It is said that all rivers run into the sea, which serves as a fine metaphor for the connectedness of seemingly disparate things in this world. My world contains realms of thought that are political, musical, educational, historical, and etc. that don’t always seem to meet, much less, overlap. It is always fun, then, when I find evidence that things we keep in entirely separated mental boxes can, at times, leak into one another.
I have been reading a wonderful book called “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” by Stephen Wade, a banjo player, playwright and musicologist. In it, he investigates the stories behind original field recordings of songs that were collected for the Library of Congress. Many of these songs were examples of regional music that found their way into the popular culture after being nearly lost. One of the songs he discusses is a fiddle tune called “Bonaparte’s Retreat”. He goes back to search out the origins of the version by Bill Stepp, whose recording became the basis for Aaron Copeland’s classical music piece, “Rodeo”, and which later became ubiquitous when used as the background for an ad campaign by the Beef Industry (Beef. It’s what’s for dinner). Here is what Mr. Wade says about this how Napoleon became a central figure in American vernacular music:
“Napoleon Bonaparte’s career fired the imagination of nineteenth-century America, an impression expressing itself in songs, set pieces, and marches wherever local militia drilled to the fife and drum. From ‘Napoleon Crossing the Rhine’ to ‘Bonaparte’s Retreat from Moscow’, a profusion of tunes and titles has traced the peregrinations of the French leader…Even in the era of the internet, traditional histories continue to circulate in cyberspace, commenting on Napoleon and the music he inspired.”
Interesting. But what really captured my attention, at a time when fake news and “alternative facts” have been so large a part of the public political discussion, was the next paragraph:
“The most famous of these accounts concerns Uncle John, a fiddler at Pine Mountain, Kentucky. After running through a few tunes for an inquiring college professor, the old-timer launched into his favorite. Taken with the beguiling melody, the scholar asked the grizzled musician for its title. The mountaineer answered, ‘That one’s called ‘Napoleon Crossing the Rockies.’ ‘Mindful of his duty to the truth, the professor diplomatically averred, ‘That was a lovely tune, Uncle John, and I’m terribly grateful that you played it for me, but you do know that Napoleon never actually crossed the Rockies.’ After a moment’s reflection the musician replied, ‘Well, historians differ.’ “
It appears that Napoleon career is somehow connected to the origins of alternative news. I guess there are some things on which we will simply have to agree to disagree.
This morning I caught myself singing the first verse to an old Box Tops’ song, “Neon Rainbow”, for absolutely no reason at all. “City lights, pretty lights, they can warm the coldest nights”. I hadn’t heard the song recently, and it isn’t on the list of my favorite songs, but there it was dancing in my head, like a leftover sugarplum. That is the power of a well-crafted pop song: it sticks in some corner of your brain and leaps out at you when you least expect it. Usually, it’s the chorus that you remember (that’s why they call it “the hook”) and since this song had a verse as memorable as some choruses I had to do some investigating. I wanted to know where this delight came from. Who was the songwriter? I expected it to be either Alex Chilton, the 16 year old boy-genius who was lead singer for the Box Tops and later became a mythological rocker with the band Big Star, or Dan Penn, the brilliant singer and songwriter who produced the Box Tops’ album. I was surprised to see that the writer was someone I had never heard of, a guy named Wayne Carson Thompson. I took a closer look at his body of work and found myself asking: How had I missed this guy?
Wayne Carson (he dropped the “Thompson”, his real surname, at some point during his long career) was a GREAT songwriter. He was not just a “successful” writer or an “accomplished” writer; he was a master of his craft. Wayne Carson wrote great pop and country songs that were recorded by a lot of people, over a long period of time. For the Box Tops, he wrote “The Letter” and my personal favorite, “Soul Deep”, in addition to “Neon Rainbow” and other less well known songs on their early albums. His pop songs were recorded by acts as varied as Petula Clark and Tina Turner, and his Country songs were hits, some BIG HITS, for major artists: Conway Twitty, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Genn Campbell, B.J. Thomas and Johnny Paycheck. Songs that I hadn’t heard in years were instantly brought back to mind merely by reading their provocative and memorable titles: “I See the Want To In Your Eyes” and “Slide Off Your Satin Sheets”. Well-written, extremely listenable pop music. Sweet.
My big surprise was that he had written songs that had been hits for one of my favorite country/slash/outlaw artists, Gary Stewart. I had covered “Drinkin’ Thing” and “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles)” with my country bands in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and they are still among my faves. If he had never written another song, these would have established a legacy that any aspiring writer would be proud to claim. But there is one song that truly guaranteed Wayne Carson’s place in anyone’s songwriting Hall of Fame: “You Were Always On My Mind”. First recorded by Elvis, and then performed by just about everybody, this song won the 1983 Grammy for Song of the Year and Best Country Song. Since then it has become Willie Nelson’s signature song and one of America’s most unavoidable earworms. And he wrote it in ten minutes at his kitchen table. That, my friends, is some good songwriting.
Wayne Carson didn’t think the Box Tops’ first record was that good. He didn’t really care for the singer’s voice and he thought that the single, “The Letter”, was too short. He also wondered what the producer was thinking, sticking that jet noise on at the end. Pretty typical response for a songwriter. He wouldn’t recognize a hit song even if he wrote it. Wayne Carson passed away on July 20, 2015 at the age of 72 of natural causes, but his songs still pop into people’s minds when they don’t expect it. And I will guarantee you that tonight, someone, somewhere will be playing a Wayne Carson song and the audience will sing along, blissfully unaware of the name, or story, of the guy who blended the beautiful melody with the clever words. They might remember who recorded it, but that’s about as far as the “whose song was that” game goes. That’s just the way it is for songwriters, most of the time. And that’s OK. But today I want to say thank you, Mr. Wayne Carson, songwriter, for leaving us such a fine bunch of tunes.
Bear River is the name of the CD that I recorded with my son, Will, producing and released in July. The title comes from the opening cut on the CD, Rendezvous (Bear River Song), which got its inspiration from the little town of Bear River, Nova Scotia. I had never been within a thousand miles of Nova Scotia when I wrote the song, but now that I have experienced Bear River first-hand, I am happy to say that the song and the town seem to fit well together. I don’t think that’s an accident. Bear River, the song, is at heart a 60’s folk song; Bear River, the town, is inhabited by 60’s folk. The fit was pretty natural. By “60’s folk song”, I mean a “folk-like” song, i.e. a song with a story behind it, written not by the anonymous “folk”, but by a singer-songwriter. The story behind Rendezvous (the Bear River Song), the folk-like song, begins with my Uncle Dennis…
In 1958, I didn’t know much about anything; I was eight years old and kids back then didn’t pop out of the box as sharp as they are now. At least, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it. My Uncle Dennis, on the other hand, knew a lot about many things. He lived one story below us with my maternal Grandparents in a brick two-flat on Winchester Street, in Chicago. My family then consisted of my Mom and Dad, my sisters Karen and Sue, and my younger brother Dave. Dennis was like an older brother. He showed me how to build model cars, battleships and airplanes from plastic kits that looked just like the real thing. He introduced me to great literature by letting me read his Classics Illustrated comic books. Once, on a family vacation, he shot me in the eye with an arrow (it was probably my fault). He played the glockenspiel in the Weber High School Marching Band at football games played at Hanson Park Stadium; after he graduated from Weber, the band was invited to march in Washington D.C., in President Kennedy’s inaugural parade. Dennis let me tag along when he registered to attend DePaul University where he joined the ROTC and got to wear a red beret. He was a man of many parts, who studied Greek, taught Latin and Geometry, loved to read Science Fiction and had the greatest collection of belt buckles you could find anywhere. And, oh yes, he gifted me with his sense of humor. One critically important thing he did for me was turn me on to MUSIC.
My whole famn damily was musical and when I was little many family parties ended with me drifting off to sleep under a kitchen table, listening to the sounds of polka music, pinochle and laughter. But Dennis had a way of finding music that was new and different and weird and funny. He introduced me to Stan Getz playing jazz in 5/4 time, South American guitar sambas (the Girl from Ipanema), and even some rock and roll (Ricky Nelson!). Thanks to Dennis, I heard Rolf Harris play the didgeridoo while he watched the “sun a-rise” and tied his kangaroo down, I learned what Allen Sherman told his Muddah and Faddah about life at camp Granada and, thanks to the Smothers Brothers, why you should yell ”fire” if you fall into a vat of chocolate (nobody will help you if you yell “chocolate”). I was also introduced to the “cows-mopolitan” song parodies of Homer and Jethro, “Live at the Country Club”. Many years later, when Ted Douglas and I started playing our own brand of “good-time folk and country music” on the Chicago folk circuit, I “borrowed” liberally from these records and actually got to play some dates with the great mandolinist, Jethro Burns.
The albums Dennis bought with the money he earned working at the Wieboldt’s on Milwaukee Avenue were spun on a beautiful blonde console stereo phonograph in the basement rec room of the Winchester house. That’s where I first heard, and learned to love, the folk music of the 1960’s folk revival. At first, I became aware of just a few songs heard on the car radio or on the Wally Phillips Show on WGN, like “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Green, Green”. Then came the Kingston Trio. Their first album was earth-shattering; it was followed quickly by “Live at the Hungry i”. The music was exciting and funny, melodic and memorable; I learned every song and can still sing them, word for word, today. Before long Dennis introduced us to albums by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio – the list is as ageless as it was endless. Along with the musical groups Dennis found some amazing comedians like Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Bill Dana and a pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith. We absorbed them all, even Bill Cosby, so funny then, who would prove to be so weird and disappointing later. This was the start of my love affair with record albums, a love affair that hasn’t abated to this day.
Years later, after we moved to the ‘burbs, and Dennis and his bride, my Aunt Adelyne, became occupied with raising my cousins Jeff and Jennifer, I continued to follow where the music led. The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Byrds seemed like natural steps in a progression that began in that Chicago basement. Although I found new musical heroes, I never quit listening to the folkies or looking for their albums at second-hand record stores. Dennis and I were always close and he remained a great source of humor and support as my life wound on. Dennis loved history, particularly American History, and he would often vacation with his family at places like Cahokia Mounds, in southern Illinois (and mounds they are; little piles of pre-historically important dirt. You can imagine how the impressed the kids were). When we were much younger, we had walked the fields of my Grandpa’s farm in Southern Illinois, looking for arrowheads and other Native artifacts that got churned up when the farmers plowed. We found quite a few.
After he retired, Dennis would attend Mountain Man “Rendezvous” that were held throughout the Midwest; reenactments of the old-time fur trapper gatherings that featured authentic clothing and skills competitions like in days gone by. He would use leather, beads and feathers purchased at these Rendezvous to fashion medicine pouches which were given to nieces, nephews and other family members on their birthdays, along with the identity of their spirit animal. It was a beautiful way for Dennis to share the spiritual connection he felt between his family, this land, and its original people. It was a terrible shock when Colleen and I returned from a short trip to St. Paul, to learn that Dennis had suffered a major stroke and was in a coma from which he would not awaken. With his passing I lost much more than an uncle. I lost a mentor and a friend. I lost a source of who I was.
At Dennis’ wake, Adelyne asked me to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings”, which I gladly learned. After I finished, I decided to sing “Wahoo”, an old cowboy song that was one of Dennis’ favorites and that I had sung innumerable times with my band, Cactus Jack. Everyone sang along and the sadness lifted a little. Dennis would have liked that. Later on, as I sat with Colleen and her sister, Kari, and Kari’s husband Kevin, in our car positioned behind the silver Cadillac hearse, we talked as we waited for the procession to the cemetery. Kari and Kevin had come from St. Paul to pay their respects on their way to their second home, a little white house on the banks of the Bear River, in the Nova Scotia town with the same name. We had heard a lot about Bear River when last we saw them, and as they described what awaited them at the end of their journey, both Colleen and I expressed the wish that we were going there with them. It suddenly occurred to me that Dennis, with his love for lesser-tamed places and a simpler way of life, would probably have wanted to join us. After that, the song practically wrote itself.
I wrote the first verse of the song in his voice. It was only fair. He had done so much to help me find mine.
It’s been a while – didja miss me? Sorry to leave you hanging for so long, but I’VE BEEN BUSY and there really wasn’t much to say. Now it’s the Merry Month of May, 2016, and things are definitely heating up. In fact, there is something rather LARGE to talk about. For the past year or so, I have been working on a CD of my newest songs with my son, Will Wisniewski (a/k/a Isosceles Kramer), producing, engineering and adding instruments. Will and I are almost finished with the CD, Bear River, and it will be released in late June. We have finished tracking with yours-truly on vocals, acoustic guitar, and trumpet, Will on bass, drums & percussion, lead & rhythm electric & acoustic guitars, banjo, clarinet, organ, piano, tambourine, and background vocal, Lucy Maud on violin, Emily Litten on Saxophone, and Paddy Cline on harp. We will be mastering it and finishing the packaging in the next month. The cover art, a sample of which is included above, was drawn by Lucius Wisniewski, an extremely talented graphic artist (who also happens to be my son). The running order for the CD is: Rendezvous (Bear River Song), The Road, Flower People, Out In the Cold, Lip Service, After All Is Said and Done, A Song for Diversity, Seriously Thinking, Gypsy Wind, The New Normal, What You Really Need.
Rendezvous (Bear River Song) has been re-recorded in a new and slightly different from the version from the one that is featured elsewhere on this website, but a quick listen should give you an idea of the general direction the music has been heading. This recording has been a long time coming and I am really, really happy and proof the sound that we have achieved. Will IS a genius, just like it said on the cover of his middle school notebook, way back when. You can find recordings of songs by Isosceles Kramer (which I highly recommend) by going to Bandcamp.
So keep your eyes peeled for more news regarding the CD release!
Forty-eight years ago today, if you were lucky enough, and hip enough, you had the opportunity to hear the sounds of a world changing. June 18, 1967 marked the opening of the Monterey Pop Festival – a three days concert extravaganza that introduced the American pop music world to Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ravi Shankar, the Steve Miller Band, the Electric Flag, Otis Redding and the Who. With a lineup that included established acts like Simon & Garfunkel, the Buffalo Springfield, the Byrds, the Mamas & Papas, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and many more, Monterey Pop was the first of the great Rock Music Festivals. It ushered in the Summer of Love and, in a way, signaled the opening of the Pandora’s Box that was the Hippie Counterculture. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.
These days, the standard reaction to any mention of “Hippies” runs along the lines of “thank God we outgrew THAT”. I think that this is a damn shame. Like so many things that get swept up into popular culture, the ideas and ideals that gave rise to the counterculture were misrepresented, misunderstood, and eventually subverted by their brief period in the pop-culture spotlight. With the focus placed on the most sensational (and aberrant) aspects of what at heart was an attempt to find a more self-sustaining, satisfying, fulfilling and peaceful way to live, it was inevitable that the pro-social and spiritual subtleties of the movement would get lost in a haze of bong smoke and patchouli oil. But – like it or not – the world changed, and it will never be the same place that it was again.
Unfortunately, that change came with a dark side and the progression down the inevitable road to ruin can be seen clearly if you trace the arc of the big rock festivals of the era. Monterey was rooted in cooperation (the group that staged the festival was truly groovy) and musical exploration. Woodstock was all sensationalism and spectacle, washed down in torrential rain and bad acid. Finally, we reached Altamont Speedway, where the Stones provided an appropriate soundtrack to the sudden descent into chaos and death that mirrored both our foreign policy and the government’s determined counter-revolutionary attitude.
I will talk more about the revolution and counter-revolution that I experienced in the late sixties and early seventies, and the effects of which I see around me on a daily basis, at another time. With another election coming up, I feel it is important to reflect on the things that have contributed to the world as it is today. But for now, I want to celebrate that brief moment at the very beginning of time (I was 16 and it seemed like the world was just being born) when anything was possible, when the most improbable things were happening all around us (Hendrix? Really?), and when it was still safe to think out loud about how much better this country could be IF ONLY we stopped worrying about our stuff and got our shit together. Monterey celebrated diversity in thought by presenting and celebrating diversity in music. This is something that is worth celebrating; even more than a Stanley Cup. So: Hooray! Monterey!