I heard one hundred drummers who’s hands were a-blazin’

I’ve been listening to the Staple Singers a lot lately.  I think at this point my favourite thing is Pops Staples guitar playing.  Always simple, on point and mounds of tremolo.  I think its tremolo, guitar players, is that the right effect term? Or is it reverb? Or both even?!? As a contemporary of Charlie Patton and other Mississippi guitar players he’s a good link from the early delta players through to that style done in an electric style by people like Lightnin’ Hopkins or Hubert Sumlin or John Lee Hooker I suppose.  But his style differs from those, perhaps from Hopkins’ the least though, as he takes it in a direction that is rooted in the gospel tradition.  There are many examples of gospel quartets of groups accompanied simply by an electric guitar and handclaps.  The Staple Singers hit these notes often but also add drums and electric bass on many takes as well. The end result rather unique, somewhat rock and roll but definitely gospel at its core. In the later 60s and 70s The Staple Singers’ sound was more straight ahead in soul/funk territory.  They had some great stuff but its their earlier stuff that I’m really feeling.  

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall was written by Bob Dylan and recorded in 1962 for his 1963 release The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.  The question and answer lyric structure of the song is based on Lord Randall, a traditional English ballad about a boy retelling the story of his own fateful poisoning to his mother.  The lyrics in Dylan’s version can read as being somewhat political or social: critical of the then current Cuban Missile Crisis or nuclear war in general.  Perhaps this is true in a sense, but in a less direct one than the imagery that the song gives us.  In the liner notes on the album Dylan is quoted and reveals the sense of his own mortality at the time: “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole new song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”  Reflecting on the last verse one could surely get an impending sense of doom that Dylan was feeling in late ’62.  

“I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number”

The Staple Singers’ cover of A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall appeared on their album This Little Light of Mine which was released one year after Dylan’s original version.  In this cover the call and answer format is re-imagined in a duet between Mavis and Pops Staples.  Mavis sings the initial question and then the second question is sang in harmony with her siblings.  Pops takes the role of recounting what it was, exactly that the ‘son’ experienced as he sings the verses.  These verses use the gospel call and response trope common of many group and quartet recordings — Pops singing each line and the other members of the family responding back in harmony. 

An oddity of this recording can be picked up if you listen closely. It appears for the first time at around the 5:30 mark and continues more or less uninterrupted for the rest of the song.  Its a squeaking sound. It sounds like someone rocking back and forth in a squeaky wingbacked chair.  It must have been some unwanted sound picked up in the studio.  Two of the highlights of this recording for me are, the beginning where Mavis’ voice and Pops’ guitar are introduced on the first line before being joined by the backing harmonies and the bass and drums for the second, and the very end where Pops reprises a single line of the chorus a cappella. 

Dylan’s original can be heard here:

And The Staple Singers’ version here:
The Staple Singers – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

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One Response to “I heard one hundred drummers who’s hands were a-blazin’”

  1. What a great version of that song, it is so funny how Dylan could write and deliver songs when he was 22 that sounded as if they were American folk songs from 200 years ago.
    The Staple singers really do it justice, the Gospel sound is very appropriate for the subject matter, that’s tremolo for sure on the guitar and Big Reverb on everything, Church style.
    The Squeaking is really funny, the kind of thing you would absolutely NEVER hear on a popular record any more

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