars — I want the moon and stars!

I got the moon, I got the cheese, I got the whole damn nation on their knees.

My eyes say their prayers to her and sailors ring her bell, the way a moth mistakes a light bulb for the moon and goes to hell.

I'll wait beneath a blood-red moon, a blood-red moon, a blood-red moon, 'neath a blood-red moon. I'd rather die than part from you.

My baby ripped my heart out with every turn of the moon.

Every night the moon and you would slip away to places where you knew that you would never get the blues. Well, now whiskey gives you wings to carry each one of your dreams, and the moon does not belong to you.

There's a golden moon that shines up through the mist, and I know that your name can be on that list. There's no eye for an eye, there's no tooth for a tooth, I saw Judas Iscariot carrying John Wilkes Booth.

When the moon is broken and the sky is cracked, come on up to the house.

When the weathervane's sleeping and the moon turns his back, you crawl on your belly along the railroad tracks.

Well, the smart money's on Harlow and the moon is in the street.

The Moon fell from the sky — it rained mackerel, it rained trout.

The moon in the window and a bird on the pole, always find a millionaire to shovel all the coal.

That’s the way the market crashes. That’s the way the whip lashes. That’s the way the teeth gnashes. That's the way the gravy stains. And that's the way the moon wanes.


Orphan Songs, Part 3
They All Pretend They're Orphans



They all pretend they’re orphans
And their memory is like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away

— Tom Waits, “Time”

She made up someone to be
She made up somewhere to be from

— Tom Waits, “Dead and Lovely”

In Orphan Songs, Part 2, I speculated about why I've found so many songs about orphans and being parentless. Here's one last possibility.

When we're young, parents are sometimes an embarrassment — a reminder of who we used to be, or that we're not yet who we hope to become. You often see this embarrassment in memoirs of the experiences of immigrants. Here you are in your American clothes with your American attitude, accompanied by your father in his black suit and yarmulka, or your mother with her sari and her bindi on her forehead.

To fantasize about being an orphan, of sorts, is to play with the idea of escaping your class, your status, and your cultural (sometimes even fanancial) inheritance.

Memory is an act of imagining, and to be an orphan is to “remember" (i.e., imagine) your parents, which is also to idealize yourself as someone able to advance your artistic, political, financial and other goals. It's the old story of leaving home, going to the big anonymous city, and becoming somebody else.

In a post — which is no longer online — to the unofficial Martin Guitar forum, journalist Don Hurley once wrote about an encounter with Bob Dylan in England, during the filming of Don’t Look Back:

“I took a photographer to his suite to do a profile for the next day's paper. I questioned him on his background and about supposedly running away from home at the age of eleven. He confirmed it all and said he could not remember when he last saw his parents, that he was “just an orphan of the road.” We finished the interview and made for the elevator which my photographer and I shared with an older couple and their son, who turned out to be Dylan's parents and his brother David. They were literally in the suite next to his!”

I'll write more about such "orphans" — in the context of the Folk Revival — in a future installment of this Orphan Song series.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8