Music

Little Freddie King: You Don't Know What I Know

Lou Friedman

Every time you think Fat Possum has reached the end of its rope, they pull another... well, possum out of their butts. This time, it's the upbeat, lowdown groove of Little Freddie King.


Little Freddie King

You Don't Know What I Know

Label: Fat Possum
US Release Date: 2005-04-05
UK Release Date: Available as import
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Digging up older, honest blues musicians becomes more of a challenge as time marches on. Most of these said underground treasures have either died or are debilitated to the point where they can't play. Even finding these gems amidst the rich soil of Mississippi has become harder. Soon, it will likely be a lost cause. But until then, folks like the people at Fat Possum Records will keep looking, poking their noses in damn near every tin-roofed abode on dirt paths to find someone who can play a nasty guitar and sing straight from the gut.

So far, the label has found some masterful musicians. The late Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Paul "Wine" Jones, the late Asie Payton, and CeDell Davis all came out from the Mississippi underground via Fat Possum. And though the label has to survive by signing outside the North Mississippi blues core (though the Black Keys and Heartless Bastards have the same musical attitude), every so often they find another piece of the puzzle that fits their original blues ideals.

His real name is Fread E. Martin (yes, that's the correct spelling). Born in McComb, Mississippi in 1940, Little Freddie King (not to be confused with the other blues guitarist named Freddy King) shoved off to New Orleans when he was 14. He wanted to learn music, and he made a living as a TV repairman. Of course, the blues being the blues, King was shot for the first time in a New Orleans bar when a jealous husband came in and blasted his wife. King just happened to be sitting on the next barstool, and took a piece of the bullet (it's always location, location, location).

Note that was the FIRST time.

King, who has a tendency to endure frequent moments of inebriation, was shot three times by his wife later on in his life. One of the bullets is lodged right next to his spine. Yet he still endures, riding his bicycle to the repair shop to continue fixing TVs. But with his Fat Possum debut, You Don't Know What I Know, King has a very good chance at making some extra money.

Combining his New Orleans swamp style with the Mississippi Delta style of trance blues, King's music is able to remain dirty and stay in the groove, even with the upbeat swing of lively bass and drums and a counterpoint harp played by Bobby Lewis DiTullio. The playing is rock solid, but is still sloppy enough to qualify for Fat Possum's credo of down and dirty with no overdubs. Don't expect overblown solos here, but there's a decent amount of jamming to keep toes tapping and butts shaking for a while.

The opener, "Crack Head Joe", cops it's riff directly from Kimbrough's "Junior's Place" (his homage to his juke joint). DiTullio's harmonica echoes the riff throughout the song, while King laments about the drug-addled subject. The overall effect of King's hollow, echoing vocals reminds one of ? and the Mysterians' "96 Tears". Yet, it's…well, addictive. King throws a solo in to wrap up the song, and it's a bouncy, groovy four minutes gone by. Equally catchy and able to move bodies with a single repetitive groove is the next song, "Walking With Freddie", where King's vocals and DiTullio's harp get into a call-and-response mode, until the excellent harp solo breaks things up a bit. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other players, bassist Anthony Anderson and drummer "Wacko" Wade Wright (who also produced two of the 11 songs); their playing is just as important as King's and DiTullio's. Up next is the New Orleans-grooved "Chicken Dance" (ever hear a harmonica imitate a chicken?), a fun booty-shaker.

The solo acoustic "You Rascal You" starts with the line "I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you/When you're dead and (down) six feet, won't eat no more of my chicken meat, you rascal you." Of course, the song is about a man fooling around with another man's wife. And no one knows where the inspiration came from, but towards the end of the song, King lets out a cowboy's "YEE-HA!" that's both funny and disturbing.

Martin "Tino" Gross, who produced part of Burnside's 2004 (mostly) remix album A Bothered Mind, contributes his efforts on a pair of tracks. The first, "Looking For My Woman", could have come straight from the Burnside album, if not for the different vocals. It's a decent effort with King's voice echoing "My Woman" throughout, and with all the hip-hop effects (including turntable scratching), Gross still knows that King's vocals and guitar are at the top of the mix -- a decent cut. The second, a remix of "Chicken Dance", is unnecessary, since it slows down the earlier version and doesn't add anything to complement the song.

The ghost of John Lee Hooker lives in "Tough Frog to Swallow", one of the best songs here. Alluding to the cadence of Hooker's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer", King throws out little bursts of trills and runs while DiTullio's harp provides the counter. The story is not about rent money, but about a night at the local bar. "Fox Hunt" is straight New Orleans blues boogie (rhythmically, it's sort of like George Thorogood's take on "Who Do You Love").

Though like most Fat Possum artists who have one style and work it in various ways, King's New Orleans influence gives the sameness of some of the songs a different edge and feel. This is also the first F.P. release to prominently feature a harmonica in the mix of just about every song. Along with a full rhythm section, the overall sound is fresh, yet still has that trance groove. Listening to King's guitar work, you'll find he is quite capable of throwing out solid rhythms and interesting leads. His vocals are just fine and he isn't afraid to keep his lyrics interesting. You never quite know what you're going to get when the label introduces a new artist to the mix, but the brain trust of Matthew Johnson and Bruce Watson never fails to come up big. Little Freddie King might be the luckiest find yet, if You Don't Know What I Know is any indication. This is certainly one of the best blues albums of 2005, one that will hypnotize your mind and move your body. It also proves that there's still some untapped talent to be found in Mississippi, and if anyone can find that talent, it'll be the label that tries its best.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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