Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Music Weird's best albums of 2014


I'm calling this a "best of 2014" list, but it's really a "my favorites of 2014" list. For one thing, I didn't listen to every recording that was released in 2014. In fact, no one did, which makes any so-called best-of list instantly ridiculous. We could list the 10 or 20 or 100 best grains of sand in the world with exactly as much authority and credibility as these best-albums-of-the-year lists that are popping up everywhere.

I also take issue with the notion of "best" in music, but "my favorite albums out of the ones I managed to hear in 2014" wouldn't make for a very catchy headline, so we won't dwell on it.

 

1. Miniature Tigers – Cruel Runnings

This was my summer album. I never got into the earlier Miniature Tigers albums very much, but this one really hit the spot.

 

 

2. Featherweights – Featherweights

Quiet, wryly humorous story songs by a Swedish boy-girl duo. I listened to this album a lot.

 

 

 

3. Neighbors – Failure

Synth-y, '80s-inspired pop from Brooklyn. Not to be confused with the power-pop group of the same name.

 

 

4. The Memories – Touched by an Angel

The Memories are prolific stoners who crank out lo-fi pop gems between bong hits. That's their image, at least, but I think they work a little harder than their image suggests. The Memories released two albums in 2014: Touched by an Angel and Hot Afternoon. Both are good, but Touched by an Angel is especially good.  



5. Ocean Party – Soft Focus

The fourth Ocean Party album is their best one yet, in my opinion. Jangly, meticulously arranged Australian pop.

 

 

 

6. Ariel Pink – Pom Pom

One of the few "critics' favorites" on my year-end list. Pom Pom is bursting with ideas, which is impressive coming from an artist who has such an extensive discography. Some of my favorite songs are ones that other people have told me they hate, like "Black Ballerina" and "Sexual Athletics."

 

7. Broncho – Just Enough Hip to Be a Woman

Their band name is hilarious. The cheesy, videotaped video for "Class Historian" looks like something from Tim and Eric Awesome Show.

 

 

 

8. Forest & the Trees – Missions

Slick, airy Swedish pop. "The Song That Breaks My Heart" was the first one that grabbed me.

 

 

 

9. French for Rabbits – Spirits

I miss the days when practically everything that came out of New Zealand was great. French for Rabbits are more lovely than scrappy, so they don't sound much like the Flying Nun bands of yore.

 

 

10. Twerps – Underlay

The new Twerps release is categorized as an EP, but it has eight songs, which is as long as many albums were in the LP era, so I'm counting it as an album. (If I were including EPs on this list, I'd add Croquet Club's Jacuzzi.)

 

 

 

11. Night Dew Call – Spots

Night Dew Call is an especially cool band because they're from the Ukraine. The vocalist reminds me a bit of Tobias Isaksson from the Swedish band Irene.

 

 

 

 

12. Ginnels – A Country Life

 An excellent new album from one of Ireland's finest exports.

 

 

 

 

13. Tape Waves – Let You Go

A bit like early Tennis combined with early Beach Fossils but in higher fidelity.

 

 

 

 

14. Alpaca Sports – Sealed with a Kiss

This would have been a more exciting release if nearly all of the songs hadn't come out previously on singles and EPs, but the first full-length by Alpaca Sports is still very good—it just didn't seem very new.

 

 

 

15. Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Morbid story songs about dead people. I'm a big fan of Advance Base, and "Jim Wise" is practically an Advance Base song, so that's what got me into this album.





16. Tycho – Awake

I admire artists who record instrumental rock albums today. Instrumental rock plummeted in popularity after 1963, so the cards are stacked against the instro rockers. This is a good one, though, and a great album to play while driving.




17. Cher Lloyd – Sorry I'm Late

I don't even think this is all that great of an album, but I listened to it so much this year that I feel obligated to include it among my favorites. I'll admit to being a "brat" (as Cher Lloyd's fans are called) even though her handlers do everything they can to mess up her music. "I Wish," for example, is almost ruined by T.I.'s lame rap. "Dirty Love" could have been this album's "Superhero" if the production hadn't been so gimmicky. "Just Be Mine" and "Sirens" are pretty good, but the whole second side is weak. Nevertheless, I love listening to Lloyd's vast array of vocal techniques. You can tell that she's a hard worker.


18. Craft Spells – Nausea

Craft Spells' second album is uneven, but I appreciate the richly orchestrated sound they went for this time, and "Breaking the Angle Against the Tide" is a great single. I wish I had written that guitar riff.




19. Allo Darlin' – We Come from the Same Place

A new Allo Darlin' album will almost automatically make it onto my list, unless they do something really screwy.

20. Advance Base – Plastic Owen Band

A name-your-price odds-and-ends album that appeared without fanfare on Bandcamp in November. This one makes the list just because I love Advance Base. The cover of CCR's "Lodi" is especially good.

 

 

 

Best reissues of 2014



1. Ronnie Dove – The Complete Original Chart Hits: 1964-1969 (Real Gone)

This was the one physical CD that I actually pre-ordered in 2014. I love 1960s easy listening pop vocal music that has one foot in the Nashville Sound, and that describes Dove pretty well. Dove had a lot of minor and middling hits in the '60s but never had a really big one, so he's not a household name in most households. Boy, could he sing, though. "Say You" is awesome. Dove's catalog hasn't been well handled, and many of the reissues of his classic recordings suffer from poor fidelity. This hits collection from Real Gone Music is the first one to present all of his chart hits in excellent sound quality. 


2. Various Artists – Complete Pop Instrumental Hits of 1959

I worked on this collection, so it might be a conflict of interest for me to list it here, but it blew me away. The Complete '60s label's Complete Pop Instrumental Hits series previously rounded up every charting instrumental hit for each year from 1960-1962, but then the label went back to 1959 for this year's installment. All of the collections in the series present these vintage recordings in the best possible sound quality, but this one is particularly impressive. The Virtues' "Guitar Boogie Shuffle," for one, is unbelievable.  


3. Various Artists – Native North America vol. 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock & Country

This is another one of those awesome anthologies that Light in the Attic compiles, like last year's I Am the Center: Private Issue New Age in America, 1950-1990. I had never heard of any of these Native American artists before I got this double album. Some of this is like a cross between Peter La Farge and the Meat Puppets, which isn't a combination I would have thought of, but it's one that I immediately like. 


4. Lavender Country – Lavender Country

You might assume that a record billed as the first openly gay country record would have primarily historical or novelty value, but this 1973 album by Lavender Country is just plain good. I listened to "I Can't Shake the Stranger Out of You" endlessly.







Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did Kurt Cobain and Rod McKuen write songs together?


"I did some writing with Kurt Cobain," Rod McKuen says in the 2006 Dutch documentary Rod McKuen, A Man Alone. (He says it at 3:38 in the video below.)




That portion of the documentary also aired on American television when McKuen appeared on Patti Gribow's PG Show. (The statement in question is at 1:49.)

 

I was extremely surprised—incredulous, even—when I heard this claim that McKuen and Cobain wrote something together, so I tried to find out more about this very unusual alleged collaboration between 1960s/70s pop poet Rod McKuen and grunge icon Kurt Cobain. 

On his website, McKuen talks a little bit about Cobain but seems to contradict what he says in the video:

I was pleased that Kurt liked my work and the feeling was certainly mutual. He had a way of finding the unusual in every day things and writing about them in a very unique way. We had even kicked around the idea of writing something together. I had spoken with him on the telephone not long before his death so I was really stunned at the news. What a loss. To my way of thinking he was just beginning to find his legs as a songwriter.

The link between McKuen and Cobain is pretty tenuous, but a few examples exist, apart from their aforementioned telephone conversation.

Nirvana once half-assedly performed "Seasons in the Sun," a Jacques Brel song that McKuen adapted into English. The song was recorded by McKuen himself and the Kingston Trio in the 1960s but didn't become a hit until Terry Jacks recorded it in 1973. Cobain told interviewers that the song, which is sung from the perspective of a dying man, made him cry when he was a child, and Songfacts claims that Terry Jacks' version was the first record that the young Cobain ever bought. Nirvana's informal performance of "Seasons in the Sun" was included on the DVD that came with the 2004 Nirvana box set With the Lights Out.


Dave Grohl, in a satirical account of his first encounter with Cobain and Krist Novoselic, said, "Krist walked around with these poetry books by Rod McKuen, and Kurt would do interpretive dances while Krist recited Rod McKuen's poetry."

Charles R. Cross, in his book Here We Are Now: The Lasting Impact of Kurt Cobain, quotes a Boston Globe critic who described Nirvana's lyrics as "moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain, who has an idiotic tendency to sound like the Rod McKuen of hard rock." 

That's the extent of their "collaboration." I hate to question McKuen's veracity, but there's no evidence that he and Cobain ever wrote anything together.

Cobain wasn't the only indie-rock guy to harbor a strange fascination with Rod McKuen. Yours truly has a big collection of McKuen's albums, and I even corresponded with him briefly in the 2000s when I was trying to arrange for Collectors' Choice Music to reissue some of his recordings. (Gordon Anderson from Collectors' Choice later started Real Gone Music, which reissued McKuen's albums Listen to the Warm and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall in 2013.) And Aaron Freeman, AKA Gene Ween, recorded an entire album of Rod McKuen's songs, Marvelous Clouds, in 2012.

I wish that Cobain had stuck around to write some songs with Rod McKuen. Frank Sinatra and Glenn Yarbrough recorded entire albums of McKuen's songs, and Madonna co-wrote a song with McKuen, so Cobain would have been in good company.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

5 of the most annoying Christmas songs ever




Christmas is a time for cheer, unless you're listening to these songs. Today, on Christmas Day, Music Weird presents a special Christmas inventory of 5 of the most annoying Christmas songs ever.

1. Pat Boone – "Santa Claus Is Comin' in a Whirlybird"


The song is ridiculous to begin with, but the background singers make it insufferable. I played it for my wife and she said, "It's not just annoying—it's unfathomable."



2. Bobby Helms – "Captain Santa Claus"

 

Bobby Helms, the Indiana boy who brought us the perennial Christmas favorite "Jingle Bell Rock," also gave us the execrable "Captain Santa Claus." The song itself is just a throwaway space-themed Christmas novelty, but the irritating background vocals—not to mention the fake rocket noises that are obviously made by some guy's mouth—propel "Captain Santa Claus" into the craposphere. 




3. Elvis Presley – "Blue Christmas"

 

The recurring theme so far in this list is annoying background vocals, and Elvis Presley's version of "Blue Christmas" continues in that vein with an obnoxious, incessant soprano vocal part in the background. The background vocalist was Millie Kirkham, who sang background vocals on Ferlin Husky's "Gone." Elvis wanted a similar sound on "Blue Christmas," so he instructed Kirkham to "sing a soprano obbligato all the way through," Peter Guralnick says in his book Last Train to Memphis. (Elvis didn't use the words soprano obbligato, though.) "It was horrible," said Kirkham. "It was sort of comical. It wasn't supposed to be, but the longer it goes the funnier it gets—but he liked it."



  

4. Mitch Miller – "Must Be Santa"

 

I like Mitch Miller. He was a talented arranger and recorded some great instrumental music, like the minor hit "Song of the Sparrow" from 1956. "Must Be Santa" is a maddeningly repetitive and moronic song, but Mitch's manic sing-along version takes it to an entirely new level. I wish that I could isolate the voices in the mix to call your attention to a particular vocalist who annoys me; it's the echoey soprano vocalist who warbles on the chorus, if you can get that far before turning it off. 


 

5. Patti Page – "The Mama Doll Song"

 

One of the most terrifying songs ever recorded, Patti Page's "The Mama Doll Song" was a minor hit in 1954.

 

6. Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise – "Bingle Jells" (bonus track)

 

I added this one as a bonus track, because I can't find any audio of it online. This British Christmas tune from 1967 is totally bizarre and inexplicable, with its queasy repetition of the word "near" in the intro and its obnoxious high-pitched whistling teakettle sound effect and its relentless "dong dong dong ding dong ding" refrain.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" (1958)


Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan

I saw that Acrobat Records in the UK recently released a four-disc box set called The Greatest Country Hits of 1958, and Gene Sullivan's "Please Pass the Biscuits" was the only song on it that I didn't already own. I was familiar with the song from Jimmy Dean's version, but I had never even heard Sullivan's version, even though it was a Top 10 country hit—and even though 1958 might be my favorite year for music. 

Before "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan was half of the country duo Wiley & Gene with Wiley Walker. In 1940-41, the two of them wrote and recorded "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," which Elvis Presley popularized in 1956. The group's only hit was "Make Room in Your Heart for a Friend," which was a #2 country hit in 1946. The Bronco Buster label in Germany released an anthology of Wiley & Gene's 1940s recordings, but it doesn't include "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again" for some reason. Unlike many acts from that period, Wiley & Gene wrote most of the songs they recorded.

In 1957, about a decade after the heyday of Wiley & Gene, Sullivan recorded a demo of a novelty song he wrote, "Please Pass the Biscuits," for Little Jimmie Dickens, who often recorded similar comedy songs, like "Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait." Columbia liked Sullivan's demo recording enough to release it as a Sullivan record instead of a Little Jimmy Dickens one, so Sullivan's version was released as Columbia 40971. I don't know if Columbia released Sullivan's demo or had Sullivan re-record it. It sounds like it could be a demo.

The song, which mixed singing and recitation, portrayed a hungry guy who "can't eat without bread" but can't get anyone to pass him the biscuits at suppertime. Despite his constant complaining, the kinfolks at the table eat all of the biscuits, and he never gets one.
 
A Columbia Records ad in September 1957 said that advance copies of Sullivan's record were making noise in Seattle. The song became a national Top 10 country hit on the Billboard chart soon afterward, where it remained well into 1958. In some cities, such as Birmingham, Alabama, it was a Top 5 hit. Sullivan's record also was released in Australia and New Zealand by the CBS Coronet label.



I don't think that Dickens actually recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits" in 1957; Columbia must have decided to release Sullivan's version before the song even got to Dickens. Bear Family Records in Germany released a box set of Dickens' complete 1950s Columbia recordings—released and unreleased—and "Please Pass the Biscuits" isn't on it.

In early 1958, Andre Williams, the R&B singer, recorded a cover of "Please Pass the Biscuits" for Fortune Records as "Pass the Biscuits Please." Williams even claimed composer credit for it. Sullivan wasn't credited on Williams' single at all. 

Jimmy Dean recorded the song in 1962 as the B-side of his single "Little Black Book." In Dean's version, a vocal chorus sings the singing part and Dean handles the recitation. I'm not a great fan of this song (even though I'm writing a whole blog post about it), but if I had to listen to it, I'd choose Dean's version.

The last recording of "Please Pass the Biscuits" that I know of is Norval & Ivy's 1967 recording for Imperial Records. Norval & Ivy were a duo of Jimmy Bryant and Red Rhodes, who recorded one album, Wingin' It With Norval & Ivy, which contained the group's version of "Please Pass the Biscuits." Their version is pretty similar to Jimmy Dean's.

Surprisingly, even though he scored a Top 10 country hit with "Please Pass the Biscuits," Sullivan never released a follow-up record. After his lone solo hit, he ran a music store in Oklahoma City and occasionally performed with Wiley, until Wiley died in 1966. After that, Sullivan performed occasionally as a solo act until he died in 1984.

Recitations—humorous ones and serious ones—were fixtures on the country music chart into the mid 1970s, but they're rare today. The last big year for recitations in country music was 1976, when both Jimmy Dean's "I.O.U." and Red Sovine's "Teddy Bear" cracked the country Top 10.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Religious Santa songs



"Perhaps the thing about Christmas that bothers Christians more than anything else," says the Christian Research Institute, "is Santa Claus. Is Santa a hopelessly pagan idea, or can Santa Claus be saved?"

Some songwriters have tried to "save" Santa by writing songs that place Santa in a Christian context. These songwriters, whether or not they viewed Santa as a secular rival of Jesus, usually tried to mend the rift between the two by grafting religion onto Santa or grafting Santa onto religion. 

But some attempts to mix Santa and religion seem to confuse rather than clarify. For example, is the vintage greeting card pictured above suggesting that Santa hears your prayers? 

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some of the efforts to combine Santa and religion. A few are earnest and a few are jokes, but all are pretty weird. In these songs, you'll hear a number of offbeat revisions to the Santa and God stories: God is Santa, Santa is God, Santa is immortal, Santa is guided by prayers, etc. 



Pat Boone – "I Saw Santa Prayin'"

I never saw Santa prayin', but I saw Pat Boone perform this song in concert years ago, and he introduced it by saying that he wrote it as an attempt to reconcile, for kids, the two main figureheads of the Christmas season. How did he do that? By depicting Santa as a prayerful Christian man and a servant of the Lord. The chorus is "I saw Santa prayin'/I saw Santa kneel before the Lord." In 2007, Boone recorded the song for his album The True Spirit of Christmas. No video exists, but you can hear an audio sample here.






Hank Snow – "God Is My Santa Claus"

In this 1966 song by Canadian country star Hank Snow, a young schoolboy teaches us that God is Santa and Santa is God. The lyrics not only state that "God is my Santa Claus" but also that the "real Santa" is God.





Restless Heart – "Santa's Prayer"

In the 2013 Restless Heart song "Santa's Prayer," Santa himself decries the commercialization of Christmas and hopes that people will remember its true meaning. A reviewer on Amazon calls this "One of the Best Christmas Songs ever written." 




Jimmy Boyd – "I Said a Prayer for Santa Claus"

Boyd, who recorded the original version of the perennial hit "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," recorded this religious Santa song in 1953. In it, Boyd prays to keep Santa safe, healthy, and warm as Santa goes about his business at the North Pole and delivers presents to the kids. I particularly like the part where he expresses concern that Santa might run into a television antenna.




Jerry House – "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" 

This tearjerker is about a dying child who asks if Heaven has a Santa Claus. Although the text that accompanies the video says that Jerry House wrote the words and music, the song was actually written by Carson Robison and appeared in his 1936 songbook Tip Top Album of Carson J. Robison Songs


 

 

Red Sovine – "Faith in Santa"

Another Christmas song, like "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven," about a dying child. In this dreary recitation from 1978, a homeless boy tells Santa that his father is in prison for shooting his mother's boyfriend, that he prays for Santa, and that he'd like to go to Heaven for Christmas. The boy gets his wish and passes away at the end of the song. It's unclear whether Santa has the power to send souls to Heaven if that's their Christmas wish.

 

James Brown – "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay"

This weird, rambling song asserts that Santa Claus is here to stay and also urges people to keep the season strong with faith. You could interpret that as faith in Santa, but I don't think that's the intended meaning. Even though the relationship between Santa and faith is murky, this song is included here because most Santa songs don't mention religious themes such as faith at all.



The Penguins – "A Christmas Prayer"

The Penguins' "A Christmas Prayer" from 1955 features an odd mixture of prayer and gifts as the Penguins pray that their girl comes home for Christmas and puts her presents under their Christmas tree. (Is that a euphemism?) The song doesn't mention Santa by name, but Christmas gifts fall within Santa's dominion, so I think it counts. 

 

Jimmy Martin – "Daddy Will Santa Claus Ever Have to Die?"

In addition to having one of the cheesiest music videos ever committed to VHS tape, this 1980 song by the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, informs us that Santa is an immortal being like God. 

 

Pearl Jam "Santa God"

This song by Pearl Jam, from a limited-edition Christmas single released in 2007, is the mirror image of Hank Snow's "God Is My Santa Claus." Hank said that God is Santa, but Pearl Jam says that Santa is God. For kids who are greedy for presents, that's probably true.



The Santa and Jesus duet from South Park

This duet between a cartoon Santa and a cartoon Jesus pits a number of Christmas carols, including "Joy to the World" and "Away in the Manger," against "Up on the House Top." Santa becomes angry that Jesus has more songs than Santa, but Jesus smooths things over, and the spirit of Christmas prevails. 

 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ronnie Malone's "Lightning Bug" (1958)




I got interested in Ronnie Malone while listening to the 1994 Buffalo Bop compilation Teenage Doll!, which is an anthology of rockabilly recordings by women. Malone isn't a woman, but his high-pitched voice must have made the compiler of Teenage Doll! mistake him for one. Malone was a 10-year-old boy when he recorded his best-known song, "Lightning Bug," which is the one that is included on the compilation.

"Best known" is relative, in this case, because none of Malone's records charted. But "Lightning Bug" has been included on at least two rockabilly compilations: Teenage Doll! and the 2002 compilation We're Gonna Rock on Collector Records. 

Malone's first single was "My Snow Man" b/w "It Had to Rain," the latter of which was recorded again for the same label in 1962 by the Catalina Six as "It Had to Rain Again." (In the linked video, you can also hear a snippet of Malone's recording of the song). "My Snow Man" was released on Ridgewood, New Jersey's Flagship Records in 1957.

Flagship was owned by Vincent and Julia Sardo and Julia's brother, Howard W. Brady, who also recorded for the label. In 1957, Flagship ran a weird ad in Billboard with a "public service" announcement from Vincent Sardo on cold prevention. Underneath, it advertised records by Lorrie Palmer, Howard W. Brady, and Ronnie Malone. "Watch 'My Snow Man'," it says.

When "My Snow Man" didn't become the seasonal hit everyone expected, Malone recorded a second single for Flagship that was listed but not reviewed or rated in the April 7, 1958, issue of Billboard.

The songwriting credits on both sides of the "Lightning Bug" single went to the Sardos. A group called the Teentones provided background vocals, and the Shipmates Orchestra provided the instrumentation. The arrangements were by Robert Wagschal, who also arranged Flagship's next release, "Ice Cream Baby" b/w "Pretty Little Woman" by Frank Triolo. (As an aside, in the comments of the linked video for "Ice Cream Baby," Clint Moore claims that he wrote the song in 1956 at the age of 12, but Frank Triolo and Robert Wagschal stole it.)

The weird thing about "Lightning Bug" is that Malone recorded it twice: Once for Flagship and a couple of months later for Judd, the label run by Jud Phillips, the brother of Sun Records' Sam Phillips. On the Flagship release, "Lightning Bug" was misspelled as "Lighting Bug," but the typo was corrected on the Judd release. 

Someone must have thought that "Lightning Bug" was promising enough to warrant re-recording and re-releasing both sides of the single within months of its first release. Unlike the Flagship single, the Judd single doesn't credit the Teentones and the Shipmates Orchestra. Billboard listed the single in its Nov. 10, 1958, issue but again did not review or rate it. The Flagship recording, not the Judd Recording, was included on Teenage Doll! and We're Gonna Rock.

"Lightning Bug" is reminiscent of the Collins Kids, a kiddie act who recorded a similar song in 1955 called "Beetle Bug Bop." The b-side of "Lightning Bug" is titled "Doodles Doo," so the Sardos were definitely plying Malone with juvenile material. 

Flagship Records continued to release records into the 1960s, but Malone didn't record again for Flagship or Judd. I couldn't find any information about his later activities.

Here are both versions of "Lightning Bug":



(Thanks to Frank Clemens for the scans and videos he uploaded, and for his notes on 45cat.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Did Johnny Horton record racist songs? A history of racist country music


Content warning: This post discusses the history of racist country music and contains racist and sexually explicit language.



"I don't want no pardon for what I was and am,
I won't be Reconstructed and I do not give a damn."
                         – from "Oh I'm a Good Old Rebel"

In 1959, Johnny Horton almost single-handedly created a national craze for newly composed historical folk songs when he topped the chart for 10 weeks with the French-English War tale "The Battle of New Orleans," which was closely followed by the Top 10 hit "Johnny Reb." Soon, artists of every stripe jumped on board with similar recordings that often were historical but sometimes were patterned after the patriotic and Southern pride themes of Horton's two hits. On the eve of the most tumultuous era of Civil Rights agitation, these celebrations of the South and their idealized portraits of the irrepressible Johnny Reb, set to the obligatory military snare-drum beat, struck such a chord with anxious whites that the formula was used for a host of racist country songs that appeared in the 1960s. Along the way, a number of explicitly racist recordings were attributed to Johnny Horton himself, and legend has it that he secretly recorded an entire album's worth of racist songs with titles such as "Some Niggers Never Die" and "Nigger-Hating Me."


Racist music before the Civil Rights era 


The number of explicitly racist recordings increased dramatically in the 1960s, but racist music had been around much longer than that. Labels delved into the Ku Klux Klan songbook as early as the 1920s and 1930s, when Klan membership was at an all-time high and a printed Klan songbook reportedly sold a million copies. Richmond, Indiana-based Gennett Records pressed Klan 78s alongside their pop and jazz discs. Some record labels, such as 100% and KKK (an Indianapolis label whose logo pictured a burning cross and the legend "Best in Klan Music") exclusively released racist titles such as "We Belong to the Ku Klux Klan" and "Why I Am a Clansman." And many early hillbilly performers, like J.E. Mainer and Uncle Dave Macon, recorded songs such as "Run, Nigger, Run" and "Nigger in the Woodpile," some of which were later cleaned up and given titles like "Run, Johnny, Run" and "Man in the Woodpile." 

Nationalistic fervor and shellac shortages led to a lull in the production of racist recordings during World War II, or at least a lull in racist recordings that were directed at blacks. The Japanese became the new target of songs like Carson Robison's country hit "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap (And Uncle Sam's the Guy Who Can Do It)" and "A Hundred Years from Now," the latter of which imagines a future in which the only surviving Japanese people are kept in menageries. After the war ended, white teenagers became interested in R&B, and black-influenced rock and roll gained popularity, both of which riled the white supremacists, who soon began directing their ire toward blacks again in earnest.

"The Battle of New Orleans" and its aftereffects

 

Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" was one of the biggest international hits of 1959, and one of the 30 biggest hits in the first 50 years that Billboard compiled sales and airplay charts. The song created a fad for so-called historical folk songs, which were not always factual but were highly formulaic. These fife-and-drum songs often incorporated banjo and had narrative lyrics about characters and events from history. The Civil War was a popular theme, but any historical or faux-historical subject would do. (Fess Parker recorded a great but historically inaccurate album of songs about Presidents and other figures from early American history.)

The Civil War-themed songs of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s usually proclaimed that the South would rise again or waxed wistfully about past Southern victories. Given the social stresses of the day, these songs were not only nostalgic but also political statements, because the promised rise of the South implied a return to the antebellum status quo, or, in other words, to institutionalized white supremacy. Country music is not a genre that is known for explicit political protest, but in a not-too-subtle way, a substantial portion of white America expressed its displeasure with the Civil Rights movement, consciously or unconsciously, by buying these records. 


The fact that these recordings were the front line in a political struggle is illustrated by the controversy that surrounded Claude King's 1964 Top 10 hit "The Burning of Atlanta," the chorus of which is "the South's gonna rise again." Claude King was a close friend of Johnny Horton, and after Horton's death in 1960, King was groomed by Columbia Records to be his replacement. "The Burning of Atlanta" was so politically provocative that it was blasted from sound trucks during the racial conflicts at the University of Mississippi in 1964 to intimidate black protesters and sympathizers. Claude King himself, disappointed that the record didn't chart higher, complained candidly, "I'm convinced the NAACP forced that record off the air."

 

Reb Rebel Records and the rise of underground racist country music


Southern hostility toward the NAACP was given voice on a series of 45s that were released by the Lousiana-based Reb Rebel Records label in the 1960s. J.D. "Jay" Miller, the composer of Kitty Wells' 1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," ran the label and produced the recordings. Miller was also an A&R man for Excello Records at the time, procuring material for black R&B and blues musicians even as he oversaw the recording of racist novelties for his own label. For Miller's Reb Rebel label, pseudonymous artists with names such as Johnny Rebel, Son of Mississippi (sometimes billed as the Multiple Voices of the Son of Mississippi), and James Crow performed topical songs and recitations, including "Flight NAACP 105," "NAACP Jig-A-Boo Gemini," and "NAACP Prayer." The Johnny Rebel song "Nigger-Hating Me" includes the line "the NAACP would sure like to get a hold of nigger-hating me." The label produced 20 singles between 1964-1972 as well as the compilation LP For Segregationists Only. Some of the records are said to have sold more than 100,000 copies.

The liner notes on the back cover of For Segregationists Only attempted to justify the music: 
These selections express the feeling, anxiety, confusion, and problems during the political transformation of our way of life.... Transformations that have changed peace and tranquility into riots and demonstrations which have produced mass destruction, confusion, bloodshed, and even loss of life....  
Miller himself, in a queasy, conflicted attempt to express his motivations, resorted to the "some of my best friends are black" cliche:
Of course, we had a lot of fingers pointed at us, and by a lot of people less friendly to blacks than I am. I've always been friendly with blacks, and we never did hide the fact that we were recording these records. We had blacks sitting in on the sessions, and a lot of blacks agreed with what we said. We're not hypocritical about it. You'll find my address on there. I didn't try and hide it. There were others...but they wouldn't put their address on the labels like we did. I never had any black people object to our records. Though I did have some white people that were amazed at what we did. I met some white hypocrites that tried to stir up some trouble with it, but they wouldn't dare sit down and eat with a black. I just ignored them. I've been eating and drinking with blacks since 1946, as long as I've been making records. It was nothing new, but I didn't have anybody telling me I had to do it. That makes a big difference, and I choose my friends. And I don't choose them based on their skin color. The Reb Rebel Records were at the times of the Civil Rights disputes.... They even had a black radio station down in Port Arthur playing it.... Kind of like an Amos n' Andy skit....

Son of Mississippi's "Flight NAACP 105," the first release on the label, is a recitation in which black pilots who speak in exaggerated Amos 'n' Andy-style dialect receive directions from air-traffic controller Johnny Reb that lead them to wreck the plane in a remote wooded area. "NAACP Jig-A-Boo Gemini" is a similar recitation that depicts some "hillbillies," with continuing assistance from controller Johnny Reb, forcing buffoonish black "agitators" onto a spacecraft for the purpose of "blasting them out of this world."

Not all of the Reb Rebel Records singles were concerned with racial issues. Happy Fats' "Veteran's Plea" is a father's request that he be sent to fight in Vietnam instead of his son. Fats, whose real name was Leroy Leblanc, was a mainstream Cajun country artist who had recorded for RCA in the 1930s and 1940s. Other songs expressed discontent with government programs and policies, or lambasted war protesters and communists. These relatively mainstream right-wing political records had a fighting chance at reaching the country chart, considering that mainstream country star Jim Nesbitt enjoyed a handful of country hits in the 1960s with like-minded political comedy records like "Please Mr. Kennedy" and "Husband-In-Law," the latter of which is a bit of dialect humor that actually reached #74 on Billboard's country music chart in 1962. Johnny Seay's Day for Decision album, which was almost entirely concerned with right-wing political and patriotic themes, hit the Billboard album chart in 1966. And many mainstream country artists recorded songs that criticized the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, Communism, and the counterculture in the 1960s, including Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right," Autry Inman and Bob Luman's "The Ballad of Two Brothers," and Sheb Wooley's "The Love-In."

Despite the relatively presentable protest records that Reb Rebel occasionally released, many of its other records were explicitly racist. Johnny Rebel's "Kajun Ku Klux Klan" begins with the advice, "You niggers listen now/I'm gonna tell you how/to keep from getting tortured when the Klan is on the prowl," but later says that "the Klan is gonna get you" no matter what. This song, like many of the recordings that have been mentioned, is based on the Johnny Horton model and features the omnipresent military-style snare-drum riffs.

Johnny Rebel was hands-down the performer with the most vitriolic material in Reb Rebel's catalog and was unique in that his white supremacist and right-wing messages were expressed in songs rather than recitations. Many of his recordings are competently crafted, well-played, and well-sung. Rebel, in real life a Louisianan named Clifford Trahan, attempted a career in mainstream country music, releasing straight country and rockabilly recordings under the names Tommy Todd, Jericho Jones, and Pee Wee Trahan before finding an underground niche with offensive material, some of which was sexually explicit rather than racist. (He recorded his sexually explicit songs under the name Filthy McNasty.) Trahan had brushes with mainstream success when Sammy Kershaw and Al Ferrier recorded his songs, and he had a bona fide hit when Jimmy C. Newman's recording of his song "Lache Pas Le Patate" earned a gold record in Canada.


The 1970s and David Allan Coe



The proliferation of racist country records declined in the 1970s, and Reb Rebel Records closed up shop in 1972. Mainstream country artist David Allan Coe took up the banner and released some explicitly racist recordings on a pair of underground albums that he cut in 1978 and 1982. Even before that, he inserted the n-word into one of his commercial recordings for Columbia Records: the 1977 song "If That Ain't Country."

Reb Rebel's racist recordings were largely underground efforts, as were these two "x-rated" Coe albums, Nothing Sacred and Underground Album, which he sold by mail order and at concerts. For me, Coe's song "Nigger Fucker" is even more disturbing than Johnny Rebel's recordings, because of the song's utter lack of humor. Johnny Rebel often came across as a smirky, juvenile bigot, but in "Nigger Fucker," Coe is as bitter and hateful as can be accomplished in a three-minute country song. 

A New York Times article reported that Coe is embarrassed by his racist recordings now that they circulate freely on the web, and he dismisses them as "biker humor." Nonetheless, his embarrassment was not great enough to prevent him from reissuing the albums on CD and selling them through his website and at his shows. I saw David Allan Coe perform a few years ago, and he was still selling his racist albums at his merchandise table.



Anthologies of racist country music on CD


 
A German bootleg CD, You Can Wear Your 'X' I'll Wear Mine, purportedly contains nearly an album's worth of racist Johnny Horton recordings. The title of the compilation pits the "X" in Malcolm X against the "X" in the Confederate stars and bars. The anthology's subtitle, "A Tribute to Johnny Rebel," refers to the mythic Johnny Rebel and not the Reb Rebel Records artist of the same name. The disc itself lists no artists whatsoever and is cheaply made with no label address or other information, but merchants who sell it online have listed Horton as one of the artists in their descriptive blurbs. 

The first track, "Johnny Rebel," is a rousing Johnny Horton-esque number with "hup-two-three-four" background vocals and the obligatory martial snare drum, but it's not Johnny Horton. A few songs from the 1991 Columbia album Songs of the Civil War follow. Johnny Horton, who died in 1960, is nowhere to be heard on these tracks. Next is Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right" followed by a vintage rockabilly track ("N-gger"), a cheerleading song for the KKK ("Stand Up and Be Counted"), and an invitation to join the "Segregation Wagon." None of these recordings are Johnny Horton.


Many of the recordings that are attributed to Horton also surfaced on a compilation that was put out by the white supremacist record label and distributor MSR Productions. The disc, The Good Old South—Country Style: Documents of American History, also gives no artist information and is jam-packed with some of the most in-your-face racist music that the 1960s had to offer. As usual, the recordings that are so often attributed to Johnny Horton are actually Johnny Rebel recordings.

Some of these recordings have surprising connections to mainstream pop. For example, in Johnny Rebel's "Lookin' for a Handout," he slips in a musical reference to "Boll Weevil" by Brook Benton—a black artist—at the end, and the song "She Died a Nigger" (widely and erroneously attributed to Johnny Rebel) is the teen-tragedy song "The Pickup" by Mark Dinning—the white teen idol who had a big hit with "Teen Angel"—with new lyrics.  

Another one of these compilations of racist recordings is Rebel Yells: Songs & Humor of the American Racialist Struggle, also released by MSR Productions. The 22-track anthology contains an assortment of political, racist, and religious songs, including tracks by mainstream country artists Marty Robbins ("Ain't I Right") and Jimmy Martin ("I Like to Hear 'Em Preach It" and "Voice of My Savior"). It also has a number of Reb Rebel recordings, several recordings by the Jigs, and a couple of songs that express support for George Wallace's presidential run. This collection actually lists the names of the artists for a change, and Johnny Horton is nowhere in sight.

Finally, the early 1970s Reb Rebel album For Segregationists Only was reissued on CD in 1994. From the 1980s onward, it seems like most of the white-supremacist music came from skinhead punk and hardcore bands, not country artists. 


Why was Johnny Horton wrongly credited with all these racist recordings?


Johnny Horton achieved tremendous success as a mainstream artist, and some of his historical songs celebrated the American South, so white supremacists might have seen him as an ally. Horton sometimes performed historical songs from the Northern perspective too, such as "The Battle of Bull Run," but even in that song, the Rebels kick Yankee butt.

When I first saw MP3s of "Nigger-Hating Me" and "Some Niggers Never Die" circulating on the web as Johnny Horton recordings in the 1990s, I was horrified. "Not Johnny Horton!" I thought. But then I noticed that the same recording of "Nigger-Hating Me" was sometimes identified as an early home recording of Buddy Holly and his brothers. It quickly became clear that Johnny Rebel was the artist behind almost all of the recordings that are credited to Horton. And Rebel himself is frequently credited with racist songs that he didn't record. In fact, any racist country record from the '60s stands a good chance of being credited to Horton or Rebel, no matter who actually recorded it. The source of the confusion is probably that Horton, with "The Battle of New Orleans," popularized the "historical" sound and style that pervade these recordings. 

Bear Family Records in Germany is releasing a 9-CD box set of Horton's complete recordings. It contains every released and unreleased recording that Horton ever made, including demos. If you're willing to shell out over $200 and buy this exhaustively researched set, then you can hear for yourself that Horton never recorded any of these racist songs.

Horton and Buddy Holly aren't the only mainstream artists who have been wrongly identified with racist material. Johnny Cash has been erroneously credited as the singer of Odis Cochran's "Ship Those Niggers Back," even though Cochran sounds nothing like Cash. 

The desire to attribute these fringe recordings to well-loved mainstream artists probably says something about people's desire to believe that their fringe views are more widely held than they really are.