Jeff Barnhart has been a major force on the traditional jazz scene for nearly 20 years. While he specializes in Stride piano and ragtime styles, he also is frequently asked to belt out a tune in the early blues style or croon a ballad, whether old or new. His only criteria is that the song have a great melody and lyrics which will move listeners to laughter, tears or both. On this recording, Jeff concentrates on American favorites of the classic blues and jazz era with a few contemporary tunes that will be classics one day. The liner notes to this CD follow to give you an exact idea of what this recording is all about.
LINER NOTES FOR BALLADS AND BLUES
This recording includes seminal songs about the American-or perhaps all human- experience. Each of these songs tells a story. The idea of telling a story through song or verse hearkens back to the troubadours of the past from Homer up to the folk singers of the 20th century and beyond. Modern songwriter/storytellers such as Elton John, Billy Joel and James Taylor are continuing the rich tradition begun in our country centuries ago. I have strived to select those tunes which stand out, whether for their musical or thematic richness or for their relevance even through the mists of time. Some are well known and will be 100 years from now, others are new or obscure. Each contains a rich lode of emotion, humor, irony, violence, love, hope, despair; in short, those things which connect us—which make us human.
I set the stage with Randy Newman’s nostalgic Dayton Ohio-1903, with its succinct, evocative imagery and haunting melody which I first heard Steve Yocum perform.
I wondered about rerecording Nobody Knows You (I had included it on an album ten years prior) but the versions are so different it seemed right to include it. Besides, I copped the seldom-heard verse from a DVD by Dave Van Ronk. Artists from Bessie Smith to Eric Clapton have put their spin on this wry lament.
Poet, writer and folksong collector Carl Sandburg refers to Frankie and Johnny as America’s “classical gutter song.” Frankie is also known in versions as “Josie, Sadie, Lillie, Annie,” while Johnny was “Albert” in a Midwestern version from the 1880’s. I culled verses from various sources, presenting perhaps the most complete version to date. This is truly the quintessential American grand opera, variations of which are still found in American works of art in virtually every media.
The mock-serious lament I left my Sugar Standing in the Rain has a fantastic interplay between the minor and major modes. It has a wonderfully sardonic patter in keeping with 1920’s ballads which would simultaneously tickle and tear jerk.
I Wonder Where My Baby Is Tonight keeps the humor going as it outlines the nocturnal musings of a forlorn Romeo. This little gem covers the spectrum of feeling associated with a love affair in distress from rage to longing, self-pity to hope, resignation to sanguinity.
After the violence, yearning and sheer verbosity of the previous three tunes, the unaffected adoration found in I Live In Love With You is a welcome anondyne. Nashville pianist Chris Walters somehow finds time in between near-continuous gigs and recording sessions to craft mellisonant melodies such as these. Men, learn this tune and sing it to your loved one and all will be well, almost no matter what you’ve done.
Although the first recording of Christopher Greaves unusual blues Stealin’ Away featured Johnny Dodds and Junie Cobb as the Paramount Pickers, my version owes more to a rendering by banjoist/singer Jimmy Mazzy, who seamlessly melds the pathos of the lyrics with the plaintive melody. Thanks, Jimmy, for years of inspiration and guidance.
Yes, this is the second time I have recorded The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me but the theme of this CD necessitates its inclusion. If my more mature voice and (I hope) better piano playing is not enough to differentiate the versions, I have added a rarely heard second chorus.
In 1938, Jelly Roll Morton recorded Mamie’s Blues for the Library of Congress. In contrast to much of his piano playing during those historic sessions he simplified the accompaniment to this song of sadness, evoking the style of Mamie Desdoumes, an early New Orleans pianist missing two fingers in the middle of her right hand, prompting her playing of unique combinations of notes. I went a step further, creating a drone inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s version with guitar accompaniment and borrowed a few lyrics (in the best aural blues tradition) from other tunes to flesh out the story.
I stole Stealin,’ Stealin’ from numerous sources including the original 1928 Memphis Jug Band cut, assorted “folkie” versions (Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger) and a Eugene O’Neill scholar cum guitarist/balladeer named Howard Fishman. I am not sure where the latter is now, but we had some good times drinking and uncovering lost musical gems. Although the lyrics predate the MJB recording, harmonica player Will Shade gets credit for the composition in keeping with the blues genre where a compiling of earlier lyrics is often claims for authorship.
Miss Otis Regrets, Cole Porter’s taut, searing, heart-wrenching contribution to the Frankie and Johnny tradition, shows the songwriting maestro in a rare mood of verbal simplicity. In just three short stanzas, Porter conveys the story it takes other versions dozens of choruses to tell (see track 3).
W.C. Handy penned The Hesitating Blues in 1915. A tale of loss and regret, it contains a seldom-performed second section of bluesy philosophy; the protagonist’s analysis of the preceding verses. It is a great, stompy melody so I had to include it.
The How Long Blues is a blues with several sources. Most artists, from Basie to Witherspoon, reference the Leroy Carr version of 1929. This serves as a springboard for me to present verses I have heard sung over the years. In the blues tradition, my version is equally borrowed and original.
I first heard My Sweetie Went Away by Marty Grosz and one of his ensembles. I slow my rendering down quite a bit and include the verse, which sets up the story although it makes the tune less personal. My sweetie is still here, Thank God!!
There are conflicting opinions about the origins of one of the oldest blues here, C.C. Rider. Some scholars see it as a derivation of “Easy Rider” (an even older blues) while others claim that the initials are from the lyrics “See, See what you done done.” The first scholars to report on it were Carl Sandburg and John Lomax who heard it in the Silver King Saloon in Austin, TX sung by “two negroes with guitars” who also favored them with Frankie and Johnny.
Listening back to my first recording (Saloon), I marveled at how robust I made St. James Infirmary sound. It is too sad a song to bellow throughout. Here, I make it the more somber rumination of a grieving man becoming inebriated enough to fantasize about his own imminent departure. I reference another title that goes with this song: “The Gambler Blues.” Apparently the instructions laid out regarding the protagonist’s funeral appear to have first appeared in “The Unfortunate Rake,” an old British Street Ballad. This is Anne’s dad Carl’s favorite tune, so, Dad, pour a beer and enjoy!
I finish up with a tune with the original title “Nigger Blues.” This pejorative term appears nowhere in the song’s lyrics. Written by a black songwriter named Leroy White, it is a rough-and-tumble blues fitting to end this exploration of ballads, blues and story-songs. I credit my friend Dr. Craig Wright with supplying the name under which I recorded it: The Lasses Blues. I hope that this CD keeps the blues away from your door!