Category Archives: Plucked from Obscurity

Woody Allen, David Lynch and the Craziest of Double Features

In October, 1980, my mother took me to London for a week. I was 11 years old. As much as I was enjoying myself, I was hopelessly “American” and going out of my head after a few days. I may have loved the Beatles and Monty Python, but I was pining for things like baseball and commercial interruptions on TV. By the end of the week, my mother admitted that she, too, was missing the good ol’ U S of A, and we decided to see an American film in Picadilly Circus. One theater was showing Annie Hall—what could be more American than Woody Allen, right? And it was a double feature, with another American film that neither of us had heard of it. Understandably, we figured that if it was paired off with Annie Hall, it must therefore be a comedy in a similar vein. It even had a funny title: Eraserhead.

Ultimately, we passed on both films and it was a few years before I saw David Lynch’s first feature, the entire time saying, “This?! This?! The Brits thought this played well with the Best Picture of 1977?!”

Admittedly, it is a dazzling combo—but that’s the revisionist in me talking. (For example, Annie Hall’s tagline is “A Nervous Romance,” which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be such a bad tagline for Eraserhead.) But from a commercial standpoint—for a broad and mainstream  audience—it’s quite the mismatch.

Revisiting London in 1998, I went looking for some exciting film posters. I found this beaut and snagged it for a mere ten pounds…

OK, it’s not as insane as combining Diane Keaton and Jack Nance, but it’s definitely unusual. For those unfamiliar with the films, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician forced to protect himself and his wife by killing a band of marauding, raping English villagers; while Bert Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1975), loosely based on the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells, is exactly as the poster appears: giant rats, worms and wasps eat and kill their way through a lot of faded stars and b-movie regulars. (Its American tagline was “For a taste of Hell…”)

I’ve never seen these films consecutively, though I expect the sheer intensity of Straw Dogs would make The Food of the Gods even more of a snooze than it already is. But as far as pure magnetic advertising goes—something to entice you to shell out your hard-earned pounds—it’s genius. Barum-esque. This poster was in my bedroom for years, over my desk, and I used to stare it endlessly, wondering why it was so damn fascinating. Was it..



…the brutality associated with Straw Dogs’s director OR the terror associated with The Food of the Gods’s author?









The image of a blonde being raped by a man OR a brunette being eaten by a ginormous, feral rodent?










The steely gaze of Dustin Hoffman sporting a rifle OR the razor-sharp fangs of enormous rat?









The extreme close-up of a sweatered-but-braless chest OR the heaving, negligee’d cleavage?






No matter how you slice it, there’s something to disturb, offend and/or entertain everybody: Dogs…rats. Guns…fangs. Nipples…cleavage. What a night on the town!

Please, if anyone reading this has seen other exciting and highly imaginative British Double Features, let us know in the Comments section.

__________________________________________________

On a personal front, I’ve cherished this Peckinpah-Wells poster for years, though the only people to see have been a few roommates, some friends and a few “lucky” girlfriends. Since getting married—and losing most of my apartment’s poster real estate in the process—this awesome artifact has languished in the basement. To liberate it for this post—and share it with all of you wonderful people—the 20”x 30” poster had to be scanned in 40 pieces and stitched together in Photoshop. Honestly, if I knew it would require that much damn work, you’d be looking at a blank post right now.

4 Comments

Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity

My Dream Room: T.E. Lawrence’s Book Room in Clouds Hill

(Here’s the first of my clip-free posts. Gratefully, I have a backlog of topics about music and books that will allow me to keep things feeling business-as-usual, until this YouTube mess is sorted out. I’ll keep you posted on my progress, but at this point, I’m definitely looking to post my clips elsewhere. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.)

I love books, and I love collecting them. I don’t know how many I own, probably 900. All shapes and sizes. As you can imagine, a lot are about film and music. And comedy. Nonfiction books about What is Funny. In fact, most of these books are nonfiction, with an alarming amount about the contributions of gay, black or Jewish people to 20th century American popular culture, aka what they didn’t teach us in school. (I’m prone to lose myself in a reverie, staring at some of my shelves. I’ll sigh and say, “I have so many good books.”)

Currently, I have around the house stacks of recently-acquired books (mostly used), waiting for some shelf-space, which sadly, won’t happen. My daydream is to one day own a used bookstore; until then, I’ll be content to live in one.

My wife used to be in publishing and she, too, loves books. (The centerpieces at our wedding were stacks of used books from our collection, bound in a blue ribbon. One of my happiest moments that day was seeing all of our friends and family holding and talking about books, books, books, divvying them up.) I was very proud to build in our kitchen a library for Debbie’s cookbooks. It’s great to see her study the spines, like an artist in motion, concocting another great meal.

Gratefully, our son is following suit, and frequently I’ll see Harry Mose sitting in his rocking chair, perusing a book like some miniature Alistair Cooke.

Anyway, the photograph below is the book room of T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. He also loved books, and later in his short life, in the 1920s, he bought a cottage in Dorset, England, a cottage he named Clouds Hill. It had only four rooms, very sparsely furnished. A couple of chairs, a fireplace to heat tin cans of food, a few sleeping bags.1 On the other hand, one of the downstairs rooms was devoted entirely to books, 1,250 of them, from floor to ceiling, with little else except a big-ass bed on which to read them.

Yep, this is my dream room. There will come a time, down the road, when I’ll own a home, hire a carpenter, give him a print out of this picture, and say, “Go to town.” Until then, my family will just have to live with stacks of books around the house.

(That’s the end of the post proper. But if you want to read how I got the picture, keep reading. Consider it a bonus post.)

__________________________________________________

In 2005, I found this picture of Lawrence’s book room, in a small library in an even smaller town in Maine (yeah, the town was smaller than its library). The town is St. George, and the library is the quaint Jackson Memorial Library.

Debbie and I were vacationing in a nearby cabin, and we’d frequent the library to use their internet. While one was on the computer, the other would comb the shelves. I found the book–T.E. Lawrence by His Friends, published in 1937, first edition–and while thumbing through it, stumbled across this picture (page 333). I swooned.

I photocopied the picture and posted it next to my desk at home, a kind of carrot on a stick, my idea of domestic tranquility.

When I began this blog, anything that I consider interesting or rare became fodder for a post, including this picture. But my photocopy was weak in detail. So I tracked down a copy of the book at the ginormous New York Public Library, on 42nd St. I wouldn’t be allowed to check it out, but I planned to sneak a picture of it with my phone.

I went to the library, which is very stiff and serious. Austere, I guess they’d call it. There’s millions of books and a heavy atmosphere of history and enforced respect. Intimidating and, sadly, condescending. In order to look at this seventy-year old book, I had to stand in three different lines, fill out two forms, and wait almost an hour. By the time they had posted my call number, I felt like they’d be handing me a Guttenberg Bible. Instead they handed me a line of bullshit…

They’d lost the book. In fact, they could tell me only one thing with certainty: Among the branch’s 15 million books, scrolls, newspapers, etc., they only knew where it wasn’t, that is the shelf it was supposed to be on. I left in a huff, giving the literate finger to the cement lions guarding the legendary building.

I went home and immediately called the modest Jackson Memorial Public Library of St. George, Maine. A very nice lady took the call. I asked her if she still had the T.E. Lawrence book. She put down the phone, and picked it up about 40 seconds later, saying, “I’m holding it right now.” I described the picture and it’s relative location within the book.

Ten seconds later, tops: “Yes. Found it.”

I asked her if she could scan it for me.

“I’m sorry, we don’t have a scanner.”

“Oh, um, let’s see…” My mind was racing through the most complicated solutions imaginable, i.e. find someone local with a scanner and get him or her involved to do Lord knows what–but it didn’t matter because the librarian cut me off.

“Why don’t I just mail it to you?”

“…You’d do that?!”

“Sure. You’ll take care of it, right?” She said this matter-of-factly, not in an accusatory manner.

“Hey,” I said, “Just look at that picture. That’s my dream room. Do I sound like someone who’d disrespect a book?”

“Of course not. Just give me your address and I’ll send it out today.”

And that was it. The wonderful and trusting Yvonne (the library’s director) kept her word, and I kept mine. When I received the book, I noticed the inside back cover had one of those wonderful, old school library pockets, the one for the card that would keep track of when it was due back. (So, I guess I do mean “old school” and not “ol’ skool”!) There’s where I got an idea why Yvonne felt she could live without the book for a week or so: T.E. Lawrence by His Friends had been checked out only 14 times in 63 years. (So cool of them to keep it on their shelves! I guess it had been waiting for me all those years.)

Anyway, if you ever get to St. George, Maine (on a peninsula off the mid-coast of Maine, just south of Rockland), be sure to check out the local library. You’d be surprised what you might find!



BACK TO POST 1 Yep, a couple of sleeping bags. One was embroidered with the word “tuum” (Latin for “yours”) and was for guests (such as authors George Bernard Shaw, EM Forster and Robert Graves); the other sleepiing bag was labeled “meum,” (Latin for “mine”) which was the one Lawrence would use. Also, plumbing was installed only after his mother said she was going to visit. This guy liked it lean.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Plucked from Obscurity

Joe Louis and the Opera of Losing

Just a trifle today to take us into the weekend. I saw this clip in an HBO doc about boxer Joe Louis and have never been able to shake its “Italian-ness.”

In December 1947, Joe Louis defended his heavyweight title against Jersey Joe Walcott. The judges decided in Louis’s favor and the giveaway to everyone in Madison Square Garden is when the announcer says, “…and still the Heavyweight Champion…” What really caught my eye in this clip are Walcott’s poor cornermen, who had a lot riding on this fight as you can imagine.

Here’s the announcement, twice in quick succession—check out the small guys in the upper left, the moment they hear the word “still”:

Are these the Most Italian Men Ever? (Being very Italian myself, I know I’ve reacted to things this way on occasion.) It really makes it clear how high the stakes were for everyone.

Anyway, have a great weekend!

Poor guys

Leave a comment

Filed under Plucked from Obscurity

Marty Feldman, Ben Turpin and “Sight” Gags

Since I’ve been suffering major computer issues lately, I’ve been keeping a low profile on the blog-front. (It’s a little hard to post on the internet without a computer!). But here’s a little something to tide us over.

In 1969, director Richard Lester made The Bed-Sitting Room, based on a play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. It takes place in the future, in post-apocalyptic England, and is quite satirical and surreal. (One critic described it as being “like Samuel Beckett, but with better jokes.”) Featuring the likes of Sir Ralph Richardson, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, they wander from one decimated part of London to another, saying the most incomprehensible dialog. At one point, without warning, we’re introduced to the character Nurse Arthur with these shots:

Of course that’s British actor Marty Feldman, known to most as Igor in Young Frankenstein. Although he’d been writing comedy television in the UK for thirteen years, he’d only begun acting on TV in 1967. What’s important here, however, is that The Bed-Sitting Room was his first film and this shot—this wonderful sight gag—was his introduction to the big screen.

This film wasn’t very successful when it was released and it has lapsed into obscurity. I discovered it on late night TV 25 years ago and would frequently show to friends these Twelve Seconds of Feldman. (I’d do this a lot: talk about a film then show clips from it. I guess nowadays they’d call that a “live blog.”)

Meanwhile, after 15 years of thinking Spike Milligan and Marty Feldman cooked up that awesome joke, I saw Million Dollar Legs in 2000. This 1932 film is as equally obscure as The Bed-Sitting Room and just as surreal. Directed by Edward Cline and co-written by Herman J. Mankiewicz (who later co-wrote Citizen Kane), it takes place in the mythical country of Klopstokia, where political power is decided by physical strength. The president is played by W.C.Fields and the plot is somewhere between “non-existent” and “impossible to describe.” (It was made shortly after the Marx Bros. broke big, and I think this film was an attempt to cash in on that brand of illogical humor.) Among it’s myriad of sight gags is this, a shot of a spy at work:

The spy is played by Ben Turpin, probably the most famous cross-eyed movie star until Karen Black forty years later. He was a silent-film star who based his career on his afflicted eyes, and retired after 1929. Million Dollar Legs was one of his last performances, a cameo really.

I don’t favor one gag over the other, but they definitely have a different impact: in Feldman’s, his eyes are the punch line; in Turpin’s the binoculars are. Also, since Feldman was a famously devout fan of silent comedies, I’m fairly certain he was aware of Turpin’s joke and his is an homage. Hell, considering Marty’s eye affliction (a result of suffering Graves’ disease), it’s very likely he was keenly interested in Turpin’s body of work.

(By the way, I expect my very short clips seem to shortchange these sight gags, what with there being no visual context, but I can’t stress it enough that neither film has any “context.” Still, both films can be seen on YouTube, if you’re interested.)

Anyway, enough of the Joke Archaeology for today. But, man, remember the first time you saw Marty Feldman…

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Film, Plucked from Obscurity

All the President’s Cast & Crew

In 1980 I got a great little book called Who’s Who in American Film Now, by James Monaco, which can be best described as My First IMDB. It was a (semi-)comprehensive reference book with chapters devoted to actors, directors, writers, producers, etc., each with an alphabetical list of names and the work they’ve done (see sample here). Between that book and  this one, I was in a constant state of cross-referencing in my teen years. As indispensible then as the internet is now.

As you can imagine, it’s a dry book, occasionally peppered with captioned photographs. For example, in the Actors’ section, there’s a picture of John Lithgow, captioned as “John Lithgow”; in the Writers’ section, there’s a picture of Paul Schrader that says “Paul Schrader” below it; and so on. Out of nowhere, however, in the Directors’ section, there’s one that’s the Coolest Cast & Crew Picture Ever, with the Coolest Caption Ever:

Even at 11 years old, I got it, since, man, even though this pictue was for All the President’s Men, those guys were everywhere in the 70s. I think at least one of those actors was in every film made between 1965 and 1979. (Jack Warden was in 19 films in 1972 alone. Crazy.)

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Film, Plucked from Obscurity

Sid Caesar & the Sight Gag that Got Away…Almost

Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen all wrote for Sid Caesar in the 50s1  .  When their writing and filmmaking careers were riding high in the early 70s, someone put together a ninety-minute film called Ten from Your Show of Shows. It was exactly as described: ten sketches from the legendary series that aired from 1950-54 and starred Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris2  .

(For the uninitiated, it’s very hard to describe the humor of Your Show of Shows. I could say something clever like “With one foot silent film comedy and another in zany cartoons, it’s all held together with a tight borscht belt,” but it’s best to see for yourself, which you’ll have a chance to do before this post is done. Oh, and there’s also YouTube.)

As a kid, I was a fan of Brooks, Simon and Allen, and my folks would frequently tell me about Your Show of Shows, so when this film aired on the local PBS in 1984, my VCR and I were eagerly waiting. And, man, my hopes were high; thinking of the combined laughs I got from those three guys made me giddy at the notion of what they would write collectively. (I was unaware that Allen and Simon did not have a hand in any of the sketches in this film.)

So I watched with very high expectations. The first two sketches have some incredibly funny bits, but there’s a sight gag in the third sketch (“The Recital”) that I gave me what might be the biggest laugh of my teen years. At least from watching something on TV. I remember I saw it late at night and am pretty sure my laughter woke up my folks a floor above me.

In 2001, nine DVDs-worth of material from Your Show of Show and Caesar’s subsequent show, Caesar’s Hour, were released. Almost all of the sketches from the 1973 compilation film made their way to these DVDs, but sadly “The Recital” wasn’t one of them.

And so it was time to drag out my 24-year-old VHS tape and pump this sketch into the computer. And here it is, all 4 minutes of it, with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.

Want to take a guess at the joke that did me in? (Hint: it gets one of the two biggest laughs from the audience. Another hint: it has “Mel Brooks” written all over it.)

__________________________________________________


BACK TO POST 1There’s a longstanding myth that Woody Allen wrote for Your Show of Shows, which is not true. However, he did write for Sid Caesar in 1958, for a short-lived program called The Sid Caesar Show. On the other hand, in 2001 Allen gave on-camera interviews for some Sid Caesar DVDs and spoke lovingly about his time spent with Sid. As those who know how little Woody talks to cameras about anything, I think this is adequate proof that he is proud of his time spent under Caesar’s wing.


BACK TO POST 2Howard Morris makes a cameo in another of my posts.

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Plucked from Obscurity

Alex Haley: Master of All Media, Pt. 3

Over the last couple of posts I’ve elaborated on Roots the book and Roots the miniseries, both worthwhile on their own merits but, let’s face it, each is a real time-suck. So, for our hectic times, I recommend–and offer to you–the 1977 double LP, Alex Haley Tells the Story of His Search for Roots.

During the last few years Haley worked on his book, he supplemented his income with speaking engagements, mostly at colleges, where he did exactly what the LPs title describes: told his story. After the book and miniseries broke big (the miniseries was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers total), Warner Bros. decided to cash in with a recording of one of Haley’s recent engagements at the University of Pennsylvania.

I forget how I heard about this LP. There isn’t a lot of info out there about it, and it’s not on CD. For all intents and purposes, it never existed (when compared to the book’s constant reprinting and the multiple VHS and DVD releases of the miniseries). I found a copy on eBay—sealed!–for only $13, and a friend with a turntable transferred it to CD for me.

And after all the time I’d spent with his story in other mediums, I found this to be the most accessible, entertaining and inspirational.

It’s two hours of Haley telling you his life story. The most logical contemporary equivalent would be a lengthy NPR interview: insightful, intelligent, with humor. The fact that he had probably written the lecture—yet said it so many times—gives his delivery a strange feel, somewhere between a reading and recitation, but I got used to that pretty quickly. The advantage is that is that it’s tight; it’s a dense two hours.

Haley in the Coast Guard

Instead of the fictitious prose of book or the mainstream embellishments in the miniseries, we have Haley literally preserving the oral tradition that is the basis of his book. (Clearly the irony is not lost on him.) Beginning with his childhood in Henning, Tennessee, where he sat on his grandmother’s porch and overheard his elders tell their stories, he tells his own. This includes:

            • his time in the Coast Guard where he learned to write (he would ghostwrite love letters for his shipmates)

            • being Playboy magazine’s first interviewer

            • his experiences co-writing Malcolm X’s autobiography

            • the 12-year-long journey to write Roots

Here are two excerpts. The first describes the difficulties of interviewing Miles Davis. In the second he describes the precise moment he got bit by the genealogy bug. If you like what you hear, you’ll love the LP.


Miles Cooks (1:08)


Discovering Genealogy (9:45)


But wait, there’s more!

The double LP is a classic of its kind: a gatefold cover with an 8-page booklet, full of pictures, deeds, ship manifests, etc. Seeing a photo of the real Chicken George, after all these decades of intimacy with his story, was such a pleasant shock. I’m sure if Roots came out now, there would also be the requisite companion coffee table book, replete with details of Haley’s research. This booklet is a sample of what that could be. (It’s hard to imagine the original book did not include a section for these pictures.)

a sample of the artwork in the LP's booklet


So, between the middle of 1976 and the middle of 1977, Alex Haley’s work covered print, film and audio—hence the title of my posts—only this LP has been out of circulation for over 30 years.

Until today.

If you have any interest in hearing this lost LP, click the link below. I think this recording is too damn compelling to disappear. And, hey, isn’t preserving this stuff what Haley’s point was all about?

Click this link to get the LP. It’ll take you to the Rapidshare site. Click “Free User.” Wait through the countdown and you’ll get a download button. Click that and it will download a 165mb ZIP file. This includes the LP (as mp3s) and the booklet (as a PDF and as individual jpgs). (Be forewarned: I’ve never compiled so many hi-res stills into a single PDF; you’ll have to do a lot of re-sizing to get all the detail, read the captions, etc. Sorry!)


NOTE: I feel obligated to point out that controversy surrounded Alex Haley after Roots was published, with many experts doubting the book’s veracity. Likewise, there was a claim of plagiarism, which resulted in a trial and financial settlement on Haley’s part. To be clear: I don’t want to defend Haley on any of this; I’m most interested in discussing his work’s impact on my life and on popular culture.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Plucked from Obscurity

Coming Soon: All the President’s Men

I saw the All the President’s Men trailer on laserdisc about 15 years ago. My buddy Jesse made a point to show it to me because it was so damn cool. It has all the earmarks of a great trailer: it evokes the film, without spoiling anything; doesn’t go on for terribly long; and includes elements or devices not used in the film (such as scenes cut from the film; footage shot specifically for the trailer; or some kind of animation).

I consider this particular post a public service since this great, great film has come out twice on DVD and neither version had this trailer. WTF?! So after waiting patiently for over a decade—and having grown bored of describing it to fellow fans of the film—I got the laserdisc off ebay; pulled my old, used laserdisc player out of the basement (17 years old and it still works!); plugged it into my computer; and liberated this chestnut.

Hopefully seeing this made you want to see the film, in which case I recommend clicking here. (If you buy it, Amazon gives me some bonus points or magic beans or something like that.)

By the way, if you really dig this trailer, then you can see another version here. This one is 30 seconds longer. The most significant addition is Nixon’s actual inauguration oath, which is a pretty mind-blowing way to end a trailer.

8 Comments

Filed under Film, Plucked from Obscurity, Trailer

Jimi Hendrix & the Lost Note of “Little Wing”

Last week Valleys of Neptune, a CD of previously unreleased Jimi Hendrix material, was released. And there’s been much fanfare and critical praise. Likewise, souped-up CDs of the three Jimi Hendrix Experience LPs—Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland—were also released.

All this hullabaloo has got me thinking about my CD of Axis: Bold as Love (my favorite Jimi record). I got it in the spring of 1987, and it cost an arm and a leg. It was a Japanese import (Polydor P33P 25023, for those that care) and was the only version of Jimi’s sophomore LP available on CD. In other words, it hadn’t been released domestically.

I already had the album on vinyl, so I was very familiar with it, and it only took a few listens of my CD to notice several differences between the two versions. For example, on vinyl, “You Got Me Floatin’” begins with a 6 second, backwards guitar thingy, while the Japanese CD didn’t. And there were about a half dozen others, some major, some minor.

Understandably, given the way my mind works, this freaked me out; and with my barren high school social calendar, these differences prompted hours of headphone-wearing scrutiny.

In 1987, there wasn’t a wealth of Hendrix discography information—at least, I didn’t have it—so there was many questions on my part: Which version was the “right” one? How did this happen? Which was “better”? A few years later, when it came out on CD in the US, it was identical to the vinyl version, which made my Japanese CD all the more precious. 1

Twenty-three years—and three or four more remasters—later, I’ve yet to find that Japanese mix on any other CD. And with ten years of the internet behind us, I still can’t find any sensible explanation about why I have a version of Axis: Bold as Love that sounds different than everyone else’s. (My friend Bobby, who knows a shitload about Hendrix, helped me assemble some educated guesses, but it all seemed too confounding to include here.)

So for 23 years, I’ve had this, and now I’m going to share one special part of it today. In the great, great song “Little Wing,” the Japanese CD version has one extra guitar note, at the drum break at 1:04. A split second’s worth of guitar, that, frankly, sounds like a mistake—but, damnit, when I was in high school, that one note made me fall out of bed. It made me feel lucky. Special. Chosen.

Yet now is a time to share, and I hope there’s some teenager out there who gets his hands on his dad’s old CD of this album; then hears a different CD version; notices the difference; runs to his computer and Googles “Hendrix ‘Little Wing’ ‘extra guitar note’.” Because when he does, he’ll get an answer. (Admittedly, not the most encyclopedic one, but still…)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Little Wing (1986 Japanese CD version, 2:27, right-click to download)

The Lost Note, as seen by my sound editing software


I welcome and encourage anyone who knows the story behind the various versions of Axis to please drop me a line. (All I’ve been able to find it the phrase “safe version,” but nothing else.)



BACK TO POST 1 You know what also made that Japanese CD precious? The lyric sheet, which was created in Japan–phonetically. That album has some pretty psychedelic lyrics, and this threw the folks at Polydor for a loop. For example, “I’m gonna wave my freak flag high,” became, “I’m gonna wave my big fat knife.” (Is that racist?) And the lyric “They overflow with cotton candy and battlegrounds red and brown,” became “They overflow with cotton candy and Pat O’Brien wearing brown”!

17 Comments

Filed under Music, Plucked from Obscurity

A Country Murder Song—Without the Murder

When they cite great American storytellers of the 20th Century, it’s likely to include Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton along with Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s because country music is largely about storytelling. Many country songs have an abundance of love and tragedy, death and murder, etc—and with a dramatic arc. A beginning, a middle and an end.

And today’s post dissects a song that has a story with a beginning, a middle and an end—but not necessarily in that order.

Warren Smith was a country and rockabilly singer for the great Sun Records in the late 50s, and thanks to bad luck and a bad disposition he’s been relegated to “footnote” status. He made some interesting rock ‘n’ roll songs that were regionally successful, with names like “Uranium Rock” and “Ubangi Stomp,” but most of what he recorded for Sam Phillips in Memphis went unreleased.1

In 1995, a collection of his songs—officially released and otherwise—came out. It ends with an outtake, a country ballad called “My Hanging Day.”

Little is known about this song, i.e. who wrote it or when it was recorded. Honestly, it isn’t a great song. It’s a fine song. More so, it’s a dignified song, which is why it caught my ear.

With barely a second of musical introduction, the storyteller begins. No flourish, no pomp. Within a few words we can tell–both from what he’s saying and how he’s singing it—that he’s on death row, talking to a preacher or a guard.

     Don’t tell my son that I was born in a world of poverty.
     Don’t tell my son that in the morning, I’ll be hanging from a tree.
     Don’t tell my son I killed a man for talking out of turn,
     About the things his mother did he may never learn.

Then, like a film, we go into a flashback. The entire song is built as a single verse. The melody doesn’t change from passage to passage; there isn’t a pause for musical interludes or a solo; and only a handful of words are repeated, which is the lone hint of a “chorus.”

     When I was married to his ma, I always did my best.
     I worked so hard both day and night. I never stopped to rest.
     And then when I’d come home at night, his mother was not home.
     She grew tired of married life and started out to roam.
     And then she met a gambler and the two left town.
     I hunted far, I hunted near, I vowed to hunt them down.
     And then one day so far away, I walked in to a saloon.
     There sat a gambler playing cards and whistling a tune.
     I bought a drink for him and me, and soon the talk did flow.
     He was the one who took my wife, this much I soon did know.

At this point, his flashback ends and we’re back in that jail cell…

     Don’t tell my son I killed a man for talking out of turn,
     About the things his mother did he may never learn.
     Tell my boy goodbye for me. I must go away.
     Tell my boy goodbye for me. This is my hanging day.

And the song ends. In fact the music is done before his last line is sung. (It may be the most music-free song I’ve ever heard.) And here’s what kills me: he doesn’t describe the murder. He tells us of everything before and after—all the way up to and including the moment he realizes he’s sitting across from the man who stole his wife—but leaves out the violence. I imagine the narrator’s dignity won’t permit him to describe the obvious.

After I had heard the song for years, this device, this considerate omission finally clicked. I thought, man, if this were a film, it would be very difficult to pull this off. There’s something about a film, with the whole “visual, multiple characters talking, 2 hours of your time” thing going on, that you can’t pull a stunt like that, cannot omit such a crucial scene. But in a three-minute format, with just a man’s voice and a guitar, the omission becomes graceful and even appropriate.

I’d like to add that there is a film that plays with this notion (though I dread writing too much so as not to spoil the film). It’s Tim Blake Nelson’s Eye of God (1997). Set in Oklahoma and starring Martha Plimpton and Hal Holbrook, it’s a Bible Belt murder mystery that toys with time—flashbacks, flashforwards—and a blend of what’s shown and what isn’t. It’s all handled very deftly, and the cumulative impact is dynamite. I strongly recommend it.


Warren Smith – My Hanging Day (2:22, right-click to download)


BACK TO POST 1 Part of the problem may have been marketing him as a rockabilly singer. Years later, producer Sam Phillips admitted to writers Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins, “Warren Smith was probably the best pure singer for country music I’ve ever heard. He had a pure country voice and an innate feel for the country ballad…He was a difficult personality, but just interesting enough that I liked him a whole lot.”

2 Comments

Filed under Music, Plucked from Obscurity