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So Lonesome I Could Yodel October 16, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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“I don’t care what he did with his women.
I don’t care what he did when he drank.
I want to hear just one note
From his lonesome old throat.
Has anybody here seen Hank?”
The Waterboys

New Orleans is swimming in music of every imaginable genre, but old time country-and-western gets short shrift. It’s just not a part of who we think we are. We tell ourselves this is the music of the piney wood crackers that surround us, like that justice of the peace who just this week refused to marry an interracial couple.

I never cared for the stuff growing up (“we got both kinds, country and western”) and only fell into it sort of left handed, via the Grateful Dead and the studio side of The Byrds Untitled with Gene Parsons and Nanci Griffth’s collaboration with The Chieftains. Later, friends of Texas introduced me to the Texas Outlaws and their folk singer friends, people like Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark, people for whom a song is a story or it’s no damn song at all.

Part of the attraction is the connection of old country music, what was called hillbilly music in the early recording industry, to Celtic music. If you’ve been around here before you know I’m an irredeemable Eirephile. So much of what we take for granted in American music today results from the collision of the Celtic (which produced country-and-western and a good bit of what we call folk music) and the African jazz and gospel and R&B. Those are the footings of what we listen to today. Anytime I see a World Music record labeled “Afro-Celtic” I can barely resist buying it.

I have no use for the stuff you can see on Country Music Television lately. Lord knows I heard plenty of it during the explosion of bad pop country in the late nineties and early oughts living in Fargo, N.D. Hell, one of the biggest country music festivals in the country arrived every August in the little town of Detroit Lakes, MN where I lived for a few years. I would get offers of free tickets to this redneck Woodstock through the newspaper, but usually turned them down.

Its the old stuff that resonates, and the music of the people who picked up on it and carried that tradition forward, mostly in Texas in the seventies, or borrowed heavily from it at times, like the Rolling Stones. The trick of the thing is without old country music, there is no rockabilly. Without rockabilly, there is no Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis, and quite possibly no Fats Domino or Little Richard, at least not as we knew them. The whole damn thing falls apart and the next thing you know we’re all sitting around the pool in our parents clothes listening to Paul Anka and Celine Dion and its the 1950s big record company nightmare forever.

You can find plenty of schmaltzy pop country yodeling on You Tube, and it’s quite possibly the idea of the thing you picked up from variety shows on television long ago. That’s not what Hank Williams does. Listen to the heart broken mountain hollow echos in his chorus yodel, a ululation of lament as old as man. I can never hear the word lonesome without hearing this man’s sweet, rough voice.

Note: There is one country-and-western act that does play around town all the time and you should catch them sometime: Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Review. She’s a great singer with a tight, hot band but even more she has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music. Listening to her introduce songs is like hearing a set of tiny Ken Burns documentaries on the history of classic country music. Check them out sometime.

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Comments»

1. rcs - October 16, 2009

A musician friend of mine says country music is “blues by white people.” He’s not kidding!

Stop by SteamFest 2009 tomorrow at the Fly if you want to see some of it.

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2. mf - October 16, 2009

SteamFest? Too damn much going on this weekend.

Having lived in rural nw Minnesota for a while and worked with guys who could talk tractors like other guys talk cars, I will confess I get a bit excited when the big steam engine calliope goes by during Endymion. I don’t think I’ll be making SeamFest, though. Maybe if the boy were younger.

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3. ahankwilliamsjournal - October 20, 2009

Great essay on Hank; like your thoughts on Hank and early Rockabilly.
I’ve written a piece on that which you can find here:

http://ahankwilliamsjournal.wordpress.com/2009/05/29/hank-williams-writes-all-time-greatest-rock-lyric/

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4. Odd Words « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - November 4, 2009

[…] you have read this far down, you really should be reading her blog. A few weeks back I wrote about Hank Williams voice as a singer, and just this morning (at Oh Dark:WTF-am-I-doing-up:30) came across this great […]

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