Ike & Tina Turner: Nutbush city limit (1973)
I often think of Nutbush (population 259) when I drive through small towns – the kind of places you desperately want to leave when you’re a teenager. This must be the best fuck-you song ever dedicated to a town (Tina Turner was born in Nutbush), although I have reasons to believe everything she wrote was true: speed limit twenty-five, no motorcycles allowed, no whiskey for sale, etc. You’ve been there if you’ve ever driven anywhere near the south of the US. Or the mountainous part of northern Italy, for that matter: they might serve you homemade grappa, but still look funny at you if you’re a male and wear earrings.
Nutbush city limits is driven by a guitar riff so iconic that there is dispute over who actually played it: Marc Bolan (who collaborated with the duo at that time) or the band’s guitarist James “Bino” Lewis? Nobody knows, but the distorsion is fantastic, and it makes the song instantly catchy. Along with Ike’s synth solo and Tina’s dynamite performance. There’s an interesting little musicology here. Tina Turner (who split from Ike shortly after 1973, and has sung this song – which she wrote – in every show since) re-recorded it for her Simply the Best 1991 compilation. Of that recording, she published two versions: one entitled Nutbush City Limits – The 90s version♾, and another called Nutbush City 91☊. The former is a little Disco/Housy number, good for Montecarlo but devoid of the original attitude. The latter is a more interesting object: it’s much closer to the ’73 version (including the cloned synth solo), but much slower and strutty. This is quite rare: Pop artists usually tend to play their hits faster, mostly because it’s easier – especially with funkyish, rockyish material such as this (in fact, her live rendition of this song♾ is the fastest). The ’91 version doesn’t really deliver as the original either, but it allows musically curious people (and singers, who should listen very closely) to hear Tina use her voice to propel the song, to push it forward. She does it all the time (it’s one of her trademarks), but it’s very audible on slower tunes such as this. Actually, the 90s House remix was made using the same vocal track (and bpm) of the 91 version, but the riviera arrangement drowns the vocal performance.
The most notable cover of this song is by Bob Seger, who managed to make it his own – so much so that he opened his live gigs with it. It isn’t on Youtube because of © issues, but there’s a bootleg recording☊, live in New Orleans in ’77: not as good as the Live Bullet version (1976), perhaps Seger’s best album, but it showcases the funky tightness of the Silver Bullet Band.
For me however, the original is still the very best. And those lyrics still resonate clearly: “On hightway 19, the people keep the city clean. They call it Nutbush, the lord town.” Brrrrr…..
Randy Newman: Louisiana 1927 (1974)
One of the things I admire in Randy Newman is the ability to switch between entirely different musical characters, while remaining 100% true to himself. This isn’t rare: it’s unique, in Pop history. He can write Short people (a very cruel, very funny and somewhat true song about short persons, one of the most hilariously incorrect piece of music ever written; it has a very interesting Wikipedia page) and The Lion King for Disney (for whom he’s written a lot). He can be the character we hear in Rednecks (“sung from the perspective of a Southern redneck“, says Wikipedia), or that of some tunes from his 1999 album Bad love (an older, macho asshole, rich and bitter), and also write songs that will break your heart, like Every time it rains☊ (also on Bad love), Guilty♾ or Louisiana 1927.
Louisiana 1927 is a topical song, written in first person. It recounts the great Mississippi flood of 1927; it’s a song of amazement (at the forces of nature), and dignity in the face of misfortune. It also contains a (fictional) reference to president Coolidge’s visit on the disaster area, and his (also fictional) offensive remarks. In 2005, when hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana, Louisiana 1927 became useful again: the amazement, the dignity, even the government response resonated within the song. It was featured in countless benefits, and performed by dozens of people (all on Youtube♾, I think). This is another Randy Newman gift: to write songs that will be hits for others. This is how he can sing them in such a measured and intimate way: someone else is going to tear off the roof with them. Case in point: Aaron Neville’s version of Louisiana 1927☊ vs the original.
Dan Barnes and choir: Old Alabama (1948)
Here’s a real gem, born out of true sorrow. Etno-musicologist Alan Lomax recorded this and other prison songs in the early winter of 1948 at Parchman Farm penitentiary, in Mississippi. “Southern agricultural penitentiaries were in many respects replicas of nineteenth-century plantations, where groups of slaves did arduous work by hand, supervised by white men with guns and constant threat of awful physical punishment… It is hardly surprising that the music of plantation culture – the work songs – went to the prisons as well.”*
Old Alabama is a classic leader and chorus tune, the rhythm punctuated by axe blows. I’m not sure about the meaning. It could be that Old Alabama is a code for something entirely different. The room has a fantastic sharp reverb that adds drama but keeps everything nice and audible. The axes sound creepy and close, the singing is – well, you can hear that for yourself. Keeping in mind a very important fact: this is probably the first song NOT recorded to stimulate your pleasure that you’ve heard in a long time – maybe ever.
There have been many reprints of these songs. The original collection (cover in the picture) had 17 titles. Old Alabama and 7 other recordings from Negro Prison Songs from The Mississippi State Penitentiary are now in the Public Domain, and can be downloaded from the always useful Archive.org.
* (Bruce Jackson, quoted on the song’s page at the University of Mississippi digital archive)