I’m currently enjoying Series 4 of the “Fargo” anthology created for TV by Noah Hawley. A Top 3 of my favourite films by the Coen Brothers can depend on which of their productions I have most recently viewed (though possibly not “Hail Caesar” (2016) but the 1996 movie that inspired the series is a constant on that shortlist. The preceding series were, like the film, set in Minnesota & ambitious casting matched to imaginative writing made for superior TV. This time around the setting is Kansas City, Missouri in 1951. It was a little slow out of the stalls & I had some initial reservations (later for those) but it has rounded the final turn & entered the home straight at a fine gallop. The black & white Episode 9, a detour into Kansas, tipped more than a cap to “The Wizard of Oz” while the penultimate Episode 10 started to tie the multi-storied tale together. It was this installment that sent me on a very enjoyable musical journey for the next two days. Here’s the first step.
Willie Dixon’s autobiography “I Am The Blues” (1990) is one of the best books about music that I have read. Born in Mississippi in 1915, one of 14 children, Willie’s stories are of the segregated South, a developing interest in music while serving teenage time on prison farms, a move to Chicago where a choice between boxing (he was a big man) & music was interrupted by 10 more months in the joint after a conscientious objection to the USA’s institutional racism led to a refusal to fight in World War II. By 1950 he was recording with the Big Three Trio & had already lived some life. It was his association with Chess Records where he made a prodigious & pivotal contribution, as a musician, writer, producer & talent recruitment, to the development & popularity of Chicago Blues. His involvement with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley & many others invokes a long list of achievement. Later he met & influenced young British Blues-obsessed players eager to play his songs. Every youth club Beat group tried “You Can’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover”, Cream took a fine stab at “Spoonful” & in December 1964 the Rolling Stones were top of the pops with “Little Red Rooster”, the first (only?) Blues record to hit #1. Willie Dixon didn’t get paid or was recognised for all his work, when he sued Led Zeppelin over their lift of his lyrics to “You Need Love (“I ain’t foolin’, you need schoolin’) they settled out of court. It’s undeniable that Willie was a giant of twentieth century American music.
Koko Taylor was a protege of Dixon’s who, when he did bring her over to Chess, sold a million with “Wang Dang Doodle”, his song first recorded with Howlin’ Wolf. Subsequent recordings were not as successful, “Insane Asylum” was recorded in 1967, a b-side in a run of 45s compiled on her eponymous debut LP where her voice, stronger & more brash than Chess’ other female star, Etta James, enhanced a claim to the title “Queen of the Blues”. What a track it is, Willie & Koko both on full throttle. raw, primal & beautiful. Koko wang dang doodled at the 1967 American Folk & Blues Festival with harmonica master Little Walter & guitarist Hound Dog Taylor, filmed for posterity & a treasure of the Y-tube. There was a further Dixon produced LP, “Basic Soul” (1972) & she continued to record & perform until her passing in 2009.
As a Sixties kid I came to the Blues through the post-Mersey Beat groups & Bob Dylan’s debut album was a gateway to the Country Blues of the 1920s & 30s from the rural South of the USA. Train songs, death songs, going down to the crossroads to sell your soul to the devil, rudimentary recordings of musicians that could play guitar just like a-ringin’ a bell. I must admit that the more sophisticated Jazz passed me by as did the popular Gospel vocal harmony groups of the time. I liked both kinds of music, the Rhythm & the Blues. It was Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin”’ on his 1982 album “Nothing Can Stop Us” that led me to the 1943 original recording by the Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet. This contemporary, perspicacious, humorous sermon concerning the USSR’s resistance to Fascism was exactly my kind of political artefact & further investigation was required.
Formed in 1934 the Golden Gate Quartet were a big thing in the early 1940s, national radio shows, movie appearances & performing at the inauguration of President Franklin D Roosevelt. Wartime personnel disruption & changing public taste in Gospel diminished their popularity but their blend of spiritual sincerity & sophistication delivered through immaculate vocal arrangements ensured an impressive longevity. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” (1946), a tailor-made warning from member Willie Johnson is certainly one of their greatest hits & has been covered by many artists. Also known as “Run On” it has been recorded by Elvis Presley, a long-time admirer who spent time with them in Paris when he was in the army & they were based in that city. In 2003 Johnny Cash included his take on one of the late, great valedictory records he made with producer Rick Rubin. I’m told that Moby extensively sampled a version by Bill Landford & the Landfordairs on his big selling album “Play”. I don’t really watch TV commercials so I’ve probably never heard it. On the timeline of African-American vocal music the Golden Gate Quartet are there as predecessors of Doo-Wop, Sam Cooke, the Tamla Motown units & even Hip Hop.
The Blind Boys of Alabama, like the Golden Gate crew, have been around a long, long time. Formed in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Deaf & Blind they were prominent in the more declamatory Hard Gospel style that had displaced the double G’s harmonies in public taste. Always popular among black audiences in the 1950s they received $50 for each track recorded which seemed generous but there were no royalties on sales. It wasn’t until the 1980s & an involvement in a musical which transferred to Broadway that there was exposure to a wider audience. In the first decade of this century the Blind Boys won 10 Grammy awards including one for Lifetime Achievement. Included in this was the 2002 album “Higher Ground” when producer John Chelew matched them with Robert Randolph & the Family Band & a bunch of classic Soul. It’s not just the title track, taken from Stevie Wonder’s masterful “Innervisions” that is fresh, fierce & Funky. Songs by Curtis Mayfield, Aretha, Prince “The Cross”, wow!), Jimmy Cliff & Funkadelic (wow again!) are taken to church. What a track their version of “Higher Ground” is & i’m very happy that watching telly has led me to this record.
Many TV series now have the appropriate soundtrack thing down & while none of them are ever going to beat “The Sopranos”, Series 6, Episode 14, closing with John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chickentown”, “Fargo” is doing pretty well. The many strands of the saga are not all fully integrated, I took some time to be convinced that Jason Schwarzman could be a Mafia boss, fine actors Jack Huston & Timothy Olyphant are underused but old Kansas City is looking just fine Chris Rock is killing it & it’s great to see Salvatore Esposito, so memorable as Genny in “Gomorrah”, doing his unbalanced, very tough guy act again. I’ve got just the one episode to go & however it ends God’s gonna be doing a whole lot of cutting down, that’s for sure.