Some Foggy Mountain Tops
The song that begins “If I was on some foggy mountain top…” is a traditional American / Appalachian tune that became, in its various forms, a standard of the mature Bluegrass idiom as it emerged in the 1940s. It’s a song I’ve always loved, since I first heard Doc and Merle Watson play it live and blisteringly fast at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco when I was a kid. (My first “concert,” courtesy of my Uncle Bill, who, incidentally, taught me to play the guitar.) All that old timey stuff works on me, but this particular tune had a special “pull”, for some reason.
There’s a very strange version of it on one of my records, the 1997 Mr T Experience album Revenge Is Sweet and So Are You, which is why I’m writing this now.
As far as I can tell, as with most such tunes, the first recorded version was from the Carter Family, ca. 1929:
The more familiar Bluegrass palimpsest followed a few years later, from the Monroe Brothers, ca. 1936:
1950s folk revivalists the New Lost City Ramblers seem to have drawn from the Monroe Brothers’ recording for their version, which is what I based mine on (the Doc and Merle version I first heard being only a wisp of memory in 1997):
(I have lots more to say about the New Lost City Ramblers, and I may type some of it out some day in another post. Led by Mike Seeger — Pete’s more historically-minded, less Communist half-brother — they played scrupulously authentic string-band songs they learned from 78 RPM records, excavating and restoring ancient treasures, deliberately unfashionable modern throwbacks. Those records are dynamite. And now they, the NLCR resuscitations on vinyl, are older, from today’s standpoint, than the originals were when they were resuscitated. With increasing distance, once you’re used to the idea of New York City boys learning hillbilly tunes from records rather than the old fashioned way, they fit more comfortably in the tradition itself. Traditions keep rolling. That’s what I like about them.)
And here, for better or and/or worse, is the punk rock version:
It certainly fits the album’s theme of love and loss. There’s a dreamy, almost surreal quality to the lyrics in this version (as opposed to the more detailed text of the Monroe Brothers’ recording) — the minimalism works, somehow. I think when guys like me, and bands like mine, do things like this there’s a serious risk of coming across like you’re being sarcastic or mocking. Maybe that’s how people do take it, I don’t know, but ironic covers have never been my thing even if it seems that way. There’s a bit of irony in just about everything a guy like me does, though, I know that. I shouldn’t be doing any of the things I’m doing, which is, if not the definition of irony a sure-fire irony recipe. Nevertheless, and for what it’s worth, I tend to be misguidedly sincere in such situations, the fact that it comes across as sarcasm being yet another nested irony I suppose.
Anyway, a lot of people really love this track, and I’ve come to love it a little bit myself. However, like so much of that album, it didn’t come out as planned (or at least, as planned by me.) And as with much of the rest of the album, it took me a good long time to get over the disappointment.
My original arrangement was pretty precisely what’s on the record, as a matter of fact, but I wanted to nod more to the traditional: it was to be minimal and frantically strummed, but on acoustic instruments, with stomping and clapping instead of drums.
This sounds simple enough, but proved to be beyond our ability. There was no budget for renting a stand-up bass, and no one knew how to play one. The drummer objected, obviously. And there was no time for figuring things out in the studio — we’d spent almost all the studio time recording drums and bass, and every thing else (guitars, vocals, arrangement-y stuff) had to be rushed, crammed in. (Lest anyone object that I’m trashing their favorite record — as happens whenever I bring this up — I realize, as I’ve conceded elsewhere, that the audible result of this down-scaling “leveling” process is probably the thing that actually makes people like the record so much; “my version” would probably have been hated by most everybody. I got my revenge, on all of us, including myself, later on, as you know — hello, Alcatraz.)
But above all I couldn’t get the idea across, and nobody knew what I wanted, which is nearly entirely my failing. I think, as well, that Kevin Army deliberately steered me away from stuff like this, trying to save me from embarrassment. He said, as long as we’ve got the drum sound set up, let’s do a drum track and we can replace it with whatever the fuck stomping and clapping thing you want later. Which replacement didn’t happen. And it’s good that it didn’t. The thing on the record is the thing we knew how to do: ironically (yet again) it sounded like regular, standard, dare I say generic, punk rock to an even greater degree than our other stuff. At least I got to keep the yodeling, though that was a near thing.
It’s all ancient history now, water under the bridge, and it probably worked out for the best. But, just for the record, so to speak, there was originally meant to be a faux traditional, pseudo-country-ish sub-theme to this record of which only traces remain. “Hell of Dumb,” “You You You,” plus some of the songs and treatments that wound up on my solo record Show Business Is My Life, some songs we didn’t do like “Had a Dream I Was Over You”, a cover of George Jones’s “Mr Fool” that was actually pretty good as far as it went, “She’s Another Thing,” lots more. Plus this song, which is, well: it’s unique anyway. And despite everything, because of everything, it does feel appropriately wistful, in several more ways than one.