As the title suggests, this blog entry is about the song, “Out On a Western Plain”. In particular, Rory Gallagher’s (1948-1995) version recorded in 1975. It became a concert favorite as a mid-show acoustic guitar feature. It gave Rory a chance to slow down the beat and break up the full-bore electric songs that he was perhaps best known for. I find this version of the song to be the most intriguing and haunting that I’ve heard. Rory based his on perhaps the best-known version by Folk music legend, Lead Belly (born Huddle Leadbetter 1888-1949). He has cited him as one of his biggest early musical influences. His ‘sound’: booming bass runs, stomping beat and wry storytelling – came through in may of his own songs. Yet here we find Rory put his own unique twist on it (as Lead Belly himself did).
Firstly, his version employs a non-standard guitar tuning called DADGAD (referring to the notes the guitar string are tuned to). This gives the sound a suspenseful feeling that occasionally Rory resolves and/or goes major and minor thus altering the mood from slightly rowdy to foreboding. I call it ‘mystical Blues’. This guitar tuning was being used in Traditional Folk music circles in Britain and Ireland starting in the 1960s, particularly by guitarist Davey Graham (sometimes dubbed ‘Baroque Folk’). The idea was based on American guitarist Doc Watson, who in the 1950s made a name for himself playing traditional Appalachian fiddle music on the guitar. Re-interpreting Irish, Scottish and English songs that were traditionally played on fiddles, flutes and bagpipes to the guitar became more common. Techniques such hammer-ons, pull-off and string bending combined with the open chord tuning reproduced the ‘crans’, slurs and ‘trills’ of the other instruments very well. Also, the harp is prominent in Celtic music and plucking, and the strings ringing open gives a ‘drone’ note to play melodies over. In this manner, Rory fingerpicks a steady pattern rather than emphasizing a plodding sound on the ‘1’ and ‘3’ beat (as in Country music). Since Rory was Irish, this gives rise to the notion he ‘is reaching back’ to his own personal roots (as a Bard?) while re-interpreting an American Folk song that itself was re-imagined by Lead Belly.
Lead Belly’s best-known version was recorded in 1943 on Folkways records. He had been singing it for well over fifteen years at that point. His is loosely based on an old Cowboy song called, “The Old Chisholm Trail” (recorded by many a famous ‘singing cowboy’: Rory Rogers, Gene Autry, et al.) It it believed to have been written sometime in the early 1870s. It featured the “Come a cow-cow yucky / Come a cow-cow yicky, yicky yeah” line. Another more recent song, “The Sporting Cowboy” included the phrase “When I was a cowboy…”. The fact that the lyrics are not historically correct doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the mood that counts. Perhaps it was as a parody of exaggerated cowboy themes of ‘The Wild West’. Either way, Rory’s version lends itself to a more timeless, slightly surreal telling of the story. The tuning also allows Rory to add a few different chords not normally used in traditional Folk music during the instrumental part. The added percussion, while not specifically indentified, sounds like tom-toms being played with mallets like Native American Pow-Wow music. What sounds like small Tibetan hand cymbals occasionally chime in. Rory adds a delicate electric slide guitar doubling the melody, which is a nice contrast to how slide guitar can/is generally used (crashing tones, edgy notes) and then, eventually, a droning organ comes creeping over the musical horizon and the song simply fades away.