Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Journey Up Highway 61: Final Destination

This journey up Highway 61 finishes in the North Star State-Minnesota.  The Highway has shadowed the mighty Mississippi River for 1400 miles, wound through eight states and touched hundreds of communities. To each it has brought musicians and music from the South as if a gift. And each community has added its own vibe and soul to that music, reshaped it and passed it further on up the road.

Minnesota, unlike most of the States through which the Highway has run, has a relatively small African American community.  Its heritage, and the heritage of its music, is strongly northern European.  German and Scandinavian farmers came to this cold northern landscape in the 19th century and before them, French trappers and missionaries opened the waterways, including the Mississippi, to trade and settlement.  Hence the final post of this series on Highway 61 will highlight music made by non-African American musicians.

The music scene of Minnesota is and has been rich. When I lived there in the 70s and 80s the live music scene in the Twin Cities was dominated by (at that time) local bands and artists like The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Husker Du, The Replacements and Prince. All of these and many others, went on to enjoy wide spread international fame. Not bad for a small, ever so proper (and did I mention, ultra snowy) state of European immigrants!

And so let’s draw the brakes, get out of the car, stretch our legs, crack open a cold Leinenkugel beer and listen to some great Minnesota-made music. And toast that great bit of bitumen that has given so many  so much musical pleasure for more than a century.

First up is Minnesota’s most famous son, Bob Dylan’s, most famous album, Highway 61 Revisited.  PhD theses have been written on this album and there are no words I can add that will enrich those millions. I simply refer you to a nice review from another source, the on-line cultural magazine, Pop Matters.

            Track Listing:
1.     Like a Rolling Stone
2.     Tombstone Blues
3.     It Takes a lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry
4.     From A Buick 6
5.     Ballad of a Thin Man
6.     Queen Jane Approximately
7.     Highway 61 Revisited
8.     Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blue
9.     Desolation Row
Listen here.

By the early 1970s Bob Dylan had left the coffee shops around the University of Minnesota far behind. Yet they continued to offer venues where young musicians could ply their trade and hone their craft. One of these was a transplanted  hitchhiker from Georgia who was technically deaf and had a self-described voice akin to ‘geese farting in the wind’.  But Leo Kottke was (is) one  helluva a guitar picker. He is able to drive his 12 string acoustic with an intensity not dissimilar to a jet propulsion engine. At the same time, he can touch them with a serene gentleness and make the most sweet music on earth. Over the years he’s become recognized as one of the world’s most unique and accomplished guitarists. All of his albums are imaginative, sharp and laced with a wry sense of humor.
 My Father’s Face is from 1989. It is one of my favorite Leo Kottke albums, mixing achingly beautiful instrumentals with simple, funny songs. And his ‘geese-farting’ voice is in fine fettle!

            Track Listing:
1.     Times Twelve
2.     Everybody Lies
3.     B.J.
4.     Why Can’t You Fix My Car
5.     Theme from the Rick and Bob Report
6.     My Aunt Francis
7.     William Powell
8.     Back in Buffalo
9.     Mona Ray
10.  Jack Gets Up
11.  Doorbell

Listen here.

Willy Murphy was making music when Bob Dylan was still a whippersnapper. A blues pianist who has produced some milestone albums (Bonnie Raitt’s first) and played with a huge host of blues and R&B artists, Willy Murphy, still plays the local bars. I used to see him at the 400 Club at Cedar Riverside on Wednesday nights. One of Minnesota’s best loved musical icons, he is, along with Bob Dylan, an inaugural member of the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.  Monkey in the Zoo (1997) is a funky slice of electric blues pie with a political flavor. Like the politics or not, you’ll be hardpressed to dismiss the great music.

            Track Listing:
1.     Keep on Rocking the Boat
2.     The World is a Neighborhood
3.     Keep on Running
4.     Kamikaze
5.     I Just Wanna Be
6.     Open Letter
7.     Time (Is Running Out): Rap
8.     Time (is Running Out): Song
9.     Midnight Hour
10.  Great Balls of Fire
11.  Monkey in the Zoo

Listen here.

In St Paul, the state capital, in 1981, another transplanted folk singer with a beautiful baritone and ace song writing skills set up an independent record company called Red House Records. Greg Brown was frustrated with the big labels reluctance to distribute his music and so to paraphrase Victor Kiam, he ‘bought the company’.  Over the years Greg Brown and his record company have gone on to become purveyors of some of the best folk-based, Americana, roots music in America.  Here, as a final tip of the hat to all the wonderful music that has for decades flowed up and down 61 Highway, I offer The Poet Game by an artist, if you don’t know, you will soon be a huge fan of.

            Track Listing:
1.     Brand New 64 Dodge
2.     Boomtown
3.     The Poet Game
4.     Ballinggall Hotel
5.     One Wrong Turn
6.     Jesus and Elvis
7.     Sadness
8.     Lately
9.     Lord I Have Made You a Place In My Heart
10.  In My New Book
11.  Driftless
12.  Here in the Going Going Gone

Listen here.

Happy Trails!!!!

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"

Abe says, "Man, you must be putting me on"

God say, "No". Abe say, "What?"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"

Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killing done?"

God says, "Out on Highway 61".

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