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Furry sings. The blues.
September 30, 2007 8:00 PM   Subscribe

A little over 30 years ago singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell had her limo driver conduct her to the humble home of bluesman Furry Lewis. Joni was out to cop a little inspiration, which she apparently did, as she subsequently named a song after him. At that point, the name of Furry Lewis was suddenly made known to millions of people who'd never heard of him before. Perhaps a few of those folks even sought out Lewis' recordings. Course, back then there were no CD reissues, no YouTube, no mp3s floating around in the ether. But you can check out Mister Furry Lewis now: no need to have your limousine take you to the ghetto! Oh, but as far as Joni's tune, well, Furry wasn't all that pleased about it.
posted by flapjax at midnite (48 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been too busy listening to Radiohead to pay any attention to Furry.
posted by willie11 at 8:04 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Thanks flapjax, Furry Sing the Blues is one of my favourite Joni songs in my long list of favourite Joni songs. Interesting post
posted by mattoxic at 8:22 PM on September 30, 2007


I've been too busy listening to John Cage to pay any attention to Radiohead.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:26 PM on September 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


That album still gives me shivers every time I hear it.

When I finally tracked down the open tuning for "Coyote" it was a revelation.

I mean...I still suck....but it's lotsa fun
posted by timsteil at 8:27 PM on September 30, 2007


Though Joni Mitchell had no response to Furry's comments, her manager, Elliot Roberts, responded: "All she said about him was, 'Furry sings the blues' the rest is about the neighborhood. She doesn't even mention his last name...

Actually, if you check that fourth link, the lyrics do seem pretty rude to Furry.
posted by mediareport at 8:55 PM on September 30, 2007


Actually, if you check that fourth link, the lyrics do seem pretty rude to Furry.

Glad someone else noticed that. Lines like:

"You bring him smoke and drink and he'll play for you
lt's mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel"


and:

"We're only welcome for our drink and smoke"

seem rather mean spirited to me.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:06 PM on September 30, 2007


the lyrics do seem pretty rude to Furry.

no more than they're rude to herself, or rude to the idea of trying to find out something from an older musical generation

it's one of her best songs - and that's neil young on harmonica
posted by pyramid termite at 9:09 PM on September 30, 2007


live version of furry sings the blues
posted by pyramid termite at 9:15 PM on September 30, 2007


Yea, so Joni's lyrics (youtube of Joni performing the song.) aren't flattering to Furry. Other than that, I'll avoid any more Fuzzy vs. Joni.

Thanks for the post, man.
posted by snsranch at 9:18 PM on September 30, 2007


I'll avoid any more Fuzzy vs. Joni.

Wait a minute! Are you saying Joni wrote a song about Fuzzy the Bunny, too? Damn, no tellin' where that woman will go for inspiration!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:22 PM on September 30, 2007


If we eliminated all the lyrics that could somehow be construed as mean-spirited or rude, we'd have very little left worth listening to.
posted by blucevalo at 9:27 PM on September 30, 2007


That last link is awesome, just for the righteous quotes.

"....She wanted to hear 'bout the old days, said it was for her own personal self, and I told it to her like it was, gave her straight oil from the can."

"Now I know I ain't a star," he says, reaching for his glass and winking with a wise old grin "But I sure might be a moon."
posted by oliver_crunk at 9:34 PM on September 30, 2007


Never been much of a Mitchell fan but I love me some Furry Lewis. Nice post. Thanks.
posted by dobbs at 9:34 PM on September 30, 2007


An interesting music story, thanks flapjax.

Guess Furry Lewis was justly peeved she arrived and left in her shiny limo, enjoyed slumming it with him, an original old timer who'd seen authentic hard times and he didn't make a red cent out of it.

Love the blues, any way they're sung, jazzy Billie, friendly Taj Mahal, an old fave, country style, hillbilly yodeling Mule Skinner Blues lyrics and sounds on YouTube.

Also love the overlap between the blues sentiment and sorrowful, melodic folk, like Tom Paxton's exquisite Last thing on my mind.
posted by nickyskye at 9:41 PM on September 30, 2007


Furby?
posted by pracowity at 9:42 PM on September 30, 2007


If we eliminated all the lyrics that could somehow be construed as mean-spirited or rude, we'd have very little left worth listening to.

I hear you, blucevalo, but I also think that there should have been a lot more sensitivity from Mitchell, who was, after all, writing about a living, breathing person, and mentioning that person by name. Hell, if I was Furry Lewis, I'd be damned mad if I'd invited someone into my home and then read lines like:

"propped up in his bed with his dentures and his wooden leg removed" and "We're only welcome for our drink and smoke".

I mean, what the fuck?

Now, try and imagine the scenario reversed: some old, scraggly blues musician just shows up at Joni's mansion. Would he be welcomed in for a nice lengthy visit? Would Joni play a few songs for him? And then when he went and recorded a song afterward, with a line like, say: "Joni's an old lady now, looks terrible without her makeup, and can't hit those high notes like she used to..."

Wonder how she'd feel about that?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:46 PM on September 30, 2007


no more than they're rude to herself

Er, no. Being rude to someone who lets you into their home and tells you stories is much worse than being "rude to yourself." Furry's right; singing about his dentures was bad form.
posted by mediareport at 9:47 PM on September 30, 2007


Is that Joni in blackface at 4:12 into that live video? Wha-what is that?
posted by mediareport at 9:53 PM on September 30, 2007


the whole point i'm trying to make is that she was turning a pretty critical eye on her role in all of this, which makes it a more honest and ambiguous song

by the way, since when is it a crime - or even a notable occasion - that rock stars are, oh my god, rude? or exploitative?

ever hear "montgomery clift" by the clash?

how about "gary gilmore's eyes?" by the adverbs?

"joey" by bob dylan, anyone?

how about "diamonds and rust?" by joan baez, or "judy blue eyes" by csn?

you know, airing out the dirty laundry, and all that - all songs about real people, probably saying some things that the subjects might not have cared to hear

and hey how about "i don't like mondays" by the boomtown rats? wasn't that so sensitive?

and then we have some yo-yo like ted nugent who thinks half of the human race is here for him to fuck and most of the known animal kingdom is here for him to shoot full of holes and arrows and stuff

and some yo-yos like led zeppelin who stole half of the songs on their first two albums from old blues singers

a rock and roll singer is rude and a little exploitative - how shocking

let's all go back to listening to lawrence welk
posted by pyramid termite at 10:26 PM on September 30, 2007


Rude but true, and true was what people wanted.
posted by pracowity at 10:48 PM on September 30, 2007


Hoped I'd be able to find Stanley Booth's wonderful article about Furry that he originally wrote for Playboy back in 1970 or so, when he was working on the material that became True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. I can't think of a music writer as good as Booth, and his piece on Furry is the equal of anything he ever wrote, and won Booth the award for best nonfiction writer in an era when Playboy was publishing some of the finest nonfiction writing in the world.

Unfortunately, I can't find it online, but it's published in Rhythm Oil, which I'd commend to anybody interested in the music of the south, any kind of music, or just any kind of writing. And if you were gonna buy it, do yourself a favour and buy it with his True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Both books are as good as anything I ever read.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:10 PM on September 30, 2007


Old Furry sings the blues
He points a bony finger at you and
"I don't like you"
Everybody laughs as if it's the old man's standard joke
But it's true
We're only welcome for our drink and smoke


Because, everyone knows, the thing that you really want when you get old is a pile of spoiled, rich, young hippies coming around, patronizing you, trying to suck up your history via osmosis, and thinking that you might actually you want them around, you might actually be grateful for their scintillating personalities for the access to these glittering stars.

Drink and smoke? He sold himself way too cheap. Motherfuckers get rich beyond averice exploiting your musical heritage and then think they're doing you some kind of favour when they deign to pay you a visit? I bet Furry would have liked him some Public Enemy:

Joni was a hero to most,
But she never meant shit to me, you see,
Straight up racist that sucker was,
Stinking like dung,
Mother fuck her and Neil Young

Obviously a good judge of character, old Furry.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:38 PM on September 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


pyramid termite, I usually find myself agreeing with you in arguments here in the blue, but this time around, not so much. You write:

by the way, since when is it a crime - or even a notable occasion - that rock stars are, oh my god, rude? or exploitative?

So are we to assume then, that for you "rock stars" get some special pass in the human decency department? Why are we not to hold them to account, or to hold a negative opinion about their rude or exploitative behavior? And I'm sorry, but the other song examples you've given don't really compare with this one. As stated clearly above, the woman was a guest in the man's home. I'll redirect you to my above comment and ask again, what do you think Joni's reaction would be to the imaginary reversed scenario I described?

I think a big problem here might simply be that Joni Mitchell is, for you and so many others, a highly adored sacred cow.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:59 PM on September 30, 2007


She said. He said.
They're the only ones that really know what happened.
I'm sure he had some unkind things to think about this white
girl. I'm sure she had some stereotypes about old black
blues singers.

The only way I ever knew his name was through her song,
and she was the first place I ever heard of Charles Mingus
or W.C. Handy, or Charlie Parker or Lester Young.

Hey, she has a new album out. Is it any good?
posted by the Real Dan at 12:14 AM on October 1, 2007


Because, everyone knows, the thing that you really want when you get old is a pile of spoiled, rich, young hippies coming around, patronizing you, trying to suck up your history via osmosis, and thinking that you might actually you want them around, you might actually be grateful for their scintillating personalities for the access to these glittering stars.

In these parts, that happens again and again. Now let's talk about Jaco and Mingus, who she gave tribute to piggybacked upon. No regrets, coyote.
posted by sourwookie at 12:43 AM on October 1, 2007


I never heard about the background to this song. It's most surprising because Joni Mitchell is Canadian and all...

Similar but different, I once saw John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt on the TV playing some concert (oh look... it's on the youTube, though the resolution is crap) and feeling a little sorry for Ms.Raitt because man, the contempt, almost sexual it was so alive, coming from him was just... something I would not want to have been in the glare of.

From the POV of me on my couch it was at first just two musicians, one older and much much better, one a woman the other an older man, then in a single close-up it was clearly a guy who has spent most of his life looking over his shoulder now on stage (or coming to his house) with everything he had been told to never even think about or God help him, singing, rauchily, about sex.

In an instant everything else about the concert was obliterated. It's rank projection on my part, but watching Hooker and Raitt on stage I could not help but see his history and her history crashing hard into each other and if she went out with him for drinks afterwards no good was going to come of it, no good at all.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:08 AM on October 1, 2007


I just came across this bio of Furry Lewis, which I wish I'd found earlier for inclusion in the FPP. It's well-written, concise and informative.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:46 AM on October 1, 2007


Well, I think that Furry's characterization of Miss Alice Fry as described in the ballad "Casey Jones" is every bit as demeaning "I ain't good looking but I take my time / I'm a rambling woman with a rambling mind" Furry then repeats that last line a second time... as if we didn't get his meaning the first time around!
posted by zaelic at 2:54 AM on October 1, 2007


In these parts, that happens again and again. Now let's talk about Jaco and Mingus, who she gave tribute to piggybacked upon. No regrets, coyote.

I'm not sure why, but the Pastorius and Mingus stuff doesn't seem quite so offensive as her take on Furry Lewis. Possibly because both of them managed to make a decent living in the music industry, and so at least were rewarded for their inputs -- even if it might not have been in proportion to their influence.

But Furry Lewis spent most of his life hobbling on his one leg, sweeping the streets for the Memphis Sanitation Department in a city where the white supervisors would still call the men 'boy', and where they were paid a wage below the poverty line -- right up until the Garbage Workers Strike, in 1968, just four years before Joni swans up to his front door in a limo. A strike which resulted in Dr. King's visit to the city, ending with a bullet.

And then four years later, up swans Joni, pissed because he's less interested in dancing attendance on the self-important white bitch, and more interested in the whiskey and cigrarettes that she brings. So then go off away she goes and writes a song belittling him.

If I'd been Furry, I'd have sent her this photograph to remember me by.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:58 AM on October 1, 2007


zaelic writes 'Well, I think that Furry's characterization of Miss Alice Fry as described in the ballad "Casey Jones" is every bit as demeaning'

Bessie Smith's version of this song, containing the same line, predates Furry's version by a few years. So it's not really Furry's characterisation. Alice Fry is also sometimes used instead of Nellie Bly as the other woman in versions of Stagger Lee and Frankie and Johnny that predate Casey Jones.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:22 AM on October 1, 2007


PeterMcD: I think zaelic's comment about Miss Alice Fry was probably tongue-in-cheek. At least, I hope it was tongue-in-cheek.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:08 AM on October 1, 2007


Even I hope it was toungue in cheek! However, I'm a natural born easeman, so I don't have to work.
posted by zaelic at 5:22 AM on October 1, 2007


And is he saying "I'm going to shake it like Chaney did" or like "Cheney, Dick."
posted by zaelic at 5:24 AM on October 1, 2007


I'm sure she had some stereotypes about old black blues singers.

Seriously, she's in motherfucking *blackface* at 4:12 into that live video pyramid termite posted, just after the line about "ghosts of the Darktown society coming right out of the bricks at me." It's this little montage of images that comes out of nowhere, and there's Joni, in brown shoe polish, shades, a purple suit and gold bling for a couple of seconds.

What the fuck???
posted by mediareport at 5:56 AM on October 1, 2007


Sorry, z. I see so much seemingly bizarre outrage on Metafilter that sometimes the subtlety just flies right over my head.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:59 AM on October 1, 2007


You're so vain. I bet you think this song is about you.
posted by gimonca at 6:13 AM on October 1, 2007


Yup, mediareport's right, there she is at 4:10, in blackface. He wasn't shittin' ya.

I mean, damn, Joni... That's some... some...

Huh.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:20 AM on October 1, 2007


You're so vain. I bet you think this song is about you.

That's a different Furry altogether.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:48 AM on October 1, 2007


So are we to assume then, that for you "rock stars" get some special pass in the human decency department?

i'm saying that's how rock stars often behave and as human behavior goes, this isn't especially nasty - and in the rock star context, the song is unusually honest, not just about him, but about herself

she could have written a phony peppy song about him that didn't really say anything except "old blues people are really cool" and people would have ate it all up

they wouldn't be talking about it 30 years later, i bet

Why are we not to hold them to account, or to hold a negative opinion about their rude or exploitative behavior?

because they don't give a fuck and you're wasting your breath? - because it was over 30 years ago and the guy's dead? - because at this state of the game, it's really more about your outrage than anything anyone's actually going to do for the man? - because after all is said and done, you're not going to hold her or anyone else in the world "to account" by posting something on metafilter?

And I'm sorry, but the other song examples you've given don't really compare with this one.

yes, they're a lot worse - don't believe me? - play "i don't like mondays" for some people in san diego, such as the families of the victims

As stated clearly above, the woman was a guest in the man's home.

as opposed to what? being a guest in someone's bed and then getting a song on the radio about it?

I'll redirect you to my above comment and ask again, what do you think Joni's reaction would be to the imaginary reversed scenario I described?

she'd say something glib and egotistical - and bask in the realization, as i'm sure furry did, that there's no such thing as bad publicity, especially when you're trying to revive your music career, as furry was at the time

yeah, he complained - but the added attention was worth money to him

I think a big problem here might simply be that Joni Mitchell is, for you and so many others, a highly adored sacred cow.

and furry lewis isn't? - this seems much like a case of the hamburger calling the ground beef bovine ...
posted by pyramid termite at 7:04 AM on October 1, 2007


She's been doing that for thirty years now.
I don't know what it's about. I think I had that album for ten
years before I realized that the effeminate black man on the
cover was Joni Mitchell herself.
posted by the Real Dan at 7:48 AM on October 1, 2007


From Bklyn writes "Similar but different, I once saw John Lee Hooker and Bonnie Raitt on the TV playing some concert (oh look... it's on the youTube, though the resolution is crap) and feeling a little sorry for Ms.Raitt because man, the contempt, almost sexual it was so alive, coming from him was just... something I would not want to have been in the glare of."

She worked with him many times over the years. She said she was in awe of him and his voice, but they did seem to have some chemistry, most notably covering the song, "In the Mood" off of Hooker's "The Healer." Knowing her history, it's hard for me to believe she was naive about his sexuality, or bluesmen in general (they tend to the misogynistic). She's a big girl.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:00 AM on October 1, 2007


My friend Bob has put out the CD Furry Lewis, Booker White and Friends - Party! At Home, which he recorded in Memphis way back in 1968. Here's a review by John Miller. I know personally at least three people who made similar journeys to Memphis back then and have bawdy, hilarious stories about Furry and Booker that are the stuff of Harvey Pekar comics.

All have also told me how he hated on that Joni Mitchell song in their presence.
posted by y2karl at 12:06 PM on October 1, 2007


OK, pt, you're right on all counts.

And Joni is a golden goddess, who looks fabulous in shoe polish.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:20 PM on October 1, 2007


y2karl, thanks for the heads-up on that release. Looks like a getter, for sure.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:38 PM on October 1, 2007


Did I say Fuzzy? I meant Fluffy. This is a cool post. I kinda felt bad for Furry, but I guess if you're meant to be a real blues man, life is gonna give ya stuff to be blue about.
posted by snsranch at 4:45 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


So then go off away she goes and writes a song belittling him.

The ending lyrics shows that Mitchell is conscious of the bigger class/race issue:

"Furry sings the blues
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street"
posted by storybored at 9:18 PM on October 1, 2007


....which is to say that Furry comes across to me in the song as an unconventional, cantankerous hero but a hero nonetheless...
posted by storybored at 9:31 PM on October 1, 2007


Thanks for pointing that out.
posted by snsranch at 4:19 PM on October 2, 2007


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