There is no other road in the United States, and possibly the world, more tangled up in, more soaked up with, more in bed with music than Highway 61. Running from the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Lake Superior that laps the American border with Canada, ‘61 Highway’ (as ‘Mississippi’ Fred McDowell referred to it) is American music’s throbbing jugular vein. The lifeblood of the blues, r&b, gospel, country, and rock n’ roll is circulated throughout the land and pumped back refreshed and born anew by way of the highway and its innumerable capillaries that the flow across the continent.
Four fabled cities, New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville and Chicago, sit along, or close, to the highway. Four mighty genres of American music, jazz, soul, country and blues were given life along the route. I’m sure it has been asserted many times before, that if ever one wanted to understand the roots (and the myriad branches) of modern popular music, there is no place more essential than that trail of bitumen that follows the Mississippi River through the very heart of the North American plain.
The next few posts will focus on music from along Highway 61 (and to be precise, a few of its major tributaries). I will select at each stop, four records that have emerged from or represent the local soil. My choices may seem quixotic. My general preference being to avoid the obvious or ‘the much covered’. If this strikes some as intolerable or ignorant, so be it.
And so let’s begin the road trip through American music.
The Source: New Orleans, Louisiana.
For a city revered as the Mother of Jazz, New Orleans has in fact, such a rich musical culture one could spend an entire life in the Crescent City and never become bored with or come to the ‘end’ of its musical offerings. Blues, funk, zydeco, r&b and brass band music , drum and fife, jazz and Cajun all have unique New Orleans roots or incarnations. Here is just a very tiny sample of music from America’s most euphonious city.
The Neville Brothers are one of New Orleans’ beloved grand families. And Institutions. Their story is best told by themselves. The only thing I’ll do is rave about their music. It is funky, soulful, passionate, angelic, angry, never static and dancifying. Yellow Moon (1989) is not just one of my favorite New Orleans albums, it is a genuine Desert Island disc. Something you never want to be too far away from. It was my introduction to the Nevilles. Years on, I remain amazed by the beauty and strength of the music. The way in which the vocals not just blend with the instruments but seem to match them and even transform themselves into another sort of instrument. And we should never underestimate how difficult it is to cover Bob Dylan and create something fresh. Their version of The Ballad of Hollis Brown is haunting and nearly surpasses the original.
. My Blood
. Yellow Moon
. Fire And Brimstone
. A Change Is Gonna Come
. Sister Rosa
. With God On Our Side
. Wake Up
. Voo Doo
. The Ballad Of Hollis Brown
. Will The Circle Be Unbroken
. Healing Chant
. Wild Injuns
‘Champion’ Jack Dupree spent his earliest years in the same orphanage (Colored Waifs Home for Boys) as Louis Armstrong did. His parents were killed when their home was razed by the KKK. Though he left New Orleans (travelling up Highway 61 to the northern cities of Chicago and Detroit) as a teenager that sense of abandonment defined ‘Champion’ Jack’s music forever.
Forever and Ever was made in 1991 the year before his death, and after a triumphant return to his hometown, after nearly four decades in Europe. This is not in the same league as his greatest albums, especially Blues from the Gutter, but it is still a wonderful record. From the cover which shows Jack dressed up as member of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, a unique New Orleans sub-culture, to some of the most harrowing songs he ever recorded (They Gave Me Away, a forlorn retelling of his being sent to the orphanage), this is a very personal record. As always, Jack has fun, chuckling and making snide comments to the band, throughout. And of course, he shows plenty of his ability to tickle the ivories.
1. They Gave Me Away
2. Hometown New Orleans
3. Skit Skat
4. Poor Boy
5. Forever and Ever
6. Yellow Pocahontas
7. Third Degree
8. Dupree Special
9. Spoken Intro
10. Let’s Talk It Over
Dr John aka Mac Rebennack like the Neville Brothers is a New Orleans icon with a capital I. Only his fame is probably wider spread than the siblings. I’ll skip details of his history as they are well known. Though N’awlinz Dis Dat or D’Udder was made in 2004, a year before Hurricane Katrina ravished his beloved city, this record sounds like a ‘let’s celebrate New Orleans’ outing. With a heavenly host of local stars (Cyril Neville, Nicholas Payton, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Eddie Bo, just to mention some) the Dr claws his piano and sings his lungs out as he leads his accomplices through a collection of songs about or made famous in the Crescent City. A fantastic, taut, diversely paced and hellishly performed collection that goes down as not just one of Dr John’s but New Orleans best albums.
1. Quatre Parishe
2. When the Saints Go Marchin’ In (feat. Mavis Staples)
3. Lay Your Burden Down (f. Mavis & Dirty Dozen Brass Band)
4. Marie Laveau (f. Cyril Neville and Mardi Gras Indians)
5. Dear Old Southland (f. Nicholas Payton)
6. Dis, Dat or D’Udder
7. Chickee le Pas (f. Cyril Neville and Mardi Gras Indians)
8. The Monkey (f. Eddie Bo and Dave Bartholemew)
9. Shango Tango (f. Willie Tee)
10. I Ate Up the Apple Tree f. Randy Newman)
11. You Ain’t Such a Much (f. Willie Nelson & Snooks Eaglin)
12. Life’s a One Way Ticket
13. Hen Layin’ Rooster (f. B.B King & Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown)
15. Eh Las Bas (f. Leroy Jones)
16. St James Infirmary (f. Eddie Bo)
17. Time Marches On (BBKing, Willie Nelson & DDBBand)
18. I’m Goin’ Home (Cyril Neville)
The final selection for this start up Highway 61 is Watch What You’re Doing’ by Herlin Riley, one of America’s best jazz drummers. From a musical New Orleans family, (yet another one!), Riley began his professional career backing Ahmad Jamal before taking over the drumer’s stool for Wynton Marsalis’s band in the late 1980s. Watch What You’re Doing’ is regarded as one of the best jazz records of the first decade of this century, and has been one of my consistent favorites, especially the killer closing track, Blood Groove, for years.
1. Watch What You’re Doing
2. New York Walk
3. John Lewis
4. Soscalalah Blues
5. Sunshine in My Pocket
6. Coodie Coo
7. Warm All Over
8. Myrosa’s Mirage
9. Blood Groove
Next stop: Northern Mississippi and the Delta.