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Singing the Blues

By John S. O'Connor

I love blues music — singing the blues, listening to the blues. That’s why I was so excited to get a call from my friend Pierre Lacocque, a wicked blues harp player and the band leader of Mississippi Heat. Pierre asked me to work on lyrics for the band’s new album — and I couldn’t pass up the chance.

I had a blast working with Pierre on lyrics for the band’s last disc, Hattiesburg Blues (briefly #1 on the blues charts!). Part of what made the experience so much fun was the blues form — that insistent echo of repeating lines. Here’s an excerpt from Gone So Long:

I can hear the train
running down the track.
I can hear the train
running down the track.
Working any harder
Would give me a heart attack.

I also loved the story the songs tell (the unabashed narrative drive behind the songs). Here’s a glimpse from Forgot You Had a Home:

I tried to change you, but
You paid me no mind
You choose your job
Over family time
You forgot you had a home.
All you’ve got is a one track mind.

The title pretty much gives the story away in this one, but I like how this lyric updates the blues convention of a wandering man: here his eyes look only to work, not to another woman.

When Pierre writes music he has specific singers in mind. It’s cool — and challenging — to write from the perspective of other characters (in this case as a wronged woman), and even other singers (some singers like room at the end of phrases so they can create vocal “fills”; others like a cleaner line).

The new album is not yet titled, but the tracks have all been laid down. The CD should be ready in January.

Comments (7)

  • On November 21, 2009 at 11:44 pm Terreson wrote:

    Yes.

    Terreson

  • On November 21, 2009 at 11:51 pm Gerardine Baugh wrote:

    I clicked on the link to their site. I am sitting here listening to some wonderful Blues. Smooth sound! I look forward to the CD coming out in January.

    Gerardine Baugh
    gerardinebaugh.wordpress.com/

  • On November 22, 2009 at 7:14 pm Anselm wrote:

    Blind Willie Johnson’s song “Soul of a Man” comes to my mind sometimes with no warning in all of its dual voiced clear mystery…..that and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See that my grave is kept clean”…..

  • On November 22, 2009 at 7:55 pm Anselm wrote:

    First seven lines of
    See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (1928)
    by Blind Lemon Jefferson

    Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you
    There’s just one kind of favor I’ll ask of you
    You can see that my grave is kept clean

    And there’s two white horses following me
    And there’s two white horses following me
    I got two white horses following me
    Waiting on my burying ground

    I heard this first via the Harry Smith edited Anthology of American Folk Music, though I think its one of Jefferson’s better known songs.

  • On November 22, 2009 at 8:12 pm John S. O'Connor wrote:

    I have always loved BLJ’s song “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” I probably also heard it first in the Harry Smith Anthology, though I know it’s been covered by everyone. I heard a knockout Mavis Staples rendition once — and I know Lou Reed does a long electric guitar-heavy version on the Harry Smith Project Live discs.

    I have read Blues Poems (edited by Kevin Young) and, of course, the great Langston Hughes blues poems, but what other blues poems do you know of? Which great blues lyrics might count as poems (either great old lyrics by people like Bessie Smith and Honeyboy Edwards or contemporary lyricists like Joe Henry. (I was just listening to his beautiful song Richard Pryor “Addresses a Tearful Nation”).

  • On November 24, 2009 at 4:03 am john wrote:

    By far the most interesting anthology of blues lyrics I’ve seen is “The Blues Line,” which first came out 40 years ago, edited by Eric Sackheim. He prints a lot of stuff that doesn’t come close to following the AAB formula, including an improvised or semi-improvised spoken short story with sung refrains, by Lightning Hopkins, that brings tears to my eyes, called “Mister Charlie.” No question but that the collection is an impressive gathering of poetry.

    First heard “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on Dylan’s great first album, which is mostly covers.

  • On November 24, 2009 at 12:23 pm Anselm Berrigan wrote:

    John: This is a slightly oblique response to the question, which I just saw last night, but one interesting song to me over the years has been “Delia” – of which I know versions by Blind Willie McTell, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash (that being on one of Cash’s cover albums he was doing the last years of his life). My mother told me once about playing two of the versions to a workshop she was teaching at home in Paris several years ago. So I took that idea and brought the Cash and McTell versions to a class I was teaching at Rutgers at the time – it was a great thing to do because you can track the changes in the lyrics across the different versions and have a conversation that moves easily between music and poetry, covers and translation, voice and singing, etc…..

    I think the McTell version is more interesting as a song than the Cash version, but the singing on the Cash version is hypnotic and creepy. It’s a violent song. I don’t know the Dylan version as well as the other two.

    McTell’s “Dying Crapshooter Blue” is something else. I need to go and listen to it again, but the counting conceit wrapped around instructions for how the crapshooter’s funeral is to be conducted knocks me out every time.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, November 21st, 2009 by John S. O'Connor.