The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Monday, June 6, 2011

Greatest Blues Car Songs (and the truth about "best of" lists): Part One

I'm sure that most of you know that "best of" lists are not anything more than this or that person's opinion. America is addicted to "experts," and music is so monolithic that we all appreciate suggestions as to which artists we should make unbelievably wealthy.

I used to love writing up "Greatest Of All Time" list on my old Delta Snake Blues News. Not only did I get to talk about my favorite artists, but it let me write huge chunks of copy without worrying about narrative flow, structure, or even making sense. It gave me an added return on my often enormous expenditures on new and used records, and of course, showed a readership thirsting for blues knowledge how good my record collection was.

The fact is, we can never really know what the greatest rock songs were, or any genre, if that term is taken as an absolute. There might have been some rocker out there in New Zealand in 1974 (or whenever) who played this song in his or her room, and it might have been greater than Michael Jackson, Prince, Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side Of The Moon combined...sort of a bear in the woods type of question, really.

Of the millions of songs ever created, we've heard (at least till the digital age) what some person thought was a sound that people would pay money for...and many of the hits of the past were discovered by luck. Still, there's plenty of music out there, and more so now. Lists may not truly tell us what's great, but at least it makes us listen instead of gawk at album covers or try to figure out if the liner notes or artist bios contain a clue as to how good the music is (hint...of course not, artist bios and liner notes are designed to sell the record, not tell you how good the music really is).

There is such a thing as a good car may not actually be anything more than what a person thinks is a song that sounds good in a car, but it is a genre. It's been a marketing tool in the past, there was an offshoot of surf called "drag strip" or "hot rod" music. Which sounded like surf but instead of the sound of waves crashing there would be the roar of a car engine or something.

In all fairness, I should add that most publications that publish best of lists do make a sincere effort to determine what the greatest songs of this or that era are and most are arguable, even allowing for the occasional inclusion of artists who just happen to be on the labels of the biggest advertisers.

Since I accept no advertising, and have received no offers of money or merchandise that would make me change that policy, what follows is part one of an unbiased list of the ten greatest blues car songs of all time, subject to change in mood or burnout due to overplaying, or if I drive a different model of car than my Caddy.

The key element is not the lyrics (in my opinion), and any song that complained about the rigors of the road (as if the singer would rather be doing a nine to five job) was immediately disqualified. The criteria is simple; a good car song is one that when it comes on (on the radio or stereo), it makes the motion of the car, and life in general seem like one good feeling, a moment when the mental and physical are one.

10. Bukka White: "Southern Streamline" (Arhoolie Records). This is actually a song Bukka, or as he preferred to be called, Booker, performed over the decades under various titles. The reason I picked the Arhoolie version is not only better sound, but it's the most powerful performance. White's boogie sound was a catchy combination of bass string work that sounded like he was strumming at the same time the slide riff was going, and it was as attuned to the rhythm of a cruising car as any Delta Blues ever written. It's basically the tale of a train ride, and a masterful description of the people and things he saw at the stations, all with a bemused and interested eye. This song was as good as it gets with the Delta Blues.

9. Bo Diddley: "Mumbling Guitar" (Chess). Some of the best songs are throwaways, and this was a casual a masterpiece as anything ever written (except for "Green Onions," the king of cool one off jams). This was also as fast as he ever played, but then, we all have to hit the gas and drive fast sometimes, even in a Caddy. Bo opens up with the usual trademark riff, then the drummer kicks in with a ferocious 1-2 stomp beat and basically he just jammed and made cool sounds on guitar. If one listens to the later "rave-up" sound that the Yardbirds made famous in the 60s, you can see where it all came from. The only problem with the cut is that being a studio jam, it wasn't recorded as well as the obvious singles on the album, and most versions I've heard don't do it justice. The version I favor is a taped copy from the 50s vinyl record, which I managed to hang on to, and later digitized. I made a mistake at the time and left the recording levels too high, and it brought out the highs and drums too much, but I've never heard a better mix that captured the wild sound as well, so I've kept it. If you download a digital copy, use Audacity or some other sound editor to amp up the level, and you'll hear a good song become a great one.

I'll continue with the list in future blogs, though it won't be done in a linear fashion. Whatever pops up next the next time I drive to work.

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