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DECCA 48157; MAY 1950



One thing that rock ‘n’ roll had that other popular forms of music tended to sidestep, or at least wrap in pretty bows and ribbons for mainstream consumption, was an affinity for realism in its messages.

Oftentimes it was cynical, which brought it closer to the blues, but unlike that form of music where hard truths were faced with stoic resolve, in rock there was a tendency to thumb their nose at societal oppression, making it a cathartic outlet for a generation that was beginning to understand that the road to prosperity may be filled with potholes, but it was still worth the ride to get to the promised land.

To that end, Cousin Joe – lyrically adroit, rhythmically inclined and attitudinally modern – was the ideal elder statesman and spiritual guiding light of early rock, someone who saw earlier musical styles either marginalized or co-opted by society at large, but who now could look over the horizon and see things were beginning to change as rock ‘n’ roll muscled its way to the front of the line.


I’d Rather Be Poor And Spend All My Dough
The first sounds you hear, a mournful single-string guitar played with fluid restraint, has you thinking the preceding disclaimer about terminology was way off and this surely would be one of Cousin Joe’s pure blues efforts.

But once the guitar subsides and Joe comes in aided and abetted by piano and horns, the tone suitably shifts towards the rock field, something which is made much more clear by the words he’s telling us.

In a blues composition the viewpoint of song called Poor Man’s Blues would be undeniably dour, the struggle to stay afloat would be the focus of the narrator. He might be presented as grimly determined to overcome his condition in some small way or else wearily resigned to his fate no matter what he tried, but the mood would be despondent because experience taught you to not hope for more than you could expect to receive for your troubles.

(Gospel, let it be said, sidestepped this by seeking rewards for your earthly toil in a heavenly afterlife… but that’s another story for another blog… maybe next century I’ll set some time aside for that… stay tuned).

Here, Cousin Joe is arrogantly laughing off that downcast demeanor and informing us he’s going to live like he was wealthy and enjoy life now because he doesn’t particularly care what happens to him after he’s dead and gone “with a coffin for my house”.

The fact he probably doesn’t HAVE much money is irrelevant, for he’s not trying to compete with the Rockefellers or Gettys of the world, but merely trying his best to enjoy what he has in the decidedly lower rent district of this plot of ground. It’s that defiantly optimistic outlook which set rock apart from blues and sets Joe apart from those around him who are pinching pennies hoping to avoid destitution before the funeral parlor takes their last dimes just to dump their bodies in a hole and cover it with topsoil and a few stray cigarette butts before breaking for lunch.

He sells this with a wicked sense of subversive eagerness, expecting you to gladly empty out your own bank account to join him in living it up while you still can. Unfortunately for him – and for you – the band he’s saddled with are acting like misers, hoarding their silver and gold for some other, surely less pleasurable, purpose somewhere down the line.


A Rich Man In A Graveyard
We don’t know who is playing on this track and it’s to those musicians eternal benefit that we can’t call them out by name, for while they have no trouble hitting the notes they’re asked to play, the problem is they don’t have enough notes… enough creativity… to make the song come alive.

We’ll be kind and not find fault with a few of the elements here. That opening guitar for instance, as stylistically misleading as it turns out to be, might be intentional, or at least a happy accident as it turns your expectations for a song calling itself Poor Man’s Blues on its ear. The piano and horns that back Cousin Joe when he starts the tale are at least handling their roles dutifully, knowing they’re not required to do much more than provide a suitable atmosphere, which they do.

But what follows crushes the momentum Cousin Joe built up, forcing him to collect the rubble they’ve strewn about him and build it back up time and time again.

The problem really is in the arrangement which is far too sparse to work. Not only does it stand in stark contrast to the upbeat optimism and almost defiant joy of Joe’s declarations, but it refuses to shoulder any of the load between his vocal lines, almost literally sitting out save for a bass which is apparently meant to convey the gravity of his decisions or something.

Equally ill-advised is the slow pacing they adhere to, turning what deserves to be an exhilarating feeling of recklessness into a measured and overly cautious musical progression. In other words, both of these decisions are the exact opposite of what needs to be done, dragging the record down multiple notches until not even Cousin Joe’s tight grip on the material can keep the record from coming up short when the bill comes due.

I Know What’s Best For Me
Even had all of the musical missteps been avoided this might not have had enough psychological twists and turns to elevate it to greatness. The overriding theme is strong but decidedly one-note, and the lyrics, as great as some of them are, don’t provide an effective counter for him to play off in order to make the battle for one’s happiness seem truly monumental.

Cousin Joe himself is still as appealing as ever but for once it’s not enough because everything else conspires against him. The stinginess of the musicians, arranger and producer alike turn what should’ve been at least a modest triumph into a song that requires you to make excuses – justified as you’d be in pointing them out – as to why Poor Man’s Blues falls short of breaking even.

But maybe that’s fitting too, as Cousin Joe was destined to leave the world with empty pockets, devoid of hits, mainstream recognition or a lasting legacy, but while he was here he lived it up and for those who heard him singing in his element the smiles on their faces was worth more than all the gold in Fort Knox.

Pity his cohorts hijacked those riches before the gates closed on this one.


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