Marco suggested this song, sending me a version performed by New Orleans street performer, “Mother” Mary Margaret Parker. I haven’t been able to find much specific information about Mother Mary, but her version was included on the LP, “New Orleans Jazz and Gospel, Vol 16” compiled and released by Larry Borenstien, New Orleans based art collector and founder of the legendary music venue, Preservation Hall. Digging around some, I learned that the song has been recorded countless times both in gospel settings and as an instrumental in the vernacular of many New Orleans style jazz/brass bands. In both settings, the song is performed in an upbeat tempo with the melody bearing a near perfect resemblance to the cowboy song “Red River Valley”.
This is the "Mother" Mary Margaret Parker version a "before", if you will
In the gospel setting, interpreters took great liberties with the lyrics, especially those in the verses. But all I could find shared a central theme – that we humans are weak, God is almighty, if we live a righteous life we will meet our loved ones on the other side. As I started to inhabit the song, a few things happened. Musically, I found that if I showed it down from Mother Mary’s tempo, the song felt more grave. Then in the spirit of “let’s so what happens, if...”, I started singing it in a minor, not major, key. Now it was taking on a new personality. That’s what we took into the studio.
Once again, the musicians instantly, non-verbally created a purposeful, powerful arrangement of the song through our first run-throughs. Chris Rival played a quirky, eerie slide guitar part and Duke added a restrained but muscular lead guitar. For me, the real money was in the rhythm section. From the opening beat, Marco owns the song which is a showcase for his unerring sense of time (thou shalt not speed up nor slow down) and his intuitive use of shakers and beads and whatever adds texture to a recording. And I encourage you to tune into Marty Ballou’s standup bass performance, especially as the song nears its climax during the home stretch. I was beyond excited when we had finished that basic track.
But as I lived with it a while, I felt that given how many iterations this song had gone through during its lifetime in the bayou, that it would not be sacrilegious of me to tamper with the lyrics. I say “sacrilegious” because I intended to take God out of it altogether. I wanted to bring the song into this moment in history. So while trying to keep the vernacular of gospel-style lyrics and imagery, I dragged the message from “we are weak, God is mighty, we’ll meet our loved ones on the other shore” to “alone we’re weak, together we’re mighty, united we can speak truth to power and no one man can keep us down”. As committed as I was to that new direction, it meant I had to re-record the entire lead vocal, replacing the original with which we were all happy. But in this era of home studios, I dimmed the lights, put up a good mic, poured some Basil Hayden and sang it until I had it.
And this is the 'after' (as in, the song after the bourbon)
I knew that during his Nashville days, Marco had worked with the legendary gospel group, The McCrary Sisters. They are icons in the gospel music world, and sister Regina had recorded and toured with Bob Dylan for many years. When we had completed the basic track on this, I said to Marco, “Man, the McCrary Sisters would sound unbelievable on this....”. He said, “Yeah, they would. If you want, I’ll give Regina a call and see what they’re up to”. I responded, “IF I WANT????? IF I WANT???? Are you kidding me?” Marco called Regina, the Sisters were game and we got them on this and two other tunes. I consider their presence to be an honor.
The Sisters were comfortable working together in a small studio in Nashville run by engineer and respected guitarist Doug Lancio. I would have gladly jumped on a plane and gone down there for the session, but the pandemic being what it was, we settled for me Facetiming the session from home. It was a masterclass watching them craft their arrangements and digital technology allowed me to chime in from time to time with what few comments I had.
Once the song had matured to this point, it became the centerpiece of the record in my mind. In this period of such extreme political turmoil, when the foundational institutions of our government were being strained to the limit, I felt it was going to be up to us average Americans to stand up and be counted – to vote, to volunteer, to march. Now the record had a North Star.
The full line up on this track is:
Marco Giovino: Drums
Marty Ballou: Upright bass
Chris Rival: Electric Guitar, Slide Guitar
Duke Levine: Electric Guitar, Mandola
The McCrary Sisters: Vocals