Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Saturday, June 27, 2009

"Stranger Blues" Homage to Mark Spoelstra

My version of "Stranger Blues" was learned originally from the singing of Mark Spoelstra. This song opens with one of the finest blues lines of all time, "Ain't it hard to stumble when you ain't got no place to fall?" which was even appropriated by Bob Dylan for his "Outlaw Blues." Dylan may well have gotten this line from Spoelstra since they hung around and played the same New York venues, occasionally as a duet, when Dylan first came to New York.

One of the most striking things about Mark Spoelstra was his 12-string guitar playing. He didn't play like Leadbelly, nor like Pete Seeger who helped to poplularize Leadbelly's style, nor Erik Darling who had that great riff to open "Walk Right In" with the Rooftop singers, nor Jim (Roger) McGuinn in his folk nor his Byrd days, or Reverend Gary Davis's rockin' ragtime. There was a little bit of Blind Willie McTell, a little bit of Jessie Fuller, with quite a bit of Mississippi John Hurt thrown in, but Mark's drop-thumb blues and folk stylings were really not derivative; they were unique. It's important to note that although his style may have been similar to some of the old blues pickers, he developed his style and began his recording career before these old blues men had their revival at Newport and elsewhere.

To emphasize Spoelstra's acknowledged virtuosity as a guitar player, think about the other folk, blues, or topical singers of the era: Dylan, Paxton, Ochs, Sainte Marie, Tom Rush, Joan Baez. Mark Spoelstra included several instrumentals on each of his first four albums. This was relatively unheard of. Either you were a singer/songwriter (the aforementioned folkies) who could play, or you were an instrumentalist who occasionally sang (Danny Kalb, John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Leo Kottke, and a generation later, Michael Hedges). Only the great Canadian singer/songwriter, topical songwriter, and instrumentalist, Bruce Cockburn, a decade later, would approximate Spoelstra's mix of strikingly individualistic instrumentals and powerful songwriting.

My rendition is not a copy of Mark's version. I have never been disciplined enough, nor have I found it interesting enough, to try to learn someone else's songs verbatim. Heck, I don't even learn my own songs carefully enough to replicate them repeatedly. I know this may sound weird, but pretty much every performance for me is an improvisation. When I do someone else's song, I get the feel of the song, try to get a reasonable approximation of the chords, and then I arrange the song to suit me. In fact, this one was worked up as part of a classroom lecture that I gave to my American Studies High School Honors class—The entire 1993 performance can be found on my YouTube site.

I found the lyrics in one of the many folk song collections that I have accumulated over the years. Since I don't read music, I collected the books just because I had an avid interest in music and because I have the collector's disease (you can check with my wife about our house and our storage unit filled with the 6000 vinyl records; the 4000 CD's; the 2000 DVD's; the many thousands of reel to reel, cassette, beta, VHS, VHS-C, 8mm, Hi-8, SVHS, SVHS-C, Digital 8, and mini-DV tapes, and mp3's; not to mention the five thousand books, hundreds of pieces of art glass, novelty cartoon glasses, etc....).

So this arrangement was really just created by me reading the lyrics and vaguely recalling Mark's great version of the song. I had already performed this piece for several years before I went back and actually listened to his version.

The great thing about this new digital age is that so much that would have been lost can reemerge. Mark Spoelstra's first four albums, two on Folkways and two on Elektra, are available on Amazon, as is his final recording, Out of My Hands. I enjoy them all, but if you are interested enough to see what a truly committed conscientious objector who was also an extremely talented songwriter sounds like, I would encourage you to listen to Five and Twenty Questions, his first album for Elektra. It has his most fervent anti-war songs as well as one of his most compelling story songs, an epic tale of racism and poverty culled from his two years of alternative service as a conscientious objector. Another historical point, he refused induction and served alternative service in 1965 and 1966, several years before David Harris (Baez's husband) introduced "the resistance movement" encouraging people to turn in or burn their draft cards (I'll share my own resistance story some day).

But this post and this performance are dedicated to Mark Spoelstra, who deserves to be remembered for his musical and moral contributions to America and the world.

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