House of the Rising Sun

We headed into the studio with ten songs to record for our next album, “The Ghost of John Henry,” but at the last minute, I decided to add an 11th to the schedule (we had to go up to 11, after all…).  In a lot of ways, recording that last song —  “House of the Rising Sun” — was the most terrifying part of this entire process for me.  Here are some people who have also recorded versions of this song: Nina Simone. The Animals. Bob Dylan. Woody Guthrie. Lead Belly. Pete Seeger. Joan Baez.

So you can see why I was a little nervous about tackling this monster.  What on earth could I add to what had already been done with it?  Well, now we know the answer, one way or the other:

You can download our version of “House of the Rising Sun” for free, here:

It’s an old, old song, and Wikipedia will be happy to tell you all about it.  But as much as I simply enjoy the song — musically, thematically, what-have-you — there is a lot of personal weight behind it.  My dad played in bands from the time he was a kid, and when I came along, the first song I remember him playing for me on guitar was the Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun.” Consequently, those arpeggios (or maybe “Louie, Louie”) were probably the first thing I ever tried to play on guitar, although my hands were too small and that effort went nowhere, landing me behind a drum kit, instead.  When my kids came along and I sang them to sleep every night, one of the songs I sang them was “House of the Rising Sun.” (I did sing them some less depressing ones, too, in case you’re worried.)  I began incorporating “House” into some of my solo acoustic shows, and then we began playing it together as a band.  It seemed like something we should try to get down since we were in the studio, anyway, and it had a little extra meaning because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my dad came in from Texas to play bass on the sessions.

I had the conscious thought regarding this song more than any other in this process, “I must get this right.”  If it wasn’t right, if it didn’t bring another voice or perspective or sonic experience to the table, then it would just be some band doing a forgettable cover song.  I hope this isn’t that.  And I like to think that it isn’t simply arrogance to believe it isn’t.  I’m not aware of another version quite as dark, quite as …eerie?…haunting? as ours.  Jody’s cello part brings a texture and a sadness that really linger for me.  And I hope I always remember sitting in the control room listening back to the drum tracks for the first time, and everybody’s jaws just dropping when Kurt played that monster fill that powers the song into its finale.

The video I made to go along with the recording is much more evocative than literal, and for the photos that make it up I drew on the wonderful resource that is the American Memory Project.  The photo effort that produced the images I used in the video was the same effort that produced the iconic “Migrant Mother” photo Dorothea Lange took in a work camp full of families uprooted by the Dust Bowl.  Dorothea Lange shot several of the photos used in this video, most notably the photos of the two men walking down the road, past a billboard inviting them to take the train next time and “relax.”  The last photo of the video was actually taken in the Autumn of 1910, and is the oldest one I used.

The American Memory collection online is an utterly stunning collection of photos, documents, and recordings dating back to the 1400s. I cannot recommend enough spending some time with it.

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Couch by Couchwest

Yes, SXSW is in full-swing in Austin, and while I once lived in Austin, that was a while ago. It’s cool, though, because the Couch by Couchwest festival is here for us all — those of us “too broke or too lazy to get off our couches and go to Austin.”

Over the weekend, we were shooting a music video for the first song off of our upcoming record, and Jody and I took a few minutes to step off to the side and record a version of the absolute classic “Goodnight Irene.” First recorded by Lead Belly, everybody has done this song, and I hope our version does it justice. Please let us know.

Incidentally, I sent my dad the link to the video and told him we’d recorded a one-off version of a Lead Belly song. After he watched it, he sent me a note back telling me that my grandfather (who died when I was one) used to play this song all the time. Total coincidence. Who knew?

ST. PATRICK’S DAY UPDATE
The good people at CXCW posted a solo performance I shot on a tree stump in my backyard. I joked to them that if they didn’t have room for it this year, they could save it for the inevitable Stump by Stumpwest festival. This is the song “Tomorrow May Take You,” which will be on The Ghost of John Henry this May.

Here’s to Leslie Cochran

Leslie Cochran died today. Like many, many people who lived in and around Austin, Texas, for any amount of time, I had a chance to meet him on a couple of occasions. That was sort of his business, meeting folks.

That, and rocking a thong, stuffed bra, and high-heels.

For those outside of a certain Central Texas radius who are unfamiliar, Leslie was an Austin icon. He was a scraggly haired, goateed, cross-dressing downtown regular who was often homeless by choice, and ran for mayor three times. His best showing was in 2000, which happened to be about the same time I had gotten good and damn tired of film school, and went and found Leslie for a cameo in a fake documentary I was making with the multi-talented Don Swaynos. I liked Leslie. Leslie captured the good about Austin’s idiosyncrasies. But I always felt the re-purposing of his image by others undermined a lot of what Leslie was trying to do, and sold short much of the creative vibrancy of the town.

Leslie was hard to miss. His usual haunt was on Sixth Street, near Congress, a very busy part of downtown where thousands of people a day were unlikely to miss the six-foot-tall cross-dressing dude in a thong and big Guinness hat. He was a regular on Sixth Street during drinking hours, too, so University of Texas students (like myself, at the time) and other denizens crossed paths with him with some regularity. This guy seemed like one of God’s own prototypes to kids coming from conservative, suburban pockets of sameness all over Texas. Many of the UT students awed by his oddity belonged to the film school (like myself, at the time), so when it came time in our classes to make a documentary, the classroom screens were chock-a-bock with documentaries about Leslie. It was an easy, safe choice, and I got a little angrier each time I saw one.

There is a largely unacknowledged battle raging for the soul of Austin, Texas. Leslie was held up as the figurehead for the “Keep Austin Weird” campaign, but the reality is that Austin really isn’t any weirder than a  big high school. You’ve got your techies over here, your hipsters over here, hippies here, musicians here, indie filmmakers here, UT grads who wish they were still in college and won’t grow up over here. Before arriving in Austin as a musician and filmmaker, I’d heard the stories about how diverse, eclectic, and “radical” Austin was, artistically, socially, and politically. But I never fit in Austin, to be honest. I was a musician, but not one who wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. I was a filmmaker, but not interested in making navel-gazing dramas about me and my friends hanging out and churning through girlfriends. Like a lot of people there, people doing much more important and exciting work than me, I didn’t fit in a clique.

Neither did Leslie, though a lot of people sure wanted to claim him superficially. When he ran for mayor, he had actual positions on real issues, particularly homeless advocacy and police reform. But that was primarily overlooked, and it’s kind of a shame. You can either be weird, or taken seriously, but never both. That’s not confined to Austin, though. Not by a long shot.

But here’s to Leslie Cochran, a man who gouged a very unique, and very specific path through life. Safe travels.

(Sorry I don’t simply have a clip of it, but search to about 11 minutes in for Leslie’s cameo in our fake documentary. We almost couldn’t find him that day, but finally tracked him down, and he was more than happy to go along with our little joke of not actually letting him talk in the would-be documentary about him. He is pointing throughout to Shania Twain’s autograph on his dress)