Saturday, April 17, 2010

Jail: He’s in the Jailhouse Now

Whistler’s Jug Band, date unknown

Blind Blake: He‘s in the Jailhouse Now


On February 15, 1928, Jimmie Rodgers went into the studio and recorded In the Jailhouse Now. The song became a country classic. Webb Pierce would later take the song to #1, and Johnny Cash also recorded it, among many others. For a tribute album to Jimmie Rodgers, the song was recorded by Steve Earle.

All of which is fine, but there’s one little problem. Jimmie Rodgers didn’t write the song, and he wasn’t the first to record it. The earliest known recording, from 1924, was by Whistler‘s Jug Band, under the title Jail House Blues. This is the version of the song that Blind Blake recorded in 1927, as He’s in the Jailhouse Now. Notice that Blake’s version also preceded Jimmie Rodgers. Now Rodgers was a great artist, but this was another case, so common in those days, of white businessmen ripping off black artists. I don’t know if the song was brought to Rodgers by his handlers, or if he knew its origin, so I don’t hold him to blame. But I am glad for this chance to set the record straight. And what became of the first man who decided to rip off a black artist without giving credit? I hope the title of this post says it all.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jail: I Shall Be Released

Jerry Garcia Band: I Shall Be Released


I could get lost in this song. The mournful vocals, the defiant lyrics, the curly-cues of cascading notes emanating from Jerry Garcia's guitar on both of his lengthy solos. It all works for me. Many have tackled this song, and some have excelled, but this version, this is the one for me.

As for the song itself, what can one say? It is one of Dylan's simplest, yet more effective songs. Three short verses, and not a wasted word. Nominally about a wrongfully imprisoned man, but thanks to covers by the likes of Joan Baez and others, it almost immediately became a metaphor for any and all injustice and repression. It is perhaps his most powerful song.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Jail: For My Lover

Tracy Chapman: For My Lover


There are many songs which make extravagant, even obsessive, declarations of love. Tracy Chapman’s For My Lover is the only one I know of where the singer is willing to go to jail for him. In a 1988 interview in Rolling Stone, Chapman made a connection between this song and Mountains of Things. She explained it this way:

One thing that really concerns me is a sense of balance. You know, when you’re talking about material things, it’s where those things fit into your life. Then, with relationships, too, how do you position yourself in relation to other people ? It’s a fine line sometimes, trying to hold on to yourself and your own identity and either being lured into having other people define them for you or having the things around you define them for you.

Jail: Blue Wing

Tracy Grammer: Blue Wing

[purchase] - scroll down to Book of Sparrows EP

One of the things I appreciate about the acoustic folk genre is that some of my favorite artists also choose a few cover songs to sprinkle into their repertoire... and they're usually obscure gems - I have fallen in love with many a song, only to discover it's not an original... and then go happily in search of yet another new songwriter to collect and enjoy their catalog...

After Dave Carter died, Tracy Grammer put out a few CDs of his unreleased material... and then set about recording stunning tunes by some of her contemporaries - her version of Tom Russell's Blue Wing is gorgeous and haunting, and the tattoo becomes a metaphor for freedom, despite prison bars...

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jail: Attica Blues

"If I had the chance to make the decisions, every man could walk this earth on equal conditions..."

On September 9, 1971, inmates of the Attica Corrections Facility in New York State rose up in response to the death of George Jackson, the famous Black Panther radical who had recently been fatally shot by correction officers while trying to escape from San Quentin. The prisoners of Attica demanded better living conditions - one shower a week and one roll of toilet paper a month anyone? - in their overcrowded jail, where all the wardens were white and the majority of the inmates either black or Puerto Rican.

After four days of negotiations, state police took back control of Attica prison under order of then Governor Nelson Rockefeller, which resulted in the deaths of nine hostages and twenty-eight inmates. The New York State Special Commission on Attica would later state that ´with the exception of Indian massacres in the late 19th century, the state police assault which ended the four-day prison uprising was the bloodiest one-day encounter between Americans since the Civil War´.

In outraged response, free jazz giant Archie Shepp wrote the steaming Attica Blues, which remains an amazing piece of music long after the smoke of the prison riot has lifted. Do check this one out even if you´re not really into jazz or the avant-garde, as Attica Blues has more in common with the hard-hitting funk and soul of Sly & The Family Stone or Funkadelic than one would expect from a jazz cat.