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DECCA 48091; DECEMBER, 1948

 
 

 

The junction between rock ‘n’ roll and the blues on the musical spectrum is one that has been continually overstated through the years owing to the fact that many prominent names from the second, third and even fourth generation of rockers (the mid-1950’s through the mid-1970’s) happened to be influenced by blues guitarists. When those rock artists were repeatedly interviewed in the ensuing years they naturally spoke highly of their own heroes and thus rock’s story was systematically amended to give credence to the myth promoted by Muddy Waters (in an effort to keep himself relevant) that stated “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ roll”.

This is obviously not true as any in depth study of rock’s 1947 birth and subsequent development as a major genre over the next half decade definitively proves. The fact is the blues itself was undergoing its own most fertile growth at the same time, both creatively – with the shift to electric guitar that later rock guitarists found inspiration from – as well as commercially, as the Race Charts as they were then known were seeing pure blues records from the likes of T-Bone Walker, Pee Wee Crayton, John Lee Hooker and Lonnie Johnson grabbing spots alongside the rock records of Roy Brown, Amos Milburn, The Ravens and Paul Williams.

Though both were seeking an acknowledgement of their community’s vibrant culture and thus each of their advances in terms of scoring hits confirmed the growing economic might in this part of society, musically speaking, while both genres offered an abundance of skill and creativity, the viewpoints of the songs, and by extension the viewpoints of the listeners of those songs, varied greatly.
 

 
The blues was what its terminology professed it to be – blue. A despondent outlook of those who’d had their optimism worn down by oppression and a lifetime of misery.

Now to be fair there were still joys to be found in life on the margins and blues songs did in fact celebrate these at times, but it was never the dominant thematic thread of the music. The biggest songs by the biggest artists shared the impression that life itself was a struggle, one made easier perhaps by singing about those hardships, but in the end T-Bone Walker’s view that They Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday’s Just as Bad) seemed to serve as a blues fan’s belief as much as it did merely as the title of their favorite song.

Rock ‘n’ roll on the other hand eschewed such despair for the most part and believed in, and boldly declared, that life was something to be conquered as well as to be celebrated and enjoyed. Their stations in life may indeed be the same but their reactions to its adversity seemed to be diametrically opposed, which is why while the blues courted a slightly older audience rock captured the ears of those young enough, perhaps naïve enough if you want to be cynical, to truly believe the world was going to change for them and that they may even be the ones to forcibly change it.

But as distinct as the differences were, something exacerbated by rock drawing far more of its early musical ideas from jazz than blues, that’s not to say the two didn’t occasionally mingle in the work of a few more idiosyncratic souls at the time who blurred the line between the styles just enough to keep you guessing as to which perspective they were offering you… or more accurately maybe, which audience they were targeting to buy their records.
 

The Man In The Moon
Few of rock’s original artists were as unclassifiable as Joseph Pleasant. The man known professionally as Cousin Joe seemed bound and determined to resist being put in an easily labeled box and kept there on the shelf, pulled out only when somebody wanted a by the numbers example of that particular style of music.

Cousin Joe therefore dabbled in everything to prevent such a fate befalling him, cutting jazz sides along blues sides, gospel sides to bookend folk sides and yes, rock sides to keep his hand in that realm, all while highlighting his intelligent lyrical perspectives and his engaging character-rich voice in whatever form his music took in that moment.

Maybe the best way to classify Joe would be simply to call his musical output Americana but as we know that term would eventually be confined to something narrow and unbending as well.

Within a few years Cousin Joe would forsake recording altogether, leaving the headaches of having his music rigidly marketed behind him in favor of merely playing whatever he felt like to patrons of the New Orleans clubs where he resided for years. They didn’t much care what label you slapped on his shows, you were just there to have a good time.

But since he’s still cutting records at this point the labeling continues and with Beggin’ Woman he serves something up that takes a handful of rock elements and mixes them with a touch more of the blues than usual. If you’re hell-bent on calling it something definitive, and since this term would come to be so widely adapted down the road, let’s just call it blues-rock and leave it at that.
 


 

I Can See It In Her Eyes
Though the very first sound you hear emanating from the speakers is Sammy Price’s piano it’s soon overwhelmed by Billy Butler’s guitar, played with laconic authority, full rich single-string tones that cut deep while holding back on the flashier attributes that true blues legends like Walker employed.

It’s a meandering pace they lay down, just spry enough to keep moving forward but lazy enough to allow for Joe’s story to take center stage and be fully appreciated.

Now anybody familiar with Cousin Joe’s work knows more or less what to expect: You’re going to get a life-lesson wrapped in a witty series of observant lines that gently poke fun at humanity’s more questionable tendencies.

In the case of Beggin’ Woman the target is pretty ripe for the picking as he focuses on the gold digging female who is more interested in what material goods her man will give her than in the mutual happiness they should get from shared pursuits. Knowing Cousin Joe he’s going to make his points with irony and wit rather than anger and vitriol and sure enough that’s the approach he takes, sort of a bemused head shaking reaction to her shallow and transparent ploys.

Though he goes to great length to provide anecdotal evidence of this trait, from begging the plant from a plantation and the sweetness out of a ginger cake, the hook line is the most biting as he declares:

She’s got a handful of ‘gimme’
And a mouth full of ‘much obliged’

But that line is the only real memorable one offered up, something enjoyable each time it’s recited but the entire song leans so heavily on it that you spend more time anticipating its reappearance and less studying the somewhat rote examples he uses to pad it out. Although that one line comes across great, especially as Joe eases the words out of his larynx in exquisite fashion, the bulk of the song’s lyrics are not up to his usual standard, leaving the music with a big hole to climb out of if this is to be more than just a pleasant way to pass time.
 

Sleeps In The Afternoon
If any musicians were up to such a task it’d surely be Price and Butler, two of the most proficient sidemen rock has seen. But here’s where we find fault with the bluesier aspects of the record, especially as it pertains to our rock-centered mindsets.

Butler has the chore of keeping your focus in between Cousin Joe’s lines and he does so admirably. His lines fit within the general framework of the song’s tempo and mood and as always they’re played with excellent judgment, but the slow pace offers the listener no relief. In a song with more laughs from the lyrics this wouldn’t be a problem, in fact you’d welcome the more sparse approach he shows here. But Beggin’ Woman needs something to draw our interest away from some of the more mundane aspects of the story and in that sense it fails to deliver.

There’s no back beat for starters which is made more glaring by the fact that Price’s left hand barely registers in an effort to create any rhythm. Butler therefore is stuck in neutral the whole time. He can’t speed things up during the verses without throwing the entire song into upheaval, and then when he does get a chance to cut loose in two all too brief transitional solo spots he sticks to the blues shadings which keeps you in your seat.

Had they simply combined the two spots into one prolonged showcase and then let Butler rev things up, bending strings and playing an impatient boogie while Price hammered away on the treble keys they’d have kept the song’s basic structure intact while offering a welcome respite from the dragging pace and it might really have taken off. Instead they choose to stick to the ruminative approach that doesn’t do the song any favors.

What stands out in their decisions is the mindset the blues seem to have on them. The musicians are playing in a mournful way, or at least a subdued manner which doesn’t serve to highlight the comic aspects of the situation. Since Cousin Joe dials back on that humor from what we’ve come to expect from him he’s less engaging as a storyteller, coming across more as if he’s brooding over his woman’s behavior rather than making light of it to amuse himself and his friends while at the same time acting to shame her in a non-demeaning way in an effort to get her to change.
 


 

A Possum Out Of A Tree
We’ve had little good fortune when it comes to hybrid type songs in rock ‘n’ roll. The more frequent attempts to marry a jazz backing to a rock mindset are often pulled too far into irrelevancy to connect with rock fans and those which try to smooth down the rough edges of rock ‘n’ roll vocals to appeal to pop listeners wind up pleasing neither constituency.

Here I’m not so sure Cousin Joe and company set out deliberately to cross two strains of music as much as they merely wandered into the valley between the two regions and never climbed out. Beggin’ Woman is more a case of lacking in any one identifiable element than containing one too many.
 

 
Still, as relative misfires go there’s still some mild enjoyment from hearing Cousin Joe’s distinctive tones measuring his putdowns carefully in the chorus and enough people did give this one a whirl as it became his only regional chart topper, in the barren prairies of Oklahoma of all places.

But even if you were among those who found it to their liking I’m sure there’d be a lot of them who’d agree that songs which stuck closer to the rock aesthetic have this beat when it comes to generating any real excitement, as well as admitting there were plenty of pure blues tracks that were better to seek out than this if that’s where your interests lay.

The lesson being that if you have to beg for more of what you want to hear and less of what you don’t in a song it’s probably not going to fully satisfy anyone’s strongest taste.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Cousin Joe for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)