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Posts Tagged ‘electric guitar

“I went down to St. James Infirmary / Saw my baby there”*…

One of the greatest of American songs is “St. James Infirmary,” and it is also one of the most mysterious, with a cloudy and complicated history. Despite the credit on the record pictured above to Don Redman, no one knows who wrote the song, and its lyrics are endlessly variable. Here’s how Louis Armstrong sang it:

I went down to St. James Infirmary,

Saw my baby there,

Stretched out on a long white table,

So cold, so sweet, so fair.

Let her go, let her go, God bless her,

Wherever she may be,

She can look this wide world over,

But she’ll never find a sweet man like me. 

When I die, want you to dress me, straight-lace shoes,

Box-back coat and a Stetson hat.

Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain, 

So the boys’ll know that I died standin’ pat. 

He first recorded the song in 1928, and then re-recorded it in 1959. (That second link says that it’s the 1928 version, but it isn’t: it’s from Armstrong’s outstanding 1959 album Satchmo Plays King Oliver.) The funeral-march pace of the later recording fits the lyrics’ mood better, I think, that the speedier early version. And Armstrong’s vocal on that later version is one of his very finest. 

Wynton Marsalis’s staggering song “The Death of Jazz,” from his 1989 album The Majesty of the Blues, is musically so close to Armstrong’s 1959 recording of “St. James Infirmary” that it’s almost a cover. Listening to the two songs back-to-back is an education in the resources of the blues tradition – and of certain folk traditions that pre-date the blues. 

The Wikipedia page for “St. James Infirmary” traces its history quite effectively, following the various dim paths back to England and Ireland. I’d give a lot to know where this unsettling masterpiece of American music really came from – if such a question can be answered at all.

As the blues became jazz: an appreciation of an American classic, from Alan Jacobs (@ayjay)

* “St. James Infirmary”

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As we note that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, we might recall that it was on this date in 1951 that guitarist Willie Kizart, playing with Ike Turner’s band at a session in Memphis produced by the (later famous) Sam Phillips, recorded what most believe is the first recorded example of electric guitar distortion. The legend of how the sound emerged holds that Kizart’s amplifier was damaged when the band was driving from Mississippi to Memphis. On arriving and discovering the problem, Kizart stuffed the amplifier with wadded newspapers to hold the cone in place– and unintentionally created a distorted sound. Phillips liked it and used it (though when he sold the rights to Chess records, he credited “Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats,” who were actually “Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm”).

The song that they recorded, “Rocket 88,” is considered by many to have been the first rock and roll record– for which it has earned berths in he Blues Hall of Fame, the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Singles.

“Yes, there are two paths you can go by / But in the long run / There’s still time to change the road you’re on”*…

Chrissie Hynde fronting the Pretenders with a swamp ash Fendar

Every winter and spring, rains across the central U.S. combine with snowmelt along the northern reaches of the Mississippi River to inundate the hardwood-dominated bottomlands of the lower Mississippi. When the floodwaters recede and soils dry up in summer, logging crews harvest species of trees that include green ash. Being partly submerged for months encourages these trees to produce thin-walled cells with large gaps between them, creating a low-density wood prized by musical instrument makers. Since the 1950s, American guitar giant Fender Musical Instruments has used this kind of ash to create its iconic electric guitars. Countless music legends, from bluesman Muddy Waters to rockers Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, have loved their Fenders, and many say this wood gives the instruments a warm but crystal-clear twang. This niche has earned it colloquial labels such as “swamp ash,” “music ash” or “punky ash” in the lumber and music industries (although the names are used for a couple of others species of ash as well).

Once cheap and readily available, swamp ash became an integral part of Fender’s DNA over the decades, says Mike Born, former director of wood technology at the company. But earlier this year an acute shortage forced Fender to announce it would move away from using swamp ash in its famous line of Stratocasters and Telecasters—reserving the wood for vintage models only. Fender blamed the dwindling supply on longer periods of climate-fueled flooding along the lower Mississippi—which is endangering saplings and making it harder for lumber companies to reach standing trees—as well as the looming threat of an invasive tree-boring beetle. Another renowned U.S. manufacturer called Music Man raised similar sourcing concerns in 2019, which the company described as having “one of the worst harvests in recent history.”

The ominous situation shows how climate change consequences can reverberate through all aspects of society—even rock and roll. And the swamp ash supply could soon become still more tenuous because experts expect global warming to continue making floods worse. “The average player just won’t be able to afford it,” Born says…

Flooding and a wood-boring beetle threaten supplies of storied ‘swamp ash’: “Climate Change Hits Rock and Roll as Prized Guitar Wood Shortage Looms.”

(Violin makers have their own version of the same issue…)

* “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin… on which Jimmy Page played the solo on his swamp ash “Dragon Telecaster.”

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As we harmonize, we might spare a thought for Leon Theremin; he died on this date in 1993. A Russian inventor, he is best known for his eponymous theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass produced. While the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” is the example of theremin use that springs first to most folks’ minds, that performance was actually on a knock-off (a similar-sounding instrument invented by Paul Tanner called an Electro-Theremin); still, it had the effect of driving demand– both for the theremin and for electronic instruments more generally.

He is also well-known in more arcane circles as the creator of “The Thing” (the Great Seal bug)– a covert listening device that hung in plain view in the office of the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, and allowed Russian intelligence to eavesdrop on secret conversations for seven years. Concealed inside a replica of the Great Seal of the U.S. gifted by Moscow to Ambassador Averell Harriman in 1945, it was “passive” (relied on energy from nearby sources)– and is thus considered by many to have been the ancestor of RFID technology.

Theramin playing a theramin

source

Lies, Damned Lies, and…

From Vali Chandrasekaran, on BusinessWeek.com: Need to prove something you already believe? Statistics are easy: All you need are two graphs and a leading question.  Correlation may not imply causation, but it sure can help us insinuate it.

More here.

 

As we recalibrate our conclusions, we might send amplified birthday wishes to musician, composer, and inventor Les Paul; he was born on this date in 1915.  Paul was an accomplished jazz and country songwriter and guitarist; but he is surely best remembered as a pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar (and an early adopter of techniques like over-dubbing, tape delay, and multi-track recording)– that’s to say, as a father of rock and roll.

Les Paul, playing a Gibson Les Paul (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 9, 2012 at 1:01 am

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