JOHNNY HARPER,
LIGHT OF A NEW DAY

Joy Street Records 1001

Except as noted, all songs written by Johnny Harper   
© Dream State Music BMI.

1. LIGHT OF A NEW DAY   4:55

2. WORK WITH WHAT YOU GOT   4:25

3. BURNIN’ UP   4:25

4. NOTHIN’ BUT A PARTY   4:20

5. LOVE’S LITTLE UPS AND DOWNS   4:05

6. GOT ME A NEW LOVE THING (Allen Toussaint)   3:50  

7. LOAFIN’ ON THE WATER   5:27

8. I FOUND MY HOME (IN YOUR HEART)   4:35

9. GUMBO BLUES   5:25  

10. NINE LIVES   5:20

11. THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND (Woody Guthrie)   4:25

12. IF THE GOOD LORD’S WILLING   4:30

13. HANG TOUGH / DON’T STOP NOW
            
(Allen Toussaint / Pat Macdonald)   5:00

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Recorded at CryLove Studio, Danville CA.  Engineering (& musical wisdom) John Baker. 

(Additional overdubs/ mixing at Whip Records, Berkeley CA; Megasonic Sound, Oakland CA; and Shine On Studio, Oakland CA.)

Mixed by Johnny Harper with David Landon at Whip and David Hughes at Shine On.

 

PRODUCED BY JOHNNY HARPER

Lead vocals & all guitars:  Johnny Harper
Backing vocals:  Timm Walker, Fred Ross, Sue McCracklin, Maureen Smith
Drums:  Rick Alegria  

Bass:  Martin Holland, Timm Walker, Jesse Strauss
Piano & organ:  John R. Burr.  Additional rhythm part on no 3: Neal Roston
Saxophone:  Jim Peterson (“Dr. Grit”).  Trumpet:  Dave Scott
On no. 12: Pedal steel guitar: Bobby Black.  Fiddle: Richard Chon
Backing vocals:  Kathy Kallick, Richard Brandenburg
All arrangements, including horn arrangements, by Johnny Harper

Looking for the Light

This music grows out of a lifetime dedicated to the joy and richness of America’s folk/ roots musical traditions – blues, gospel, folk songs, old-time country music, R&B, rock and roll, soul, funk, New Orleans music of many kinds, Cajun, and zydeco music, and more.

The stories and sources of the individual songs are discussed below. But I’d like to say something extra about the title song, “Light of a New Day.”

I wrote this song over 10 years ago. It was directly inspired by Martin Luther King’s great 1967 speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” Ain which he took a courageous stand against the Vietnam war. He said that “we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” must turn away from a materialistic focus towards one of care and compassion for our brothers and sisters around the world. Writing the song some 35 years later, I felt how far short we had fallen of his vision of a humane spiritual revolution in American values. I felt I needed to say to my listeners, there is still hope – we can still find our way to the light of a new day – but that “we’d better talk about it now, while we’ve still got time.”

As I release the song on disc now, in 2017, I do so in a time when our country has taken a terrible turn towards the dark side. Increasingly since the late 1970s this nation has fallen under the control of a tiny minority, a super-rich oligarchy who care only for increasing their own already staggering wealth at the expense of the well-being of our people and our planet.

And their power has only grown greater in recent years. The many, many good and talented people who work for a better, fairer world do give us hope and inspiration. But the odds are badly stacked against us now, and I fear for the future of our country and of humankind.

In the face of odds that can seem overwhelming, we have to keep going, work with what we’ve got, keep trying to find a path to a better way. Woody Guthrie’s words on this album remind us that this great country belongs to all of it people, not just the rich and powerful. And Allen Toussaint tells us: hang tough! Never give up! Keep on pushin’, keep your eyes on the dream, keep reaching for the light…

The Songs

 

Light of a New Day A little more on my title song. Aretha Franklin was a major influence on the song musically. She, and the whole gospel tradition – an influence you can feel in several songs on this album. Aretha herself used to write the fabulous backing vocal phrases on her early Atlantic classics – had the “Respect” arrangement all worked out before Atlantic even signed her. I certainly had her in mind as I wrote the vocal parts for this song. Sue McCracklin does a fabulous job singing all the harmony parts and gospel moans here.

Work With What You Got owes a big debt of thanks to the music of the Meters, the definitive New Orleans funk band. The second verse (“down here at the Corner”) was inspired by experiences at a real place in New Orleans (now long gone, alas) – Joe’s Kozy Korner in the Treme District, where I used to see young musicians gather with their instruments to learn the New Orleans brass band style from their fathers and older brothers. The third verse (“this world’s in a bad condition”) tells it like it is, about the hard and weird times we’re living in.  

Burnin’ Up was written in one long session on December 25th, 1986. It was the breakthrough for me as a songwriter – the song that showed me, after years of study and hard work, that I’d reached a point where I could write songs that were worth keeping, worth performing. Several other “keeper” songs, were written in the next six months. Others on this album are much more recent. “Burnin’ Up,” in an extended rave-up version, has been the big finish, the climax number, of many great sets I’ve played with my bands over the years.

Nothin’ But A Party was partly inspired by Louis Jordan, and partly by the wild ’n’ crazy duo Don and Dewey. And of course, by lots of wild nights in lots of rowdy joints!

Got Me A New Love Thing: As far as I know, there is no recording of Allen Toussaint singing this song. It appeared on a little-known album he produced in 1998 by the fine New Orleans trumpet player and singer, James Andrews. The song seems whimsical and light-hearted but actually expresses something very deep about the New Orleans spirit: the idea that no matter how tough a time you may be having, you find a reason to celebrate. Sue McCracklin and Maureen Smith add so much to the party with their soulful ad-libs.

Loafin’ on the Water was inspired by a song which I remember hearing as a child, but have never been able to trace. I put the sung words and music together in the mid-’80s, and then the spoken story gradually grew in the telling over years of performing it with my bands. A trance, a dream, a journey down into the deep heart of the old South… Still magic for me whenever I sing it.  

I Found My Home Written in one afternoon, years ago, under the spell of a new love. Hearing it now, I hear the influence of the great Brill Building writers, the great Southern soul writers.

Gumbo Blues borrows its title, and one key phrase, from a song by the great New Orleans singer Smiley Lewis, who recorded on Imperial from 1947 to 1956. It also borrows two theme phrases from a well-known song Robert Johnson recorded in 1936 – but he, in turn, borrowed the lines from an earlier song by Kokomo Arnold, and so it goes. In this song, I had an opportunity to say a few of the things I love about New Orleans, based on my own experiences there.

I’d like to mention the specific source of one line: “You can see it in the way they walk, they got a certain groove just walkin’ ’round town.” In 1977 my friend Les Blank filmed a great interview with Danny Barker and his wife Blue Lu Barker. Most of the interview, sadly, remains unissued, but Les showed it all to me in his office one night. In it, Danny – a great and wise man, a great hero of New Orleans music – says you can tell someone is from New Orleans just by the way they walk: with more rhythm, more groove. I’m glad I got to quote him here. Thanks and praise to Danny for all his great work.

Nine Lives: Reckless adventures, hairs-breadth escapes… Tall tale? Modern myth? True confession? “There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth… I never seen anybody but lied one time or another…” – Huckleberry Finn

This Land Is Your Land: Woody Guthrie wrote this song in 1940, and wrote all the verses I sing – including the three much less well-known, more politically charged verses I feature here. They cast a clear light on what Woody was really saying in the song: that this country belongs to all of us, not just the rich and powerful. This message is even more relevant, more important today than it was back then.

I made one small, intentional change in Woody’s verse about the wall. He had the sign reading “private property” – I sang it “company property.” I think if Woody was here now, seeing the uncontrolled role the big corporations have taken on in our time, he might sing it that way too.

If the Good Lord’s Willing was inspired by live-performance recordings of the great Hank Williams, who used to tell his audience at the end of the show, “Well, friends, we got to leave you now, but if the good Lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll be back to see you again.” I thought I heard a song in that line, and eventually I found it. I get to say so many nice things in this song, about our struggles and our journey through life, that I felt I had to include it here, even though the country sound is a departure from the rest of the record.

Hang Tough, another Allen Toussaint song, appears on another little-known album, Crescent City Gold from 1994, on which Allen sings it with Dr. John. The album is a joint effort spotlighting several veteran New Orleans artists, including the great drummer Earl Palmer in what I believe was his last recording date. I’ve also heard Allen perform the song live occasionally. I wish he was here now to hear the bodacious second-line drum feel Rick Alegria adds to this version, and the extra flairs and flourishes I wrote into the horn arrangement.  

The arrangement here combines Allen’s song with one by Pat Macdonald, “Don’t Stop Now,” which is sung in its entirety as an a capella chant towards the end of the performance. That song appeared in 1988 on Eden Alley, the second album by Pat’s great band Timbuk3, active from ca. 1985-1995. Pat’s an amazing artist who should be much better known. The moment I heard “Hang Tough,” I felt that it and Pat’s song were two of a kind and would fit perfectly together. They give me the album’s closing theme statement for the tough times we’re living in. Hang tough, y’all! Don’t stop now… never give up!

Johnny’s thanks…

First, to all the great musicians who played and sang on this album.

And… to Sharyn Dimmick for loving and singing “our song.” To Deborah Blackburn for many years of encouragement; to the great Prof. Reid Mitchell; to my life-changing English teacher Nat Reynolds. Special thanks to Jennifer Jolly for her many great contributions to this body of music. And to numerous past band musicians who have helped in the growth of these songs – especially to Jim Peterson, who has worked with me for 30 years, to Marty Holland, and to Jason Bartulis. Personal thanks also to Sarah Schneider, Gavin Jones, Barbara Dane, Larry Miller & Mary Kelly, Eric Danysh & Ava Charney, Harry Yaglijian.

Also to the remarkable family I grew up in: to Art for gifts beyond measure, to Marion for loving “Forever Young,” David for requesting “I Bid You Goodnight,” Peter for inspiring my version of “This Land,” and to Lucy for loving my father and my stories.