Sep 162011

Neil Young‘s “Cripple Creek Ferry” popped up on my iPod the other day. What a great, little snapshot of a song. What’s that film-making device called, when the camera pulls back and you just know the ending credits are about to roll? I love songs that serve that role, be it at the end of either side of an album (see The Undertones‘ “Casbah Rock” as another fine example of what might be a future Glossary entry).

Anyhow, as I listened to “Cripple Creek Ferry” for the first time in probably 6 months I was reminded of yet another unfulfilled rock ‘n roll dream: to record a song with what I’ll call a Ragged Canadian Chorus. Two of my main musical colleagues over the years, andyr and E. Pluribus Gergely, cringe at this approach to backing vocals. Beside the fact that they’ve shot me down whenever I’ve suggested this approach and that we don’t have the chops to pull off such deceptively casual backing vocals, we’re not Canadian.

In my mind I initially termed the loose, dragging, community-style chorus of “Cripple Creek Ferry” the Ragged Hippie Chorus, but then it occurred to me that the next two examples I had of this style were by Canadian artists: Joni Mitchell‘s “Circle Game” and almost any song on my second-favorite album of all time, The Band’s s/t sophomore triumph. It must be a Canadian thing, because when American bands try this it either sounds like shit (eg, The Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead) or is a little too smooth (anything involving JD Souther with a hand cupped over his ear). When English bands try this they sound like a bunch of paunchy guys at their local pub’s Celtic night (eg, Fairport Convention). Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The Canadians do it just right. I love how it sounds like a group of friends is hanging around in a booze-and-smoke–filled cabin, when the lead singer decides to play everyone his or her new song and then the friends casually feel motivated to sit up and join in on the chorus. I imagine lots of curly hair and denim, tightly fitting plaid shirts with 3 buttons undone, a thumb hitched in one singer’s front jeans pocket and another singer’s four fingers shoved down a tight back pocket. Fresh sensations of recent bed-hopping within the circle of friends hang in the air along with the pot smoke. The ritual cult-like effect of the Ragged Canadian Chorus is both soothing and slightly unnerving.


  43 Responses to “Ragged Canadian Chorus (aka Ragged Hippie Chorus)”

  1. Wilco are a non-Canadian band who can pull this off every now and then. In particular, there’s a song on the first Mermaid Avenue album, “At My Window Sad and Lonely” where they’re doing what had to be an intentional Band-style vocal arrangement.

  2. Good call, Oats. They must have some Canadian blood in them.

    I’m hoping cliff sovinsanity and – if we’re really lucky – the long, lost northvancoveman can help explain this national strength.

  3. Is the singing on “Cripple Creek Ferry” really any better than the Grateful Dead on, say, “Uncle John’s Band”? I don’t think so, and I’m not even much of a Dead fan.

  4. “Uncle John’s Band” is on my short list of wholly enjoyable Dead songs. The background singing is fine, true, but the Dead lack a distinctive lead singer. Who’s the guy who started any of their peaceful hippie singalongs? It doesn’t matter. Jerry and Bobby sing like me. It’s a shame.

  5. BigSteve

    I swear Pops Staples is the coolest dude of all time.

  6. pudman13

    Amazing that you pinpoint this, because the fact is that I’ve always hated the vocals of the dead and the Airplane, yet I’ve always loved Fraser & Debolt, who clearly take their vocal cues from the Airplane. And yes, they are Canadian:

  7. tonyola

    I don’t know. I think Jerry Garcia’s voice is distinctive and immediately recognizable, though he does lack Young’s nasal whine which sometimes takes on an icepick-to-the-ears quality.

  8. I know them – and I had no idea they were Canadian! Excellent addition to this research.

  9. misterioso

    tony, help me complete this sentence: Neil Young’s voice sometimes takes on an icepick-to-the-ears quality, whereas Jon Anderson’s …..

  10. 2000 Man

    Hey, I really liked that, and I never heard of them, so now I have something to look for in the used record bins. Thanks!

    Mr. Mod, I don’t know exactly where you’re going with this, but it doesn’t sound much different than Whiskeytown’s backing vocals or any band that doesn’t mind just making sure it’s done in a few takes and that’s it.

  11. tonyola

    Jon’s voice is choirboy-high and clear, not pinched and nasal at times like Neil’s voice.

  12. misterioso

    I am not suggesting the voices are similar, just that to some it has what one man once called “an icepick-to-the-ears quality.”

  13. …sometimes takes on a machete-to-the-back-of-Mike Love’s-neck quality?

  14. misterioso

    Oh, Mod, you mindreader, you.

  15. machinery

    Man! That part about how they would each take turns singing the lead to see who would sing it is amazing! Talk about band democracy. The ego-less band.

    This sort of singing is all over Basement Tapes obviously. I picture them all wearing Canadian Tuxedos, of course.

  16. What about X? They always seemed Airplane-esque to me. Or do you need more people singing?

    The Once Over Twice

  17. misterioso

    Nicely done, for example, on Goin’ to Acapulco on the choruses and even though it is very minimal, I love when the other voices come in on this version of Grand Coulee Dam from the 1968 Woody Guthrie tribute concert

  18. Yeah, they’re gloriously ragged, but with only 2 singers they don’t generate that community/cult vibe.

  19. misterioso

    Holy cow, when I was looking on the youtube for Band clips I found these of the Byrds on Playboy After Dark in 1968. No Gram Parsons, but pretty cool. Never knew it existed. This Wheel’s on Fire and You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.

  20. BigSteve

    Thanks for that. They were a good rocking little band in that version.

  21. BigSteve

    I think the egolessness was brief. Note the subtle digs in this clip. Levon laughs and says the guitar’s out of tune. Robbie laughs and suggests that the harmonies somehow worked despite the technical deficiencies of the singers. Sad.

  22. It must have been nice when you could tell people, “I only watch Playboy for the bands.”

    Those are two good performances by a band I’m usually lukewarm on. I always like their version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” but I’d never heard them play “This Wheel’s on Fire” before. That’s a really awkward song, and they may drive to its core better than any artist I’ve heard play it. Finally, McGuinn’s haircut for this show makes him look like a proto-Steven Malkmus.

  23. You’d be hard pressed to find F&D in the used record bins. They’re pretty scarce.

  24. How do you feel about Ian and Sylvia?

    For some reason they’re always the first act that pops into mind when I think “Canadian,” followed quickly by Gordon Lightfoot and Rush. (Though I’m a much bigger fan of The Band and Joni Mitchell).

  25. I didn’t know they were Canadian. This is an interesting take on that awkward song. I honestly have no idea why so many people cover that of all Dylan songs, even those cowritten by Bob. Does anyone else feel like “This Wheels on Fire” is a chore to focus on from any perspective? The melody, the rhythm, the lyrics, the chord progression, and so forth all fail to truly grab me. It’s got some brief cool moments, but to my ears it’s got the same problem as songs from Love’s Forever Changes or a lot of Beau Brummels records. I hear them and feel like I should be watching the opening credits to some ’60s TV Western.

  26. Jeez, has RTH’s Official 2010 Winter Olympics correspondent been called out here? I don’t know what to say…

  27. I like the Julie Driscoll version of Wheels On Fire they used for the TV show Absolutely Fabulous

    Groovy . . .

  28. Your last comment about the 60s Western is right on the money!

  29. “Called out” has a negative connotation, doesn’t it? In RTH terms you’ve been summoned, which is a compliment. Hope all is well!

  30. A prodigal townsman returns, nice!

  31. BigSteve

    I thought I posted this last night, but apparently not. Nils Lofgren’s first band Grin from their first album:

    I’m not totally sure about the chronology, but I think this example of the ragged hippie chorus comes shortly after Nils was in Neil’s band for the recording of After the Gold Rush’s Cripple Creek Ferry. In this example it sounds like ragged hippie children are included in the chorus.

  32. cliff sovinsanity

    I’m a recent convert on Love’s Forever Changes. If anything, I think the album sounds like it could come from any decade before 1990, however I feel this is a debate for another day. Perhaps, I will suggest this for critical ratings downgrade because I will defend it to the death.
    As far Ian and Sylvia goes, they are kind of like the father and mother of Moses. They pretty much gave birth to Canadian folk and floated it down the river.

  33. misterioso

    I think the original Dylan & Band Basement Tapes version is outstanding, which I am sure is why others have wanted to cover it; but I am not a big fan of the Band’s own version or others that I’ve heard. That Byrds’ version is pretty cool, though. But only Dylan was able to find the right phrasing, it seems to me.

  34. BigSteve

    I agree that the Basement Tapes version is deep. Something about the rhythm, that dragging the high hat thing Robbie does just works.

    The Absolutely Fabulous version preserves the feel of the Julie Driscoll/Trinity version pretty well. Check her out Grace Slicking it up here:

  35. BigSteve

    I&S seem like a good example of an artist that has the seed of something great, but it needs followers for it to flower. I checked out their version of You Were On My Mind recently, and you’d never guess that it could be turned into a great record like the We Five’s. I’ve never heard anything buy them I thought amounted to much, but covers of their stuff yes.

  36. Summoned. I like the sound of that!

  37. jeangray

    Roberston play’s drums on that track???

    How does Siouxsie fit into this?

  38. jeangray, I’m gonna have nightmares after watching that!

  39. BigSteve

    Levon wasn’t there for the basement sessions. So on the Dylan tracks that have drums, it’s either Richard or Robbie.

  40. misterioso

    BigSteve is correct and though it is usually Richard on drums in this case it is almost certainly Robbie. The recording seems to have Dylan on acoustic guitar, Richard on piano, Garth on organ, Rick on bass, and Robbie on drums. Not textbook, probably, but very effective.

  41. misterioso

    Wedding this discussion of I&S to that of the Band and the Basement Tapes below, there’s no question that Dylan was a huge fan and he does several I&S songs on the “complete” Basement Tapes: Four Strong Winds (later done by Neil Young), The French Girl, the tremendous Song for Canada (sometimes called “One Single River”), and Spanish Is the Loving Tongue, which I&S recorded but didn’t write. Personally, I think these are some of the best Basement cover recordings, and when I finally heard I&S’s own versions, I was rather surprised to find them totally unlistenable.

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