country

Stagecoach To Somewhere – Patti Page

We move on.  Many rock and roll fans regard Patti Page as a sickness that had to be cured.  For them, the rock and roll revolution was the just in time prescription.  It consigned to a shameful past trite calculating sentimentality.  And, according to rock and roll historians, there was no better example of what had to be swept away than her single, How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.  This million seller not only had the excruciating lyric, ‘How much is that doggie in the window, the one with the waggly tail’, but also a contrived chorus from a too interested canine.   But, like the equally awful Wooden Heart by Elvis Presley, it sold millions.  Doggie even inspired a cover by Lita Roza in the UK, a record that the Scouse warbler later disowned.

Patti Page was born in Oklahoma in 1928 just ahead of the rock and roll revolutionaries that took doggies outPatti Page of the window and threw them in the dustbin.  There is confusion about her birthplace.  Some sources say that she was born in Claremore but others claim that she was a native of Muskogee.  The latter suggestion may be untrue but Muskogee is a tempting notion because, of course, the great Merle Haggard identified the town as his heart-warming example of American conservatism.  As Merle said, ‘We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.’  Well, perhaps not then.  So Muskogee sounds like the kind of place that should have spawned Patti Page, a woman who was established in the fifties as a TV star and a regular feature in American living rooms including the very best.

Her TV career reveals the best and worst of Patti Page.  Too often she is clearly being manipulated and presented for uncritical mass consumption.  As with the Elvis Comeback Special, the weakest moments are invariably the dance routines.  Normally, Southern musicians handled compromises quite well.  They managed to be compliant but remote. From the Sons of The Pioneers onwards there is a tradition of performers from the South who gave the public what they wanted but also insisted on reminding the same audience that they had other listening responsibilities. The TV shows of Page can often be mechanical.  There are, though, memorable moments.  Patti Page had pedigree.  Before the pop music there were stints in a Western Swing Band in Oklahoma and she also worked for the talented and jazz orientated Benny Goodman.   Patti Page is rooted in music and is more than the bland warbler identified by narrow minded rock and rollers.  Her TV two-hander with Nat ‘King’ Cole is a fine example of what can be achieved in the medium and it presents two talented musicians being allowed to share their mutual respect and express their talent and taste.

Patti Page was born Claire Ann Fowler and was of the people she was always willing to entertain and please.  The father was a railroad worker who had a large family to support.  Their home had no electricity.   Page can be forgiven if she saw her career as opportunity rather than compromise.   Her success was rooted in pop but her career also remembered the country music of her childhood.  Her memories ensured that country influences could be heard on some of her pop hits.  She also created a handful of listenable country albums.

Patti Page The country music of Patti Page lacks the bite of the music of someone like Patsy Cline but it is not because Page did not understand the experience of the American working class.  Put simply, she had a different kind of talent.  Page is capable of singing about sadness.  Indeed, she performs torch songs very well.  The sadness in the music of Page might indicate a broken heart but the effect on the spirit is disappointment rather than defeat.  Cline captures despair and bitterness.   The two singers might remind us of a review of Wild 90, a rare film by the writer, Norman Mailer.  The critic complained that Wild 90 took us to where we live and that this was a mistake because the cinema existed to help us live.  This is the difference between singers like Cline and Page.  Patsy Cline takes us to a sad spot in our existence while Patti Page helps us to stay alive.

A beautiful voice lifts the spirits or for many people there was a time when it did.  Now, folk want Madonna and Lady Gaga.  Today, we stay alive in different ways.  Our natures, though, are constant, and this should be remembered by those who are quick to condemn Patti Page for How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.

Despite her country roots, there are more similarities between Patti Page and Doris Day than with Cline.

Doris Day

Doris Day

Both were blonde and pretty and were groomed to look polite and be like the woman Don Draper in Mad Men thinks we should all want to marry.  Although her music was sweeter, Day had a more forceful delivery.  This provides an interesting paradox.  Page, because of her roots, could handle country material beyond Doris Day, yet on Secret Love Day shows a lack of inhibition that is not in the repertory of the more guarded PageBoth women are complicated and had careers beyond the stereotypes created by the unthinking.  Although Peggy Lee often runs it close, Move Over Darling by Doris Day is the sexiest American record ever, and those who are quick to dismiss the talent of Day should listen to her recorded version of The Black Hills Of Dakota which has truly beautiful moments.

If Page was willing to remember her country roots, those who look for the jazz influence of Benny Goodman in her subsequent recordings may be disappointed.  Jazz does not feature much in her catalogue.  We have to remember, though, that the singers in the swing bands were often an interlude in the jazz entertainment.  Their job was to provide the lighter stuff and stop the audience becoming bored.  Gospel music is also important to the people Page knew in her childhood. Page copes well with the odd gospel tune, probably because piety suited her unpretentious conformity.  Her version of The Lord’s Prayer may not be the equal of the classic by Mahalia Jackson but Page delivers a fine interpretation of What A Friend We Have In Jesus.

Patti Page was nicknamed the Singing Rage because the rhyme made senseThe name Patti Page she took from the sponsor of the radio show where she made her debut.  It is a chilling echo of the power of men like Don Draper and the dangers of too easy compliance with our masters, as can be the plastic smile of Page.  Few people, though, talk badly about Page.  Her disposition like her music had warm appeal.   The country music has lasted better than the rest and contains genuine classics like her versions of Go On Home, Dark Moon and the ubiquitous Tennessee Waltz which is so good it inspired numerous covers.   Elvis thought about doing covers of Dark Moon and Tennessee Waltz but the Hillbilly Cat was no slouch in knowing the polished tonsils of rivals.  Sensibly, he withdrew and he kept his distance.

Patti Page is not sexy like Peggy Lee but neither are her best musical moments confined to the unaffected girl next door of country music.  She was especially gifted at harmonising with her own voice, and, when she double tracks, you can hear, as an echo, an alternative and perhaps suppressed masculine ego.  Whatever the cause, it is wonderful.  Old Cape Cod is dreamy and seductive and benefits greatly from her harmonies.  She also is great on the bluesy You Don’t Know What Love Is so maybe I should rethink what I said about her contribution to the music of Benny Goodman.  More listening is required and, of course, recommended.

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If you want to see and hear Patti Page and Patsy Cline and compare, have a look at these 2 clips:

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Stagecoach To Somewhere – The Tractors

Steve Ripley is the lead man in the band called The Tractors.   He has long red hair and facially he looks a little like Mick Hucknall who used to be the lead singer of Simply Red and who remains an unashamed Manchester United fan.  Other than that, though, the Tractors appear to be beyond criticism.  Ripley has played for Bob Dylan, which is either a paradox or an irony because The Tractors make you think of what the world might have been if Elvis Presley had retained his appetite for supremacy or if Bob Dylan had not picked up a guitar in Greenwich Village and instead merely written Alan Ginsberg sound alike poetry.

The Tractors play unpretentious rockabilly and country music.  The backbeat on the drums is simple and

The Tractors

The Tractors

relentless.  In the You Tube videos the drummer often plays just one drum.   This is don’t give a damn élan.   The detail on their records, though, is important because, crude backbeat apart, The Tractors are musical.  The band members are in demand musicians.  Indeed, The Tractors is hardly a band.  It consists of musicians who assemble from time to time to make an album.  They have only made a handful of albums in nearly 20 years.  Similarly, the concerts have been sparse.   Membership of the group can vary although there is a core with Steve Ripley as a powerful centre and leader.  Guests have also appeared in the studio and they have been impressive.  Leon Russell, Bonnie Raitt, Scotty Moore, D J Fontana, James Burton and J J Cale have all played on Tractor records.

Apart from being a talented guitarist, Steve Ripley also has engineering skills, which he uses to make records in a singular way.  He records a basic track with the band in one take and with one mike.  Ripley argues this is necessary if he is to capture the excitement heard on the records of Elvis and Chuck Berry.  If this sounds like minimal purism, there is a modern compromise.   The stereo detail has to come from somewhere.  After the basic track and feel has been captured Ripley then works with individual musicians to include additional contributions.  This mix of approaches does not sound like a recipe for integrity but whatever he is doing it appears to work.  The records bounce and are also interesting.  Although the groove is important and the loyalty to the backbeat an article of unwavering faith, the listener can recognise usually brief references to various American musical forms such as Western Swing, Cajun, rhythm and blues and hard core country. Because life is complicated you can even hear the influence of Bob Dylan on the songs I Wouldn’t Tell No Lie and A Little Place Of Our Own.  Mainly, though, the Tractors remain true to the roots of rock and roll.

Trade Union

Their lyrics are unpretentious but have unwavering loyalty to the common man.  They are sharp but avoid being self-consciously smart.  Whether the Tractors lean to the left or the right is difficult to determine but any band that releases an album called Trade Union has to have political potential and is worth a vote.  The first album by the Tractors featured a song called Blue Collar Rock.  It avoids social comment and is more about ageing than politics but the title like their music shows which side they are on, that of ordinary people.   Perhaps this is what makes them musically conservative or at least so willing to acknowledge the past.  They associate rock and roll with a time when the ordinary had potential and power.  Ripley even remembers when Elvis was King and his line in the song, Trying To Get New Orleans, where he admits ‘I need a little Elvis’, describes accurately the symptoms for those fans addicted to the music of the great hip-swiveller.   In fact, their Presley tribute, The Elvis Thing, leads the pack of songs that have been recorded about Elvis.   Scotty Moore and D J Fontana feature on the record but Ripley makes no attempt to recreate the music of Elvis.  Somehow, he honours the legacy in a way beyond others.  The record is heartfelt and genuine, and the absence of opportunism makes it feel clean and worthwhile.   The same can be said of all of the rock and roll music made by the Tractors.  It differs from what they honour because they have their own sound but nobody doubts what they value and respect.

Identity is always important in the best of American music, which is why traditions continue despite the efforts of the powerful. The alternative identities range between genres, regions, class and race and are important because they are rooted in experience that is actually independent of the music.  America is a flag waving country in a way that many Europeans like to avoid.  But the flags are many and numerous.  Not always but often they are independent of the Stars and Stripes, the gloved fist of Black Power is an obvious example.

The first album of The Tractors begins with the song, Tulsa Shuffle.   Ripley has also spoken of his faith in the music of his region and what he thinks is a special commitment by local musicians to a foot stomping beat.  Clearly, there is a taste for full tilt music in Oklahoma.   The Tractors album, Fast Girl, was dedicated to 60s hero, Leon Russell, and there is a connection.  Russell in his prime leaned more to gospel roots than the Tractors but both, perhaps to compensate against limited vocal talent, push the beat and groove to the limit.

The second album of the Tractors includes Poor Boy Shuffle and the regional identity becomes more important because it champions a belief not only in place but the people of that place.  The concern for the ordinary over the influential is reflected in the two albums, Have A Tractors Xmas and The Kids Record.  The albums have a great beat and a good time feel that makes them essential but the latter, with songs like Old McDonald Had A Farm, does not shy away from the kind of material that got Elvis into such trouble.  Like the back beat on the single drum it is more do not give a damn élan.

Although important, loyalties will not obscure truth forever. Place and communities cannot prevent inevitable disappointment.  My Blue Heart is a bleak ballad and an honest soul baring account of a broken heart.  Social identity is meaningless when intimate kinship and love disappears.   Ready To Cry is also powerful and, despite the backbeat ensuring that it will never qualify as deep soul, the song itself would be worthy of any great soul singer.   Inevitably, the vocal of Ripley is influenced by Elvis, not because Ripley wants to sound like the King, he does not, but because the material needs vocal ambition.

The concerns of Ripley and his pride in identity are never chauvinistic.  The music for all its confident twilight-zonechirpiness contains like horror fiction, fear and longing.  It is no surprise that Stephen King is a Tractors fan.  The fear is for what may come next, as in the soulless world that is described in Computer Controlled, and the longing is for what could have been and occasionally might have been in the past, days evoked in the song Good Old Days.   But, because what we want and what is are often different, the potential for horror exists.  For the Tractors, who are committed to having fun, the horror is more good humoured than terrifying and not unlike one of the more whimsical episodes of the Twilight Zone.  Those who think this fanciful should watch the video of their hit, Baby Likes To Rock It.  Twilight mastermind, Rod Serling, would not only approve, he would risk a dance.  In fact, his apparition might be there in the crowd.  Watch carefully.

 

Watch the Tractors perform Baby Likes To Rock It:

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