Writing here about Jimmy Webb a few weeks ago, I mentioned Shawn Colvin’s recording of his song “If These Walls Could Talk” from her “Cover Girl” compact disc. Reader Tom Spaulding (traveling with John Fogerty and reporting at the late Caught Up In the Fable) reminded me that the best song on “Cover Girl” is Colvin’s reading of Roly Salley’s “Killing the Blues.” It’s a live recording that is naked in its emotionality and beauty, simply overpowering. Colvin writes in the liner notes:
Larry Campbell from New York told me in 1981 while we were in a band together that I should learn this song by his friend, Roly Salley. Just when you think there’s no new way to say anything, you hear a song like this and think, that’s as good as anything before or since.
I think about it as a four alarm song — it sets off all the bells and whistles. Thinking back to the music that first had an impact on me like that in the 1960’s, I remember the hit songs that charted because they were great — songs like “Eight Miles High” and “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever.” Beyond the hits, however, was a stream of four alarm songs that never made it outside of a small circle of friends.
The first relatively unknown song that I remember hitting me with an impact like those four alarm hits is Jackson Browne’s “Shadow Dream Song” from Tom Rush’s wonderful “Circle Game” album. It’s a young man’s song — Browne must have written it when he was a teenager. But in Rush’s hands, the song communicates warmth and yearning in rhymes that flow with ease.
Tom Rush still has a striking baritone voice that radiates honesty and warmth. He has posted a free MP3 download of his own “River Song” here. It’s a song in which Rush self-consciously tries — to my ears, successfully — to recapture some of the sixties magic. The song is a bit of a reworking of Jesse Colin Young’s “Lullaby” from Rush’s 1970 “Tom Rush.” Rush even works in an unobtrusive reference to Pascal.
Here is a provisional list of some other relatively unknown four alarm songs, designated “four alarm” either because of the song or the performance, with the songwriter listed below in parentheses. As I say, no hits included, and four alarm soul songs reserved for a later date:
1. “Moon River” (Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini), Nancy Lamott, “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
2. “Mann’s Fate” (Kaukonen/Casady), Hot Tuna, “Hot Tuna.”
3. “Guilty” (Randy Newman), Bonnie Raitt, “The Collection.”
4. “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” (Gordon Lightfoot), Gordon Lightfoot, “Summer Side of Life.”
5. “Calling My Children Home” (Doyle Lawson/Charles Waller/Robert Yates), Emmylou Harris, “Spyboy.”
6. “Rain” (Patty Griffin), Patty Griffin, “1000 Kisses.”
7. “Church” (Lyle Lovett), Lyle Lovett, “Joshua Judges Ruth” and “Live in Texas.”
8. “Long Black Limousine” (V. Stovall/B. George), Elvis Presley, “The Memphis Sessions.”
9. “Fall On Me” (Berry/Buck/Mills/Stipe), Cry Cry Cry (Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell), “Cry Cry Cry.”
10. “Cleaning Windows” (Van Morrison), Van Morrison, “Live at the Grand Opera House Belfast.”
Bonus pick: Gordon Lightfoot’s “Shadows” performed by Tony Rice on Rice’s “Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot.”
Well, there are more where those ten-plus-one came from, and they might be elicited or suppressed by popular demand, but I’m threatening to produce ten four alarm soul songs regardless.