THE TAMLINS / “Baltimore”
I don’t know why The Tamlins—a harmony trio who hail from the island of Jamaica—decided to do a reggae version of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.” Throughout the 19th century, Baltimore, Maryland was the second-largest city in America (after New York) and, according to Wikipedia, Baltimore was still in the Top 10 as late as 1970. Today, Baltimore remains among the Top 20 most populous American cities, but it’s not exactly New York, L.A. or Chicago…or even New Orleans. Meaning, it’s doubtful that many non-Americans have any idea where or what Baltimore is. Like I said, I really don’t know, but I suspect that either The Tamlins or Sly & Robbie (who produced the session) got the idea to remake “Baltimore” reggae-style after hearing Nina Simone’s version, itself a sort of bluesy reggae-lite version. Nina’s version is the title track of an album of covers (Baltimore, CTI - 1978) that Nina has reputedly disowned as something she churned out merely to complete a contractual obligation. Nina’s apparent disregard for her version of “Baltimore” notwithstanding, I love it. The subtlety of her vocal performance, the impudence of the slinky groove—which refuses to decide whether it wants to be funky reggae or reggae-fied funk—and, of course, Newman’s lyrics, all of it makes for a great record. Two years later, Carlton Hines, Junior Moore and Derrick Lara, BKA The Tamlins, upped the ante with a soaring vocal performance that is as desperately impassioned as Nina’s is mournful and resigned. The Tamlins have recorded a few albums, but in Jamaica at least, they’re best known as backup singers (most famously for Peter Tosh). Their version (originally released as a 1980 single, but best heard as part of the superlative Darker Than Blue compilation) is the first one I heard and I have to admit that, at the time, I had no idea what the song was about. I never imagined that the ‘Baltimore’ in question was the American city. Instead, I assumed that it must be some little town or neighborhood in Jamaica. And, I wondered, what was this about seagulls and ‘my little brother Greg’ and living out in the country? Sure, the Tamlins’ mix of raw blues and soothing harmony was enough to pull me in every time, but as to what they were actually going on about, I was lost. Now, back to Randy Newman. After the hurricane (Katrina), I remember repeatedly hearing Randy’s tune “Louisiana 1927” with its haunting refrain, “Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away.” (Newman likes to write about places, apparently; he’s got another tune named “Birmingham,” still another named “Dayton, Ohio - 1903” and of course there’s the jingle-like but sarcastic one we all know named “I Love L.A.”) I was impressed by the way Randy’s lyrics spelled out some things and left other things for you to figure out on your own. “The river rose all day,” he sings in “Louisana,” “The river rose all night / Some people got lost in the flood / Some people got away all right.” Randy never actually does spell out the differences between the kinds of people who “got away all right” and the kinds of people who didn’t, but if you can’t figure that out on your own—especially after all of the Katrina footage—I’m not sure that him coming right out and saying it would help any. But I’ve gotten waaaay off-track. The point is, it was then (after the hurricane) that I figured out that the same Randy Newman who authored “Louisiana” was also responsible for writing one of my favorite reggae tunes, The Tamlins’ “Baltimore.” So I tracked down the original (from Randy Newman’s Little Criminals album, Warner Bros. - 1977) and, upon hearing it, I’ll be damned if I didn’t finally understand what the song was about! “Baltimore”—to greatly oversimplify things—is a eulogy to a city, a post-mortem on Seventies-era white flight, a blues. Randy is singing about a harbor city so run-down that the “beat-up little seagulls” can’t find their way back to sea, where drunks and hookers block the sidewalks, where young people dream of the day that they can pack up and head for the country, swearing “I’m never coming back here until the day I die.” In later years, apparently, Randy Newman has commented that he wrote “Baltimore” after only a brief visit there and that he wishes he hadn’t written such a bleak description of a city he didn’t really know. Also, one has to keep in mind that it wasn’t just Baltimore—the late Sixties/early Seventies in America was a period of dramatic and widespread race- and class-based urban upheaval. Scores of thriving, working-class communities—including the Claiborne Avenue corridor in New Orleans—were destroyed by city planners and politics. White flight, and later, black middle-class flight, greatly exacerbated the situation. It was a classic case of self-fulfilling prophesy, of the solution creating the problem: all over the country, the powers-that-be decided to build freeways to connect the newly-built suburban areas (where young white professionals were relocating) to the urban centers (where the work was). Problem was, they repeatedly built their freeways right through vibrant—though certainly not well-to-do—neighborhoods and with no regard for the black, brown and working-class white people (recent immigrants, usually) who lived there. Neighborhood after neighborhood died. The result was “Baltimore.” These days, via the process we’ve come to know as ‘gentrification,’ young whites and upwardly mobile blacks are moving back into these previously devastated neighborhoods. In the process, they’re displacing all those drunks and hookers and regular working class people who’ve been scratching out a life there for all these years. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. Anyhow, according to my baby sister, who lives in and owns real estate in Baltimore, Baltimore is no different. Real estate prices are skyrocketing, everything’s being remodeled everywhere, and there’s a brand-spankin’-new Starbucks on every corner. And, for what it’s worth, I spent a little time in Baltimore about five years ago and found it to be a cold and disagreeable place populated by surly people with crappy attitudes. But that’s just me. —Mtume ya Salaam Which way, Sherlock? Sherlock Holmes rides again, except this time he’s headed backwards. I like the Tamlins version a lot but I’m still crazy about Nina’s deconstruction of urban renewal gone to rust. I'm especially enamored of how deeply Nina plummets the emotional depths. On a similar note, you know the Tamlins could have been singing beautifully about the urban frontier of Kingston—one of the most violent cities in the western hemisphere. Other than the above mild sarcasm, my contribution to this week’s cover is a Sly & Robbie dub version of “Baltimore.” Ain’t it hard, ain’t it hard.... —Kalamu ya Salaam PS: That Darker Than Blue compilation album is one savory treat of great roots reggae with a conscious. Folk might want to check it out.
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