Sunday, November 3, 2013

Link Wray -- "Fire and Brimstone" (1971)

And the sun was standing still
It was dark
But I could see

There are a lot of musicians out there who call themselves "roots rockers."  Listen up, boys and girls -- the late Link Wray (1929-2005) was a roots rocker from the first time he picked up a guitar.  When it comes to being a roots rocker, most of those other guys are just imitating.  But Link Wray was the real Slim Shady.

Fred Lincoln "Link" Wray, Jr.
As far as musical style goes, "Fire and Brimstone" is about as rootsy as it gets.  Wray's lyrics have a Biblical feel to them, and that's a style that goes with roots music like light beer goes with M&Ms.  (Try it if you don't believe me.)

I don't know if Wray's parents made him go to church every Sunday when he was a boy, but he did grow up in the rural South in the thirties and forties -- so I wouldn't be surprised.

If the young Wray was a regular churchgoer, he probably learned about Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites and was the greatest general in the Old Testament.  

Joshua's first great victory after leading his people across the River Jordan into the promised land was at the battle of Jericho.  Next, he attacked the armies of a coalition of five Amorite kings who had besieged the Canaanite city of Gibeon.

Joshua quickly gained the upper hand in the battle, but he was afraid darkness would bring an end to the fighting before his victory was complete.  So he asked God to make the sun stand still until he could finish off the Amorites.

Joseph-Marie Vien's 1743 painting,
"Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still" 
According to Joshua 10:13, Joshua's extraordinary request was granted:

And the sun stopped in the middle of the sky and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.  

Link Wray probably wasn't thinking specifically of the battle of Gibeon when he wrote "Fire and Brimstone."  In the dream that the singer of that song describes, he not only saw the sun stand still and the sky darken, but also "felt the rumbling beneath my feet, and the whole world was shaking free," and  saw "the moon was turning red."  That all sounds more like Revelations 6:12, which reads as follows:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood.

I had never heard "Fire and Brimstone" until I went to see Lawless, a 2012 movie about a family of moonshiners operating in the mountains of Virginia during Prohibition.

Lawless aspired to being a latter-day Bonnie and Clyde, another Depression-era movie set in rural America whose heroes were criminals and whose villains were law enforcers.  Lawless isn't a bad movie, but it's no Bonnie and Clyde.

However, it did prominently featured Jessica Chastain, which is a major point in its favor.

Jessica Chastain
And it had wonderful music, including two very different cover versions of "Fire and Brimstone." 

The soundtrack for the movie was put together by Nick Cave and another member of his Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis.  Cave and Ellis are Australians, but the Lawless soundtrack has an old-timey American feel.

That's due in large part to the presence of Ralph Stanley, the 86-year-old bluegrass legend who is currently on a farewell tour of the United States.  

Stanley sings four songs on the movie's soundtrack, including a cover of the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" and a 3/4-time rendition of "Fire and Brimstone":

The Bootleggers, a group of musicians that Cave put together as sort of a house band for the movie, also performs "Fire and Brimstone":

The Bootleggers' cover is reasonably close to Link Wray's original recording. 

The late Fred Lincoln "Link" Wray, Jr., was one of the most interesting musicians of the rock 'n' roll era.  He had some serious street cred when it came to playing the electric guitar.  Many rock musicians say he was the first mainstream musician to play power chords, which became a standard element of sixties and seventies rock music.  (The music of the Kinks, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and many other groups featured power chords, which consist of the tonic and the dominant -- or the root note plus a perfect fifth.)

Link Wray and his two musician brothers were born in rural North Carolina, the son of a poor white sharecropper who had been mustard-gassed in World War I, and a Shawnee Indian mother.  Wray once told a reporter, "We weren't dirt poor like a white family.  We were Shawnee dirt poor."

Wray contracted tuberculosis while serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and had a lung removed.  That should have marked the end of his singing career, but it didn't.  

Wray's first hit single was an instrumental called "Rumble."  It was not only one of the first records that featured power chords, but also used distortion and feedback -- which later became commonplace techniques for rock guitarists.

Jimmy Page said "Rumble" inspired him to become a guitarist:

Bob Dylan called "Rumble" the "best instrumental ever," and Iggy Pop said he decided to leave school and pursue a musical career when he heard "Rumble" (which appeared on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction and the first episode of The Sopranos)

Wray's recording of "Fire and Brimstone" was released on his eponymous 1971 album, which was recorded in a three-track studio he built in a converted chicken shack on his Accokeek, Maryland farm.  

Accokeek, which is an unincorporated area on the Potomac River located directly across from Mount Vernon, is only 12 miles from Washington, DC, as the crow flies.  In terms of the local culture, however, Accokeek is at least a thousand miles from your nation's capital.

Here's "Fire and Brimstone":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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