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Songs from the Tradition

roscoe holcomb Walk Around My Bedside

From a recording by Roscoe Holcomb where he plays guitar rather than the banjo he’s normally known for. He was an extraordinary musician, one of those wells so deep that it never seems to dry up and the water is always very cold and tastes a little like iron.

black twigs
charlie w black twigs
Last Payday at Coal Creek

I first heard this from the Black Twig Pickers during a show where I was playing along with them. Isak just leaned over by me and said “there’s kind of an odd change here … you’ll hear it”. I loved the song and its weird rug-in-the-washer rhythm so much that I recorded it about the same time as they did. To me their version is much better and truer. I still love this song so much that it’s one I play a lot, right or no. Pete Steele is normally credited with it, and it’s got to do with the Fraterville mine disaster of which there is a wonderful and sad documentary about. His version is amazing as is another one by banjoist Billy Faier who sounds like he grew a couple extra fingers just to play it.

willie johnson God Moves on the Water

Who hasn’t sung this? Since 1912 when the Titanic sank it’s been sung about. I really like a lot of the different looks at it; from the political songs about “they locked the poor below, they were the first that had to go” (check out Richard ‘Rabbit’ Brown) to the strictly historical ones (Frank Hutchison being my favorite: “how’s yr machinery now? Alright? Alright.”) to the religious ones where the theme is borrowed from a mighty old hymn called God Moves in the Windstorm that takes it’s text from the book of Job. That’s where mine falls, inspired mostly from Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell: “Jacob Aster was a millionaire, he had plenty of money to spare. When the Titanic hit the iceberg he could not afford the fare”. Bob Dylan’s recent visit to the tragedy (Tempest) is absolutely amazing.

brother ely Ain’t no Grave (Gonna Hold my Body Down)

Brother Claude Ely’s storming version of this song is amazing. It shudders the walls at low volume. I never get tired of this song, or listening to any of the versions that have been recorded. Besides Ely’s I really like Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s version. When I recorded this, I was mixing their version and Ely’s a little I think. I hadn’t heard Johnny Cash’s version. If I had I wouldn’t have tried it.

atomic duo Turpentine Farm

Comes from Catjuice Charlie and Pigmeat Pete, but the one I was hearing is from the Atomic Duo. I got to play a show with Mark Ruben down in Austin, Texas and he’s a hell of a musician and a great guy to boot. You all remember the Bad Livers, I hope. Here’s to them.

Dave Ray Jimmy Bell

I first heard this song from Dave Ray. He heard the song from a Cat Iron record and in true Dave Ray style made the song entirely his own. The last time I heard him play it was at the Brewhouse in Duluth in what turned out to be the last time he would ever play there. He started the song out and played it all the way through, then he kind of lifted off into improv-land for awhile. It was transcendent. I lost track of time, my beer got warm, I just sat there staring right through him while he played. Suddenly he was back at Jimmy Bell, and he played the song again, all the way through. It may have been an hour, or maybe just 10 minutes, but it was amazing. I love the Cat Iron version, that whole record is great, but Dave Ray owned every note he played and probably never played the song the same way twice. I really learned a lot from just watching him over the years that I was lucky enough to be able to see him play. The most important thing I learned was to not try and play like Cat Iron, or Charlie Patton, or John Fahey, or Dave Ray. My version of Jimmy Bell is weak, I know that, but it’s mine.

Spider John Rattlesnake

Spider John Koerner is my favorite musician. I used to go to the Viking Bar to see him play every Sunday night for a while there, sometimes it was just a few of us, sometimes a good rowdy crowd singing along and laughing at John’s jokes. No matter which kind of night it was, John played the way he played and told the jokes he told and it was always great. When I got to the point where someone asked me to make some goals for a ‘music career’ I scoffed at that and said that if I could ever do what Spider John does, even get close, then my goals were realized. That’s all. I’m still working on it, and fortunately John’s still at it. I got to sing along with him at Palmer’s on Rattlesnake, and that’s good enough for a career for me. Rattlesnake’s old, I don’t know much more than that. John said to me lately that it’s all of ours, a real folk song. If he said it, then I believe it. It’s a true song, that’s for sure “I been living in the bottom all my life, I ain’t done nothing but bite”.