Lyrical Challenge – In Case You Missed The 60s

‘On the Road Again’, not the Willie Nelson song, is one of the greatest boogie songs of all time.  On September 22nd 1968 ‘On the Road Again’ peaked at #16 on Billboard’s Hot Top 100 chart becoming Canned Heat’s first hit and one of their best-known songs.  Legend has it that Bob “The Bear” Hite took the name “Canned Heat” from a 1928 recording by Tommy Johnson called ‘Canned Heat Blues’, a song about an alcoholic who desperately turned to drinking Sterno, which is cooking fluid that gave you a cheap but dangerous high.

The song features Alan Wilson as the lead singer and harmonica player and it was released on the aptly titled album Boogie with Canned Heat.  ‘On the Road Again’ is a psychedelic blues song about rambling down the path of life.  The guy is tired because he is constantly on the road and he would love to have a woman to call his special friend.  He is a bit of a mama’s boy, but he doesn’t want his mama to cry when he is all by himself.  It’s one of two signature hits for Canned Heat, which are an LA-based blues-rock outfit that was founded by Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite.  Blind Owl got his nickname because of his extreme nearsightedness.  Wilson was the singer, guitarist, harmonica player, and musical mastermind, and he sings lead on both “On the Road Again” and the group’s other smash, “Going Out to the Country,” which became known as the unofficial anthem of Woodstock.  Wilson had a way at expressing this type of music, through his extensive knowledge.  Blind Owl was a musicologist, and he knew a lot about that old country-blues and he found a way to make it all work together.

Wilson shares co-writing credit on “On the Road Again” with a Chicago blues musician Floyd Jones, whose 1953 song of the same name forms the basis of the track.  It’s essentially a cover of Jones’ tune which was based on the Delta blues musician Tommy Johnson’s 1928 song ‘Big Road Blues’, except that Canned Heat uses guitar harmonics and an Eastern string instrument called the tambur or a tambura drone to give the song a hypnotic effect and a psychedelic edge, that sort of fit into that whole thing with Ravi Shankar at the time.  Wilson had gained a knowledge of Eastern music after studying the veena (an Indian stringed instrument) while at Boston University.  Wilson was given a veena by guitarist John Fahey, a UCLA student who would go on to change the face of acoustic guitar music.   Fahey loved the early blues, but  he couldn’t play this instrument, so he gave it to Al, who quickly learned how to play it.  This band was initially intended to be an unplugged jug band, but once they started plugging in and turning up, Fahey made an abrupt exit.  Canned Heat mostly started out by doing takes on blues staples by heroes like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and  Elmore James.

Emerging in 1966, Canned Heat was founded by blues historians and record collectors Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson and Bob “The Bear” Hite, who sang vocals, and played harmonica, flute and guitar.  They were joined by Henry “The Sunflower” Vestine, another ardent record collector who was a former member of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention.  Rounding out the band in 1967 were Larry “The Mole” Taylor on bass, an experienced session musician who had played with Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and The Monkees and Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra on drums who had played in two of the biggest Latin American bands, Los Sinners and Los Hooligans.

Like many bands that capture the spirit of their times, Canned Heat wasn’t destined to remain in the spotlight for long. Wilson apparently committed suicide and on September 3, 1970 as he was found dead on a hillside behind band mate Bob Hite’s Topanga Canyon home at the young age of 27.  The autopsy identified the cause of death was acute barbiturate intoxication.  Wilson reportedly had attempted suicide a few months earlier, attempting to drive his car off a freeway in Los Angeles.  He was briefly hospitalized for significant depression, and was released after a few weeks.  Although his death is sometimes reported as a suicide, this is not clearly established and he left no note.  Wilson’s death came just two weeks before the death of Jimi Hendrix and four weeks before the death of Janis Joplin, two artists who also died at the same age.  Wilson’s recording career lasted just three years, before he died of a drug overdose.

Canned Heat almost missed the Woodstock festival, as guitarist Henry Vestine quit just two days before the festival, because of a fight that he got into with bass player, Larry Taylor at the Fillmore West.  Harvey Mandel who was nicknamed ‘The Snake’, because of the way he played his Fender Stratocaster was drafted into the band only to find that drummer Adolpho ‘Fito’ de la Parra felt they didn’t have sufficient time to rehearse for Woodstock, so he also left the band.  Their manager got into the reluctant drummer’s room where he had locked himself and talked him into changing his mind and they flew to Woodstock by helicopter arriving in the nick of time.  It was Harvey Mandel’s third gig with the band.  As Canned Heat played, day turned to night and they had secured a prime slot on the already late running second day.   Mandel is featured on two tracks of the Rolling Stones album Black and Blue, ‘Hot Stuff’ and ‘Memory Motel’.

Bob ‘The Bear’ Hite was a Blues music collector and a would be Disc Jockey from Torrance, California who died on April 5th in 1981, which ended a chapter in this band’s history.  None of his Canned Heat band mates took great notice when Bob “The Bear” Hite, fell down on a dressing room floor during an apparent overdose.  Instead, they returned to the stage for a second set at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.  He had collapsed so many times before, from drugs usually, that the band became used to leaving him when he passed out onstage and anyways none of them were able to lift him, because he weighed 300-pounds.  Every other time, he’d wake up the next morning he would say, “What the f— happened?”, and they would respond, “Er, you got wasted again.”  Hite had reportedly injected a gram of cocaine when he was approached by a fan carrying a vile of heroin, which Hite snorted after making a boast, “This s— ain’t even gonna get me high”, however moments after, Hite passed out.  Someone then apparently tried to revive him with two huge lines of coke, which Hite snorted without seeming to wake up.  Roadies were dragging Hite out to the van by his ankles as Canned Heat continued their show.

The band is still together and Canned Heat is playing concerts in Boston, Cincinnati, Chicago, Nashville and Atlanta next month.  A bedroll is a sleeping bag or other bedding (blanket or pillow) rolled into a bundle which makes sleeping on the ground, or out under the stars comfortable, warm, and weather resistant.  I wrote bedroll as being the lyric in the line, “I didn’t have no bedroll”, as that makes the most sense to me, but other people say it is ‘payroll’ or ‘fairo’.  Apparently a fairo is a sweetheart or a lover, which would also make sense, but this term seems to have faded away just as the early rural blues of the 1920s did over the years.

Well, I’m so tired of crying
But I’m out on the road again
I’m on the road again
Well, I’m so tired of crying
But I’m out on the road again
I’m on the road again
I ain’t got no woman
Just to call my special friend

You know the first time I traveled
Out in the rain and snow
In the rain and snow
You know the first time I traveled
Out in the rain and snow
In the rain and snow
I didn’t have no bedroll
Not even no place to go

And my dear mother left me
When I was quite young
When I was quite young
And my dear mother left me
When I was quite young
When I was quite young
She said “Lord, have mercy
On my wicked son”

Take a hint from me, mama
Please don’t you cry no more
Don’t you cry no more
Take a hint from me, mama
Please don’t you cry no more
Don’t you cry no more
‘Cause it’s soon one morning
Down the road I’m going

But I ain’t going down
That long old lonesome road
All by myself
But I ain’t going down
That long old lonesome road
All by myself
I can’t carry you, baby
Gonna carry somebody else

12 thoughts on “Lyrical Challenge – In Case You Missed The 60s

  1. Your writing for this and for Hey Jude reminds me of listening to radio announcers (if that’s the right term) at choice hours.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ah, Canned Heat. I saw them at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool; it must have been late ’69 or early ’70. They were very good and raucous. As often happened at the Philharmonic, they ran into time constraints and announced that they were only going to be able to do one more song. They then launched into a 20-minute version of’ ‘Refried Boogie’.A memorable show.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.