In the intro to his zine-memoir Dance All Night with a Bottle in Your Hand: 127 Days on the Road with The Can Kickers, drummer and washboard player Doug Schaefer writes “even though we play Appalachian mountain music, we’re heavily influenced by the energy and the anti-corporate ethics of the punk rock movement. There is an underground network of people all across the country and even the world that helps bands of a similar mindset get from place to place by playing music. … We’re in something of a unique position because of the music we play and who we’re willing to play it for. Most of the bands that tour on the underground do-it-yourself circuit are loud, noisy punk bands that only really work in a setting where people are ready for it. ...[W]e can play on street corners and family friendly events just as easily as we can play in dive bars or dirty punk rock basements.”
I’ve been a Can Kickers fan since I saw them a few years ago at The Ark Warehouse, then (and, for all I know, still) Gainesville, FL’s premiere venue for DIY punk shows. They were on a bill with The Pine Hill Haints, and maybe Against Me!, who at the time still would have been playing house shows, but honestly I don’t remember the details, for which you can thank the good people at Milwaukee’s Best.
After hearing their set, I immediately bought what was then their only in-print record. Dead Music II is a collection of traditional songs (“Black Eyed Suzie,” “Fiddler a Dram,” “Black Jack Davy,” etc.) given badass punk makeovers but performed on traditional instruments: fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar, drums, mouth harp, washboard.
Recently, I had the chance to see The Can Kickers again—this time at a house show on Troutman Street in Brooklyn, NY. As usual, The Can Kickers were in top form, and charged through songs off Dead Music II, its 2003 follow-up, Mountain Dudes, and the brand-new We’re Dying But We Ain’t Dead.
We’re Dying But We Ain’t Dead is the longest Can Kickers record to date, though at 33:08 that’s maybe not saying much. Chalk it up to the punk ethos, I guess. The opening sequence is a frenzied take on “Hoppin John” followed immediately by “Nevermind / Rabbit in the Pea Patch” and then the weirdly rollicking “Strike the Bell,” a sea shanty that sounded hauntingly familiar despite the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before. If you spend a lot of time listening to folk and old-timey music (as I do), you begin to see that the American folk tradition is less about discreet songs than it is about variation and development within a finite—albeit large—set of possibilities. Case in point, in the form of another flashback: when I first listened to my copy of Dead Music II, I recognized the opener, “Afghanistan Traveler” but couldn’t place it. Later, listening to Jerry Garcia’s and David Grisman’s Not For Kids Only, I realized that it was “Arkansas Traveler,” with the jokiness replaced by political satire and a whole bunch of speed. When I played Dead Music II for my friend Maggie and asked her to name that tune, she instantly identified “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee.” And she wasn’t wrong, is the thing.
This is part of the wonder and promise of roots music. It changes by region, and evolves over time, but retains and is perhaps ultimately driven by an intimacy that transcends form and place. It contains whole histories in its basic but potent superstructures and variable lyrics.
The music remains traditional even as it is adapted; indeed, the adaptability is an integral aspect of the tradition itself. On Mountain Dudes, Daniel Spurr switches out some nonsense syllables (“ki-mo-kee”) from the refrain of “Froggy Went a Courting,” for “Ry-mo-dee,” the name of the drummer for This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. Another relentlessly DIY band, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb are staples, if not pillars, of the underground music community Doug mentioned, and the homage here is a tiny, but noteworthy proof that folk histories are still being written and lived. (Among the countless recordings of the song, an interested party might check out Bob Dylan’s, off his under-acknowledged Good as I Been to You, or Doc Watson’s version for children on Elementary Doctor Watson.)
Most American folk songs can be traced back to the period before the American Civil War. If you know your folk music well, check out some of Bobby Horton’s re-creations of Songs of the Confederate States of America, where the tune from the Irish drinking song “Waxie’s Dargle” finds itself driving the anti-Lincoln “Ole Abe Lies Sick,” (sample lyric: “Jeff Davis rides a big fine horse / Abe Lincoln rides a mule”). The songs were brought here by the underclasses of Western Europe, especially the Irish and Scotch, and before that who even knows.
“New London Blues,” on We’re Dying But We Ain’t Dead, is a reworking of “Deep Elem Blues,” perhaps best-remembered (by me anyway) for its place in The Grateful Dead’s acoustic repertoire. First recorded by The Shelton Brothers, a Texas pre-country band of the early 30s, this relatively recent traditional dates back to at least World War 1, when black bluesmen such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lightning Hopkins, and Leadbelly variously lived or played music down on “Elm” or “Ellum” street; what was then the red-light district of Dallas. A similar song, called “Georgia Black Bottom,” was recorded in 1927. (This info comes courtesy of The Grateful Dead Lyric & Song Finder.)
Of course, a tale of sad gamblers, corrupt cops, and rough women (its plaintive chorus: “Oh sweet mama, daddy’s got them [insert locale] blues”) could be set pretty much anyplace, though it helps to have a name that fits the syllable-count. In their version, The Can Kickers put “New London,” the name of their own home town, in place of “Deep Elem.”
The record finishes up with a fine version of [She’ll Be] “Coming Round the Mountain” and two bonus tracks—a new version of “Greasy Coat,” here recorded with Brooklyn radical Mista Mayday on the (!?!?) turntables, and a live recording of “Drunkard’s Lone Child.” Live or on stereo, The Can Kickers are about the best punkgrass band around. They embody the best of both cultures from which they draw. Buy their records, go to their shows, and—as is customary—dance all night with a bottle in your hand.