Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can!
Won’t somebody tell me, just what is the soul of a man?
This year I turn 60. In Japan, that calls for a special celebration because on my birthday I will have completed five trips around the Chinese zodiac with its 12 different animal-years. 1954, like 2014, was and is the Year of the Horse. Each 12-year period has a name based on the ancient elements. We’re born into wood; at 12, we begin fire. At 24, earth; at 36, metal; at 48, water. On my sixtieth birthday, I’ll start over again the whole 60-year-cycle calendar, or kanreki. On that day, according to tradition, I’ll be reborn. On that day, my friends and family will dress me up in a little red vest and a little red cap, like you might clothe a newborn infant, …if you had a mind to. At the kanreki celebration, I’ll be plied with cup after cup after cup of sake, and it’s not entirely unlikely I’ll begin to lose some of my ability to walk and talk, and at some point, I may crawl somewhere and curl up in fetal position for a nap, oblivious to the ‘adults’ carrying on with their grown-up partying and grown-up conversations about their mundane grown-up realities. Maybe someone will toss a warm blanky on me. When I awake, I’ll begin my next cycle as wood in the Year of the Horse. Just like in October of 1954, … uh, … symbolically, at least.
But before my birthday, this Year of the Horse is a time for reflection, which I’ve been doing a bit of. And Blind Willie Johnson’s question keeps coming to me. And that question leads me to other questions, like why, after nearly half my life living outside of the U.S.A., is my self-mind-soul still all American? Solid 20th -century American. Very happily going on three decades in Japan, about to be reborn here, probably die here (or God forbid, hit 120 for my next kanreki party), but still as American as before I ever set foot out of the country. I don’t mean all-American in a ‘patriotic’ flag-waving God and country sense, but in a deeper (for me at least) cultural affinity and affiliation. “You can take the boy out of the country, but …” What is the soul of a man?
One reason my connection to America never weakened was music. I’d been collecting since grade school, and I brought all kinds, not just American music, with me to Japan. I’d spent days recording my LPs onto cassettes and packing them for the trip. In the early years, there was no Internet, international calls were prohibitively expensive, and there were very few bilingual broadcasts. But we had the songs, and the songs that resonated with me most in those long dark Niigata winter nights were those in which words and music act as complementary integral components producing stories, stories that for me feed the identity, feed the soul.
The songs in this three-volume set are a collection of Americana. They are stories, poems and dreams: five-minute time machine snap shots, core samples of a culture.
Yonder stands little Maggie, a dram glass in her hand. This song comes out of Appalachia and was already as old as the hills when the Stanley Brothers first recorded it in 1946, but it doesn’t get any better than Ralph’s 2001 version. That voice! Through the coal soot and tobacco smoke and scent of corn liquor and stale beer, there’s Maggie, the diamond in the rough. She knows it, and she’s out to profit by it, …again. Pretty girls were made for lovin’, little Maggie was made for mine. Well, maybe, …for a while. But just listen to them old banjers ring!
Kill that calf and call the family ‘round, my son was lost and now here he’s found. Robert Wilkins found the Lord and reworded and re-recorded his 1929 juke joint blues, That’s No Way To Get Along as New Testament gospel (Luke 15:11-32). Here Keith Richards’ guitar joins the prodigal son and runs with him all the way home. Hallelujah!
Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can! Won’t somebody tell me, just what is the soul of a man? This is the theme of this whole three-volume set of songs. There is a Blind Willie Johnson recording on Explorer 1, the space probe that has recently left our solar system. It’s not this song, but it should have been.
Down here, where we’re at, sweat drips from the tip of your nose. Uncle Tupelo was a band of high school friends from Belleville, Illinois. Everybody that grew up with a wooden spring-operated slamming screen door in the ‘heartland’ in summer and winter lived this. And we don’t care.
So if you can remember this, you won’t get lost on the cross while you’re trying to get across. What was Rahsaan? A musician? Musicologist? Magician? Shaman? Supernatural phenomena? Sightless inventor of instruments of sound. Master of his right and left brain, master of circular breathing. The saxophone trio you hear here is all coming out of one mouth, Rahsaan’s. Rahsaan’s nose handles the whistle, and his hands handle the gong in the coda. Needless to say, while there are many versions of this old spiritual, none are quite like this.
Crazy Chester followed me, and he caught me in the fog, … Levon Helm’s dreamlike character sketches of some of the folks he knew in rural Turkey Scratch, Arkansas meeting Biblical entities on a journey to Nazareth, the Pennsylvania home of the Martin guitar factory. Images bleed into one another. The resonant voices of Levon, Rick Danko and Pops and Mavis Staple give this apocryphal new gospel a credible sum equal to more than its already substantial parts.
It was just my imagination, running away with me. Another dream-song. Prince takes this Temptations hit and does with it what Rahsaan did to the Old Rugged Cross: transcends the genre, transcends gravity, sets it free. The song may catch up with Explorer 1. Recorded live in Den Haag at the ‘Paard Van Troje’ Club, while he was breaking in a new band.
Butterflies and zebras and moonbeams, … and fairy tales, …Jimi’s beautiful technicolor dream in two minutes, twenty-nine. Sublime. Take anything you want from me, … anything!
Grandpa was a carpenter. He built houses, stores and banks, chained-smoked Camel cigarettes, hammered nails in planks, … John Prine’s tribute to that generation of American supermen who could build or fix anything. I know one, my own step-dad.
Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed wondering if she’d changed at all, … if her hair was still red. Dylan does a dozen different versions of this. He changes the characters, settings and events. Half audio reality movie, half series of dreams.
All this radio really needs is a fuse. A soldier’s things. No dream here. Tom Waits.
‘Workhouse Blues’, a made-up song, just by bein’ in prison, …alone. Recorded in the sewing room of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (the infamous Parchman farm), May 31, 1939. The singer, Mattie May Thomas, was doing life for murder. Not just a song, this is the Blues itself.
…and the skeeters. Like Mark Twain before him, Woody Guthrie could paint anything with words. This one might even be a sculpture, a 3-D portrait of ‘mean’.
Remember, you might have looked like cool twelve, but your fuse felt just like dynamite. Rickie Lee Jones conjures up just how much fun it was just to hang out on the street with our friends when we were kids. No money, no nothing, just hangin’, groovin’ and foolin’ around.
I’m going to ask the question, answer if you can. Ramblin’ Jack closes this volume of Soul of Man with his heavy, other-worldly, version of the theme. Thanks for listening, and answer if you can.
1. Ralph Stanley – Little Maggie / American Roots Music (2001)
2. The Rolling Stones – Prodigal Son / Beggar’s Banquet (1968)
3. Blind Willie Johnson – The Soul Of A Man / The Complete Blind Willie Johnson (1930)
4. Uncle Tupelo – Screen Door / No Depression (1990)
5. Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Old Rugged Cross / Blacknuss (1971)
6. The Band with The Staples – The Weight / The Last Waltz (1978)
7. Jimi Hendrix – Little Wing / Axis/Bold As Love (1967)
8. Prince – Just My Imagination / Nightclubbing (1988)
9. John Prine -Grandpa Was A Carpenter / Will the Circle be Unbroken Volume Two (1990)
10. Bob Dylan – Tangled Up in Blue (Alt Version) / Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3/Rare And Unreleased
11. Tom Waits – Soldier’s Things / Swordfishtrombones (1983)
12. Mattie May Thomas – Workhouse Blues / American Primitive, Vol. II/ Pre-War Revenants (1939)
13. Woody Guthrie – Mean Talking Blues / Hard Travelin’ (The Asch Recordings Vol. 3)(1944)
14. Rickie Lee Jones – Young Blood / Rickie Lee Jones (1979)
15. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot – Soul Of A Man / A Stranger Here (2009)