You know how it is when you're driving along, listening to the car radio, and you get a euphoria jolt from the opening few chords of a song? That happened to me today with "On the Road Again" by Canned Heat.
I always flub lyrics, but this time I could belt along with the radio, because like any good blues, "On the Road Again" lyrics repeat and repeat.
Canned Heat came out with "On the Road" in 1968, the year I graduated from high school. The song was a good thing in a year of bad things, including the Tet offensive and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
I never tire of "On the Road Again." I can't say that about the hits of many other bands of that era - like The Doors, CCR, the Stones, the Moody Blues. This may be because Canned Heat hasn't been played to death over the airwaves. But I think there is more that gives the melody such staying power for me:
* a spooky falsetto of the lead singer;
* an insistent harmonica;
* a driving beat;
* a hypnotic chord progression that may have been borrowed from John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillen'"
* most of all, a constant drone of the tambura, a Balkan instrument - like a cicada hum that transports me to a sweltering 85-degree summer noon....
* Put 'em all together and you've got a Phil Spector-ish wall of sound. Irresistable.
I find it amazing that Canned Heat used the tambura to achieve the spooky drone in "On the Road Again." The drone has power. I first experienced it when I learned to sing Balkan songs at the Door County Folk Festival. About thirty of us were singing for fun, reading Bulgarian lyrics phonetically. We divided ourselves into five parts and fairly shouted the words. The sound was magical and powerful. Our voices floated to the top of the high-ceilinged room and rang around, creating a reaction in my body - a euphoria jolt.
The way it was explained to me, women from ages untold, working in the fields of the Balkan region, had hours to share stories. They did so in song, but they had to sing/holler the news to each other across the length of fields. And they had to shout while they were stooped over, doing hard manual labor. I always picture that famous painting "The Gleaners." Imagine throwing your voice from this position.
Thus the shouting of the words. One woman might sing, "My boyfriend brought me flowers last night," and her friends would echo, "He brought her flowers" in that spooky five-part harmony, one of the parts always a drone. Lore tells us that goats and sheep were part of the women's agrarian world, and their voices achieved the piercing quality of a bleat. That doesn't sound beautiful, but the music has a strange power. I think it's because of the drone. I looked online for videos but none of them capture the strength of hearing this music live.
I bet there are a lot of familiar songs that use drone power... maybe I'll make a list someday. Meanwhile, just for fun, here are the lyrics to the Canned Heat song I love: