Country music legend Merle Haggard died this past week at 79. If you don’t know his music, you should try and catch some of this songs. I first heard of him from his 1969 “anti-hippie” song “Okie From Muskogee” with its line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, We don’t take our trips on LSD”. From the obituary I read in the Globe and Mail, I gather in later years he tried to distance himself from the sentiment of that song.
Merle Haggard was, along with Buck Owens, an architect of the Bakersfield, California sound. It was a guitar-driven blend of jazz, blues, pop and honky tonk. He noted that his influences were Lefty Frizzell, Elvis Presley, Jimmie Rodgers, Chuck Berry and Bob Wills. Some of these artists we cover in EVO. He was also fluent in a wide variety of musical styles and, in 1980, appeared on the cover of jazz magazine Down Beat.
Two of his more well-known songs were influenced from his time spent in prison as a young man. An old friend who is planning on recording a bunch of old songs played me Merle’s “Sing Me Back Home” a few weeks back. It’s about a guy on death row wanting to hear an old song from back home before he dies. I used to play with a drummer who would sing Merle’s “Mama Tried” with has the chorus:
And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole
No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried
I’m writing about Merle Haggard this week because we cover his version of “Basin Street Blues’ with Matty, our bass man, playing the trumpet to accompany Jim on the sax. I have no doubt I heard “Basin Street Blues” a number of times over the years but thought about adding it to the band’s song list when I heard Merle sing it with the famed Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Ben Jaffe, the leader of the band and the son of the founders, noted in an interview about the CD that when he asked Merle what key he wanted for the song, Merle replied that he’d do it in the original key. I guess that shows a certain amount of familiarity with the genre.
I’ll let Wikipedia say the rest about the song:
“Basin Street Blues” is a song often performed by Dixieland jazz bands, written by Spencer Williams. It was published in 1926 and made famous in a recording by Louis Armstrong in 1928. The famous verse with the lyric “Won’t you come along with me/To the Mississippi…” was later added by Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden. The Basin Street of the title refers to the main street of Storyville, the notorious red-light district of the early 20th-century New Orleans, just north of the French Quarter. It became a red light district in 1897.
Meryl Haggard and the Preservation Hall Band