Writing and Music by John Kirnan

Way Back When

Posted by John Kirnan on June 11th, 2022

Way Back When - John Kirnan

I expected Flying Home to be the next album that I released. It's almost done. But Way Back When got finished first, so here it is.

The songs and instrumentals for this one seem to me like they might have come from another era, the earlier part of the twentieth century. I mostly had the Thirties in mind. Toward the centre of the album, there are some darker songs. It was The Great Depression after all and times were tough. But most of these pieces have a lighter feel to them.

I remember how my mother used to tell me about paying next to nothing during the Depression to get into a movie to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing through fancy high society mansions, gracefully carefree, wonderfully happy. People living through hard times don't want to hear about trouble, they want to escape from it, if only for a couple of hours, or even a few minutes. My feeling is that, way back when, despite their problems and the state of the world, people might have said, as I did in one of the songs about their time and ours, "I'm gonna sing till the sorrow leaves me, I'm gonna play every song I know, cause down the road things'll be much better, and that's the only way that I can see to go."

The first song is called Nothing Like You. It was originally a fast blues rag instrumental that I'd written some years before. I slowed it down and added some lyrics and now it's kind of a lost love song. Seems the slower I play it, the sadder it gets. This version is medium sad. It won't break your heart though, it's a little too bouncy for that.

The next one is an instrumental called Hughie's Horses. Every Saturday, when my uncle was a little boy, he would go to the next town's theatre to see a Western movie. The theatre always played Westerns on Saturday afternoons which is why all the kids called it "The Corral." He loved horses and dreamed of being a cowboy. A little guy in Scotland dreamed of being a cowboy. When he grew up, he came to visit us in Quebec, then headed out West. And, you guessed it, he became a cowboy. Showed me what was possible when I was a kid. If there's an afterlife, wherever Hughie is, there will definitely be horses there. There's a way of playing guitar in this piece that Hughie liked to hear and some phrases from an older piece of mine that I'd play for him.

The third song is called The J & J Railway Song. A few years back, I unexpectedly lost a close friend. We were going to do a project together and were both excited about it. Her name was Jody and as mine is John, I half seriously said that we could call ourselves or the project "The J & J Railway" and I read her the lyrics to this song. Jody and I were bilingual in that we both spoke English and Poet. No matter how strange I'm sure we must have sounded to other people at times, we always understood each other. The project would have involved us getting back to our poetry roots with the probable addition of some music.

When I say in the song, "We'll meet the kings and queens of all the hobo jungles, teach 'em to play The J & J Railway song," I mean using whatever it is you do to inspire others to do their thing. An actor on a stage or a painter in a gallery could in a sense be singing The J & J Railway Song. It's about getting other travellers, fellow cosmic hoboes, excited about being creative, as excited as we always were. There's such joy in creativity and sharing what you create.

And lest you think this would be too sad a song, I can tell you that it's a happy little number. And whenever I hear it, a picture comes into my mind of a railway track running through a beautiful, peaceful wood. And down the track a ways, I see Jody waiting for me, ready to share the next adventure.

The next one, Mississippi John, is another instrumental. John Hurt went to Memphis and New York in 1928 and 1929 to record some songs for a record company. During the Depression, he wrote to them from his little country village of Avalon, Mississippi, but they never wrote back. He spent the next thirty or so years sharecropping and taking care of animals that belonged to other people.

In the early Sixties, some young musicians went looking for him. When they found him, he had no idea that his guitar playing skills had become legendary. They brought him back up North to play at the Newport Folk Festival. From there, now seventy, he restarted his career and became famous.

I've never learned to play another guitarist's music. I find it too hard to figure out and I'd rather just write my own. But one day, I stumbled onto a riff that sounded familiar. I wondered if it might be something by John Hurt. Turns out it was and it wasn't. There were a few notes in a row that were the same, not enough to get sued over, but it had the feel of his playing. I got to thinking about his unusual life, who he seemed to be from what I'd seen and read. It was said that he loved everyone and everyone loved him, saw him as a kind, gentle man and, of course, a brilliant fingerstyle guitarist. I decided to compose something for him. I wanted to include him in the music, so I put the riff I mentioned earlier at the beginning and the end of the piece, like bookends. To me, it represented his musical career at the beginning and the end of his life. While I played, I thought about him, how he lived, and his times, and this instrumental is the result. I called it Mississippi John because it represents the two worlds he lived in. Mississippi was a name the record company gave him, but to everyone else, he was just John. He died in 1966 and is buried in the woods. He loved nature. The harmonics fading away at the end of the piece are him fading back into the natural world he loved and lived in for most of his life.

Song number five is simply called Lucky. And it's a simple song about the quite often complicated dream of being lucky enough to find the right person, fall in love, leave an old life behind for a better one, and become a family man. I was just thinking how I've never heard anyone say, "She's a family woman." Never a need for a phrase to cover that, I guess.

For quite a while after I wrote Eagles and Angels, I never realized that it was a possible sequel to the previous song, Lucky. In the first song, the couple always meet by the river. In this one, the river may be what drives them apart. You can interpret it different ways. I'm going for the happy ending.

Trouble in the next couple of songs gets much more serious. This is the darkness at the centre of the album that I mentioned earlier. As I said, it was The Great Depression, after all. And at its centre, despite happy songs and movies, were hard times that so many tried just to live through. Dirty Thirties, continuing the hobo theme that seems to keep cropping up in these songs, is about someone who's lost everyone and everything. He rides the roofs of boxcars at night to get closer to heaven and find peace, but the world below, for him, contains no fairness or love. Wrong Colour, darker still, is a story of something even more dangerous than poverty. In this song, another hobo tries to catch the next freight train out of a town where he knows that racism and murder will go unpunished. He hopes he'll "find a boxcar, full of straw," where he can "try to dream away this town and what I saw."

A Dust Bowl Tale is a story about two people who meet during the time of the giant dust storms on The Great Plains of the United States. Actually, they meet because of a dust storm. It's about the wind, or life, blowing you toward someplace away from what you know. Maybe a different destiny than what you expected is waiting down the road a ways. Maybe it's better, maybe it's worse. The Dust Bowl days were dangerous times too, but the music of this tale takes a turn toward the light again. Most of what's played on the guitar, like the first song, was an instrumental I had for years. Well, what I mean is that, I always meant it to be a song, but I could never find the words for it. Then, one day, it all fell into place. Now, I can't imagine these words and this music not being together. Sometimes it seems like some things were always going to be a certain way and that you just couldn't see it from further back in time. Storms make it hard for everyone to see what's up ahead.

And speaking of storms. Somewhere in a suburb (for some reason), on a middle of the night crescent (because it's a suburb), there sits a quite normal looking house, one side bright in streetlight rain, the other in rain soaked shadow. In the attic of this quite normal looking house, on top of an old guitar case, there sits an old phonograph, the kind you have to wind up. It's wound up. The needle hovers over an old 78 with a dark blue label. Dark blue for the blues. The label reads, among other things, "Ain't Nothin' Ever Easy For Me, vocal and guitar, Sleepy John Kirnan."

Above the house, the sky's busy with a storm spell, one of the bigger ones, the kind that might just claim a quite normal looking house on a middle of the night crescent. Lightning and thunder flash and rumble, lighting up the attic and slightly rattling anything that tends to rattle on such a night. As you can imagine, this would be quite exciting for any attic ghosts that live in a suburb. And there could be ghosts in this attic. It's possible. Then, loud enough to wake the dead (if they were sleeping), lightning cracks the sky nearby, and suddenly (and it has to be suddenly), the house shudders, the needle drops into the groove of the right groove, the mechanism starts to unwind, and the song plays "Ain't nothin' as easy as 1, 2, 3. Ain't nothin' as easy as pie. Ain't nothin' a piece o' cake. Easy peasy ain't on my plate. Ain't nothin' ever easy for me." "OK, so it's a silly song," says one of the possible ghosts, "But it's the blues. And I like the blues. And it's still kinda spooky." You see, it's sung in a quiet kind of way, almost as if a songwriter, afraid to lose what he's just written, recorded it quite late at night, but did it softly so as not to wake the neighbours in the apartment down the hall. The song ends. "And it has a classic blues turnaround," says the possible ghost musician from way back when, the likely previous owner of the guitar case, with a guitar inside (most likely).

Butt Bones Rag is a fun, but tricky to play, instrumental. It's a Ragtime composition or a rag. I knew when I composed it that I would have the word rag in the title since many Ragtime pieces do. And who am I to argue with a cool tradition? But, other than that, I didn't know what to call it. When I look back in time (this is the oldest tune on the album) to see where it got its strange name, I see a small room with three people in it. A man playing this piece on a guitar and a woman bouncing a little kid on her knee to the rhythm of the music. Suddenly there's a yelp and she says, "Ouch! You've got sharp little butt bones." The woman keeps bouncing and the man keeps playing, but says, "Now I know what to call it." It's a nice memory.

A Windy Day is another Dust Bowl story. It's about a man who loses everything. But it's a happy song, not only because of the tune, but because of this character's incredibly positive outlook. I almost called this "The Optimistic Farmer." Nothing gets this guy down.

There's sadness in Down The Road but, like the last song, there's also optimism in this one too, and hope. I wrote it about the Pandemic. Why is it on this album then? Because I realized that someone in the Thirties or Forties could have sung something like this, could have felt what we feel now. Maybe these times are our Depression or World War 2. But trouble didn't last for them and it won't for us either.

The last instrumental is called The Wishing Rod Kid. Once upon a guitar time, I was playing a bit of something new and every time I would play a certain bit of this bit of something new, I saw this picture in my head of a kid strolling along a riverbank with a fishing rod on their shoulder. And I was reminded of a better story in a better time. There once was a kid who had a fishing rod that turned into The Wishing Rod. The kid and the kid's parents would cast The Wishing Rod out into the night sky toward the stars and try to reel back in the kind of dreams that kids wish for and the kind of dreams that parents wish for their kids.

And this last song, Wherever You Want To Go, will be a bit of a surprise and, I think, the perfect ending to an album like this. My friend, Steven Hardy, offered to help me with it, so I sent him an email of a very rough version of the song on guitar. The music he sent back blew me away! I never imagined that one of my songs could sound like this. Thanks Steve.

Well, that's it. As for the download of this album, it contains these fifteen songs in mp3 format, an e-booklet that contains all of the lyrics and this post, and a printable CD jewel case album cover. And all for the incredibly low price of absolutely nothing.

Flying Home should be out in the near future. More serious songs, more lyric based. Scratch the surface of Way Back When and you'll find a guitar album.

And that just leaves one thing to say. I hope you enjoy listening to this as much as I enjoyed creating it. It was fun. And fun is important.


To download, left click on this link - "Way Back When" album (82 mb).

This free download includes a Music folder of mp3 files, a lyric booklet that also contains this post, and a printable CD jewel case album cover.

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