David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 278: Cassandra Wilson (Last Train To Clarksville)

August 26, 2023

And now I begin a train trilogy. Rather appropriate, as my grandfather worked for the Great Northern Railway, my father collected antique model trains, and some of my closest friends have been known to spend hours at the YouTube channel showing 24/7 live shots from the famous Horseshoe Curve near Altoona, Pennsylvania. Let's just say that train obsessions have circled dangerously close around my life.

Today we take the last train to Clarksville, but not with the Monkees.

Even though I enjoy seeing Jazz music live, I have never particularly taken to it on record or CD. So much of the fun that is visual is removed when the music goes from a club or a bandstand and ends up on a recording. Because I had friends who were into Jazz while I was at Bloomington, I did have a couple of Jazz compilations on CD that I would occasionally play, but somewhere in the various moves to and across Michigan, I have misplaced those compositions, leaving me with only Cassandra Wilson's New Moon Daughter as my only Jazz CD.

I only have this CD because Wilson covered a number of pretty cool artists for about half of the songs on the CD, and I almost certainly bought it simply for her cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon," the appropriate closing song on a CD named after the curative processes of a new moon. Whether I really dipped my toes into Jazz with this purchase is up for debate, as many criticized Wilson for abandoning the purer Jazz found on her previous 10 or so albums for a poppier sound, which seems a bizarre accusation for an album beginning with a stark rendition of the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit." In fact, if anything New Moon Daughter was going to be a treasure grove of strange fruit.

Interestingly, as I remember, many mostly criticized her choice to cover The Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," which I suppose was deemed to be the bad apple in the bunch of songs. Such criticism seemed a bit harsh to me. If you were going to cover any Monkees' song, it better be "Last Train To Clarksville." It's not like she went all Smash Mouth and covered "I'm A Believer."

Her rendition of "Last Train To Clarksville" feels like the jazziest thing on New Moon DaughterTaking a pure pop classic, in some ways as manufactured as any song/group has ever been, and delivering it in a minor key, adding scat where the original added harmonies, is the kind of risk one associates with free-form Jazz. Whereas The Monkees produced a song crisp with guitars and piano, Wilson's version gives us sound effects and an uneasy back beat via the drums. The Monkees' Clarksville sounds like a pleasant rural village; Wilson's sounds like a stop on the New York City Transit system, a place you only go if you have to go there. Where The Monkees fill out the song with orchestrated harmonies, Wilson scats her way between verses and chorus, a slow hum of the train wheels whereas The Monkees were the loud clackety-clack. Her lengthy coda brings a whole new sexual urgency to the lyrics, whether it is her repeated "don't be slow/don't be slow," her insertion of a "daddy" into the lyrics, or finally her husky "gotta go/gotta go," right as she's, well, gotta go.

It's a pretty appropriate departure from a woman who defended her choices even though she knew they offended the "jazz police."1

In the end, The Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville" is the express train, dropping us off before we even have a chance to work our way to the beverage car; Wilson's "Last Train To Clarksville" is a much slower, leisurely trip, the kind where you might have a chance to chat up the sultry-voiced woman sitting across the carriage.

1Henderson, Julia Lowrie. "Cassandra Wilson Sings One More Song For Lady Day." The World. 19 March, 2015. https://theworld.org/stories/2015-03-19/cassandra-wilson-sings-one-last-song-lady-day  Retrieved August 13, 2023.

Wilson, Cassandra. "Last Train To Clarksville." New Moon Daughter. Blue Note, 1995. Link here.

Day 277: Steppenwolf "Magic Carpet Ride"

Day 279: Robbie Robertson "Between Trains"

See complete list here.