Friday, January 06, 2012

Oxford American Winter 2011: Mississippi Music Issue

The Firstborn is Dead, Nick Cave's second LP with The Bad Seeds, comes with liner notes that seem to be based on an interview with Cave explaining all the songs. "Tupelo," it explains, is based on John Lee Hooker's song of the same name, about a great storm that hit the town of Tupelo, Mississippi in the spring of 1936 (the storm also caused intense damage in Gainesville, GA, the same city where my father died a few months ago). "The Tupelo tornado, the fourth deadliest tornado in United States history, slammed into Tupelo, Mississippi at around 8:30 P.M. It was an F5 on the Fujita scale, causing total destruction along its path. The tornado missed the downtown business district. The tornado moved through the residential areas of Tupelo, destroying many homes, and killing whole families who had little or no warning. When the death toll of 216 was announced, over 100 people had been hospitalized in three states. The final death toll was set at 233." So sayeth Wikipedia.

Nick Cave's version borrows from John Lee Hooker's account of the storm, but adds a mythical significance: the storm was a harbinger of the birth of the messiah in the town of Tupelo, the newborn king being Elvis Aaron Presley. It's a logical connection to make (although factually a stretch: Elvis was born some 16 months before the storm), and Cave milks the mythical resonance out of it, including references to Elvis' stillborn twin:

In a clap-board shack with a roof of tin
Where the rain came down and leaked within
A young mother frozen on a concrete floor
With a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw

Well Saturday gives what Sunday steals
And a child is born on his brothers heels
Come Sunday morn the first-born dead
In a shoebox tied with a ribbon of red

(Again, not perfectly accurate, as all accounts I can find say Elvis' twin was born dead.) The lyrics have a strong strain of that Old, Weird America running through them, the way biblical prophecies and local legends and bits of old Childe Ballads get mixed together in these old folk songs. I've always loved this song, but I hadn't really thought about it in a long time, until this year's music issue of Oxford American magazine arrived, with a CD dedicated to the music of Mississippi, and it included this song (coincidentally, I got this song again the following week when I downloaded the first disc of Fire in my Bones: Raw + Otherworldly Gospel from eMusic).

The liner notes to the Nick Cave record mention the John Lee Hooker song, which is surely influenced by Henry Greene's earlier recording, but I find it impossible to imagine that Nick Cave could have come up with his version of "Tupelo" without having heard Henry Greene's "Storm Thru Mississippi." Like Cave, Greene cast the storm as the judgement of an angry God, and begins with "Well, Tupelo, MS was a mighty sinful town." It's a powerful song. I love the part where he sings "Well, people you might not believe it, but there is a God somewhere." In any other song, these words would be comforting, but Greene's God is not a God of mercy and love, but an Old Testament deliverer of wrath. "He can wound, he can heal, he can do just how he feel." God don't give a FUCK, y'all!

So I guess what I'm saying, as I say every year, is go out and buy the Oxford American music issue. Hell, get a subscription. That's what I do, and at $20 a year, the CD alone is worth it. But you also get what amounts to several pages of liner notes on each song, and several supplementary articles. (Then the other three issues are just gravy!)

The highlight, for me, of this issue was an essay by Elijah Wald on the blues' roots in "the dozens." It seems Wald is expanding this idea into a book, which comes out this year, and I have to say I'm looking forward to reading that as much as I'm looking forward to any movie or album coming down the road.

To finish off, one more idea that this CD has me thinking about, regarding two of the songs included. Jimmy Donley's "Radio, Jukebox and T.V." is identified as pure, honky-tonk country. Joe Henderson's "Snap Your Fingers" is identified as smooth soul music. Listen to them with your eyes closed, and it sounds to me like they have it backwards, which I believe illustrates how much these "genres" overlap.


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