Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry

Brownie McGheeIn 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.

Rainy Day

Rainy Day - Brownie McGheeI 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

Brownie McGhee/Sonny Terry: Red River Blues 1948-1974Sonny 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.

Stranger Blues

Hometown BluesMoving 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

I Couldn't Believe My EyesDoing 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

California Blues - Terry and McGheeHere 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

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGheeLet’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!

Everything You Need to Know About Jim Croce

Jim CroceJim 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)

People WeeklyIn 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 MuehleisenMaury 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

The Faces I've Been - Jim CroceFor 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!

For those interested, the entire album, The Faces I’ve Been, is on YouTube.

I Got a Name

I Got a NameJim 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

I Got a Name -Working at the Car Wash BluesAs 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

Jim Croce: the Final TourIn 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:

Thursday

I Got a NameOn 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

The Faces I've Been - Jim CroceWe 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

I Got a NameOn 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

Operator single - Jim CroceNot 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

AJ CroceLike 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.

So Long, Chuck Berry

Chuck BerryThe 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!

Transubstantiation of Elvis

Elvis PresleyIn 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.

Morning Music: Françoise Hardy

Françoise HardySince I watched Moonrise Kingdom recently, I thought it might be interesting to listen to a little Françoise Hardy. She doesn’t especially have a style. She sings a lot of different styles. It might be best to consider her a chanteuse. She is able to make me long for being in love. And sad. (More or less the same thing.)

But her early work is that classic French pop sound that I never seem to tire of. (Or that I just still like because it hasn’t been playing on the radio my whole life like the British Invasion.) A lot of Françoise Hardy’s albums are named, Françoise Hardy. She released albums of that name in 1962, 1963, 1963 (that’s right), 1965, and 1968. Today, we are interested in the 1968, Françoise Hardy. As is typical of these Morning Music posts, I’m limited to the videos I can find. But it really is a great one. It is “Comment Te Dire Adieu?” (“How to Say Goodbye?”) It is Serge Gainsbourg‘s lyrics for Goland and Gold’s It Hurts to Say Goodbye.

Morning Music: Hurt

The Downward Spiral - Nine Inch NailsI’ve known the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” for a very time. But I seldom pay attention to lyrics of a song that I hear casually. Today, I looked them up. It’s pretty good. I like the connection of self-mutilation (“I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel”) and heroin use (“The needle tears a hole… Try to kill it all away”). I’m not so fond of the externalization of the self (“What have I become, my sweetest friend”). But that’s a choice, and very typical of the genre.

The wonderful thing about a song like this is that everyone can related. You don’t have to be self-mutilator or a junkie. Even 14 year old kids feel like they’ve experienced it. When Trent Reznor wrote the song, he was only 29. And his greatest period of depression and despair came years after writing the song.

Depression Is Not Absolute

In the 12 Step mythology, one must reach “rock bottom” before one can “recover.” But the truth is that there is no rock bottom. As bad as you feel, it almost certainly will get worse. All that happens is that you get better at dealing with it. Depression and despair become decoupled.

I remember one of Vincent van Gogh’s last letters to Theo where he noted that he could get some canvases and paint and do some work, but comments what would be the point. I’ve misinterpreted that comment however, thinking that it came right before van Gogh’s suicide. But it didn’t. After writing that, he did get some canvases and paints and did continue on. In fact, he appears to have shot himself while painting.

Anyway, we continue on. Artists whine for us because it is certainly true that no one is interested in hearing us whine. Everybody’s got their troubles. And everybody thinks theirs are as bad as they get. Don’t make that mistake.

Afterword

I couldn’t find a good copy of the album version. The change of “I wear this crown of shit” to “I wear this crown of thorns” is pretty much unforgivable. It trivializes everything else in the song. Sorry about that.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

Slaves - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've SeenYesterday I was feeling kind of sorry for myself and started singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Now, I feel kind of bad about that. After all, I’ve lived a pretty charmed life. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of trouble, but it’s almost entirely my own damned fault. Just the same, relative suffering is worse than absolute suffering. Think of Richard Wilkinson’s work on inequality and how relative inequality is the killer. So I think I can be allowed my meta-grumbles.

I hardly have a good voice for “Nobody Know the Trouble I’ve Seen.” So I went on YouTube to find some performances of it. The song itself dates back to at least the middle of the 19th century — and could be much older than that. It does seem a natural song to come out of slavery.

Marian Anderson

By the early 20th century, the song had been co-opted by classical musicians of the time. And this resulted in Marian Anderson having the first really successful version of it. That was in 1924 when she was 27 years old. And she would live almost 70 years afterward.

It’s a very restrained performance, focused on the music. What’s probably most interesting is that I always think of it as a song sung by a man. But that isn’t at all the case, as this version, and many others attest.

Paul Robeson

Two years later, Paul Robeson recorded the song. His deep bass voice is irresistible. Still, his performance is very similar to Anderson’s. It’s hardly surprising, however. Slavery was still a living memory. And it isn’t like life was that great for blacks then either.

Here is a later recording where his performance is more emotional and free:

Harry James

In 1941, trumpeter and bandleader Harry James recorded an instrumental version of the song. It’s good, but it is performed just as a tune. It’s very much in the style of Glenn Miller. One can almost imagine it accompanying a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Louis Armstrong

By the 1950s, the song seemed to be something different for everyone. Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1958. It’s kind of hard to know what to make of it. Armstrong was so idiosyncratic and so talented that he transcends everything. I’m not keen on the arrangement. And his spoken word segments would embarrass me if they were done by anyone else. But it’s just wonderful — joyous without losing the weariness of the song.

Sam Cooke

A couple of years later, Sam Cooke recorded the song in his own inimitable way. It is both rocking and sad. I don’t know. Cooke was such an amazing talent that it really is pointless to talk about. Just listen:

Mahalia Jackson

Let’s finish off with a real gospel version of the song by Mahalia Jackson. She recorded the song a few times. This version was (like much of her work) not released during her lifetime. But I figure it was recorded in the late 1960s or early 1970s (she died in 1972). It’s the kind of performance that makes me feel like I’m missing out by not being a Christian:

Nobody Knows

So that’s all. This isn’t really a history of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” But it does give you a good idea of how the musicians have changed in their thinking of it. In the 1950s, things get very postmodern in the sense of everyone just doing their own thing. But there are times when those very serious early versions are preferable.

Jane Siberry’s This Girl I Know and the Bechdel Test

Jane Siberry - This Girl I Know - Bechdel TestLet’s get the hard part out of the way first: the Bechdel Test. It consists of three criteria for a work of fiction: it contains at least two female characters; they talk to each other at least once; and what they talk about is not a man. Now you would think that most fictional works would pass the Bechdel Test. But it is surprisingly rare. My first novel, for example, did not pass it.

I think of the Bechdel Test in a broader sense. I don’t think it should be limited to talking about “a man.” I think a conversation about men — how they suck, how they are seduced, whatever — should count. With this broader interpretation (because one could certainly see this as being implied), the situation is even worse.

The truth is, when I learned of the Bechdel Test, I was embarrassed. It’s not that I’m unaware that I have limitations when creating female characters. As much as I like woman, I’m pretty much a gnostic toward them. Certainly, from the age of 5 onward, I’ve felt that women knew things about the universe that I never will. (I still think it’s true and I think it is evolutionary and has to do with childbirth. Women create universes.) So women in my fiction tend to be dark and mysterious. I’m working on this, however.

“This Girl I Know”

But I was listening to Jane Siberry. I love the album, but I must admit to not paying attention to lyrics very much. That is until I pay a great deal of attention to them. The second song on the album is “This Girl I know.” It’s a conversation between two women. One of them says she is sick of being fat and that eventually she will do something about it. And the other is asking her why she doesn’t just do it now.

(There is also a typically Siberry touch of the other woman having a fight with people at another table. “Mind your own business, no, I don’t mean you; it’s the table over there; I think they think I’m being rude; I’m not being rude, I just want to know.”)

I thought it was interesting as I listened to it because it passed the Bechdel Test! But then we get to the bridge, and it all falls apart, “I’ll get some new clothes, I’ll change my style; I’ll cut my hair, I’ll meet a lot of men; I’ll have a lot of dates, I’ll discriminate.” Oh my, Bechdel Test fail!

It’s Not All Bechdel Test

But not everything is about the Bechdel Test. I do think it is a great tool for looking at how we think about women in our society. Obviously, women are better at transcending these prejudices than men. My friend Kristen McHenry’s first (thus far unpublished) novel, “Day Job Blues,” passes the test with such aggressiveness that one could be forgiven for thinking that was her intent. (It wasn’t.)

Although “This Girl I Know” fails the Bechdel Test in an almost classic way, it is still at core, a feminist song. Because the first woman does answer the question: she says she wouldn’t know what to do if a man thought she was “sexy or something.” And when we hear, “Am I supposed to throw away my career and hop into bed?”

Work and Sex

I think that does sum up a fundamental problem for women. For men, sexual politics work because men are seen as dominant on the issue of sex. So a corporate man who is attractive and “fit” has nothing to fear. But an attractive and “fit” woman seems nubile: someone you marry, not someone you promote. And as much as things have changed, that basic dynamic is still very much alive.

So the Bechdel Test isn’t all. One can critique sexual politics, even while failing it. And Jane Siberry does that in “This Girl I Know.”

Pal Shazar’s People Talk

Pal Shazar - The Morning After - People TalkPal Shazar and Jules Shear have been married for something like three decade. But I’ve never heard a song of hers that struck me as much influenced by Shear. True: they have compatible styles. And they are both great at the craft of songwriting. But this morning, I heard “People Talk” and it struck me how much it sounded like a Jules Shear melody — most especially the chorus.

Of course, the truth is, it might be a Jules Shear song. Or more likely a collaboration, because the verses seem more typical of Pal Shazar’s writing. I can’t say because the information just isn’t available online, and I don’t own the album, The Morning After, where I would hope to find the information.

But I like the idea of it being a Pal Shazar original. I like the idea of couples growing closer and closer as they age. It’s probably because I’m such a loner. There’s a clarity in that. But I actually hate it. I feel in my soul that I am a collaborator. Maybe it’s just that I’m weird. No one says to me anymore, “You just can’t do that!” But they let me know in more subtle ways. And it doubtless pushes them away. There is no meeting of minds or souls or whatever it is you want to call it.

Regardless, “People Talk” is beautiful song.

It’s a Great Puzzle — If You Like Games

The Great Puzzle - Jules ShearI don’t have a lot to say. I wrote Jason Iverson Is Dead yesterday and so I’ve had a couple of days to think about it. It will surprise no one that I think his death is not a bad thing for him. But it sucks for the world. And it is heartbreaking for Angela and his mother.

I’ve been to many funerals in my life, and most of the people in attendance believe in heaven. Yet no one takes a death as a temporary separation. Sure, you will here platitudes about how he is with God now. And that soon we will all be together in heaven. But even to the true believers, it must sound like a crock. The loved one is gone. Maybe you will see them again, but you know they are gone now. That is concrete.

The whole thing has me thinking of Jules Shear’s song “The Great Puzzle.” It does have some appropriate lines such as, “Like a candle that’s been recently blown out; I can still smell the smoke.” But mostly, it speaks to my feelings. It is a great puzzle, and I do like games. Just not this one.

The Meaning of Costello’s Moral Collage “Motel Matches”

Get Happy!! - Motel MatchesI got a line from a song stuck in my mind, “I struck it lucky with motel matches.” Elvis Costello’s early work was filled with this kind of word play. But usually, it is more of the straight pun variety, like in “The Only Flame in Town” where he sings, “You’d be less tender and more tinder” — a pun that is almost impossible to get unless you have a lyric sheet or listen to the song a hundred times. But it got me thinking about the meaning of “Motel Matches” that this clever line comes from.

It’s a fascinating line. The set up line is typically evocative, at least for men of my age, “Boys everywhere, fumbling with the catches.” The truth is, I really don’t know: are bras still the same? Can a man’s sexual experience still be gauged by how effortlessly he determines if the clasp is in the front or back? Regardless, that line sums up the awkwardness of youthful sex. And strangely, I find that I can remember early sexual encounters far more than later ones.

“Motel Matches” Is Incoherent

The song itself is typical of Costello in making very little sense. According to Costello, on his first American tour, he was told that he was staying in the motel room where Sam Cooke was murdered. Sam Cooke was shot at a Los Angeles motel, but not in a room. Although there is much that isn’t known, it’s pretty clear to me that he was murdered by the motel manager in her office. Regardless, this little lie or joke told to Costello explains the inexplicable first line, “Somewhere in the distance I can hear ‘Who Shot Sam?'”

At no point does he come back to this. The song seems to be more or less about one-night stands. I’ve always heard that clearly in the lines, “And you know what I’ll do; When the light outside changes from red to blue.” If you have spent much time in motels, you know that outside, it is always kind of red because of car tail-lights and neon signs. And what he will do, which she knows, is leave in the morning.

More than most artists, I don’t think much of what Costello himself thinks of the meaning of his songs. A lyric, sure. And clear songs like “Ship Building” and “Let Him Dangle.” But what is “Motel Matches” if not a kind of indictment of men never getting past their teen years trying to remove bras from their girlfriends. There is a strong moral repugnancy toward sex in the British popular music of that period — a feeling of great shame. And that’s very clear in a lot of Costello’s work like “Watching the Detectives” and “Pump It Up.”

The Meaning of “Motel Matches”

So the meaning of the song, if “meaning” is the right word, is that it is a kind of fever dream of sexual humiliation. Sam Cooke, after all, was murdered while almost completely naked — I assume he was killed because of a sexual act that went wrong for one reason or another. And ultimately, what is art but a great cry for help? Costello combines Cooke’s murder, his own one-night stand, and the memory of awkward youthful sex and creates a kind of collage that seems more like something you would say to a priest in a confessional.

“Giving you away like motel matches.” That’s the refrain. That’s Elvis Costello at 25 on the subject women. It’s heartbreaking, which may be why the song woks so well despite never being able to get to the truth but rather just dance around it. “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned… original sin.”

A Good Year for the Roses

George Jones with LoveI believe it was The Atlantic magazine that carried a one page short story on its last page. And in its writer’s guidelines, it said it was looking for stories with the impact of a whole novel. The one story I remember was amazing. It was about a man whose wife had just died. And going through her things, he found a collection of illustrations of their son who had been killed in an accident when he was quite young. Apparently, every year, she went to a forensic artist to get an update on what he would look like. She told the artist that he had been kidnapped. It’s a heartbreaking story — not just that she never got over the loss but that she hid it from her husband for years.

There are songs that have a similar power. One of those is Jerry Chesnut’s country classic, “A Good Year for the Roses.” It’s so evocative. What’s especially great is the use of lipstick traces. First, it’s on the cigarettes in the ashtray. And then we get this beautiful mixture of pathos and bitterness:

And the lip-print on a half-filled cup of coffee
That you poured and didn’t drink
But at least you thought you wanted it,
That’s so much more than I can say for me.

The other aspect that maybe is specific to me: the chorus about only being able to talk about trivialities when you want to talk about something deep. I know everyone has had that experience. But it has long been a painful irony that I can write but not really talk. Of course, in “A Good Year for the Roses,” Chesnut makes the obvious truth concrete in the second verse, “I guess the reason we’re not talking — there’s so little left to say we haven’t said.” By the time it reaches that point, talking is worthless.

But “A Good Year for the Roses” really is a novel in a song. You can listen to Chesnut do part of the song, but here is the whole original by George Jones:

Afterword

Yes, I know that Elvis Costello did this song on Almost Blue. And I love his version and that album. But even the biggest Costello fan has to admit that he didn’t do much with any of those covers. The production and performance are often identical — which I believe was the point. Regardless, I think it is far more likely that readers of Frankly Curious are familiar with his version than Jones’ version, much less Chesnut’s.