Once a week, my friend Pete and I get together at my place for a few rounds of espresso and conversation in the kitchen before we move to the stereo in the living room. He brings a selection of his many records in an old LP carry-case of faded vermillion with a handle on top. My 700 or so albums stand vertically stacked in three wooden units built for the purpose by a guy who made a cottage industry of selling the things on eBay.
I turn on the amplifier and turntable then cue up the first song. We go cut-for-cut: I play a song, Pete plays a song. We riff off of each other’s selections. Sometimes a melody suggests another melody, sometimes it’s the prominence of a particular musical instrument–a mandolin, a trumpet, a ukulele. And sometimes an overlap of musicians on different recordings provides the segue.
A Folk singer and guitarist, Pete Chambers really knows the sources of his art, especially what has come to be called Roots Music. (His best work, by the way, can be found on his album State & Montgomery—a reference to a particularly meaningful corner of his native Trenton.)
We cover a lot of ground: haunting Folk ballads, bright Jazz numbers, Bluegrass rambles, Country classics, Rock gems–the esoteric, the eclectic, and often the electric.
Much like “how way leads on to way” in Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” even if we started with the same song every time, each “session,” as we call them, would quickly meander in a different direction, arriving at unforeseen musical destinations.
It’s all about connections.
For a recent session, Pete brought over Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby, a Folk classic from 1972 which contains one of Arlo’s most beloved songs and his only Top 40 hit, “The City of New Orleans.” Along with his own compositions and the aforementioned beauty by Steve Goodman, Arlo covers numbers by his father, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Hoyt Axton, a fine Folkie in his own right who wrote “Joy to the World” (not the Christmas carol but the all-inclusive, multi-species paean which went #1 for Three Dog Night in 1971.)
Inside the record’s gatefold cover in the upper left is a list: People who contributed to this album. The names read like a who’s who of music’s ringers. Here’s a taste:
Byron Berline, a virtuoso fiddle player who can bring it in any style but is best known as a Bluegrass master and whom I first encountered through his brief membership in The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Celebrated guitarist, songwriter, composer, and record producer Ry Cooder whose illustrious array of collaborations includes Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton, The Doobie Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, and Neil Young.
Country-Rock bass player Chris Ethridge, a musical collaborator and friend to Gram Parsons and, as such, an original member of both the International Submarine Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers.
Jim Keltner: you’ve heard one of Rock and Pop’s greatest, most ubiquitous session drummers on dozens of hits, including (my favorite) his infectious perfection on the song “Josie” on Steely Dan’s Aja. Apropos connections, he was Ry Cooder’s requisite percussion ace.
Linda Ronstadt, a Rock/Pop/Country titan, the most successful female artist of the 1970s, and a voice for the ages.
To start the session, Pete dropped the needle on Side Two’s first track, “Ukulele Lady,” a much-covered standard written in 1925 by Gus Kahn and Richard Whiting. Its illustrious interpreters over the years include The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Peter Sellers, Bette Midler, and Muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.
I followed this blithe ditty with “Blue, Red and Grey,” a Pete Townshend tune of 1975 on The Who By Numbers with nothing more than Townshend on vocals and uke–hence my choice–and John Entwistle adding a filigree of French horn which, when it enters in the second verse, imbues the song with surprising dignity, transforming it from a merely charming air to a soul-touching experience.
Later in the session, I unconsciously circled back to 1925 by playing “Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)” by The Doors from their 1966 debut album. Jim Morrison and keyboardist Ray Manzarek adapted the song which started as a poem written by Bertolt Brecht in 1925 and was, in turn, set to music two years later by Brecht’s equally famous collaborator, composer Kurt Weill.
Since Pete is a big fan of Bobby Darin, my Brecht-Weill selection could only mean one thing: “Mack the Knife.” Darin’s swingingly upbeat rendition of an otherwise menacingly sinister song from The Threepenny Opera topped the charts in 1959.
Sometimes the connections are that easy.
The next week, Pete brought Maria Muldaur’s eponymous first solo album, saying that if I liked Arlo’s record I’d probably enjoy Maria’s as she has sort of the same agenda. Muldaur scored a massive hit off this album in 1973 with “Midnight at the Oasis,” but she had been active on the Folk scene since the early 1960s, first as a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band and then joining Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band.
As I looked at the gatefold cover of her album, I immediately noticed she also had a lot of the same personnel as Guthrie. And along with Ry Cooder, Chris Ethridge, and Jim Keltner, she also enlisted the help of, among many others, guitarist/guitar innovator Clarence White of The Byrds; multi-instrumentalist and industry-omnipresent Andrew Gold on acoustic guitar; artist and bassist Klaus Voormann, who, among other things, befriended The Beatles in their Hamburg days and later created the cover of Revolver; and Dr. John, A.K.A. Mac Rebennack, under which name the songwriting credit for “Three Dollar Bill” appears. She also does a rendition of “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” one of Dolly Parton’s best original compositions and performances.
If it’s your turn to play the next song, you can go just about anywhere with that record!
For years now I’ve been an avid reader of liner notes and songwriting credits (the same way I pore over footnotes and suggested reading lists in books). It started out as an act of scholarly discipline but has turned into its own pleasure. With time I started to notice names I’d seen before. Collaborations, influences, the witty allusion, the heartfelt homage; thin lines began to join the references, a faint lattice which has thickened into a happy web of connections.
It’s all about connections.