Monday, July 20, 2009

Music Library: Elizabeth Cotten, Elizabeth McQueen, Ella Fitzgerald, Ella Johnson, and Elliott Smith

Today's about the ladies! Plus one sad dude.

Elizabeth Cotten - Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes (1958). Do you know the story of Elizabeth Cotten? She taught herself to play guitar and banjo upside-down and backwards (because she was a lefty) when she was a kid in the 19-oughts. She wrote "Freight Train" and "Oh Baby It Ain't No Lie" when she was maybe 13. She taught them to a few blues musicians traveling through town (that was Chapel Hill, NC). Then she got married and knocked up when she was all of 15. For 40-odd years she didn't touch a guitar, while her songs were passed around and renamed and because known as blues classics. Then, by happenstance, she got a job working as a maid in the Seeger household in the 50s. One day they played her some of Mike Seeger's field recordings of folk and blues songs, which were part of his work for the Folkways label. She mentioned that she played guitar in her youth and wrote a few songs, and then she proceeded to play "Freight Train" for the Seegers, a simple fingerstyle blues with the wild alternating bass that marked all of her songs, but, of course, when she played it, it was upside-down and backwards. Say you're a linguist and your job is to find everyone who speaks Navajo and record them before the language disappears. Then, by chance, you find out that your housekeeper doesn't just speak Navajo, but she wrote the Navajo version of The Odyssey. When she was 12. Some hours later, they must have finally peeled their jaws off the floor and started the tape machine. Anyway, I want to say "if you take fingerstyle guitar and folk music seriously, you should own a copy of this," but that sounds like homework, and Cotten's songs are fun. So trust me on this. Her voice is rather tuneless, plus she's all of 67 in this recording, so take that into account. But it doesn't matter.

Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands - Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands EP (2001) and The Fresh Up Club (2003). McQueen is a delightful singer who has gone on to join Asleep At the Wheel, which means that she sang a duet or two with Willie Nelson on his last album. From humble beginnings! My wife and I used to go see her play with her honkytonk friends at the Carousel, the lovely little dive bar just up from our house. The first of these is their demo EP and the second, their first and - I think - only release. McQueen was clearly headed for bigger things even then, and success couldn't come to a nicer person.

Ella Fitzgerald - The Early Years, Pt. 1 (1935-1938), The Early Years, Pt. 2: The Original Decca Recordings (1939-1941), Ella & Louis [with Louis Armstrong, natch] (1956), The Best of the Songbooks (1993), "Azure," and Portrait of Ella (1996). Oh, like you really need me to tell you about Ella Fitzgerald. Of these recordings, the first two are a little trying for those of us who don't remember WWII, the Ella & Louis set is far greater than sliced bread and almost as good as single-malt whiskey, The Best of the Songbooks is an excellent collection, "Azure" is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and Portrait of Ella is a less distinguished collection.

Ella Johnson - "I'm Tired Of Crying Over You." Big-band swing! The voice was different, but otherwise this could have been one of Ella Fitzgerald's Decca sides.

Elliott Smith - Elliott Smith (1995), Either/Or (1997), "Miss Misery," XO (1998), Figure 8 (2000), and From A Basement On The Hill (2004). I have five Elliott Smith albums? Seriously? I mean, I like the guy okay, but he's not one of my favorites, and, honestly, I have a hard time naming any song that's not on the first two albums. But okay, I have five albums. I get diminishing returns on his work the more I listen to it. Am I alone in this?


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