Every now and then I hear a song that is so wildly unlike anything that I like or that I have in my music library that it, naturally, stops me in my tracks. The first listen makes me perk my ears up like a confused dog, but then subsequent listens start to make more and more sense and then I wind up admiring the demented genius of it all. I begin to listen to it for exactly what it is and disregard the foreground oddity of it. Like going to a circus and seeing the dancing elephants and bearded ladies and sword swallowers for what they are, and not caring about what the larger commentary of the thing is. Sure, circuses tap in to a weird strain of human nature and it is worth exploring why some people buy tickets to it but sometimes it really is simple as, hey, dancing elephants.
Thirty one years later (as of this writing), “Jam on Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)” by Newcleus is still a strange and wonderful carnival of a song. “Jam on Revenge” starts out with some (for the ’80s) futuristic sound effect, something that conveys cosmic or portal transportation. A bass line with some of Bootsy Collins’s DNA arrives too. “Oh no, it’s Cozmo!” is said in Chipmunks effect. The bass and some electronic drum sounds go on for a few seconds and then at the 00:23 mark some bell and horn sounds appear. I am assuming that both of these bell and horn sounds are synthesized but I am not sure and I really don’t care because when these sounds arrive is when this song hits another level with me. This part of the song is so mellow and smooth and danceable; a marriage of ’70s funk and ’80s hip hop. This melody continues uninterrupted for about twenty seconds.
Okay. This is where a lot of people might leave the circus.
Remember that Chipmunks voice effect in the beginning of the track? It comes back. Quite a lot actually. And here is where the song might cease to be a song and instead become something that starts to suddenly jackknife into novelty territory for some. At a certain point it is probably hard to take a song with Chipmunks voice effects seriously, especially when there are no Chipmunks present. I completely get this. The first time I listened to “Jam on Revenge” I was unsure if what I was hearing was even real—was this all a dream? was Ricky Schroeder nearby with a snow globe? was this song even remotely popular when it came out?
It turns out that the answer to the last question is, in fact, yes. “Jam on Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)” reached #26 on the R&B singles chart and the album from where it came, Jam on Revenge, hit #15 on the R&B chart and #93 on the Billboard 200 chart. Obviously, chart position does not equate to classic or iconic status (apologies if you think I’m going to be writing about Snow at some point) but I was initially surprised to find that this song was popular after the second or third time I listened to it. Was it a fluke occurrence that it sold well enough to chart? Or was its success simply another weird ’80s thing that defied conventional wisdom, like Trapper Keepers and Pauly Shore? Variants of these questions were the first things that came to mind when I heard this song until I realized that I was missing the point and the point is: it’s just a fucking fun song.
At around the 01:51 mark there is a sound effect used that I would describe as being something that every sci-fi movie should use in every scene involving a ray gun or ripple gun or some similar weapon. It sounds pretty dated now but I love it for that very reason. I grew up with all sorts of weird sci-fi noises on TV; the Star Wars light saber sound was the gold standard, everything else was mostly hokey. “Jam on Revenge” came out during the nascent days of hip hop, but the nascent days of hip hop, musically, were shaped in part by Parliament’s space-themed 1975 masterpiece Mothership Connection. This song exists at the intersection of ’70s funk, early ’80s block parties, and sci-fi, and all of the fun and oddities that come with such a communion.
The voice effects might be strange on first listen but the music of this song is fun, vintage electronic and hip hop music. The middle of the song starts to encroach on meandering but at the 06:37 mark the main melody resumes and rights the ship. Again, I fully realize that this song will not be everyone’s cup of tea but I think it’s a wonderful little curio, and I think that the music on this track is outstanding and an excellent representation of where electronic music and hip hop (often referred to as electro) was going in the early ’80s. “Jam on Revenge (The Wikki-Wikki Song)” is an electro anthem.
The Melodians formed in 1963, its members Tony Brevett (the brother of Skatalites bassist Lloyd Brevett), Brent Dowe, and Trevor McNaughton all crystallizing near the Greenwich Town neighborhood in Kingston, Jamaica. The Melodians are generally considered to be one of the greatest rocksteady groups of all time. Rocksteady is a genre that emphasizes group vocal harmony; it succeeded ska and was a precursor to reggae. The music that The Melodians released in the ’60s and ’70s is not only some of the most influential rocksteady music ever produced but some of their singles broke through to international success that paved the way for ska and reggae giants like Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff, and Bob Marley to find huge audiences outside of the Caribbean.
The Melodians first went into the recording studio in 1966, recording four tracks on groundbreaking producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label. Two of them were released as singles but neither achieved any success. In 1967 they went over to Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle label and stayed there until the following year. This two-year stint at Treasure Isle gave the band their first dose of success, with tracks like “Swing and Dine,” “Come On Little Girl,” and “Little Nut Tree” establishing them as legitimate contenders for the rocksteady title. In 1969 The Melodians started working with producer Leslie Kong, yet another giant of Jamaican music but whose life was cut tragically short by a heart attack at age 38, and their ascent began in earnest as they churned out tracks that were bona fide instant masterpieces—”Sweet Sensation” and “Rivers of Babylon” in particular.
“Rivers of Babylon” is a rocksteady masterpiece in general and a Rastafarian anthem specifically. The lyrics are comprised almost entirely of quotes from the Book of Psalms, particularly the 19th and 137th. Rastafarians use Babylon as a way of conveying oppression or unjustness: the government’s use of force and prosecution against their sacramental use of marijuana; the imbalance of power between poor and rich; the inherent greed of the modern Western society. The music of Jamaica is littered with references to Babylon and to Zion, which, to the Rastas, Zion is in Ethiopia.
And so you have a song here in “Rivers of Babylon” that, to the casual music fan, sounds like a typical reggae track. (I went many years without knowing what rocksteady was and what separated it from reggae.) A few skipping bass lines and a cymbal crash are all that’s needed to lead the song into its melody. Brevett, Dowe, and McNaughton sing in lovely unison and individually the aforementioned Psalm-centric lyrics, except for some notable instances where Rasta names Fari and King Alpha have replaced the original biblical source material. Aside from those instances (and a substitution of “the wicked” for “they”) this song’s lyrics is lifted entirely from the Bible but it was enough for the Jamaican government to have the song banned from the radio because of its “subversive” references to Rastafarianism. The ban, thankfully, was lifted after a short while and “Rivers of Babylon” became the #1 song in Jamaica three weeks later. Incendiary music never sounded so warm, mellow, and danceable.
“Rivers of Babylon” was a huge hit in Jamaica and a breakthrough hit internationally, but it’s legacy outside of the Caribbean was forever cemented by its inclusion on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come. The movie stars Jimmy Cliff and, other than the title track written by Cliff, the album is filled with previously released songs by a veritable murderer’s row and who’s who of early ’60s Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and reggae artists. Bob Marley brought Jamaica to the rest of the world in a large, broad sense but the significance of The Harder They Come cannot be stressed enough, nor can the inclusion of The Melodians on it.
Brent Dowe would wind up leaving The Melodians in 1973 and the band would reform briefly a couple of times throughout the late ’70s, and in the ’80s. The ’90s brought about a reggae roots revival which saw them reform again and tour internationally off and on until 2005. Brent Dowe died in 2006 and Tony Brevett died last October.
The legacy of The Melodians in a macro sense is that they were one of the greatest rocksteady groups to have ever recorded. Their legacy in a micro sense is that they recorded a couple handfuls of truly perfect songs, of which “Rivers of Babylon” is one of them. Whether you are aware of the back story of this song or not is almost beside the point. This song contains a universal soul that can feed a hungry mind for weeks, months, and years. There’s an inherent majesty to this song that, even if you are completely unfamiliar with Jamaican music, one will still recognize it because it’s the same soul and majesty in the music of Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding and countless other gospel and soul singers that have walked this earth.
We are all connected and we are all weary of Babylons—only the melodies and terminology are different.
 Dodd was a pioneering producer who played a substantial role in shaping reggae music as we know it today. He was the first black person to own a studio in Jamaica, and he had his finger on the pulse of everything that was going on in Jamaica in the ’60s as he was able to shift and adapt to the presence of ska, rocksteady, and reggae at various times. Studio One’s output was so prolific that it is impossible to track down exactly how many singles and albums were recorded there. Every Jamaican artist during the ’60s and ’70s that you’ve ever heard of walked through Studio One’s doors. Lee “Scratch” Perry and Winston “Niney” Holness both apprenticed there. The American producer equivalent of Clement “Coxsone” Dodd would probably be an amalgam of Berry Gordy, Sam Phillips, and Phil Spector.
 Duke Reid is behind “Coxsone” Dodd as far as important and influential producers go in Jamaican music, especially as it pertains to rocksteady and “chatting” and “toasting” (the latter two are slang for DJs doing their own rhymes over popular records at dance halls; U-Roy, a pioneer in this genre, was signed by Reid).
The word “cool,” as it pertains to art in particular, is usually used as a descriptor for something that one has not been seen or heard before—either the whole composition or, as in most cases, elements of the composition. When it comes to art that you can see, the cool elements typically involve colors that the viewer already likes, but it can also be applied to things like CGI effects used in a film. So for me anything (typically) involving blue colors (think: Picasso’s blue phase) or effects that involve something involving otherworldly that moves fluidly (think: the movements of The Gentlemen in the Buffy episode “Hush”).
For the most part, “cool” is used in reactive terms: you stumble upon something or someone shows you or recommends something to you and you go, “Oh, that’s cool.” (Or, “Oh, that is cool.”) I only make this distinction in order to make reference to the other side of the equation: the marketing and advertising world that tries to be proactive with the word in order to create something that lives up to the word, which it rarely does. It’s hard to create cool; it’s like erotica in the sense that one knows it only when one sees it. It almost always relies on the consumer end of the transaction rather than the scheduled creative meetings for that word to take hold. The number of failed products designed to be cool could fill an infinite amount of landfills.
Music is, relatively speaking, an easy medium in which to create cool especially with regards to new genres or marriages of existing genres. Think of jazz bars, juke joints, psychedelia, hip hop, and electronic music—all of which can conjure the word pretty easily, especially if one’s musical exposure revolved around traditional country, folk, or rock beforehand. It also helps that music is oftentimes so intertwined with image; it cannot be discounted how much we listen to music with our eyes, whether it be with how the artists literally look or the imagery that their music produces. It is no accident that MTV accrued so much cultural currency overnight when it launched.
All of this brings me to Blue Lines, the debut album by Massive Attack, which is cool par excellence. Massive Attack is a Britsol, UK-based collective that started out as The Wild Bunch in 1983. Outside of the UK, their music has never really hit high chart success or wide mainstream reach but they are rightfully seen as influential forces that led to underground dance and electronic music to break through in the ’90s. Massive Attack’s legacy is that it created the genre trip hop, a blend of music that’s more interested in atmosphere to the point that experimental beats will be embraced. Jason Ankeny on AllMusic might have the perfect description of their sound: “darkly sensual and cinematic fusion of hip-hop rhythms, soulful melodies, dub grooves, and choice samples.” The term trip hop wasn’t used until a couple years after the release of Blue Lines but it doesn’t detract from the reality that this album was genre-bending and unique upon its release even if a term for it hadn’t been widely used.
There are numerous musicians who appear on Blue Lines but the core is Tricky (Adrian Thaws), 3D (Robert Del Naja), Daddy G (Grantley Marshall), Mushroom (Andrew Vowles), Horace Andy, and Shara Nelson. The end result is one of the greatest electronic albums ever made, buttressed by Nelson’s vocals on the four tracks she sings on.
To me, the only weak song on the album is “One Love”; the music on the track is outstanding but I’ve never really dug Horace Andy’s vocals on it. The other eight tracks, on the other hand, are a murderer’s row of songs that cement Blue Lines as one of the greatest albums not only of the ’90s but of the modern rock era in general.
“Safe From Harm”: the opening track sets the tone for the album’s silky sound as it bounces and grooves effortlessly around Shara Nelson’s and 3D’s vocals. If you don’t fall in love with Nelson after thirty seconds of this song then I don’t know what to tell you. This track had actually been around in the group for about seven years beforehand. It is cool as all fucking get out.
“Blue Lines”: the title track with Tricky on lead vocals, this might be one of the coolest songs I’ve ever heard. It’s infectious and, twenty three years later as of this writing, it still sounds completely fresh. A perfect communion of beats and near continuous vocals.
“Be Thankful for What You’ve Got”: Tony Bryan sings lead on one of the few unabashedly uplifting songs on the album. A song you will want to hug from start to finish.
“Five Man Army”: a heavier, darker song that follows “Be Thankful.” A three-man track with Andy, Tricky, and Claude Williams (the deep voice) taking turns with the mic. It doesn’t always work but the music, as always, is terrific.
“Daydreaming” and “Hymn of the Big Wheel”: the former is an uptempo track with vocal exchanges all around while Nelson appears for the choruses; a great track to listen to during the summertime. The latter is another Horace Andy track and it ends the album. “Hymn of the Big Wheel” is philosophy hop; a socially aware song with a chorus of “The big wheel keeps on turning/On a simple line day by day/The earth spins on its axis/One man struggle while another relaxes” that has a great beat but moves at a pace that allows Andy’s vocals to breathe. It’s a great totem for trip hop in general.
“Lately”: another Shara Nelson song, another song that does not sound at all like its age, another song with roots dating back several years before the release of the album, another song that is cool as all fucking get out. A textbook definition of a killer track. “Lately” would absolutely be the song picked for this site if it were not for…
“Unfinished Sympathy”: a towering masterpiece in every facet, unequivocal in its perfection. Shara Nelson shows off her vocal range while the group shows off its full musical genius, recorded in part with an orchestra.
“Unfinished Sympathy” starts out mellow with a couple bass beats and record scratches before kicking into its foundational beat, which involves a drum sample and bell rhythm that by itself puts this track into Instant Classic territory. Shortly thereafter you hear Nelson’s vocals arrive followed by the introduction of the aforementioned orchestral string section. The soul of this song lies in the intersection of the percussion sampling and the violins: the former is lively and full of movement while the latter is somber and arrives unexpectedly. At times the violins try to drown out the drums which, when you factor in the day and night lyrics throughout the song, you get the imagery of the somber trying eclipse the happy beat. Musical struggle has never sounded so gorgeous. (Lyrical struggle never sounded so good either—”The curiousness of your potential kiss/Has got my mind and body aching/Really hurt me baby, really cut me baby”)
“Unfinished Sympathy” is one of the best songs of the ’90s. It is definitely one of the best dance/electronic songs of all time. I would put it in the top half of the 100 greatest songs ever recorded. It’s the best song on an album loaded with best song candidates. If you’ve never listened to Blue Lines before you should give it a listen.
Lord knows I wish I could listen to it all over again for the first time. It is one of the coolest albums I have ever heard.
“It’s [bluegrass] got a hard drive to it. It’s Scotch bagpipes and old-time fiddling. [...] It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you.”
Bluegrass music is a form of American roots music whose roots extend all the way back to the British, Irish, and Scottish immigrants who made Appalachia their home. This music formed the basis for the staples of American country and bluegrass music as we know it—the use of fiddles, multiple instruments and vocals taking turns sharing the foreground, instrumental music used as a conduit for group dancing, and traditional songs reworked into ballads about modern life. This is what bluegrass is, in all of its summarized encyclopedic glory.
What bluegrass became once the transaction from Europe to America was complete is a form of American roots music that extends singularly to Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys. Monroe is rightfully known as “The Father of Bluegrass” for the innovations he and his Blue Grass Boys (an homage to his home state of Kentucky) brought to the genre: the reinvention of the mandolin, the group instrumentation, the addition of banjo prodigy Earl Scruggs (and his genre-bending use of three finger picking style), and coordinated vocal arrangements. Monroe’s contributions to the genre were so ahead of its time that its originality is almost impossible to adequately convey.
William Smith Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky in 1909, the youngest of eight children. His mother and her brother Pendleton (later immortalized in Monroe’s classic “Uncle Pen”) were musicians and Monroe grew up in a household that would sing and play music. His older brothers had already claimed the fiddle and guitar in the family’s arrangement so Bill learned the mandolin, an instrument that at that time had the cachet of a tambourine. Funny how life works sometimes.
Both of Monroe’s parents died while he was growing up and he eventually lived with his Uncle Pen and shortly thereafter began playing guitar in Pen’s band at dances. He had a chance encounter with a local blues guitarist named Arnold Schultz during this time and Schultz had a profound influence on his technical skill. At 18, Monroe and his brothers Charlie and Birch moved to East Chicago, Indiana and began performing. A few years later the brothers performed on the Barn Dance on WLS, the 50,000 watt Chicago radio station that still exists to this day. Birch left the band in 1934 and Bill and Charlie performed as The Monroe Brothers. The Brothers signed a deal with RCA’s Bluebird label and recorded about 60 songs until 1938 when they parted ways. Shortly after this Bill moved to Atlanta and formed The Blue Grass Boys. They performed at the Grand Ole Opry the following year, which ushered in the beginning of Monroe’s ascent, culminating in the genre being named after the band that he had formed.
The ’40s represents the Zeitgeist run of Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. A musicians’ union strike interrupted any ability to record music for a few years but the lineup of the Blue Grass Boys in 1944 is the undisputed murderer’s row of musicians, both in terms of Monroe’s leadership and of bluegrass in general. This lineup consisted of the aforementioned Scruggs on banjo, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts on bass.
Flatt and Scruggs would leave in 1948 to form the Foggy Mountain Boys but during the band’s heyday while they were in it Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys were one of the most popular musicians in the US, touring all over the place and playing in a circus tent and hosting pre-concert attractions such as baseball games against local teams. During this incarnation of the band they produced a run of singles that included “Kentucky Waltz,” “Footprints in the Snow,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” “Sweetheart You Done Me Wrong,” and “Blue Grass Special.”
They also recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a bluegrass anthem (it is the official song of Kentucky) that some guy named—[ruffles papers] let me make sure I have the name right here—Elvis Presley—later did a cover of and which became the second single in his discography. Before Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins got around to modifying the song for their covers you had Monroe’s original in all of its traditional glory: the high, lonesome sound that Monroe mentions in the quote at the top of this post, the stand-up bass that negates a need for drums, a pensive fiddle, an overall waltz sound and feel, and vocals and a mandolin that can reach high notes with an effortless flick. Monroe’s mandolin solo and vocals are beyond beautiful on this track and are indicative of the technical skill that many artists would try to emulate for many years.
There would be quite a few lineups of the Blue Grass Boys after 1948 but with Monroe being a stubborn perfectionist (to the point that many musicians walked away from his band over the years) his music and his live performances from the ’50s up until he died in the ’90s are mostly high quality across the board. Do a search for his live shows and you will be hard pressed to find a clunker at any of his Grand Ole Opry or Austin City Limits performances.
Bill Monroe is bluegrass as we know it, and the stable of musicians that passed through his band over the years influenced a wide swath of future bluegrass and country artists. In 1993, three years before he died, the Grammys gave Monroe a Lifetime Achievement Award. This came at a time when country music was starting to become a mainstream force thanks to artists like Garth Brooks. In this sense, it was a fitting time to give him the award and celebrate the legacy of an icon who was in the winter of his life. It also would have been fitting for the Grammys to have given him the award at their first ceremony in 1959; the man is that significant to American music.
The first time I heard “Praise You” was when I saw the brilliant video for it that was directed by Spike Jonze shortly after the single was released. It was at some early morning hour after a night of drinking that was intermixed with a little bit of pot smoking. (Full disclosure: even when I was younger and would smoke on a semi-consistent basis I was always a lightweight. Two hits, maybe three, and I was more than set. I had friends who would wake and bake. And then have a bowl before lunch. And then have a bowl at 2:00p. And then have a bowl before dinner. And then have a bowl before going out. And then have a couple of bowls and smoke a bong at a party. These people were not real to me; they were unicorns as far as I was concerned. Never in a million years could I ever do that, even if I wanted to. If I smoked up when I awoke I’d be back asleep by 10:00a and I’d have moss growing on me by 7:00p. And smoke a bong? Forget it. I’d be on a couch trying to figure out why my tongue felt like it was 10 pounds, wondering if I’d ever be able to talk again.)
So I stumble upon the video and this song on this particular night and I immediately think I am a thousand times more stoned that I actually am. Full blown Twilight Zone moment where I start to question if what I am seeing is actually what’s happening. Knowing nothing about Fatboy Slim beforehand or even what Spike Jonze looks like (I recognized the name from his other classic videos: “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys and “Cannonball” by The Breeders, amongst others) I just took the video at face value: that the collection of late ’80s/early ’90s people in the dance troupe were real and that the video was made to look like it was shot guerrilla style—kind of like how some videos in the ’80s were made to look like concert footage. The reality was that the video was done guerrilla style, Jonze played the “troupe” leader, and Slim makes an appearance toward the end of the video standing behind Jonze at a movie theater crowded with people unaware of what had just happened. The video cost less than $1,000 to make.
While the video is hilarious and completely sucked me in—especially if you’re drunk-high the first time you see it—the music is brilliant and enchanting. I think I bought the album a couple days later. The vocals on “Praise You” are sampled from Camille Yarbrough’s “Take Yo’ Praise.” The piano was taken from a test album produced by JBL. All of the other samples, which range from the TV cartoon Fat Albert to a disco album that Disney released in the ’70s, flesh out the rest of the sound.
Yarbrough’s vocal sample and the JBL piano sample are the two things that stand front and center here. Until recently, I just assumed that the vocals were from a fellow Brit who fronted a band I was unfamiliar with (like Tim Burgess singing on The Chemical Brothers’ masterpiece “Life Is Sweet”); never would I have guessed that it was a ’70s female soul singer. What’s interesting to me about the piano sample is that it has such great energy and movement without having to be propulsive. A piano’s presence on a song, specifically if it is the foreground instrument from start to finish, needs to be a bit hyperactive in order to move your feet because oftentimes a piano just gets you to move your hands (or maybe sway your head). For the most part the piano is a montage-maker. The piano is typically the personal instrument, the storyteller’s instrument. If you’re going to see someone perform live who plays the piano you’re probably going to be in your seat for most of the show, whereas if the piano is an accent for a band or an artist you are probably not sitting in a seat.
Of course, Fatboy Slim (born Norman Cook) injects some terrific beats and textures behind the piano to bring it to life, but even just the looping piano sample at the beginning of the track is simple and addictive and has great movement. Any electronic track that juggles samples successfully or impressively is something that can endear people to the artist in subtle, different ways than a band with traditional instruments can. If an electronic song with samples connects with a listener it becomes easier to appreciate the alchemy of it all; the hours spent not only retrofitting a previous work into something new, but also the hours spent just trying to find the previous works to begin with.
“Praise You” was released as a single in January of ’99 from the 1998 album You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby and it was the third single (“The Rockafeller Skank” was the first). To say that it was a breath of fresh air amongst the tweener pop and bro rock that defined the last year of the ’90s is a vast understatement.
Fatboy Slim and Spike Jonze would later team up on a video for “Weapon of Choice,” another insanely hilarious and random and well executed video which followed Christopher Walken dancing inside of a hotel by himself. That song and video are outstanding but “Praise You” is on another level.
Blind Lemon Jefferson was born Lemon Henry Jefferson in Coutchman, Texas in 1893 (I know, you probably thought Lemon was part of his nickname and was no part of his birth name). He was blind at birth and was one of eight children. His exact birth date and birthplace weren’t known until some census research was done decades later.
Jefferson started playing guitar in his teens, performing at picnics and parties (sometimes for up to ten hours) before moving to the streets of East Texas. He was influenced by local guitarists and workers as well as Mexican immigrants, and the end result was a country blues sound ahead of its time in that included flamenco style riffs too. Jefferson eventually moved to Dallas and began performing in the Deep Ellum area, meeting up with Lead Belly, a future giant of the blues who held Lemon in high regard, and influencing other Texas giants like Lightnin’ Hopkins. These are the broad points as to why Lemon is referred to as “Father of the Texas Blues.”
Lemon traveled and performed throughout Texas and across the way over to Memphis before eventually making his way to Chicago in either late 1925 or early 1926 to record for the first time. The first sessions from Chicago, recorded by Paramount Records, found Jefferson performing “I Want to Be Like Jesus in My Heart” and “All I Want Is That Pure Religion,” both of which were gospel songs released under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates. All of his future recordings were under his own name save for “He Arose From the Dead” and “Where Shall I Be?” which were released under the Bates name and Elder J.C. Brown, respectively. Jefferson’s recordings, specifically his blues recordings, are significant because he was one of the earliest and most successful American musicians to record music, which makes him sui generis of country blues and roots music as we know it. (Charley Patton is also in this category too; Patton is the father of Delta blues and is to Mississippi what Jefferson is to Texas.) With the exception of a few recordings on the Okeh label—notably, “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues”—all of Jefferson’s recording were done with Paramount.
The aforementioned “Black Snake Moan” and “Matchbox Blues” are seminal recordings in Lemon’s catalog. The former accented with a moaning howl that countless blues and rock artists would try to later emulate even if they weren’t cognizant of the source material, and the latter is the origin of Carl Perkins’s classic “Matchbox,” which influenced some kids from Liverpool who were known to play in clubs in Germany before hitting it big. But it is “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” that probably best exemplifies Jefferson both in music and big picture terms.
Musically speaking, “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” unfolds with a rhythmic strumming that is beautiful on its own terms while also being nothing short of an auditory mosaic of Americana. The last part might skew toward hyperbole but when you’re one of the first musicians to record music your legacy and iconography can be literally described as anything short of celestial or supernatural. “Well, there’s one kind of favor I’ll ask of you” begins Jefferson in the first chorus before asking if you can see that his grave is kept clean. His vocals on this track croon and moan as he sings about white horses, coffins, church bells, and dying hearts. This is a song that could sound overly haunting from start to finish (and maybe it is to some), but to me it just sounds like a God-fearing man on another level in terms of musical craft. The religious overtones pale in comparison to his talent; a blind person showing you their world through music at some point ceases to be about the words they’re singing.
In a big picture sense “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” has been covered by a throng of musicians such as: B.B. King, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the aforementioned Lightnin’ Hopkins, Lou Reed, and Mavis Staples. Son House used the song’s melody on his “Mississippi County Farm Blues.” It also served as an inadvertent real life request as up until 1967 Jefferson’s grave in Wortham, TX was unmarked until a historical marker and an updated tombstone with inscribed lyrics from the song placed on it because of donations from musicians during the blues and folk revival of that decade.
Blind Lemon Jefferson is a giant of American music; his footprint on modern music is still felt to this day and will continue to exist so long as human beings live on this earth. Trying to pick one song to define is admittedly a bit of a fool’s errand. His entire catalog is a series of chapters that paints a picture of America before the technology on which it was recorded on became a separate, newer picture of America.
[Editor's note: this post is written by Mike W. Petersen, who I met many moons ago when the two of us were working at an Italian restaurant after high school. He introduced me to old school blues, Deskmond Dekker, and Bob Dylan, amongst many other artists and songs that I am forever grateful for. I asked him to guest write a post about a blues song---pick basically anything you like, I said---and this is what he picked. Reader, you are in good hands.]
In Amadeus, Milos Forman frames Mozart’s death with the composer’s “Requiem Mass in D minor.” As the story unfolds, the “Requiem” becomes an all-encompassing effort, taxing Mozart creatively and physically. It represents the utmost of his talents, serving as an autobiographical monument to a musical genius.
If “Space Guitar” was recorded at the end of his career, it would be an appropriate requiem for Johnny “Guitar” Watson, a musician whose style and skill would influence legendary artists across the spectrum of American popular music for decades.
Like the “Requiem” in reverse, Watson defined his versatility, presence, and skill in just under two and a half minutes and it would echo through his career. But outside of blues fans and guitar aficionados, Watson remains in relative obscurity despite influencing generations of musicians and previewing the importance of electric guitar in the nascent style that would become rock and roll.
Johnny Watson had yet to adopt the nickname “Guitar” when he recorded “Space Guitar” in 1954. At the time, the teenaged Young John Watson was primarily a vocalist and piano player. He had scored a recording contract at 12, and had been recording and touring the West Coast with his own combo, and other R&B acts like the Mellotones since moving to Los Angeles at 15. He had already fronted two versions of “Motorhead Baby” as well as cutting the classic “Highway 60.”
With any young performer, whether Mozart or Madonna, there comes a time to grow up and push the envelope. “Space Guitar” was that turning point for Young John. He was looking to define himself as a lead player while simultaneously setting himself apart from the jump bands with which he toured the juke joint circuit. The sound of “Space Guitar” serves as both homage to his Texas blues roots (with licks and phrasing that owe a lot to T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown) and a bold step away from the conventions of lead guitar.
Perhaps it was that bold step that doomed “Space Guitar.” In hindsight, it was a song way ahead of its time. In 1954, the R&B charts were dominated by doo-wop, electric blues, and a brand of R&B that was still a couple years (and notches in tempo) away from rock and roll. “Space Guitar” finds itself more sonically at home with late-‘60s garage than the R&B charts when it was released. Though the rhythm section’s feet are firmly planted in the conventions of ‘50s jump blues, the lead is 15 years ahead of its time.
As a “Requiem,” “Space Guitar” represents who Watson wanted to—and eventually did—become: a brash showman, inveterate ladies’ man and guitar pioneer. “Space Guitar” has all the bravado and showiness for which Watson’s stage performances were known. He was an early adopter of ridiculously long guitar cables, allowing him to do the kind of stage acrobatics future guitarists would emulate in arena shows for decades. The acrobatics here are all on six strings: he makes his Stratocaster whistle, snarl, and bark. The song starts with rapid-fire bursts of biting guitar riffs, frantic like a cartoon chase scene, then dives headfirst into soloing up and down the length of the guitar’s neck. The onslaught of wild guitar relents only briefly for a sax solo intermittently drenched in reverb. Watson’s guitar dives back into the song, culminating in a spree of lightning-fast riffs unmatched until the likes of Dick Dale. (Keep in mind that Dick Dale’s signature machine-gun-fast ‘60s surf was played with a pick. Watson was notorious for wearing out three sets of strings a night without ever touching a pick. The man must have had bulletproof callouses or a ready and willing blood donor backstage.)
As impressive as his raw fingerpicking (eww…) is by itself, it is only half the equation of “Space Guitar.” There was no shortage of great guitarists on the R&B charts at the time. B.B King, Lowell Fulson, Guitar Slim and other blues legends all held spots in the charts (and in some cases the stage) with Watson. What Watson did with his guitar’s sound on this record was light years beyond his contemporaries.
While it was often the product of an overloud (or occasionally broken) amplifier, guitar distortion was well-established in electric blues before Watson’s masterpiece was produced. There are plenty of earlier examples like “Rocket 88″ by Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats or Guitar Slim’s “The Things that I Used to Do” where the lead guitar’s tone is distorted. The difference with “Space Guitar” is that Watson uses distortion and reverb as sonic dynamics in the song. He dials both the reverb and distortion in and out like he’s running quality control on the amplifier. It swims in reverb, then sweeps back to a tight, distinctly crunchy distortion. Reverb was a new feature on amplifiers at the time, and combined with the biting tone of his Strat, it provides a new ingredient with which Watson could experiment. He’s the mad scientist, taking the newly discovered formula and testing it on himself.
“Space Guitar” is also, like Watson, overtly sexual. It is unmistakably a guitarist’s mating call, with more wolf-whistle riffs than a construction site cliché. He was a notorious ladies’ man and the B-side of “Space Guitar”—”Half-Pint A-Whiskey”—leaves little doubt as to how Johnny felt about the ladies: let’s get loaded and stay up late. But Watson was not just a Gangster of Love, he was allegedly a purveyor as well. Rumor among his fellow players—excuse me, musicians—was that Johnny made more cash off pimping than guitar. From his early blues to his resurgence as a funk player in the mid-‘70s, this is a recurring theme that “Space Guitar” firmly established.
The single didn’t sell enough to chart, and Watson was dropped from the Federal label shortly thereafter. He recorded relatively steadily for his four-decade career, but commercial success was elusive, with less than a dozen of his songs cracking the top 40 R&B charts and peaking at 41 on the U.S. Pop charts. Watson made a living as a touring musician with legends like Herb Alpert, Sam Cooke, Little Richard, Johnny Otis and later Frank Zappa. His funk era even garnered a handful of gold records, including “Ain’t That a Bitch” and “A Real Mother For Ya,” both of which featured Watson playing every instrument save for the horn section. But after this slight streak, a combination of record company changes, drugs, and personal tragedies sidelined Watson.
Even without much popular success, Watson influenced a pantheon of rock and blues musicians throughout his career. Johnny’s hard-plucked bends and triplets on “These Lonely, Lonely Nights” would inspire a young Frank Zappa to pick up a guitar. “Cuttin’ In” and “Broke and Lonely” established a vocal style Etta James would emulate to great success. Even Watson’s stage antics with Guitar Slim—playing behind his back and picking with his teeth—would wow audiences more than a decade later for Jimi Hendrix. Other artists like Prince, Steve Miller and Stevie Ray Vaughn would cite Watson as an influence, and his songs are well-sampled by a cross section of hip-hop and R&B artists including Snoop, Dr. Dre, Will Smith, Redman, Mary J. Blige, Wiz Khalifa and Jay Z.
When Watson collapsed onstage in Japan in 1996 of a heart attack, the tributes came mainly from guitar magazines and other musicians. It’s a tragedy that his name isn’t held in the same regard as the musicians he influenced, but Johnny Watson’s impact on popular music and the prescience of “Space Guitar” are undeniable. Watson was defining not only himself, but the sounds that would forever define the electric guitar more than a decade after it was recorded.
“When I heard Howlin’ Wolf, I said, ‘This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.’”
— Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records
Howlin’ Wolf was 6′ 3″, 300 lbs at a time when that must have made him look like he was 7′, 375 lbs. Add in his booming, raspy voice and you have the necessary ingredients for a walking “larger than life” cliché. Howlin’ Wolf was not a gambler, drinker, womanizer, or drug user at a time when all or a combination of those things were quite common for a musician. Wolf was one of the few blues musicians who made money early on and managed to keep it—he once famously said, “I had a 4,000 dollar car and 3,900 dollars in my pocket. I’m the onliest [sic] one drove out of the South like a gentleman” to Chicago. Add a wife who managed his money (another rarity of that time) and their business acumen of paying Wolf’s musicians above the going rates and offering them health insurance (a rarer rarity), and you have the necessary ingredients for a walking “salt of the earth” cliché.
Wolf was born Chester Arthur (named after the 21st President) and his nickname’s origin was from his grandfather, who would tell him when he was younger that if he misbehaved the howlin’ wolves in the country would get him, which is the kind of nickname you simply cannot buy. Wolf’s parents split when he was young and his mother, who was very religious and strict, kicked him out of the house. Wolf later moved in with an uncle but that arrangement didn’t last long. When he was 13 he walked to his fathers’ house and lived with him and his family. (Years later, Wolf visited his mother after he became successful and she wanted no part of him because he was a musician, and thus a fallen person in her religious purview.)
Wolf met his wife Lillie at one of his shows, which is pretty amazing when you consider that she and her family mostly rejected blues music as something borderline seedy. The story goes that he was immediately taken by her when he saw her and pursued her. By all accounts, Wolf and Lillie were deeply in love and affectionate until the day he died, which is something that all of us wish for at the end of the day. Good fortune followed Wolf’s personal life.
Good fortune followed Wolf’s musical life too: he met Charley Patton when he was 18, and Sonny Boy Williamson II married Wolf’s half sister and taught him how to play harmonica. He became a staple on the radio on KWEM in West Memphis for a few years before finally heading into the recording studio at Sun Records, recording “Moanin’ At Midnight” and “How Many More Years.” He eventually moved to Chicago and signed with Chess Records where he would be matched up with Herbert Sumlin, an indefensibly overlooked blues guitarist, and Willie Dixon, the preeminent blues songwriter, musician and producer, and a stable of other talented musicians including Buddy Guy, who is still a man amongst boys to this day and is beloved around here in Chicago. Willie Dixon is a giant of the blues—overshadowed only by those who literally created the genre over a hundred years ago—and Dixon wrote every Wolf song recorded up until 1961. Wolf and Dixon split in 1964 and, ironically, the first song Wolf recorded after this was “Killing Floor,” a song that shows Sumlin’s genius if there was ever any doubt.
To me, there are 4 songs other than “Killing Floor” that define Howlin’ Wolf: “Smokestack Lightning,” “Sitting on Top Of the World,” “Spoonful,” and “The Red Rooster”—all of which also define Chess Records as well as the Chicago blues sound in general.
“Smokestack Lightning”: Chicago blues is known for its volume and being the chaotic child of Memphis and the Delta; it embraced the electric guitar in never before heard ways and played the harmonica and stomped the drums louder than most. This song, though, has a soulful core and groove every to it that no rational human being should be able to resist; Wolf’s crooning here is better than most career crooners. This is one of the crown jewels of the blues genre and one of the all-time best songs to listen to while driving at night.
“Sitting on Top of the World”: Jesus what a perfect song. Wolf’s vocals, all of the instruments; all of it. The piano just caroms all over and jabs at you at times and it all sounds like the coolest, smoke-filled joint you’d ever want to be in. In a perfect world this is the de facto blues anthem of Chicago instead of “Sweet Home Chicago.”
“Spoonful”: released in 1960, the overall bass-heavy sound and polished guitar picking that floats in and out essentially created Clapton, Cream, Zeppelin, and countless other power blues worshipers. Lyrically, it concisely and matter-of-factly describes the nature of violence in a way that Dostoevsky would’ve probably nodded in agreement with.
“The Red Rooster”: the Stones’ cover of this song in 1964 (which was called “Little Red Rooster”) is still the only time a blues song ever hit #1 in the UK. This song basically validated the Rolling Stones so there’s that. Wolf’s version will forever be the classic, though, because of his distinctive voice and Dixon’s distinctive slide guitar, which basically birthed Keith Richards.
What separates “Killing Floor” from the rest of his catalog for me is simply that it is slightly more perfect. Sumlin’s opening guitar riff is so ridiculous fifty years later that its indelibility will never be questioned. Lafayette Leake’s piano and Andrew McMahon’s bass are so perfect as is, but then you add Buddy Guy’s acoustic guitar and a couple of saxophones and all bets are off. Wolf’s vocals, as always, are spot on and have the presence required for a song about a guy who narrowly escapes being killed by his woman. Led Zeppelin would later rip this song off and re-package it as “The Lemon Song” but Robert Plant ain’t no Howlin’ Wolf, sir. Just listen to how both sing “I should’ve quit you a long time ago.”
Cub Koda once wrote, “[...]Wolf was the primal force of the music spun out to its ultimate conclusion. A Robert Johnson may have possessed more lyrical insight, a Muddy Waters more dignity, and a B.B. King certainly more technical expertise, but no one could match him for the singular ability to rock the house down to the foundation while simultaneously scaring its patrons out of its wits.” Howlin’ Wolf was a different animal. He was an amalgamation of many before him but still unmistakably modern, and if you can’t be the progenitor of a genre then that is the creative zenith one can hit. Howlin’ Wolf will outlive us all because there will never be anyone like him again.
 For what it’s worth, “Howlin’ Wolf” and “Night Train” are the best nicknames of all time. Everything else is a Timex compared to those Rolexs.
“She could pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard.”
— Big Bill Broonzy
A sizable minority of the artists profiled on this site fall under the category of “There Will Probably Never Be Artists Like This Again.” Some of the obvious ones that I’ve already written about include The Beatles, Elvis, The Velvet Underground, Robert Johnson, and Aretha. Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tupac, and Pink Floyd are some of the future artists to be written about that fit this category too. Either way, not surprisingly, this sizable minority is mostly made up of artists you have heard before even if you only know them by name and you haven’t heard their entire catalog of music. (In fact, in the case of the Stones there are a few albums you should outright avoid.) Memphis Minnie, on the other hand, falls into the category of “Artists That We’ll Never See Again That You’ve Probably Never Heard Of”—unless you grew up listening to old school blues/roots music of the first half of the 20th century.
Memphis Minnie was born Lizzie Douglas in Algiers, Louisiana in 1897. She was the oldest of thirteen children and when she was 7 years old her family moved to Walls, Mississippi, a town about twenty miles south of Memphis. At 13 she ran away from home to Memphis and played the corners on Beale Street. She toured with Ringling Brothers Circus for 4 years and when she came back to Memphis she found work playing guitar and being a prostitute. Along the way she married 3 times, recorded over two hundred songs, made a name for herself in Memphis and Chicago, and outplayed most men on the guitar—all things that a woman simply did not do at that time, let alone a black woman.
Kansas Joe McCoy was born Joe McCoy in Raymond, Mississippi in 1905. He had numerous stage names (Hillbilly Plowboy and Georgia Pine Boy among them), and a heart condition kept him out of both wars. After the divorce from Minnie, he and his brother Charlie formed the band the Harlem Hamfats. One of the songs they recorded—”The Weed Smoker’s Dream”—was later redone by Joe and became “Why Don’t You Do Right?” Peggy Lee did a cover of this song and it became one of her first hits, and has been a jazz standard ever since.
The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 remains to this day the most destructive river flood in US history. It broke the levee system in 145 places and flooded roughly 127,000 square miles (50 miles wide, 99 miles long). It killed 246 people in 7 states. 14% of Arkansas was covered in flood water (Arkansas is just over 53,000 square miles in total area).
The cultural effect of the flood is that it caused many black people and families to migrate up north—to Chicago in particular. If you’ve ever wondered why Chicago seemingly suddenly became a major hub of the blues, why Chess Records would later rival anything that was coming out of the Delta region and Memphis, this flood is a large part why.
“When the Levee Breaks” was written in 1929 and was the first song they recorded (their names were given to them by an A&R man at Columbia Records earlier that year). There’s a good chance you know this song by its significantly altered cover that ends Led Zeppelin IV. Zeppelin maximized the song in every respect: booming drums, altered lyrics, screaming vocals, distorted harmonica, swirling riffs, and more than double the length of the original. The original just consists of Joe and Minnie playing their guitars.
Within Minnie and McCoy’s catalog (they split in 1935) you could easily make a case for “Bumble Bee” and “Me and My Chauffeur Blues” and within Minnie’s solo catalog you could make a case for “Three Time Seven Blues,” “Moaning the Blues,” “Chickasaw Train Blues,” “Can’t Afford To Lose My Man,” and about a dozen others. What sets Memphis Minnie apart from everyone else in modern music is that she was the rare female blues guitarist and singer during the first part of the 20th century. Women who sang the blues rarely played guitar, and those that did play guitar rarely played the blues. So pretty much every song Minnie ever recorded is significant in some way.
What sets apart “When the Levee Breaks” for me, even if only by a fraction above every other song in her/their catalog, is how beautiful the guitar picking is by both. Here you have a melody that just skips along without a care in the world and the subject matter is profoundly sad. When Minnie sings “Oh cryin’ won’t help you/Prayin’ won’t do you no good” it has substantially more weight to it than when Robert Plant sings it (obviously). The Great Flood of 1927 killed people, destroyed large swaths of land, and displaced countless people; Nature at its most relentless. Memphis Minnie was a hell of a blues singer and guitar player but she reins in her energy on “When the Levee Breaks” and drops her voice lower so as to better capture the fear, solemnity, and melancholy that a song like this, written when it was, demands. The end result is one of the best blues songs of its era; the kind of song that so thoroughly encapsulates its sadness that it can affect one in myriad ways beyond sadness.
 Seriously, listen to “Moaning the Blues.”
Old school blues singers, especially the men, typically had voices that were raw, gravelly, powerful, booming, or all, or some combination of the four. Unless you have an undying love for the early blues genre (from the ’20s to the ’60s revival era) my guess is that the word beautiful is not the first word that comes to mind. Charley Patton’s voice might be beautiful but the use of that word is probably tethered to his historical standing within the genre. The prototypical blues voice is rough and sounds old. Weathered. On the flip side you have Mississippi John Hurt whose voice and guitar picking style is beautiful, gorgeous even. John had that gravelly quality in his voice but it was always kept in check by the overall beauty of it; he had the voice of a man whose quiet happiness and humility arrived once he started singing, like countless singers who are shy and reserved before they take the mic. His voice is infectious. His music married country and blues in ways few artists have ever been able to do since. His guitar playing mostly centered around up-tempo picking that was more interested in rhythm and melody over the jagged riffs of the blues (though he could play traditional blues when he wanted to). If you were to play just the music of some of his songs to a random and diverse age group I am sure that a handful of them would think they were listening to an Led Zeppelin III era outtake. Mississippi John Hurt was ahead of his time. His gentleness ran so counter to the accepted norms of the day that his music will always stand out amongst his peers and contemporaries.
John’s gentle sound did him no favors during the ’20s as a live performer; his music live required an intimacy that was the antithesis of the times. He was, however, able to sell some records because his music could find that kind of intimacy inside of a home.
In 1928, Hurt recorded twelve songs for Okeh Records based on the recommendation of his friend and music partner Willie Narmour after Narmour won an Okeh recording session as a prize. He stopped going into studios after that and had pretty much stopped playing live music until some of his Okeh recordings (namely “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues”) were discovered in the ’50s and included in the landmark compilation Anthology of American Folk Music. Anthology almost singularly ushered in the revival era of the ’50s and ’60s and during this time John found himself being tracked down to Avalon, MS where he was raised (thank God for those music Calvinists who tracked down John and countless other blues and country singers), and eventually being asked to perform live at shows across the country to audiences half his age. He performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, The Tonight Show, and countless colleges and concert halls before his death in 1966. By all accounts he was grateful for the chance to play music again, and amazed that people would pay him to do so.
Mississippi John Hurt was perfect for the ’60s. People craved intimacy with music and live shows and John gave it to them in spades. His gentle sound and personality shone through exponentially. John would play “You Are My Sunshine” at concerts, which was fitting beyond words.
John’s most recognizable song is probably “Spike Driver Blues” but in reality every one of his songs is beautiful, significant, influential, and deeply American in the best sense of that phrase. With his revival success John recorded a sizable catalog of music for Vanguard Records and the Library of Congress. Vanguard’s Today! would be required listening in junior high or high school if it were up to me.
In 1966 John went on to Pete Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest and performed a live version of “John Henry,” the traditional song that “Spike Driver Blues” was an offshoot of. This recording of “John Henry” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, and since Hurt never recorded a studio version this is what I have to go with. “John Henry” is steeped in folklore and wrapped in a sound and a voice that has the comfort of a bonfire. Earlier, I wrote that Hurt had a gravelly voice that was kept in check by the overall beauty of it—this performance best exemplifies this description I think. Hurt’s voice is a treasure, a joy to listen to. When he sings “This is the hammer that killed John Henry/But it won’t kill me” it is not boastful or brash. Instead, it’s sung with the care that the song, and the legend, requires. (The ballad of John Henry is believed to be one of the first of the popular work songs that was sung slowly; a cautionary tale set to music about people who work too fast or recklessly.)
The music of this song, like most of Hurt’s catalog, starts with up-tempo picking and rarely deviates from the melody it begins with. Like all great music it is evocative: this music evokes images of anything relating to the summertime (drinking beer on a porch, a baseball game, fireworks), a bonfire, trains (obviously), driving through farmland, a road story, warmth. There are a million images in this song that have nothing to do with folklore.
Mississippi John Hurt is one of the great country blues singers that ever lived. The world becomes a profoundly better place when his music is playing.
 If you think I’ve chosen an obscure performance here, this song appears on the documentary and accompanying box set of the PBS series American Roots Music.