Posts Tagged ‘Nolan Mendenhall’

Elvis Presley ’56

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

There have been a few explosions in American music that continue to reverberate around the world.

Some time ago, probably before the 1900s, some maniac played a minor blues scale on top of a major chord. The major chord came from Celtic and other European folk forms and the pentatonic blues scale came straight out of Africa via a slave ship. This shotgun wedding gave birth to bluegrass, jazz, gospel and blues. American music subsequently turned the whole world on its newly awakened ear. Musicians in Jamaica heard radio from New Orleans and infused R&B with more African derived rhythms, cross-pollinating it into Blue Beat, Ska, Reggae and Soca. Blues and Jazz festivals thrive from Denmark to Japan, and American music in all its pagan splendor, roots and branches of a million twists and turns, is the prevailing popular culture of the world. Quincy Jones points out that “When folks forgo their own musical culture in favor of American music, it’s not because of a marketing plan, it’s because it speaks to their souls.”

This pervasive influence wouldn’t have been possible without a second resounding explosion. As Muddy Waters stated: “The blues had a baby and they named it Rock and Roll.” It’s post-WWII, and there’s a new crop of kids in unprecedented numbers. We weren’t yet called a “demographic bulge” but we sure were. Preachers and nay-sayers were warning that these “jungle rhythms” were dangerous and that seemed to be just the ticket in the Eisenhower era. I remember seeing Elvis on TV and being aware that this music had power to upset people, to draw a line between “us” and “them.” The originators of the style were the wrong color to be beamed into white living rooms, but we eventually sought them out. We wanted a full-strength dose of this magic.

The explosion was seismic. As it continued into the tumultuous ’60s, it reflected, addressed and affected social events and society at large. No African influence, no field hollers….no blues, no rock and roll. No Johnny Otis, no Little Richard…… and no Beatles. No anonymous cracker playing the blues on a guitar (a European instrument) and no Woody Guthrie. No Woody, no Bob Dylan. Bob has got to be one of the most influential people of the last century, if for no other reason than he’s credited with goading the Beatles to become politically aware and take responsibility for their massive influence. Dylan is arguably more influential, even as a singer, than Elvis. Nobody tries to sing like the King, but thousands of guys are still trying to sing like Dylan.

Every significant creative aspect of pop music happened in the ’60s. The deck has just been endlessly reshuffled since then. Every “new” sound, from synths to studio wizardry is a trifling cosmetic change. That backbeat and the ability to express emotions and celebrate life is still inherent in the music.

Elvis in ’56 is still more dangerous than a thousand death metal bands. Marilyn Manson is an after school special compared to James Brown and Hank Williams. The preacher was right. The music made us move, think, question and pointed the way to something more human and more spiritual than what was laid out so carefully before us. That jungle rhythm is still a call to dance and a call to stand up for our values. That African groove is in our DNA… some of us paler folk just left the “dark continent” a little bit earlier. Elvis was on fire in ’56 and the world was ripe with possibility. If you still believe, it still is.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall

Pancho and Lefty

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

Okay, so I’m a bit obsessed with this song.
I have a particular love for story songs and Townes Van Zandt was a Zen master of the form. I can’t help but refer to the fine line between madness and great talent when it comes to the late Van Zandt. Those unmistakable roots in his imagery and the lineage of great story tellers from the great state of Texas also had a down side. He grew up in an era and an area where his early odd behavior resulted in electroshock treatments. Over the ensuing years a lot of fellow artists, fans and loving women tried to keep that bright flame going, not always for altruistic reasons. The light went out on a cold new years eve when Townes slipped away due to his medical problems and chronic alcoholism.

There are a lot of great versions out there of course. Willie Nelson’s hit record is somewhat marred by the pop trappings of the day, but his youtube performance with Bob Dylan runs deep. Any version of the song has merit because the story works on so many levels. It involves the listener because of what’s left unsaid. Did Lefty turn Pancho in? Was it for the money? Pancho was a mythic figure, a bandit admired by law enforcement. His redemption and that of Lefty is that a song exists about them, an extension of a venerable folk tradition… conveying the essence of great events in song. Great friendship, betrayal, redemption, forgiveness and acceptance…. a terse American short story. It could have been written by Hemingway, except for that haunting melody.

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse as fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
But that’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

TOWNES VAN ZANDT, Nobody heard his dying words, but that’s the way it goes.

Posted by Nolan Mendenhall