Thief In The Night

[Annotation by Richard Bleksley]

 

A guitar is a thief in the night
That robs you of sleep through the wall
A guitar is a thin box of light
Throwing reflections that rise and fall
It reminds you of Memphis or maybe Majorca
Big Bill Broonzy or Garcia Lorca
A truck going north or a cab to the Festival Hall

 

In the period between the two world wars Memphis, especially in the bars, gambling joints and brothels that flourished along the famous (or notorious) Beale Street under the breathtakingly corrupt regime of Mayor E. H. “Boss” Crump, was a hotbed and forcing ground of jazz and blues in the way that New Orleans had been a decade or two earlier. It was particularly associated with jug band music, the two most famous practitioners of which were the Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers – one of whose numbers, Walk Right In, was a hit for the Rooftop Singers in the early sixties.

 

The mention of Majorca is a nod to the other of the guitar’s two birthplaces. The steel-strung guitar, known variously as a flat-top, jumbo, or folk guitar, was invented in the U.S.A., but the original gut-strung (usually nylon nowadays) article originated, of course, in Spain. I’ve never heard of Majorca being particularly famous for its music, though.

 

Big Bill Broonzy (1893 – 1958), real name William Lee Conley Broonzy, was one of the first blues musicians to become known to and revered by British audiences, and this was in no small part due to his own canniness.

In the thirties Broonzy was living in Chicago, and was a leading light in the development of a new kind of blues, slicker and more sophisticated than the country blues, and played by small bands (probably his best known, and certainly most covered, song, Key to the Highway, dates from this period). When, after World War II, Chicago blues was hijacked by the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, who injected into it a heavy dose of Delta blues to make it much raunchier, louder and more emotional, Broonzy seems to have decided not to compete. Undoubtedly noticing how Leadbelly was being lionised by white “folkie” audiences, he reinvented himself as Big Bill Broonzy the folksinger, ditching his city blues to return to the country blues and folk songs of his youth, and sometimes even going so far as to lay aside his city suits in favour of sharecropper’s overalls.

The ploy paid off handsomely. By the fifties Broonzy was probably the best-known black singer in his genre to white audiences (Leadbelly having died in 1949), and so was an obvious choice to be the first blues singer (as opposed to bluesy jazz singers) to perform to British audiences. Here he took his stratagem one step further, claiming to be the last real blues singer left alive – and some people believed him.

Broonzy was no charlatan when it came down to actually performing, though, and none of his posing detracts from his stature as one of the great blues singers.

 

The reference to Federico Garcia Lorca (1898 – 1936) is another non-musical allusion to the guitar’s Spanish origins. Now widely acknowledged as the greatest Spanish poet and dramatist of the twentieth century, he first rose to international prominence through the manner of his death. Avant-garde in his art and left-wing in his politics (and homosexual to boot) he was not popular with the conservative factions in Spain; and in 1936, soon after the start of the Civil War, he was arrested and shot by Nationalist militia near Granada, to become a left-wing martyr.

 

A truck going north. More contentious this, but it is possibly a reference to "the great Migration" from the American south to Chicago, in the first half of the 20th century, in which many black people moved north — by whatever means of transport was affordable. One — guitar-related — outcome (as country blues players from the south arrived in the city) was the development of Chicago's urban blues sound, which brought the electric guitar into the blues line-up. [contributed by Andrew Curry via Midnight Voices]

A cab to the Festival Hall: Well, of course it doesn't need its own reference, unless we're being completists; but I always loved the juxtaposition here with the previous phrase, of truck and cab, of poor and rich, of city and country, of player and audience. [contributed by Andrew Curry]

 

And the man who plays the guitar for life
Tests his thumbs on a slender knife
Forever caresses a frigid wife
His fingers travel on strings and frets
Like a gambler’s moving to cover bets
Remembering what his brain forgets
While his brain remembers the fears and debts


      Long fingernails that tap a brittle rhythm on a glass
      Around his neck a ribbon with a little silver hook
      Like some military order second class
      You can read him like an open book
      From the hands that spend their lives creating tension
      From the wrists that have a lean and hungry
      Eyes that have a mean and angry look

 

Long fingernails. From this we can infer that our guitarist with the lean and hungry looking wrists is either a Spanish or a classical player. Steel-strung guitars are almost invariably – there are a few brave and hardy-handed exceptions – played with a plectrum or with metal or plastic picks clipped over the fingertips. Spanish and classical guitars are picked with the fingernails. If you ever notice someone with closely trimmed nails on one hand and long ones on the other, itís 10 to 1 that that’s the reason.

 

Around his neck a ribbon with a little silver hook. This narrows it down further. Classical guitarists use a footstool to raise the left leg and play with the guitar supported by the thigh (unless they are left-handed). Our man is a Spanish guitarist, for it is they who use the ribbon and the hook, which clips into the sound hole.

 

A guitar is a thief in the night
That robs you of sleep through the wall
A guitar is a thin box of light
Throwing reflections that rise and fall
A guitar reminds you of death and taxes
Charlie Christian outplaying the saxes
The beginners’ call
and the very last call of all

 

A guitar reminds you of death and taxes: a reference to the famous quote by the American revolutionary Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1890), "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." (From a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789).

The English writer Daniel Defoe said something similar a little earlier: "Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed." (The Political History of the Devil, 1726). [contributed by Andrew Curry]

 

Charlie Christian (1926 – 1942) is a pivotal figure in the history of jazz, blues and rock guitar, for it was he who took the single-string run technique, as used by Lonnie Johnson and Django Reinhardt, and transferred it to the electric guitar. He was the first electric lead guitarist, and laid the foundations for all the famous axemen who have come since.

Christian’s influence extends beyond guitar playing, for he was a regular participant in the late-night jam sessions with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (Bird and Dizz) where bebop first took shape. Unfortunately these sessions contributed as much to Christian’s death as they did to the history of jazz, for he was tubercular and had been warned to take things easy and not to expose himself to the cold night air. Ignoring this advice, he contracted pneumonia and died, aged only twenty-five.

 

Outplaying the saxes may refer to the tale of how Christian got his job with the Benny Goodman band, which is one of the legends of jazz. John Hammond (yes, he who, a couple of decades on, gave Bob Dylan his first recording contract) had suggested the idea, but a meeting with Benny Goodman had not gone well. That same evening Hammond took Christian to where Goodman’s band was playing and installed Christian on the bandstand behind Goodmanís back. Not best pleased (and we should perhaps bear in mind that this was a white band and Christian was black), Benny Goodman led his band into their most difficult number at a blinding tempo, to show this upstart where he got off. Charlie Christian sat quietly through a couple of choruses listening to the changes whizzing past, and then began to play – and jaws dropped all round the bandstand. The number turned into a twenty-minute jam, and at the end of it Christian was hired on the spot.

 

The beginners’ call has already been explained somewhere (I forget exactly where) by Clive. In the theatre those who are first on stage when the curtain rises are known as beginners, and the backstage call of “Beginners, please!”, signalling the imminent start of the performance, strikes terror into the hearts of those who suffer from stage-fright.

 

The very last call of all – presumably that uttered by the Grim Reaper, which strikes terror into the hearts of just about everybody.

 



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