Thursday, September 10, 2009

"It's almost dawn and the cops are gone, let's all get Dixie Fried" - Thoughts on the life and art of Jim Dickinson (and Sylvester Weaver)

Jim Dickinson in 1966: Backwoods hipster (photo by William Eggleston. I think)

As I type this I’m listening to the brilliant blues guitarist Sylvester Weaver and considering the mind-blowing life and art of Jim Dickinson. Weaver was the first person to be captured on record performing acoustic “country” blues in 1923, and also the first person documented playing slide guitar: simply put, he’s a versatile, legendary figure whose music still sounds vital today. Dickinson was a musician, record producer and byproduct of the cultural and artistic melting pot that was mid-20th Century Memphis Tennessee. He died just recently, less than a month ago at the point of this writing, but it seems safe to conjecture that Dickinson is still predominantly an underground figure, though one that millions of people have heard play piano on “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones. He was a member of The Dixie Flyers, an Atlantic Records’ house band that helped make, amongst others, Aretha Franklin’s severely underrated 1970 LP Spirit in the Dark such a long-standing mover, and he was able to mold the madness at the core of Big Star’s incendiary and claustrophobic 1978 bombshell Third/Sister Lovers into the masterpiece that many of us continue to clutch to our chests on chilly, lonely late nights. Dickinson also released his own lovingly off-kilter recordings (under the name James Luther Dickinson and in the group Mud Boy and the Neutrons), classics of a life-affirming sensibility possessed of depth and sincere no-bullshit erudition, albums drenched in a personality so rare and valuable that hepcats like Bob Dylan went to visit him. Weaver and Dickinson are both very significant artists, but their legacies aren’t overtly linked. However, thinking of them in tandem has solid benefits when trying to gather a handle on the heaving heft that’s been the last 100 years of this country’s (that would be the US of A) musical progression.

Nice lid.

Weaver was born in 1897. He began recording in the 1920s, a young man in the middle of some massive cultural upheaval, just one guy who had the good fortune to not only be a strong solo performer but also a sympathetic collaborator. By the end of 1927 his recording career was over and 1960 marked the final year of his life, an existence that ended without fanfare or the accolades of rediscovery that were then being bestowed upon other bluesmen both living or dead. The year Weaver died institutional segregation was still in full effect, William S. Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch was published, John F Kennedy was elected President of the United States, and the appearance in record stores of the Robert Johnson compilation The King of the Delta Blues Singers was still a year away. Jim Dickinson was 19 years old.

Dickinson in the studio
To be 19 years old in 1960 means being the perfect age to really soak up some of the era’s prime social upheaval. Living in Memphis must have just made it that much more intense. To read or hear Dickinson speak about his youth is to gain clear and rich insight into the circumstances the gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll. In his account, the pressure cooker of artistic magnetism of the ‘other’ that ran roughshod over certain young people during the 1950s isn’t laid at the feet of Elvis Presley but instead is awarded to a pill-headed disc jockey named Dewey Phillips, the kind of ‘crazy whitey’ who engaged in subversive behavior like playing Hank Williams tunes between the gutbucket gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the feral madness of The Howlin’ Wolf: A type of accidental cultural disruptor, simply getting his kicks and changing history in the bargain. Dickinson makes the bold and rock-solid claim that without Dewey Phillips there would’ve been no Elvis, or specifically those first ten songs recorded in Sun Studios that caused so much sweet shit to hit the fan before Elvis sold out to Hollywood a year or so later. The play-list integration of Dewey Phillips made Presley possible.

Sylvester Weaver’s blues has nothing significant in common stylistically with rock ‘n’ roll, and his seductively loping, at times slightly Hawaiian-ish style has almost no ties to the blues-rock boom of the ‘60s. Weaver was from Kentucky, not the Delta, and his warm style lacks the doomy, desolate qualities of Charley Patton, Son House or Robert Johnson. Instead, he shares the accessible feel of musicians like John Hurt or even Willie McTell, a folky sensibility that’s casual and inviting. His style of blues features qualities of refinement (a certain studied smoothness), but it’s still undeniably rooted in the country. Weaver’s music is quite at home rubbing shoulders with the hokum and jug bands that proliferated in this era.

LP art by R. Crumb

This isn’t any major revelation, but I find it worthy of mention since one of Jim Dickinson’s early musical epiphanies was hearing The Memphis Jug Band, a group with roots in the 1920s, the decade that holds the entirety of Sylvester Weaver’s recording career, 1923- 27, just five years that fits on two archival compact discs. Like Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band and their contemporaries The Beale Street Sheiks, Weaver was a pro musician. He had a personal solo style but also excelled at duo playing, backing both prolific gospel blues singer Sara Martin and his young discovery Helen Humes. In the same period Martin recorded with Fats Waller and Humes later became a member of Count Basie’s Band. Weaver’s milieu prized adaptability and the desire if not the consistent ability (though his music was popular in its day) to reach a wide audience while retaining a distinct personality, the stamp of individuality.

Sylvester Weaver and Sara Martin
For many, this sort of ‘pro’ mentality is less appealing than the raw quality of specific records, most from the Delta, that seem almost accidental in their existence, their reality owing mostly to a very young recording industry having no solid idea what was sellable or commercial. The strung out, eerie sound of Skip James, the tough, ragged style of Charley Patton, the otherworldly croak and moan of Blind Willie Johnson; this was ‘hard’ music that remains impenetrable for many listeners to this day. It’s worth noting that in the rediscovery 1960s Skip James and John Hurt often played the same festival circuit. James felt his style of blues to be superior to the deceptively mellow playing of Hurt. The sound of Hurt’s voice mingling with his sweet finger picking seems perfect for relaxation and might even effectively lull babies to sleep, in spite of the fact that Hurt’s lyrical content often concerned death and strife. But James’ oeuvre is murder music of a blatant sort, the sound of malice and slaughter and suicide pure and simple, and he looked down his nose at Hurt’s accessible style. Folklorist and American Primitive guitar giant John Fahey considered Skip James to be a monumental asshole, but in this case that’s sort of beside the point. If we must get to the point the point will be that not all old-timey music is stylistically congruent. The jug bands are often the middle ground between polished professionalism and the uncompromisingly raw. Sylvester Weaver seems, at least from this distance to be a fellow traveler of the jug band aesthetic, and it was the sound of what many consider the greatest jug band ever recorded that helped to impact the consciousness of Jim Dickinson.

Where'd these guys come from?

Again, adaptability. The constant risk in being a pro musician is losing the root of it all, the danger of watering down or distorting the vitality of the sound/style in the desire to reach the ears and pocket books of some sort of hypothetical audience. The opposite extreme is often embodied by the suffocating demands made by purists, people that get so caught up on a concept of authenticity that they often miss the forest for the trees. The forest (or the trees, take yr pick) can be how distinct musicians with unique sounds and directions are often lumped together simply because the music has the surface similarity of sounding ‘old’. Jim Dickinson’s era is that of early rock ‘n’ roll, and if there is a period that is inherently opposed to the concept of purity, this is the one. Once white kids and black kids started getting turned on by each other’s sounds and styles and cultural signifiers (and simply turned on by each other) it was a ball that couldn’t quit rolling, and it was only a matter of a few years before the rest of the world, either willingly or grudgingly, followed suit. This is what the Rockabilly purists and R&B snobs often refuse to understand: that Bill Haley and Gene Vincent were the respective Beastie Boys and Justin Timberlake of their day. And on the other side of the fence, a phenomenon like Bad Brains can be traced back to Chuck Berry. Which is to say, can’t you hear the Hank Williams in Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”? I sure can. And yes, the risk is Pat (or Debbie) Boone or Vanilla Ice or Milli Vanilli. But ya’ know, I think that’s a chance worth taking. And I don’t think Jim Dickinson ever felt he had a choice.

So get this old news: rock ‘n’ roll is the beautiful multi-racial child that resulted from the mixing/blurring of class, ideology and simple skin color. This is of course no startling revelation. A few huge forests have certainly been chopped to the ground to provide the pulp to make this point for both true believers in the cathartic gush of the R&R whatsis (that’s me) and for those whose interest in the music/movement is historical (that’s me, too). But it’s a truth that’s often forgotten partly because the give and take wasn’t a smooth 50/50 split, white music being influenced by/borrowing/stealing from black music with much greater frequency than the opposite, and also because the USA seems to love deliberately not thinking about race and class (read the current headlines to see how people act/react when confronted with an issue that's intrinsically linked to race and class). But I think to play truly vital rock ‘n’ roll (and this is the only form of music where the following statement really matters, in my opinion), an acknowledgement or at least sub-conscious acceptance of the cultural/racial/class based back and forth is essential. When the Rolling Stones lost interest in this underlying conversation in their music, they started to suck. Before they started to suck, back when they were a thriving band, they would get Jim Dickinson to play on their records.

The wonderfully warped reality of James Luther Dickinson wasn’t possible anywhere other than Memphis. This was the birthplace of not only Sun Studios (where Jim released a single with The Jesters) and its wildest success Mr. Presley, but also the studio and record label known as Stax/Volt, a building/company/state of mind that put into everyday practice the righteous intentions of integration and racial equality. Dickinson loved music and was in it for the long haul. Memphis made his journey possible. His ability to genuinely contribute to such a wide variety of southern music (both geographically and in spirit) is a mind-bending thing. Not just Aretha and Alex Chilton, but also Primal Scream and Panther Burns, The Replacements and Ry Cooder, The Cramps and Furry Lewis, Dee Dee Warwick and Mudhoney, Doug Sahm and Sam and Dave. One of Dickinson’s earliest musical exploits was a group called The New Beale Street Sheiks, a shrewd idea that seems to simultaneously reference the name of (also recently deceased) Mike Seeger’s then contemporary folk group The New Lost City Ramblers while giving props to Frank Stokes’ and Dan Sane’s late ‘20s answer to those other Sheiks of Mississippi, the Chatmon Brothers.

So here we are back in the era of Sylvester Weaver’s fleeting bout of recording. And getting up close to the sound of Mr. Weaver is just a fine place to be, his playing at moments refined yet appealingly weird, while at other times being direct and spare. At his best when playing sly instrumentals, he’s responsible for a handful of succinct masterpieces of early blues, three from his last year of recording, where he seemed to be really getting a grasp on the slippery tension in his work.

Sylvester Weaver was born in the 19th Century and was sadly long forgotten by the birth year (1941) of Jim Dickinson, a man who almost managed to get a full decade of his too short life into the annals of this fresh and fucked millennium. Dickinson played piano on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album, a record that seemed to jumpstart Bob’s creative fire and landed him a Grammy Award for Best Album. From the stage Dylan gave props to Jim, calling him a brother, but this was in reality a reciprocal gesture, since Dickinson had covered Bob’s early song "John Brown" on his 1972 underground classic Dixie Fried (featuring Dr. John and an uncredited Eric Clapton). Indeed, I can easily see these two kicking back in Jim’s Memphis trailer home, discussing how to get Dylan backstage at an upcoming Mud Boy and the Neutrons’ gig, while taking sips from a jar of high quality hooch and listening to some sounds of equally fine vintage, perhaps even Sylvester Weaver’s “St. Louis Blues” or “Soft Steel Piston”. Oooohhhh mama, can this really be the end…………..

Mr. Dickinson, you’re already missed.

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