Sunday, October 24, 2010

LAST THOUGHTS ON FIXIN' TO DIE

Been searching too long for pictures I shot once of Bukka White. In 1967 he was part of the American Folk Blues Festival together with Son House, Skip James and others, traveling through Europe. They were playing the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, performing mid stage while I was sitting on the same stage left front row. Made some close medium shots, but they are still somewhere in a box.

I was thinking about those pictures when listening to the new Folksinger's Choice release. The version there of Fixin' To Die is probably Bob's last performance of the song, at least the last recorded. He started out to write his own songs and soon hit the harder stuff and became the singer-songwriter we all know of. Bukka White recorded the song only once and had also a carrier change: he became a factory worker and lived almost as a complete unknown. One further thing Bob and Bukka have in common is that they're both Columbia Recording Artists, since the Vocalion label became a subsidiary of CBS in 1938.


Booker T. Washington White (1906-1977), better known as Bukka White, had recorded Fixin' To Die Blues on 8-3-1940 accompanied by Washboard Sam. It became the b-side of Black Train Blues and was inspired by the death of a friend, some Flem Smith. The story goes that he wrote it because his other songs didn't impress the producer that much, but the same session produced famous cuts like Aberdeen Mississippi Blues and Parchman Farm Blues.

I'm lookin' funny in my eyes
And I believe I'm fixin' to die
I know I was born to die
But I hate to leave my children around cryin'

Just as sho' we live
It's a, sho' we's born to die
I know I was born to die
But I hate to leave my children around cryin'

Yo mother treated me, children
Like I was her baby child
That's why's I sighed
And come back home to die

So many nights at the fireside
How my children's mother would cry
'Cause I told the mother
I had to say, goodbye

Look over yon-der
On the buryin' ground
Yon' stand ten thousand
Standin' still to let me down

Mother, take my children back
Before they let me down
Ain't no need a-them screamin' an cryin'
On the graveyard ground.

Legend has it that the re-discovery of Bukka White was kind of  inspired by the inclusion of Fixin' To Die on Bob Dylan's first album. That's too much honor for Hammond's Folly, as Dylan was then nicknamed, with only 2500 copies sold upon release. The search for White and other blues legends has another starting point. In 1959 Samuel B. Charters published his book The Country Blues, marking the beginning of the blues revival and bringing research and scholarship on a new level. The book was accompanied by a compilation album with the same title and that's how Fixin' To Die became known outside the small circle of 78rps blues record collectors. Also, the song became part of the repertory of young singers emerging on the folk and blues revival scene, one of them Dave Van Ronk. In the meantime Folkways started in association with Charters RBF (Record, Book, And Film Sales Inc.) as a subsidiary to follow up with more compilations of  prewar blues legends, including other tracks by Bukka White.


In 1963 young blues enthusiasts succeeded in locating Mississippi John Hurt and Bukka White, the next year Son House and Skip James. The story of finding White by John Fahey and Ed Denson is quite simple, they wrote a letter to "Bukka White (Old Blues Singer), c/o General Delivery, Aberdeen, Mississippi." And when he answered they visited him. That same year they made new recordings of him, some old classics and other songs. Part is on Mississippi Blues (1964), but the new take of Fixin' To Die had to wait until the release of 1963 Isn't 1962 (1994).

White became part of the blues revival, but Fixin' To Die didn't make it to the official live recordings. I could only trace one version at Wolfgang's Vault, from Los Angeles 17-8-1967. Meanwhile his original performance of the song was part of more than ten survey albums with all 14 of his 1937-1940 cuts or - more complete - all his 18 1930-1940 cuts or - complete - all his 20 cuts from that period including the Library Of Congress recordings by Alan Lomax, done in a wrong speed.

All in all three different Bukka White recordings of Fixin' To Die, 1940, 1963 and 1967, but all the same lyric with small variations. That's a whole other story with Bob Dylan. Also three recordings, but with great textual differences.

The most common Dylan version is of course the album version from Bob Dylan. Three takes were recorded on 20-11-1961, but the outtakes don't circulate. Part of the 5 verses is close to Bukka White, but Dylan has some variations on the theme and borrows from other blues sources. In it's structure verses 1, 3 and 5 deal with "funny", in his mind, his eyes and his walking all connected to the title line and they all three end with his don't mind to die but hate to leave his children cry. Some sources give this text as the original Bukka White lyrics.

Feeling funny in my mind, Lord,
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well, I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

Well, look over yonder
to that burying ground
Sure seems lonesome, Lord,
when the sun goes down

Feeling funny in my eyes, Lord,
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well, I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

There's a black smoke rising, Lord
It's rising up above my head,
And tell Jesus
make up my dyin' bed.

I'm walking kind of funny, Lord
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well, I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'


In the second version, Carnegie Chapter Hall 4-11-1961, there is another Bob, with a driving guitar. Small echo's of that same kind of  accompaniment can be found on the Bob Dylan album in Fixin' To Die, Highway 51 and See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. Lyric structure is kind of the same, now with aches in his back in verse 3 and verse 5 surprisingly ending with hating to leave his friends behind. Perhaps he knew who the 53 people sitting in the audience were. Verse 2 has the introduction of King Solomon's grave, but that doesn't fit well, there's something missing.

Well I'm feeling funny in my eyes, Lord,
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

Well look over yonder,
To that burying ground
Well yonder stands the grave
Of King Salomon

Well I've had aches in my back, Lord
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

It's a funny old road, Lord
I just can't see no end,
That's why I can't help
I believe I'm fixing to die

Well I'm feeling funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I'm fixing to die,
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my friends behind

The third version is the one on Folksinger's Choice, the Cynthia Gooding WBAI-FM radioshow broadcast on 11-3-1962. The structure is here quite different as he uses the verses 1, 3, 5 and 7 as a kind of  chorus, all four with the same text. In verse 2 King Solomon fits better with the added part, missing from the other version.

Well I'm lookin' funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I'm fixin' to die
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

Well look over yonder,
To that buryin' ground
Yonder stands the grave of King Solomon
I'm sure he won't let me down

Well I'm lookin' funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I'm fixin' to die
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

Well there's a black smoke risin', Lord
It's risin' up above my head
Gonna tell Jesus
Make up my dyin' bed

Well I'm lookin' funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I'm fixin' to die
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

Well your mama treated me
Like I was a baby child
That's why I can't come home, Lord
Can't wait to come home to die

Well I'm lookin' funny in my mind, Lord
I believe I'm fixin' to die
Well I don't mind dyin'
But I hate to leave my children cryin'

The addition here of "well" at the very beginning of every first line makes those lines crowded with words. This became some typical Dylan trade-mark later on. It's also funny to see how Dylan adds so manifold the word "Lord" to all his versions of the song. It's not only the interpretation of blues by an urban white youth, giving it some old blues feel by adding that kind of emotion. It also changes the direction of the song. White was not a singer of religious songs like many of his contemporaries and made only one gospel record. His
subjects were everyday life and trains and for sure those were no slow trains. So his lyrics for Fixin' To Die were aimed at his surroundings, his next-of-kin, those who were left behind. With Dylan the direction changed to higher powers, the point of view of a dying man with a strong faith.

It is interesting that Heylin gives a date, late october 1961, where Dylan performs Fixin' To Die with Dave Van Ronk and John Gibson at Izzy Young's Folklore Center. A recording made by Cynthia Gooding  seems to have been lost. Van Ronk was familiar with the old blues and had Fixin' To Die on his repertory. If we hear his recording on Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger (1963) he stays close to the original lyrics. If this Heylin version was Bob's introduction to the song, it probably was this regular text.

It is interesting because now some dialogue in the radio program Folksinger's Choice falls into place. Gooding, who knows the song, makes it all too concise and too clear by simply saying: "that's a great song, how much of it is yours?" And Bob almost loses his guard and begins: "that's a....." But then he quickly recovers and adds: "I don't know, I can't remember" and goes on about his hands being cold.

But he must remember it quite well for we see him in this period as a starting songwriter, experimenting with songs, trying to bend the lyrics to his will. It's kind of small romance with the blues that gives him variable lyrics, easy to change. And if he has enough of it it's easy to drop the song as it is not his own. Fixin' To Die is not the only one on this artistic playground.

It's a pity we don't know the two studio outtakes. Perhaps the takes were all similar to the released one. But with King Salomon reappearing in the radio show it's also possible that they shine some more light on his fate.

There is also a fourth version by Bob Dylan, on the McKenzie tape recorded 23-11-1961. Some serious sources give the song in their listings, but if you serious listen it isn't there really. The track gives some strumming, some tuning and some talking. The name of the song is mentioned, someone says he heard him sing it somewhere and after only one chord Bob strums and tunes his way to the next song. That's all. He's not interested in the song anymore but as it is on his album he does it one more time for Gooding.


Bukka White's original Fixin' To Die Blues has six verses, all with different lyrics and no repeats except for on time the line "I know I was born to die, but I hate to leave my children around cryin'" We see that Bob Dylan brings significant changes in all his versions. It's more than substituting some little word by some other. By transforming the lyrics he not only changed the mood of the song, but the whole meaning, while his form experiments change the structure.

Although Dylan showed his strength with Fixin' To Die to make the song his own he didn't get credit for it. On the Bob Dylan album only Bukka White is named and also on bootlegs with the other versions and even in most serious Dylan literature it's a song by White and nobody else. On the internet you find in many cases the lyrics of Dylan's album version as the real lyrics instead of those by Bukka White. It's strange that Fixin' To Die is not even defined as "adapted by" or "arranged by" like some of the other songs on the album he changed around. Perhaps it wasn't that important anymore. Perhaps he used to care, but things had changed.



NOTES:
The Bukka White discography by Stefan Wirz was of great help: http://www.wirz.de/music/whitbfrm.htm

All lyrics here are given in their bare form, without the usual repeating of lines and exclamations.

A complete collection of Bukka White's classic recordings can be found on the 2003 Aberdeen Mississippi Blues - The Vintage Recordings (1930-1940), with the Library Of Congress cuts for the first time speed corrected.

1 comment:

  1. This is a truly great article, love to read more!

    ReplyDelete