9.19.09 MURDER BALLADS: WINKING AT DEATH WITH A SONG

Mance Lipscomb, a singer whose well of experience ran very, very deep.

Mance Lipscomb, a singer whose well of experience ran very, very deep.

I’m trying to remember when this fascination with murder ballads began. Perhaps it was around 1982 or so when I was on the road about half the time and I began swapping hardboiled crime novels with guys we were touring with, mostly John Schmidt, the bass player in a great Cincinnati-based band called the Erector Set, and Johnny Reno, the fabulous saxophonist and singer from Fort Worth. I’m talking about Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Raoul Whitfield, David Goodis, and lots of others. I think around the time I came across a line like, “She’s so mean she’d smash your face just to hear the bones crack,” a light went off somewhere in the back of my head.
Raoul Whitfield's, Green Ice, a hardboiled novel about an ex-con, an emerald heist and lots and lots of trouble.

Raoul Whitfield's, Green Ice, a hardboiled novel about an ex-con, an emerald heist and lots and lots of trouble.

I started thinking about noir a lot more seriously than ever. I started writing noir lyrics, then short stories, then novels and later, screenplays.
A few years back, I dug deeper. I had always loved the song “Streets of Laredo” (based on a traditional song called “The Cowboy’s Lament“) and at one point, I think it was in a trivia column by the great L.M. Boyd, I read that the song’s roots went back hundreds of years. I started inserting the song in my version of the Velvet Underground tune, “Sister Ray,” and I came across this fantastic blog by a writer named Rob Walker called “Letters from New Orleans.” He wrote a few posts about the song “St. James Infirmary” which prompted a flood of responses. He kept digging, kept writing, and next thing you know, it’s a book. It’s not the only one. Robert W. Harwood also wrote one, called “I Went Down to St. James Infirmary” which you can read about on his own blog, which also continues the research. This is deep stuff. Check it out. “St. James Infirmary” is just a song in the sense that the cemeteries of New Orleans are just compost.

Check out Youtube for clips of Mance Lipscomb performing; there are quite a few. I first saw him when I was just a young teenager at the Vulcan Gas Company and he knocked me out. I produced a short TV segment on him a few years later and was able to cobble together some rarely seen clips from a guy who worked at Armadillo World Headquarters and was handy with a camera, a Super 8, I think it was. Also had footage of local musicians, including Lucinda Williams, visiting Mance in the hospital here when he was ill. I ended the segment with a clip from the great Les Blank film on Mance, which ends with “St. James Infirmary.”

The song is fascinating on so many levels, because in the first verse, the singer is talking about going to see his dead gal at the infirmary where she’s “laid out on the cooling table,” then in other verses (there are hundreds of versions of the song) he’s talking about himself, envisioning his own funeral train, pulled by “six white horses” and dressed up in a “box back coat and Stetson hat / so my friends can see that I died pat.” I like my own version: “When I die carry me in six pink Cadillac hearses / I want Aretha Franklin to sing me a song / I want a rock n’ roll band jammin’ on my coffin / playin’ ‘Louie Louie’ as we roll along.”

In reality, however, I would settle for a keg party and a set by the fabulous Lady Bo (Bo Diddley’s original guitarist).

Lady Bo, Queen of the Electric Guitar

Lady Bo, Queen of the Electric Guitar

In the 1971 Les Blank film, “A Well Spent Life,” Mance ends the song with the verse “Well, she’s gone, good Lord, God bless her / wherever she may be / she can search the round world over / but she’ll never find another man like me.” In this particular clip, however, he sings the last line as “you’ll never find another Mance like me,” and with a final flourish on the guitar, he winks at the camera… and at Death, too.

Born in 1895, Mance grew up in East Texas during the brutal Jim Crow era. He worked as a sharecropper, among other things, like road construction. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer befriended him. After spending a good deal of his life as a “songster,” performing a massive repertoire of songs that defied the conventional, narrow definition of the blues, he found a measure of fame in the last couple of decades of his life. Recordings preserved his unique fingerpicking skills and his personable and often humorous vocal delivery. It’s fair to say that Mance lived an epic life, one that embodied a good deal of America’s racial and cultural history. There was a whole lot of life behind that wink.

Mance Lipscomb, left, and Sunnyland Sunnyland Slim

Mance Lipscomb, left, and Sunnyland Sunnyland Slim

By the way, the Mance Lipscomb collection I just got is called “Trouble in Mind.” Coincidentally, Frank Sinatra, who was a big fan, issued the title track on his own label in 1970. You can download this anthology from iTunes for $11.99, a bargain for 24 tracks, including songs like “You’re Gonna Look Like a Monkey When You Get Old” and “When Death Comes Creeping in Your Room.” However, “St. James Infirmary” is not on it. The documentary is the only commercially available thing I know of that documents his performance.

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