Big Sound Saturdays: Very Superstitious

My favorite kind of party is so loud and crowded and happening that everyone loses their center about it and bumps into each other and runs between rooms and bars and forgets most of it by the morning. Some holidays are built for it. And some are the worst! I’ll take a pass, for example, on the Fourth of July: I love a good barbeque, but all those American flag outfits bum me out and living, as I do, as a medium-old lady in a college town, I’m actually kind of nervous walking around with all the roving late-teens, their vacant beer-eyes, and their booming firecrackers. Or the much less real holiday that is SantaCon, when the self-same wasted frat-bros-turned-bank-bros that stood on the lower balconies of the buildings around Zucotti Park hassling the Occupy Wall Street protesters rub their Santa-costumed bodies all over every beer glass in Manhattan. Bad carnivals. The best carnival—next week!—is Halloween.

“Very Superstitious” is an ode, more colloquially than historically, to the pagan underpinnings of this weirdo holiday. Things seem to mean more on Halloween. It’s the logic of Thackery Binx, the baby-faced teen who the Sanderson sisters turn into a cat at the beginning of Hocus Pocus—there’s no need to explain the animorphing, black cats are obviously bad luck, and ghosts are obviously real. You should be nervous at midnight, it’s the witching hour. Also, there are actual witches. You’re obliged, that night, to feel a little scared.

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Ushered in by Townes Van Zandt’s mythic nightmare “Spider Song,” “Very Superstitious” hangs its hat mostly on classic blues, R&B, murder ballads, pre-war gospel, and a taste of Guitar Boy Superstar Sir Victor Uwaifo’s “Mother Witch [Shu’husu’hu]” and Dr. John’s hoodoo gris-gris “Jump Sturdy.” Its foundations are the woozy ghost-moaning clarinet in Bessie Smith’s “Haunted House Blues,” the two-tone a-capella of Bonnie Loggins and Mary Lomax’s “In The Silence of the Midnight” (recorded in White County, Georgia by Art Rosenbaum in Miss Loggins’ home in 2007), Jean Ritchie’s faux-friendly “Hangman,” and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s version of “Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight,” a Child Ballad that’s the foundation of one of the only murder ballads I know where the woman really wins. And Victoria Spivey’s famous “Black Snake Blues” only, though this mix could’ve been her, exclusively: in 1936, ten years after “Black Snake Blues,” she recorded Black Snake Swing, and before that, parts one and two of “New Black Snake Blues,” “Blood Hound Blues,” “Blood Thirsty Blues,” “Haunted By The Blues,” “Hoodoo Man Blues,” “Moaning the Blues,” “Nightmare Blues,” “Spider Web Blues”!

I snuck in Howlin’ Wolf’s sexy “Moanin’ at Midnight,” Charley Patton’s innuendo-laden allegory “Mean Black Cat Blues,” Lady Day’s “Pennies From Heaven” (a friendly piece of luck in a sea of darkness), and the less friendly “Midnight on the Stormy Sea,” performed here by the bluegrass collab of the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover. “Fatal Flower Garden,” too; a horrifying murder ballad composed a group of white men from Alabama calling themselves Nelstone’s Hawaiians and performing a British Isles tradition in the blues-heavy style of Hawaiian steel.

It’s a confusing guest list, but they all look great together. Each sound calls out to the others, leaves the room, then comes back in a new mask and a different hat. Happy October, happy Halloween!

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