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 LakeNow, 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.
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
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 mamboWhen 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":
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.
The money that I got for the venison and skinThe clincher, of course, is the last stanza, which Waits has changed only slightly:
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 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!"