Turns out the Mayans weren’t making any predictions, they just stopped making calendars. From now on, we’re into uncharted territory, here. We’ll need some good tunes.
What are your favorite records, and when did you first hear them? It seems that most people stop listening to new music in high school, or maybe college, and all their favorite albums are preserved in amber from some early, more youthful time in their lives. I’d be interested to hear if anybody has any records that are at the top of their list that they didn’t hear until way later, when most “normal” people gave up on letting music affect them.
Me, I hate nostalgia, and most of the music that was widely popular when I was a teenager was garbage, anyway, so not like I look back on it sighing fondly. With some notable exceptions, throughout most of my life I’ve been listening to music that was recorded long before I was around. As you get older, though, you get to a point where you have thoroughly explored whatever genres you dig the most. You start to wonder if you’ve heard it all. How many more great records are out there that you don’t already know about? Will anything you are just now hearing make as big an impression on you as the stuff you heard long ago?
That’s why my love for Backwards Sam Firk’s The True Blues and Gospel is kind of an anomaly. I only heard this record a couple of years ago, but it really grew on me, and it has slowly become one of my frequently spun LPs. Love this album, wish more folks knew about it. You’d think that labels like Tompkins Square, Dust to Digital, or 4 Men with Beards would be all over a reissue of this record.
My previous attempts to champion some lost classics were records that I hadn’t really seen anybody else talk about. With this album, I thought I was the only one who knew about it, but come to find that there are a few other blogs here and there who have mentioned it. Please forgive me if you don’t think the internet needs a fourth blog about Backwards Sam Firk. You can still download it from that first link (thanks, Rare Mp3 blog), so I don’t even have to mess with that myself. You can also download the 2002 CD reissue, which includes a couple of bonus tracks, from Archive.org. Go ahead and download it, and then we can discuss.
It would be easy to oversell this record. With the obscure and unknown records it is easier to get excited about the obviously bizarre and genius stuff, think Black Monk Time or something like that. If I came out of the gate all “THIS IS AMAZING!!!1!!” about The True Blues and Gospel you would listen to it and then shrug. It isn’t that kind of album. It doesn’t bowl you over. I mean, I thought it was good the first time I heard it, but it took awhile for it to become an all-time favorite. It takes a few listens for its laid back and subtle charm to take effect.
I first heard Firk through the Fonotone Records box set, which included a few of his sides recorded by Joe Bussard. At first, I thought Backwards Sam Firk was yet another alias for John Fahey, like Blind Thomas or Joe Death, but nope – different dude. Turns out that Backwards Sam Firk was actually the stage name of Mike Stewart, a record collector and Fahey contemporary who, for whatever, reason, never became an underground legend like John Fahey did. It isn’t because his first record isn’t great, though.
The couple of songs on that box set intrigued me, so I kept a watch on the internet for Firk’s debut alb on Adelphi Records, The True Blues and Gospel, and found my own copy. This tale is not as romantic as one of Joe Bussard’s 78 collecting trips, I know. “I decided I wanted to hear this record, so I found a copy online and had it delivered to my door!” Great story.
Despite the removal of all mystery and work from the process of new musical discovery, I was glad to get my own copy of The True Blues and Gospel. If you have already heard some 60’s folk revival acoustic players, such as Fahey’s early records, or Stephan Grossman’s Yazoo Basin Blues album, this is in the same bag. Some originals, some covers with greater or lesser degrees of obscurity, some of them frequently heard in the 60’s folkie/blues repertoire. Yet, there is something about this record that puts it above those others for me.
Firk/Stewart is a fine acoustic player, but he isn’t as “arty” as Fahey, nor as technically accomplished as Grossman, and he isn’t as practiced a singer as, say, Dave Van Ronk. The tunes are sloppy, but in a good way. The the vocals are gruff, but endearing. He puts his own stamp on the songs, to the point where his versions of frequently covered songs sound like the definitive versions.
The album kicks off with a masterful instrumental version of Skip James’ I’m So Glad. Probably the best version of this song I’ve ever heard – don’t even mention Cream to me! Despite being an instrumental, Backwards Sam somehow captures the simultaneous melancholy and joy of the lyrics:
And I’m so glad and I am glad, I am glad, I’m glad, I’m glad
I don’t know what to do, don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do
I’m tired of weepin’, tired of moanin’, tired of groanin’ for you
The next cut is a version of East St. Louis Dry Land Blues, originally by Furry Lewis and also covered by Dave Van Ronk. Now, it seems that other writers like to bag on Backwards Sam Firk’s vocals, and prefer the instrumentals on this album. Well, screw those people, they don’t know shit. The vocals don’t sound professional, but better – they sound casual. The songs exude a very back porch vibe. They are endearing, in a way that a good singer with a good voice who knows they are a good singer could never be. Yeah, sometimes the vocals aren’t that great, like on the version of Muddy’s I Be’s Troubled, the only tune on this record that I find myself wanting to skip over. But I like it anyway. Life isn’t perfect, and the best records aren’t either. Sometimes it is the imperfections in things that make you love them.
There’s a version of Big Bill Broonzy’s Pigmeat Strut/Hey Hey. The original recording had a second guitar player playing the bass line, but Backwards Sam combines the two parts and plays them at the same time. As a one man band, I find this move impressive. There’s a youtube video of some guy in Belgium playing his 2007 version of Backwards Sam’s 1968 version of Big Bill’s 1932 version of this song. I like the idea of that. Gives me hope for the future.
The linchpin of the album is the version of William Moore’s One Way Gal. Helped out by a buddy, Delta X, and some washboard, the guitars start out sound full and lush, almost like a twelve string. They wash over you. The tune starts out mid-tempo, but the pace picks up as they go along, with Delta X’s interjections spurring things along. (“Gonna tell me what it is?”) The song ends up being faster than it began. That’s the way it is supposed to be – click tracks are the enemy of true musical expression.
An Ol’ Reliable One Way Gal. Good-natured fantasy, that. Every guy should be so lucky! Sounds like a laid back good time, this song from 1928, performed in 1968, and listened to after the Mayan’s ran out of days. Kind of beautiful in its way.
Turns out that Backwards Sam Firk, whose real name was Mike Stewart, was only in his mid-20s when he recorded this album. The vocals sound like it could be a guy twice that age, and that’s good. This isn’t teen pop, after all, you want your blues singers all grizzled, and wizened in the ways of the world. How’d he get to sound so old by 25? According to the obituary, Mike Stewart died in 2007, just when he was finally getting as old as he sounded on his debut album from 1968.
The last cut is the most Fahey-like, a fingerpicked version of John Hurt’s Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down, named The Unbroken Circle. Just like the version of One Way Gal, it starts out slowly, like a lullaby, like a loving mother turning down the covers on a warm bed. But the tempo picks up, it gets a little faster. By the time it is done, it has sped up enough that it is no longer a song to put you to sleep, but to wake up to. Then, of course, you turn it back over to side one to hear I’m So Glad, and you start all over again.
New year, new records. Don’t say I never gave ya nuthin’!