Sunday, July 1, 2018

Walkin’ Blues: “She Got a Elgin Movement”


So, I’m making a playlist, but instead of just pulling a song or two from the Hindu Love Gods album, I go down the rabbit hole, listening to the whole thing for the first time in a while. The name “Hindu Love Gods,” btw, is a workaround for record company contract constraints that would make the collection unreleasable under the better-known names of “Warren Zevon along with ¾ of REM.” Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry had guested on a Zevon session, after which the four gentlemen may possibly have spent the night drinking whiskey and playing covers, tape rolling. For years, my go-to songs from this session were the rough-but-inspired versions of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” and Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” (a blues standard best known via the Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Taylor versions, respectively).

This time around, though, the thing that’s making my ears tingle is “Walkin’ Blues,” which has been done by everybody from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, from Taj Mahal to the Grateful Dead, and on and on. I had always thought it was a Robert Johnson song, though I’ve since learned that Son House is the original songwriter, and first recorded the song in 1930. Robert Johnson recorded it in 1936, not only covering “Walkin’ Blues,” but also synthesizing the song with lyrical and musical elements from a couple of other Son House songs. Those changes, plus the fact that Johnson’s version is better recorded and is also a stronger performance (my opinion, sure, but I’m in good company on this), make Johnson’s version the go-to option of the early versions. In 1941, Muddy Waters reworked the song, recording it with revised lyrics, as “Country Blues.” In 1950, Waters’ first single for Chess Records was “Walkin’ Blues,” in a version more like the House and Johnson versions.

Anyway, I’m listening to the rock energy and drive of the Hindu Love Gods version, and it’s great, when I notice Zevon sing a lyric I’d never fully registered before, a lyric that gets my curiosity revved: “She got a Elgin movement, from her head down to her toes.”
My first thought is that maybe he’s saying “elegant” with an alternate/rural pronunciation. I’ve heard this kind of thing lots of times, especially from older folks in Eastern North Carolina, where I grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  For example, the word “kindly” sometimes gets used in a context where it’s clear that “kind of” is more what’s meant, as in “he’s kindly short-tempered.” “Irish potatoes” morphs, passing through “Ahrshtaters” to wind up sounding almost like “ice-taters.” But it’s not cold potatoes, it’s just regular old boiled potatoes with salt and butter. 

So, my experience with local ways of saying things had me thinking that this “Elgin movement” is something like that, maybe a regional quirk of pronunciation that Zevon has picked up from Mississippi by way of Mr. Johnson.  But nope. This is the kind of thing I might have puzzled over for weeks back in the pre-internet era, but as things are now, a name-brand search engine set me straight right away.  

Elgin was a brand of watches, well known and well-advertised back when the song was written, and for decades afterward. The image from this blues song, then, is that the woman being referenced has, um, you know, a steady and reliably rhythmic movement, from her head down to her toes. It’s a sexy and arresting image, that the enticing way she moves is as steady as the motion of a watch. The company’s long been out of business, so a sly reference that was easily understood at the time requires a little context now.

Now that I knew the answer, I started wondering, is this a pretty commonly known thing that I somehow missed? I mean, it’s a famous song, so surely somebody else has wondered about this. I posed the question, with no context, to a panel of knowledgeable bluesologists: Carl Settles (longtime Austin musician and accomplished blues pianist), Darcie Fromholz (Austin music expert and an employee at Antone’s, Austin’s Home of the Blues, way on back in The Day), Woody Russell (noted blues-Americana-jazz artist), Leeann Atherton (folk-blues-Americana singer-songwriter, as well as a music educator), and Wammo (spoken word artist/musician/singer-songwriter, formerly of the acoustic blues band The Asylum Street Spankers). 

“So, y’all,” I asked, “in ‘Walkin’ Blues’ what does the phrase ‘Elgin movement’ mean?” While it was a head scratcher for four of my five experts, Darcie Fromholz not only knew, she had a cool story about how she had come to know. One night long ago at Antone’s, in the Austin of hazy recollection, the question occurred to her, in about the way it had to me. “Huh. What’s THAT lyric all about?” Fortunately for her, she began to wonder this while located in a legendary blues venue, and thus was able to ask one of the cornerstones of the Austin blues scene, recording artist Angela Strehli, who was present at the time. Angela Strehli wasn’t sure, but she did know who was certain to know the answer: Albert Collins (!!!), who was playing there that night. If you don’t know who Albert Collins is, I’m not gonna help you out. Look him up. Anyway, Mr. Collins told Ms. Strehli, Ms. Strehli told Ms. Fromholz, and Ms. Fromholz then got to kinda blow my mind decades later, with her cool response to my query.  

All this makes for an interesting bit of lyrical context for “Walkin’ Blues,” but it also turned my mind to other lyrics that make very specific references that may be hard for future listeners to parse. Will Elliott Smith’s 1997 song “Rose Parade,” with its reference to marching “like the Duracell Bunny” make sense to people decades from now? In the Grateful Dead song “Sugar Magnolia,” written by Bob Weir and Robert Hunter, there’s a reference to a woman who can not only dance a Cajun rhythm, but can also “jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive.” I know, and you may also happen to know, that a Willys is an early version of a Jeep, but that reference obviously had much wider currency back in 1970, when the song was first released. At what point will it quit making sense to most people? Moving across the pond, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” extols the virtues of that particular model of motorcycle, with the protagonist stating that “Nortons and Indians and Greeveses just won’t do/They ain’t got the soul of a Vincent ’52.” These types of motorcycles are British bikes [Correction: while the other two are/were British bikes, Indian is an American brand], and one of the bunch—Greeves — isn’t even made anymore. As with the other examples, then, understanding the Thompson lyric in its particularity requires some information, some specific context that is at some point going to move out of common cultural knowledge.

P.s.: guess what song I now cannot stop playing every time I pick up the guitar? Yup.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful ride through some rich idiom, with Jeff's resonant storytelling voice in my ear. My mother shared her love for Elgin watches with me growing up. She also drove an Indian motorcycle from Massachusetts to St. Louis and back in the early 50's. Indian was the first U.S. motorcycle company, decidedly not a "British bike." Excellent piece, Jeff.

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