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"Would you like to play with me?" - Henry Townsend's reply to soundman Warren Argo's query as to whether anyone would be playing with Henry at his concert set at the first Port Townsend Country Blues Workshop

Author Topic: Broke Down Engine  (Read 4744 times)

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Offline waxwing

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Broke Down Engine
« on: January 11, 2005, 01:17:41 PM »
Finally! My first post to the Back Porch. Solved my G4 lack of sound card issues with a little $40 gizmo called an imic. Works great. I 'll post about it in the guidelines thread.
Those of you at the participants' performance at PT last summer heard me debut this incredible number by Blind Willie McTell. The vocals were pretty rough and the guitar part was still pretty fresh, but I have such a connection to the emotional content that I felt I put it over pretty well. The imagery is very powerful for me. A steam engine starts to become useless when the boiler won't hold enough pressure, due to leaks, I guess, and the whole thing has to be junked. After everything useful, wheels, tubing, whistles, gauges, etc,. have all been stripped off, the hulk is left to rust away by the side of the tracks. I imagine Willie walkin' along the tracks having been jilted by his best gal and coming upon an old engine. Sure it's a romantic notion, but aren't the blues full of such visions.
I originally started learning the tune from Ernie's video, but after listenig to the original, I realized there was a whole lot more goin' on. Transcribe! really helped me figure out the tough spots after many late nights and then it took a lot more nights of practice to get it to where I could play it for people. Many thanks to the supportiveness of everyone at PT.
Hope ya'll like it. Any criticism is greatly appreciated.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
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Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

Offline Prof Scratchy

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #1 on: January 11, 2005, 02:04:07 PM »
My first impression: here's somebody who clearly loves this song to bits! You've listened hard and unlocked all the guitar tricks very authentically. On the vocal side of things you've even faithfully reproduced that totally (to me) incomprehensible line in the 'rapping on your door' verse (what on earth was he singing about)????? And what a great sounding guitar that is! Good stuff!
Prof S

Offline Norfolk Slim

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #2 on: January 11, 2005, 02:26:02 PM »
I love that song too- and thats a good rendition.  I enjoyed it a lot- so thanks for posting it.

Have you heard Ben Andrews' version?  It was the first version I heard (before McTell I'm afraid...) and will always be the defining version for me personally- but its very different in style to yours.  Its more of a 'stomper' as it were, whereas there is a great smooth flow to your version.

boots

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #3 on: January 11, 2005, 03:10:45 PM »
Excellent. Enjoyed that a lot.

Boots

Offline uncle bud

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2005, 07:01:19 PM »
Sounds great, John. Takes me back to PT. You just need some weenies high on tequila in the background for complete authenticity.

Offline Slack

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #5 on: January 11, 2005, 08:58:03 PM »
Yea man, sounds really great John and that $40 recording device sounds good too - a perfect Back Porch device.  Also, I like your singing - it sounds to me like you are using more of your natural voice (less gravel) than you were at PT - sounds good!

cheers,
slack

Offline harvey

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #6 on: January 12, 2005, 02:42:52 AM »
Really enjoyed that, it is such a difficult one to get sounding decent, so well done indeed.

Apologies maybe this part is in the worng forum....
Do you have an tips on playing it? I always find that the guitar parts are actually quite simple, but stringing them together to make a song then adding vocals, when I do it just sounds naff! I struggle with the A section in particular. To me it has to be played on a 12 string and I find my cheap old one sounds better than some of the more expensive models.

Once again thanks it has encouraged me to try it out again!

 

 

 

Offline Johnm

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #7 on: January 12, 2005, 08:21:04 AM »
That's really a nice job, John, beautiful control of the rubato so that the changes in tempo sound natural.  I like the singing right on top of the guitar in the "Lawdy, Lawd" sections, too.  There's something to be said for playing and singing a song a TON, isn't there?
All best,
Johnm

Offline GhostRider

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #8 on: January 12, 2005, 10:39:11 AM »
Hey John:

Just listened to your "Broke Down Engine" That is one great sounding guitar!. I've got a couple of critical comments which I hope you'll take in the right vein, for you know how much I like your playing. And remember, I'm not that familiar with the original.

1) Have you pitched the guitar a little on the low side of your vocal range? I think capoing it a couple of frets would help. At PT I most liked the upper part of your vocal range, more expressive in my opinion, more you.

2) For my taste, the intro is a bit slow and the tempo is a bit variable and drags in spots. If the pace was quickened just a bit overall,  I think it would provide contrast to the mournful low pitch of the guitar and vocal. Of course, this may be a defineate decision on your part. I have never thought that the 12 string was made for slow non-slide blues, but that's just me.

Anyway, great job, and very well recorded. I'm looking forward to more! Please, let me put in a request for a resonator-less Mississippi Blues.

Thanks, John
Alex

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #9 on: January 12, 2005, 11:46:11 AM »
Wow! Thanks all for the great comments. Perfect with my morning oatmeal. Especially thanks to you Alex for your constructive criticism. And I kinda agree with you, altho' Willie definitely fluctuates the tempo quite a bit and I think that's a strong emotional part of the piece, the rubato John M is talking about (had to look that up, John, thanks). I am however, coming in about a minute longer than Willie did and I think you're right, it does seem to drag in spots. It's hard to capo up on a 12 fret and play that quick little lick in the long A at the 9th fret, reaching over the body, but maybe I could tune up to C, which I think is where Willie was tuned. The song has quite a wide range and I am getting up there at points, but not as high as I can go. John M has also encouraged me to use the top of my range in the past. I just tried it capoed up a fret and it is a little easier to get those low notes. Of course, my morning voice goes about two whole notes lower than my late night after struggling with the computer for hours voice. I'll tune up and see if I can post a version later this afternoon with a little more pace. Thanks again.

I like the singing right on top of the guitar in the "Lawdy, Lawd" sections, too.? There's something to be said for playing and singing a song a TON, isn't there?
And I always feel like I need to play it a TON more. I really like those "Lawdy, Lawd" sections, too. He changes it a little each time, yet always keeps the vocal and the guitar together. I guess Willie played it a TON, too.

I always find that the guitar parts are actually quite simple, but stringing them together to make a song then adding vocals, when I do it just sounds naff! I struggle with the A section in particular.
Yeah, Harvey, I find that when the vocal and the guitar are so intertwined I have to start singing, at least little bits, as I'm learning to play it. That descending run on the A chord starts on the second word of the sung phrase. It's almost impossible to add the vocal on if you've already polished the guitar part and are counting out the 5 beats before it comes in. This goes contrary to a lot of wisdom I've heard elsewhere, but I have to work the two parts together on stuff like this. Lightnin' Hopkins is another example.

Also, I like your singing - it sounds to me like you are using more of your natural voice (less gravel) than you were at PT - sounds good!
Yeah, John D, I think I use more gravel when I'm less confident with where I'm goin'. Sorta covers up the fluffs and sour notes. Thanks.

On the vocal side of things you've even faithfully reproduced that totally (to me) incomprehensible line in the 'rapping on your door' verse (what on earth was he singing about)????? And what a great sounding guitar that is!
Scratch, you might remember this thread from back when I started workin' on it where we discussed various "interpretations" of the line. I never followed up to post that I eventually got ahold of the Buddy Moss versions, in one of which he pretty clearly says, "can I get down, snake like, tap it flat, and tip light 'cross your floor" so that's how I've been singin' it. Sorry, I meant to mention the guitar is a '20s O.S Sovereign with a 26 1/2" scale, mahogony B&S, that I tune standard at B. I got it from Neil Harpe just before prices on the 12s skyrocketed, fortunately. As I've said before, it never fails to give me the heebie jeebies whenever I pick it up. I use a thumb pick and bare fingers with a little nail.

Thanks for all the other kind words folks and yeah, UB, can't wait to be samplin' some Hornitos or Resposado on the back porch of the Bricks again.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

Offline a2tom

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #10 on: January 12, 2005, 12:58:43 PM »
Haven't chimed in yet - it is great to hear the elusive Waxwing "puttin' it out there".  Aside from also liking it very much, and also sometimes find it just a touch overly slow occasionally (but take that from someone who rushes everything!), I am intrigued by the question of how to practice vocal and guitar.  John you suggest that it helps/ed to work them up together, and I am finding myself wondering if you are right.  I still really struggle with this issue.  I am working up something else with Transcribe! that I'll eventually post here, and so I am sort of inevitably getting the guitar and vocal flowing past altogether.  This is as opposed to working from a lesson or tab, or what I do when I make up my own.

tom

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #11 on: January 12, 2005, 06:39:33 PM »
OK. Take 2.
Tuned up to C and tried to put some pace into it. Only managed to chop off about 20 seconds altho' I felt like I was rushing at times. I don't think these 54 year old fingers will ever be able to do what Willie did in his prime. Or maybe I slow down a little too much after the "Lordy Lord"section? The vocal has a little more gravel in it, Slack, but I came by it honestly. Took me about 15 attenpts, the first 10 were thwarted by a slipping bridge pin and both 5th course strings would go way out (6 pin bridge) about half way thru. Finally figured it out, and got off a few good takes. I kinda like it with a little gravel. When I play out I usually finish up with this 'cause it takes so much out of my voice.
Thanks again for all the feedback folks.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #12 on: January 12, 2005, 06:53:07 PM »
a2tom,
I started out following the advice to learn the guitar part so you could play it if your head was cut off and then add the vocal on top. 'Course this came from a famous video teacher who states that he is just a guitar player. Hmm. Anyway, I think it was Willie Brown's Future Blues that was just impossible to put together, so after that, if I felt that the timing of the guitar was dependent on the vocal I would just sing the necessary line just to get the timing, right from the get go. Now I tend to always start adding the vocal just before the guitar part starts to flow. I think it really helps me to integrate the feeling between the two better and makes a more organic performance in the end. That said, I guess I look at every song individually. Hope that helps.
If you want to discuss further maybe we should take this to a new thread.
All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

Offline onewent

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #13 on: January 12, 2005, 07:53:54 PM »
...nice work, waxwing, your playing is very well measured and articulated...guess that means you practice? :)? ...the big OS sound really comes through ... I like the slowing down and speeding up, it gives the song a spookier feel ... BWM's voice has a sort of catch to it that seems real friendly, but your interpretation darkens the mood of the song and it works...thanks for posting...
PS... ever hear Paul Geremia's version w/ slide in standard?? Saw him live locally a few months back...wow!
PPS...from the 'lyric' link you posted...I liked the imagery of the 'can I get out snake, lemon and sassafrass' voodoo interpretation of the mystery lyric ... I hadn't heard the version you referenced
PPPS...man, how come your 12 doesn't rattle and twang?? it sounds so clean ...mine's driving me nuts with noise...Mike Hauver, the repairman Neil uses, restored mine and set it up, but now that the heat's come on, it's not sounding so clean...I'll have to revisit the string discussion and play around with some changes to try to beat some of the buzz...
TomW.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2005, 11:00:47 AM by waxwing »

Offline Slack

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #14 on: January 12, 2005, 08:10:26 PM »
Sounds great JOhnC - I like this higher range - except I feel for your voice.... the strain ayee... be careful (advice from someone who married a speech pathologist adn knows more than I want to know about vocal chords.  TomW is right the 12 sounds great.

Offline frankie

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #15 on: January 13, 2005, 07:35:56 PM »
Guitar sounds great, voice is great - nice!  The rubato sounds more under control in take 2 - very good.  You can obviously push a lot of wind with your voice..  I'm totally jealous!

Offline dj

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #16 on: January 14, 2005, 02:32:50 PM »
I prefer the lower slower version.  It has a great late-night meditative feel to it.  You've taken a song I never thought much of and really made me see it in another light.  Listening to your first posted version puts me very much in the same mood as listening to Blind Willie doing Mama 'Taint Long Fo' Day.  Very nicely done!
   

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #17 on: January 17, 2005, 10:07:56 PM »
Hey guys, thanks for the great feedback. It's great to get an idea how other players feel about my singing and playing.

PS... ever hear Paul Geremia's version w/ slide in standard?? Saw him live locally a few months back...wow!
PPS...from the 'lyric' link you posted...I liked the imagery of the 'can I get out snake, lemon and sassafrass' voodoo interpretation of the mystery lyric ... I hadn't heard the version you referenced
PPPS...man, how come your 12 doesn't rattle and twang?? it sounds so clean ...mine's driving me nuts with noise...Mike Hauver, the repairman Neil uses, restored mine and set it up, but now that the heat's come on, it's not sounding so clean...I'll have to revisit the string discussion and play around with some changes to try to beat some of the buzz...
TomW.
Hey Tom, Paul didn't play BDE when I saw him last year, but I hope to trade a few tunes with him at PT this summer.
Check out either takes of Buddy's Broke Down Engine No. 2 on the Juke. Actually I just listen to both and my memory had failed me (again). Sounds like he sings "snake level" and in take 2 he even stumbles over it, maybe he was unclear what Willie had been singin'. Anyway, I sing "snake like". BTW Curley Weaver on second guitar.
After I got the 12 from Neal, I had the neck reset and bridge lifted and repositioned with a nicely compensated saddle (like a little snake) by Gary Brawer's shop here in San Francisco. It plays beautifully, but the weather does have some effect on it. I also start to get a twang in the 1st and 2nd courses when the strings need changing.

You can obviously push a lot of wind with your voice..? I'm totally jealous!
Well at least I have somethin' to show for 30 years of acting and not playing any guitar. Not such a strain Slack, just tired. Throat's pretty open.

I prefer the lower slower version.? It has a great late-night meditative feel to it.? You've taken a song I never thought much of and really made me see it in another light.? Listening to your first posted version puts me very much in the same mood as listening to Blind Willie doing Mama 'Taint Long Fo' Day.? Very nicely done!
I imagine some nights will be slower than others. Thanks, dj.

All for now.
John C.
« Last Edit: April 08, 2005, 11:03:07 AM by waxwing »
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

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Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

Offline Blue Poodle

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #18 on: February 27, 2005, 01:06:37 PM »
John:

Great job.? You really play the hell out of that song, and your singing is very expressive.

I'll add one thought for you to play with.? The idea is to try to sing in the same "position" regardless of which point in your range you are singing.? What I hear is that you are thinking "high" when you are singing higher, and thinking "low" when the pitch goes low.? Usually when we do that (and most of us do) that means that your throat and neck tighten, which chokes the sound, and hurts besides.

My suggestion is this:? take one of the phrases at the lower part of your range.? Speak the words in your normal, comfortable speaking voice, all at the same pitch level, observing the way that your throat feels, and where the sounds seems to be centered.? Next, try singing the same phrase slowly, with the melody, but try to keep the same feeling in your throat as when you speak.? If anything, try to keep a more relaxed feeling in your throat as you sing.? Don't think "down", think as though it all stays a the same level.

You'll probably find it easier to sing the lower notes.? You'll probably also think that the sound isn't as full, but other listeners usually hear just the opposite.

I mention this idea or technique because it sounds to me like you have more than enough vocal range to handle this song easily, even though it is a pretty tough song.? The trick is to relax more all the way through it.? To me, one of the great things about Blind Willie as a singer is how relaxed he was, in all parts of his vocal range.? I never hear much strain in his singing, which is probably how he managed to sing in the streets for hours and hours at time without wearing out his voice.

I'm not trying to be critical, as I think that you did a really nice job with this song, both with the playing and the singing.? But, there is even more in your voice that isn't quite coming out yet.

Best Wishes,

Tim
« Last Edit: April 08, 2005, 11:05:46 AM by waxwing »
All the world loves a lover, but a lover doesn't always love love.

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #19 on: February 28, 2005, 02:37:16 PM »
Thanks, Tim. In spite of my vocal training as an actor, it's not the same as singing, and I can use all the guidance I can get. I appreciate you diggin' this thread up.

Look forward to seeing you at PT again, Dr Insouciance (Devil-may-care?).

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

chris nightbird

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #20 on: May 21, 2005, 09:44:00 PM »
Very nice John!
You can definitely play that 12!
I've only ever heard Mr. McTell's version, so that's the one I'm goin' on.
Yours is different from Willie's and mine, you make it your own, which is what I try to do whenever I interpret someone else's tune.

I think the second is the better of the two though.
It travels a little faster. It's a bit more urgent...

Offline waxwing

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Re: Broke Down Engine
« Reply #21 on: May 22, 2005, 11:51:39 AM »
Hey Chris,
Thanks. I can't really tell which version I like. Sometimes I think the song is more dispairing than urgent, he feels all used up. But I'm a 54 year old so I may not have the urgency of youth in my singing. Not used up yet, but I know that empty feeling. I think it comes out different every time I perform it.

Which version of BDE are you referring to. I think Willie recorded it in three different decades, so his approach is very different from recording to recording. I transcribed the lyrics and guitar arrangement from his earliest, recorded in Atlanta in October of '31. Of course, I try to let my own feelings come through in the playing and singing, and that may certainly change the feel.

Transcribing 12 string is particularly interesting to me, because by listening carefully to the strings with octave courses you can tell whether it was struck with the thumb (high string first) or the fingers (low string first). Judging from the way Willie alternates between thumb and finger on the 3rd (which he happens to have strung with an octave on this recording) and 4th strings I feel that he pretty much alternates between thumb and finger on his treble runs, except, of course, when he has a bass note under it, taking the thumb out of treble play. He varies this from verse to verse, but when he is alternating thumb and finger, it really gives a slight lilt to the run. Gary Davis is well known to have used this alternating style in playing runs, always striking on the beat with the thumb. I think McTell does this as well, but others may disagree. You really learn a lot of technique by listening closely to the old players, tho'.

Well, again, welcome to Weenie Campbell. Definitely dredge up some of those 12 string threads. Lots to talk about there.

All for now.
John C.
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."
George Bernard Shaw

http://www.youtube.com/user/WaxwingJohn
https://www.facebook.com/WaxwingJohn

Willie Brown's Liquor at CD Baby

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