Friday, September 19, 2014

Seldom Scene -- "Rider" (1973)

I know you, Rider
Gonna miss me when I'm gone

Rarely does a day go by that I don't encounter music that makes me say to myself, "That song would be perfect for 2 or 3 lines."

Most of the times that happens, I'm talking a walk or riding my bike or driving in my car, and I forget the song because I don't write myself a note reminding myself not to forget it.

That happened with today's featured song, which I meant to write about a long time ago.  I don't recall quaffing a dram of Nepenthe any time recently, but something buried all thoughts of "Rider" deep within the flotsam and jetsam that inhabits my brain.  And there it might have stayed forever but for the fact that the previous 2 or 3 lines featured the Go Home Productions mashup of Blondie and the Doors titled "Rapture Riders."

In 1934, famed folklorists John and Alan Lomax included a song titled "Woman Blue" in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs.  

Their lyrics to "Woman Blue" -- ten verses' worth -- are prefaced with this comment:  "An eighteen-year-old black girl, in prison for murder, sang the tune and first stanza of these blues."  I have no idea where they got the other nine verses.

A folksinger named Bob Coltman arranged the song -- which he renamed "I Know You Rider" -- and began to perform it regularly in the late 1950s.  

Just about every folksinger worth worth his or her salt recorded it in the 1960s -- Joan Baez, Judy Henske, the Kingston Trio, Vince Martin and Fred Neil, Gale Garnett, and Judy Roderick among them.  

The Byrds, Hot Tuna, and even Janis Joplin recorded the song as well, and it was a staple in the Grateful Dead's live shows for years.  

There are many live recordings of the Dead performing the song.  All are pretty much equally lethargic and sloppy.  Here's an example:  


I think the Seldom Scene's 1973 recording of the song is BY FAR the best one out there . . . even though it doesn't include my favorite Lomax verse:

I'm goin' to de river, set down on a log
I'm goin' to de river, set down on a log
Ef I can'[t] be yo' woman, sho gonna be yo' dog

Bob Coltman altered that verse:

I'm goin' down to the river, set down on a log
I'm goin' down to the river, set down on a log
If I can't be your man, honey, sure won't be your dog

Sorry, Bob, but you've missed the point.  The singer isn't proud or defiant in the face of his (or her) rejection -- he (or she) is disappointed and bitter.  

The singer in the original version of the song is willing to be his (or her) lover's dog if he (or she) can't be her or (his) man (or woman), which is much more consistent with the rest of the lyrics.

(Geez.  2 or 3 lines is beginning to question its strict policy of gender-neutral writing.)

The Seldom Scene is an acclaimed bluegrass band that was founded in 1971 in . . . Bethesda, Maryland?

Hold your horses, Mr. 2 or 3 lines.  Are you trying to tell me that one of the greatest bluegrass groups ever doesn't hail from a hardscrabble Appalachian holler in western Virginia or Kentucky, but rather from a very affluent and tony suburb of Washington, DC?

That's exactly what I am telling you, boys and girls!

The Seldom Scene's original members included a medical student, a mathematician, and a National Geographic cartographer.  The band's mandolin virtuoso, the late John Duffey, was the son of an opera singer and a graduate of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, which has been ranked among the best public high schools in the United States for decades.  (The school has an orchestra, a concert band, a jazz band, and a number of chamber music groups.  I don't think it's ever had a bluegrass ensemble, or offered instruction in mandolin, bluegrass fiddle, or resonator guitar.) 

John Duffey (1934-1996)
It's a bit of a mystery to me how a bunch of kids from Bethesda became a great bluegrass band.

After all, environment usually has a lot to say about how what kind of music you get from a musician.  For example, "gangsta" rap was the product of the mean streets of Compton, California.  (Straight Outta Pasadena?  Straight Outta Anaheim?  I don't think so.)

That's why it's impossible to imagine a hardcore punk band from a place like Bethesda, where the kids are mostly spoiled little country-club types whose parents are deeply embedded in the federal government, military-industrial complex, and mainstream media.

What in the world did the sons and daughters of privilege who grew up in Bethesda have to rebel against?  Soccer practice on a really hot and humid day?  Too much homework in AP English class?  

Here's "Rider":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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