Archive for the ‘Country’ Category
We’re overdue for another edition of Country Catalyst, the Special Feature that offers a classic country song while hoping to open a few ears and make some new fans. As it happens, today’s song is another one with an American Indian theme, sort of like our previous post, but this one has quite a pedigree.
When Cindy Walker wrote “Cherokee Maiden” in 1941, she was still in the early stages of what would be a Hall of Fame career, but she knew it was perfect for Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. It was indeed, and his hit record of the song apparently appealed to listeners who would have at that time needed cheering up while nervously watching the beginnings of World War II.
The song became a familiar one on bandstands — at least for country bands — and as the years passed it surged into renewed hit status a couple of times. The first notable occasion occurred in the mid-1970s when Merle Haggard took it to #1 on the charts, and the second happened in 2001 when Ray Benson and Asleep At The Wheel — Bob Wills’ modern counterpart — won a Grammy with the song.
Since we combined Asleep At The Wheel with Bob Wills on an earlier post for Country Catalyst, let’s give Merle Haggard a shot today. (Video below.)
Bob Wills – “Cherokee Maiden”
Folk music legend Pete Seeger is someone you probably remember, but did you know that one of his musical influences might have been his ‘almost’ nanny? Although Pete was pretty much on his own by then and housekeeper Elizabeth Cotten wasn’t exactly Mary Poppins, she did take care of his younger step-siblings while attending to her other domestic duties, and the whole Seeger family — including Pete — encouraged and embraced her late-life musical career.
Born as Elizabeth Nevills in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1895, her upbringing was typical of the period, and she was working as a domestic by the age of 12. However, she’d also found music by then, first by picking at a banjo and then moving on to her brother’s guitar, which she taught herself to play in an unusual way. She was left-handed, so had to hold the instrument upside-down, which meant she played bass with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. (Most left-handers just re-string the guitar, but her unusual style would later become known as Cotten pickin’.)
By her late teens, Elizabeth had married Frank Cotten and given birth to a daughter, and it was about then that she put music aside and began devoting herself to her family and church. Still working as a domestic, she stayed with her rambling husband for the next couple of decades, relocating at one time or another to New York and Washington, but when her daughter grew up and married, Elizabeth divorced him and went to live with her.
By the 1940s she was working as a housekeeper for the Seeger family, which had a long tradition of musical — and social — activism. (Pete’s father, mother, step-mother, and most of his siblings were involved in both activities throughout their lives.) With their encouragement, Elizabeth again began playing guitar, and even though she’d missed decades of practice she eventually regained her skill. By the late 1950s she was ready to go public, and her groundbreaking album established her as a performer, and as as composer too. One of the cuts was a song she’d written as a girl — “Freight Train” — and it would become a country standard.
Even though she continued with her housekeeping duties for a while, Elizabeth gradually became more comfortable performing in public, and as her fame grew she eventually retired from her previous work and devoted most of her time to entertaining her many fans. She even grew relaxed enough on stage to tell stories of her childhood. A Grammy winner and the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award, she was 92 when she died in 1987.
Elizabeth Cotten – “Freight Train”
We might seem to be in a bit of a rut by featuring yet another actor/singer, but the story of Bill Hayes is a lot different from that of a recent GMC subject, Eddie Albert. For one thing, in 1955 he charted a #1 hit record — “Ballad Of Davy Crockett” — and for another, his acting career once landed him on the cover of Time magazine.
Hayes was born and raised in suburban Chicago, and pointed toward a show business career right out of college, where he’d majored in music. During the post-war years he kicked around for a while before finally hitting pay dirt in the early 1950s with a singing spot on Sid Caesar’s TV show. His subsequent popularity with fans became a springboard for his burgeoning career and he was soon finding work on Broadway too, including a starring role in a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
It wasn’t long before Hayes was also finding success in record sales with his chart-topper about the guy from the Alamo. (One of four hit records on the song, as described in a previous post.) Additionally, the 1950s saw him begin building an acting career, one that would eventually lead to the activity that many fans still remember him for — soap operas. He not only spent decades as a popular star in daytime dramas, but also met and married one of his costars, Susan Seaforth (pictured on the Time cover with him).
They are still a couple after almost four decades together, and during that time have often worked together, including a celebrated return in recent years to the TV program where they met, Days Of Our Lives. And even though he’s now 89 (she’s 71) Bill Hayes shows no sign of slowing down.
Bill Hayes – “Ballad of Davy Crockett”
I don’t think there’s any doubt that “Purple People Eater” is a song that qualifies for our Saluting Silly Songs feature. In case you don’t remember, it was a huge #1 record for singer/songwriter Sheb Wooley in 1958. But it’s also been sort of misunderstood through the years, because the question arose: was the alien creature itself purple, or did it just go after purple people?
It’s actually not much of a mystery, because the lyrics clearly have the alien saying that his main purpose is ‘eating purple people’ — but in spite of that, most of us remember the song as featuring a purple alien. And virtually all of the pictures and drawings – then and now – support that too. (Of course, the absence of real-life purple people might also have something to do with it.)
In any case, it was Wooley’s biggest hit record by far, even though he was a pretty active country singer for someone whose main job was as an actor in Western movies and TV shows. Not surprisingly, his novelty song was initially rejected by the guys at his record company – MGM – because it was ‘not the type of music’ that they wanted to be on their label, but when the demo became a sensation in the company’s offices it won them over.
Although Wooley’s original record was the standard, the song has lived on in other ways — for one thing, it was the subject of a silly movie of the same name in 1988. As for other singers, it hasn’t exactly been a popular choice through the years, but there have been a few. One of the most notable might have been Jimmy Buffett, who performed it on the soundtrack of the 1997 movie, Contact.
Sheb Wooley – “Purple People Eater”
Music history is filled with talented performers who somehow missed the boat on lasting fame. One who would certainly qualify is Carson Robison, a country music pioneer who crossed over into other types of music too; a multi-talented artist and composer who could play several instruments, sing, and yodel. In fact, he was so versatile that he actually began his recording career as a whistler!
Born in rural Kansas, Robison was the offspring of an accomplished musical couple — his father an award-winning fiddler and his mother a pianist and singer — and he wasted no time in joining the family profession. By his early teens he was appearing professionally as a guitarist and singer, and within a few years was gaining experience working the road show circuit in pre-World War I rural America. He continued to build his experience and expertise during the post-war years too, adding instruments to his skill-set and sharpening his whistling ability, and finding a lot of work in country music bands.
By the 1920s Robison was working alongside guys like Vernon Dalhart, Wendell Hall, Frank Luther, and a host of other stars of the era, not only on stage but also on radio and in the recording studio. As the 1930s began, he took the next step by forming his own country music band, the Pioneers (which he later renamed the Buckaroos) and began a period of more than a decade of building to stardom. In addition to becoming very popular among New Yorkers, his band periodically toured England and helped create a fan-base in the UK for country music.
During the war years Robison kept working hard, enjoying record hits with songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and a number of humorous and satirical records that poked fun at the enemy. In subsequent years things slowed down a little, although he again hit the charts a time or two. His last significant record was in 1956, when he made an attempt to keep up with the times by issuing “Rockin’ and Rollin’ With Grandmaw.” Unfortunately, he died the following year at age 66.
Carson Robison – “South of the Border”