This year, works of art created in 1923 went out of copyright and are now in the public domain. This is a big deal because it hasn’t happened in decades because when copyright was about to run out in 1999 (on works published in 1923), the US government extended copyright protection for another 20 years.
Let’s think about this for a second. What does it mean, socially, for a work to be in the public domain? Obviously, it means that the work belongs to everyone. But why? I think it is because everyone knows it. To use the most important example, does anyone know who created Mickey Mouse? (It wasn’t Walt Disney.) For 99 percent of people (that’s no exaggeration), the answer is no. But they sure do know who Mickey Mouse is!
But this is just a way of thinking. I’m not arguing that we use it as a test. If it were, it would allow the most famous people to hold onto copyright longer — exactly the opposite of what we are trying to do. (For example, most people around me know that Paul McCartney wrote “Yesterday.”) Once a work of art becomes suffused in society, it is in the public domain — whether the law agrees or not.
Public Domain Is Too Far Behind the Present
It has been a troubling irony that as society has sped up — as art has changed faster — works have gone into the public domain (legally) slower. Just look at the films that have just now been put in the public domain. They are all in black and white. They are all silent.
Meanwhile, films gained sound. They gained color. Video was invented. And now films are largely made on computers. And yet all that we legally allow into the public domain are films so old that children can’t enjoy them. Indeed, the only people who enjoy them are people who take film serious and understand its technique and history.
But I think there is another issue. We are now at the ridiculously long 95-year copyright. The stuff being released is so old it has virtually no value as a commodity. As a result, the bad PR is probably not worth the little money the corporation can squeeze out of these works. Is any corporation really going to release a DVD of Safety Last!? It’s doubtful.
So most corporate copyright holders just don’t care. Maybe Disney will make an effort to protect Mickey Mouse from the horrors of pornography. But without the entire industry lobbying and claiming “No one will make movies anymore!” it isn’t likely that Congress is going to act.
And note, creative development is still accelerating. So in 20 years, the stuff that falls out of copyright will be even further behind the times.
From what I know about publishing (which is a lot), I have developed what I think are extremely fair terms for copyright owners. (Note I didn’t say “content creators,” because most owners did not create any content.) Copyright should last for ten years from publication with an optional extension of 10 years. So the maximum copyright length would be 20 years.
I actually think making the extension 5 years is fairer. But I’m trying to be really nice.
This would more than keep the film, music, book, and art industries going. The vast majority of the money they make is in the first year of publication. In fact, if corporations acted like normal people, they wouldn’t even care after 5 years. The amount of money that comes in is trivial at that point.
But as I’ve noted many times before: if a corporation could make an extra dollar by exporting its entire workforce, it would do it without thought. That’s corporate-think. And it is really something that we should fight as a society.
So if the corporate world is really done pushing copyright to be longer and longer, we have an opportunity. We can now go on the aggressive. We can push for copyrights to be reduced.
In Lee’s article, he implies that the 56-year copyright of decades ago was reasonable. It wasn’t. And the author’s life plus 50 years was not reasonable.
We can’t allow the absurd modern copyright length to blind us from the fact that in the modern world, a copyright length of ten years is more than enough. Anything else is just corporate welfare.
 Yes, I don’t think much of vague notions about “ideas” when it comes to creative productions. I have millions of ideas. It all comes down to how it is rendered. And when people like Stan Lee and Walt Disney try to take credit for these things, I bristle.
 This is a common argument made. It is, of course, not why Disney cares about this issue. It’s all about money. It’s always all about money.
The image is by OpenIcons and is in the public domain.
Growing up, the song “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and Carol Channing were more or less the same thing. I know that Marilyn Monroe performed the song in the filmed version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And Jo Stafford recorded a version of the song three years before that. But Channing originated the role on Broadway. And it has since been her signature song. (Yes, she’s still alive — turning 98 this month.)
There are lots of ways to interpret the song. It is certainly one of the most cynical songs in the history of popular music. But the real question is what we are to make of the singer.
Is the Singer Sympathetic?
In the musical, it is sung by Lorelei Lee. And it is clear that she is meant to be sympathetic. It starts with her boyfriend’s father sending a detective to track her on her trip to France. He’s afraid she is only dating his son for his money. At the end, because this is a musical comedy, the father learns to respect her and gives his consent to marry.
This is all interesting but it is hardly a case for the song being a feminist anthem. In addition to everything else, the lyrics were written by a man, Leo Robin. (The music was written by Jule Styne, which I mention only because he is probably my favorite musical composer of that era.)
But the truth is that the song is an illustration of a woman accessing the world as it is and then taking control. It’s gender realpolitik.
The song starts:
A kiss on the hand
May be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
A kiss may be grand
But it won’t pay the rental
On your humble flat
Or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shape
These rocks don’t lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
It’s odd that I never listened to the lyrics all those times I heard Channing perform it. It wasn’t until 1982 when T-Bone Burnett released a subdued version that I was forced to see just how menacing those lyrics were. And hidden beneath them is fear of a society that doesn’t treat girls the same as boys (this is quite explicit in the play).
The following year, Emmylou Harris released Burnett’s arrangement on her album White Shoes, which is great:
Feminist or Anti-Man?
The rest of the song is the same:
There may come a time
When a lass needs a lawyer
But diamonds are a girl’s best friend
There may come a time when a hard-boiled employer
Thinks you’re awful nice
But get that ice or else no dice
He’s your guy
When stocks are high
But beware when they start to descend
That’s when those louses
Go back to their spouses
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.
(The full song includes an introduction and a third verse — both of which are wisely omitted by most performers. Channing uses yet another verse after the first that is quite good, but I’m not going to discuss it.)
The second verse could be seen as more anti-man than feminist. But I’m not sure that’s a distinction that matters. As with all relationships, the person with the most power acts the worse. To me, feminism ultimately becomes humanism.
I’ll admit that I’m jaded. A woman who understands that a sexual relationship is ultimately an economic exchange is one that has my respect. But you don’t need to see the song as quite that cynical. This is not a “sex for diamonds” transaction.
The implication is that she’s quite happy to be in the relationship. But since she can’t be a wife, she’s going to see to her retirement.
Obviously, the song is not modern feminism. But for 1949 ethos it does push forward. Instead of telling young women to hold on to their virginity in order to get a husband, this song says, “Go ahead and live your life. But men are awful so protect yourself.”
What’s more, it seems a lot more progressive than Sheryl Sandberg’s ridiculous Lean In philosophy. I would say that Sandberg is pitching the same “wait until you’re married” notion. It is, “Play the rules like a man and they will treat you right.”
They won’t. Get that ice or no dice.
The image of Carol Channing is cropped from one in the public domain via Wikipedia.
In 1998, the Timberline Lodge outside Portland, Oregon was filming a number of acoustic sets of notable musicians. One of them was Steve Forbert. But the lodge was snowed in. No one could get there, so I was one of maybe 5 people in the audience. I sat about a foot away from him as he performed. It was a magical moment because Forbert had been a hero of mine since I was in my teens.
In Loudon Wainwright’s great “Talking New Bob Dylan,” he pegs Forbert pretty well as a variation of Bob Dylan:
Yeah, I got a deal and so did John Prine
Steve Forbert and Springsteen, all in a line
They were lookin’ for you, signin’ up others
We were new Bob Dylans, your dumb ass kid brothers
Well, we still get together every week at Bruce’s house
Why, he’s got quite a spread I tell ya, it’s a twelve step program.
Discovering Steve Forbert
I was at the mall recently and over the sound system, I heard little Steve Forbert. It reminded me how much I used to like him.
The song was, of course, “Romeo’s Tune” — the only song of his that was ever a hit as far as I know. Of course, I haven’t followed his career for about two decades. But unless all his intelligence and talent left him, I can’t imagine how he would have found himself in the top 40 again. Anyway, I figured it would be a good idea to start with it because most people don’t know who Steve Forbert is.
“Romeo’s Tune” is off his second album, Jackrabbit Slim. So I’m going to jump back below because I love his first album.
But the nice thing about Steve Forbert’s hit song is that it is fully in keeping with his other work. It’s a wonderful song. And as a lyric writer, he’s more of a poet than almost any songwriter I can think of. “Let me smell the moon in your perfume”? That’s such a lovely enigmatic line!
I remember reading that the agent who originally snagged Steve Forbert found him playing in a punk club. Although in a certain way, that seems bizarre, in another way, it makes perfect sense.
To me, punk isn’t about a style of music, but an approach to music. Listen to that first Bob Dylan album and tell me if that doesn’t sound punk to you. Steve Forbert on album doesn’t sound so very punk, but he does live. It’s the production. Most of his albums have been really beautifully produced, and that is not very punk.
I mentioned this because I am presenting “Goin’ Down to Laurel” first. Forbert was born in Meridian, Mississippi. It’s a town of about 40,000. And Laurel is about 50 miles south of it — with a population of a bit less than 20,000. But there were more people in Laurel when Forbert was growing up — it’s been falling steadily. So maybe when he sings, “It’s a dirty, stinking town,” he is right.
But what I find fascinating about the song is that he is singing as something of a bad boy — or at least a confident one who is in his element. He’s going down south to see a “little girl” who he says is “a fool” for loving him. And I suspect that as long as he was in Mississippi, he was that person. But the same album has the songs that he clearly wrote after he moved to New York. I’ll highlight one of those songs later. But for now, just bask in self-assurance. And remember it.
Big City Cat
After the last Steve Forbert song “Goin’ Down to Laurel” where he plays the bad boy, I wanted to offer a very different track off Alive on Arrival. The song is “Big City Cat.”
It’s a funny song. He’s talking about his life after moving to New York. Most of the song is just about the feel of the big city with its sights and sounds. The only indication that things are not going that well is when he says, “I’m getting so skinny it hurts to sit down.” This reminds me of once a few years ago when I got down to 99 pounds and it did indeed hurt to sit down.
But the whole song turns into a kind of musical version of The Zoo Story toward the end. He’s living in one of those dreary places with a shared bathroom. And some kind of “lunatic” has been following him. Now the guy is hanging out in his hallway, leading to him being afraid to use the bathroom.
But he ends the song with the wry observation that this is all that he wanted, “I’m supposed to be happy; I’m here where it’s at; I’m a face in the crowd; I’m a big city cat!” Yeah, maybe Laurel wasn’t such a dirty stinking town after all.
Say Goodbye to Little Jo
Okay, now we move back to Steve Forbert’s second album, Jackrabbit Slim. It was his most popular album because of “Romeo’s Tune.” But it also had “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” which I think got a fair amount of play — at least on AOR stations.
It’s a lovely song. It’s about a break-up. The implication is that it’s kind of a pep-talk the singer is giving to himself: let her go; don’t be a jerk; it’s your own damned fault anyway. There’s also the implication that Little Jo was the one. Break-ups before were easy enough to get through, but this one is going to be different.
This song reminds me a lot of Jules Shear. But that’s hardly surprising. There’s a reason why I admire the two of them so much. But this song has the emotional complexity that I associate with Shear. It’s kind of like one of my all-time favorite Shear tunes, The First Freeze After The Fall. But that song is more about grabbing hold of the pain and cherishing it. That’s in “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” but it isn’t the focus.
Now we move to Steve Forbert’s third album, Little Stevie Orbit. It’s actually a very upbeat album — even a bit unhinged at times. But the song I most remember from it is the subdued “Cellophane City.” It’s one of the songs that brings to mind William Goldman’s line about Hollywood, but which applies equally well to the music business, “No one knows anything.” It sounds like a hit to me — at least on AOR. It wasn’t.
Typical of this period of Forbert, the production is exceptional. Or it is just the kind of production that I most like in popular music. Sure, I may admire the more flashy production of Bob Ezrin and Jim Steinman. But its music like this that I listen to again and again. It is probably because it is really creative, but it never crosses that line of being an end in itself. I think Forbert brought that out in producers, given he had different ones.
The refrain in the song “cellophane city” gives the wrong impression about its meaning. It’s really not about some Peyton Place. It’s about one man and how he deals with the infidelity of what sounds like a wife, “He stood in the kitchen, she told him a lie; she left around 7 and kissed him goodbye…” But he gets over it.
The last verse is definitely the best because it puts the man’s previous behavior in context and shows that there is a better way:
You try to be Jesus, you try to be boss
You pulled a few tricks and you hang on a cross
This sepulcher is emptying, yeah all is at peace
We know you’re with Magdalene and you’re sailing for Greece.
That’s right: everyone knows; no one cares; get on with your life. Martyrdom is for chumps. Like a lot of Steve Forbert songs, it manages to be didactic but without the listener knowing it. So there you have your lesson for the day! And a really beautiful song:
Steve Forbert’s fourth self-titled album was, well, weird. It was all over the map. Whereas his earlier albums were incredibly consistent, he decided to spread out on this one. I can’t blame an artist for wanting to do this. But from the standpoint of a listener, it can be a bit disconcerting. It didn’t do well. It led to him losing his record contract.
But I think it’s a fine album. I do think it’s over-produced, and that’s too bad given his first three albums. But it has Steve Forbert’s usual range of emotion and wit. I don’t think it has a single bad song on it. There is a feeling I have a lot with him that I’d rather just listen to him alone with a guitar. He doesn’t need production, even if he was usually served well by it.
I’m going to highlight probably the most low-key song on Steve Forbert, “Lost.” I still think it is over-produced. But it’s such a fine song. And it’s from a perspective we don’t hear much in music — at least like this. It’s about the other man. The singer is talking to the ex of his new lover. The refrain is, “I’m lost in your sweetheart’s arms.” It’s what the other man in The Tennessee Waltz would sing.
He takes no pleasure in the pain he is inflicting on the other man. And he’s not even sure if the woman loves him, “Is she poison? Man, I just can’t tell.” But he’s so in love that he wants her to run off with him and get married. It reminds me of how I used to think when I was younger: that men should be willing to sacrifice their desires out of a kinship of manhood. Think of the ending of Casablanca. But if men can’t do that, they can at least be aware of what they are doing, as in “Lost.”
In saying this, I’m well aware that this a male-centric way of looking at relationships. This is partly why I no longer look at relationships in this way. (More important is that I just don’t see monogamous relationships as being that realistic or healthy.) But overall, everyone would be happier if they at least noticed the pain they cause others.
Steve Forbert Live
For years, I’ve looked to see if that 1998 concert ever came out on video. It didn’t. Part of it is on the album, Timberline Acoustic Series. But that’s just audio.
There is surprisingly little Steve Forbert live online. I am getting used to the fact that my tastes are not those of other people. Talking to Will a couple of years ago, I learned that he doesn’t think that much of Forbert. But I must note that in his old age, Will’s taste in music has really deteriorated. Then he made me listen to the Meghan Trainor song NO. All I could think to say was that it sounded like a Meghan Trainor song.
Anyway, the only suitable video I could find was the following 1979 performance at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey. It’s good, but I’ve already featured the first two songs of it: “Romeo’s Tune” and “Goin’ Down To Laurel.” And it limits his work to the first two albums. But it’s a fine performance. And it’s an excellent way to spend an hour.
Here is a short set from 2015 in support of his album Compromised, which is very good:
When I was a teen, I listened to The Dr Demento Show every Saturday night. I think it was a social thing: my closest friends all listened to it. I disliked a lot of the material that was played. And it was repetitive. Still, there were transcendent pieces like Doodles Weaver’s parody of “Eleanor Rigby.” But it was very rarely played. One song that was played quite a lot was “The Ballad of Irving.”
In order to understand “The Ballad of Irving,” we have to go back to 1964 and a surprising number one hit in the US by Lorne Greene. That’s right: Ben Cartwright (“Pa”) on Bonanza. It should not surprise you that this iconic American character was played by… a Canadian. But I digress.
Greene had a hit with the song “Ringo.” It’s about the drummer of a really famous band who has no detectable skill in anything at all. It’s about an outlaw in the old west. I rather like it. But then, I’m a sucker for this kind of sentimental drivel.
But the only part of the song that is sung is by a chorus that repeats, “Ringo! Ringo!” Otherwise, it is just Greene telling the story. Rather than recount it, you should just listen:
You can see why people would like it at the time. But you can also see why two years later, people would find it ripe for parody — especially since this kind of song became something of a thing.
Here Comes “The Ballad of Irving”
Those people were Frank Peppiatt, John Aylesworth, and Dick Williams. “The Ballad of Irving” tells the story of a Jewish gunman Irving: the 142nd fastest gun in the west. It was first released on the Bob Booker and George Foster comedy album When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish and “sung” by Frank Gallop.
The song is basically one long Jewish joke.
I Don’t Want to Be Racist
What’s strange is that the people involved with that album, and it’s predecessor, You Don’t Have to Be Jewish, mostly don’t have classic Jewish names. I know some of them were Jewish. Probably they all were. In general, one gets Jewish humor from Jews.
I bring it up because (1) Jewish as a race has never made any sense to me and (2) I would feel slightly more comfortable about it if it were created by Jews. I probably shouldn’t worry. It’s hard to imagine a group of Baptists putting out You Don’t Have to Be Jewish and When You’re in Love the Whole World Is Jewish.
Ladies and Gentlemen: Butterfingers Irving
Regardless of my natural liberal guilt, I find this song extremely funny — as I suspect most American Jews would too. There’s something very likable about Irving. I’m not Jewish. (I’m Catholic, which a Jewish friend told me made me half Jewish — a thought I rather like.) But had I been a gunman in the old west, I would have acted very much like Irving, the 142nd fastest gun in the west.
Son of Irving
Shortly after the success of “The Ballad of Irving,” the same songwriters wrote “Son of Irving.” The song was not a success at the time. But worse is that it hasn’t aged well because, at least to me, it is implicitly homophobic. And I do mean “implicitly,” because there is nothing in the song that really signals this. It’s about a moma’s boy.
But there’s something about him being thin, tall, and good-looking that makes me think that they were implying homosexuality.
Regardless, even though the denouement is as strong as it is in “The Ballad of Irving,” the song doesn’t work nearly as well. Still, it’s worth a listen.
Dr Demento Days
Dr Demento is still around. There seem to be umpteen Dr Demonto CD collections. It’s nice to be reminded of him. But I doubt I would want to listen to his show — or any of his CDs. It’s all too uneven. But I’m glad to have been introduced to all those songs — even the ones I hate like Shaving Cream and Wet Dreams.
I saw that 60 Minutes profiled the child musician Alma Deutscher. I thought it odd. Very accomplished young musicians are hardly uncommon. I had season tickets to the Portland Symphony for a few years and it seemed every other performance featured some “great” 12-year-old on the violin or piano or glockenspiel. So why this child? Well, because she wasn’t just a performer; she was a composer. Oh, my! How exciting!
Now I should point out that I’m not using the word “prodigy” because that was a word that was used a lot about me: I was a “mathematical prodigy.” And I loved math. But I wasn’t interested in studying it 8 hours per day and my parents weren’t inclined to push me to do it. Instead, I spent time playing and drawing and putting on plays and generally doing anything that made me happy. I have a hard time believing any child wants to do one thing all the time. But I certainly can’t speak for Alma Deutscher. Nor would I want to. She speaks for herself, although she’s obviously been coached as much as Marjoe.
A Composer! Of 200 Year Old Music!
I was skeptical. Modern classical music is incredibly complex — even the bad stuff. The best stuff is filled with so much creativity that I had a hard time thinking that a 12-year-old would have much to offer. That was certainly true of Mozart. Nothing he wrote was really great until he was well into his 20s. (That’s right folks: Mozart wrote a lot of dreck in his early years.) Clearly, he had talent. But as with word writers, music writers need experience with life.
But I hoped that the compositions of this little girl were limited or even bad modern classical music. So I went to YouTube and found everything I could. I was sorely disappointed. She doesn’t even try to write anything from the last two centuries. Her music sounds like a precocious child’s version of the music before Beethoven. And that makes me think her performances aren’t anything more than her copying other performers. (That’s almost certainly true because it’s pretty much always true of young musicians; they haven’t had the life experience to add anything to the music.)
Great Composing Requires a Life Lived
Great composers do amazing things with their work. They communicate — in great detail. You might just hear a passage as sad, but they aren’t working in generalities. Many composers are known for putting musical jokes in their work. A great composer will tell you a story as clearly as the best writer or filmmaker.
Obviously, composers must study. Mozart studied counterpoint with Giovanni Martini, and the music he created afterward was far more interesting. But it was still years before he wrote anything I ever want to listen to.
But here’s my point: he was trying to write the music of his time. And this supposedly amazing child isn’t interested in any of the music of her own time. Most of it is no more interesting in the juvenilia of Mozart — which he wrote over 200 years ago!
The Classical Music Industry Sucks
This is not to knock Alma Deutscher. She’s a child. But it is a knock on the people who “enjoy” classical music. And it is a major knock on the people who produce classical music. As for her parents, well, I don’t know. But I suspect child abuse just as Marjoe Gortner suffered — just in a different way. I’d love to read the child’s autobiography when she’s 50.
This all makes me think that this poor young girl has been turned into a trained monkey by her parents and the classical music establishment. Almost everything she plays is something she’s written. I listened to her play a middling Mozart concerto that wasn’t really very well done. (She’s better on the violin than the piano.) Great for a little girl. Savaged by critics if performed by an adult. (She doesn’t seem to have even been told the purpose of a cadenza. And why an audience would applaud after the first movement, is unclear to me.)
I don’t think so. She might have. But not with all the adults who used her natural gifts to stick her two centuries before her own time. Sure, she’ll get better. But I doubt she’ll break from the music that made her famous. And at 16, she won’t be so cute. And if she’s lucky, she’ll have enough money that she can just quit.
Abused Child: Alma Deutscher
60 Minutes brought her on because they (and most classical music “lovers”) know almost nothing about classical music. Because they could have brought on someone like Masha Diatchenko, who at 15 actually seemed to understand the music she was playing. She didn’t seem like an abused trained monkey:
Maybe it’s an American thing. But I weep for Alma Deutscher. She’s being abused. And if she doesn’t know it now, she will soon enough.
After reading this, I read the child’s Wikipedia page. It’s interesting that it contains not a single criticism, despite the fact that there has been quite a lot of criticism of her work. I suspect part of her marketing team makes sure that any criticism is removed. But there is much in there that makes the case that she is pushing against the prevailing trend against melody. This is preposterous. She has shown no sign of even being aware of current trends in classical music — or even trends over the last century.
Darius Milhaud once said, “Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.” I think modern composers know this. They don’t need to be taught by a precocious child. If they can be, modern classical music is over. But I don’t think it is. I think this child will have no effect whatsoever on the art of classical music. She might drag down the quality of what people listen to. Most classical music “lovers” may finally admit that they only like the music that doesn’t offend their archaic tastes. But the art will move along because of people like Caroline Shaw, even if most listeners aren’t sophisticated enough to enjoy it.
My great wish was to hear Pablo Casals. One day my desire was almost fulfilled and I met him. But ironically, it was I who had to play. It was in the home of the Von Mendelssohns, a house filled with El Grecos, Rembrandts, and Stradivaris. Francesco von Mendelssohn, the son of the banker, who was a talented cellist, telephoned and asked if he could call for me; they had a guest in the house who would like to hear me play.
“Mr. Casals,” I was introduced to a little bald man with a pipe. He said that he was pleased to meet young musicians such as Serkin and me. Rudolf Serkin, who stood stiffly next to me, seemed, like myself, to be fighting his diffidence. Rudi had played before my arrival, and Casals now wanted to hear us together. Beethoven’s D-Major Sonata was on the piano. “Why don’t you play it?” asked Casals. Both nervous and barely knowing each other, we gave a poor performance that terminated somewhere in the middle.
“Bravo! Bravo! Wonderful!” Casals applauded. Francesco brought the Schumann Cello Concerto, which Casals wanted to hear. I never played worse. Casals asked for Bach. Exasperated, I obliged with a performance matching the Beethoven and Schumann.
“Splendid! Magnifique!” said Casals embracing me.
Bewildered, I left the house. I knew how badly I had played, but why did he, the master, have to praise and embrace me? This apparent insincerity pained me more than anything else.
The greater was my shame and delight when, a few years later, I met Casals in Paris. We had dinner together and played duets for two cellos, and I palyed for him until late at night. Spurred by his great warmth, and happy, I confessed what I had thought of his praising me in Berlin. He reacted with sudden anger. He rushed to the cello. “Listen!” He played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me…it was good… and here, didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He demonstrated. He went through Schumann and Bach, always emphasizing all he liked that I had done. “And for the rest,” he said passionately, “leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults. I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”
This article is based on a series of Morning Music posts. It’s a work in progress because I only made it to the beginning of the Classical Period. (Yes, Classical music has a Classical Period — and it’s fairly short.)
Jim Holt’s book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, is a really fun book. In my discussion of the book, I highlighted a joke from the 15th century. It doesn’t even seem like a joke, because most of it is spent explaining to the listener why it is funny. As a result, it’s important to understand just how much art changes over time. A joke that we find funny today would make no sense to someone who lived a thousand years ago.
I am going through the history of what we call Classical music. It is a particular kind of music that really represents what the elites of Europe have listened to. As a result, for nearly the first millennium — dating back to about 1000 CE — it was exclusively religious. But even through the Baroque period (1600–1750), most of the major composers had some relation to the church.
The Medieval Period: Get Your Chant On
We are going to start with the Medieval period because, frankly, there wasn’t much that changed before that. For what we would call Classical music, this remained supreme and largely unchanged for 500 years.
So that means we are going to listen to a Gregorian chant. When learning music theory in an American college, you always start with these chants. They are incredibly formal in their melodies. They have as simple a rhythm as you can get. And they have no harmony whatsoever (unless you consider unison harmony, which I guess it technically is, but really). Yet they do have a simple beauty. And they are often hypnotic. You can well imagine someone going into a trance during one — having a religious vision.
Thus we listen to “Gaudeamus Omnes” (Let Us All). I don’t present it as something you are going to love. But this piece is meant to work the same way a film history class works — allowing you to see how the art form evolves over time.
Josquin des Prez Gets Funky
Next in our exploration of classical music, we get to the Renaissance period. This is a hard one because it is when sacred and secular music diverge. The main importance of the secular music for our purposes is that it introduces instruments. Up to this time, all the music was sung. But the secular music tends to lead us more in the direction of the folk music tradition. So forgive me for staying with the sacred for a while more.
There are many new things here. The main innovations at this point are that the music becomes polyphonic and somewhat rhythmic. No longer is a melody just sung in unison with quarter notes. What’s more, this is the time that fugue-like structures find their way into the music. You hear this quite often in motets — where different people are singing the same thing but at different times. If you want a simple example, think of a group singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” — but actually beautiful to hear. It is formal without being rigid — or at least it is when created by a great composer.
Here, we are going to listen to a piece by Josquin des Prez — one of the greatest of the Renaissance composers. This is the motet “Ave Maria … Virgo Serena.” It is performed by Schola Antiqua of Chicago and it is gorgeous. But I think this fact is easy to miss if you listen to it relative to modern music of almost any kind — since the polyphonic innovations have been so thoroughly integrated into our musical language.
Claudio Monteverdi and His “Tiny” Revolution
Now we look at the early Baroque period. This is the period where counterpoint just goes crazy. This is where two or more musical lines work together to create a greater harmonic whole. Probably the best representation of this is the string quartet, which won’t really come into its all until the Classical period — although it certainly existed long before that and continues to be one of the great forms of classical music.
The man most associated with the transition from Renaissance to Baroque music is the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. He fused the kind of polyphony that we heard from Josquin with a style of composition called the basso continuo. In it, the melody and the bass line are provided, and an indication of the kind of harmony, but not the actual notes. The performer was then expected to improvise the rest.
Actually, many of the great classical musicians into the Romantic period were known to be excellent improvisers. So those who think someone like Antonio Salieri was a boring fellow are quite wrong; he was the McCoy Tyner of his day!
We are going to listen to a madrigal from 1619, “Chiome d’Oro, Bel Tesoro” (Golden head of hair, beautiful treasure). You can definitely hear the transition here. For one thing, now we have voices and instruments together. Also: the different musical lines are working in the service of the harmonic structure. This was originally written for two voices, two violins, and a basso continuo. You can well imagine just how revolutionary this music must have sounded to the people of the early 17th century. And here it is beautifully fleshed out by Voices of Music:
Barbara Strozzi: Attack of the 50 ft Baroque Woman
Almost every Baroque composer you’ve heard of is from the late period. There is a strong urge on my part just to skip right to them. But the middle period is really important. Because of the establishment of absolute monarchies throughout Europe, “court” music was developing. This created a great deal more sharing of music geographically. And so composers like Johann Jakob Froberger became really important in spreading different ideas all around the continent. (But we won’t listen to anything by him because most of the stuff online is harpsichord music — which I’m just not that fond of.)
This is the period when Baroque becomes more austere. There’s something almost romantic about the Renaissance and early Baroque music. But now it becomes intricate and exact. At its worst, it is overly intellectual. At its best, it is deeply affecting without pandering.
One of the greatest composers — almost certainly the greatest of secular vocal music (including the librettos, which are said to be excellent) of this period was a woman, Barbara Strozzi. She was also a great singer. Not only was she a woman in a time when they didn’t do this thing much, she was illegitimate. Yet she dominated the period. And look at the painting — she’s quite young and already has the look that she doesn’t take shit from anyone.
She is typical of the work that is breaking away from the early Baroque period. Notice in the following cantata, “Che Si Puo Fare” (What Can Be Done), the melodic development, which sounds distinctly classical at times. At the same time, the harmonic structure is still very much like what we heard from Claudio Monteverdi:
Dieterich Buxtehude: Let the Harmony Begin!
Now we get to the end of the middle part of the Baroque period. I’m going to focus on Dieterich Buxtehude.
He was a well known organist in his time, and so he wrote a lot for the organ. But he also wrote a great deal of vocal music. This is not surprising, as the middle Baroque period was when music and words first came together as equals. But for some reason, his vocal work doesn’t seem to have been terribly popular in his own lifetime.
What we are going to listen to now is Membra Jesu Nostri (The Limbs of our Jesus) — a cycle of seven cantatas. The main thing to notice about it is the very modern harmonic structure. This is kind of an inflection point in music from melodies creating harmonies to harmonies creating melodies. It is what allows us to know with such certainty that a piece of music is finished: because it has a harmonic denouement — as surely as a Greek tragedy.
Vivaldi: So Great One Name Is Enough
There are really two titans of the late Baroque period: Bach and Vivaldi — two men so great, they only need one name. They were quite distinct, even if they both fully sum up the period. Bach is more focused on counterpoint. And it can, at times, be overwhelming. Vivaldi does get into excessive counterpoint at times, but it isn’t actually his thing. Vivaldi is more free flowing. But Bach, in his formalism pushed in some surprisingly modern directions. Above all, both composers are similar but distinct.
In general, my favorite is Vivaldi. That dates back to when I played flute. Vivaldi understood how to write for the flute. Playing pieces by Bach always felt like I was playing something that was actually meant for the violin. Vivaldi knew that flutists had to breath from time to time. But I also think that Vivaldi understood the character of the instrument better. That is not to say that Bach didn’t write some of the greatest flute music ever — he did.
Bach and Vivaldi Similarities
One thing that both composers pushed was the use of solo instruments. Up to this point, most music had been predominately ensemble.
What’s more, the forms became longer — that was especially true of Bach, who often got lost in his own compositions. But ultimately, I don’t think you can point to a better piece as the height of the Baroque period than Vivalidi’s Four Seasons. It is actually not a single piece, of course; it is four violin concertos. But they are beautiful, and unlike almost everything else in my life, I do not get tired of listening to them. Here they are performed by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta with the great (there are a lot of great violinists in the world) Janine Jansen at the International Chamber Music Festival in 2014. (I was going to present Antal Zalai’s better performance of it, but the audience applauding between each movement drove me crazy.)
Interestingly, after their deaths, both Bach and Vivaldi fell out of favor. They were considered old fashioned. Bach came to be admired in a way he was not during his life in the 19th century. Vivaldi was not rediscovered until the 20th century. And that is probably why Bach has a bigger reputation.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: The Classical Period Begins
The Classical period of music started in 1750, and I am going to stop just as we reach it.
It’s interesting, though, that we call the kind of music we have been listening to as “classical music,” when most of what people think of as classical music is, in fact, from the Romantic period. In general, my favorite period of music is the Classic period because it spans a divide: not so intellectual as the Baroque period and not so emotional as the Romantic period. (Interestingly, when I take the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, my thinking and feeling functions are about equal, so that might be why I like the Classical period.) I’m also really fond of early 20th century music, but that will have to wait for later.
Now I want to look at what is called Galant music. It represented a turn away from the excessive complexity that had come to dominate the Baroque period. It also represented the big shift toward the solo instrument. And so we are going to listen to one of the great theorists and composers of this this period, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach — one of the sons of the Bach. He was not only influenced by his father, but also his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, who was himself part of galant style — although more as a follower than an innovator.
We are going to listen to Trio Sonata in B-Flat Major, dating from 1843 — when Bach was 29 years old. It is for flute, violin, and bass. But as you will see in the following performance, the bass part has been fully realized for the piano. I’m very struck by this flutist, Sofia Lubyantseva, who is very good. Note the clarity of the lead instruments, the simplicity of the harmonic structure, the directness of the melody. It also has lots of clear legacy material. For instance, it is largely a very clever fugue. Even though this piece was written before it had started, it signals that the Classical period had begun.
Here are all the videos put together in a single playlist:
 If you read that article (and you should), you will note that it says historians have uncovered no animosity between Salieri and Mozart. That’s not exactly true. As the article points out, if there was any animosity between the men, it was all on Mozart’s part. Mozart did complain in one or two letters about Salieri. But it’s clear that this was just a younger, less-established musician with a chip on his shoulder. I’m sure as his career improved, all that was forgotten.
Unlike portrayed in Amadeus, Mozart’s career steadily improved. Had he lived another decade he probably would have been a rich man. He got the reputation of being terribly poor because his father (a truly vile man) had taught him to never owe money to someone for very long. So he would borrow money from one person. Then borrow money from another to pay the first person. And on and on. And remember at that time, people lived on credit far more than they do now, because money would normally come in chunks. Cervantes (early, but still) was a tax collector for the Spanish king and had to pay all his own expenses and waited as long as 3 years between payments.
This article is a compilation of seven articles that I wrote about songs features in the 1990s classic film Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
The film itself is charming. It is quite funny, and the denouement is just perfect with Romy and Machele standing up for the value of their own lives. But it shows all the signs of needing a few more drafts. The whole dream sequence really muddiest the film and makes the rest of it (which is fairly unbelievable) hard to believe. Still, the film is quite enjoyable, the acting is wonderful, and its ultimate message about friendship is wonderful in our postmodern world.
Since the film represents the two women’s tenth-year reunion, it requires us to take a disturbing trip into 1980s pop. It was a time of twice destroyed music. First punk became “new wave” and then it just became pop. But it’s not always so bad. I’ve tried to pick the better material.
Time After Time
We start with the Cyndi Lauper tune “Time After Time.”
Interestingly, the song was not on the soundtrack for the film. But it is the most important song in the film. It is featured when Romy is stood up by Billy Christensen, and then it is played again when Romy, Michele, and Sandy perform their their interpretive dance number before flying away in a helicopter.
When the song was playing on the radio, I liked it quite a lot. Now it sounds dated. I can’t make out a single acoustic instrument despite the fact that it really doesn’t need any electronics at all. The song is solid, even with the cliche hook. But the drum samples and synth sounds are really not that offensive. I think that producer Rick Chertoff gets a lot of credit for creating an overall sound for the album that doesn’t make my skin crawl.
The thing that I most dislike in “Time After Time” is something I was very fond of at the time: guitar flanging. But like anything that’s interesting in pop music, it was used to death and then for a few decades more. Flanging quickly became the go-to guitar sound when a producer had no idea what to do. But it worked on this song at that time, as I recall.
But you can’t make me sit through that any more than I already have, so here is a beautiful, almost acoustic version of the song live.
What’s interesting about “Just a Girl” is that it is the perfect song for the film. Although it sounds light and pleasant, it is a highly political song. Slow it down and perform it with an acoustic guitar and you have a Natalie Merchant song. Although “Just a girl” is repeated more often, technically the refrain is, “I’ve had it up to here!” And that is, ultimately, what Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is all about.
“Just a Girl” starts with what was always a curious lyric to me, “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.” Now it seems ridiculously obvious what that’s all about. The trappings of femininity are used to blind women from their subjugation. And the line is followed by a far more disturbing line, “I’m exposed and it’s no big surprise.” I see “exposed” as a synonym for “naked.” The song makes many references to the objectification of women. But it also indicates that regardless of the pink ribbons, women still know their situation on a more fundamental level.
Of course, “Just a Girl” is also exactly the kind of music that Romy and Michele would have been dancing to in the mid-1990s.
Don’t Get Me Wrong
In a sense, this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion Morning Music week has been a bust. The idea was that we would have a lot of terrible music from the 1980s, but thus far, the music has been pretty good. Today does not help matters: “Don’t Get Me Wrong” by The Pretenders.
But don’t get me wrong: it isn’t a great song. But it works very well. The first part of it seems to be a very cheery celebration of being in love. The second part of it is about the volatility of love. The key line is, “Don’t get me wrong if I fall in the mode of passion.” The “mode of passion” is, put simply, lust. And the singer seems to be saying that she should be forgiven the ebb and flow of her love just as she forgives it of her lover.
Regardless of how you want to read the song, there is always something incredibly compelling about Chrissie Hynde when she’s singing something that is sweet as in perhaps my favorite Pretenders’ song, Kid. But today, it is the much more straightforward “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” It’s nice. Nothing that Elizabeth needs to be ashamed of liking. But I will search the film for something really awful. There is at least some material that is mediocre.
Oh, and regarding this video: I had never seen it before, so it’s interesting that I should have mentioned the British television series The Avengers in yesterday’s Odds and Ends post. Although I think the video matching is terrible in it. But it was doubtless state-of-the-art at the time.
Just What I Needed
I’m going to veer off the Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion soundtrack and go back almost a decade to present “Just What I Needed” by The Cars. But let’s face it: it would fit in fine in the film. And there is much to recommend it. The truth is that music hadn’t change over that period of time, although admittedly, this song sounded pretty new back in 1978.
I’ve long favored guitar focused pop music, unless you are going to do something as pretty as Breaking Us in Two (although Joe Jackson was rather good at doing guitar based songs as well). But that’s the great thing about 1978: it was still before the explosion of FM synthesizers. There’s no pretense! “Just What I Needed” is using something very much like the Minimoog. Blessed be the analog god! I also like the guitar work on it — well, the lead work, which gives me chills. The rhythm guitar is pretty standard pop-rock.
What’s problematic is the lyrics. They are entirely typical of everything Ric Ocasek would ever write. He gets a good idea and then takes it nowhere. The best example of that is My Best Friend’s Girl, an idea that is so rich with emotional potential that he mines for exactly nothing.
Similarly, “Just What I Needed” means, what? I never get the impression that Ocasek knows. I guess we are supposed to take “I needed someone to bleed” as meaningful. But all I can find in it is that the word “bleed” rhymes with “feed.” Does he mean suggest that he needed someone who loved him so much that she bled?
I’m more than willing to interpret songs. That is, after all, what the listener is supposed to do. But the songwriter has to do their part and provide something to work with. I know emotionally what’s going on here: it’s about the beginning of a relationship that is a bad idea. But none of that much matters, as it doesn’t matter in any of Ocasek’s songs, because his mastery of pop songwriting is perfect.
We Got the Beat
I think there are a couple of songs by The Go-Go’s in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. But I picked “We Got the Beat” because I know it was in there and I don’t want to go back to the film and search around. Anyway, it’s an amazing, and maybe even great, song. Writing something that charmingly awkward is really hard. I can do the awkward, but certainly during the last 20 years, no one thinks what I write is charming — in fact, they can’t even bear it.
But I was wondering earlier if I considered The Go-Go’s a punk band. Being of limited skill is really not what punk is about. For example, Minutemen were amazing musicians. And overall, I don’t think The Go-Go’s were a punk band. But they definitely had those roots. You can definitely hear this on the original Stiff Records version of “We Got the Beat” from 1980. The music is raw; it reminds me of early Kinks. But more than that, it pays explicit tribute to the “girl groups” of decades previous. And that is very much one kind of punk music. I would say that is ultimately what makes Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers punk.
The later recording of We Got the Beat (the one in the film) is much more polished. It’s still arguably a great tune in the tradition of Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing in the Streets. (According to Wikipedia, the song “evolved” from The Miracles’ “Going to a Go Go,” but I don’t especially hear it.) Regardless, it’s a fun song. But I think this earlier version is more fun because I can imagine them in Beehive hairdos. Just click “play” and close your eyes and imagine.
N-Trance’s Stayin’ Alive
Continuing our Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week, we have N-Trance’s remix, rap version of “Stayin’ Alive.” It isn’t an 80s song. It is playing at the club when Romy and Michele go out before even hearing about the reunion. But I thought I would highlight it because I hate the original song.
Look, it isn’t that I hate disco. The truth is, there was a lot of great disco. I just can’t stand that falsetto lead. It is quite a bit less annoying with the harmonies in the chorus. Also, the lyrics are ridiculous, although that’s at least true to form. The rap lyrics (by Ricardo da Force, who is also the rapper) are along the same lines, but quite a bit stronger. (Just to be clear, N-Trance is more of a music project, with two producers heading it and a floating, but dependable group of musicians helping out.)
I can’t say that I like this version of “Stayin’ Alive.” But I certainly don’t dislike it as much as I do the original. But the song works in the film, because when Romy initially has the idea that they will impress their classmates because of the cool lives they have, she isn’t wrong on the second part of that. Certainly Christie Masters-Christensen wouldn’t have been going out to clubs and listening to music that hip.
Watching a bit of the film again, I’m reminded that Mira Sorvino is so much better a dancer than Lisa Kudrow. Kudrow is amazingly stiff in all the dance numbers; she reminds me of myself! Or maybe it’s just great acting, because somehow it seems to fit her character.
Blood and Roses by The Smithereens
We will finish off this Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion week with The Smithereens and probably their best known song, “Blood and Roses.” It’s what I think of as “power pop,” but most people wouldn’t classify it like that. It’s very pleasant, melody-driven music with a bit more heft to it than pop normally has (or had).
The song has a very nice bass riff. And there is something very compelling about Pat DiNizio’s voice. The verse is almost modal. The interesting thing about that is I was always obsessed with that when I was writing songs in my youth. But the truth is that as a listener, at least now, it is fairly boring. I suppose what I used to like about it was its hypnotic quality. But the song breaks into a more interesting chorus.
Lyrically, there isn’t much there. But interestingly, we are back to the image of blood. Still, it’s distinctly adolescent material, “I want to live but I don’t belong.” It reminds me of a stand-up comedian I saw decades ago. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “I found this poem I wrote when I was 15, ‘The moon is high; the sea is calm; I hate my parents.” Obviously “Blood and Roses” is more thoughtful, but not by a whole lot.
Just the same, it’s quite an enjoyable tune. And I suppose we can all relate to the basic idea of the death of love. Now that I think about it, the song is kind of like American Music Club’s Firefly, but from a writer who didn’t drink himself to sleep each night. That may be why “Blood and Roses” was a hit, and “Firefly” was not. But it’s still the case that American Music Club is a better band. Feel free to disagree.
Movie poster image licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia. All album cover images licensed under Fair Use, via Wikipedia.
In the past, I’ve written articles like, A Slightly Pissy History of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” And while I love them, no one else seems to. I figure that is because most people don’t want to listen to different versions of the same song five times in a row. But it would make a very compelling series of articles.
Born and Livin’ With The Blues
So let’s do a week of Brownie McGhee. He was a practitioner of Piedmont blues. It is a special form of guitar playing that sounds a lot like ragtime played on a guitar. The best example of the art form is probably Blind Boy Fuller. It was very big in the 1920s. After World War II it fell out of favor. But in the late 1950s, it really came back thanks to the folk revival. They really liked it for what I think are pretty obvious reasons.
I’ll have more to say about McGhee throughout the week. For now let’s just listen to one of his better known songs, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Playing with him is harmonica player Sonny Terry. I’ll have more to say about him too.
I was first introduced to Brownie McGhee in one of my favorite films, Angel Heart. In it, he plays a voodoo worshiping blues musician, Toots Sweet. He gets one of the best lines in the film, “We ain’t all Baptists down here, sonny!” He’s great in the film. It amazed me to find out that he wasn’t some old character actor. But if singing the blues doesn’t make you an actor, I don’t know what does.
In the film, we get to hear him perform the end of one of his songs, “Rainy Day.” It is a beautiful song. It’s even in the script. Harry Angel comes up to him and say, “That’s some beautiful tune you was singing there, Mr Sweet.” I’m sure you will agree:
Red River Blues and Crow Jane
Sonny Terry was blinded early on in life, and without the ability to farm, he turned to music out of desperation. At some point, he hooked up with Blind Boy Fuller. That’s pretty much being at the top of the profession. Fuller was such a great guitar player. But he died in 1941, and so Terry hooked up with Brownie McGhee. The two of them played together pretty consistently for decades until Terry died in 1986. In fact, the two of were in The Jerk together. I didn’t much like that film. But now I’m going to have to track it down, just to see them.
In the following video, we get to see the two of them do two classic blues numbers. The first is a Peg Leg Howell tune, “Red River Blues.” I must admit to finding Howell extremely uneven. And his performance of this song leaves much to be desired. But it’s a great song and McGhee and Terry do well by it. They move from it seamlessly into Skip James’ “Crow Jane.” In the latter song, Sonny Terry does some great hollering (or whatever you want to call it). You can see in this video why these two were popular: they seem like they’re having a great time and it’s infectious. This video is from the DVD Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974.
Moving on with our week of Brownie McGhee, we have another song with his longtime collaborator Sonny Terry. This one is an Elmore James song, “Stranger Blues.” Of course, it’s always hard to say who wrote what. It is an entirely standard 12-bar blues. What’s more interesting here is that it is clearly done on a television stage. It seems like someone may have had the idea of creating something like an African American Hee Haw. But actually good.
Musically, the song is interesting because of the vocal harmony during the refrain. This is the sort of thing that made people refer to McGhee and Terry as “country blues.” It works really well — gives the music that something extra. Of course, the two of them are so great, they hardly need it. I just love this stuff.
My Baby’s So Fine
Doing these posts with Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry are a great pleasure musically. But in terms of research, they are a real pain. I find that I spend a lot of time trying to track down just what songs they are doing. They don’t tend to do standards. Even the classics that they do are not widely known — at least to me. And then, like all great blues musicians, they make the songs their own — including by changing the lyrics.
In the following video, they do a song called, “My Baby’s So Fine.” It seems to come from an album that McGhee did with Earl Hooker (John Lee Hooker’s cousin), I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes. Although Sonny Terry’s name was not on the album, he was playing on the whole thing. And he wrote the song.
This video also includes a medley of “Poor Man” and “Fighting a Losing Battle but Having a Lot of Fun Trying to Win.” The first song I’m not sure about. The second song is written by Brownie McGhee. I suspect that the first one is too; it’s his style. Unfortunately, it gets cut off just a bit. Still, the whole video is worth listening too.
Cornbread and Peas
Here is a song that I assume was written by Sonny Terry, “Cornbread, Peas, and Black Molasses,” off California Blues. I don’t know why. It just seems like a more standard blues — although not entirely. Anyway, it is a fun little song. But if you feel you must have more today, check out their version of Randy Newman’s song Sail Away off their album, Sonny & Brownie. It’s really great! I think Arlo Guthrie is doing background vocals on it.
This video has a brief introduction to the song. I didn’t know that Brownie McGhee had suffered from polio as a child. These two were quite the pair.
A Whole Set of Brownie and Sonny
Let’s end this Brownie McGhee week with a whole set by him and Sonny Terry. Why not? It’s the weekend. You have a half hour. This is from a 1974 BBC concert. It includes just one song that I featured earlier in the week — and how could it not feature that one. It’s interesting to see how they work the audience. Clearly, it is Terry who is the extroverted of the two. And he has a stage presence that is exactly what you would expect from a lifetime of working in front of folk audiences. There’s a good deal of “joke folk” in Sonny Terry.
What’s amazing with these guys is that once they get going, it seems like a whole lot more than just two guys. Part of it is just that McGhee is an amazing guitarist. Another part is that Terry manages to move back and forth from singing and playing without missing a beat — literally! He is also a much more varied harmonica player than I’m used to. And he’s great at playing backup when that’s called for, as with, “Born and Livin’ With the Blues.” Enjoy!
Jim Croce was the great musician of my youth. He was born in 1943. It’s hard to believe, but he was only 30 years old when he died.
He looked, and still looks like he had been beaten up by life. He was a great storyteller and that came across in his songs. I was only 9 when he died, but it was terrible. I remember my older sister calling me to tell me the news. Another one of my projects (and perhaps the one that I am most excited about) is a one-man play, “Deconstructed.” It is simply a number of deconstructions of various things. One of them is a deconstruction of Croce’s song, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
It may surprise you, but I get ten minutes out of it. You see, I know every song off Croce’s three official albums by heart. I even know many of them on guitar. So I’ve thought about them in much more depth than any sane person should. And I have decided that he totally screwed up on that particular song. I’m not going to go into it. You will just have to wait until I start my tour. But if you listen to the song carefully — and I mean 100 times carefully — all will be revealed.
But see if you can find the many problems with the story that is told in the song.
That Time Jim Croce Made the First Issue of People (He Was Dead)
In 1974, the first issue of People was released. It was then referred to as People Weekly. I know that issue very well. When my parents owned a 7-11 store, my father was in the habit of grabbing of the first issues of everything that came in. That included Hustler, as I recall. But the reason that I most remember People is because it had an article in it, “Jim Croce: Million Dollar Music Legacy.” This was about 6 months after Croce had died. And people were apparently still not tired of him, given that he was a whole lot more popular after he died than before.
But the cover featured Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in the 1974 filmed version of The Great Gatsby — you know: the Robert Redford one. I remember seeing it on television later and being surprised at how much my 11-year-old self liked the film. I’ve seen it since. I missed a lot when I was a kid. I don’t much care for the look of the film. But I think the movie captures the book perfectly. And Farrow was perfect as Daisy.
People Weekly: It Was All About Sex
When I was having tea with my cousin yesterday, we discussed the nature of romance and how it was doomed. Well, that was my conclusion anyway. The problem is that two people who are really compatible don’t tend to generate that romantic spark (or let’s be real: sexual) that “love” requires. The kind of person who I could stand to live with would never be the kind of person who I would be attracted to in that way. Now, it would be easy enough to just write this off as my own neurotic nature. But I’ve seen it too much in others to think that I’m not representative of the vast majority of people.
Anyway, I doubt that I’ve opened another copy of People since that first one. The only magazines I open these days have either recipes or Sudoku puzzles inside. Yes, I suppose I’m old.
Croce’s Number 1: Maury Muehleisen
Maury Muehleisen is best known as Jim Croce’s lead guitarist. In fact, Croce always toured as a duo with Muehleisen. Before that, Croce was playing guitar for Muehleisen, but after the poor sales of his first album, Gingerbreadd, that changed. Most important, Muehleisen was a huge influence on Croce’s writing. Until he started working with Muehleisen, Croce wrote pretty standard, three chord, folk songs. Muehleisen taught him a more sophisticated approach to composition — with leading tones and jazz chords. The results are striking. Just check out the album, The Faces I’ve Been. Compare the writing before and after Muehleisen showed up on the scene.
Here are a couple of Muehleisen songs. The first is “I Remember Mary,” which was the first song of his I had ever heard him sing. (I had, of course, heard Jim Croce’s performance of Muehleisen’s song “Salon and Saloon” — still one of my favorites.) It’s quite good:
And here is another off Gingerbreadd, “Free To Love You”:
Muehleisen, of course, died with Jim Croce in that plane crash at the age of 24. It’s very sad. He certainly would have gone on to do great work.
Jim Croce’s Music
I used to do a morning music feature on this blog and I featured Jim Croce on a number of times. I’ve put them all together here.
Old Man River
For no good reason, I thought that I would spend the week listening to Jim Croce singing songs that he didn’t write. This is probably because I’ve had “Old Man River” going through my head all day. I first heard it on the album The Faces I’ve Been — a reference to his song “The Hard Way Every Time.” It was released after his death (like pretty much everything else). It was kind of a biography of him.
According to the extensive liner notes, they had Croce record “Old Man River” to show to the record companies that he could perform other people’s music. And it’s very true. Croce had an amazing ability to make whatever song he sang his own. Or at least that was true in the later years. Sadly, The Faces I’ve Been has never been released on CD. But you can get it on 8-track!
Jim Croce was a singer-songwriter during that period when that was the thing to be on Top 40 radio. And he was a great songwriter — especially so because he was a great storyteller. If you’ve listened to him perform live, you know that he easily spent more time telling stories than singing. But one thing that often surprises people is that Croce’s hit song “I Got a Name” was not written by him. It was written by two movie theme hacks (great hacks, but hacks nonetheless) Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox for the film The Last American Hero.
Because Croce did almost exclusively his own music, people don’t appreciate his amazing ability to make other people’s writing his own. This is quite apparent on Old Man River and the Maury Muehleisen song Salon and Saloon. But here he is performing “I Got a Name” live with Muehleisen on lead guitar and producer Tommy West on piano:
Working at the Car Wash Blues
As my sister was getting ready for work today, she mentioned one of my favorite Jim Croce tunes, “Working at the Car Wash Blues.” It was off his last album, I Got a Name. It’s a very funny song — very much in the tradition of Roger Miller. The singer is talking about his new job working at a car wash after having been released from jail for “non-support” (not paying child support). In one way, it’s a very nasty song because the singer does not come off well.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to love the guy. He’s just gotten out of jail — basically for not having any money — but, as Croce says in the introduction to the song, he “thinks he should be ruling the universe.” I have a certain love for these kinds of people because I think I’m kind of the opposite. Yes, I have a lot of skills, but I probably should be working at the car wash.
And especially in this country, can we say that the man is wrong? I’ve met lots of rich people in my life and very few of them are worthy of their wealth. The film Trading Places had it right. Some old meth addict could well be running a Fortune 500 company while some superstar executive in an air conditioned office with a swivel chair might be more correctly working at the car wash.
Ball of Kerrymuir
In 1989, Jim Croce Live: The Final Tour was released. It was very exciting, because I had never seen Croce live (he died when I was 9 years old) or even heard anything live except one song on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. The amazing thing about the disc is that roughly half of it is Croce telling stories. He was a great storyteller, which is hardly surprising given his many great story songs.
Today, we listen to “Ball of Kerrymuir.” It is a humorous song. Croce had quite a good sense of humor. An early song from his folk days was “Pig Song.” But also many of Croce’s own songs were funny like “Speedball Tucker” — with the line, “95 was the route you were on, it was not the speed limit sign.” In fact, on this live album, Croce introduces the two minute song with a seven minute story.
According to Croce, “Ball of Kerrymuir” was written down by Robert Burns. I think this is a common belief, but it isn’t true. Regardless, it is an old and very bawdy song:
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, there was a song “Thursday” by this mysterious guy named Sal Joseph. It turns out that Joseph (real name: Joe Salviuolo) was a college friend of Jim Croce’s. He was later a communications professor at Glassboro State College, where he taught Maury Muehleisen. So Joseph introduced Muehleisen and Croce. You can read all about it at Sound Click, where you can also hear a number of Joseph’s songs including “Groundless,” which appears to be about Jim Croce’s death.
“Thursday” is very much a Jim Croce kind of song. It’s a man’s lament that he loves a woman more than she loves him. There’s also a fair amount of bitterness — similar to Croce’s own songs “Lover’s Cross” and “One Less Set of Footsteps.” But the refrain is nicely understanding, “I was looking for a lifetime lover, and you were looking for a friend.” It’s good when people can see that truth.
Chain Gang Medley
We have another song off the album The Faces I’ve Been. Or rather, it is a medley of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” Butler, Carter, and Mayfield’s “He Don’t Love You (Like I Love You),” and Leiber and Stoller’s “Searchin’.”
I believe that the musicians on the song are — at least in part — Tommy West and Terry Cashman who produced all his albums and were a well known songwriting team. I’ll point out Tommy West later in the week. In general, when you hear a piano in a Croce tune, it is West.
Salon and Saloon
On Jim Croce’s last official album, I Got a Name, he performed three songs by other writers. The best of them was “Salon and Saloon” by his lead guitarist and friend Maury Muehleisen. It’s totally unlike any other song that Croce ever performed. Even though he was much younger, Muehleisen had a profound impact on Croce’s song writing. He taught Croce basic music theory. Up to that point, Croce’s music had all been very much in the folk tradition of of I-IV-V chords.
The song is harmonically complex, with lots of dominant, minor, and even major sevenths. But it is also interesting in how it plays with time signatures. When I was ten years old, I didn’t like it. I just couldn’t hear it. But when I rediscovered it in my mid-teens, it blew me away. It’s such a beautiful song.
Jim’s Son: Adrian James Croce
Not surprisingly, Jim Croce had a son who is an incredibly talented musician. (It isn’t just jim; his wife Ingrid is also a talented musician.) He does rather different music from his father, and almost never does his father’s songs. Below, we get a real treat: Jim and Ingrid’s son performing one of Jim Croce’s big hits: “Operator.”
His name is Adrian James Croce (usually known as AJ Croce) on the 40th anniversary of its release. (Well, that’s what he says. The performance is on 8 June 2012 and according to Wikipedia, the song was released on 23 August 1972. Maybe he means it was recorded that day. Or first performed. Or maybe it means AJ is just wrong, given that he was less than a year old.)
AJ Croce as His Own Man
AJ Croce is a great musician. I heard a whole concert of his many years ago and I was very impressed. I especially remember his cover of Bernie Taupin and Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot.” Anyway, AJ Croce has stayed very much away from riding on his father’s shirttails. For example, he does not sing like him and doesn’t write the same kind of material. Actually, I think he’s a much greater musical talent than his father — but obviously, he had many advantages.
Operator: The Story
Like a good fraction of Croce tunes, “Operator” tells a story. In this case, it tells the story of a man trying to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend who ran off with his best friend. But as the song continues on, it is clear that the singer does not wish to reconnect; he only wishes for someone to talk to. It’s like in the the Janis Ian song “In the Winter” where she sings, “And for a dime I can talk to God.” In Croce’s case, it is the operator.
The song is outdated. Not only is a payphone call a lot more than a dime, you can hardly find a payphone anymore. What’s more, there are no longer human operators. Hell, there are very few human anythings. Soon, you’ll have to hire a prostitute just to have someone to talk to. And yet, I think that “Operator” works as well today as it did 40 years ago. It all comes down to the story, which is eternal, and Croce’s performance, which sounds like he’s lived it.
But here is Jim’s only son singing his father’s hit. And it is well worth a listen.
The rock and roll legend Chuck Berry died yesterday at the age of 90. When I a kid, I thought of him as just a great guitarist — certainly the most recognizable and most copied lead guitar player ever. And he was certainly that. But I tend to downplay it now. Sad as it is to say, he is the only lead guitar player who I can play like — basically, I’ve never gotten past the surfer bands of the 1960s, and they didn’t know a thing they didn’t learn from listening to Chuck Berry.
It was only later that I realized that he is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. And I’m not just talking about rock and roll. He is as good as Rodgers and Hart, for example. And I can’t really give a songwriter any greater compliment. There is lots to say about Berry’s life, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself. So let’s listen to a few of his hits.
First there is the classic, and possibly the greatest rock and roll song ever (but not my favorite), “Johnny B Goode”:
Second is one of my favorites, “You Never Can Tell”:
Beyond Teen Music
One thing I especially like about Berry’s work is that by and large it isn’t adolescent. That doesn’t take away from it’s fun. But I love the multiple generations of “You Never Can Tell” — rather a more adult take on marriage than The Beach Boys’ anemic “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
In “Memphis, Tennessee” he wrote about trying to get in touch with his daughter following a break-up. It’s poignant:
New National Anthem?
As many of you know, I’m not fond of our national anthem. Not only does it have a questionable history, it isn’t a pleasant tune and it brings out the worst in our modern day screechers. But Chuck Berry wrote a song that would make a great national anthem, “Back in the USA.” It is the most patriotic song I know of, and without a hint of jingoism. Maybe it’s time to finally change:
What can I say? Chuck Berry gave more than he took. I guess I’ll just take a hint from Douglas Adams…
So long, and thanks for all the songs, Chuck Berry!
In 1992, I went to Hong Kong for the first time. I was sitting in the back of a little Irish pub. And I was pretty drunk. And in walks a Chinese Elvis impersonator in a white jumpsuit studded to the ridiculous extreme that we are all accustom to. Holding an acoustic guitar, he performs “Hound Dog,” collects tips and leaves. You got all that, right? Hong Kong, Irish pub, Elvis. The next day I wasn’t sure myself. I had to ask my colleagues, and they confirmed it: I did in fact see a Chinese Elvis do “Hound Dog” in an Irish pub in Hong Kong. Many people go their entire lives without ever experiencing something as magical.
I love Elvis and even more, I love Elvis Culture. In a sense, Elvis is America: a drug addict who wanted Nixon to make him an undercover DEA agent; a white guy who made millions off the work of poor blacks; and a country rube who somehow connects to a universal audience. In addition to all of this, the music is just fantastic. But it’s the Vegas act silliness that drives the culture. Although I do not particularly like watching Elvis at that stage of his career, I do like what it has spawned. I never would have gone to see one of those shows, but I’d thrill to see Elvis impersonators.
So when I noticed that the film Almost Elvis was available on Netflix, I had to watch it. It isn’t a great film, but it is fascinating. It follows a group of Elvis Impersonators as they compete for the “Images of Elvis” prize for the best Elvis impersonator in the world. It focuses on Irv Cass, a professional from Michigan. Little did I know it, but there is a network of Elvis impersonators throughout the world. If you want one, you call up EEN (Elvis Entertainment Network) and they will send one out. Cass is one them, and seems to make a decent living doing it:
Cass is very free with his opinions of the competition. Since he was one of the most established people in the field at that time, he knows them all. He’s rather good at talking about their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, he nicely systematizes what it is to be an Elvis impersonator. And this brings up probably the most interesting part of the film: race. One of the top people in the field is Robert Washington, who is a black man. Mostly everyone is very respectful of him. But they also admit that he doesn’t look like Elvis because of his race.
But here’s the thing. I don’t think that any of the impersonators looks like Elvis the man. If you take away the hair and the sideburns and the outfits, they just look like random white guys. So really, when we are talking about Elvis, we aren’t really talking about his face. Elvis isn’t a person anymore; he’s an archetype. So to me, it is all about getting up on stage with “the look” (hair, burns, suit) and moving and sounding like Elvis. What’s more, in Washington’s case, he isn’t all that black. Until people started talking about it, I just thought he was really tanned.
All the people said the same thing: I question whether Washington will ever win the title, not because I don’t like him, but because of the judges being, well, racist. This is typical: people generally think their neighbors are more racist than they actually are. At the end of the film, Washington came in second. The good news is he later won the event. Check him out; he’s great:
An academic interviewed for the film referred to the “transubstantiation of Elvis” to explain why people want more than just the music. The music is enough for me. But he’s right: these guys do become The King. And that’s pretty great.