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The Frying Pan

Fullerbrush
(from Tijuana Bibles)

 

(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time

 

John Prine writes a song like The Frying Pan now and then — strong shades of parody, joyously silly (even stupid), and irresistibly appealing. "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" and "Aw Heck" and the next song on Diamonds in the Rough, "Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You," are like that. Should we think seriously about a song that couldn't even get recorded with a straight face?

The lyrics to The Frying Pan are wildly unambitious and seem like they may have been made up on the spot. They relate the tragic tale of a man who comes home from work to find that his wife has left him. He grieves. And that's about the extent of it.

There are a few telling details. The wife leaves her goodbye note in the frying pan, presumably to make the point that she was appreciated neither very deeply nor for the right things:

I come home from a-work this evening
There was a note in the frying pan
It said, "Fix your own supper, babe.
I run off with the Fuller Brush man."

The song doesn’t say whether he actually makes his supper in that pan –- a bitterly seasoned meal inDEED! Prine's character then "commenced a carrying on":

And I miss the way she used to yell at me
The way she used to cuss and moan
And if I ever go out and get married again
I'll never leave my wife at home

So the character grows, and his future wives may find him somewhat more attentive.

——————————-

John Prine understands that the ordinary details of everyday life are where all the drama and meaning are. But the details of everyday life keep changing with surprising speed –- you realize this more the older you get. I think this is why the songs on Diamonds in the Rough seem so meaningfully, precisely, poignantly located at a specific point in the past.

The last door-to-door salesman I remember seeing was an actual Fuller Brush Man who came to our door when I was around nine. I dimly remember his case full of brushes, as well as the feeling he created that buying some brushes was absolutely inescapable. I very distinctly recall my mother once asking me to tell him I was home alone while she was, in fact, hiding nearby. I guess I may be from the last generation of John Prine listeners who will have direct experience with Fuller Brush men at the door.

Appreciating a Prine song –- or any song –- requires more and more research, explanation, and imagination the older the song gets. It requires more and more of the listener’s participation and knowledge to make the full meaning and pleasure happen. That’s why it makes sense to me, at least, that popular song first became high art in the context of a Folk Revival.

——————————-

Bluegrass is lurking in all the arrangements on Diamonds in the Rough, but only The Frying Pan puts it at center stage. Everything is there, except maybe a fiddle.

David Bromberg's mandolin "chops" the rhythm and then does lightning-fast runs. Steve Goodman provides the requisite smokin' bluesy guitar solo and high-lonesome backup vocals. Steve Burgh provides standup bass. And Dave Prine plays the most recognized of all bluegrass signatures — a 5-string banjo with a resonator back, played with three fingers and finger picks. The solo spot after each chorus is taken by another instrument, passing the spotlight around from one bandmember to another. It’s bluegrass.

There’s just one thing. I’m used to thinking of bluegrass in a smooth, fast 4/4 time — each beat in the measure emphasized (or de-emphasized) the same. This open, spacious, adaptable meter is what allows the complex, synchopating, polyphonic, collective noodling of a bluegrass band — and it also allows that band to “stay together,” to remain in close conversation with itself. The 4/4 meter was Bill Monroe’s main and final insight, learned from the jazz of the 1920’s and 1930’s, and it completed his creation of bluegrass music.

The Frying Pan, as I hear it, is in the meter Bill Monroe finally left behind –- the 2/4 time that's closely associated with oldtime stringband music and that gives it an easy, front porch, loping feel. Instead of the banjo skittering, independent as a hog on ice, across the surface of an open 4/4 time, Dave Prine's playing sounds cramped inside the ONE two THREE four oldtime beat. The result is a banjo that sounds simple, old, and sincere, if somewhat bound by circumstances. It also sounds like the banjo-playing that David Akeman and Earl Scuggs did in Monroe’s band in 1945 and 1946. The Frying Pan sounds like a portrait of bluegrass represented exactly at the moment it became itself.


The Old Negro Space Program

Negro space program

My wife Jenny has just made me aware of a lost chapter of American history that is at once uplifting and downcasting, both inspiring and ... sort of ... not ... inspiring.

A new documentary by Ken Burns (or whatever) tells the story of the old Negro space program, in large part through interviews with the original Blackstronauts themselves:

A lot of people today, they don't think about it. They say "Oh, they're putting a man on the moon" or "Oh, they're putting up another space shuttle." But you see, they don't realize that in the early days of the space program, NASA was whites-only ... It was it a different time, you understand. See, in 1957 if you were black — and if you were an astronaut — you were out of work.

You can watch the nearly 11-minute film (which was excluded from the Sundance Film Festival on the pretense that it was not submitted to the Sundance Film Festival) at www.negrospaceprogram.com.


Those U.S. State Department Blues

I just read an essay by Paul Oliver, one of the best-known historians of the blues, about why it is that much of the best and earliest work on the blues had long been done by Europeans.

Swedes, Belgians, Germans, French, Englishmen and others wrote exhaustive studies of the meanings of blues songs, compiled 2000-page catalogs of blues 78s, founded some of the first magazines anywhere devoted to blues — all of this long before America had a "blues revival."

Charles Delaunay had to write "Hot Discography" secretly, on onion skin, because he was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France. When Paul Oliver (a Brit) wrote "The Blues Fell This Morning," Martin Luther King wrote the introduction.

In 1960 — the year "The Blues Fell This Morning" was published — Paul Oliver finally scraped up enough money to actually visit the United States, the birthplaces of the blues he loved so much. He traveled to Washington, New York, Detroit, Memphis, New Orleans, Shreveport, Dallas and various parts of Mississippi and Arkansas. He stayed with Muddy Waters in Chicago and traveled with Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie records using some of the recordings they made. The impact of the trip on Oliver's life and scholarship was incalculable.

The trip was made possible by a very small grant from the U.S. Department of State — a grant "for leaders and specialists."

I don't know whether such grants still come out of the State Department or from anywhere else in the U.S. government anymore. I do hear frequent stories of scholars having to give presentations to conferences in the U.S. via telephone or satellite hook-up due to difficulties getting temporary visas to travel here — and I mean British astronomers and Swedish music historians and the like. I often read about such incidents in left-wing rags like ... Sky and Telescope, for example. Bad times, bad times.

 

Editor's Note:  Paul Oliver's essay is in "Sounds of the South," a collection of papers from a conference celebrating the 1989 opening of the Southern Folklife Collection at Chapel Hill. It was edited by Daniel W. Patterson ... and I'm finding it really interesing. Also, thanks to reader Bill B. for, among other things, correcting my spelling of Chris Strachwitz's name.


Billy The Bum

Child_with_crutches

 

(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time

 

About 15 years ago, a friend of mine wanted to cite an example of a bad John Prine song, so he chose Billy The Bum, calling it "a shambles of a song." At the time, it seemed like a good example to me, mostly because the song's shameless sentimentality made me cringe. But I've gone through a lot since then.

Around 1999, after I'd pretty much memorized the Anthology of American Folk Music, I was starving for more blues and hillbilly recordings from the 1920's. So I sought out recordings by many of the same performers Harry Smith had put in his collection. And there, beyond the Anthology, were many astonishing surprises for which the Anthology had not really prepared me.

Chief among them, initially, was how often these performers had recorded extremely sentimental 19th century "parlor songs," as I call them. These earnest, stiff numbers told tales full of pathos about drowning sailors, dying orphans, childhood cottages never seen again. Maybe Harry Smith had mostly ignored them because they weren't "folk songs" in a certain sense — most were relatively new compositions from the late 1800's, widely sold as sheet music for middle-class homes. In the late 1920's, white folk musicians made sound recordings of them for the first time, their original copyright status long forgotten.

Initially, I was a little impatient with them — a bit embarrassed, disappointed and amused by their commercialism and their hokiness. But after listening closely to dozens of them, researching the origins of several of them, and having a few conversion experiences with them (I guess you'd say), I've come to love them. There's Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire":

It was on a silver falls by a narrow
That I heard a cry I ever will remember
The fire sent and cast its burning embers
On another faded city of our land

Fire! Fire! I heard the cry
On every breeze that passes by
All the world was one sad cry of pity
Strong men in anguish prayed
Calling loud to Heaven for aid
While the fire in ruin was laying
Fair Baltimore, our beautiful city

There's Buell Kazee's "If You Love Your Mother":

In a lonely graveyard many miles away
Lies your own dear mother slumbering 'neath the clay
Or have you forgotten all her tears and sighs
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

She is waiting for you in that happy home
Turn from sin's dark pathway to no longer roam
Give your heart to Jesus, upward lift your eyes
If you love your mother, meet her in the skies

And then there's the Carter Family, whose influence now seems to me ubiquitous in John Prine's music (and who provided the title song for Diamonds in the Rough). The Carters recorded these sentimental parlor songs more often and more movingly than anybody ever has. Their "Engine 143" did make it onto The Anthology:

Georgie's mother came to him with a bucket on her arm
Saying my darling son be careful how you run
For many a man has lost his life in trying to make lost time
And if you run your engine right you'll get there just on time

Up the road he darted, against the rocks he crushed
Upside down the engine turned and Georgie's breast did smash
His head was against the firebox door the flames are rolling high
I'm glad I was born for an engineer to die on the C&O road

I've come to appreciate these songs as beautifully written and recorded, often, but also as an important part of the roots of American music. In no small part through the influence of the Carter Family, country music is heavily based on them (what do you get when you play a country record backwards?).

Billy The Bum, which I've known for over 30 years, is today a completely new song to me. I hear it within a tradition that's well over a hundred years old and that I've taken deeply, if cautiously, into my emotional, intellectual, and maybe spiritual life.

——————

Billy The Bum is another of Diamonds In The Rough's country waltzes. The first verse again establishes John Prine's firm flat-picking, accompanied by David Bromberg on a second acoustic guitar. Bromberg plays mostly bass runs, but strums often to help keep the beat. I'd say he plays "oldtime guitar" — an art that's been essentially lost to the upright bass, on the one hand, and bluegrass guitar on the other.

With the first statement of the chorus, Bromberg begins dubbing over (I assume, unless he's playing with his toes) the sliding dobro that gives the song much of its countrified twang. Also on each chorus Dave Prine enters, turned down very low in the mix, singing back-up vocals in a strained, high-lonesome wail, like a far-off cry in the wilderness.

As I understand the lyrics, Billy always fantasized about riding the rails as a hobo, but because his legs had been twisted by polio, he could only hop a train in his imagination:

Billy the Bum lived by the thumb
Sang of the hobo's delight
He'd prove he could run twice as fast as the sun
By losing his shadow with night

He loved every girl in this curly-headed world
But no one will know, it seems
For two twisted legs and a childhood disease
Left Billy just a bum in his dreams

It's interesting that even in the 20's and 30's — presumably the heyday of hobo culture — films and songs romanticized the lifestyle, seducing many young people into riding the rails. In other words, hobos were already a dream even back when they were still a reality. Billy was only one of millions who dreamed of riding the blinds. There's a sad irony and richness here — his polio made him a bum in his own eyes, unable to attain his dreams, which included being a real bum on the open road:

He lived all alone in a run-down home
Near the side of the old railroad track
Where the trains used to run carrying freight by the ton
And blow the whistle as Billy waved back

It seems fairly clear to me that John Prine has always believed in Jesus Christ, that he's a christian. But if this is right, his work presents us with a rare and fearsome portrait of a blazingly angry and disappointed, public-spirited, and wildly playful faith. Prine's first album is all about spirituality, if you look at it just so, and is big enough to contain everything from "Eat a lotta peaches, try to find Jesus" to "There's a hole in Daddy's arm where all the money goes — Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose."

If Prine were an atheist like myself, it would be a different matter. But given Prine's long and powerful history of working out his thoughts about faith in song, I don't take lightly his portrait of the song's townspeople, whose children "seemed to have nothing better to do than to run around his house with their tongues from their mouths."

Now some folks'll wait and some folks'll pray
For Jesus to rise up again
But none of these folks in their holy cloaks
Ever took Billy on as a friend

For pity's a crime and ain't worth a dime
To a person who's really in need
Just treat 'em the same as you would your own name
Next time that your heart starts to bleed

It's easy enough, if you prefer, to hear easy platitudes and a certain self-righteousness in this indictment. But given Prine's body of work and the religious themes he's explored so frankly, I think we're bound to take this portrait seriously. Trapped among such people by his physical disabilities and his shame, Billy, a real fluorescent light, cried pennies on Sunday morning.

By this point, I've come to decide that it's a defense mechanism, this tendency not to really hear the lyrics of these old-style sentimental songs. If we took them literally, pictured them, read them over, took them at their word, they'd cut too close to the bone. They'd go places we've decided, as a culture, we don't want to go.

It's no wonder that generation after generation of Americans experience a recurring "Folk Revival" in which young people rediscover acts like the Carter Family. And, regardless of what else might be said about them, it's no wonder that these Revivals are continually experienced by their participants as a burning away of some vast, heavy haze of sanitized corporate nonsense to reveal something that finally, at long last, matters.


Lay Down Your Weary Tune

The comments below were originally submitted to another entry — a really excellent one, I think.

I got tired of seeing that original post diluted by an unrelated question, so I created a space for these comments.

-------------------------------

I have been listening to Bob Dylan's "Lay down your weary tune, lay down." Somewhere back in my childhood (I'm 80 yrs old now) I think I sang that song, or at least the melody, as a hymn. Have you come across any info on this song? OTM

Posted by: Orville Murphy | November 13, 2005 at 10:47 PM


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Hi Orville,

Thanks for visiting The Celestial Monochord.

Sadly, I don't have an answer for you. There is a wonderful community of people who often have answers for very difficult questions about folk music, although their site can be a little confusing and sometimes slow. Maybe you should check them out and ask around at Mudcat. They're at:

www.mudcat.org

I've done you the favor of looking there for the answer, and all I've found is several OTHER people struggling to find the answer to the same question.

Dylan apparently has said that he heard the tune either on the BBC while visiting the UK or at Joan Baez's house on a record. It may have been an old bagpipe tune and/or Scottish hymn. In any case, it had no words, so he wrote some and probably adapted the tune somewhat. Seeing as he only heard the tune once, he had no choice but to sort of make some of it up.

Some at Mudcat say that the melody resembles The Water is Wide. Others say it resembles How Can I keep from Singing. In any case, a lot of old hymns have the same chord structure and the same pattern of syllables, which makes them easy for a congregation to sing. It may sound like a 1000 songs.

Also, note that more than a few songs have the phrase "lay down your weary" something-or-other. For example, one version of Barbara Allen (the oldest song in the whole world) contains:

She walked over yon garden field
She heard the dead-bell knelling
And every stroke that the dead-bell gave
It cried, "Woe be to you now, Ellen."

As she walked over the garden field
She saw his corpse a-comin',
"Lay down, lay down your weary load
Until I get to look upon him."

Sorry I couldn't help more! Good luck in your search!

Kurt G.


Posted by: The Celestial Monochord | November 14, 2005 at 07:39 PM

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Regarding 'Lay down your weary tune': I note on the Biograph notes that he found a Scottish ballad without lyrics and used the melody.

There is some simularity to the sound you may hear when Gaelic psalms are sung (cf. Scottish tradition Vol.6 Gaelic Psalms from Lewis. GreenTrax recordings)

I note from a much earlier time in Celtic past that singing was done to sound like the cadence of the sea and of its waves rolling in.

Posted by: Mike | May 19, 2007 at 09:37 AM


Kitten Astronauts as "The Other"

Cat in space

Kitten astronaut

Ksc87p0066

My cats Georgia (top) and Henry (middle) enjoy their new toy, a small fishbowl. Georgia puts her head inside while also kicking and grabbing at other toys, while Henry's more apt to just sit placidly with his head in the bowl, looking around. They stay there for long periods of time, Henry often for up to 45 minutes, his breath steaming up the glass.

I don't know why.   And so, Houston, we have a problem:

Maybe they like the sonic environment it creates — a world where the only sound is their own breathing, like nursing with their mother. On the other hand, they don't purr or knead when they do this (for a change — they are avid nursers).

Maybe the glass distorts the room, making things look "weird" — and certainly, they like their world when it's defamiliarized. Georgia, who often seems a little bored, likes touring the apartment atop my shoulders. On the other hand, she uses the bowl for shorter periods than Henry and does less "looking" while she's there. Henry, who's less bored with his surroundings, enjoys the view more.

Therefore, my pet theory (sorry for the pun) is that they're pretending that they're astronauts (e.g., John Glenn, also shown above for easy comparison). I believe they imagine themselves to be in Outer Space. They must appreciate this, as I do, as a metaphor for their status as The Other, as representatives from outside of language and discourse, emissaries from a place beyond history and culture.