From the top
This is not my first blog. I started one years ago to promote the release of my first book, “The Illustrated Delaware River.” I posted excerpts from the book that were pretty much entire chapters, including illustrations. But it was pointed out to me that there would be little reason to buy the book when it could be read online. After being struck with this harsh dose of reality, I pulled the plug on my blog. It didn’t really matter since the book has not broken any sales records. But enough of my whining, it’s time to embark on a new adventure.
Ramblinotes is going to be all over the place. And I mean that in a good way. Some topics will veer off into left field, some into right, and a few might even stay right up the middle. There will be plenty of music, music history, other history, art, observations of the human condition, some useless but entertaining crap, a recipe or two, and perhaps a guest contributor now and then.
Here’s a sample of the line-up: We’ll be delving into the myth and mystery of arguably the oldest folk song in the English language– “Barbara Allen”, a tune that is still with us 500 years on; Bad Mothers: It’s not just men who get drunk and eat their young; Leadbelly: a musician’s musician; “My Old Kentucky Home” and other places Stephen Foster never set eyes on; a song about hats, and much more. So stick with it, I’ll try to do my best.
To kick things off, here’s the back story of one of my favorite obscure tunes.
I’ve had certain songs rattling around in my head for a long time. And you probably have too: songs that you’ve heard only once, but spring into your consciousness from time to time when you least expect it, like a smoke alarm that tells you to change the battery, only not that annoying. They’re songs that stay with you for some unexplained reason. I suppose it’s similar to when your eyes take an indelible picture of something that you only spot for a second.
This is one of those tunes. I heard it only once, in the early 1990s, broadcast on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania radio station located on their campus in Philadelphia. But I was able to play it and sing all the verses the first time I tried it. I’m not a savant; the song is just simple enough to easily recall.
Ostensibly, the theme strikes close to the bone: the endless quest to find money, wherever it may be. As catchy an old time ditty as you’re likely to hear, “Lookin’ For Money” seems to have been custom made for claw hammer style banjo. I heard it on that one occasion from the Chicken Chokers, a composite band from the Boston area that no longer exists. If you would like to hear them rip into it, here you go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADDd8x-phOw
If this is your first encounter with the song, you would probably bet that it was conceived long ago in Georgia or South Carolina. But you would lose that bet. It was actually born and bred in Texas, written by a Rockabilly singer/songwriter named Al Urban.
Urban was born in Gonzales, Texas in 1935. Raised on a farm, he learned to play guitar as a teenager and formed The Daybreakers, his first band in the early 1950s. Success for them at the time meant a steady gig at the popular Log Cabin Inn north of Luling, Texas. Since “the stars at night are big and bright–clap, clap, clap, clap–deep in the heart of Texas,” Urban tried to grab one of them. And he actually came pretty close.
In 1954-55 he recorded a few of his original songs on his own Dixie label at Gold Star Studios in Houston. (Owner Bill Quinn opened the studio in the 1940s recording everything and everyone from Cajun to blues to Country to Rock including Lighting’ Hopkins, George Jones, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, and B.J. Thomas. The studio gained further legendary status in the 1970s when it acquired new ownership and was renamed SugarHill Recording Studios.)
Urban returned to the studio in 1956 to record more of his tunes including “Lookin’ For Money” and “I Don’t Want to Be Alone.” He took the masters to Sarg Records owner Charlie Fitch who had been recording many local artists including Willie Nelson and Doug Sahm. Fitch released the tunes on Sarg in 1956 with “Money” as the A side. It was a minor hit that sold reasonable well. But what really brought Urban attention was an encouraging review in Billboard magazine, landing him an appearance on the extremely popular, hillbilly-centric TV show, Louisiana Hayride.
Urban did more out of pocket recording of his own songs, often crossing paths with “The Possum” (George Jones) who used the same studio. They would even share the same backing band. Urban offered his songs to Charlie Fitch again, who released four of them, but passed on others. Urban eventually became dissatisfied with Fitch and established his own label, Fang. He also recorded on a couple of smaller labels, Kash and Tennessee.
To promote his songs, Urban took to the road but soon tired of the grind and returned to his cattle ranch in Gonzales to concentrate on his songwriting. His big break came in 1971 when Charley Pride included “I’m Beginning to Believe My Own Lies” and several more of Urban’s songs on his Grammy winning album Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs. Urban continued writing and recording, releasing an album I Just Dropped in to Say Goodbye in 2008. He passed away in 2012.
The Chicken Chokers were a generation away from Al Urban, both musically and geophysically; you can’t get much further from Texas than Boston. Formed in the 1980s, they were essentially an old-timey string band, but with elements of reggae, punk, and rap hiding around the edges. Their version of the tune is probably what they thought it should sound like: primitive vocals accompanied by a break-neck, up-tempo, foot stompin’, party on the back porch jam. A good bit different from Urban’s original.
The Chokers, Chad Crumm, Paul Strother, Chip Taylor Smith, Stefan Senders, and Jim Reidy left us with two albums on the Rounder label before disintegrating: Shoot Your Radio from 1987, and 1990’s Old Time Music. Some of the fellows continued in various configurations with other players which resulted in the bands Primitive Characters and Twang. Smith worked on and off through 30 years with bluesman Spider John Koerner and as a solo performer. Paul Strother also played bass with Spider John, as well as with a salad of other musical projects. By day, he is a research Professor of Paleontology at Boston College. Stefan Senders has played banjo in a variety of groups, one of which, the Wildcats, toured Southeast Asia, and played and taught West African drums. Chad Crumm, artist and composer, can be found just about anywhere, anytime.
But it’s been said that around every 20 years on certain nights when the moon is holding water, that the Chokers reunite and emerge with their crazed rhythms and patented ‘air-raid siren’ vocals, ready to raise the dead, or a least pique their interest.
If you enjoy comparisons, you should give a listen to Urban’s original version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wuORVgCxodc
Hal Taylor - 4/29/23