It’s been a long day’s journey into the delta for Randy Kaplan. For more than a decade, Randy has mixed and merged humorous storytelling with an affection for traditional delta blues. That might not seem as delectable a snack combo as peanut butter and chocolate. But the distinctive Kaplan touch allows adults to snicker at references to Joan Didion while kids laugh at slide whistle sound effects (in a modernization of “Little Brown Jug,” a song that dates back to 1869).
Randy’s love of the blues is tangible, his persona is affable, and the results are laughable – for all ages – on Shake It and Break It, his latest release. The educator in Kaplan (a much-credentialed teacher) can’t resist giving deep background on the origins of his songs (giving shout-outs to Charlie Patton on the title track and Blind Blake of “Doing a Stretch”).
Randy is flexible at adapting material for younger listeners. “Doing a Stretch” was originally about serving time in prison. In this new incarnation, narrator Kaplan does a series of body-contortion exercises, accompanied by the aforementioned sound effects. Blind Boy Fuller’s “Been Your Dog” comes straight from the pooch’s mouth – with a canine-voiced verse, to boot. It’s an appropriate song to hear on a car ride from New Jersey to Queens – heading for the Long Island Expressway as you hear it described in song. Family dynamics are investigated in comic detail in “From Four Until Late,” as Randy recounts spending weeks with his grandma when his parents would go away on seemingly endless trips. And the stripped-down version of the classic “Swinging on A Star” features singing donkeys and fish and a Google-worthy mention of Carol Dweck (I did it for you).
My folks were keen on introducing me to classical and folk music using TUBBY THE TUBA and WOODY GUTHRIE FOR KIDS. Randy follows through on this template for delta blues, renewing the works of Mississippi John Hurt (“Candy Man Blues”) as well as the better-known John Lee Hooker. Part of the fun is trying to recall the original intent (and lyrics) that Kaplan appropriates to get across his versions. A six-minute “Little Brown Jug” closes the collection with a literal cavalcade of references that require the assistance of Siri, Alexa, or your friendly neighborhood scholar. And yes, an acknowledgement of Mance Lipscomb, who started recording delta blues in the 1960s.
Shake It and Break It is a throwback to early Kaplan releases like Five Cent Piece, with sparse arrangements showcasing an acoustic guitar and vocals, and a stray harmonica solo offering counterpoint. Listeners get ample aural and entertainment value, plus a level-headed offering of information about why the delta blues remains so enticing to performers like Randy. And why the genre still has the ability to entrance a new generation of listeners.
Here is the video for Randy’s song “Crew Cut”: