Tom Maxwell is a musician (late of Squirrel Nut Zippers and The Minor Drag) and writer (Al Jazeera America, The Oxford American, The Bitter Southerner). He’s glad to combine the two for The Talkhouse.
There’s quite a bit of music that is intentionally scary (Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho, the songs in Tom Waits’ catalogue that aren’t love songs), and then there’s music that can catch you in an emotional undertow. By way of example, I’ve packed a basket of ear candy. All should be played at full volume with the lights off. I hope these songs leave you with the same feeling of giddy discomfort as they do me.
Skip James – “22-20 Blues”
Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1902. He distinguished himself by playing guitar in an open D minor tuning. He also mastered the piano, in his own idiosyncratic way. “22-20 Blues” was one of five piano performances recorded as part of an eighteen-song session for Paramount around February 1931.
It almost sounds like two people performing. James’ voice is relatively calm. He delivers the lyric — about having murder in his heart — placidly. It’s the piano that gives him away. It’s fitful and tense. Fragmented runs swirl around the vocal. There are time drops, trange measure extensions and runs to nowhere. James makes the instrument talk like an intrusive thought.
The tension only increases in the fifth verse: “And if she gets unruly and get so she don’t want to do/My baby gets unruly and she don’t wanna do/Take my thirty-two twenty I cut her half in two.”
James starts stomping the floor while he plays. The tempo is a fast walk, and now we have footsteps. It lasts through the piano solo — a distant mirror of Jerry Lee Lewis’ fast triplets and glissando — to the end of the song.
Country blues icon Robert Johnson reworked the song as “32-20 Blues” (and borrowed aspects of a few more James songs elsewhere), and it doesn’t take away one bit from his prowess to say that Skip James’ version is altogether more menacing. There’s a darkness to Skip James, and it’ll try to eat you up if you listen too long. In his own words, his work was accomplished when he “deadened the mind” of his listeners.
Lord Executor – “Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard”
By the time he started making recordings in the late 1930s, Lord Executor (born Phillip Garcia) was an acknowledged master of calypso. “Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard” is not the sexy fun calypso of Harry Belafonte. It is instead an ominous bounce. Executor is accompanied by John “Buddy” Williams and His Rhythm Orchestra, a veritable skeleton band.
Although recorded in the jazz age with traditional jazz instruments (trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, string bass), this is not jazz at all: it’s calypso, a different approach to tonality, harmony and rhythm.
The head riff somehow communicates both urgency and finality. As a musician, I can’t wrap my head around the casual triplet phrasing and microtonal shadings. Such playing cannot be taught, and scarcely described. There are notes in between notes, from which ghosts emerge. A heavy curtain is swept back, revealing a dreadful stage.
Enter Lord Executor, with his thick patois accent and newsreader’s delivery. “Hideous discovery and monstrous crime,” he begins, “always happen at the Christmastime.”
He then gives a list of awfuls: an abandoned infant, a hit and run killing, “murder and atrocity.” Like John Lennon thirty years later, Executor got inspiration from reading the newspaper. His wordplay is excellent, especially the last verse:
While the workmen they were digging the ground
The grinning skulls of human beings they found
Feet together, and head east and west
Number Five was a watchman. Among the rest,
Number Six had the hands and the feet on the chest
And Number Seven, the mysterious guest
That shock Trinidad
Those seven skeletons that the workmen found in that yard.
Lord Executor was a master of extemporaneous verse, handily winning many “wars” with other performers. “But when I, Executor, draw nigh,” he once sang, “man and beast and insect must die.”
Howlin’ Wolf – “Moanin’ at Midnight”
Chester Burnett was in his forties when he cut his first record. Born in Mississippi, as a young man he learned at the feet of Charley Patton and Sonny Boy Williamson II.
After serving in World War II, Burnett, now known as the Howlin’ Wolf, organized an electric band in Arkansas. His DJ work at a Memphis radio station caught the ear of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, who organized a recording session in 1951. The 78-rpm single of “Moanin’ at Midnight” was Wolf’s first release. (In 1959, a collection of his singles, Moaning in the Moonlight, became Wolf’s first LP.)
Although rock & roll isn’t supposed to have been invented for several more years, this is its blueprint. Everything is distorted: Wolf’s voice, his harmonica and Willie Johnson’s electric guitar. Willie Steele’s thrashing drum fills unambiguously rock. The song is one chord; the performance is relentless. “Moanin’ at Midnight” is more precedent than past.
Mention must be made of guitarist Willie Johnson. He’s getting vicious amp distortion with all its marvelous overtone and sustain. The guitar never stops playing — sinuous supporting lines, sudden whoops and shrieks, insistent attacking chords. Johnson’s playing is unstable and unpredictable, and therefore he’s the perfect accompanist for this kind of music. (Later, up in Chicago, Wolf would hire Hubert Sumlin, his most famous collaborator. But Willie Johnson was demented. He got feedback on a record in 1951, and nobody talks about it.)
“Moanin’ at Midnight” is easily the best song about agoraphobia ever written. Wolf sings about ignoring visitors and phone calls in a way that anyone with anxiety can understand. But there is something else underneath, something unspoken. It’s alluded to in the last unsettling lyric: “Well, do not worry/Daddy’s gone to bed.”
Something terrible has happened or is going to happen. Wolf knows it; you know it. It does not have a name.
Wolf’s voice is a combination of Charley Patton’s field holler and a Tuvan throat singer. “When [“Moanin’ at Midnight”] came out,” Sam Phillips remembered, “it was as if everything just stopped, everything that was going on. Time stopped. Everything stopped. And you heard the Wolf.”
Johnny Ace – “Cross My Heart”
Johnny Ace only recorded twenty-two songs in his short career. Born John Marshall Alexander, Jr. in 1929, he got his start on the streets of Memphis, playing in B.B. King’s band.
“Cross My Heart” was recorded in the late summer/early fall of 1952. “I had a Hammond organ put in the studio,” remembered co-songwriter David Mattis, “…and he was playing with the thing. And I said ‘Hey, would you like to cut something with that?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah.’ Never had touched one of the things before. We cut ‘Cross My Heart’ in about fifteen minutes.”
Johnny Ace was an r&b crooner, best known for his “heart ballads.” I find them less romantic than wonderfully creepy. His voice is distant, the lyrics bland to the point of hidden meaning. There’s an emotional flatness to his delivery that can be mistaken for tenderness, but speaks to me of a kind of pretension to normalcy. It’s not normal. It’s David Lynch surreal.
“Cross My Heart” opens with a distorted organ run, settling into a funereal tempo. Ace rattles off some high school poetry (“I cross my heart, and I hope to die/If I should ever, ever make you cry”) while the backing band lurches around him. No one is in tune or in time. The wandering vibraphone lines are especially compelling, as they run right up to wrong. Like most of Ace’s ballads, there is a marionette awkwardness throughout.
Ace was performing with Big Mama Thornton in Houston on Christmas Eve 1954 when he died. “I will tell you exactly what happened!” said Curtis Tillman, Thornton’s bassist. “Johnny Ace had been drinking and he had this little pistol he was waving around the table and someone said ‘Be careful with that thing…’ and he said ‘It’s okay! Gun’s not loaded… see?’ and pointed it at himself with a smile on his face and ‘Bang!’ — sad, sad thing. Big Mama ran out of the dressing room yelling ‘Johnny Ace just killed himself!'”
Years later, Paul Simon wrote a song in tribute, about a kid sending away for a photo of the dead singer. “It came all the way from Texas, with a sad and simple face,” he sang, “And they signed it on the bottom: ‘From the late great Johnny Ace.’”
I wrote my own song while in the Squirrel Nut Zippers, “A Johnny Ace Christmas.” It’s ostensibly a love song, but I was really talking about leaving the band, the difference between reality and perception, the difference between John Marshall Alexander, Jr. and Johnny Ace: “Merry Christmas Johnny, though you’re leaving now/The anticipation’s better than the real thing anyhow.”