Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Casey Jones

Grateful Dead: Casey Jones
Pete Seeger: Casey Jones
[purchase Grateful Dead version]
[purchase Pete Seeger version]

Earlier this week J.David posted about the railroad, and here is yet another perspective on what was once a great American institution.

I’ve been reading a lot of “Westerns” recently on my Palm Tungsten. Yes, I reject the iPad/Kindle because of the in-built DRM and prefer to  download my DRM-free books from Whatever. My latest read has been “The Taming of Red Butte Western” by Francis Lynde, but I am now on yet another of his works. IMDB says that Lynde was also the writer behind the film “Across the Burning Trestle” (which I know little about, but the title clearly fits the subject).

The Francis Lynde books I mention revolve around characters involved with the train companies in the US ca 1900. This is the material of legends such as Casey Jones.

Legends, Myths, Folklore: the lines that separate them are somewhat blurred: all are stories about things that may or may not have been. The popularity of the TV show “Myth Busters” certainly doesn’t help to clarify the distinction: the show seems to get us thinking that a myth is likely incorrect.

While there truly appears to have been a railroad engineer named Casey Jones, the details we are left with are a mix of Folklore, Myth and Legend. This Wikipedia link provides the basics, but it is the music that should concern us most here. Briefly: Casey Jones was the engineer of a fateful train-wreck in which he died while saving the lives of his passengers.

Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger and The Grateful Dead are our main musical references for this song. The first two follow the traditional path: that of the folk song. The Grateful Dead veer away from the classical folk version to create their own song which has begat its own tradition (linking Jones’ penchant for driving fast with the “speed” of the late 60s and 70s). Pete Seeger’s version has the facts all mixed up, but it sticks to the popular version. He’s got Jones way out West in Reno whereas he worked the tracks back East and died in Tennessee.




Monday, November 12, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Werewolves of London

Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London

[purchase Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy]

This week’s theme got me immediately thinking about unicorns, magic dragons, banshee, leprechauns and even the Japanese tengu (long-nosed goblins). Then I pondered the songs written about Greek Gods and Goddesses such as Venus, Athena, Aphrodite and Zeus. Finally, my mind flew back to a memory of how I celebrated Halloween this year – watching the classic 1941 horror flick “The Wolf Man” starring Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Béla Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the big hairy and scary guy. It seems that Chaney’s portrayal of this mythological creature (or is it?) greatly influenced future Hollywood depictions of the legend.

Throughout the film, we hear villagers recite this poem whenever the subject of werewolves comes up:

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.

Not based in legend, these lines were the screenwriter’s invention. We hear them in several other classic werewolf films of yesteryear although later films change the last line to "And the moon is full and bright” to cultivate the idea that a werewolf is transformed under a full moon. That’s often how stories of folklore evolve and are embellished over the years. 1941’s “The Wolf Man” was the second Universal Pictures werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by a less commercially successful “Werewolf of London.”

I can’t help but wonder if Warren Zevon might’ve watched one of these movies before writing one of his best known songs, “Werewolves of London.” As you’ll hear him sing in the last verse:

I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen,
Doing the Werewolves of London.
I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's,
And his hair was perfect.

Zevon began as a session musician backing artists like The Everly Brothers and Manfred Mann. His solo career took off with his second album, Warren Zevon, featuring collaborations with Jackson Browne. Zevon is best known for "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," and "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," all on his third album, Excitable Boy, released in 1978. The title tune was about a juvenile sociopath's murderous prom night. As Zevon played piano and sang, “Werewolves of London" also featured Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass). The successful song was paradoxical with Zevon’s signature lighthearted wry humor and macabre outlook.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Warren Zevon died at age 56 at his Los Angeles home on September 7, 2003. With a great big “Aaooooooo!,” let’s remember and pay tribute to this rock and roller for his great material and contributions to music.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: The Day John Henry Died

[purchase the Drive-By Truckers’ version with Jason Isbell on lead]
[purchase Jason Isbell’s live album being released on November 19, 2012, even though this song isn’t on it]

The story of John Henry is probably one of the most popular American folktales, and it has been the subject of many books and songs. I have 41 John Henry related songs on my iPod, and that just scratches the surface (and some of the recordings also are old enough that they have scratched surfaces). One of my kids’ favorite books when they were younger was a version of the story by Julius Lester and illustrated by one of the best, Westchester resident Jerry Pinkney, which everyone with children should own. [purchase]

In short, the story tells of an African-American “steel-driving” man who defeats a steam drill in a contest to dig a railroad tunnel. He beats the machine, but dies from his exertion. For way more background on the story, including a discussion of its factual basis, check out this website created by four grad students at the University of North Carolina: [John Henry The Steel Driving Man]

The issues raised by this song—the effects of industrialization on human workers—have been struggled over by humanity for a very long time. The Luddites of the 19th century gave a name to the view that technology was generally negative, and the labor movement has also agonized over the balance between allowing technology to advance and the fact that it often puts workers out of work. I recently engaged in a debate on Facebook about whether the self-scanners at our new Stop & Shop were good or bad because they put cashiers out of work, on one hand, but created jobs for security workers and manufacturers, installers and maintenance workers for the new machines. I don’t know, and I doubt there can ever be an “answer.”

Jason Isbell’s song, “The Day John Henry Died,” is an updated version that was originally recorded when he was still with the Drive-By Truckers. Although it gives an outline of the tale, it isn’t a direct narrative like so many of the versions I have heard. And at the end, there is a reference to sleeping on an airplane, which seems to indicate that Isbell thinks that the issues raised by the John Henry story continue to exist today. In his commentary on the Truckers’ website, he notes that he “was always intrigued by the fact that John beat the steam engine, but didn't live to enjoy his victory.” And in the live version in the video posted above, he says that the song is about “winnin’ the battle but losing the war.”