Monday, June 11, 2012

Rockabilly Music

With the possible exception of Elvis Costello, it is hard to think of anyone who has co-written songs with a wider variety of artists that Paul Simon. He has collaborated on songs with everyone from Peter Yarrow to Philip Glass, and co-authored songs with writers South Africa, South America... and, here, "The South" of the United States of America.

The co-author this time is under-appreciated rock'n'roll Founding Father Carl Perkins. The occasion is Perkins' album Go Cat Go!, itself a reference to his song "Blue Suede Shoes" (Yes, it is his song; he wrote it and performed it. Elvis Presley just covered it). I will list the other guests on the album below.

The song is episodic in nature. The opening line is the intriguing: "It was murder, but we got there." "There" turns out to be a bar that a band arrives at, "minutes after midnight." In the second verse, the drummer seems "nervous," but the speaker urges him to solve that by doing his job: "Just get that rhythm goin’, boy/ Gotta get them people on the floor.”

The next verses are about seeing "a shadow [that] crossed my bedpost/ Early in the morning." The speaker's reaction is shock: "It took me like a prisoner/ Fighting in the war." His next reaction is to both seek reassurance from, then reassure, his wife, whose name is Val: “My angel/ Heaven’s in your arms, girl,/ We’re in the hands of The Lord.”

The chorus, as the title indicates, is about the type of music that is being played: "Rockabilly music/ Ain’t nothin’ to it/ It’s just a hopped-up country song." This is somewhat true; as the word itself indicates, the genre is a hybrid of "rock" and "hillbilly" music, or bluegrass. This is illustrated with the image of "Casey Jones rollin’ into Jackson, Tennesee/ Where I call home." Perkins is from Tiptonville, TN; its closest major city is Jackson.

Casey Jones was a real person; he was a train engineer who died trying, but failing, to prevent a crash in Jackson. He has emerged as a hero, enshrined in folk, country and rock songs, including one by the Grateful Dead (my understanding, however, is that he was not "high on cocaine" at the time of the accident, otherwise he surely would not have been the only fatality of the wreck). That said, his legend does neatly tie those forms of music together as well as Perkins' guitar does.

The chorus relates well to the first verses; it is about music, and they are about a band. The
relationship to the second set of verses is more thematic. Rockabilly music may seem all about good times and partying, but there is a "shadowy" edge to it, as well as romance and religion.

Speaking of which, the next verse starts with a religious observation: "A rich man’s a pauper/ In The First Bank of Heaven." Is the speaker a rich man? Hardly: "I knock on wood for five years/ Under the sword."

This might be The Sword of Damocles, which Greek myth has hanging by a thread over poor Damocles while he tries and fails to enjoy a feast; the lesson teaches him that kings are not as happy with luxury as he thought, given the constant threat of assassination that comes with the crown. Here, the image indicates that the life of a musician is not as glamorous as it looks, given the constant threat of bankruptcy. Still, if this is one's calling, one persists: "But you keep on pickin’/ Rockin’ for a livin’." "Pickin'" as in picking a guitar, of course.

Then again, this thought, but with a modification: "Heaven’s in your arms/ I’m in the hands of The Lord." Whose arms, this time? The audience's, perhaps. But even with their embrace of adulation, he is still reliant of Providence for his livelihood.

This idea is quite biographical of Perkins, actually. He was one one the artists on the seminal Sun label, along with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and later Roy Orbison. Perkins wrote "Blue Suede Shoes," and it was carrying him up the charts. Then he had a crash (shades of Casey Jones?) which laid him up for a while. Long enough, anyway, for his other Sun label-mate, one young Elvis Presley, to pick up the song and run off to superstardom with it (To be fair, Elvis was very nice looking, and could sing and dance, too.). Whether this was malicious or merely Sun's attempt to keep the song in the spotlight until Perkins recovered, I do not know. Nevertheless, when the recovered Perkins began to play his own song again, he was accused of copying Elvis! History records who became The King of Rock and Roll, and who did not.

The next chorus begins the same, but this time shifts the location: "Rhythm from the Delta/ Of the muddy Mississippi/ In my bones." While the Delta is part of the history of blues (as in "The Delta Blues," an acoustic form), jazz (as in "Dixieland jazz," with the clarinets and straw hats), and of course zydeco, I don't know of any specific connection to rockabilly. In fact, the "hillbillies" live in the Appalachian Mountains (the "hill" part of their nickname) and ultimately originate in Ireland... while the Delta folk are of French descent and live in the marshes called "the bayou." Then again, Simon himself references "The Mississippi Delta" in "Graceland," drawing a line from there to Elvis.

The last verse has the singer finding both financial success and spiritual peace. Instead of having a "sword" over his head, he has shiny shoes on his feet: "I got a new pair of wingtips/ Cost me $200." Also, he has sharpened his axe, investing in the tool of his trade: "A fresh set of strings on/ My Fender guitar."

And his outlook could not be more hopeful: "I’m lookin’ at a sunrise/ In a cloudless sky." Nature is even harmonizing with his art: "A songbird’s singing/ Searching for the Morning Star."

This last line, which is repeated, can be read two ways. One is that, now that he is financially set, he can afford the luxury of really seeking true inner peace. The other is that, while he is financially set, he is still the restless, ambitious road warrior he has always been; the "sunrise" is not enough, now that he has it, and he next seeks a "star."

Perkins, if he was pre-emptively dethroned as King of Rock and Roll, will have to "settle" for being King of Rockabilly. This album is a tribute to him comprised of both his classic material (some in earlier covers) and new material written for the project. Also appearing on the album are (deep breath): John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Bono, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Joe Walsh, Jimi Hendrix, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Dr. John, Clarence Clemons, "David" (not "Dave") Grissom, Charlie Daniels, Nils Lofgren, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston... and solo appearances by every Beatle. (Note: some of these performers only play on their tracks, and do not sing).

On "Rockabilly Music," Simon is joined by his son, Harper, and by Baghiti Kumalo, who has backed him since Graceland. Musically, "Rockabilly Music" has as much in common with Rhythm of the Saints as it does Perkins' work. Paul also plays percussion on the track "Don't Stop the Music" and he and Harper back Perkins on guitar on "A Mile Out of Memphis," neither of which credits Simon as a lyricist.

Next Song: El Coquito/Born in Puerto Rico

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