Friday, January 22, 2010

Bobby's songs #7 and #8: Rob Jungklas and Son House

This entry is a twofer. The first song led me to the other and I think the second song is necessary to fully explain the first. So, I present both of them.

Tennessee-based Rob Jungklas scored a pair of very modest rock hits in the late 1980s. "Make it Mean Something" (which I've never heard and cannot find on the Internet) reached #87 on the Billboard Hot 100 and "Boystown" got some MTV airplay because it ripped of a previous Wang Chung video. See for yourself. He recorded 2 poorly selling albums and then seemingly hung it up in 1989. He left the music industry and went on to get a college degree, get married, and become a high school teacher.

The point is, you've probably never heard of him and neither had I. A buddy of mine who used to frequent the mini-mall where I worked for the first half of the 00's brought Arkadelphia by one day and insisted I listen to it.

Overall, I wasn't very impressed. The dirty-South white guy blues rock wasn't a revelation and the music and songwriting, while occasionally engaging, did little to hold my attention. Something about his music seemed too cerebral -- and the one thing you can NOT do is think when playing the blues.


The first song on the album, however, immediately struck me as a gem. "Drunk Like Son House" is head and shoulders above the other tracks on the album. The riffs are catchy, the vocals are convincing, and the lyrics contain one of the best poetic turns of phrase I've ever heard: "Sometimes God will mumble but the Devil always annunciates." What a wonderful and horribly true observation.

Drunk Like Son House by Rob Jungklas

i don't wanna be a poisonin' the water
i don't wanna be the light that shone
i don't wanna to be the voice in the darkness
all i want is a heaven of my own

i don't wanna be a holy roller
i don't wanna be doubtin' trancendence
i don't want to hate the men i talk to
i don't want to love the women that kiss me

i'm drunk like son house

i don't care what the good book promise
i don't care what the preacher man say
i'mma move when the spirit move me
with the whiskey and the women to help me to pray

i'm drunk like son house

i come here

stay away from Itta Bena
stay away from the Stovall place
sometimes God will mumble
but the devil always annunciates

I think it is important to be familiar with Son House and his life story in order to full appreciate this song. (Perhaps some of you already know his work without knowing that you know it. The White Stripes covered his "Death Letter" on De Stijl (2003).) It was a happy coincidence that my boss had recently purchased a Son House CD and had been playing it regularly in the store -- otherwise I would not have known a thing about Son House.


Son House was a performing Mississippi delta blues musician in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. He was a contemporary of better-known blues icons Robert Johnson and Charley Patton. Before his career as a juke-joint musician House was a man of the cloth. He had been a Baptist preacher since the age of 15. By his mid-20s he experienced a paradigm shift. He left the church, bought a guitar, and began teaching it to himself. The first surviving record of House playing his music is from a 1930s acetate. The sound quality is terrible and some of you may not be able to listen to this song the whole way through. For those of you who do, pay attention to how the youthful, former Baptist preacher, mocks his former passion with an almost demonic exuberance. You can certainly tell he was a preacher. He was 28 here and in the midst of his pulling away from all he had been.

Preachin' the Blues (1930) by Son House

The title, "Preachin' the Blues" encapsulates House's internal struggle that he would continue to struggle with: living among the holy ("Preachin') or living among the profane ("Blues", being the music that was played disreputable establishments and usually involved liquor).

Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
Oh, I'm gonna get me a religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work

Oh, I'm a-preach these blues, and I, I want everybody to shout
I want everybody to shout
I'm gonna do like a prisoner, I'm gonna roll my time on out

Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
Oh, I went in my room, I bowed down to pray
Till the blues come along, and they blowed my spirit away

Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
Oh, I'd-a had religion, Lord, this every day
But the womens and whiskey, well, they would not set me free

Oh, I wish I had me a heaven of my own
(spoken: Great God almighty!)
Hey, a heaven of my own
Till I'd give all my women a long, long, happy home

hey, I love my baby, just like I love myself
Oh, just like I love myself
Well, if she don't have me, she won't have nobody else

Most of the lyrics to "Drunk Like Son House" are inspired from those in this song. One line, in particular, is lifted completely: "All I want is a heaven of my own." Why must I choose between preaching or bluesing? Couldn't there be some 3rd alternative?

Jungklas paints an image of how House might have felt in the middle of that spiritual tug of war by evoking images of both religion ("light that shone") and lust ("I don't want to love the women that kiss me"). He even cleverly mixes the two impulses by mixing Son House's own lyrics up ("whiskey and women to help me to pray") and thereby illustrating how the dichotomy of vice and faith may reside in the same soul.

So, what does it mean to be "drunk like Son House"? Having not read his biography, I cannot say when his trouble with alcoholism began, but it would be safe to say it was with him throughout his blues career. The man drank whiskey. A lot of it. All the time. It is likely that House turned to the bottle in order to drown out the conflicting feelings he had about his life. Or, perhaps it was only when he was drunk that he felt he could confront theses big issues. Maybe it was both. Either way, if you are drunk like Son House, you are deeply unhappy and conflicted. You drunkenly wonder why it's so hard to be good yet so easy to fall from grace: "Sometimes God will mumble but the Devil always annunciates." You are also very, very drunk.

So, well done, Rob Jungklas. You win on this song. (Even if you did it by standing on the shoulders of a blues giant.)


For those who have gotten this far, I invite you to listen to Son House performing "Preachin' the Blues" some 35 years later. Note the difference in the lyrics. Also, note how age has quieted the fire that roared in him as a young man. Listen to his delivery, though. Has this 63 year old man resolved his spiritual schism? These new lyrics suggest that he has chosen neither good nor evil but has decided to express and experience both through his music, judgement be damned. "I'm gonna preach these blues and gonna choose my seat and sit down."

Preachin' the Blues (1965) by Son House

Yes, I'm gonna get me religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
Yes, I'm gonna get me religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist Church
You know I wanna be a Baptist preacher, just so I won't have to work

One deacon jumped up, and he began to grin
One deacon jumped up, and he began to grin
You know he said, "One thing, elder. I believe I'll go back to barrelhousin' again"

One sister jumped up, and she began to shout
One sister jumped up, and she began to shout
"You know I'm glad this corn liquor's goin out"

Another deacon jumped up and said, "Why don't ya hush?"
Another deacon jumped up and said, "Why don't ya hush?"
"You know you drink corn liquor and your lie's a horrible stink"

One sister jumped up and she began to shout
One sister jumped up and she began to shout
"I believe I can tell ya'll what it's all about"

Another sister jumped up, she said, "Why don't ya hush?"
Another sister jumped up, she said, "Why don't ya hush?"
"You know he's abandoned, and you outta hush your fuss"

I was in the pulpit, I's jumpin up and down
I was in the pulpit, I's jumpin up and down
My sisters in the corner, they're hollerin Alabama bound

Grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
Grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
I said, "Farewell church, may the good Lord bless your soul"

You know I wish I had a heaven of my own
You know I wish I had a heaven of my own
I'd give all my women a good ol' happy home

I'm gonna preach these blues and I'm gonna choose my seat and sit down
I'm gonna preach these blues and I'm gonna choose my seat and sit down
But, when the Spirit comes, I want you to jump straight up and down

You know I's in the pulpit, I was jumpin straight up and down
You know I was in the pulpit, I was jumpin straight up and down
You know the sisters in the corner, they were hollerin' Alabama bound

This audio clip from later in his life has Son House explaining himself and his struggle. "You can't hold God's hand and the Devil the other." "You can't straddle the fence." "This is how I made peace with myself."





Think about where Jungklas was in 2003. He was over a decade removed from participating in the music industry where he had been a commercial flop. He had been living a safer life by settling down with a wife and a steady, respectable job. Yet, the call to write and record music had stayed with him. How fitting that "Drunk Like Son House" be the first track on his "comeback" album. Certainly he had struggled over the past decade with the desire to write and record music while juggling the new responsibilities of family and adult life. Perhaps Arkadelphia was an attempt to, like Son House, find a way to make peace with both worlds. And, like Son House, let judgment be damned.

Further reading:

This interview with Rob Jungklas is particularly enlightening.

32 comments:

  1. Listening to Son House was amazing. Hearing him in his own words was quite a find. I wish I knew more about blues; I am a fan of old rock n' roll - you know, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis et al., but I've never taken the time to dip into the blues that influenced it.

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  2. good~ keep sharing with us, please....I will waiting your up date everyday!! Have a nice day........................................

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  3. 生存乃是不斷地在內心與靈魂交戰;寫作是坐著審判自己。......................................................................

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  4. 我們這一代最偉大的發現是,人類可以藉由改變心中的態度來改變人生。.......................................................

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  5. Joy often comes after sorrow, like morning after night.. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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  6. 大肚能容,了卻人間多少事,滿腔歡喜,笑開天下古今愁。..................................................

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  7. 聰明人之所以不會成功,是因為他們缺乏了堅忍的毅力。..................................................

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  8. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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