2015 April – Dr. Scott’s Moonshine Band was born in the backwoods of northern suburban Illinois when Dr. Scott and Sesu Tramp locked into a rhythm during a jam. With a little encouragement on Sesu’s part and a lot of jamming the band was born.
This album is intended to show just what we do when we jam in living rooms across the Chicagoland area. The jam rotates amongst the members’ living rooms, and when we get lucky with the weather a back porch or two. We do play an Irish song then and again but for the most part we draw from the American folk tradition. I use a small “f” on folk because I don’t want to confuse our music with what Joan Baez or the Kingston Trio or Judy Collins might have been doing in the 1960s. We have some old time tunes, bluegrass classics, Pete Seeger songs, early country, Grandpa Jones and a host of other things. My contributions tend toward the early African American music and blues though I get a pretty nice reception for Guy Clark’s Black Diamond Strings from the 1990s.
So we took those songs that had been played over and over in the jams and put a little gloss on them for the recording studio. No huge alterations, with the exception of Mental Rover which was created specifically for recording. My idea was to get these songs down on tape so that I could leave my family with a legacy when I was gone. Having live music in our living room has been an important part of how my family socializes. My oldest son – Aidan, you hear him on the recording at 12 years old – got introduced to guitar playing through the jams. When he wanted to join in I taught him a few chords. At about the same time he became a devoted student of rock music and started learning everything he could possibly learn about the artists to go along with his guitar playing. So there we go, passing music on from generation to generation is still the result of playing in your own home. None of this happens by accident. It takes a certain commitment to keep these jams going and organizing a dozen or so people. I was doing it in Massachusetts before I moved out here to the Midwest. Kelly Griner started it here and I’ve been lucky to join in.
Kelly (leader of the Irish band Another Pint) has organized folk jams in the Chicago land area for years. He’d invite a few friends and then we all would invite someone else. What a great way to make good friends. I brought along Katelynn Moxon and she brought Sesu along. He and I hit it off quickly. “How?” you ask. Well, on a personal level the conversation was natural. Sesu was part of the CBGBs scene that I was so interested in both in the 70s and now. His band, The Magic Tramps, have become legendary. Then, both of us are totally immersed in the blues. I’ve been playing Leadbelly songs for years and there was the rhythm that finished the bonding. Bring A Little Water Sylvie indeed!
After a few dinners and smaller jams Sesu suggested we record some of this Leadbelly. Sylvie, Green Corn, John Henry and The Bourgeois Blues were worked up with lots of emphasis on rhythm. I really think like a drummer not a guitarist. Sesu is a drummer so there you go.
Then we set out to finish what would become Pass Around the Jimmy-John.
One night Sesu came to see Another Pint. He hatched the idea of recording an “Irish” version of the song Mental Moron. Originally recorded by an offshoot of the New York Dolls (one of my absolute favorite bands) called the Corpse Grinders, their record company – Whiplash – wanted to put out a tribute album and was looking for a number of covers of the song. I loved the idea of putting together an Irish version.
As I was working out chords to Mental Moron I noticed how similar it was to the song The Irish Rover. I worked it out so verses between the two songs could be alternated, changed a few words to make the story somewhat consistent between the 2 songs and then wrote a new last verse for Mental Moron. I sing the Mental Moron bits and Kelly sings the Irish Rover bits. There you have a hybrid of Mental Moron and Irish Rover that I call Mental Rover that will be included on Whiplash’s Mental Moron tribute album (expected in 2015). A longer version appears on Pass Around the Jimmy John which includes some electric guitar playing by Aidan Cashman at 12 years old. The other cool thing is that Kelly came up with a funky banjo riff that really gets highlighted during the breakdown at the end.
Aidan is also the lead guitarist on Black Diamond Strings, but this time on acoustic guitar. This song is about playing great music in J.W. Crowell’s yard using cheap guitar strings on a catalogue guitar. So I went out and got a Stella guitar which Aidan plays on this one. Stella, was sold through the Sears catalog at a time when there weren’t guitar shops in every town in the nation. They may not have been the best quality but you could get them. Leadbelly got one. He had that big ole’ Stella 12 string with a white pick guard that you see so many famous photos. So we got a 6 string with the white pick guard. It’s in pretty good playing condition though as you go up the neck there are some intonation problems. You’ll hear them if you listen closely. So now I’ve got a black Stella with black Black Diamond Strings on it and that old thing gets played all the time.
I’ve been playing Sylvie since I was a junior in college and Tom Spooner and I worked it up to play in an anthropology class where I was doing a project on Plantations, Sharecropping and the Blues. Bring a Little Water Sylvie is a worksong. In their original, useful setting they were not accompanied by instruments but were simply used to coordinate the work of a group of people. The lead singer needed a strong voice and the rest of the workers provided the response line. When Leadbelly recorded Sylvie he played guitar with it. We’ve expanded the arrangement and place a strong and appropriate emphasis on the rhythm. In fact, one of the early devices that Sesu and I locked into was a kind of breakdown where he drums and I play the muted stings on the guitar to supplement the rhythm. We’ve had some powerful moments doing that.
John Henry is an old folk tune, done by thousands of performers in all styles of folk music. Leadbelly used some pretty unique lyrics, I’ve stuck to more well-known versions to put ours together. Hear that banjo uke chugging like every train that goes rolling by? Thanks to Katelynn for a nice unison vocal.
Green Corn is the first song that Leadbelly learned on the guitar. It was a tune commonly played by white fiddle players for square dancing according to Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell who wrote the definitive biography on Leadbelly. This is another rhythm spirit where we lock in up to the end. Green Corn refers to moonshine which was often carried around in a jug called a Jimmy-John. Leadbelly often sang, “gather ‘round the jimmy-john.” We get lots of our imagery there! I’ll tell you now that we don’t have jams that lack a jar of moonshine to pass around. So, why not name the band after that!
As Leadbelly would have, I break out a 12-string for Bourgeois Blues. This also comes from that old anthropology project back in about 1981 or so. My sons Aidan and Dylan argued with me emphatically that I couldn’t use the word “nigger” in it. I am of the persuasion that white people have no business using that word and can’t really think of any times that I should include it in my speaking. Leadbelly wrote this song, however, about a specific incident in which he and his wife were chased out of the home of a friend because they were not wanted in the same building. He used the word in the song and I used it to keep true to the ugliness of the incident. I don’t think that we get over racism as a nation unless we recognize how ugly and demeaning it was and how those things persist in our culture. So I didn’t clean it up in my retelling of the story. The kids might be right and I might be wrong but the word was offensive back in the 1930s when that incident occurred and it is intended to offend in the retelling of the story.
Kelly (harp and banjo) and Joel Simpson (mandolin) helped us get these songs together and after a few rehearsals it was off to the recording studio. Katelynn added a unison vocal to John Henry. John Towner engineered the recording in Solid Sound Studio. Joel got Mike Bradburn of Dolly Varden to generously contribute the bass tracks. Not bad for a first try at recording!
Chronologically, we did Me and the Devil, Crossroads and You Can’t Catch Me (I’d been listening to Stephen Stills put those 2 together since the ‘80s as well), and Mental Rover next. They were done in Joel’s studio – Randomosity. Later, Paul Gongola put some great bass on those tracks in John’s studio.
Finally, I took a recording course offered by Harper College from John Towner in Solid Sound. Black Diamond Strings was recorded by the students in the class in a night. We had a good time doing that one.
Most of the basic recordings were done live. Then we did some overdubbing and editing. Hey it’s a recording for an album! I don’t have to be a purist do I?
So, I’m really happy with this recording. I use a great White Eagle acoustic guitar on a lot of the tracks that was made for me by my great friend Bud Wilkes who lives in Sunapee, New Hampshire. You hear my 1895 Morrison banjo, which was given to me by my old friend Judie Guyette, on Cluck Old Hen . The musicians are my friends and family. The music came together in the living room I share with my wife Andrea and my friend’s living rooms. What else could I ask for?
A large thank you goes out to Whiplash Records for putting this out. Andrew has “The original punk label…” and yet I think he sees the connection between punk and blues and good for him!
- Scott Cashman 2015