mardi, mai 23, 2006

It's That Orange Blossom Special

...bringing my baby back.

The Orange Blossom Special is possibly the most recognizable fiddle tune of all time. I know that at least for me, it's one of my favorite songs, ever.

It's an interesting story. I'll make it brief so I can get on to what I love about it. The OBS was written in the 30's by a fiddler named Ervin Rouse... to call Ervin a Talent or a Prodigy or simply an amazing fiddler would be doing him a disservice. He was all of those things and more. He was also one of those people who can do one thing well and the rest of their lives and minds leave much to be desired. Ervin was schizophrenic and considered an Idiot Savant type at the time.

So while he was an outstanding fiddler, he was not much of a composer. But one of his compositions was the Orange Blossom Special, which was written about a train that traveled the eastern seaboard. The OBS train itself was a very big deal at its time. All the way from New York to southern Florida.

For many years it was a steam train...and then it was a diesel. Funny thing is, the song itself was kind of written about the diesel. Why is it funny? Or... at least odd?

The genius of the tune, is in its imitation of the sound and character of a steam engine. If you've ever really listened to or witnessed or simply had a love for steam, you're aware of the utter sense of the life of the engine. It has a heartbeat, a cadence, a buildup and a build down. It blows off steam, it announces itself... it eats, it breathes and it screams. You can almost associate a personality with a steam engine.

What separates the fiddle from most instruments is that it can imitate, very closely, many sounds in life. In this tune, the fiddler can imitate the bells, whistles, and sound of the train. I'll show you a few examples in a minute.

But what makes a great Orange Blossom Special? Many bands and artists have covered it, or simply played it. But not all collaborations play with it or perform it. In my humble opinion, there are a few things that make a version special:

- Proper fiddling. OBS can sound simple but it has an enormous amount of steps and notes that go into each bar. Many fiddlers breeze right over a lot of the notes because they're playing it by ear, which is fine, but they lose much of the character of the sound of the train. Without all of the steps and notes, you don't have the full beat of the train sound. I mean, a train doesn't skip a beat...it'd skip the track altogether.

- Leave the drums at home. It drowns out the beat created by the tune.

- A little improvisation. Make it yours.

- Passion. You should want to get up when you hear it.

- Musicianship. It's just got to sound right. You know a good OBS when you hear it.

Now. These are a few of my favorite versions :) In particular order, too...

Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. This is a classic arrangement by a group of bluegrass masters. There are no drums, fabulous banjo accompaniment by Scruggs. And practically expert fiddling... the clacking in particular is amazing.

Vassar Clements. Vassar makes it sound easy....that's because he speaks and thinks in fiddle. While this version has drums, I happen to like it because I grew up hearing this off the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". That album was a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration of some bluegrass and country legends... people who were good at what they did and were serious musicians. It's one of those versions that falls under the "Musicianship" category. For the record, the visual resemblance of Vassar Clements to Ervin Rouse is uncanny. I have a theory that there is some relation somewhere.

Johnny Cash. I love this particular version of OBS which was recorded at Folsom Prison in about 1955 from what I understand. Cash did NOT use any fiddle, he used two harmonicas, one in C and one in D. The man in black didn't play harmonica, but he did for this song. What I love about this version is that he shifts the sound and cadence of the train to the drum and guitar. It mimics the sound of the mechanics perfectly and keeps the beat of the song, although slower, and allowed Johnny Cash to sing the lyrics with his brilliant, resonant voice. His delivery just floats over the music and takes you along for the ride. Whenever I sing it in my head, this is how I sing it. (It's off the At Folsom Prison (Live) CD)

Johnny Gimble and Texas Swing. This is a very playful, well arranged version. The fiddling hits all of the notes and steps and musically illustrates the "ambling along" of the train on its journey. They incorporate a little narrative showing which parts are the whistle, bells, and train. And... this is the version where they create the sounds of a diesel, a donkey, a cow... it's good.

Last but not least. I stumbled across this version recently by Old and In The Way. It's a down home, hick, hillbilly, Americana version of the song. Very much proper fiddling, musicianship, no drums, and just good.

So if the song was written by this obscure, great fiddler, how did it become a classic? One evening Ervin Rouse sat down with a well known country musician by the name of Chubby Wise. They put words to it....shaped it.... put air in its lungs and made it into the song we know today. Chubby was the one to popularize it and introduce it to the masses. He had a happier ending than Ervin who sort of "retired" to the Everglades and brought his fiddle with him to the local bars and play. He'd remind folks of his accomplishment, but I imagine it's one of those situations where people said... "okay." He died of many physical ailments, most of which were associated with his alcoholism.

It was a stroke of genius on Rouse's part... bringing this incredible, immortal tune into the fabric of American music. Inspiration is a funny, quirky, sometimes overwhelming and amazing touch of spirit. I guess that "Inspiration" is the perfect word for it.

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