Posts Tagged ‘Joe Henry’

Toussaint’s American songbook

3 December 2016

A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.

After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.

Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.

He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.

It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago. 

American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.

As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died, 

Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.

Five to look up on youtube:

Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.

With Elvis Costello.

Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.

On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.

Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.

If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.



Ramblin’ Jack and the country blues

12 September 2009


It seems that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, sometimes described as Woody Guthrie‘s musical heir, should be in his 90s by now. But Woody died young and it turns out that Ramblin’ Jack is only 78, which is, it also turns out, the very best age for making a record of country blues songs.

In other words, A Stranger Here, released earlier this year, a collection of classic country blues songs from the ’30s. Not any old blues songs, but ones chosen by the producer, Joe Henry, to resonate with the present times. And written by some of the great bluesmen, from Blind Lemon Jefferson, to Son House, to Lonnie Johnson, to Furry Lewis (“when Furry signs the blues” sang Joni Mitchell on Hejira.)

If Elliott has a great producer, he is also blessed with a fine band, which includes Van Dyke Parks and David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos), and the overall effect is, well, to underscore the timelessness of the songs. Elliott admits on the sleeve notes that the musical selection was made by Joe Henry; he sang the songs he was presented with.

The first track, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues”,  continues a theme in Henry’s production work of music which evokes the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Henry’s recent productions include Elvis Costello’s collaboration with the New Orleans pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint, A River In Reverse, and of Toussaint’s more recent solo record The Bright River, which both have the spirit of New Orleans embedded deep in them. My own favourite on A Stranger Here is Elliott’s version of Soul of a Man, by Blind Willie Johnson, which could easily have given the record its title.

By chance I also recently read an essay by Geoff Dyer, “Blues for Vincent”, in his collection Anglo-English Attitudes, in which – among other things – he reflected on the blues. Dyer’s essays are so rich that reading one is like drinking a glass of dessert wine – slowly, in small quantities, a thing to savour – and this passage helps explain why:

The message of the blues is simple: as long as there are people on earth they will have need of this music. In a way, then, the blues is about its own survival. It’s the shelter the black man has built, not only for himself but for anyone who needs it. Not just a shelter – a home. No suffering is so unendurable that it cannot find expression, no pain is so intense that it cannot be lessened – this is the promise at the heart of the blues.

My related posts:

Singing the blues

Highway 61: Dylan’s blues record