February 13th - Cat-Iron Sings Blues and Hymns

Cat-Iron Sings Blues and Hymns - Cat-Iron (William Carradine), 1958

Folks, I am very tired - just about as tired as I have ever been in my life. I've been working a lot and not sleeping very much and my brain is only running at about half-capacity. I literally have a baby that treats me very badly. I am in the mood for some blues. 

And this album delivers! The songs on this album are strong and inventive; at the time of this recording the artist apparently had to borrow a guitar to play, but his playing is excellent, including slide-work performed with a glass medicine bottle that shows up most notably in a gorgeous version of When The Saints Go Marching In.   The recorder makes a lot of hay in the liner notes about how the artist blends the Christian and pagan, and usually I'd immediately call bullshit on that but there is a legitimate argument here. Take the track The Blood Done Signed My Name, which - when sung by Dock Reed and Vera Hall Ward on the Folkways album Negro Folk Music of Alabama, Vol. 5: Spirituals the singing and the lyrics are explicitly religious: 

In the version on this album, Jesus is never mentioned, and the last stanza makes it sound like this is actually about a backwoods murder:

Apparently the MVP track is Jimmy Bell, which has been widely covered. But Cat-Iron himself never heard these recordings, for a couple of reasons. The artist who recorded these songs died the same year that it was released; it's very possible he never heard his music set down on wax. And additionally, Cat-Iron didn't exist. There was no man named Cat-Iron in Natchez, Mississippi who played guitar; the man on this album is named William Carradine. The man who recorded him, Frederic Ramsey Jr., misunderstood his name, wrote it down wrong and apparently never thought to reach out again. We come to this information through an enterprising librarian, Elenora Gralow, whose letter was published in Blues World #43 (Summer 1972):

$40, by the way, is $10 less than the cost of two copies of this album in the special yellow vinyl re-release from Exit Stencil Recordings, which reproduces the liner notes which HAVE THE NAME OF THE ARTIST WRONG and also ALL OF THE REST OF THE ALBUM THAT HAS THE NAME OF THE ARTIST WRONG. I assume Folkways gets a bit of that too - and you can get it from their site for $5 cheaper than from Exit Stencil - but woof, it's pretty rough to think about. It gives me the blues.

(One weird note - when I do research I tend to just keep googling names until I can't find biographical information about anyone, which is why I looked up Elenora Gralow, the librarian who tracked down Fannie Carradine in the first place. Gralow comes up in a couple places - there is actually a PDF of a letter written to her on a Portuguese website, for some reason - and she is in two books that pop on Google Books, one about public libraries and one about Richard Wright, who she may have known when he was a child. It's an extremely small world.)

To read liner notes and purchase this album from Smithsonian Folkways, click here.

Mark PophamComment