Monday, April 13, 2015

CD Odyssey Disc 725: Johnny Horton

My beloved Bruins tanked the end of the season and are heading to the golf course early this year. Damn. Being a sports fan can be hard. Anyone who says it’s no big deal isn’t a sports fan.

Disc 725 is…. Greatest Hits
Artist: Johnny Horton

Year of Release: 1961 but featuring music from 1953-1960

What’s up with the Cover? Johnny Horton looking very bonnie in his red blazer and white shirt. When I was a kid I thought Johnny was some kind of mythic hero when I looked at this cover. I still kind of feel that way.

How I Came To Know It: My Mom owned this on record and I put it on often as a kid. Now that record is mine (thank you Mom!) and I’ve bought it on CD as well since it is really hard to walk around town while listening to vinyl.

How It Stacks Up:  Best of albums don’t stack up, jerky!

Rating: Best of albums also don’t get rated, just reviewed. I have a studio album (sort of) by Horton as well and I’ll review that when I get there.

Back in 1961 when this album came out “best of” wasn’t really that different from a lot of regular studio albums. Through the fifties, artists just released a bunch of singles and when the Soulless Record Execs figured they had enough of them, they’d market them as an LP.

The year before “Greatest Hits” Johnny Horton had released “Johnny Horton Makes History” and seeing it do pretty well, I suspect the aforementioned Soulless Record Execs mashed a bunch of those songs into some of his other popular favourites and had at ‘er. Even my studio album, “Battle of New Orleans” is just a repackaging of a bunch of pre-existing hits mostly from the fifties, but at least it doesn't rub it in my face.

Of the 13 songs on “Greatest Hits,” eight of them appear on “Battle of New Orleans” (hint: those are the songs you’ve heard of). However, I’m going to focus this review on the other five songs.  I’m whimsical that way.

First though, I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about Johnny Horton in general. Horton is one of the most beautiful vocalists I’ve ever heard. He is part rockabilly fifties crooner and part country balladeer, and the combination is enchanting. His tone is pure and easy; capable of climbing way up the scale without ever losing its power or his undeniable ‘manliness’. That he died so young is a true tragedy.

Horton could have been a fifties pop icon with that voice but instead he chose to bring American history to life through music. Sometimes the songs are a bit hokey, but Horton’s sincerity almost always shines through. He also does some top forty type fare to show he can do that as well. These include playful songs like “I’m Ready If You’re Willing” slower tear-jerkers like “The Mansion You Stole” and the sublime “All for the Love of a Girl.”

All three of those songs aren’t on my other album, but given the subject matter I need to mention at least one song that appears on both of my records. That is “Whispering Pines,” which is one of the most heart-rending songs I’ve ever heard. I also holds the distinction of being the first song to make me truly understand what it is to have your heart rent.

I think I was around 9 or 10 when “Whispering Pines” first started to affect me. I loved being out in nature back then, and I think the song’s naturalist imagery appealed to me. I could key in on the Mourning Dove cooing tragically for a lost mate through the whispering pine trees and understand true loss through music, long before hormones would make me susceptible to the same fate. I’d wander the woods singing this song, reveling in the abject sadness of it.

“Whispering pines, whispering pines, tell me is it so?
Whispering pines, whispering pines, you’re the ones who know.
My darling’s gone, o she’s gone, and I need your sympathy
Whispering pines, send my baby back to me.”

To this day when I’m out for walk in the woods on a windy day (far less common in recent years) this song always springs to mind. Whenever I’m feeling lonely and forsaken it comes to me just as surely, no trees required.

As far as the history songs go, I’ll stick to my original promise and limit my commentary to the two songs that appear only here in my collection: “Jim Bridger” and “Johnny Freedom.”

Jim Bridger” is the reason I bought this album, despite having more than half the songs somewhere else (did I mention that yet?) Jim Bridger was an actual legend of early America – an explorer and outdoorsman of the 19th century. As a kid I just loved the heroic nature of the character the way Johnny sung it:

“Once there was a mountain man who couldn’t write his name
Yet he deserves a front row seat in history’s hall of fame
He forgot more about the Indians than we will ever know
He spoke the language of the Sioux, the Blackfoot and the Crow.”

The other song, “Johnny Freedom” is not a real character, but instead an amalgamation of a bunch of Americana virtues that are comically ridiculous. All the earnest storytelling of “Jim Bridger” is out the window. Horton lays it on thick from the start, opening with a banjo strumming “God Save the Queen.” “Johnny Freedom” dumps tea in Boston Harbour, pioneers out west and as evidenced by these lyrics eventually becomes some kind of combination of Abraham Lincoln, a hired goon and a gigolo:

“If we need a mess of thinking, he’s the Lincoln of the day
If we’re fixin’ for a tussle it’s his muscle all the way
If we need a handsome fella so the ladies’ hearts can throb
There’s a Yankee-doodle-dandy always handy for the job.”

Yikes. I am pleased to say at the tender age of ten I knew this song sucked as surely as I knew that “Whispering Pines” was pure gold.

Despite “Johnny Freedom” this Greatest Hits package is a brilliant collection of one of country music’s early greats. Over forty years of listening to it, I’ve never grown tired of it.

Best tracks: A whole bunch of great stuff also on “Battle of New Orleans” including “Whispering Pines” and  a couple of sweet tracks not on that record – notably “Jim Bridger” and “All For the Love of a Girl.”

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