Sunday, December 30, 2012

In Memoriam: Mike Auldridge



[purchase solo works from Mike Auldridge here]

Like most players of the resophonic guitar - popularly called the Dobro, though as with Kleenex and Band-Aid, the term technically refers to a trademarked brand, originally coined by the instrument's inventor in 1928, and now produced exclusively by the Gibson corporation - Mike Auldridge got his start as a guitar player.

And to be honest, if he had remained a guitar player, we'd probably never have heard of him.

But while many who play the instrument treat it as an extension of their other fretwork, or treat it like a kind of overly-expensive slide guitar with high-tech acoustic innards (and play it that way), Auldridge saw something both unique and potent in the potential of the instrument as a lead voice, rather than just a session supplement. After Brother Oswald, who rescued the Dobro from obscurity with his work with Roy Acuff in the '40s and '50s, and after Auldridge's mentor Josh Graves came along and took the thing to another level as a bluegrass mainstay, Auldridge's subsequent pursuit of Dobro mastery, and his prodigious output on it both as a solo musician and as an integral part of the rising newgrass scene, with its fusion of bluegrass with jazz, folk and rock, brought the instrument to a new prominence in and beyond the bluegrass and country worlds.

In this, Auldridge joins a quite small group of musicians and craftspersons who almost single-handedly pushed their chosen instrument into a wholly new level of cultural and musical relevance. To say he made a huge splash as a musician in the last third of the 20th century is therefore both accurate, and a serious understatement of his impact on music.

That Auldridge's path to greatness - for himself, and for the Dobro - was so painstakingly slow is a tribute to his patience and his talent. For such recognition was neither easy nor instantaneous; indeed, although he was born in 1938, and was already playing the instrument by the fifties, Auldridge worked as a graphic designer full-time until well into the seventies, when his work with seminal newgrass group the Seldom Scene - a band which he co-founded in 1971 in the Maryland basement of banjo-player and mathematician Ben Eldridge - became popular enough to support full-time touring and recording.

Later, he would be a featured musician on albums by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Patty Loveless, and found newgrass offshoot Chesapeake with several other Seldom Scene members when it became clear that the collaborative nature of the group would always be subservient to the leadership of John Duffey. He recorded numerous solo cuts and albums designed as instructional showpieces for the instrument, each of which sports great beauty and clarity while demonstrating the potential of the resophonic guitar as a lead instrument and voice. He won a Grammy for his work on The Dobro Sessions, and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow in 2012. But although his solo work, as heard above, is quite beautiful, it is his work with The Seldom Scene for which he is best remembered, and as such, it is one of my favorite Seldom Scene songs which I have posted below in his honor today - check it out before we keep going, for both a clear shot at Duffey's camera-hogging approach to performance, and for Aldridge's solo, a wild ride which starts at 2:26, and lasts a full minute.


[purchase the Seldom Scene studio album of the same name]

Although choosing to stay in and around his native Maryland surely had some impact on his ability to spread the gospel of the Dobro, Auldridge famously never moved to Nashville, preferring even in his strongest decades to wait for others to invite him to tour and play on their records. But when he passed away just yesterday, he left a legacy nonetheless: one in which his own songs and sounds stand firm as a testament to greatness, and in which - thanks to his own work, and to his mentorship of other, younger masters of the instrument, such as Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes - his chosen Dobro has become a core component of contemporary acoustic music, both as a central element of the bluegrass sound, and as a familiar staple in other related genres, from folk to country rock.

In Memoriam: Davy Jones

 
YouTube copy of the "Official" video for the Monkees' "I'm A Believer"


In the mid to late 60s, I had a transistor radio (about the size of a fat iPhone) that received short wave frequencies. One of the stations I could pick up (it came and went/faded so that it sounded like a sine wave) was Radio Luxemburg – I was able to hear about ½ of any song. I have since learned that it was a “pirate” station: a ship stationed off-shore of England that broadcast its playlist “illegally”. Many years later (think” Jimi Hendrix”), I found it difficult to admit that I actually liked the Monkees. However, 40 years down the line, as I look back and research the times/history, I realize that I shouldn’t feel so bad: I am one of millions who propelled their music to the top of the charts.

 

The story behind the Monkees is unique. Originally intended as a TV show, they ended up surprising everyone. They were initially not permitted to play their own music/instruments. They were shuffled around various instrumental roles by management trying to maximize revenue. Dolnez, the lead vocalist of this piece, was not a drummer until his “handlers” decreed so. In the clip, Mike Nesmith plays the guitar. The February 2012 deceased who this post pays respect to is Davy Jones, dead at the relatively early age of 66. In the video clip above, Jones does backup vocals and tambourine. In many other Monkees’ hits, he did the lead vocals.

In Memoriam: Michael Dunford


Renaissance: Mr. Pine

[purchase]

When I looked at the list of musicians who died in 2012, there were a number of famous names from  diverse genres, many of whose talents I appreciated, but none of them jumped out at me. Then I was reminded that Michael Dunford, best known for his work with Renaissance, had recently died. Coincidently, I had recently downloaded a number of early Renaissance songs, and had delved into the very complicated history of that great and often overlooked prog-rock band.

The (somewhat) short version is that a band called Renaissance was formed by Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, two of the members of The Yardbirds who didn’t later become guitar legends. That band also included Relf’s sister Jane on vocals, and it released a self-titled album in 1969. That album is a fusion of rock, folk and classical music. Over the next couple of years, the band went through a whirlwind of changes while touring and working on a second album.

During this period, Michael Dunford joined the band as a guitarist and songwriter, and ultimately, a second album, “Illusion,” was released. Dunford contributed “Mr. Pine” to that album, which is usually referred to as the least known in the band’s discography. Frankly, if you are reading this blog, I expect that you are interested in lesser known music—if you want to read about the late Whitney Houston, there are probably lots of places to look. The lead singer on this song is Terry Crowe, and Jane Relf (who has a beautiful voice, if not as spectacular as that of her better-known successor) sings backup. It isn’t a bad song, with three sections, and a nice keyboard solo by guest Don Shinn. Dunford used a theme from “Mr. Pine” in a later, more well-known song, “Running Hard.”

The revolving door continued for Renaissance, with Dunford as one of the few constants. In 1971, the band’s manager, Miles Copeland (probably better known for starting the new wave label I.R.S. Records and for being the brother of The Police’s drummer) reorganized the band around virtuoso singer Annie Haslam, who had joined the touring band earlier that year and had split vocals with Crowe, who was booted, and pianist John Tout. Dunford was replaced as guitarist, and focused on composing. The resulting album, “Prologue,” has the sound that I think most people identify as Renaissance, and is often confusingly referred to as the band’s first album (even by members of the band and on its website). Dunford rejoined Renaissance as a musician for the next album, “Ashes Are Burning,” and was a part of the group through their period of greatest popularity (including when I saw them back when I was in high school).

Like many of their contemporaries, when faced with the changes in the musical landscape of the late 70’s and early 80’s, Renaissance tried to strip down their sound, but unlike, say, Genesis, their attempts were commercially unsuccessful, leading to another revolving door and disbanding. At one point, both Haslam and Dunford had bands called Renaissance, and a drummer, Terry Sullivan, had a band called Renaissant. Starting in the late 90’s, Dunford and Haslam toured (mostly together) with various lineups under the Renaissance name. And to make things even more confusing, during the late 70’s, members of the original Renaissance re-formed as Illusion, releasing a few albums, including one called “Illusion,” that was different from the album “Illusion” released by Renaissance, and in 2001 released an album as Renaissance Illusion. Got that?

A new Renaissance album featuring both Haslam and Dunford, entitled “Grandine il Vento,” was funded through Kickstarter and should be released in 2013. Dunford’s songs for the “classic” Renaissance lineup were fusions of rock, folk, jazz and classical music which some might find a bit over the top. But to those of us who appreciate the ambition of prog-rock, they were remarkable and memorable.

In Memoriam: Ravi Shankar

[purchase this for a good introduction to Ravi Shankar‘s music]

The headline in the New York Times read, “Ravi Shankar, Sitarist Who Introduced Indian Music to the West, Dies at 92”. All perfectly true. Shankar blasted away musical boundaries, working with classical, jazz, and pop musicians in the West, and also engaging all kinds of audiences. I could go on about his importance, but I think a personal anecdote will cover it nicely.

It was the late sixties. I was the youngest of three brothers who were firm in our devotion to rock music. In particular, my oldest brother, at that age, was sure that he was going to be the next Eric Clapton. My parents had us when they were older than most parents in those days especially. So the generation gap was in full force in my family, when it came to music. My parents were amateur classical musicians. My father also remembered the western swing he grew up hearing on the radio in Oklahoma, while my mother grew up on the big band music that was everywhere in her native New York City.

So I have no idea where my father got the idea to take us boys to see Ravi Shankar. It was in New York City, at Carnegie Hall. So that gave it some legitimacy in my father‘s eyes. My oldest brother probably knew of the Beatles connection, so he was OK with it too. I, however, had no idea what I was doing there. Still, I went. I remember the concert as being something like the video I have chosen for this post. I don‘t think there was a video component, but the group was the small one shown, and the sound was the same. The four of us were spellbound. I don‘t remember any of us squirming, or talking, or anything but listening to this amazing new, (to us), music. For a brief interval, there was no generation gap in my family.

For me, that one concert has led to a lifelong fascination with music of the world. In his career, Shankar often worked with East-West fusions of various kinds, but that concert had a purity to it that has been my standard ever since for what world music should be. As I write this, it also occurs to me that that music probably helped me years later when I decided to learn to meditate. I credit Ravi Shankar and his music with all of that, and I can think of no better tribute.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Childhood: Calling My Children Home

Emmylou Harris: Calling My Children Home

[purchase]

My prayers go out to the community of Newtown, CT. In a recent bluegrass jam, I sang a rendition of "God Loves His Children" which I had learned from Flatt and Scruggs’ recordings of 1948-59. The gospel song wasn’t quite the same without an a cappella quartet and driven by Scruggs’ fingerpicked lead guitar work. It’s also difficult for some to make sense of the line in that song which states, “He will protect you anywhere you go.” If that’s true, why does he allow bad things to happen? One must consult the Bible for the answer and realize that God does allow bad things to happen, but there’s also a big difference between allowing those things to happen and causing them. God has his reasons, and he doesn’t have to explain them to us.

In any case, for this week’s theme, I’ve chosen another gospel song which I also like to sing entitled "Calling My Children Home." It has these simple but profound lines:

I live my life, my love I gave them,
To guide them through this world of strife.
I hope and pray we’ll live together,
In that great land here after life.

I can only imagine the grief and suffering which the people of Newtown are experiencing. Emmylou Harris dedicated her 1998 performance of the song to her close friend, bass-player Roy Huskey, who had passed on a few months before. Today, I dedicate it to those children, teachers and administrators who tragically died in Newtown. “I’d brave life’s storm, defy the tempest. To bring them home from anywhere.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Childhood: Kid’s Prayer



Dan Bern: Kid’s Prayer
[purchase City Folk Live X]
[Download the song from Bern’s Bandcamp page]

I am breaking my “no repeat” guideline this week, to post my second Dan Bern song, “Kid’s Prayer,” because it seems to be the most fitting song for this theme this week. I believe that the only official release of this song on CD was on WFUV’s City Folk II compilation from 1999, and re-released on the City Folk X disc in 2007. Bern recently posted it on Bandcamp for download with a “name your price” tag.

This song is Dan Bern at his most powerful. It was written after a school shooting in Arkansas in 1998. (Note-most of the information on the Internet says that it was written in response to a shooting in Oregon, which is what I originally wrote.  But Corny O'Connell, a DJ at WFUV, pointed out that Bern performed the song on the station in March, 1998--6 days after the Arkansas shooting, and a couple of months before the one in Oregon. Take a look here. So, I stand corrected, and reminded that what you read on the Internet is not always accurate) And since then, our country has taken the incredible position that gun laws should be made less stringent, and that an assault weapon ban should be permitted to expire. Thanks to the NRA and spineless politicians from both sides of the aisle.

The Newtown massacre has resulted in another bout of déjà vu. What Bern wrote in 1998 is exactly what I saw on TV over the last few days:

And all the world descends, and offers up their condolence
And offers up their theories what went wrong and who and why and when and how
It's all the killing day and night on television
It's all the movies where violence is as natural as breathing
It's guns and bullets as easily obtainable as candy
It's video games where you kill and begin to think it's real
It's people not having God in their lives anymore
Or it's all of it, or none of it, or some of it, in various combinations

Bern then offers up a secular prayer of his own, which is too long to quote, but the lyrics can be found here. His message is, essentially, treat your kids well and be open and honest with them. Encourage them, but set limits. I understand that much of the reason for the type of horrific incident that happened in Newtown is mental illness, and that no amount of good parenting can prevent that. But it can’t hurt.

And I hope that this incident finally galvanizes the President, Congress and state legislatures to restrict gun ownership. All the statistics that I have read support the argument that fewer guns, less widely available = fewer random shootings. Frankly, if strict gun control prevents just one mass murder (and it would likely prevent many more), I think that would be worth the restriction on the right to bear arms, as it has been (mis)interpreted (in my opinion). Constitutional rights are not absolute. The First Amendment, for example, does not allow unfettered speech.

So, for all of the politicians that read this blog, please get off your asses and do something. And for the non-politicians—tell your representatives to get off their asses and do something. I have, but in a somewhat more polite way.

Childhood: We Are the World

 



[YouTube link: click the image above]


We Are the Children. In my mind, there is no song more to the point of this week’s theme than this. It is at once a celebration of the best of many things: our children/our future and the voices of a collection of some of the best in music.

It is a song of hope and dedication. Hope for a better/brighter future. A dedication of the time and energies of some of our best voices to a purpose that focuses on our best hope for a better future: the next generation.

Part of the essence of Christmas is a celebration of birth: the birth of One who offered and promised a better future: in this world and beyond. And through this birth, we celebrate all births and lives, long or short.

Being that our time in this world is limited -  whether by a random bullet or a pre-ordained calendar that foretells a cataclysm that ends the world – it is up to us to make the most of our days, be they six years or six score years.

To me – and to most of us who live our days through the beauty of music – music is the essence of life. But life without the money to live in comfort and peace is also illusory. Thanks to the energy and dedication of Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie and the musical stars whose names appear on screen in the video, this song helped earned in excess of $10 million dollars for charity and further raised $40 million in donations – much of it directly related to and spent on  issues that affect children (birth control, food and similar humanitarian aid). $50 million dollars wont bring back to life the children and teachers of Newtown, but it did make a small difference for some of the world’s children.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Childhood: The Circle Game

[purchase]

The Circle Game was the first song I thought of to begin this week‘s theme. Joni Mitchell walks us though various stages of childhood, and into adulthood. The song can serve as an overture of sorts for what is to come. I was lucky to chance upon this video. As nearly as I can tell, a sixth grade teacher assigned his class the task of listening to the song, and creating an artwork inspired by a section of the lyrics. These artworks have been matched to their parts of the song in order. The result may not be museum-quality, and you might be tempted to say that Joni Mitchell herself could have painted better ones. She is a fine painter, after all. But these youthful interpretations have a quality that few if any adults can capture, and they honor the song beautifully.

Childhood: A Moment of Silence

As you can see above, our theme this week is Childhood. Before we get to the music, let me offer a moment of silence to honor the children and adults who lost their lives in Newton, Connecticut last week.

The holiday celebrations at this time of year center around activities for children. Indeed, Christmas celebrates the miraculous birth of a child, as did many older celebrations at this time of year. Those celebrations will be harder this year. It is my hope that our songs this week can help our readers find a bridge from the horror of last week to the celebratory mood of next week. Some of the tears shed this week may be ours. I hope you can join us, and I hope it helps.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Holiday Transformations:Holiday Marmalade



Jorma Kaukonen: Holiday Marmalade

[purchase]

I grew up a secular Jew celebrating Hanukkah, and I think that the limit of my celebration was putting a couple of ornaments on a friend’s tree one year. Christmas was really no big deal to me, and the Christmas Industrial Complex had not yet become so ubiquitous. There were a few TV specials, and decorations, but I don’t think that there was such an overwhelming holiday craziness. No radio stations playing holiday music 24/7. No obsessing over “Black Friday.” And certainly no “Cyber Monday.” In fact, my most memorable Christmas was, I think, 1980, when my friend Eric and I split the entire day of programming at WPRB. He did classical, I did jazz. He started off the rock show, we shared the studio for a while, we ordered Chinese food like good Jews, and I closed down the station. We were pretty loopy by the end of the night.

My personal holiday transformation began in 1987 when I attended my first Christmas celebration with my future in-laws. After that first Christmas, it quickly became one of my favorite times of the year, and why shouldn’t it be—I drank, ate, napped and got presents. For a long time, we celebrated with my wife’s aunt, who had converted to Judaism, and her Jewish uncle and cousins, so there was always a number of tribesmen and women on hand. It was never about religion, but about family, and good times, and over the years, the celebration transformed—we started to share cooking and cleaning duties, we added latkes to the traditional ham, we changed locations and participants. And, pertinent to this music blog, I started to take increasing control over the music we listened to.

My in-laws love classical music, like jazz, and are generally ignorant about popular music. They lived in Africa in the early 1960’s, and somehow missed rock n’ roll. I (and my wife) began to include folk and rock Christmas music (and the stray Hanukkah song), until we pretty much took over the playlist completely. Luckily, my in-laws are good sports, and in this respect, are willing to indulge us.

When Jorma Kaukonen released his “Christmas” CD in 1996, I was all over it. I’ve been a fan of his work in Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, and as a solo artist, and “Christmas” immediately became one of my favorite holiday discs. I usually throw it on when I am cooking, and invariably, one of my in-laws will remark about how much they like it—as if they hadn’t heard it every year since 1996. It remains one of their charming quirks.

“Holiday Marmalade” is an 11 and a half minute jam (get it? Marmalade….) with searing blues guitar based loosely on “Silent Night.” It is far from a traditional holiday song, but it somehow works. I find it exhilarating every year.

Interestingly, Jorma has gone through a religious transformation of his own. He is half-Jewish, on his mother’s side, and celebrated Jewish holidays as a child, but that whole 1960’s rock lifestyle pretty much distanced him from his religion (although the first guitar he played in the Airplane was bought with Israel Bonds that his grandmother bought him). His return to Judaism came through his wife, who was born Catholic, but was attracted to Judaism. She converted, Jorma went through a “reaffirmation” process and they both practice, in some form. More details can be found here: —it is a fascinating and personal story.  Jorma’s Jewish ancestors were, among other things, tobacco farmers in Ellington, Connecticut, about 30 miles from where I celebrated my first Christmas.

Despite the constant uproar from the Fox News crazies, there is no War on Christmas. As Jon Stewart pointed out recently, Christmas is doing just fine. Even if you don’t believe in the religious part of the holiday, the universality of its underlying message gives all of us the opportunity to transform the celebration, or recognition, or whatever, into something personal and special. Or you can spend too much money, fight with your family and be angry. I don’t judge.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Holiday Transformations: A Christmas / Kwanzaa / Solstice / Chanukah / Ramadan / Boxing Day Song

Christine Lavin & The Mistletones: A Christmas / Kwanzaa / Solstice / Chanukah / Ramadan / Boxing Day Song

[purchase Christine Lavin & The Mistletones “The Runaway Christmas Tree”]

With 2013 approaching rapidly, I picked up my new calendar and saw that this is the first year that Kwanzaa appears on it – starting December 26th. Just as many Christmas songs specifically relate to the birth of Christ, I suppose that other holiday songs have been transformed to adhere to the relevancy of those events. Perhaps much of it is just in the presentation of the song. A little research indicated that these tips might make your Kwanzaa song singing more meaningful:

** Sing a different song during each of the days of Kwanzaa, emphasizing that day’s meaning and values (unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, faith).

** Sing songs that teach about the history and meaning of the holiday.

** Learn basic words in Swahili, the language from which Kwanzaa and many of its names and definitions come.

** Choose a few modern singers (e.g. Aretha Franklin or James Brown) to complement the mood.

** Use drums and bells to accompany yourself when you sing.

I’m not really too in tune on how to transform songs to fit Kwanzaa, nor am I that familiar or hep with how songs should be modified for certain other special days around this time of year. So I’ve just decided to find a simple song (a round) by Christine Lavin & The Mistletones to cover many of the bases. After all, isn’t music a universal language? It makes a lot of sense to me to just have a song that’s appropriate for nearly everything - Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Chanukah, Ramadan, Boxing Day, and any other day someone wants to celebrate during this holiday season. Let’s hear it for a round that everyone can relate to.

Holiday Transformations: Arabian Dance

The Invincible Czars: Arabian Dance

[purchase]

Welcome to a week of musical transformations for the holidays. What do I mean by that? Geovicki gave us a taste of it with her post to finish last week‘s theme. This time of year, songs get asked to do things that were never intended. A song which has nothing to do with the holidays may become a staple on holiday radio broadcasts because Christmas, or presents, or even cold weather were mentioned. Familiar holiday songs may travel to strange dimensions, and come back with amazing genre makeovers. Lyricists may force a song into the holiday season by changing some of the words, or change a song from one holiday to another in the same way. All of that is fair game this week.

I wanted to start with a genre makeover, because I have a remarkable example to share. The bio on this band‘s website starts by saying, “The Invincible Czars are one of Austin's most adventurous rock bands.” All bands brag on their websites, but this statement is actually modest. The Czars fearlessly take on classic, (often classical), music, and turn it into an amazing stew of rock, jazz, klezmer, gypsy music, and probably a few other things I missed. Arabian Dance is from The Nutcracker, and the video is from an annual kid’s show that the Czars do where they perform the entire Nutcracker Suite their way. I haven’t seen the show live, but the album is as consistently crazy as this song. I love it, but I know not everyone will agree.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Holiday Horrors: Akahana no Tonakai (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer)

Nightmare: Akahana no Tonakai (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer) unavailable for purchase

It's not that I don't like some of Nightmare's songs, because I do. They did the theme song for Death Note, for example, which is pretty good. They're not afraid to take on new stuff, either: last year's Visual Kei tribute to Disney featured two reworked tunes by Nightmare.

But this song? What can be said for a song that starts out with ethereal keyboards and toy piano twee and then segues into speed metal without a by-your-leave? One thing it's good for, though, is clearing out the remnants of a house party that's gone on far too long.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Holiday Horrors: The Police Got My Car

Cheech & Chong: The Police Got My Car

[purchase Dr. Demento Presents the Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time ]

Christmas music has found its way into nearly every genre of music from rap to garage band … and reggae to blues. I’m glad there’s been a resurgence in holiday music and that radio stations put it out over the airwaves. However, I’m somewhat of a traditionalist who still enjoys music this time of year that captures something about the meaning of the season. When I got to thinking about it, I came up with a dozen “holiday horrors” in no time at all. The Dr. Demento album link above offers cuts of a few of them (by the likes of Wild Man Fischer, Elmo & Patsy, Singing Dogs, Stan Freberg, Weird Al Yankovic, and others).

I settled on posting something from Cheech & Chong when I heard one of them ask, “Hey man, isn’t Santa Claus a group, man?” in their rendition of “Santa Claus and His Old Lady.” That misconception and total disregard for the season could only be held by those inane misfits and miscreants of comedy, Cheech & Chong. So here is their version of “The Police Got My Car,” sung? to the tune of “Feliz Navidad.”

Check out the comment recently posted by YouTube visitor Victor Roman: “This is an outstanding song and i play it out loud in my neighborhood every Xmas day - bright and early in the morning - it used to piss everyone off but after 7 years - its more like a joke tradition and has become a time to crack beers open for xmas breakfast and hobnob with the neighbors.”

Now that sentiment makes sense on Christmas Day, doesn’t it? I suppose that most “holiday horrors” go down alright with a few cold brewskies while BS’ing with others in your ‘hood. Why not use this song as an ice breaker to make some new friends?

I still remember that day in 1972 when some friends and I took my parents to a Cheech & Chong concert in Eugene, Oregon. My dad said “They’re quite humorous,” and my mom profoundly stated, “They’re doing something for humanity.”

Monday, December 3, 2012

Holiday Horrors: Wassail Song


Bluesboy Jag: Wassail Song
Source (it is a free download embedded in a zipped file)

On the one hand, I applaud the “cigar box” concept: if it were possible to make my own instrument that does the job, why should I succumb to the mercantile mentality that makes me pay for the namebrand rather than the sound. When we listen to a musician’s chops, most of us cannot ID the brand of the instrument (some of us can’t even ID the instrument!). Why not play a cigar box guitar?

A cigar box guitar is literally a guitar hand crafted from a cigar box:  you cut a sound hole, slap a neck onto the wooden box, decorate as desired, tune the strings. Obviously, some are going to sound better/worse than the rest (hence the horror).

A four year old project (as far as I can see it goes back to ’08) Cigar Box Nation Christmas Songs features various contributors of Xmas classics. Requirement: tune must include a cigar box guitar and the song must be public domain.

The musician here, Bluesboy Jag, claims a long road to where he’s at now. His bio lists various jobs all across the spectrum: cook, tech support, various manager positions and, of course, musician. You can learn more about him here.

The song “Here We Come A-Wassailing” hints at an interesting pedigree. The song was apparently written in the mid 1800s but is based on a tradition that probably goes back several centuries before that: Christmas singers going door to door would be given food and drink at the doors of the rich.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Holiday Horrors: Nuttin' For Christmas


Sugarland: Nuttin' For Christmas

[purchase]

The crass commercialism of the holidays has always seemed to me the ugliest part of the season - so much so that I spent Thanksgiving and the subsequent week putting up a pair of feature posts at my own blog promoting the authentic side of giving, and offering a few suggestions on how to support struggling artists and small labels through Kickstarter donations, concert subscriptions, and other artist-friendly options, thus bringing the local to the Internet age.

But although the feedback of blog comments and friend-filled Facebook feeds can too-easily leave the impression that the world believes what we do, outside in the arena of Santas and shopping my own efforts always seem tiny and hollow compared to the loud and over-annunciated voices of the popular. Black Friday remains one of the top shopping days of the year, Walmart remains stuffed to the gills with shoppers: everywhere, the soundtrack sings of purchasing, and oh what fun it is to buy; of getting, and oh what joy it is to demand of others, and open the booty they have provided.

Sadly, the "gimmie" song is both a harbinger and hallowed component of the mall-rat culture. For every White Christmas, there is a Christmas Don't Be Late; for every cover of Joni Mitchell's River or The Pretenders' 2000 Miles, there is a Here Comes Santa Claus, a Santa Baby, a Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. A simple search for the words "want", "for Christmas", and "lyrics" reveals a holy host of songs about stuff, from Hippopotami to Beatles. And so on, etcetera, in his name, amen.

From a sociological perspective, the song I have chosen for this week's theme is centrally located within the type: though its title sounds like it might be antithetical, its narrative eminently reinforces the message of Be Good, Get Stuff which so permeates the holiday canon. First written in the fifties, when the substance-seeker tropes of the new middle class may have been loudest and crassest of all in our sordid history of buying as Americans, and with no less than five top popcharting versions by five different artists in 1955 alone, it has more recently been recorded by such unlikely repeaters as punk band Reliant K, hard radiorockers Smashmouth, and acoustic pop-lite group The Plain White Ts, adding to a collection of older versions from Eartha Kitt, The Fontane Sisters, popular satirist Stan Freberg, and others of the usual mass genres.

The version here, recorded and released in 2009 by Countrypop duo-and-then-some Sugarland, is twangy and silly, but hardly redemptive. Worse, it suffers from the same overly corny, too-cute sentiment which is so deeply embedded in the song's lyrics and melody, I suspect it cannot be shaken free. Better, still, would be the gift of a full-blown universal moratorium on ever recording or playing it ever again, save in cases of extreme irony - so if you happen to be omnipotent, and wondering what to get me this year, feel free to put the total eradication of this song from the earth on the top of the list.

Holiday Horrors: The Twelve Days of Christmas


[purchase]

Other than “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” I can’t really think of a holiday song that I truly hate. There are some that are sappy, and others that are annoying. There are versions of holiday songs that I don’t like, and, especially over the past few years, I have heard some original holiday songs that grate, but who wants to write about those?

“The Twelve Days of Christmas,” though, is a generally painful song. First, there is the repetition. I understand that many old folk songs are repetitive, because they were designed to allow them to be sung and memorized before they were written down, or before most people could read. Maybe back when people had longer attention spans, this song was a hoot. But now it just goes, on and on. I’ve seen it compared to “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”

Then, there are the gifts. Way more birds than anybody needs, before you get to troops of people, plus, of course, five gooooooooooooooold rings. And it annoys me that every year, some (probably junior) reporters are forced to report on the cost of the presents, as if they had some bearing on the economy. I’m guessing that it was harder back in the pre-Internet era, when, I assume, the cub reporter had to call, say, an employment agency, and ask how much it would cost to rent a bunch of milkmaids or pipers.

The song’s very ridiculousness makes it ripe for parody, and my favorite is the Bob & Doug McKenzie version, a cartoon of which is above. The McKenzies were characters created by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas on SCTV, a brilliant sketch comedy show from the late 1970’s-early 1980’s that never really got the kind of consistent scheduling that has allowed Saturday Night Live to run forever. A number of SCTV alumni later joined SNL, and/or went on to greater fame in movies and TV, but for me, the SCTV shows approached Monty Python in their inventiveness and lunacy.

SCTV was produced in Canada, and the McKenzie brothers were created in response to a requirement, or request, that the shows include Canadian content. So, these characters embodied pretty much every Canadian stereotype, and somehow, we in the USA got it. The popularity of these dim “hosers” led to a movie and a couple of albums, from which “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” comes. It is funny, sloppy and gently rude, and thus effectively demonstrates the McKenzie brothers’ charm. And they get bored part of the way through, just like me.

We’ve been encouraged to post multiple versions of the songs we choose, so here’s another parody, by Allen Sherman from the early 1960’s. Here, the recipient gets a series of cheap, tacky gifts, and exchanges them on the twelfth day. Not only is it a send up of the increasingly prevalent consumer culture of the time, one of the running gags is that Japanese electronics are inferior. Times have changed, I guess.

Holiday Horrors: The Little Drummer Boy

Let me open the new week on Star Maker Machine with a wish and a warning. First, let me wish our readers the very best of holiday seasons, no matter what you are celebrating. As for the warning, remember that, if you mention this week that a certain holiday song is one of your least favorite, that song will follow you around for the rest of the season. This week, my fellow Star Makers and I will be taking the heat so that you don’t have to. Our posts may be examples of how we wish no one would do holiday music, but there may also be examples of how some of these songs can be redeemed. And there may be examples of times when songwriters try to counteract the corniest impulses of the season by injecting a little playful horror into their songs. I don’t know exactly what will happen either, but it’s all in the spirit of fun.

For me, this week must begin with The Little Drummer Boy. My strong feelings about this song date back to my junior year of high school. I never had a strong dislike of The Little Drummer Boy until we sang it in my high school choir. Now, you might say, sure the melody may be a bit monotonous, but it’s not that bad. If you say that, you are probably a soprano or tenor. I am a bass, and the arrangement we sang had a bass part that was just the word “prum” over and over again on the same note. Do you have any idea how challenging it is to hold a single note when you are profoundly bored? Since then, I do.

The obvious choice of a version for this post would have been Bing Crosby, with or without David Bowie. Indeed, I find the Crosby/ Bowie version to be one of the most tolerable. But I wanted a version that messes up the song a bit, my revenge perhaps. Grace Jones certainly fills the bill. Her arrangement remakes the song in glorious 80s excess. The horror here is either the arrangement or that awful outfit. As far as I can tell, this version of Drummer Boy is not available for purchase.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Leftovers (Rings): Ring Them Bells


Sarah Jarosz: Ring Them Bells (orig. Bob Dylan)

[purchase]

Our "rings" theme was designed to honor the Olympics, but even after leaving it on the boards for an extra week, we didn't do so well - only three posts made it to the blog, perhaps our quietest lull ever. And I take some responsibility for this: at the time, I was in the midst of some rebalancing, trying to find my center in the midst of overcommitment and chaos - thanks to theater performances, work issues, and a struggle to stay connected to my own family, I was pretty much absent from here for a while, and as such, missed the chance to test the waters on this among many other well-constructed themes.

But here we are, on the other side. And although the rings that this song features are not round but resonant, I cannot help but take the opportunity to share one of my favorite Dylan covers ever.

It's easy to do this song badly. Natasha Beddingfield's take on the tune, featured on this past year's gigantic Dylan tribute from Amnesty International, starts quite powerfully and sparse, but turns too soon into a bombastic pop wail framed by anthemic guitar and hammond organ, which seems to me a total misread of its narrative. Sufjan Stevens' deconstruction, which featured prominently on the soundtrack to 2007 Dylan film I'm Not There, is playful, I suppose, and fun for experimentalists, but Stevens' tendency to treat each verse and transition as an opportunity for a genre- and phase-shift obscures the consistency of the lyrics, and buries the message in a haze of production trickery as we struggle to find our footing in its blizzard of collage sound.

But Sarah Jarosz is an angel who can do no wrong in my ears. Her 2011 neo-grass take on this song is a warm, bittersweet triumph of interpretation, a potent message of aching for hope in a world where we just might make it after all. Clean and consistent, fluid and fine, the music supports the lyrical sentiment, capturing Dylan-the-cynic at his most hopeful without losing the tenuous temerity, the self-effacing folly, the very awareness of hubris that lies at the heart of such a bell-ringing celebration from such a complex songwriter. And if we needed proof, we need only listen to this "alternative" solo gospel piano version from Dylan himself, which contains its own fragile mix of despair and hope.

So ring out, you Christmas bells. Cut into my heart as we look back on a year of pain and sorrow, triumph and struggle. Ring loud, so that all may share the experience, and celebrate together: it's the season of hope, and we made it through alive once again.

PS: here's a sweetly ragged live version from Ron Sexsmith (with Sheryl Crow and Elvis Costello) that comes almost as close:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Leftovers (Songs from Poems): Makers


Rocky Votolato: Makers

[purchase]

One of the many things that I have enjoyed over the past (nearly) year contributing to this blog is that it has forced me to learn more about the songs and artists that I write about, and to take more in-depth looks at the songs. You know how you can hear a song a million times, but not really know what it is about until someone says something, or you read something about it, or you simply listen to it more carefully? That’s what happened today when I decided to write about Rocky Votolato’s “Makers.”

When I saw that the theme was “Leftovers,” I figured that I could pick a song I wanted to write about and find a theme that fit. Back in June, I wrote about William Elliott Whitmore, and the great concert that I saw with my son, and I have wanted to post about the other two acts we saw that night, Rocky Votolato and Lucero. And in looking at old themes, I noticed that Autopsy IV (whose blog Nine Bullets has been a favorite of mine for a while), posted a few Lucero songs back in 2009, under the theme “Drinkin’ Songs,” which made me think of writing about “Makers.” But, although the song mentions my favorite bourbon, it really isn’t a drinkin’ song.

I’ve heard the song many times, in Votolato’s recorded version, played live, and most often, played and sung by my son and his friends. After that great concert, we both became huge Lucero fans, and I really was touched by Whitmore. But my son fell hard for Rocky, and learned to play his songs. He taught his friends “Makers” and they played it at high school cast parties and other musical events. (He also saw Votolato a number of times, met him once at a small concert and even won his guitar in a raffle. And it is quite a nice guitar.) We contributed money through Kickstarter for Votolato’s latest album, and as a premium, received the handwritten, autographed lyrics to “Makers” in the picture above.

But what is it about? Frankly, I never really focused on it—except I knew it was about death in some form. I’ve always been more of a music/gut feel kind of guy, and great lyrics, to me, are like a bonus. So, this morning, I read them, and, yeah, it is about death, and I suppose, the narrator’s rumination on death. So, why is it a song from a poem? Doing my due diligence, I searched on the Internet, and found a comment from a fan, who said that he had heard Votolato explain that the song was inspired by Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish,” written about Ginsberg’s mother. To quote this anonymous poster:

“Rocky and his friend were talking about existentialist philosophy which deals with the meaning of life, whether or not God exists, the consequences of believing or not believing... essentially the philosophy of existence. They were also drinking Makers. It just so happens that on this night they were in the same New York apartment building that Ginsberg wrote ‘Kaddish’ in.”

Now, I’m not going to rely totally on what I read on the Internet, so I read “Kaddish.” And damned if there aren’t clear connections between the poem and the song. Not to mention that the song mentions “Allen.” So, I’m sold on this interpretation.

“Makers” is a powerful song, made better by spending time with it, savoring it and enjoying it, like a great poem, or a fine glass of bourbon.

Leftovers (Elected Officials): Governor Al Smith

Uncle Dave Macon: Governor Al Smith

[purchase Uncle Dave Macon: The Very Best of]

A topical song recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in Chicago on July 26, 1928, “Governor Al Smith” starts off with an exclamatory, “Gettin' right now! Al Smith nominated for president, My vote to him I'm a-gonna present, darlin.” Today, we have political action committees spending millions to try to influence elections. Back in the 1920s, it was just a banjo-picker (along with guitarist Sam McGee) singing his advocacy to the tune of an old folk melody.

Uncle Dave’s endorsement of Smith in the 1928 U.S. Presidential election was a rather amazing thing given that Smith was both a northerner and a Catholic. Uncle Dave’s support was largely related to Smith’s platform promise to repeal Prohibition, and he sings “Smith wants everything to be just right, darlin.” Nearly every verse in the song deals with alcohol. Uncle Dave clearly wants a real drink, probably a little rum (to go with his little camphor gum) … and not any of that poison moonshine that was being transported and sold by bootleggers.

Four-time Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith (12/30/1873 – 10/4/1944) ran for U.S. President in 1928 against Herbert Hoover, who had served as Secretary of Commerce for the Calvin Coolidge. Our country had experienced a great economic boom, but that would all end with the stock market crash of 1929. The nation's prosperity in ‘28, along with anti-Catholic sentiments towards Smith, pretty much ensured Hoover’s general election win.

Macon would later refer to Smith's defeat in a song called "Nashville" in which he sings, “Herbert Hoover was elected and Al Smith he was rejected, but he is highly respected in Nashville….If you want to get a drink, give the Democrats a wink, You'll get it quicker than you think in Nashville.” Those who follow politics will also note that Smith’s legacy lives on even today, and both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke at an “Alfred E. Smith dinner” during their recent campaigning in 2012.

Here’s some interesting silent film from the presidential election of 1928, featuring the Democratic Party's ticket, Alfred E. Smith and Joseph T. Robinson. From Arkansas, Robinson was then Senate Minority Leader.

Also, here's some newsreel footage of Al Smith commenting on the repeal of the 18th Amendment in 1933. Besides Smith, I’m sure that Uncle Dave Macon was also pleased at the sight of those huge shipments of gin being made with the approval of the Feds for the first time in thirteen years.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Casey Jones



Grateful Dead: Casey Jones
Pete Seeger: Casey Jones
[purchase Grateful Dead version]
[purchase Pete Seeger version]


Earlier this week J.David posted about the railroad, and here is yet another perspective on what was once a great American institution.

I’ve been reading a lot of “Westerns” recently on my Palm Tungsten. Yes, I reject the iPad/Kindle because of the in-built DRM and prefer to  download my DRM-free books from manybooks.net. Whatever. My latest read has been “The Taming of Red Butte Western” by Francis Lynde, but I am now on yet another of his works. IMDB says that Lynde was also the writer behind the film “Across the Burning Trestle” (which I know little about, but the title clearly fits the subject).

The Francis Lynde books I mention revolve around characters involved with the train companies in the US ca 1900. This is the material of legends such as Casey Jones.

Legends, Myths, Folklore: the lines that separate them are somewhat blurred: all are stories about things that may or may not have been. The popularity of the TV show “Myth Busters” certainly doesn’t help to clarify the distinction: the show seems to get us thinking that a myth is likely incorrect.

While there truly appears to have been a railroad engineer named Casey Jones, the details we are left with are a mix of Folklore, Myth and Legend. This Wikipedia link provides the basics, but it is the music that should concern us most here. Briefly: Casey Jones was the engineer of a fateful train-wreck in which he died while saving the lives of his passengers.

Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger and The Grateful Dead are our main musical references for this song. The first two follow the traditional path: that of the folk song. The Grateful Dead veer away from the classical folk version to create their own song which has begat its own tradition (linking Jones’ penchant for driving fast with the “speed” of the late 60s and 70s). Pete Seeger’s version has the facts all mixed up, but it sticks to the popular version. He’s got Jones way out West in Reno whereas he worked the tracks back East and died in Tennessee.

 

 

 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: Werewolves of London

Warren Zevon: Werewolves of London

[purchase Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy]

This week’s theme got me immediately thinking about unicorns, magic dragons, banshee, leprechauns and even the Japanese tengu (long-nosed goblins). Then I pondered the songs written about Greek Gods and Goddesses such as Venus, Athena, Aphrodite and Zeus. Finally, my mind flew back to a memory of how I celebrated Halloween this year – watching the classic 1941 horror flick “The Wolf Man” starring Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Béla Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. as the big hairy and scary guy. It seems that Chaney’s portrayal of this mythological creature (or is it?) greatly influenced future Hollywood depictions of the legend.

Throughout the film, we hear villagers recite this poem whenever the subject of werewolves comes up:

Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.

Not based in legend, these lines were the screenwriter’s invention. We hear them in several other classic werewolf films of yesteryear although later films change the last line to "And the moon is full and bright” to cultivate the idea that a werewolf is transformed under a full moon. That’s often how stories of folklore evolve and are embellished over the years. 1941’s “The Wolf Man” was the second Universal Pictures werewolf movie, preceded six years earlier by a less commercially successful “Werewolf of London.”

I can’t help but wonder if Warren Zevon might’ve watched one of these movies before writing one of his best known songs, “Werewolves of London.” As you’ll hear him sing in the last verse:

I saw Lon Chaney, Jr. walking with the Queen,
Doing the Werewolves of London.
I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's,
And his hair was perfect.

Zevon began as a session musician backing artists like The Everly Brothers and Manfred Mann. His solo career took off with his second album, Warren Zevon, featuring collaborations with Jackson Browne. Zevon is best known for "Werewolves of London," "Lawyers, Guns and Money," "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," and "Johnny Strikes Up The Band," all on his third album, Excitable Boy, released in 1978. The title tune was about a juvenile sociopath's murderous prom night. As Zevon played piano and sang, “Werewolves of London" also featured Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Mick Fleetwood (drums) and John McVie (bass). The successful song was paradoxical with Zevon’s signature lighthearted wry humor and macabre outlook.

Diagnosed with cancer in 2002, Warren Zevon died at age 56 at his Los Angeles home on September 7, 2003. With a great big “Aaooooooo!,” let’s remember and pay tribute to this rock and roller for his great material and contributions to music.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Mythology and Folklore: The Day John Henry Died



[purchase the Drive-By Truckers’ version with Jason Isbell on lead]
[purchase Jason Isbell’s live album being released on November 19, 2012, even though this song isn’t on it]

The story of John Henry is probably one of the most popular American folktales, and it has been the subject of many books and songs. I have 41 John Henry related songs on my iPod, and that just scratches the surface (and some of the recordings also are old enough that they have scratched surfaces). One of my kids’ favorite books when they were younger was a version of the story by Julius Lester and illustrated by one of the best, Westchester resident Jerry Pinkney, which everyone with children should own. [purchase]

In short, the story tells of an African-American “steel-driving” man who defeats a steam drill in a contest to dig a railroad tunnel. He beats the machine, but dies from his exertion. For way more background on the story, including a discussion of its factual basis, check out this website created by four grad students at the University of North Carolina: [John Henry The Steel Driving Man]

The issues raised by this song—the effects of industrialization on human workers—have been struggled over by humanity for a very long time. The Luddites of the 19th century gave a name to the view that technology was generally negative, and the labor movement has also agonized over the balance between allowing technology to advance and the fact that it often puts workers out of work. I recently engaged in a debate on Facebook about whether the self-scanners at our new Stop & Shop were good or bad because they put cashiers out of work, on one hand, but created jobs for security workers and manufacturers, installers and maintenance workers for the new machines. I don’t know, and I doubt there can ever be an “answer.”

Jason Isbell’s song, “The Day John Henry Died,” is an updated version that was originally recorded when he was still with the Drive-By Truckers. Although it gives an outline of the tale, it isn’t a direct narrative like so many of the versions I have heard. And at the end, there is a reference to sleeping on an airplane, which seems to indicate that Isbell thinks that the issues raised by the John Henry story continue to exist today. In his commentary on the Truckers’ website, he notes that he “was always intrigued by the fact that John beat the steam engine, but didn't live to enjoy his victory.” And in the live version in the video posted above, he says that the song is about “winnin’ the battle but losing the war.”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Elected Officials: Hollow Man


Mark Erelli: Hollow Man

[purchase]

Chuck E Costa: Hollow Man (Mark Erelli cover)

[purchase]

I grew up in a house where it was common practice not to speak of politics, and especially not of politicians; as an adult, I continue this practice, registering as an independent and preferring to keep my vote private from everyone, even my own spouse, no matter how many times my inner-city students might dismiss such machinations as an attempt to hide what they suppose to be a natural affinity for the white man's party.

But the political process, and the way it plays itself out, has a public immediacy for me nonetheless. For one thing, I am an elected official myself, mid-way through a second three-year term on the local School Board, which is no small practice in a small rural town where the schools consume roughly half of the town budget, and where the five elected board members have to negotiate carefully with town selectmen and finance committee to be able to afford basic services while preserving as much as we can of the ever-shrinking pool of electives and extra-curriculars which townspeople desperately want but will not pay for. And in my day job as a media teacher, I have long used the study of politics and media as a mechanism to illuminate the ways that living in a show business world obfuscates and denigrates the potential for genuine public discourse.

In the last two weeks alone, I have appeared in a televised meeting wearing a jacket and tie and talking policy and procedure, taught political cartoons, debates-as-genre, and the archetype of the presidential in modern society to my tenth graders, and spent two full days at a conference discussing new laws and regulations which will affect the students in my classroom and my district. For this, I get paid a pittance in one venue, and not a dime in the other, and in all cases, find myself most often booed for my efforts - even when I do good, and do it well.

And so, even with the election over, I find frustrating familiarity in Mark Erelli's 1999 political screed, which too-easily compares the elected official to a pumpkin-headed scarecrow. For even as my media mind knows that there is no small occasional truth in the stuffed-shirt empty-mind party politician which Erelli portrays, the public servant in me - unpaid, unloved, unfairly scapegoated, and too-often lonely in the act of trying to do the best thing with the meager resources the town grudgingly votes for us to apply each year - knows that to paint this image with such a broad and common brush is dangerous twice over: first, in the way it unfairly releases the citizen from the lion's share of responsibility for this sad state of affairs, and second, in that the common and casual pass-along of this sometimes-truth as a generalization taints even the best politicians and public servants with suspicion, making it that much harder for the democratic process to work in even the best of times, with the best of officials.

Don't get me wrong: it's a good song, and Erelli is a great artist, and a helluva nice guy; Connecticut State Troubadour Chuck E Costa, who is an equally sweet guy in person, does a solid cover, too. But while such sentiment sounds good on paper, and riles up the crowd, those of us who straddle the inside and the outside of the electoral process know that it is too easy, too cheap, to make generalizations like this outside of the three minute folkpop song.

And so I offer my insider's view as a sort of temperance, in hopes that the political songs never fade, but that the political minds never, ever stop there, either. We get what we deserve, if we do not learn how to effectively demand and receive better. And so ends today's civics lesson, for better or worse.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Elected Officials: You Got Away With It



Todd Snider: You Got Away With It
[purchase]

WARNING—VITRIOL AHEAD:

I wasn’t fast enough to make this a transitional post from “Disasters” to “Elected Officials,” which I wanted to do, because I do believe that George W. Bush, the subject of this song, was a disaster. In my opinion, his regime was responsible for hugely inflating the deficit by fighting two wars, one of which was based on completely phony intelligence, while cutting taxes to mostly benefit wealthy people, by being complicit in the outing of an undercover agent, encouraging the politics of greed, appointing right wing Supreme Court justices, using 9/11 as a pretext to curtail civil liberties (which admittedly hasn’t been fixed by President Obama), discouraging marriage equality, leading the country to the precipice of economic ruin, instituting policies that were damaging to the environment, mishandling the Katrina response and worst of all, in the big picture, contributing to the increasing rejection of fact–based decisionmaking and the mocking of the “reality based community” in favor of perpetuating a series of “Big Lies.”

For starters.

Even Richard Nixon, who was a crook and liar, and made a mockery of the office of the President, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, reopened diplomatic relations with China, established the EPA, supported the Clean Air Act and OSHA, signed Title IX into law and ended the draft. I feel like taking a shower now, after writing this paragraph, but I have trouble thinking of any positives from G.W. Bush.

I’ve always had the impression that Bush was a spoiled, feckless frat boy, who muddled through an undistinguished career at Andover and Yale, and then in business and politics, mostly riding his father’s coat tails. As best as I can tell, he avoided service in Vietnam by using family connections to get into the National Guard, and then rarely, if ever, performed his duty. Despite his personal cowardice, as President he had no compunctions about sending other people to die based on false information, and he only criticized the attempts by the swift boaters to disparage John Kerry, an actual war hero, after the advertisements stopped running. And, to make matters worse, he once pulled down the goal posts at Princeton after a Yale victory. His popularity among Republicans is so great that he was invisible during the Republican convention and the campaign. As if even they were embarrassed by him (as they should be).

Clearly, Todd Snider’s opinion of Dubya is at least as low as mine, if not lower. Initially, the song, which is in the form of a message from one frat brother to another. The narrator recounts a number of incidents of wrongdoing, and remarks that his subject regularly got away with it. The song does not make it clear who it is about, until the last verse:

You never did tell me what happened with you and your brother down there in Florida
I heard they gave you a hell of a time
Everybody around here was afraid you might lose
I told them not to worry cause I knew you'd be fine
Had me out here to Camp David a few times over the years
I think the first time we were teenagers sneakin' beers
Look at you now you old son of a bitch
You got the run of this place
Unbelievable

And then, all is clear.

Elected Officials: Grandpa Was A Carpenter



John Prine: YouTube version of Grandpa Was A Carpenter
John Prine: [download it @ Amazon]

A few weeks back, we were looking at Leonard Cohen, and most of our posts noted how dismal we felt when we listened to his music. In addition to Tom Waits, the third musician I would categorize as representative of “bleak” would be John Prine, but for reasons I cannot explain, I much prefer Prine’s negative outlook to that of the other two. Several of his songs deal with political issues of the day: the Vietnam war comes to mind.

It must be Prine's way with his lyrics that attracts me. In "Grandpa Was A Carpenter", Prine gets me thinking about the pendulum effect: over time, parties, individuals and corporation find themselves faced with the need to adjust their stance, and end up swinging away from their extreme positions. This need for realignment is what the Republican party seems to be debating in the wake of their defeat this week.

Grandpa Was A Carpenter includes in the lyrics, references to Presidents Eisenhower and Lincoln as candidates of the Republican party: “… [grandpa] voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the war…”

Now, it is hard to picture fully the mentality of the populace in either of these times: just what did the Republican party represent to voters then? Could it be that even with 100 years separating these two candidates, the GOP stood for the exact same set of values?

There are several versions of John Prine playing the song at YouTube, but I chose this one because of the treble: I like my music crisp, and even if the sound quality of this version fades in places, you’ll have to admit that the  guitars are “sharp”.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Elected Officials: We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again

Norman and Nancy Blake: We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again

[purchase New Lost City Ramblers: Songs from the Depression]

I always breathe a big sigh of relief when Election Day is over, even if all of my candidates didn’t win. KKafa offered up a song commemorating FDR’s 1936 visit to Trinidad. That got me thinking about a song recorded by Billy Cox one week after the election in that same year. “We've Got Franklin D. Roosevelt Back Again” was also recorded by the New Lost City Ramblers on their “Songs from the Depression” album. On there, it’s titled “Franklin Roosevelt's Back Again.”

For this exercise, I’m linking to an old video from a Norman and Nancy Blake concert. I don’t know if they ever put this song out on an LP or CD. If you like the music of Norman and Nancy, here’s even another song they wrote and sang with a political message called “Don’t Be Afraid of the NeoCons.”

Monday, November 5, 2012

Elected Officials: FDR in Trinidad



YouTube link to FDR in Trinidad (Attila the Hun)
YouTube link to FDR in Trinidad (Ry Cooder)
Amazon link to purchase Ry Cooder version from Into the Purple Valley


I was wondering why some of our elected officials end up being well-remembered by their initials. You don’t have to be a great historian to know who JFK, LBJ or FDR are, but no one knows Lincoln (arguably equally well-known) as AL. You may well know Bush senior as George H.W. Bush, but you’d be among the elite who could tell us what both the H and W stand for, I suspect.

Name-“plays” related to my posting this week don’t end there. My choice of song this week is a song originally composed by a Fizt MacLean (and that is not a typo). You would be forgiven for wanting to go searching for a “Fritz”. In fact, there is a YouTube take of the great musicologist Ry Cooder getting the name wrong just before he performs one of MacLean’s songs with David Lindley. [after the fact edit: it wasnt Ry with D Lindley and it wasnt Fizt Maclean: It was "Fizz" Fuller and Jackson Browne with David Lindley, but the FDR info appears to remain correct. Sorry.]
Ry Cooder performed the first version I ever heard of my choice of song this week on “Into the Purple Valley”, and other sources indicate that, among others, Van Dyke Parks has also done the song. However, Attila the Hun (nee Raymond Quevedo), calypso musician from Trinidad, first popularized the song in order to commemorate FDR’s 1936 visit to Trinidad. Wikipedia tells us that Attila the Hun championed the poor and eventually made it into politics in Trinadad. It isn’t too hard to see from the lyrics of the song why Quevedo might have latched on: (for the suffering humanity) and attention from the foremost republic espousing it (to make the world safe for democracy).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Elected Officials : Vote For Me




Bad officials are the ones elected by good citizens who do not vote. 
 George Jean Nathan

It would have been punk for The Move to have released "Vote For Me" in 1967, the year it was recorded. The band had just been sued for libel by Prime Minister Harold Wilson for producing a cartoon showing Wilson in bed with his secretary in a promotional postcard for their hit single "Flowers In The Rain". 

                               Prime Minister Harold Wilson

    The band lost in court. Badly. Every penny they made off the UK #2 single went to the charities of Mr. Wilson's choice. The band probably lost millions of pounds. 

      Again it was 1967. Not 1977. So in a manner that could hardly be considered punk, The Move shelved this delightfully edgy pop tune until it appeared on a compilation in 1997.

Elected Officials: Bread Line Blues

Bernard “Slim” Smith : Breadline Blues (1932)

Del McCoury Band with Mac Wiseman, Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Breadline Blues (2008)

[purchase Various Artists: Hard Times Come Again No More ]

[purchase New Lost City Ramblers: Songs from the Depression ]

[purchase Del McCoury Band: Moneyland ]

The Del McCoury Band released their 2008 “Moneyland” album with only one intention in mind – to send a clear message to Washington’s politicians. “Over the last couple of decades, you have turned Rural America into a scene of devastation which can best be described as 'Forgotten America.' Not only do we believe it 'un-American' for Washington to be blind to the problems of small towns and rural America, we believe it immoral ... and there are an ever-growing number of us out here who are ready to stand up against this corrupt neglect of our culture and people."

McCoury’s album opens with an excerpt from one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats espousing a "broader definition of liberty" that allows more freedom and security for the average man than ever known before. Then, the advice in Bernard "Slim" Smith's 1932 rendition of "Bread Line Blues" is to “Vote away those blues, the bread line blues.” It’s great advice, and we have until next Tuesday to have our say on which direction we take for the next four years.

Think about what it was like in the 1920s and 30s. Following the 20s’ economic boom, our country experienced the Great Depression. As many rural Americans hadn’t exactly prospered during the boom years, they’d been hit with a double whammy. In this day and age a century later, it’s fun to relate to those songs recorded before and after the 1929 market crash. In many cases, their messages are still relevant. You certainly don’t need to wear a size-8 hat to understand straightforward lyrics like:

The mule said, “Elephant, it ain’t no joke.
We gotta do somethin' or we're all gonna croak.”
Ain’t got nothin' but a car load of tax,
And the doggone load is just breakin’ our backs.
We got the blues, the bread line blues.

Songs like “Bread Line Blues” don’t deserve to be relegated to historical musical archives full of wax and cylinders. That’s exactly why groups like the New Lost City Ramblers and Del McCoury Band have recorded this kind of material in more recent times. McCoury’s 2008 remake also featured Mac Wiseman, Tim O'Brien, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings along with additional lyrics.

After listening to the newer remake of "Breadline Blues 2008," we’re still left wondering about various moral dilemmas and whether there are any clear-cut answers. Some folks despair and remain pessimistic, but I’d just say that songs like “Bread Line Blues” are a call to action. Tongue-in-cheek social commentary of "Bread Line Blues" between the long-eared mule and the big-mouthed elephant is still relevant today. The message to all politicians is clarion. Start talking, collaborating, compromising and working on our Nation’s problems. Whether you’re "red" or "blue," think about the current state of all Americans, their communities, and their livelihoods. We need more than corn that’s “all cob.” FDR was optimistic, and we should be too. Still timely today, FDR's advice was to overcome our arduous burdens and economic calamities by retaining our faith in our ability to master our own destiny.

As politicians tout their respective visions for America, most of us just want a small piece of opportunity to achieve the American dream. By getting to the ballot box, you’ll help the country determine the way ahead. As the original "Bread Line Blues" stated so profoundly eighty years ago, "And when you place your vote / Please don't vote wrong / Vote away those blues / The bread line blues." Moreover, when the general election is all over and done with, I look forward to that time again when we can “all have fun and better home brew.”

Monday, October 29, 2012

Disasters: It’s The End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)



Link removed at the request of the copyright owner.

I’m sitting here in my house in suburban New York, unable to get to work because the trains aren’t running. It’s raining and windy and I’m watching the President of the United States addressing emergency issues sharing a split screen with a video of churning waves. So far, things are OK here, but it is early in what is supposed to be a massive, long lasting and dangerous storm. I’m working remotely today, but am taking a break to post.

“Disasters” is a good theme for this week. The media and government officials have been talking about the potential dire effects of this storm for days, and in our current environment, if they are right, no one will give anyone credit, and if they overstated the risk, they will be mocked, and the next time, more people will ignore the warnings and put themselves in danger. This morning, I saw a report on the news about people who have ignored “mandatory evacuation orders.” Then, I guess, it really wasn’t mandatory, was it?

I had a bunch of different ideas for this week, from natural disasters—floods, hurricanes, cyclones, to man-made disasters—wars, famine, genocide, to alien and zombie attacks. But, when you come down to it, there is no bigger disaster than the end of the world, as we know it. I’ve been posting here for almost a year without repeating artists, and I did post an R.E.M. cover of Leonard Cohen a couple of weeks ago. But I’m going to argue that the Cohen cover was a “bonus” song, and not the focus of the previous post, so this isn’t a repeat. (As Marshall Eriksen, of “How I Met Your Mother” would say, “Lawyered!!”)

This is a great song, although the lyrics, in typical R.E.M. style, are difficult to make sense of. But the brilliance of R.E.M., especially in their early-middle periods, was that they were able to convey a mood or emotion without lyrics that were easily understood. Even the lyrics sites on the Internet don’t agree on all of them. I have a vague recollection of seeing this performed on TV once, and Michael Stipe needed to have a music stand with the lyrics available to him, presumably because there are just so damn many of them.

In the summer of 1988, my then-fiancée and her cousin Hilary were driving up to Connecticut to prepare for our wedding. The temperatures in the northeast that week approached those on the surface of Venus, and they drove together, listening to music and singing, including “End of the World,” which was still a pretty new song. Hilary, who was the maid of honor, cleverly worked the song into her toast at the wedding. So, despite the dire message, the song has some very happy connotations to me.

The wind is picking up, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I feel fine.