Tag Archives: Tony Joe White

Deep Bows, Tony Joe White, Deep Bows.

Tony Joe White

The list of songwriters and musicians that I love is a long one. There is also a shortlist.

This shortlist is reserved for those artists who go beyond just being songwriters and musicians. They are the artists whose very existences are, have been, and will continue to be, life lessons to me. The way they think, feel, speak, walk, move, dress, sound—these people are the alpha and the omega of what I understand of the world.

To these songwriters and musicians, I owe a debt that goes beyond influence. If I am anything resembling a whole person; a thinking, feeling, living person who is mindful and aware in the world; then it is due in no small part to these artists. If I myself am anything resembling an artist—a poet, a musician, a storyteller—it is on their shoulders that I stand. If I live, it’s because I have breathed their air.

Tony Joe White is on my shortlist.

For one thing, “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is probably the greatest song about racism a white person has ever written.

Tony Joe is, to me, what was once the impossible. To hear Tony Joe for the first time was to begin to believe that maybe there was a home for someone like me in the world.

He brought together the country and the city; blues music and folk music; poetry and rock n’ roll; pathos and funkiness. He did it all, all while being so fucking cool. He wasn’t the first or the only to do any of the above, but he did it all like no other. There is no put-on in his songs, no over-earnestness, no dogmatism, no self-righteousness, no sanctimony. He is just straight up raw and beautiful.

Tony Joe is, to me, like Sleepy John Estes—a true blues storyteller. The characters in his songs—just like those in Sleepy John’s—are just right there, and real. Roosevelt and Ira Lee. Willie and Laura Mae Jones. Old Man Willis. Polk Salad Annie. The High Sheriff of Calhoun Parrish. The Backwoods Preacher Man. These people are as good as alive to me.

Tony Joe White is Carson McCullers with a harmonica rack.

Tony Joe White passed away on October 24th. As recently as last month, he was still giving us more music. Fittingly, a blues album. Of it, he said:

“I’ve always thought of myself as a blues musician, bottom line, because the blues is real, and I like to keep everything I do as real as it gets.”

Tony Joe White is as real as it gets.

The cotton was high and the corn was growin’ fine 
But that was another place and another time.

~

image credit: Heinrich Klaffs


365 Days of Album Recommendations – July 22

Tony Joe White – Black & White

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Tony Joe White is such a bad motherfucker. Jesus, the man is cool. And what a songwriter. I mean, what a damn songwriter. And so cool. Just so cool.

And talk about debut albums. My lord. A debut. A debut album, with Willie and Laura Mae Jones and Polk Salad Annie on it.

Damn.


On The Eve Of The Songwriter’s Showcase Finals, A List Of 23 Genius Songs We All Wish We’d Written, But Didn’t

Tuesday, May 5th, 7-10pm, Britannia

Tomorrow night, it’s the finals of the 13th Annual Songwriter’s Showcase (sponsored by Mars Studios, and hosted by the Britannia Arms in Capitola, CA), and I am to be a judge. Which is very exciting for me, and an honor I accept with the utmost seriousness.

Because said event is nigh, I have songwriting on the brain.

Now, in re: said event, based on what I know to date about the competitors, I think it is safe to say that we are not working with the broadest definition of singer-songwriter (i.e. anyone who sings a song they have written), but rather, we are operating within the more precise realm of the “Singer-Songwriter”; that is to say, within the folk-troubadour tradition. Operators within this space may claim as their ancestors and inspirations the likes of, say, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, or Joan Armatrading; James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, or Townes Van Zandt; Bill Withers, Billy Bragg, or Neil Young; Tracy Chapman, Dolly Parton, or Nick Drake; Elliot Smith, Patti Smith, or Carol King; Phil Ochs, Suzanne Vega, or Ben Harper; Greg Brown, Indie.Arie, or Bruce Springsteen; Kris Kristofferson, Sam Cooke, or Ani DiFranco, or even, yes, John Lennon and Jerry Garcia. This IS Santa Cruz County, after all.

The point being, there is singing a song one has written, and then there are “Singer-Songwriters.” For this event, I think it is safe to say we are considering the latter.

And so, bearing that in mind, I have elected, almost strictly for personal kicks, to assemble a list of some of the greatest songs (fundamentally — with just a couple stretches– in this mold) ever written, songs that you and I both wish we’d written, but didn’t.

With no apologies for what I’ve left out or what I’ve included, and in no particular order, I proffer the following:

1. Willie & Laura Mae Jones, by Tony Joe White.
Dear ALL aspiring political songwriters. This is how you handle racism in a song. Funkily, powerfully, honestly, and narratively. A masterpiece.

2. The Ballad of Hollis Brown, by Bob Dylan
Devasting. One chord. That is all.

3. Here Comes A Regular, by Paul Westerberg (The Replacements)
If you understand the difference between this and “Piano Man,” you’re on to something. If you don’t, you’re not.

4. Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers
Can YOU be this powerful, soulful, beautiful, muscular, and emotional, while singing about YOUR grandma? Yeah …

5. In the River, by Michael Been (The Call)
White gospel, from an 80s indie band. Incredible.

6. Straight To Hell, by Joe Strummer (The Clash)
Just an unbelievably great song; epic, monumental; spooky, depressing; vivid, political, social, emotional, gut-wrenchingly raw, pathotically weird and funny and sad and strange and perfect. And so cool …

7. Glory Box, by Beth Gibbons (Portishead)
Incredible lyric movement, traveling from the personal and idiosyncratic, to the most fundamentally raw, sensual, and real. Killer … And that melody line, over that bass line? Killer …

8. Red Dirt Girl, by Emmylou Harris
As good a “story song” as any ever written, coming from out the folk-blues-southern thing …

9. Our Mother the Mountain, by Townes Van Zandt
Because if you write this …

Fingers walk the darkness down
Mind is on the midnight
Gather up the gold you’ve found
You fool, it’s only moonlight.
If you try to take it home
Your hands will turn to butter
You better leave this dream alone
Try to find another.

… then your s&%t is amazing.

10. Four Women, by Nina Simone
Because if you can powerfully and successfully address sexism AND racism in a song with a final line of “My name is Peaches,” and not only get away with it, but kill it? Then your s&$t is amazing.

11. Amsterdam, by Jacques Brel
Epic in every sense of the word. Dirty, seedy, and romantic; beautiful, tragic, and raw. And it ends with an image of pissing. Such an achievement … just towering.

12. State Trooper, by Bruce Springsteen
Simply one of the best road songs ever. And that’s saying something.

13. Death Don’t Have No Mercy, by the Reverend Gary Davis
It’s admittedly hard to concede ACTUAL songwriting credits when it comes to the “shared” folk-blues-gospel cannon, but this is pretty close to clear, so I’m just going to say it’s Davis’ song. I played a version of this recently, and someone from the audience spoke to me afterwards, referring to this song as “dark gospel, but true gospel.” To which I say, yes.

14. Psalm, by John Coltrane
There are technically no lyrics to this song, but if you know the story of this song, then yes there are lyrics. And this song is INCREDIBLE. Listen to this while reading the “lyrics,” and you’ll have one of the most moving poetry/music experiences of your life …goose bumps. Forever.

15. 16 Shells From A Thirty Ought Six, by Tom Waits
Because Tom Waits should be on this list somewhere, and because for my money, it was with this song that Waits not only created a language all his own, but became a genre all his own.

16. Back Home In Derry, by Christy Moore
No one does homesick like the Irish, and few do it better than Christy Moore with this song.

17. Fairytale of New York, by Shane MacGowan (The Pogues)
Ditto the above, except way, way, way sadder and more f&#*ed up …

18. Washington D.C. Hospital Blues, by Skip James
Most country blues artists didn’t really “write” songs in the way we think of it being done, and few if any wrote any new material later in life. The eerily excellent Skip James is the exception; he not only wrote brilliant songs of his own, he wrote NEW songs of his own post his “re-discovery.” This is one such song, and it’s utterly, totally brilliant for capturing in a single story (being sick in the hospital), and in a single couplet (I’m a poor man, but I’m a good man, you understand) an entire universe worth of the relationships between pride and shame, poverty and pride, and everything else about what it means to be both strong in, and at the mercy of, the world.

19. Diamonds and Rust, by Joan Baez
Any song that can sound amazing as sung by both the composer (Baez) and Judas Priest, HAS to be incredible …

20. I Shall Be Released, by Bob Dylan (The Band)
Is it possible someone actually sat down with pen and paper and just WROTE this song? Not possible …

21. Think, by Aretha Franklin
Yeah, she wrote it.  Well, co-wrote it. But she wrote it. And it’s so, so, so badass. It’s like singer-songwriter soul haiku, distilled down to the resonant power of just two words: Think. Freedom.

22. Cities In Dust, by Siouxie Soux
Apocolyptic, graphic, poetic, with a hook from the gods. One of the greatest songs from a great era, transcends all boundaries to simply be great, resonant, and powerful. Just play it on acoustic, solo. It swings so hard, and runs so deep …

23. Go Tell Aunt Rhody, author unknown
I don’t know who the hell wrote this lil’ lullaby of Gothic Americana, but it’s a monster lesson in The Weird Old America … Possibly the first song I ever learned, and possibly the song I’ve been trying to write my whole life …

~

Here’s to tomorrow night, and discovering something new to add to this list!


John the Conqueror

The John the Conqueror root. Mystical, magical, mojo-laden.

It lies in the earth of a song I sung last night: “There Go John” (click below for some straight-from-the-show, raw, guerrilla audio)

.”

It’s a spooky song, and last night’s version was a spooky one.

But here’s a possibly even spookier version, recorded in a turn-of-the-century barn on an island off the eastern coast of America, with the incredible, soulful, funky spiritual grace magician swamp king hill lord Will Scott.

Roosevelt & Ira Lee, recording "There Go John" in the barn

Roosevelt & Ira Lee, recording “There Go John” in the barn

We were together under the swamp spell of his highness Tony Joe White, in an ensemble we called Roosevelt & Ira Lee, and we recorded both “There Go John” and “In the River,” the latter of which is probably the greatest song from the 80s that you never heard. You can listen to both below:

There Go John, by Roosevelt & Ira Lee

In the River, by Roosevelt & Ira Lee (originally performed by The Call)

~

there go john

all ye who are lost
must return to the seashore
you can’t be lost as long as you can feel
the ocean’s holy roar

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul

the wheel of life keeps turnin’
just like rings inside the trunk
of a holy redwood sovereign,
troubadour, knight, minstrel, monk

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul

the river of my baby
the ocean of my lover
the farmland of my father
and the sunlight of my mother

and there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
there go john, with a black root
aimin’ to conquer somebody’s soul

~

for the guitar and National Resonator heads out there, the git is tuned to open Dm, and the song features a somewhat unusual progression in the instrumental sections: a IIm – IVm turn w/ a chromatic walk between them, followed by a lil’ counterpoint section undergirded by a bass note walk in Dm …


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