It would be easy to ignore anyone who suggested that Charles Caldwell’s life wasn’t an embodiment of the blues. He was born poor in the farmlands of Mississippi, held on to one guitar for 47 years, accepted alcohol instead of money for his performances, repeatedly fell into strange misadventures (probably due to his payment plan), and got a deal for a record he barely had time to finish before dying at the age of 60. We’ve got 11 tracks of this traditional blues player, then, collected (of course) by Fat Possum Records on the album Remember Me. Caldwell’s bio reads like The Blues Story, but he’s managed to turn out his own sound.
The album’s title track closes the disc, but not as a cancer-stricken man’s plea. Instead, Caldwell sounds demanding, angry, and a bit paranoid. He addresses the song to a woman from the past who said the narrator would be her man. Things have changed, though, and the singer has doubts about her sincerity. Each verse is the demand of an increasingly frustrated man: “Can you remember me?” Caldwell pulls the unsteadiness of the lyrics into the structure of the song. At first listen, the song seems to be a simple 12-bar pattern, but Caldwell’s actually shifted the chord changes. He also keeps the listener off-balance by changing the placement of the lyrics within each musical sequence. The song only has four lines, but Caldwell changes the points of repetition and the timing of the lines to bring out the uncertainty of the questioning man. It’s a very simple trick, but it’s very effective.
When Caldwell keeps his music de-centered, he creates a special tension because the music sounds so traditional in many ways. He claims he learned to play by following Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but his sound probably owes more to John Lee Hooker. He builds his songs around steady rhythms—sometimes off the beat—and lets the hook build the song. He speak-sings his vocals in a voice that’s just a bit raspy, the voice of an older man who’s drunk a nip or two in his time. Often the tracks include only Caldwell’s voice and clean electric guitar playing, but when he is accompanied, it’s only by simple and steady drumming.
This solitary sound has an echo in several of Caldwell’s lyrics. “Alone for a Long Time” speaks of a person’s inability to live without anyone else, and Caldwell’s singing on his guitar’s rests are chilling: “Don’t the road look lonesome / When you’re all alone?” This cry is Caldwell at his most vulnerable, and he’s not content to stay there. Just two tracks later on “Down the Road of Love”, he decides he’s had enough loneliness. Knowing he has to travel the road of love, and unable or unwilling to do it alone, he states quite simply that “if you just can’t go with me / I guess I’m a have to take somebody else.” Caldwell sounds more bitter than desperate. If his listener won’t go, he’s ready to say good-bye. The man who was afraid of solitude a few tracks ago has hardened into a practical lover. The fear has changed into an insensitivity.
As strong as Remember Me is throughout, it’s the first track, “Hadn’t I Been Good to You”, that’s most likely to stick with you. Caldwell reveals his intensity on every note plucked or sung. The neurosis of the rest of the album comes out unhesitatingly, but it brings with it some context for the psychodrama. It’s not a new story—the undeserving lover who cheats then jilts—but it’s still a good one. The weight of the hurt, if not the tale, necessitates its re-telling, and Caldwell does it very well, especially in his use of the rhythmic “give me, loan me, let me live”. To answer the question based simply on this album: yes, you’ve been very good to us.
// Notes from the Road
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