First Lady of the Air

Today, July 24, 2018, is the 121st anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart.

Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra, small.jpg

You may not know that she lived and flew in the Boston area for a time. She, with her mother and sister, moved to 76 Brooks Street, West Medford, MA in 1924. It is a private residence and not open to the public but there is a marker commemorating this fact.

There is a flood control dam across the nearby Mystic River named in her honor. It stretches from Somerville to Everett. While there is no public access, let’s just say I have accessed it privately. I’m a big fan, you see.

Amelia found work in Boston, first as a teacher and then as a social worker in a settlement house. All the while, she continued to fly. During my more than a quarter of a century at UMass Boston, I often thought of her while looking across the bay to what is now Squantum Point Park, Quincy. This is the former Squantum Point Navel Air Station. When Amelia lived here it was Dennison Airport and, not only did she fly from there, she was one of the five original directors, and made the first flight from the new airport. Yes, there’s a marker there too.

During my trips to Newfoundland I’ve made it a point to visit places that she flew from there. On June 17, 1928 she was a part of a crew flying out of Trepassey Harbour. When they touched down 20 hours and 40 minutes later in South Wales, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Sadly, most of the flight had to be conducted under instruments and, at the time, she had no training. As she put it in an interview “Stultz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.” She also added “…..maybe someday I’ll try it alone.” This is Amelia at Trepassey.

On May 20, 1932 she was at the controls, flying out of Harbour Grace, Though Paris had been the original destination, when she landed in Northern Ireland, she became not only the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, but the second person overall. Her flight came just 5 years after Lindberg’s. Here’s rare, silent newsreel footage of Earhart at Harbour Grace.

Let’s get on to the music. Sadly, many of the songs about Amelia deal with her sad fate. Probably not surprising as we humans are generally a maudlin bunch.

Red River Dave McErney was a real triple threat. He was an amazing yodeler and became know as Red River Dave for his epic yodel rendition of “Red River Valley.” He was also a great singer of Western and Cowboy songs, with a vast collection of songs to draw on. I grew up, in the 1950s, with a 10 inch LP of his “Popular Songs of the Prairie.” And, long before Ochs, Paxton and Dylan made it a career option, he was the king of topical songwriters. He wrote songs about Marilyn Monroe, The Bay of Pigs, Patty Hearst, Apollo 11, and even Charlie Manson. The album pictured below is highly recommended. His is probably the best known song about Earhart as it’s been covered by everyone from The Country Gentlemen to Session Americana and The Greenbrier Boys to Kinky Friedman.

Authentic Hillbilly Ballads and Topical Songs (1954-1976), Vol. 1

Plainsong recorded Red River Dave’s song on their breakthrough album “In Search of Amelia Earhart.” They followed it with an Iain Matthews composition. Since I’m going to share a couple of other Amelia songs by them, here’s a version of Iain’s song by Dave Burland. That, and here Burland is his usual magnificent self.

Plainsong brought the story of Earhart up to date in 1993.

In their 1999 recording, they addressed the legacy of Amelia in this song by the, then, newest member of the ensemble, Clive Gregson.

Here’s one from my old friend Lennie Gallant. Sometimes called “The Bruce Springsteen of Prince Edward Island” if you’ve ever seen him in concert, you know he’s all that and more. This was recorded live in Halifax, NS. The backing band includes his nephews, who are now in the group Ten Strings and a Goatskin.

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I’m leaving the last word on Amelia to another old friend, Vance Gilbert. He is such an amazing performer that it often overshadows the fact that he is an amazing songwriter. And, oh yeah, buddy can sing and then some. Vance is also an aveation enthusiast. If you take a look at his timeline on FaceBook right now you can find video of him flying one of the scale model planes he makes.

 

Answer Songs Part 13

This one’s got something for everyone. Little known songwriter, a true story, major Country stars, hit songs, answers, sequels…. what more could you want?

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Lawton Williams, like many Tennessee teenagers, learned to play guitar. He never had any concept of a career in music until he meets Floyd Tillman while serving in WWII. After discharge, he recorded for several small labels as Slim Williams. In 1951 he signed with Coral, without much success. While under contract Coral, recording under his given name, he recorded for several smaller labels as Ed Lawton to even less acclaim.

Then, while thinking about his military service in German, he wrote a song about a girl he knew there. In 1957, Decca bought the song and placed it with a relatively untested singer from Indiana named Bobby Helms. He’d released a pair of singles previously and they’d gone nowhere. His recording of Williams “Fraulein” rocketed to #1 and stayed on the Country Charts for an amazing 52 weeks. It even got as high as #36 on the Pop Charts.

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We’ll get back to Helms later but for now, his next recording “My Special Angel” eclipsed the success of “Fraulein” hitting not just #1 on the Country Charts but #7 on the Pop Charts. 1957 was a good year for Bobby and he closed it out by releasing “Jingle Bell Rock” which, due to the limited shelf life of “holiday” songs topped out at #6, but, then again, it hit the charts every time it was re-released, most recently in 1996! “Fraulein” has been recorded many times over the years, and was a favorite of Townes Van Zandt. I remember him singing it during an interview I did with him back in 1972. (That was my first radio interview…. not a bad place to start eh?)

Now Lawton Williams was a smart guy and had seen the success of previous Answer Songs, so, now that he had a hit, he wrote one. It was purchased by Decca as well and, lucky for him, they had the “Queen of the Answer Songs” under contract. Kitty Wells version of “(I’ll Always Be Your) Fraulein” was rushed into production and hit the charts climbing to #10. (For more about Wells see Answer Songs, Part 1)

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Seeing the success of Wells’ answer to his hit, Bobby Helms stated looking around for an answer song of his own to record. It took him three years but in 1960 he recorded this song by Betty Sue Perry. I don’t know anything about her other than the fact that she later had several songs recorded by Loretta Lynn. If you think this is a little dark for the charts, well, it topped out at #16 on the Country Charts and never made the Pop Charts.

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Back to 1957. By this time Lawton was an in demand songwriter. I can just hear the folks in Nashville. “Write us another one of them.” So he did. Taking his original formula, a soldier stationed overseas who falls in love with a local girl, he simply changed the location. RCA bought this one and placed it with Hank Locklin. Though a song called “Geisha Girl” would probably never get recorded today, it was a different time and the song hit #4 on the Country Charts and even made the Pop Charts topping out at #66. Locklin was one of the last of the Honky Tonk guys. By this time Country had lost its Western and was starting to get smooth. Hank didn’t. He played Honky Tonk, that’s what he did, and he continued to do it. That’s the reason that he’s #4 on my list of favorite Country Music Hanks, after Williams, Snow, and Thompson.

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If you look closely you’ll see that Lawton’s name is misspelled on the label. I hope that didn’t mean that he had trouble getting that sweet mailbox money from this one. Since he was hip to the royalties to be made from answer songs, he had one for this occasion too. RCA bought it and placed it with Skeeter Davis. This was, by the way, the first of many Answer Songs she’s record during her long and storied career. Released in December of that year, it hit #15 on the Country Charts early in 1958. (You can read more about Skeeter in Answer Songs Part 4)

Though Davis’ “Lost to a Geisha Girl” was by no means a “classic” it found it’s way on to “Country Guitar Volume Two” along with songs by Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Hank Snow. This was a series of four song EPs, issued in the UK by RCA, in an attempt to introduce Country Music to British audiences. This, my friends, is cultural imperialism at its finest. Too bad they didn’t do the reverse as well, and issue some of the wonderful English Country Dance EPs they did in the 60s, in the states.

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Next – One of the most incongruous songs in the Johnny Cash catalog.

Answer Songs Part 12

If blues the music you want to listen to when you’re feeling bad and want to feel better, then Country & Western is the music you want to listen to when you’re feeling sad and want to stay miserable. “Why yes, barkeep, I’ll have another shot of Rye, and a ‘Gansett chaser” You’ll see what I mean when we get to the songs.

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But first, a little historical perspective. World War II and the post war years was a time when Country & Western music was achieving a new popularity, not just in the US but around the world as well. What we now dismiss as “Newfie Music” picked up it’s twang from airmen posted at the base in Gander. It got a foothold in Germany, and other parts of Europe were people heard it on Armed Forces Radio. The same broadcasts to the troops brought the sound of Jimmie Rogers to Africa where it became the basis of the West African Guitar style.

It was this same period when the “Dear John Letter” became a thing. Initially a letter written to break off a relationship with a service man overseas, it evolved to include a lot more. By now we have “Dear John Texts” and “Dear John Tweets.” This song in question here was written during the Korean War by Billy Barton, Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley. It was actually the work of Owen who recorded it with Buck Owens ex-wife Bonnie for the tiny MarVel label. It went nowhere, but so impressed Barton & Talley that they traded him Billy’s car (a Kaiser!) for publication rights and thereby became co-writers. It turned out to be a good deal when they placed the song with Ferlin Huskey and Jean Shepard. It shot to #1 on the Country charts and even made #4 on the Pop charts. Shepard was 19 at the time and became the youngest woman to score a County #1, a record she held for some 20 years, until Tanya Tucker came along.

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If you look carefully at the cover above, you’ll see that the answer came from the same duo. On this one, the writing credits went to Fuzzy Owen, Jean Sheppard and Lewis Talley. “Dear John” was released in July of 1953 and “Forgive Me” came out in September of that year, just as the original was starting to slide down the charts. For an answer song it did surprisingly well, hitting #4 on the Country charts and #24 on the Pop Charts

Pops Extra(s) – Jerry Jeff Walker continues the tradition of the Dear John letter. Ron, as we knew him up home, grew up about 7 miles from where I did, in the Northern Foothills of the Catskill Mountains. Contrary to folklore, he was not trailer-trash. His mom owned the trailer park. And, contrary to what he wrote in “My Old Man” his dad did not have “a rambler’s soul.” As a teenager I used to run into Jerry Jeff’s/Ron’s father in the Wagon Wheel, on Main Street, Oneonta. He even bought me a beer once.

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“Dear John Letter” was just too sad for even Homer & Jethro to parody. Luckily Stan Freberg had no such compunctions.

The Very Best Of Stan Freberg

Next Time – A postwar hit that would probably never be recorded today. Ah, the innocent xenophobia of the 1950s.

 

Gord & Bob on CBC-TV in the 60s

Do you remember when, back in the 1960s, television producers turned every musical performance into a production number? In the US (and I’m lookin’ at you Ed Sullivan) that often meant adding some mini-skirted go-go dancers in cages (and what the hell messages were we sending with that?) North of the border, the CBC tended to be a bit more creative. Here is Lightfoot with one of his most Canada-centric songs. Note that his original recording of the song clocked in at 6:23. This performance is two and half minutes longer, and while we found the arrangement on the original a little lugubrious (or at least I did) this one is even more so.

Bob Dylan appeared on the CBC show “Quest” in 1964. This performance features half a dozen of his best at the time. Bob seems engaged and his annunciation is more careful than usual. (Bless that director.) The scene is atmospheric. As much Minnesota as, say, New Brunswick. Oddly, the extras seem to do their best to ignore him.

Pops Extra – This is James Keelaghan, with the Duhks. Gord’s influence on Jimmy is obvious, especially when you hear him do this one.

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Answer Songs Part 11

What can I say about Hank Williams that hasn’t already been said? Maybe this: I actually liked the B-Movie biopic “Your Cheatin’ Heart” that stared George Hamilton as Hank. Not George Hamilton IV, which would have made sense, but rather the George Hamilton who turned tanning into a raison d’etre, and now stars in KFC commercials as the Crispy Colonel. Was it accurate, nah. Was it artful, nah. Was it trashy fun, you bet. I saw it in a cinema, now long gone, on Huntington Avenue, across from Symphony Hall. It had two screening rooms: one showed 2nd run B-movies, the other soft core porn. I used to go there to indulge my odd affection for bad horror flicks and blacksplotation movies. (“Scream, Blackula, Scream” is obviously one of my favorites, combining both genres.) OK, enough of that…. let’s get to the point.

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I like to imagine that Hank discovered Jambalaya and all the other Cajun specialties mentioned in this song while he was on the Louisiana Hayride. I have not idea if it’s true or not, I just like to imagine it. This was one of the last singles before his untimely death. It hit #1 on the Country Charts and even made #20 on the Pop Charts.

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The answer/sequel/parody was written by Hank himself in collaboration with his buddy Jimmy Rule. I’ll be they had a riotous time coming up with this little piece of fluff over a couple of beers. Legend has it that Moon Mullican may have had a hand in it too, but he is not officially credited. The artist is singer Tommy Hill’s sister Goldie Hill, known as The Golden Hillbilly. (You can read more about her in Answer Songs Part 6.) Released in early 1953, I don’t know whether it was already in the works, or if it was rushed into production following Hank’s death. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the later.

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Pops Extra(s) – Four of my favorite songs about Hank Williams.

This is by Cormac McCarthy the songwriter, not the novelist of the same name. People often confuse the two, asking our Cormac to autograph books by the other. Being a nice guy, he often does, signing them “Not my best work – Cormac.”  He is joined by Patty Larkin on this song.

This Tom Russell at his self righteous best.

Guy Clark always wore the Hank Williams influence like a badge of honor.

When I mentioned that I was going to post some songs about Hank, I suspect this is the one you thought of first. And quite right too…..

Next time – The sender of the most famous “Dear John Letter” asks for forgiveness.

Ice Cream Man

July is Ice Cream Month so I thought I’d share some songs on that sweet subject. Normally when I post songs on a single subject they are all different songs. Today, I’m sharing three version of the same songs. That’s because they’re all so darn different and so darn wonderful.

The song “Ice Cream Man” was written and originally recorded by John Brim. If you think the Chicago Blues begins and ends with Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, you need to listen to some John Brim.

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Session American a loose knit aggregation featuring the cream of the crop of the Camberville (or are we saying Somerbridge this week?) music scene. Ry Cavanaugh, Sean Staples, Dinty Child, Billy Beard and the rest are all mighty musical forces in their own right, but this one belongs to Jim Fitting. I’ve loved Jim since I used to see him in the band Treat Her Right, but he out does himself here.

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The DePue brothers grew up playing both fiddle & violin. They are all conservatory trained and have gone on to respected careers in Classical Music. First Chair here, Concert Master there. Every once in a while they get together to play Bluegrass Music with a really hot band. I was lucky enough, a couple of years ago, to see them do a Holiday Show at the Cabot in Beverly. It was lightly attended but they were amazing. One of the best shows I’ve seen in years. Of course they are lucky enough to have the banjo wizard Mike Munford in the band. Listen for his innovative solo late in this one.

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Answer Songs Part 10

This one has a lot more depth than previous entries in this series. In addition to the original song and the answer song, there a sequel to the answer song. And a sequel to the original. And, because I’m a lovely boy, or at least my mom always said I was, I’m going to throw in a parody.

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This is, at best, a novelty song, that would probably never be recorded today, much less hit the charts. The title alone, “Mexican Joe,” with its hint of cultural insensitivity, would keep it out of the running, but not back in the innocent days of 1953.

The song is of historical intrest because it is the first song by Jim Reeves to chart. He had recorded before but this was his first “hit” and it could hardly be further from the smooth style that would later make him famous. The song hit number one and stayed on the charts for respectable 26 weeks. Not bad for a guy who wasn’t even a performer. At the time Reeves was a radio announcer in Shreveport.

The arrangement sits somewhere between Western Swing and Honky Tonk with some pseudo Mariachi touches by fiddler “Big” Red Hayes. The other notable aspect of the accompaniment is the presence of pianist Floyd Crammer who, though very much in the Honky Tonk camp at this time, would later, like Reeves, contribute to the smooth Countrypolitan sound of mainstream Nashville.

The song was written by Mitchel Torok and was later covered by folks like Billy Walker, Bill Ring and Bob Luman.

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The answer song was an obvious bag job. It was written by the same guy. The record was recorded by the same producer for the same record label. The artist is Carolyn Bradshaw who recorded two singles for Abbott and one for Chess (but not that Chess label) all before 1955. And now I’ve told you all I know about her.

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The sequel to the answer song came from Mary Jo Chelette & The Western Cherokees. She was from Port Arthur, TX and started performing with two younger siblings as The Chelette Sisters. They achieved some notice, as many did, performing on the Louisiana Hayride. Mary Jo then went solo and got a record deal in Nashville. Her main claim to fame is that one of her records was the first released on the Starday label. It, by the way, tanked under bad reviews. Subsequent releases faired a little better but not much. This song opens by saying “You’ve all heard of the marriage of Mexican Joe” Since that song had sold poorly, I think this assertion is probably false. Way to set yourself up with a limited market.

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This next one is kind of inexplicable to me. Hank Snow was already a major Country star recording for RCA Victor, one of the biggest of the big labels. Jim Reeves was a radio DJ recoding for the tiny Abbott label. Harry Chotes, recording for another tiny label, was having some success with “Jole Blonde” but mainly in his native Louisiana. I guess Hank decided to put the two together and see if he could get one plus one to equal three.

This song was written by Sheb Wooley, one of the funniest men ever. In addition to being a songwriter, singer, comedian, radio star and actor (TV and movies) his is the voice behind the famous Hollywood sound effects known as “The Wilhelm Scream.” You’ve heard it if you’ve seen any of the Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies. That is except for “Last Jedi” which I understand wasn’t that great anyway.

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Pops Extra – What can I say other than “Here’s Homer & Jethro.”

Tomorrow – The Golden Hillbilly, Goldie Hill, introduces us to Yvonne, who cooked the Jambalaya for Hank Williams.

Songs for Mandela

July 18, 2018 – The hundredth anniversary of the birth of Nelson Mandela. Six songs offered in memory and gratitude.

Unfinished Revolution

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Missing an old friend

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my friend Stan. He was both a gentleman and a gentle man, who always had a smile, and a joke, and, more importantly, a kind word for everyone he met. He was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, Canada. He was a fiddle player it that old PEI style that is gone now. All the players have passed away and no one has taken up the torch. These were fiddlers who seldom recorded, almost never played outside of their own little community, in fact many of them never played for others outside their own kitchens. Stan was not a great violinist, but played with passion and enthusiasm, which is way more important to me that technical prowess. He took such joy in the music that, when his bow touched the strings, you couldn’t help but feel that same joy welling up inside your own chest.

This is normally where I would post a picture, but my files and photos from those days are in such disarray that it would take me hours to find one. If you close your eyes for a moment and try to picture the man I just described, you know what he looked like. That was Stan.

In the late thirties, he and his wife moved to Maine where they ran a little camp ground. When World War II broke out, he could have waited to be drafted into the Canadian Army, but that was not Stan’s way. He joined the US Army and volunteered for the Tank Corps. After training he ended up serving in Europe.

By December of 1944 he was involved in the Battle of the Bulge. The Allied Force were trying to stop a major Nazi offensive, and were out manned and out gunned in every way. When the tank he was in was hit and disabled, with only his side arm, he fought his way to another tank that had lost a man. They pulled the body out and Stan took his place. When that tank was likewise struck and disabled, with ammunition taken from the dead soldier, he fought his way to yet another tank and replaced a dead crewman there. That third tank took a major bomb hit and was destroyed. When they were finally able to rescue Stan, the lower half of both his legs were left behind in the wreckage.

He invalided in Europe and was sent home to Maine. Life in a wheelchair was not for Stan so he learned to walk with two prosthetic legs and the aid of a pair of canes, the kind that, if you are old enough, you might remember seeing people with polio use. I know that he was pain for the rest of his life, but he never showed it. The only time I ever saw him grimace was when he thought no one could see. He moved to Massachusetts, which was how I knew him.

Sadly this man, this hero, this liberator who helped save the world from Nazi terror and oppression, died of a heart attack in the dentist chair at a VA center. This was years before we knew fully of the shoddy care afforded to our veterans by the VA.

The reason I’ve been thinking of Stan lately is because I’ve been trying to figure out what I would say to him, if I could talk to him one more time. What I would tell him about what’s become of our country on our watch. I still don’t know.

I’m pretty sure I know what Stan would say. “You can’t let the Fascists win. If they blow up your tank, find another tank and fight on!”

I miss you Stan.

I’m posting this song “Prince Edward Island is Heaven to Me” in Stan’s memory. It meant a lot to both of us, he and I. He heard Hal Lone Pine sing it on the radio in Maine while he was convalescing, and it took him back to PEI for a few minutes. I saw Hal sing it at the Del-Sego Drive-In when I was five or six. I remember thinking at the time that I was going to go there some day, and, of course, I did. If I’m wrong about this religion thing, and if, after I die, through some theological loophole, I am allowed into heaven, if it’s just like PEI, I’ll be satisfied. Buddy, this one’s for you.

Image result for Prince Edward Island Centennial Commemorative Album

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