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Preserving Country Blues through Education, Performance and Technology
November 17, 2011, 06:28:29 PM by Slack
Views: 1986 | Comments: 0

J.W. Warren - Life Ain't Worth Livin'
Written by John Miller

J.W. Warren - Life Ain't Worth Livin', Fat Possum Records FP1024-2       

This recent Fat Possum release features the music of J.W. Warren, a musician from Ariton, in southeast Alabama, who was recorded by George Mitchell in 1981 and 1982. Warren, who died in 2003, was born in 1921, so he is on the older side of an "in-between" generation of musicians that includes Frank Hovington, John Jackson, Jimmy Lee Williams, and on the younger side, John Cephas and John Dee Holman. Like these other musicians, Warren's music sounds to have been greatly influenced by recorded Blues, and much of what is most interesting about his music has to do with the way he personalized the music he picked up from recordings.

The program opens with one of Warren's more individualistic pieces, "Hoboing Into Hollywood", a 16-bar blues in dropped-D tuning that shares some of its sound with William Moore's "Old Country Rock" and "One Way Gal", though in this instance, I do not believe Warren learned from Moore's recordings, for their senses of time are quite different. Rather, I think they were both speaking a similar dropped-D "language" and taking what the guitar gives you in that position. Warren's pleasant deep voice really sets the song off well.

"Sundown Blues" is an 8-bar cover of Blind Boy Fuller in A, standard tuning. The more I listen to country blues players who were born in the teens and 20s, the more impressed I am with what an enormously influential and popular musician Blind Boy Fuller was. What's interesting, too, is how far Fuller's influence extended beyond his own stomping grounds of Winston-Salem and central North Carolina. Warren's playing does not show any trace of the style of Ed Bell, who came from much closer to where Warren grew up than Fuller did. "Trucking Little Woman" is another Fuller cover, and is probably the weakest cut in the program. Warren's guitar is out of tune in a way that is a bit tough to reconcile, his singing sounds distracted, and he loses his place, though the way that he cracks up laughing at his difficulties is pretty winning. "Little Louise", though, is sensational. Warren plays the song as a one-chord slide piece in Vastapol, and his playing shows a real relish for the dramatic possibilities of the slide style. This is a great version of this oft-recorded song, and can take its place alongside Robert Pete Williams's as a particularly stellar cover of "Louise, Louise Blues". "When Your Gal Packs Up and Leaves" is similarly in Vastapol, though Warren does not use a slide to play it. His playing shows lots of interesting and individual touches here, and it supports his singing very well.

"My Mind Gets to Wandering" finds Warren playing slide in Vastapol again, and like "Little Louise", it is a particularly strong number. "Careless Love" is a cover of Blind Boy Fuller's version of that song, and is particularly interesting in how it diverges from Fuller's. Fuller played "Careless Love" out of A position in standard tuning, but Warren places it in Spanish, giving the song a more open and drony character, and making the song his own in the process. "Rabbit on a Log" is terrific, my favorite cut on the CD. Warren plays it with a thumb-lead picking style out of Vastapol, employing a banjo technique on the guitar, much as Furry Lewis did in his version of "Old Blue". "Rabbit on a Log" is definitely a pre-blues song, and has been recorded as "Georgia Buck" in versions by Elizabeth Cotton, Etta Baker (and possibly Algia Mae Hinton) on the banjo. Warren's version is beautiful, and he shows great facility playing in this style. "The Escape of Corrina" is a long folk tale that Warren accompanies on slide in Vastapol, employing the slide for a variety of programatic effects, imitating the hounds chasing Corrina and the like.

"Hwy 51" is a version of Tommy McClennan's "New Highway 51 Blues", that Warren personalizes by playing in E rather than the G position that McClennan employed. "A Long Old Lane" is Warren's version of "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean", and he gives it the same accompaniment in Spanish tuning that he used for "Careless Love". The closing number, "You're Gonna Miss Me", takes its lyrics, I believe, from Blind Boy Fuller, though Warren's accompaniment in E, standard tuning, is his own, and really bears more similarity to Ishmon Bracey's "Saturday Blues", with lots of interesting syncopations. Warren's singing throughout the program is quite good.

I like this CD a lot, though I would not say I found it to be as exceptionally strong as the Jimmy Lee Williams CD that George Mitchell also recorded. In a way, all the discussion of Warren's playing of covers may create the impression that his music is more like his models than it actually turns out to be. Even in his closest covers of recorded blues he never approaches or appears to care to approach a meticulous, note-for-note recreation, and musically, I think that is all to the good. He was, after all, his own man and I'm glad Fat Possum has made his music available for us. PROGRAM: Hoboing Into Hollywood; Sundown Blues; Trucking Little Woman; Little Louise; When Your Gal Packs Up and Leaves; My Mind Gets to Wandering; Careless Love; The Escape of Corrina; Hwy 51; A Long Old Lane; You're Gonna Miss Me
November 17, 2011, 06:27:49 PM by Slack
Views: 2390 | Comments: 0

Jimmy Lee Williams - Hoot Your Belly
Written by John Miller

Jimmy Lee Williams - Hoot Your Belly, Fat Possum Records, FP1009-2   
I have my friend Phil Thorne to thank for bringing this CD to my attention and for loaning it to me at the EBA Blues Week this past August. I was very favorably impressed by the several cuts I listened to then, and resolved to pick up the CD when I returned to the States. I finally bought it about a week ago and really have not felt like listening to anything else since then.

Jimmy Lee Williams is (or perhaps was, the CD gives no indication as to whether he is still living) a farmer, residing in Porlan, Georgia, who was recorded by the blues researcher George Mitchell in 1977 and 1982. On these recordings, Jimmy Lee, who was born in 1925, accompanies himself on solo electric guitar. His music shows a bewildering variety of influences; you really can not peg him as falling into a particular sub-genre of blues based on his age, region, instrumental/vocal approach, or choice of material. Rather, as you listen to him (particularly with repeated listening) you settle back into the sound of his strong vocals and solidly rhythmic accompaniments, whatever the character of the individual songs may be.

The opening numbers on the CD are especially distinctive, and are the most individualistic-sounding portion of the program. "What Makes Grandpa Love My Grandma So" is a striking slide tune in Vastapol that contrasts unaccompanied verse phrases with the re-entry of the guitar and a wordless voice playing a kind of signature lick response line. It bears no resemblance to any of the slidework of such earlier Georgia musicians as Barbecue Bob, Charlie Lincoln, or Fred McMullen that I have heard. The title cut, "Hoot Your Belly" [huh?], is a haunting, highly rhythmic song played in G, standard tuning, that I suspect is of Jimmy Lee's invention. It has more of a play-party feel than a blues feel, actually. "See Here Woman" is another bright slide number in Vastapol. "Have You Ever Seen Peaches" is a show-stopper in Vastapol. It opens with an Old-Time blues sort of enigmatic verse:

Have you ever seen peaches grow on a sweet potato vine? (2)

Well, wake up woman, get your legs off of mine

This song has a great, churning, train-like rhythm, and the way Jimmy Lee hums along with and against his slide solos is sensational. I would rate this song and performance right up there with such Vastapol classics as Bukka White's "Panama Limited" and Robert Wilkins's "That's No Way To Get Along". It is that good. On "Jimmy Lee's Frolic", an instrumental in Vastapol with a wordless vocal, Jimmy Lee pulls off the Sam Collins stunt of playing an out of tune guitar in tune with his slide.

Listening to the first five numbers in this program, I get the feeling that what Jimmy Lee is going for in his music dwells in the realm of pure sound. He illustrates repeatedly how unnecessary metric consistency is for the solo player as long as the pulse and sense of phrasing are forcefully expressed. He loves the sound of the VI note of the scale and on these tunes, he over and over again emphasizes it in his melodies, often singing it against his slide playing the III note of the scale. Moreover, he appears to be particularly fond of wordless vocals, humming or chanting syllables, "huh, huh, huh" along with his accompaniment in a way that sounds as old as music itself. The buzzy headtone he occasionally employs brings to mind that of Ishmon Bracey, though he lacks Bracey's scary intensity; Jimmy Lee's sound is prettier. He also favors the major pentatonic scale, I-II-III-V-VI, over the blues pentatonic scale, I-flat III-IV-V-flat VII. Maybe it is just my own affinity for that sound, but I find the over-all effect powerful and addictive.

The remainder of the program, while still very strong, is perhaps not quite as distinctive as the first five cuts. "Rock On Away From Here" is a shuffle in E, standard tuning, that feels like it is going to be a one-chorder, but then catches you off-guard by going to the IV chord intermittently. The Howling Wolf song, "When You Hear Me Howling" is done with a sort of Bo Diddley-ish groove and searing vocal. "Pretty Baby" is another shuffle in E; I'm trying to figure out why solo shuffles are so much more interesting than ensemble ones. "Little Boy Blue" is a one-chorder in E that bears some resemblance, lyrically, to the old folk song, "Old Dan Tucker". "Step It Up And Go" really comes out of left field, and it is amazing, given that nothing on the program up to this point has sounded anything like this, how closely Jimmy Lee's rendition favors those of other East Coast musicians of his generation like John Jackson, John Dee Holman, and John Cephas. "I Got To Know", "Whiskey Headed Woman", and "You Got My Money" are a trio of powerful E standard tunes that close out the CD.

I recommend this CD very strongly. The singing and playing throughout are outstanding, and the first portion of the program is an unique musical statement. I have heard very little in the way of solo country blues from the era when these sessions were done that I like as well as the music of Jimmy Lee Williams.

PROGRAM: What Make Grandpa Love My Grandma So; Hoot Your Belly; See Here Woman; Have You Ever Seen Peaches; Jimmy Lee's Frolic; Rock On Away From Here; When You Hear Me Howling; Pretty Baby; Little Boy Blue; Step It Up And Go; I Got To Know; Whiskey Headed Woman; You Got My Money
November 17, 2011, 06:27:11 PM by Slack
Views: 2697 | Comments: 0

Robert Pete Williams - I'm As Blue As I Can Be
Written by John Miller

Robert Pete Williams - I'm As Blue As I Can Be, Arhoolie CD-394       

This CD presents performances by Robert Pete Williams that, with one exception ("Tippin' In"), were recorded by Dr. Harry Oster in 1959 and 1960, when Robert Pete was still incarcerated at Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana.  The music from these sessions seems one of the purest manifestations of Robert Pete's unique approach to music-making.  The sound of his guitar and the way he used it, the way he phrased vocally, and his take on the blues form all existed at that time at a pretty extreme remove from the blues as they are most often played and sung.  This, combined with the fact that Dr. Oster was able and willing to let Robert Pete play songs for as long as he wanted as he was recorded makes for an exceptionally rich representation of Robert Pete's music.

The program opens with "Pardon Denied Again", played in E minor, standard tuning, with extreme bends of the G string up to a unison with the B string.  Phrasing begins in a very free-form fashion and eventually evolves into a more conventional form that bears some resemblence to Blind Willie Johnson's "Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying Sometimes".  On this song and elsewhere throughout the program, Robert Pete's lyrics so far transcend the stylistic cliches of the genre that they have a capacity to bring you up short as a listener. 
He says,   I've got a big family on my hands, they's out there in that free world 
                Waiting on me to re-appear, oh Lord, there were many return again back to my home
"This Old Wild Life" is played on Dr. Oster's 12-string guitar, in the key of D, standard tuning, in the Dorian mode Robert Pete favored at that time.  "Just Tippin' In" is a kind of ruminatory, inward-looking tune in D, with the great line, I done got lonesome here, I need someone to consolate my mind

"Louise", as played by Robert Pete, and he recorded it many times, must stand as one of the greatest covers ever.  It has come a long way from Johnny Temple's version, and it is really spooky.  Robert Pete plays it in B minor, tuned two whole steps low, and the sound of his  guitar is quite eerie--it is barely recognizable as a guitar and sounds more like some kind of mysterious African instrument.

"Church On Fire #2" is a very free-form religious number with improvised lyrics, in which Robert Pete uses a low-tuned G tuning, DGDBGE, to play out of a D position.  The way he plays runs across the neck at the 5th to 7th fret, utilizing open strings and extreme bends, is unique to him, I think.

"Texas Blues", in A standard, utilizes an incredibly funky groove that he was to employ on several songs later in his career, including "Poor Bob's Blues". 

The title cut, "I'm As Blue As A Man Can Be", is played on a 12-string in E minor, and it phrases in a chanting sort of way, somewhat akin to
Sleepy John Estes's "Someday Baby".

 "Up and Down Blues" is a musical and lyric tour de force.  Against a shifting bass line, Robert Pete sings the following lines, among others.
   You know a lot of times, I wish, baby, I wish that I was dead and gone
   And tell me why you wish that, baby, that a criminal ain't no more than a dog
   You know when a man is down, it ain't long before his folks forget why he's in
   Sometimes that I sit down, I have to write to myself sometime
   I have to fool the other inmates like I'm receiving mail from home

"So Much Is Happenin' In This Wicked World" is another lyrically improvised religious number in E.

"Come Here Baby" is a brief funky number in A.

The epic "Levee Camp Blues", clocking in at over 7 minutes (!), seems to work from a sort of Lightnin' Hopkins model instrumentally.  Lyrically and in terms of phrasing, it is all Robert Pete's.  Among the more surprising lyrics-
   Oh look yonder on that levee, on that coal black gal of mine
   Oh she walk like Maggie Campbell, oh Lord she walk too slow
   Oh when I was working for Mr. Charlie, I did as I please
   But since I got chere (sic), boy I got that work release.

On "Two Wings", another religious number, Robert Pete uses Spanish tuning to play in C, resulting in a unique sound. 

"Angola Special", played in E minor on the 12-string has an unforgettable line
   Come here baby, tell poor Bob your downfall

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is played in E, uncharacteristically without a slide, but Robert Pete's bends are so extreme that he is able to achieve the vocal sound the slide normally provides on this song.

"Please Lord, Help Me on My Way" is a more conventional religious number in Spanish.

Taken in conjunction with Arhoolie's two other releases of Robert Pete Williams's music, we are fortunate to have a massive documentation of the music of one of the most original and striking musicians ever to work in the idiom.  And as far as that goes, this CD is a pretty massive achievement in itself.  If you have no prior experience of Robert Pete Williams's music, this CD will provide as good a picture as any of the stage his music was at when first encountered by someone other than the friends, neighbors, and fellow inmates who had heard him up to the point at which these recordings were made.  I can only imagine Dr. Oster's shock and amazement when he began to relaize the scope of what Robert Pete Williams had to say.

Program:   Pardon Denied Again; This Wild Old Life; Just Tippin' In; Louise; Church on Fire, #2; Texas Blues; I'm As Blue As A Man Can Be; Up and Down Blues; So Much Is Happenin' In This Wicked World;  Come Here Baby; Levee Camp Blues; Two Wings; Angola Special; Motherless Children Have A Hard Time; Please Lord, Help Me On My Way
November 17, 2011, 06:26:21 PM by Slack
Views: 2799 | Comments: 0

Dan Gellert--Waitin' On The Break Of Day    
Written by John Miller      

Dan Gellert--Waitin' On The Break Of Day,

I have not been able to stop listening to this new Dan Gellert CD since purchasing it from him a couple of weeks ago.  Dan Gellert is something of an underground legend in the Old Time music community, and the fact that he does not often make the round of fiddler's conventions and is severely under-recorded add a heightened interest to discussions of his music and musicianship.  On this, his first solo recording project, Dan sings and plays fretless banjo on nine cuts and fiddle on seven cuts.  The notes on the CD are brief and to the point, presenting the tunings employed on his gut-strung and steel-strung banjos and his fiddle on the various tunes and providing sources for the tunes, choosing not to include biographical information that might go to explain how Dan got to where he is today musically.  After listening to the CD repeatedly, all I can say is that however Dan got to where he is musically today, he is THERE, right now, and there can be no question about it. As a player, both on fretless banjo and fiddle, Dan Gellert hits the ground improvising.  He has in spades that most mysterious of skills of the great Old Time players:  the ability to spin a seemingly endless skein of variations on a tune while still always being recognizably playing the tune.  The variations can take many forms--stretching or compressing the phrasing, taking a three or four-note cell and turning it over and over, or simply droning away while messing with the time.  This ability, combined with a taste for the notes that fall between the piano keys, makes for an improvised music of tremendous richness and excitement.  Dan has said in an interview in Fiddler magazine that his instinct is for the Blues in Old Time music, and that influence can be heard throughout the program.

Two banjos, both fretless are used on the recording.  One, strung with gut strings, is tuned about a fourth low; the other, with steel strings is tuned more or less to standard pitch.  Dan's banjo-playing here is astonishingly good and varied.  "Policeman", tuned low, is just mean and nasty--ominous, with that grungy flat five note running through it.  "De Boatman Dance" is joyful, with masterfully controlled brushed triplets.  "Buckdancer's Choice" is a nice guitar tune, but here makes a superlative banjo tune, with a feeling of constantly flipping over and inverting itself like the music of some African mbira masters.  "Cotton-Eyed Joe" may be the best of the bunch.  Listening to these renditions made me get out some of my favorite recordings of Old Time banjo: Fred Cockerham playing "Long Steel Rail" and "Little Maggie", Glen Smith playing "Polly Put the Kettle On" and "Old Jimmy Sutton", Hobart Smith doing "The Cuckoo Bird" or "Cindy".  What I found after listening to these recordings was that Dan Gellert's performances on this CD live comfortably in that company.  I can think of no higher praise.

Dan's fiddling has a big sound, with a lot of bow in it.  The articulation of the bow changing directions is a rhythmic keystone of his fiddle style, and he takes full advantage of the fact that fiddle has no frets, utilizing bluesy slides, and passing through or landing on notes not exactly in the scale.  A number of the performances, such as "Cluck Old Hen" and "Old Bunch of Keys" have a kind of epic quality, they go through so many changes.  Others, like "We'll All Go to Heaven When the Devil Goes Blind", have a kind of peaceful drawling way about them.

Dan's singing has a lot of character to it, with a bright kind of trebly tone, though not particularly high-pitched, and an unself-conscious, "go for it", sort of attitude.  He sounds like he has been listening to this music for years and years, and it is fully inside him now.  One compliment I would pay to his singing is that it has really made me pay attention to the lyrics of the tunes, which in many cases are weird, nutty and mysterious.  They have a lot in common with the early lyrics of Blind Lemon Jefferson, where there was no unifying theme to a song's words, and it just seemed like some kind of free-associated remembrance of turns of phrase and folksy adages.

It is tremendously exciting to hear music played by a present-day musician in this style that compares favorably with the great recorded performances of the past.  It is a real hope-inspiring thing, and makes me feel like we don't have to assume that nothing musical will ever be as good as it was in the past.  Dan Gellert has recorded a wonderful CD here, and I hope it will not be too long before he records another.  I think we need to hear what he has to say.

PROGRAM:  Eph Got a Coon; Policeman; Mary Blane; De Boatman Dance; Going Across the Sea; Cluck Old Hen; Polly Put the Kettle On; The Hog-Eyed Man; Buckdancer's Choice; Cotton-Eyed Joe; Sandy Boys; Jimmy Crack Corn; Old Bunch of Keys; We'll All Go to Heaven When the Devil Goes Blind; Old Christmas Morning; Pateroller Get You/Old Sledge
November 17, 2011, 06:25:41 PM by Slack
Views: 2353 | Comments: 0

Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends: Party!   
Written by John Miller

Furry Lewis, Bukka White & Friends: Party! At Home-Arcola Records, A CD 1001
This wonderful CD was recorded by Arcola Records founder Bob West in 1968, at a couple of home recording sessions/parties, one at the home of Albino Red and two at Furry Lewis's apartment.  The relaxed circumstances in which the recordings were made certainly had a beneficial effect on the music; Bukka White and Furry Lewis are both in outstanding form here, and placing the songs in the context of the parties where they were recorded and including the jocularity and banter of the various friends assembled for the event makes you feel as though you were there yourself.  It really sounds like all concerned had a darn good time.

The program, which is divided roughly equally between Furry and Bukka, is opened by Bukka, with"Hello Central, Give Me 49", a one-chord slide number in Vastapol.  From the opening notes, I found myself staggered by the force of Bukka's playing--it put me in mind of Charlie Patton's aside on "34 Blues":  "My God, what solid power!"  Bukka follows up with "Gray-Haired Woman", similarly in cross-note tuning and working from the "Aberdeen, Mississippi" model, but with a crucial difference:  on "Gray-Haired Woman", Bukka employs a lot of syncopated thumb-popping of the fifth string in conjunction with slides, and the result is riveting.  The lyrics are unusual, too.  The opening verse states,

   I got an old lady and her head is turning gray
   Well, it makes no difference, I ain't gonna throw you away.
"Little Woman's Bed" is played in E standard (you can hear Bukka tuning there from cross-note), and features a descending run as a signature lick that really stays in your mind.  As is most often the case with Bukka's blues, there is no V chord either, it just being hinted at in the treble.  "Tip and Eight Boogie", which I believe Bukka identifies as "Tippin' In Boogie", is a rocking number in A, standard tuning, of a type I had never heard Bukka play before.  He really works the crowd with it by playing a number of false endings, only to start up again when they least expect it.  His "Hambone Blues" which follows, is in G standard, and its intense grooving inspires Furry to shout out, "Oh, play it Mr. Bukka White!  Play it a great long time for Furry Lewis!"  "I'm Drifting", which is back in E standard, shares its accompaniment and melody line with "Little Woman's Bed".  "Bukka's Goodtime Swing" is a hard-driving boogie number.  Bukka returns to cross-note for his closing number, "Please Ma'am", which features a catchy descending run I had never heard utilized in cross-note tuning before.  Bukka's playing throughout his portion of the program has to be heard to be believed.  He was 60 years old at the time, still very strong, and I think his playing here compares favorably with the very best of his pre-rediscovery recordings, like "Sic 'Em Dogs On Me" or "When Can I Change My Clothes".

Furry opens his portion of the program with Going Away Blues", a slide number in Vastapol, and it is great to hear how quickly he grabs the listeners' attention.  He is playing with great time and subtlety of touch, in both hands, and, being Furry, can be counted on for some great lyrics.
   I seed your doney, made me think of mine
   I started a conversation to try to keep from crying.
Furry follows with "John Henry" (also in Vastapol), which he announces is being played expressly for Bukka White.  It is a treat to hear unfamiliar lyrics to such a well-known song.
   John Henry told his piker, "I declare you better pray"
   'Cause if I miss that steel with this 10-pound mawl,
   Tomorrow be your burying day, Goddamn!"
Furry moves to Spanish tuning for "Skinny Woman", and despite being plagued by sniffles, immediately impresses his friends with his finesse and bag of tricks (Bukka notes, "That's solid there!").  Hearing Furry get into a nifty lick at the twelfth fret, I was reminded how under-rated a player he was--everything he does here is so nuanced.  He follows with "Old Blue" in which he, true to his word, makes a banjo out of the guitar, at least in his right-hand technique.  Once again, he must be quoted.
   Had a little dog and his name was Blue
   Blue did for me and I did for Blue.
Out of nowhere, Furry launches into the old sentimental song, "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", played as a slide one-chorder in Spanish.  He does an especially nice job of it, and the room silences, except for expressions of praise (from Bukka--"That's pretty.  I like that.  I would buy that.").  Furry follows with another pretty number in Spanish, "Farewell to Thee", in which the solo melds improbably into "Aloha Oe".  You always hear about Hawaiian influence on the early slide players, but this is one of the few instances where it can be heard so explicitly.  "Mama's Fish", also in Spanish, though pitched higher and from a different session, follows, and Furry once again really wows everyone with his bag of tricks, including a syncopated brushing groove combined with tapping on the top of the guitar that sounds like some of the things Charlie Patton did.  I wish I could have seen Furry play this tune.  Furry rounds out the program with "When I Lay My Burden Down" and a strong version of "Kassie Jones".

If my praise of this CD seems a little intemperate, I would say that, if anything, I have understated how good it is.  The playing and singing of Bukka and Furry is stellar throughout, but the additional richness that the circumstances the recordings were made in give to your sense of the time, the place, and the people involved, make listening to this CD a special treat for anyone who really loves this music.  Thanks to Bob West for issuing this material and not just sitting on it.

PROGRAM:  Bukka White:  Hello, Central, Give Me 49; Gray-Haired Woman; Little Woman's Bed; Tip and Eight Boogie; Talking; Hambone Blues; I'm Drifting; Bukka's Goodtime Swing; Please Ma'am; Talking
Furry Lewis:  Going Away Blues; John Henry; Talking; Skinny Woman; Talking; Old Dog Blue; Talking; Let Me Call You Sweetheart; Talking; Farewell To Thee; Mama's Fish; When I Lay My Burden Down; Kassie Jones and a Message From Furry
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