‘Mean Old World’ Revisited Part 2 1969 / 1967 – The Sacred Mushroom & Canned Heat
A few weeks ago, I published a series of blogs (three in total) looking at covers of the song ‘Mean Old World’. At the time, I chose to restrict myself to the year of 1968, during which, at least seven were caught on tape and are now in circulation.
I first revisited the number to look at all the available recordings done during the sessions with Duane Allman for “Layala and Other Assorted Love Songs”
Researching that piece, two new (to me) versions caught my attention, one from 1967 and the other from 1969. We’ll start with the latter as the earlier song has little in common with the T-Bone Walker’s original, Little Walter’s reworking, Otis Rush’s take or any of the others previously reviewed.
I wasn’t looking for this first performance, in fact, I had never heard of the band before; and I admit that, based on the band name, I almost didn’t even bother to give it a try, as I was expecting sludgy, hard-rock psychedelia along the lines of Vanilla Fudge; what I got instead was a tight little blues-rock update of Otis Rush’s version of the song.
The Sacred Mushroom
Danny Goshorn: lead vocal /
Larry Goshorn: lead guitar & vocal /
Fred Fogwell: rhythm guitar /
Joe Stewart: bass / Doug Hamilton: drums
Recording date(s) unknown
Released on “The Sacred Mushroom” (Parallax 1969)
Mean Old World (Otis Rush) (4:38)
The strong arrangement highlights Larry Goshorn’s lead guitar work, sounding like Blues Breaker’s era Eric Clapton or early Cream. The guitar sound is very much of its time and probably why I enjoy it so much. Bassist Joe Stewart also deserves special mention as he keeps the number choogling along as the drummer is buried in the mix.
As with most of the covers previously reviewed, with Chicken Shack being the exception, after the first verse, the vocalists for the bands pull the remaining stanzas from a variety of sources, with a couple even writing new ones.
Danny Goshorn sings the first two verses of Rush’s version and dropping the third and forth, simply repeating the first two as the song barrels along.
This has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the idea that the song is a showcase for Larry Goshorn’s guitar work and nothing else. With no story to tell, the song loses its arc and the listener has nothing left to hold on to except the playing and like the lyrics, strong as the playing is, it leaves the listener right back where they started. Trimmed back by maybe a full minute, the number may have become a minor radio hit, as there is no denying the groove these guys cut.
The next recording was cut in late 1967 during demo sessions for the first Canned Heat album. It sounds like something that the band was just knocking together, finding their way into it and this almost disheveled quality is partly what makes it so affecting.
Alan Wilson takes the lead vocal (and I assume wrote / improvised the lyrics) and plays harmonica.
The performance would remain unreleased twenty-seven years.
Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson: vocal & harmonica /
Henry “Sunflower” Vestine: guitar /
(probably) Ray Johnson: piano /
Larry “The Mole” Taylor: bass / Frank Cook: drums
Recorded at Liberty Studios, Chicago, IL, October 18, 1967
Released on “Uncanned! The Best of Canned Heat” (EMI 1994)
Mean Old World (A. Wilson) (3:34)
Wilson takes his inspiration from Little Walter’s 1952 recording but in no way attempts to cover it; he makes what was T-Bone Walker’s song into his own.
His opening harmonica lines have a weary tone; the band rushes in right behind before he has even finished the phrase. They are playing at a faster tempo (there are faint echoes of ‘44. Blues’) and the frisson makes one think of someone scuffling along a busy city sidewalk, looking, without success, for a place to rest as the world goes about its business all around him.
Wilson modeled his vocals on Skip James and when he begins to sing, his plaintive falsetto drops a veil of melancholy over the song that none of the other performances had.
Thematically, he follows the outlines of all of the previous versions, singing of being unlucky in love, but his voice makes it plain that this is far from the first or most destabilizing misfortune to strike him.
The spare, empty sound of the studio, the rattle of the drums and the slur of the bass line off-setting the tinkling piano, conspire with Wilson’s distant train whistle harmonica sound to create a self-contained world, like a bar with the windows painted over, the interior illuminated only by the jukebox, cigarette machine and a sparse scattering of neon signs.
It is the final verse, one of Wilson’s, that takes the wind out of the listener,
My friends all stand around
And can’t help me and I can’t help them
Mean my friends all stand around me
Don’t you know, I can’t help them and they can’t help me
And we’re all broken down
Like hobos on the road
The song stumbles to its finish soon after the words have been sung, but they still resonate fifty years and counting; less than three years after this recording, Alan Wilson would leave us at the age of twenty-seven.