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Wednesday, July 06, 2005
Listen To This Playlist #6: The Executioner's Song
Freeway Jam is happy to report that Rhapsody Radish is back in action; songs from this playlist may be heard here. Also, listen for Robert from Rhapsody Radish discuss these songs on Gaston College radio station WSGE 91.7FM, Dallas, NC; Friday, July 8, 2005.
Prison songs have long been a staple of rock 'n' roll, country music and blues. Similarly, it's a short walk from the prison to the death house. Here's a baker's dozen of noteworthy songs about meeting the executioner; as with the prison songs list, there really are far too many to include here. This one is a little country-music leaning; heavy metal has dozens alone. Feel free to add to this list via the comments link.
1. Johnny Cash: 25 Minutes to Go iTunes
Johnny Cash may well have recorded more prison related songs than anyone; he included many in his prison tours, which were included on At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin. "25 Minutes To Go" is from his 1966 album, Mean as Hell, a gunslinger's collection of cowboy tunes, westen ballads, traditional tunes, and historical themed songs. While he plays much of the album straight, his sense of humor is evident in his inspired vocal take on this Shel Silverstein number. Musically, it counts down the minutes one by one, Silverstein's wry lyrics, and the deadpan backing oohs make this both funny and poignant simultaneously. Cash is at his likable best here; good-timey, irreverent, subtly political.
2. Steve Earle: Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song) iTunes
Steve Earle's comeback after recovering from heroin addiction was his 1995 album, Train A Comin', which also served as a kiss-off to the Nashville cookie cutter method of country album production. He could have coasted after that personal and professional triumph; instead, Earle continued to push himself; having buried his demons he took on others' demons, making his late 90's-early 00's output distinctly provocative and challenging; he also redefined bluegrass for the modern age in an artistically and commercially viable way. "Over Yonder" is a gorgeous weeper in the country tradition, but his aching lyrics wax poetic; he gives the song a dignified soulfulness in a restrained performance; one of the most touching songs of its sort.
3. Bruce Springsteen: Dead Man Walking
Springsteen's popularity had ebbed a little in the 90's from his halcyon 1975-1988 era; one reason for this was a bogus claim from some corners that Springsteen's move from New Jersey to Hollywood had robbed him of more than his street cred; it robbed part of his musical soul. This is an extreme position; while his post-Tunnel of Love albums are spottier than his peak, they usually weren't bad, and featured some of his best songs. He also contributed some of his best songs to soundtracks in the 90's, including "Philadelphia" and "Dead Man Walking", both about condemned men of two different sorts. This tradition of his dates back primarily to his 1981 acoustic Nebraska album, which was surprising in its stark vision and doomed protagonists. This is one of his best songs in this series; sung with a menacing, out-of-character leer; the accompaniment is chilling and spare; reaching an ugly mini-crescendo when he speculates on his lethal injection. Dignified and scary. "Sister I won't ask forgiveness/ my sins are all I have"
4. Led Zeppelin: Gallows Pole
Most are familiar with this Led Zeppelin classic, from their 1970 album Led Zeppelin III. The song itself dates back possibly more than a hundred years; dubbed "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" by British ballads historian Francis Child, it has existed in many versions with differing lyrics over the many decades; it was covered in the 1950's and 1960's by Odetta, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Leadbelly. The storyline essentially remains the same; the condemned manages to hold off the tightening of the hangman's rope long enough to be bought freedom by a lover with silver or gold, after a string of family members fail. Led Zeppelin III was a shift in directions for the band; they laid off some of their heaviest tendencies and explored a more acoustic, eastern-tinged folk sound, of which this song is a prime example.
5. Loretta Lynn: Women's Prison iTunes
"Women's Prison" is from Van Lear Rose, the excellent 2004 comeback by Loretta Lynn, produced by Jack White of the White Stripes. In this one, Lynn's protagonist is convicted of shooting her cheating husband in a honky tonk, for which she's condemned to lethal injection. Released on Interscope records, this album has a gritty dose of alt-rock to it; the song itself has a great, almost Rolling Stones-esque coda at the end, punctuating the song well. Van Lear Rose was a big success commercially and critically; #2 on the country charts; #24 on the pop charts, it was her greatest crossover ever.
6. Doc Watson: Tom Dooley iTunes
Generally considered one of the top folk/country pickers of the second half of the twentieth century, rarified air that only Chet Atkins and Merle Travis breathe, Watson got his big break with a showstopping performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. The buzz was great after that; when he released this 1964 album it became one of the most influential albums in folk music for its picking and its breadth. The album closer is "Tom Dooley"; a harmonica-with-acoustic traditional number written in the third person about a man who murders his wife and is sntenced to hang; the song also gives the first-person account from Dooley who swears his innocence. The song has been covered countless times before and since; some others who did it were the Kingston Trio, Lonnie Donnegan, The Four Freshmen, Mel Tillis, and Roger WIlliams. Pearl jam have done it in concert, too. Anyone interested in the early 60's folk music have to give Watson a listen; he's essential to the genre.
7. Blues Traveler: Psycho Joe (Goes to the Electric Chair) iTunes
The title tells it all. Blues Traveler were among the most visible jam bands of the 90's, even if they weren't first tier, and were considered fairly "pop" by the hardcore jam band audience. "Psycho Joe (Goes to the Electric Chair)" is from the 1997 album Straight on Till Morning which reached #11, their second best showing ever. In an amazing collapse of commercial fortune, the band has made the charts precisely once since; #91 with Bridge in 2001. Much of this falloff was due to bassist Bobby Sheehan's 1999 death and John Popper's own life-threatening illnesses at that time. Some of it had to do with the split directions this album took, which put them in Dave Matthews Band adult contemporary territory, yet also beefed up their jams; the effort won them a restless audience they couldn't keep.
8. Uncle Tupelo: John Hardy iTunes
This is a Leadbelly cover that closes Uncle Tupelo's genre defining alternative country debut in 1990. Uncle Tupelo's No Depression was such an achievement it gave name to the entire movement, which also came to be known as "No Depression". Here they bear more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Springsteen, but with a spryer, punkier approach. John Hardy is the drifter protagonist here, who is condemned for shooting a man on the West Virginia line. A staight story-song, it is given a kick by the playing, which has elements of cowpunk, but also sticks to country conventions. It's also a catchy number; adding an ironic giddiness to what has also been a somber song in the hands of the many others who covered it. Of which there are many; Manfred Mann, Lonnie Donegan, Flatt & Scruggs, Billy Childish, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger are but a few.
9. Johnny Paycheck: Green, Green Grass of Home
Johnny Paycheck included this on his 1967 collection of cover versions, Country Soul. The album isn't one of his best; instead of the outlaw country Paycheck was known for, he stuck mainly to tame standards here (the inclusion of "Danny Boy" is telling), and the songs are just too familiar to be brought much new by anyone, including a singer with as much country soul as Paycheck. "The Green Green Grass of Home" is a Charlie Putman original, and has also been covered by a who's who of artists. Also covering this one are George Jones, Tom Jones, Burl Ives, The Inkspots, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, Joan Baez, Dean Martin, Porter Wagoner, Glenn Yarbrough, and countless others.
10. Merle Haggard & The Strangers: Sing Me Back Home iTunes
One of the guiding lights of the Bakersfield sound, Haggard's contribution as an influence to not just country music, but also rock, have been incalcuable. "Sing Me Back Home" is a fairly early effort, the title track to the 1968 album. The album marked a maturation on all fronts for Haggard. "Sing Me Back Home" is a weeper in the grand tradition, delivered with sensitivity and conviction. One of his best early originals, it also benefits from stellar production, playing, and background vocals. A last request to the protagonist's lover, it is shamelessly sentimental; Haggard's talent lay in his strong vocals which cut the sentiment with a good dose of masculine pride and dignity. Haggard's debut was in 1965; this was his third #1 album.
11. Steve Earle: Ellis Unit One
Another cut from Dead Man Walking, this is another strong Steve Earle cut. Spare, touching, observant, it also sounds reminiscent of Springsteen's efforts in the condemned-man supersub-genre. Ellis Unit One is the protagonist's Death Row cell; the song is a prayer of sorts. This was one of the first songs of Earle's to appear after his rehabilitation; it isn't one of his best remembered now, but it holds up; Earle's vaguely shaky, tender vocal and acoustic playing are in good form.
12. Johnny Cash: The Mercy Seat
Johnny Cash's 1990's comeback albums were among the best of his career, although by American III: Solitary Man, released in 2000, he had developed Parkinson's disease and was finally beginning to run out of steam. Vocally, he sounds ragged; however, that doesn't necessarily hurt on some of the tunes, including this one. The Mercy Seat is the electric chair, in which Cash sings with a stark, bitter realism in graphic detail, as pianos pound in the background, making this almost sound like Plastic Ono Band fronted by the Man in Black. The song itself is a Nick Cave original. Cash died in 2003.
13. Jorma Kaukonen: Another Man Done Gone iTunes
Kaukonen is best known as lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, and was an accomplished acid-rock guitarist, known for his biting and expressive sound. He was also an extraordinary folk/country/blues picker, leaning more towards the blues end. One major influence on his acoustic picking was Rev. Gary Davis, a folk/blues picker from the 30's whom Kaukonen recalls on "Another Man Done Gone" from his 1974 solo album Quah, a favorite among his sizable cult following. The song itself is an old traditional number unearthed by American folk music historian Alan Lomax. Its first major cover version was Odetta's 1954 reading; Johnny and June Carter Cash also did a strange duet version of it in 1963. Kaukonen's straight, spare, haunting version may be the best. It's told from the viewpoint of a condemned man on the day of another man's execution.
Neverending randomplay, normally a Wednesday Night/Thursday AM feature has been pushed back a day this week to accomodate the radio schedule.
Bloggers Pick Most Overrated Songs
Touching off a nerve, Robert Burke of Rhapsody Radish has compiled a list of the most overrated songs submitted by some prominent music bloggers in the blogosphere. Freeway Jam's own uao contributed a pick as well. Take a look at it over at Blogcritics.org. You're invited to add songs of your own, too. Or join the raging battle.