Mr. Wilbert Harrison
“Listen – Let’s Work Together MP3″
In which Canned Heat is unexpectedly/indirectly thrust upon the readers, who will thank me later…
Hi there kids.
It’s almost Wednesday (the most awkwardly spelled day of the week), which means the work week is almost half over (uh, huh…) which means…well I don’t know that it means anything at all, but let’s use this opportunity to get together and work something out.
Back a week or two ago, when I was selecting 45s to be featured in this space, I pulled out my timeworn copy of Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Work Together’, cracked a smile and tossed it on the “to be blogged” pile.
While there’s no argument that Mr. Harrison is worthy of your attention (if only for ‘Kansas City’, and that’s a big one), I knew this tune for years (many…many years) before I had any idea that it was one of his (songs that is..).
If you are of a certain vintage, the tune ‘Let’s Work Together’ brings to mind a specific set of sense memories and images, among them mud, hippies in mud, naked hippies in mud, dancing naked hippies in mud, and a pack of smiling, disheveled record collectors doing the amphetamine boogie on a rickety stage.
Are you with me?
The record collectors I speak of were none other than Bob Hite and Alan Wilson of Canned Heat.
You can say that time has not been kind to Canned Heat, but to deny that they loom large in the zeitgeist-geist (I just made that one up, but I think you can see where I’m coming from) that lingers amongst the flotsam and jetsam of the Love Generation.
As demonstrated by the appalling presence of Dennis Hopper in a series of financial planning advertisements, the 60’s are by and large no longer something real that the majority of the world experienced firsthand, but rather a random stew of film clips, song snippets and frayed slogans that are often stapled together to suggest the flavor of an era, then used to sell stuff.
When a documentary starts with a phrase like “The 60’s were a turbulent time!” (cue Homer Simpson “Hmmmmmm..turrrrbulent…”) you can be sure that the opening strains of Jimi Hendrix playing ‘All Along the Watchtower’ or the Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’ aren’t far behind. Tunes like that have become a kind of shorthand, meant to conjure up oceans of raised fists, protest signs, shots of helicopters in Vietnam and pictures of Nixon covered in a liars flopsweat.
On the other side of that coin, immortalized by the very same code is the sweaty, hippified ghost of Canned Heat.
If the beginning flute solo of ‘Going Up the Country’, or the drone of ‘On the Road Again’ don’t cause images of psychedelically painted schoolbuses driving past hundred of thousands of blissed out festival-goers, then you need to realign yourself with the mass consciousness brother because you have not been paying attention.
This is both a good and a bad thing.
On the good side, it means that as long as people are alive to do lip service to the world of the 1960’s, Canned Heat will have a kind of immortality.
On the bad side, it means that Canned Heat will have the kind of immortality in which they are reduced to a 10 second audio footnote.
This makes me sad, because – believe it or not – Canned Heat was one of the cooler bands of their era.
A. The band was led by two hardcore record collectors (the aforementioned Messrs Hite and Wilson) who were part of the wave of blues fanatics that spent a great deal of their otherwise misspent youths canvassing old neighborhoods, attics and junk shops for blues 78s. I’ll understand if you don’t think this qualifies them as cool, but I’d hope you’d understand why I think it does….
B. They played the blues with the evangelical fervor of true fans, but never (thanks to Hite) seemed to take themselves too seriously, other than wanting to get out on stage and whip a little Elmore James on the kids in a tasty, bottleneck stylee
C. They were a truly weird looking bunch, in a (real) way that bands just can’t be (weird looking) anymore
D. Bob Hite was largely (no pun intended) responsible for getting Albert Collins a major label record deal
In 1970, just before Al Wilson died, they went into the studio and laid down one of their finest records, a cover of Wilbert Harrison’s ‘Let’s Work Together’. The cool thing was, that this wasn’t a reworking of a 40 year old blues chestnut, but a cover of tune that Harrison had hit the charts with in 1969!
Featuring a set of lyrics that seem to have been an attempt to tap into the peace, love and brotherhood vibe of the era (and an admirable sentiment in the face of riots, war etc.), Harrison’s recording – which we feature today – had a rough and ready vibe with some truly inspired harmonica abuse, and a great vocal by the man. While Canned Heat may have turned up the electricity a couple of dozen notches, roughing the song up a little – and God bless ‘em for it – they didn’t really deviate from Harrison’s blueprint all that much. That they were speaking the same essential language – constructing a sound from a later iteration of the same building blocks – is undeniable, and comforting.
I’m a huge blues fan, listening to everything from early songsters like Henry Thomas (from whom the Canned Heat boys borrowed the structure for ‘Going Up the Country’), up through Delta giants like Son House (on who’s 1960’s recordings Alan Wilson played) and on into the electric blues of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, but I’ve never had much use for anything crafted after that last decade.
I’m 100% positive that there were lots of great blues musicians, band and records from the early 70’s on, but to me there always seemed to me that something essential was missing. Whether this was in fact true, and blues music as a whole lost something after it was commodified for ingestion by rock audiences – a process that began with the British Invasion and locked in around the time that the audience for the blues became predominantly Caucasian- or I’m just locked inside a sentimental attachment to the “authenticity” of another time (which is entirely possible), when I listen to a band like Canned Heat (and take the step back to hear Wilbert Harrison) there’s a real sense of joy there (not at all ironic in the blues, despite what some folks might tell you) that just doesn’t seem to pop up on the radar later on.
Either way, dig the Wilbert, and if you aren’t hip to the Heat, pop on down to your local CD warehouse and grab the standard 10 dollar Best of Canned Heat (or however it’s being repackaged these days) and dig on that.
Then go play in the mud with a big smile on your face.
PS I’ve been digging the hell out of the latest Amy Winehouse album, and was going to write something along those lines, but the folks over at the Captains Crate blog did it first, and quite well. Check out the post, and get yourself a copy of the CD.