One of the finest gifts I have ever received was my first guitar. A three quarter sized TOYOTA (yep, they made some guitars) was purchased for me by my sister Annie's boyfriend Joe Oshins. It cost 60 bucks, which was quite a lot back in 1973. He assured me that he haggled it down from $75. It was only gently used. It had a laminate top, mahogany sides and back and came with a cardboard case. It was a solid little ax that saw me through those mid-to-late teen years of high school, girlfriends, lost girlfriends, campfires, a couple years of college, dorm bands, and just sitting around jamming with new best friends. Joe taught me my first song - The Younger Generation Blues by John Sebastian. He added this little blues lick on the end that I practiced for hours until I had it down pat.
More than just about any gift I ever received, that little TOYOTA changed my life. It opened my eyes to music that I would have never listened to, opened the door to friends that I would have never allowed in and opened my future to a life of creating and living music.
Let me say that I am not putting on airs. I don't claim to be any good. I am a hacker by anyone's standards. But there is a place in my life that cannot be filled in any other way. And I owe it all to old Joe Oshins.
Along with that little guitar, Joe gave me my first song book. It was Bob Dylan's A Retrospective.
Nowadays, you can get the chords to almost any song online for free. There are so many websites you can go to to find charts. I'm sure that every song in A Retrospective can be found on line. The songs included A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall, Blowin' in the Wind, Don't Think Twice It's All Right, Mr. Tambourine Man, and The Times They Are-a-Changin'. And there were a bunch of songs I had never heard before including The Death of Emmett Till.
I remember sitting in the bottom bunk of the bed set I shared with my little brother and strumming those songs over and over, just using my thumb, never a pick. I didn't know how to make the chords but the book came with little diagrams over the lyrics and the "real music". The diagrams showed where to place your fingers for each chord. So, my first guitar teachers were Joe Oshins and Bob Dylan. Not a bad start.
While I had never heard Dylan's version of The Death of Emmett Till, it didn't stop me from playing that song. I don't remember the melody that I completely made up to go along with the chords. I strummed the chords over and over and howled that song because it was simply so powerful, so haunting, so real.
I came across the best version of him singing it at a radio station.
This was recorded in March of 1962, just a couple weeks after he wrote the song. He admits to the interviewer that he swiped the chords and melody from another singer/songwriter he admired (Len Chandler). "He uses a lot of funny chords when he plays," he said. This version is played out of tune, raw, spontaneously, with sincerity and a sense of the song's importance. There are lots of slicker versions of this tune online, but this version with all of its imperfections is one of the most powerful songs I have ever heard. He changes some of the words in later versions, tweeks the tune and adds backing instruments. But the freshness and clarity with which he sings couldn't ever be topped with more production. Even if you are not a Dylan fan (ahem, Nic), I believe that this will affect you in some deep place. Because it is true. This young Dylan remembered the incident of Emmett Till.
This is a cool version also because it is Dylan as a YOUNG troubadour. He is outside of the box. And he knows it. He sings off key. Doesn't care. Fishes for compliments from the interviewer. He barely finishes the last chord, stops the guitar from ringing and asks, "Do you like that one?" obviously pleased with himself and the song. And she gushes, "It's one of the greatest contemporary ballads I've ever heard!"
And it surely was.
This is a spooky old song, not one for the kiddies. But give a listen. Learn some history. Hear a musical icon right out of the gate.
"Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago,
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door.
This boy's dreadful tragedy I can still remember well,
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till.
Some men they dragged him to a barn and there they beat him up.
They said they had a reason, but I can't remember what.
They tortured him and did some evil things too evil to repeat.
There was screaming sounds inside the barn, there was laughing sounds out on the street.
Then they rolled his body down a gulf amidst a bloody red rain
And they threw him in the waters wide to cease his screaming pain.
The reason that they killed him there, and I'm sure it ain't no lie,
Was just for the fun of killin' him and to watch him slowly die. (Cause he was born a black skinned boy, he was born to die.)
And then to stop the United States of yelling for a trial,
Two brothers they confessed that they had killed poor Emmett Till.
But on the jury there were men who helped the brothers commit this awful crime,
And so this trial was a mockery, but nobody seemed to mind.
I saw the morning papers but I could not bear to see
The smiling brothers walkin' down the courthouse stairs.
For the jury found them innocent and the brothers they went free,
While Emmett's body floats the foam of a Jim Crow southern sea.
If you can't speak out against this kind of thing, a crime that's so unjust,
Your eyes are filled with dead men's dirt, your mind is filled with dust.
Your arms and legs they must be in shackles and chains, and your blood it must refuse to flow,
For you let this human race fall down so God-awful low!
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all of us folks that thinks alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.