Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey

It’s election day in the United States, a day of great hope and fear. Yesterday I was on the shore of a great lake and the sunrise was a perfect unbroken horizon of a bright line with pink above that, and then graduations to blue rising up over our heads as high as we wished to look. At our feet, the lake waves came from wherever they come from and broke on the stone ballots cast on the beach.

We are riding a great wave of change sweeping from wherever it comes from to wherever it goes. I feel our country has become both more perceptive and more blind,  in what is too close to equal amounts. I do not know what part of that proportion of blindness is mine or yours. Perhaps until we see, if we ever see, we will not know.
 
We’ve talked about myths here before, our big stories that explain ourselves. When Homer sang his myths he was said to be blind, and myths are often blind. When John Keats read Homer in Chapman’s translation, he wrote about it in a fine sonnet almost exactly 200 years ago, but oops! he put the wrong explorer on that Pacific-viewing peak. So clearly a mistake that a friend pointed it out to Keats immediately, but in the end, it harms the poem in only that simple and clear “wrong guy, Johnny!” way. People who know about these things might note that Chapman’s translation of Homer, published 400 years ago this year, is a bit loose as well. Homer’s music is always very hard to translate, but they say that Chapman added some additional material dear to his own philosophy.

Let’s just leave it at this for now: little or big deviations from the truth make up many, perhaps all, myths, those explanations of ourselves. We grow blind and perceptive at the same time.This piece, Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey, is as much true as my proportion of blindness and perception can make it now.

My appreciation of what was called “folk music” in the US in the mid 20th Century was founded on an appreciation for “authenticity.” “Authenticity” is a particularly hard to define myth. If I can distill it briefly, “Authenticity” believes that certain emotions and feelings are more perceptive, closer to the truth of things. So, to portray those emotions and to share them through art allows one’s audience to see and share the truth of things. The 20th Century American folk music circles search for authenticity is not much different from hard-core punk later in the century (the two musical movements have many parallels).

I saw the folk song Rye Whiskey though that shared myth of authenticity, just as the piece recounts. On the page, and as performed by many folk-revival singers, Rye Whiskey seems to call on harrowing emotions. However, for a time this year it occurred to me to see what I could find out about my great-grandfather for whom I was named, A decade-old report from an uncle that he liked the song Rye Whiskey was one thing I knew.
 
Around this time a co-worker thought my son, who likes math, would be interested in some sets of numbers relating to a deck of playing cards. I told the co-worker that some of that material was used in a hit song of my youth, The Deck of Cards. Turns out The Deck of Cards was a hit not once, but several times, and that Tex Ritter had been one of the earliest to have a successful cover recording of it.

On the other side of Tex’s A Deck of Cards was Rye Whiskey, a  that song that was part of Tex’s repertoire for a long time, going back at least into the 1930s. I can’t say for sure where Frank Eli Hudson heard Rye Whiskey, but Tex Ritter would be an odds-on favorite.

The Deck of Cards was not “authentic” folk music. Robyn Hitchcock once did a parody of it that is hilarious. And Tex’s version of Rye Whiskey?  Well, listen to the piece as played by the LYL Band to hear what I found about how my great-grandfather, authentically living in that “Old Wierd America” that Greil Marcus writes about, might have experienced this song. The gadget to play Frank Eli Hudson and Rye Whiskey should appear below.

 

 

After you’ve heard my tale, here are some versions of Tex Ritter singing this authentic American folk song.

August Moonlight

I promised last time that we’d move on from Emily Dickinson’s church of the August crickets to another take on something like the same thing. Dickinson’s words are set in the afternoon, but this one, “August Moonlight” moves on to August nighttime.

I knew nothing of this poem’s author, Richard Le Gallienne, before I found these words looking for some material on the end of summer. I still know little about him. He’s from Liverpool England, but his lifetime only overlapped the Beatles a little at the end, and besides he’d moved to France by then. In his youth he wrote for The Yellow Book, a short-lived but influential periodical of the ‘90s. No, not the grunge ‘90s, though the thought of Husker Du, Nirvana, or The Replacements being drawn by Aubrey Beardsley (the Yellow Book’s art editor) gives me pause to think. No the 1890s, the “yellow decade,” when using art to throw light on difference, and difference to throw light on art was all the rage.

I’ve always loved the visual art associated with The Yellow Book and the circles surrounding it, but frankly, I’m not a big fan of most of the writers associated with that movement. There’s a kind of dead-end romanticism about a lot of it. Even in my youth, when such things might have been attractive to me, the writers, taken as a group, seemed stilted, like it was a paint-by-numbers picture of a Keats poem.

The visual art however gets past any of that, because it’s just so beautiful in line and color. 70 years afterward, the art of The Yellow Book circle was one of the chief influences on San Francisco rock poster art. So I could have thrown Le Gallienne’s words in with my take on a slinky Grateful Dead space jam or maybe some Beatley folk-rock. I did neither. Instead I paired it with the night-time side of the Velvet Underground, the representative New York City rock group of the 60s.

While I’m at it: Grateful Dead, The Velvet Underground. They’re supposed to be in complete opposition. Sonically there is a bit of a gap there, I’ll admit, though nothing that music couldn’t bridge. But nothing alike? Each band is fronted by a guitarist who has a problem with heroin. The bass player (and sometimes the keyboard player) is really an avant-garde classical composer. They both start out playing to dancers swimming in colored lights at events heavily associated with and promoted by a non-musician guru. Both bands had trouble selling records, at least at first, but those who did find them started forming bands beloved by cliques of college students. Both bands are known for an un-compromising poet maudit stance. Of course, one band hangs out with gangsters leading to a well-publicized incident of an audience member getting killed at a show. One wanted to call to call an album “Skull F**k.” One band put a drug kingpin in charge of its sound system. The other band hung out a lot with artists in lofts and had girl-germs for letting a woman be their drummer.

Seriously folks, I kid. I think it was John Keats who said that great artists must be capable of liking both the Grateful Dead and the Velvet Underground. He called it Negative Capability. Coleridge was always reminding him of that whenever Keats couldn’t clamp onto a good ground when trying to jump-start Coleridge’s rusty Borgward sedan.

Alas I’ve run out of time. You could have been reading “William Morris and Andy Warhol, pretty much the same thing.” Feel free to use the rest of your time listening to “August Moonlight” as Richard Le Gallienne thinks about what it all means out behind the barn. The gadget to play it should be right below this. And you know, that rhythm guitar part might have been a little influenced by the Beatles “Rain…”