Arts, Entertainment, Living
If you follow BlueNotes at all (I know, you have a life to live too), you know that I write about a lot of albums by new or newer artists, who pledge allegiance to the blues, but whose music can range in all directions from that base. And that's okay.
Many of them seem to start out by covering classic blues songs, and move quickly into writing their own songs. I know we all get tired of bands who just give us endless covers, but I also know it's very hard to create new music that's original and worth a listen.
John Hammond, for example, has made a career of reinterpreting classic material -- while also writing his own tunes that channel the masters he loves. But sometimes, it seems to me, new players create songs that are just shallow imitations of the music they say the love. And the results often are not so good.
And yes, I know that there are also a lot of talented newer artists who are writing good, even great, material. Soul and harp man John Nemeth comes to mind as a creator of songs that can stand on their own, but he's also not afraid to recast older material in a fresh way.
I was reminded of all this last night as I listened to a 1999 CD by Odetta, "Blues Everywhere I Go." Odetta, who died in 2008, was not your average singer, by any means. She was probably mostly identified as a folk singer, but her tastes were broad and her talent was huge. On this album, she sings glorious covers of great blues songs, and it all sounds great -- no, it sounds almost sublime, and you couldn't care less who wrote these songs. You just get lost in fine music-making. Which is really all that matters.
So I guess my point is that not every singer or musician can write great, or even good, songs. A huge amount of blues or bluesy songs have already been written, and many of them could use a little daylight. I wish some young performers, and even some older ones, would think about that instead of writing weaker songs that make them sound less talented than they otherwise are.
And I haven't forgotten Carolyn Hester (see headline above). She was a folk singer back in the '60s one of the vanguard of folkies who made their headquarters in Greenwich Village -- where I saw her in 1964 at the Gaslight Cafe (where I also first saw Mississippi John Hurt, one of my all-time favorites). I also caught Odetta in a little Village club late one night, where she'd come to sing for fun after a concert, but that's another story.
I once owned Hester's third album, from 1962, titled "Carolyn Hester" on Columbia (on which a very young Bob Dylan played harmonica). On that album was the traditional tune, "Dink's Song," and it was the first time I'd heard that elegantly mournful song about lost love, first recorded in the field by John Lomax in 1908.
I hadn't heard the song in decades, but it turned up again on the Odetta CD mentioned above. As well as being a beautifully done song, it brought back a lot of those memories, which I offer here at no extra cost.
It's worth noting, for historical purposes, that Hester married, for a very short time, Richard Fariña, who later married Mimi Baez, Joan Baez' younger sister. Farina died in a motorccyle crash a ffew years later. Joan's song "Sweet Sir Galahad" was written as a tribute to Mimi's second husband, Milan Melvin, noting Farina's death, and Mimi's courtship by Melvin -- apparently he used her bedroom window a lot during that process -- and their marriage. (Earlier when I described this I left out the part about Melvin. A kind email from J. Michael Shea pointed out my oversight.)
Hester, who sadly faded rather quickly from the folk scene (she had a gorgeous voice), turned down the chance to join a folk trio with Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, who took up with Mary Travers as -- yes, Peter, Paul & Mary.
I saw Hester once after that, in Worcester, Mass., in the late '60s, when she tried psychedelic folk-rock for a while, but I couldn't get the sweet-singing folkie out of my mind, and wrote a rather caustic review, which I probably shouldn't have done. She was just trying to find herself and her music. But as far as I know, she's still alive and performing.
Here's a video/audio of Odetta singing a very great song from "Blues Everywhere I Go"
And here's Carolyn Hester