Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mysterious Hillbilly Ways: Johnny Duncan and the Blue Grass Boys: "Last Train to San Fernando"

1957 was the last year - the last official year, at any rate - of skiffle's popularity. It may sound a bit quaint now, what with being made by a bunch of guys with washboards and fiddles and acoustic guitars in basements and cellars, all singing about things they had never actually experienced (rural American culture). But it was fast, exciting, rude and raw - a deliberate reproof to 'good' singing and 'classy' arrangements by orchestras and such. It was the liberating and inspiring music in the UK before rock 'n' roll hit, and it continued for a good year to keep prodding and providing the youth with a way in - not a sexy way, always, but a way in nevertheless.

How appropriate, then, for this big skiffle hit to be sung by an actual American? Duncan was born in a coal mining camp in Tennessee and has the high, pleasant nasal whine of a man who has grown up hearing Appalachian music since his birth; he sings as clear as a bell. Musically, it's a song that speeds up, sounding just like a train - dum...dum-dum-dum...dum-dum-dum-dum until it's going full speed, sounding cheery and free, but the warning is constant: "If you miss - this one - they're never be another one ("bidi-bidi-bum-bum" comments Duncan) "to San Fernando."

Now, as usual, the train in question is both a real one and a metaphor for something present that won't be around for long - in this case, the chance of romance and marriage to a woman who (as far as I can tell; the lyrics are a bit odd) is having an affair with the narrator and "marries into high society" but is still willing to slip away with him if she gets bored. (The song was written in '57; for some reason I keep picturing the woman as Grace Kelly or maybe Ava Gardner.) There's a fine guitar solo in the middle and then after it's done the song slows down, the train comes to a halt and Duncan makes a sound like a last gentle blast of steam: "Pssshhhh...."

Anyone who knows me knows I love train songs; in fact I think there's no such thing as a bad train song (not very good ones, sure, but no truly awful ones). This skiffle song of cross-class love was a hit because it's so damn catchy, to be sure, but it has that same bold confidence (without the extraterrestrial shock) as Elvis' "Mystery Train." (Inexplicably, "Mystery Train" only reached #25 on the UK charts. Other totally awesome songs to reach this position include "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream, "Cryin'" by Roy Orbison, "Showroom Dummies" by Kraftwerk, "Could It Be Magic" by Barry Manilow, "Diamonds and Pearls" by Prince and, um, "The Longest Time" by Billy Joel. Maybe I should do a blog?? Hmmmm....)

Skiffle was busy going down its own inevitable track by now, making way for other Americans to come in and sit a spell with their own William Carlos Williams-ish "pure products"; Duncan himself eventually ended up in Australia, as so many UK-based entertainers did, and yet he was back in the studio just months before his death in 2000. His genial strangeness (he looks just like he sounds - a bit like Lyle Lovett, in fact) liberated maybe just a few more kids to think - "hey, I don't have to look great or make perfect sense to be accepted." And bless him for that.