I have tried to figure out what the first show I ever saw at Cat’s Cradle was. I think it was Guided by Voices in 1995. The fuzziness of the memory makes me, I would like to think, a more authentic Cat’s Cradle patron, if not a regular one (I’ve never lived close enough). I do know that Cat’s Cradle is a sacred space, one of the clubs that spawned American underground rock-‘n’-roll in the past half-century. If it were to go defunct, North Carolina music culture would take a serious blow.
Speaking of North Carolina music culture, I never knew that Canned Heat had meaningful (if indirect) connections to our state. J’adore Canned Heat. Not so much for their music—some of which is great, in the mode of old blues songs ushered into the electric-hippie era—as for their inspiring vibe. The big hairy guy up front, Bob Hite, in his vest with his wonderful boyish dancing. … They called him “The Bear.” He seems not so much to have used drugs as been drugs. He is said on one occasion to have done two lines of coke while unconscious.
Then there was “Blind Owl,” Alan Wilson. John Fahey gave him that nickname. He was almost totally blind without his thick spectacles but did not like to wear them onstage. When you see him performing, in old clips, he can’t see anything. One time, playing a wedding, he walked off after a set and put his guitar down on top of the cake. His falsetto must be numbered among the weird and lovely artifacts of the 1960s. Partly he was trying, with that voice, to keep alive the Bentonia blues tradition and its high-pitched, eerie vibe (exemplified by Skip James). Wilson had studied blues history with a monkish dedication. When Son House resurfaced in the 60s and was getting ready to perform again, he found himself unable to play a lot of his greatest songs from the thirties (which had never been easy to play). His hands were old. His managers brought in the Blind Owl, who had long before taught himself to play those songs note for note. Wilson had the experience of re-teaching one of his gods how to play the god’s own music.
Wilson’s death came early. He took too many sleeping pills, lay on his back in a sleeping bag behind The Bear’s house, and died looking up through trees at the stars. He had already tried it twice. He was 27. Brokenhearted, people said. “I didn’t have no faro, not even no place to go.” Broken up, too, about the planet. He had always been obsessed with Redwood trees. “His trip was one of nature,” said The Miami News when he died, “and he really wanted people to be aware of how the country is being raped by lack of concern for nature.” His funeral back home in Massachusetts was silent. Friends brought forward his instruments on chargers of pine boughs and white birch logs. Two harmonicas and a guitar. The rest of the band did not attend. European tour.
I was going to tell you about North Carolina connections. The well-known Canned Heat song “Let’s Work Together” was a cover, not an adaptation like their other hits but an actual cover, of a song written sometime around 1960 by Wilbert Harrison, who was born in Charlotte, NC, where he grew up one of 23 children, playing a washtub bass. Harrison scored a #1 hit in 1959 with his famous version of “Kansas City,” which features a guitar solo that some consider the first fully fledged electric guitar solo. It was played by Wild Jimmy Spruill, of Fayetteville, NC, an unquestioned pioneer on the instrument.
In 1962, Harrison’s original 45 of “Let’s Stick Together”—as it was called at first—came out and fizzled. Six years later, however, in 1968, Harrison himself reworked the song as “Let’s WORK Together,” and it charted. That’s the version Canned Heat covered. They were, in other words, recording a song, a hit, that had been released barely two years before. Yet when Canned Heat’s record came out and the song blew up, critics described the band’s “recent success” as having been “written by Wilbert Harrison, another name from the glorious rock past.” Another reviewer named, as his “favorite” song on the new Canned Heat album, “Wilbert Harrison’s oldie ‘Let’s Work Together.’”
Sometimes it feels like the strange instantaneousness of the transmogrification by white people of early black rock-‘n’-roll songs into “oldies” was part of a complicated process of psychic suppression that went hand in hand with subliminal shame over the ongoing theft of the same music. It was not possible to distance oneself from the evidence in space. But in time? That could be done. In the case of Harrison’s song, the phenomenon continued up to 1976, when Bryan Ferry released his version. Ferry had gone all the way back to Harrison’s 1962 lyrics (“stick” instead of “work”) for the cover, which is sort of airless and pointless, on purpose I think. The papers incorrectly reported that he had rewritten the words himself, to honor fiancée Jerry Hall. “Nevertheless,” said a critic, “Ferry handles a bunch of oldies in ways that will surprise you.”
By that time Wilbert Harrison had become a one-man band. Seriously—he was one of those guys who play the cymbals with their feet and whatnot. Rack harmonica, traps, washboard. (It was how he’d gotten his start, at the Excelsior Club in Charlotte.) There was a carnival quality, maybe, but people said he could still make it shake. He died in Spencer, NC, in 1994.
It’s very cool that SCOTS chose to record this number for the Cat’s Cradle benefit compilation. Couldn’t be more appropriate. We need this song’s advice like never before.
John Jeremiah Sullivan lives in Wilmington, where he works with a non-profit research initiative called Third Person Project. TPP’s mission is to recover the region’s lost Black history, much of which was obscured after the massacre of 1898. He’s a writer for The New York Times Magazine and the Southern Editor of The Paris Review. Last year he was a Guggenheim fellow, and a piece he did on Rhiannon Giddens was in The New Yorker. His forthcoming book is The Prime Minister of Paradise.
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