YouTube version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehLCvd_I3As
I don’t care a whole lot for witches (except when singing along at the top of my lungs with the Eagles’ “Witchy Woman”). If you believe that “spirits walk beside you, can make you cursed, can make you bleed,” then you may also think that a real witch could curse, haunt and trouble you.
Whenever I see a witch in costume at my door on Halloween, I wonder if they’re real and am reminded of the Bell Witch legend. In a story that documents a terrifying, supernatural event in the 1800s, the Bell Witch ("Kate") haunted a pioneer family, murdered patriarch John Bell, and inflicted a reign of terror throughout the Tennessee countryside.
Bell Witch (the movie) premiered on September 24, 2005 at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The soundtrack showcases bluegrass and old-time music from many artists associated with Tennessee’s Bell Buckle record label: Jimbo Whaley, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Jeannette Williams Band, Jeff and Vida Band, Wells Family, and Becky Buller. The movie's premiere was broadcast in high-def via satellite to over 80 theaters throughout the U.S., definitely a first for bluegrass music.
The soundtrack for Bell Witch (the movie) emphasizes songs that bring plenty of apparitions to life. About a month ago, I used one of fiddler/singer/songwriter Becky Buller’s tunes for the birthstones theme. In the Bell Witch movie, she contributed five compositions. She (along with Valerie Smith and Kraig Smith) wrote the song, “Ole John Bell (The Witch’s Curse)” featured here today. Witch Kate's theme is presented in lean, rawboned fashion with only Valerie’s vocals and Becky’s fiddle as the ghost comes to curse, claim and torment Bell's “worthless soul.”
Back in 2005, Kraig Smith speculated that the movie premier was somewhat like “a duck on a pond, cruising serenely on the surface, but paddling like heck underwater.” The Bell Witch movie soundtrack was a big coup for these artists. It may not have had the same impact as “Deliverance,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” or “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” but it certainly shows that bluegrass and old-time music belong in the movies on a much more regular basis.
One of the themes that I seem to regularly come back to is whether there is objectively good music or not—why do some people think a song or artist is great, and others are crap. In general, as I have said before, I’ve come to believe that all art is appreciated subjectively, so I try to avoid making pronouncements that something is good or bad. That being said, the comedy routine at issue today, “The Moose,” by Woody Allen, is undeniably funny, and I will brook no dispute on this matter.
I know this isn’t a song, which pretty much puts it outside of the general universe that this blog lives in, but it was the first thing I thought of when I read the theme, and it is, I believe I have mentioned, very funny.
Most people today may think of Woody Allen as a director of films that range from pretty good to not so great, but there was a time that he created some of the best and funniest American films ever. And a time before that when he was a writer of hysterical comedy pieces. And a time before that when he was a standup comedian. And a time before that when he wrote jokes for early TV shows. And he is also an accomplished jazz clarinetist, so this post isn't completely lacking in music content.
Allen’s persona was at the time, and for years after that, a nebbishy, unathletic city guy, focusing heavily on his stereotypical New York Jewishness, making the premise of “The Moose” funny at the start—that he had actually gone into the woods and shot a moose. Of course, in his later work and life Allen tried to recreate himself—dating and marrying beautiful women and casting himself as a romantic leading man, until it became almost ludicrous. But that came long after “The Moose,” which was performed and recorded in the early 1960’s, at a time when overtly Jewish humor was infiltrating the mainstream, so that simply referring to the moose as “the Solomons” would get laughs. And when the moose locks horns at the party with a married couple dressed as a moose, they are, of course, the “Berkowitzes.”
I won’t spoil the finale, but suffice to say, it also addresses a Jewish issue that was relevant then, if not so overtly now. The video above is slightly different from the version I first heard on record (recorded in New York) in which Allen refers to an actual New York institution, rather than the fictional one in the video, from a performance in England. Maybe he thought that the English audience wouldn’t get the joke the same way that a New York audience would, much as Monty Python changed a reference in their “Nudge Nudge” sketch from Purley to Scarsdale when they performed it in New York.
I strongly recommend tracking down a copy of the vinyl, or the two CD set that contains the full version of the routines (linked to above). I guarantee that you will laugh many, many times. And I think you will agree that “The Moose” is objectively funny.
We’re celebrating Halloween a week early here this week. This way, anyone who still doesn’t know what to dress up as can benefit from our suggestions. Seriously, Halloween, at least as observed here in the United States, is the time when we give into the urge for a short time to become someone or something else. That urge may be motivated by a desire for secrecy or concealment. Or, it may be a way of projecting a different identity onto someone else. The whole question of identity is rich ground for songwriters, and costumes and masks are a fine way to express that.
That said, our first example is not the finest display of deep songwriting you will ever hear. The Lone Teen Ranger is a 1950’s pop song about jealousy. The masked man in the title is a metaphor for a rival who probably doesn’t wear a mask as he walks the halls of his high school. The song is sometimes credited to Jerry Landis by himself, and sometimes to his group Tom & Jerry. This is itself a disguise for a duo that would later become much better known as Simon and Garfunkle. Landis is Paul Simon, whose songwriting under his own name is of a very different quality than this.