All posts by bandbyweek

Hank Williams and Rufus Payne

This week we’re going to be looking at Hank Williams (Sr., the first one, the best one.) He is often considered the most significant country musician of all time.

While there are many interesting aspects of Hank’s history, it is in his childhood where we meet Rufus Payne, sometimes referred to as “Tee-Tot,” a play on the term “teetotaler” because Payne was said to never be seen without a homemade alcoholic concoction.

Hank Williams as a boy.
Hank Williams as a boy.

Rufus has become a kind of mythical creature in Hank’s life. In fact, legend has it that Hank’s mother fed Rufus in exchange for Hank’s guitar lessons. In their Hank Williams biography, authors Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen write about Rufus:

It was probably in Georgiana that Hank met his first acknowledged musical influence, a black street musician, Rufus Payne. Because Payne was rarely found without a home-brewed mix of alcohol and tea, Payne’s nickname was “Tee-Tot,” a pun on teetotaler. Details about him are not only sketchy, but contradictory as well. According to researcher Alice Harp, Rufus was born in 1884 on the Payne Plantation in Sandy Ridge, Lowndes County, Alabama. His parents had been slaves there, but they moved to New Orleans around 1890, giving Rufus a front-row seat for the birth of jazz. After his parents died, Rufus settled in Greenville, Alabama. Harp insists that Payne became a society musician, playing white functions, learning all the pop hits of the day.

The authors go on to explain that Rufus was a one-man band with a guitar, cymbals attached between his legs, a jazz horn, and a “Jew’s harp” who wondered around Georgiana busking for money. However, what I found most interesting about the authors’ description of Rufus was how they explained young Hank Williams. They write:

A crowd of kids followed Tee-Tot around, but Hank was the only who wanted to do more than listen. He wanted to learn. Exactly what passed between Hank Williams and Rufus Payne will never be known. If, as has often been said, Payne gave Hank [guitar] lessons, it’s hard to know what he imparted. Hank probably already knew most of the chords that Payne knew, so perhaps the lessons involved broader strokes. J.C. McNeil, who insisted he also took lessons from Payne, said that Payne always stressed the importance of keeping time and getting a good rhythm going.

Personally, my favorite part of Hank’s music is the strong sense of rhythm. A song like “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” is a perfect example of Hank’s unmistakable driving rhythm.

Clearly, Rufus Payne’s influence on Hank Williams can’t be traced exactly. However, it’s clear that he played at least a minor part in forming Hank’s understanding of music, especially the blues. Regardless of the amount of Rufus’ involvement, the fact is he helped mold the most famous country singer of all time, and that’s quite an accomplishment.


This week’s bandbyweek playlist: Hank Williams

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and modal jazz

In 1959, Miles Davis changed jazz music forever and set a course that would later greatly influence musicians from all genres, most notably rock and roll. It all happened when Kind of Blue was released.

51UVX5HKIiL._SY300_Up until Kind of Blue, popular music was (and still primarily is) based on chord progressions within a major or minor scale. Miles Davis began to base his music on modes rather than chords.

What are modes? Good question. Stewart Hendrickson of St. Olaf College explains:

I’ve often heard said about a traditional song or tune, “it must be modal.” What does that mean? Strictly speaking, a mode is just an ordered series of notes defined by the intervals between. In that sense there is no difference between scales and modes; a mode is simply a particular musical scale.

See, we’re used to music being based on scales and their notes within. For example, if a song is set in the key of C major, the notes that our Western ears would be most comfortable hearing are C, D, E, F, G, A, and B. However, Miles shook it up for us Westerners. No longer would a song simply be written in a certain key. Instead, each soloist would be given prescribed modes in which they were to play. Hendrickson writes about the seven common modes in Western music: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxolydian, Aeolian, and Locrian. Besides the fact that the names of the modes come from Greek words, that, my friends, is where my understanding stops for now. Research modes, figure it out, and get back to me.

Now, back to Kind of Blue. “Flamenco Sketches” is commonly referred to as one of the prime examples of modal jazz. However, the song’s composition is still confounding people.

Samuel Barrett of the freaking University of Cambridge writes about a recent study done by Ashley Kahn. In the study, a session photo of a chart from Cannonball Adderley (unbelievable saxophonist and definite future bandbyweek artist) was blown up and studied to look for what modes he was told to play in. Kahn’s study only added to the confusion over how exactly Kind of Blue was composed. Barrett writes:

Previous attempts to describe the musical design of ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have examined either scalar or chordal organisation. Among writers who have turned to scales, loosely termed modes, the five scales used on ‘Flamenco Sketches’ have been the subject of some disagreement. Ashley Kahn, in his recent study of the making of Kind of Blue brought both clarity and confusion to the matter by enlarging a session photograph showing Cannonball Adderley’s chart for ‘Flamenco Sketches’. Along-side the photograph, Kahn listed not the scales on the chart, but the scales that Davis used in his solos since, of the soloists, only Davis plays what might be termed pure ‘modal’ scales.

As you can see, the precise composition of Kind of Blue is still being debated, and I think this is totally fitting for the album. When it was released, it was completely new. To this day, it is not only a confusing and quintessential modal jazz album, it is a necessity in any music lover’s collection. Fittingly, it is still the most widely sold jazz album of all time.

Check out this video to hear more of the awesomeness of modal jazz, Kind of Blue, and Miles Davis in general.


Further Reading:

Kind of Blue and the economy of modal jazz by Samuel Barrett

Musical Traditions: Of Scales and Modes by Stewart Hendrickson

The night that changed Miles Davis

One night in August, 1959, Miles Davis had an experience that he said changed him. He and his quintet were playing in the famous Birdland club in New York City. During a break, Miles Davis made his way outside and into a scuffle with a New York City police officer. Davis recounts the night:

I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed up to my name on the marquee all up in lights. He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.” I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!”

These events led to a fight between Miles and several officers. Davis was hit in the head with a billy club. The photograph of this event circulated wildly around the world, fueled the racial tension already festering in the country (especially in NYC), and dragged Davis into a legal battle, eventually ending with everyone simply walking away from the incident.


However, the events of that night in August live on. Davis himself said in his autobiography, “That changed my whole life and whole attitude again when I was starting to feel good about the things that had changed in this country.” Davis’ reputation as a rather cold, standoffish man would continue to grow, possibly perpetuated by that night.

More recently, the legend of that night has lived on in none other than Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips. Davis’ blood-stained suit from the famous photo was a direct inspiration for Coyne’s bloody garb, a tiny but powerful trademark.


Strangely enough, it wasn’t until 1985 when Davis released You’re Under Arrest that a clear stance against racism would make its way into his music. In case you’re like me and you listen to “You’re Under Arrest,” are unaffected and feel depressed that Miles Davis would create something that doesn’t blow you away, remember that he is still the guy that recorded Birth of the Cool (1957), Workin’ With the Miles Davis Quintet (1959), Kind of Blue (1959), Sketches of Spain (1960), Bitches Brew (1970), and about a thousand other breathtaking records.


Further Reading:

Miles: The Autobiography

Miles Davis and American Culture

Bandbyweek playlist: Miles Davis

The multicultural Sly & The Family Stone

Sly & The Family Stone were the first hugely successful rock band to embrace the diversity of their band members. In The Guardian, Barney Hoskyns refers to the band as “the multi-race/gender collective that was the Family Stone.”

16993d1348526209-rock-roll-101-sly-family-stone-dance-sly-family-stone3Not only was the band made up of different races and genders, they went a step further and celebrated it openly, weaving the theme of openness and acceptance into their music.  Songs like “Everyday People” and “Everybody Is a Star” are perfect anthems for integration.

Even the most overtly racially charged Sly & The Family Stone track “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey” is, in its own way, fair in doling out racial slurs. The chorus repeats: “Don’t call me nigger, whitey / Don’t call me whitey, nigger.” Yes, the terms themselves are slanderous. But, they’re even. In the song, everyone involved is both being both insulted and insulting someone else.

But, the band’s multicultural makeup wasn’t only an appealing idea to them. Fans of all races loved Sly & The Family Stone. In a 1976 interview, Sly talks about their mass appeal (for this part of the video, skip to 5:30, but the whole interview is interesting. Plus, it’s always fun to hear Sly talk.)

Sly & The Family Stone were (and still are) easy to love. They were immensely talented, original, and diverse, all of which made them one of the most celebrated bands to come out the 60s and 70s.

In the spirit of the band’s mass appeal, listen to “Hot Fun In the Summertime,” one of the band’s biggest commercial successes, released during the rapid growth of their fanbase after Woodstock in 1969.

And that’s it for Sly & The Family Stone week! Thanks for reading, and happy listening.


Further Reading:

“Looking at the Devil” by Barney Hoskyns – The Guardian

“Sly and the Family Stone Biography”The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

How Sly & The Family Stone mirrored 1969-1971 America

In 1969, Sly & The Family Stone released their fourth studio album, Stand! In 1971, they released There’s a Riot Goin’ On. The period of time starting and ending with these two albums reveals not only a shifting dynamic of the band, but of the country as a whole.

Cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s Stand! (1969)

When you listen to Stand!, you’re uplifted. The title itself is a positive message, punctuated with an exclamation mark. The album’s overarching theme is one of optimism, communicated through several of the band’s most well-known tracks – “Sing a Simple Song,” “I Want to Take You Higher,” “Everyday People,” and “You Can Make It If You Try.” The band, and the country, was feeling good. The culmination of this attitude happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969 near Woodstock, New York, only three months after Stand! was put out. Not surprisingly, Sly & The Family Stone played Woodstock, and their performance is generally considered one of the most historic of the three days.

After Woodstock, a cultural shift began to occur. The transition from 1969 to 1970 was an ugly one. In 2002, University of Colorado’s Professor Chris H. Lewis wrote:

We can only understand the 1970s as a decade of disillusion, cynicism, bitterness, and anger by examining it in the context of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the Cold War. The American people were increasingly disillusioned with the government and their democratic institutions in the 1970s. The Cold War, the Vietnam War, and Watergate damaged Americans’ faith in their government and their leaders. Burdened with this political disillusionment, American society in the 1970s was also underseige by economic decline and declining standards of living. For many Americans, the 1970s became a decade of transition–marked by confusion, frustration, and an overwhelming feeling that America had lost its direction, as if the very future of the “American experiment” and the “American Dream” might be in question. In the 1970s, Americans were faced with unresolved conflict and problems that challenged the very heart of the post-war liberal consensus; they faced economic stagnation and recession, increasing poverty, decline in their standards of living, fears that the American Dream was becoming harder and harder to achieve, and bitter divisions over America’s fundamental cultural values.

Like many Americans, the members of Sly & The Family Stone started to lose their direction. In particular, Sly Stone’s life became consumed by drugs, and his behavior became more and more erratic. As for the band’s creative output, a collection of greatest hits was put out in 1970.

Though Greatest Hits is an amazing collection of songs and was listed on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, it still indicates an eighteen-month dry spell within which the band didn’t record any new tracks, even though their contract required an album released in 1970. Sly’s drug use caused him to miss recording sessions, Epic Records needed an album, and Greatest Hits was born.

Cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1971)

Then, in 1971, Sly & The Family Stone broke the eighteen month dry spell. There’s a Riot Goin’ On reflected the American decline that Lewis wrote about. The album is much different from Stand! Though no less funky, Riot is much more introspective. While Stand! was about celebration, Riot is about tension. In one of my favorite Riot tracks, “Africa Talks to You ‘The Asphalt Jungle,'” this line repeats:

Timber… all fall down!
Timber… who’s around!
Watch out, ’cause the summer gets cold…
When today gets too old!

Indeed, the summer of 1969 got cold, America was trying to mend its wounds, and Sly & The Family Stone put it into song. Rolling Stone (in the link above) wrote, “Stone discovered his utopia had a ghetto, and he brilliantly tore the whole thing down on 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.”

Though There’s a Riot Goin’ On was met with some hostility upon its release, it has increasingly become a landmark achievement not only for Sly & The Family Stone, but for all music. Both Riot and Stand! are, like most brilliant music, both of their time and ahead of it.


Further Reading:

Professor Lewis’ full explanation of America’s crisis in the 1970s