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THE RAMBLE HOUSE SONGBOOKS
Fender Tucker, Ramble House Mojo
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” That’s the spirit of Ramble House as we embark on yet another new course on our voyage to the future. No sooner had we announced the debut of the Ramble House 10-Cent Book series—#15 of which you hold in your hand—we stumbled upon a perfect candidate for the very first Ramble House Songbook. Again that thing you hold in at least one of your hands.
A songbook? A book about a song; a book inspired by a song; a book that inspires a song; all of these are songbooks, as long as they consist of a book and a means for you to hear, in high quality, the song. Ramble House is proud to announce the first in its brand new series of songbooks, The 66 Chevy Nova Blues.
But let us return to the conception of The 66 Chevy Nova Blues and the songbook idea. Here’s how Knees Calhoon remembers it.
“Well, I was sorta su’prised w’en Jim tole me he’d been lis’nin’ to mah song, Th’ 1959 Pinocchio Timex Blues, cuz he ord’narily lissens t’ that opery crap. Ennyways, a coupla days later he hands me a piece-a paper with th’ words t’ Th 66 Chevy Nova Blues on it. It looked purty good, so I sez, what-all inspired ya t’ write it? Ol’ Jim sez, it’s obvious, ain’t it? An’ I sez whut. An he sez, don’t th’ words o’ th’ title sorta…
Let’s break away from Knees’ fascinating recollections, knowing that his song The 1959 Pinocchio Timex Blues inspired Jim Weiler to write The 66 Chevy Nova Blues. And move onto Jim Weiler himself, talking to me the day he’d mentioned listening to the Calhoon song.
“That song has the most concise and apt representation of the concept of taking one step forward and two steps back. I’m going to have to try my hand at that.”
He was referring to songwriting, and the lines:
“Ah dropped seven pennies onna sidewalk,
Reachin’ in mah pocket fo’ a dime.”
So I had the words to a song written by Jim Weiler and inspired by a Knees Calhoon song. I was sitting on a gold mine! I got Knees to sit down in his four-track studio and record the first melody and chords that came to his mind after reading the words. He had just bought a new effects box that had one sound that he really liked, a sort of strangled distortion that oscillated with a rhythm of its own. He used a two-string Honky-Tonk-like bass riff on the guitar on top of a standard straight 4-4 rhythm section provided by a Yamaha keyboard. The song is a typical 12-bar blues in E.
That was tracks one and two.
Then he sang the lyrics, using the most obvious melody he could think of that fit on top of the background music. The phrasing was sketchy in parts, mainly because he read the line wrong, and halfway through had to make up for it by stretching out the lyric, or squeezing in some extra syllables. The only departure from the obvious melody is the turnaround right before the beginning of each new verse, where he sang an Elvis-like lick that Mick Jagger used a lot in the early days. It was cool back then.
That was track three. We were fifteen minutes into the recording session.
Then Knees, with a practice round under his belt, sang the song again on track four. This time he nailed the melody and phrasing just about 90% of the time, improving on at least a dozen “errors” in the first take.
Both singing tracks were recorded with the same parameters and sounded alike so I decided on pursuing the most simple and obvious mixing strategy I could—short of doing another take. I used both takes and made the first one a little quieter than the second. This causes a sort of echo effect. The weird thing is that sometimes the echo comes before the words it’s echoing.
Knees had left a blank verse after the second verse for a guitar solo, and punched in one of his typical out-of-control efforts. The strangling oscillation seems to enhance the desperation of the notes. Later, after the song was transferred to a PC as a WAV file, I used COOL EDIT PRO to move the solo from the middle of the song to the end. I thought it interrupted the flow of the chaotic story.
Now it happened that at this time Jim and I were discovering and exploiting Harry Stephen Keeler, a mystery writer from the 30s and 40s. I had read about Keeler in Bill Pronzini’s hilarious collection of “bad” passages from the pulps, Son of Gun in Cheek, and had become hooked on his weird books, even though I had yet to read one. I finally found some through inter-library loans and while I had them, we scanned and OCRed them for editing into publishable shape. About six months before, Jim had perfected the technique of making quality paperback books at home with very little start-up cost. I was slowly learning how, too.
Jim had not read any Keelers before editing The Case of the 16 Beans. His second editing job was The Case of the Transposed Legs, then Riddle of the Travelling Skull. So at the time Jim wrote The 66 Chevy Nova Blues, he had read only three Keeler novels.
But he had not just read them; he had edited them. In the early days of Ramble House, our best OCRs (Optical Character Recognitions) of the faded old pages of the 60-year-old library copies were riddled with errors. There was enough good text to justify using the OCRed text, rather than typing in the whole book from scratch, but it meant reading every word closely and fixing every fourth or fifth one. And fixing just about all of the punctuation. Then spell-checking the document, which is a nightmare because of all of the dialect. And then printing it out, binding it, and proof-reading it again because there are always things not easily seen on the computer screen.
So Jim had read each of the three books at least three times each in the space of a couple of months. He had Keelerisms on the brain. And now he was ready to write a story in the style of Harry Stephen Keeler, and he had his plot.
Maybe that’s not the way it happened exactly. It’s hard to say what inspired what. They all happened at the same time. A night or so after hearing Knees Calhoon’s rendition of The 66 Chevy Nova Blues Jim Weiler wrote this novello. Harry Keeler called short novels “novellos”, not “novellas”, by the way.
We made a couple of reading copies of tiny book but it was essentially forgotten until early 2004 when we came up with the Ramble House 10-Cent series. It was perfect for the series so Gavin O’Keefe did up a superb tribute to the old Dell 10-Cent style as the cover art.
But as we read the finished product, we realized that having the lyrics of the song imbedded in the text of the story was simply not good enough for the 21st Century. Readers would want to hear the song as they read the book, rather than have to wait for payola-fed radio stations to play it. We had the technology to reproduce the song, but only on a 5-inch CD, which was not easily bundled with the small book.
That’s when I heard about business-card-size CDs. They only hold 50 megs of data, but that was plenty for the MP3 version of the song. And if we made the back cover of the book sort of fold around to make a small pouch, we had a perfect place for the small, rectangular CD to fit.
Which is how the very first Ramble House Songbook came to be. Now we have dozens of Knees Calhoon songs—as well as Jim Weiler compositions—that are ripe for Songbooking. We just have to do as Jim did and write a novello about the song. Luckily, both Knees and Jim rarely write the kinds of songs you hear on radio and TV today, songs that have a catchy hook phrase repeated ad nauseum and whose lyrics can usually be summed up in a bumper sticker: “I love you”, “Gawd is good”, “Dancing is phat”, etc. No, Knees and Jim’s songs always have a plot, and indeed, a beginning, middle and end. Just like a real story.
So keep your eyes open for more Ramble House Songbooks from us. And if you have a song you have written that deserves a novello about it, send us both and you can join the pantheon of prescient professionals who are published by Ramble House.
Years ago, Richard Polt of the HSK Society suggested that the music of Raymond Scott was perfect for listening to while reading Keeler. A half dozen Scott compositions would fit on one card-sized CD. The only problem is getting the rights to using Raymond Scott’s music, but that’s one of those “business” problems that face Ramble House and other small publishers every day. Problems can be solved.
Stay tuned—and enjoy listening to The 66 Chevy Nova Blues while reading The 66 Chevy Nova Blues. Believe me, it’s the wave of the future—at Ramble House.
At least, it seems like a good idea at this time.
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