Friday, May 21, 2010

A successful FAAC, and other news

This blog has been quiet lately; apologies from the authors! Things have been hectic during May, what with the First Annual Alanological Conference. The main conference took place in Grand Junction, Colorado in conjunction with an Alanesque Art Show. However, one Alanologist, Russ Montney, also made a pilgrimage to Mississippi where he jammed and conferred with Alanological Engineer Bob Walters. Other Alanologists including Kyle Fosburgh of the Blind Owls band celebrated Alan through musical performances in various parts of the Midwest. We're excited to hear -- and see -- all these different ways that fans have found to celebrate Alan's spirit and musical legacy.

In other exciting news, users of Facebook will want to join a group dedicated to encouraging Canned Heat's acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Check it out today. And if you are not already on Facebook, why not join today? You can also join a group dedicated to Alanology, interact with other blues and roots music fans, and connect with Alan's biographer.

Monday, April 12, 2010 website

We're pleased to present, a new web site we've been developing this year. This site will be dedicated entirely to the science and study of Alan "Blind Owl" Wilson, and like this blog, will be open to contributions from Alanologists at every level and fans worldwide.

Some of the highlights of this new site include:
Thanks for checking out the site, and be sure to drop us a note with comments or questions!

Friday, March 26, 2010

What’s that word in “On the Road Again”?

Today we’ll address a commonly misunderstood word used by Alan Wilson in his lyrics. Louise R. wrote in with the following question:

“Do you know if Alan sings 'fairo' or 'payroll' in his song ‘On the Road Again’? …I believe he uses the word [fairo] in that song as well as in "An Owl Song", but some disagree.”

“On the Road Again” is composed using a number of traditional blues lines and phrases. It is based in part on a 1952 record called “Dark Road” or “Dark Road Blues” by Floyd Jones. The term “fairo”, however, can be traced back further than this in blues history. One example is Tommy Johnson, whose influence on Canned Heat was so significant that the band named itself after one of his songs. He used “fairo” on the 1928 record “Cool Drink of Water Blues”; it can be heard online here.

In blues tradition, “fairo” can be interpreted as lover. In his classic work of musicological scholarship, Big Road Blues, ethnomusicologist Dr. David Evans gives “sweetheart” as a meaning and cites several possible etymological derivations. Those interested in learning more about traditional blues lyrics and composition are strongly encouraged to read Dr. Evans' book.

In his “On the Road Again”, Alan sings: “…the first time I traveled out in the rain and snow… I didn’t have no fairo, not even no place to go.” To those who are unfamiliar with the blues tradition from whence “fairo” sprang, and who are also unfamiliar with “An Owl Song”, the interpretation of this word as “payroll” might have particular appeal. If you have never heard of a fairo, the ear may attempt to process this sound into a word that does make sense. Replace fairo with payroll in “On the Road Again”, and you’ll still get a lyric that makes sense.

Listening to “An Owl Song”, however, this hypothesis breaks down quickly. Here, Alan sings, “I want to thank you fairo, just for what you promise me… you know I trust you fairo and I tell the world I do.” Insert the word payroll here, and you get something completely nonsensical.

In summary, sources citing this word as “payroll” are likely to be uneducated about blues vocabulary. Newcomers to Alan’s music, or to blues, may be confused by this kind of language and the misunderstanding of other listeners. Therefore it is important for Alanologists and Canned Heat scholars to study the blues, particularly the early rural blues of the 1920s, and examine the roots of Alan’s music before attempting lyric analysis.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Extant Alan Wilson-sung recordings: The Ash Grove 1967, Part 1

This exciting new Alanological series will discuss and analyze all extant Alan Wilson-sung recordings, recorded both solo and with Canned Heat. These include some items that might not be available commercially at this time. When available, dates will be given for songs, but they will not necessarily be analyzed in chronological order. Songs including vocals by both Wilson and Bob Hite will also be discussed.

In this installment, Wilson biographer Rebecca Davis Winters summarizes several recordings from the Ash Grove club in Los Angeles, 1967.


Recorded live at the Ash Grove club, Los Angeles, CA January 14, 1967

Not available commercially in the US

This song, associated with Muddy Waters and performed in his Chicago blues style, features Alan doing some intense harmonica playing including exciting upper-register runs. Bob Hite sings lead, with Alan providing backup vocals.

It can probably be safely said that Alan’s voice is heard to best effect when he sings lead vocals instead of providing backup for Hite on this kind of item; however, the song is interesting to hear just because it is so different. A similar kind of vocal interplay would eventually be recorded as “Boogie Music”, but this approach eventually would seem to have been phased out of the bands’ repertoire.


Recorded live at the Ash Grove club, Los Angeles, CA January 14, 1967

Not available commercially in the US

Unfortunately, only a portion of this Little Walter cover tune survives. The tape begins a verse or two into the song. However, what we have is well worth listening to and contains some of Alan’s most intriguing and evocative recorded singing. His range varies throughout, mostly in a true falsetto not heard on extant records, but sometimes dipping down into the high tenor range most fans are accustomed to hearing on his hit songs.

It is also unfortunate that the audio quality is so poor on this series of live tapes. The vocals and harmonica almost completely drown out the rest of the band. Tapes as preserved contain one channel and it seems likely that the other channel – possibly containing lead guitar and rhythm section – exists on a separate tape and has yet to be unearthed.


Recorded live at the Ash Grove club, Los Angeles, CA January 14, 1967

Not available commercially in the US

This item is in the same vein as “Got My Mojo Workin’”, in Canned Heat’s repertoire at the same time. Bob Hite sings lead; Wilson provides backup and plays harmonica.

Much like “Mojo”, this is interesting if not the idea setting for Alan’s pure vocal tone, and the harmonica work is nice.

61 HIGHWAY (fragment)

Recorded live at the Ash Grove club, Los Angeles, CA January 14, 1967

Not available commercially in the US

It is most unfortunate that this traditional item is recorded only in part. Only the first few verses, with Alan singing lead vocals and playing harmonica, are recorded. It is done in an uptempo style and features his high tenor style, sounding very confident overall.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Importance of Blues Roots to Alanology

In order to understand the music of Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson, we must look to the roots of his work with Canned Heat. Songs such as “Going Up the Country” and “On the Road Again” were based in early rural blues, and Wilson’s harmonica work was inspired by the work of Chicago master Little Walter, whose sound graced much of Muddy Waters’ classic-era work.

biographer Rebecca Davis Winters says, “All serious Alanologists will want to hear the artists Alan liked best. These include Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James, Geechie Wiley, and on harmonica Little Walter and Junior Wells (though Alan was critical of Junior’s singing, he liked his harp playing).”

Specific Canned Heat songs can be traced to rural blues recordings. “Bullfrog Blues”, for example, was first recorded by William Harris in 1928. “Big Road Blues” was associated with Tommy Johnson, Sterno addict whose 1928 work also gave Canned Heat their name. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was based on a 1929 Hambone Willie Newbern record. “Going Up the Country”, of course, was based on a 1929 Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas record in which Thomas accompanied himself on guitar and panpipes. The list goes on, and on, throughout Canned Heat’s catalog. They stood out from their contemporaries with their skilled incorporation of these early blues influences – and thorough understanding of their sources.

Where does one start an exploration of early blues? Rebecca Davis Winters recommends certain books such as Deep Blues by Robert Palmer, and for those who are really fascinated, Big Road Blues by David Evans (an old friend and musical colleague of Alan) is one of the ultimate blues scholarship works.

In terms of listening, the Document record label is a great resource to help build a pre-WWII blues collection. Yazoo has also released a number of excellent items. There is also a specific collection that Rebecca Davis Winters now recommends: The Roots of Canned Heat, released by the UK label Catfish.

To learn about some of the most significant influences on Canned Heat’s extant classic-era work, Roots of Canned Heat is an excellent starting point. It provides an overview of specific songs used as sources by the band. To dig deeper, you can then seek out more works by the individual artists represented here. These include all the luminaries such as Charley Patton, Skip James, Tommy Johnson, and even the obscure such as Barefoot Bill.

A little web research left Alanologists uncertain whether Catfish Records is still in business. However, the CD is still available through Rebecca Davis Winters says, “Thanks to Alanologist Sean Kaye-Smith, who sent me this excellent CD; his kindness and constant Alanological diligence is deeply appreciated.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Alan Wilson, Blind Owl and Tree Man

Alan Wilson is known as the "Blind Owl" of Canned Heat. However, history has mostly forgotten that he was also known as "Tree Man". This nickname was recorded in a few pop journals of the time during interviews with the band. It of course derives from Alan's deep and abiding love for trees, plants, and other green denizens of the natural world.

While this clipping is from a foreign magazine, and is sadly not intact, it informs us that Al Wilson "is also known as Tree Man".

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Weirdest Alan Links Ever?

Here are a couple of web pages with content about Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. Alanologist Rebecca Davis Winters calls these items “among the strangest Wilson-related writings I’ve seen lately”.

This page features writing by one Salvador Astucia. He offers a unique theory on Alan’s death, hinting that foul play could be read into the situation given the detail – or lack thereof – offered by drummer Fito de la Parra in his Canned Heat memoir Living the Blues. He attempts to analyze the stories that have been told of Alan’s death scene; however, his analysis is hindered by his lack of real knowledge of the band members and their lives.

In general, Astucia’s website appears to be a front for anti-Semitic drivel. Davis Winters says, “This person’s writing is so bad that I cannot bring myself to read much of it. What I have seen seems to have one primary point, and that is to propagate political paranoia and propaganda regarding former President Kennedy and the country Israel. It is interesting that he feels Alan’s death is part of some political plot, but I don’t think his particular theory holds much water. Admittedly, my own findings indicate that there is far more to Alan’s death than mainstream pop history had recorded prior to the publication of Blind Owl Blues. However, I don’t think that politics, JFK or Israel has anything to do with it.”

This page, then, is not endorsed or particularly recommended by leading Alanologists. However, it’s best to know what is being written about Our Hero; therefore we present the link so that individual Alan-fans can consider the matter for themselves.

We also have found a blog entitled “Follow the Money”. This author presents a somewhat different conspiracy theory centering around deaths of Laurel Canyon residents.

This author’s ultimate conclusion, if any, is obscure and as with most extremists, the writing is hard to read as it rambles on somewhat. However, it is again best for Alanologists to familiarize themselves with this material, since it is “out there” for public consumption.

Neither of these pages are particularly enlightening. However, they do signify one important fact, and that is that Alan Wilson’s death was too easily “written off” as a suicide. Leading Alanologists know that it’s time for the facts of the matter to be told.

To start understanding what really happened on the night the Blind Owl died, go to and get your copy of Blind Owl Blues today. There, you can read the autopsy and police report, along with verbal accounts from those who encountered Alan just before his last walk up the hill in Bob Hite’s backyard… along with, equally important, the reality of Alan’s life and mental state and his interactions with fellow members of Canned Heat. Alanologists, don’t listen to the shrieks and brays of extremists… get the facts and come to your own conclusions.