At the time I blogged them, I promised — threatened, if you didn’t like it the first time around — to reprise my Seven Degrees of Separation posts from last year.
Well, we’re here, although this time I'm sticking to the original Six Degrees format (but not getting to Kevin Bacon at the end). We’ll start by going from one of the legendary figures of American roots music, to a legendary figure of American blues. That may sound somewhat redundant, but bear with me.
Huddie Ledbetter, born Jan. 20, 1888, even before charting the course of early American folk and blues music, became known as Lead Belly. In his early 20s, he wrote a song called “The Titanic,” which was in part a civil rights anthem, about 19th century African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson being denied passage on the passenger ship of the same name. The Titanic — you’d have to have lived in a cave for the past century-plus, and somehow avoided a major motion picture, not to know the story — ended up on the bottom of the Atlantic.
Ledbetter took liberties with the story line, Johnson having actually been kept off another ship entirely, one which did not sink. That did not prevent Jamie Brockett from taking Huddie’s song and turning it into a 1970s anthem to anti-establishmentarianism and … marijuana use.
You see, in Brockett’s version, the captain of the ill-fated ship was in possession of hundreds of feet of hemp rope, smoked some part of that — and, well, we know the rest. (Hemp fibers come from the marijuana plant, but lack the psychoactive properties of the flowering parts of the same, but never mind.)
(I had heard the more-modern version many times back in the ’70s, but was totally convinced that it was recorded by Jesse Winchester. So much for that part of my photographic memory …)
That was Brockett’s proverbial 15-minutes-of-fame —although I think his version actually dragged on nearly that long. But he later became manager of one Maria D’Amato, a Greenwich Village (N.Y.) musician who married fellow Jim Kewskin Jug Band member Geoff Muldaur. (After she divorced him — but kept his name — she had a solo career which produced, among other things, that wonderful song “Midnight at the Oasis.”)
Geoff Muldaur, who inspired part of the theme music for a film by Monty Python illustrator Terry Gilliam, later became a member of Paul Butterfield’s Better Days, the successor to his Blue Band. Butterfield, a Chicago, Ill. native, subsequently helped record the final album Muddy Waters did for Chess Records, the legendary Windy City blues label on which he had recorded his first hit, and signature song, “Rollin’ Stone.”
Next, we will go from an American folk legend to one of the head-scratching popular tunes of the late 1960s, “Ode to Billy Joe.” Pete Seeger first became known as a member of the Weavers — one of whose best-known recordings was a cover of Lead Belly’s “Good Night, Irene” — and later as a social activist.
Seeger was replaced in the Weavers by one Erik Darling, who had been inspired by the Weavers to create a folk group that eventually evolved into the Tarriers, whose single “Banana Boat Song” was a No. 4 on the Billboard chart. (Calypso singer Harry Belafonte previously had had a No. 5 with a different version of the song — but that’s a Seven Degrees for another day …)
A fellow member of the Tarriers was actor Alan Arkin. The latter’s six-decade motion picture career included appearing with Audrey Hepburn in the 1967 thriller Wait Until Dark.
One of Hepburn’s other best known film roles was as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, during which she famously sang that great song “Moon River.” (Okay, it later became the theme for Andy William’s MOR TV variety show, but it’s still a wonderful lyric.)
Hepburn’s ex-husband in Breakfast was played by Buddy Ebsen. Although he was born in Illinois, the son of a Danish choreographer, Ebsen sounded convincingly southern as the patriarch of the suddenly-oil-wealthy Clampett family in the ’60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.
(The theme song from the Hillbillies was performed by bluegrass artists Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Released as a single, it peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard magazine Hot 100, and was a No. 1 on that magazine’s Hot Country chart — the only one for two of the legendary musicians in that genre.)
Ebsen’s nephew in the sitcom was Max Baer Jr., the son of a professional boxer of the same name. Baer, portrayed in the TV series as a low IQ know-nothing, in real life knew enough to know a good idea — turning popular songs into TV and motion picture vehicles — when he saw it. He acquired the movie rights to Bobbie Gentry’s opaque 1967 No. 1 hit “Ode to Billy Joe.”
The resulting 1976 film grossed over $27 million — about 25 times what it cost to make. It also revealed what the song’s narrator and Billie Joe McAllister threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge, but I’m not going to spoil the suspense for you — you’ll have to watch it yourself. Which is more than I could do …