Friday, July 31, 2009

The Saga of Major Tom

The anniversary of the moon landing last week got me thinking about David Bowie’s classic song of space travel. I knew there were songs, both by Bowie and by others, which continued the story, and the idea for this post was born. I began to research, and I discovered that a fairly coherent story emerges when the songs are put together.

Surely, I am not the first blogger to put all of this together. I’ve never seen it posted anywhere else, but I can’t imagine that no one else thought of it. So, I wanted to make it original somehow. One way to do that was to find unusual versions of some of the songs. The other way is to hope that my comments will add something new to the conversation.

David Bowie: Space Oddity


Of course, the story begins with Bowie’s Space Oddity. The literal story here is that Major Tom goes up in his spaceship, and vanishes. Just before this happens, Major Tom appears to realize that he is doomed. He asks Mission Control to tell his wife, “I love her very much.” Then, Ground Control loses contact with him. End of story.

But it’s not quite that simple. Maybe there really is no space flight at all. Some of the lyrics suggest that the story is a metaphor for the rise of a rock star celebrity, followed by his sudden disappearance into a haze of drug abuse.

But again, maybe there is a space flight. Major Tom prepares to leave his capsule, and his consciousness is altered by the experience. He reverts to a childlike state of wonder, and then disappears. So maybe his disappearance has a metaphysical explanation.

Bowie poses these questions, but gives no answers. And that probably explains why the story of Major Tom has exerted such a strong pull on other artists, and why Bowie himself keeps retuning to it.

Ray Dylan: Major Tom (Coming Home)


Peter Schilling had a hit with Major Tom (Coming Home) in the 80s. Schilling’s version reflects an 80s fascination with technology, dwelling on the technical details of the prelaunch safety checks. All systems are go, but the outcome is the same; Major Tom disappears, and is presumed dead. But Schilling adds one detail. His Major Tom realizes he is still alive, and says to himself, "Now the light commands, this is my home, I'm coming home."

I have chosen Ray Dylan’s cover of the song. Dylan renders a fairly faithful version, but strips out many of the 80s production tricks found in the original, putting the focus on the song itself. In researching Dylan, I found that his album titles were in a language I had never seen before. These albums include covers of songs in English, and what I presume are original songs in this mystery language. It sometimes looks to me like a variant on German, while I could believe other words are Hawaiian. His Facebook profile is in this same language, but I caught one word which cleared things up. The Language is Afrikaans, which would mean that Ray Dylan is from South Africa. This is all I know about him. If anyone has more information, please leave it in the comments.

K. I. A. featuring Larissa Gomes: Mrs Major Tom


In Mrs Major Tom, we pick up the story from the wife’s point of view. Like everyone else, she had assumed that Major Tom was dead. But now he has returned to her. Unfortunately, he is no the same person he was when he left. Bowie’s hint of a transformative experience is preserved here. “At last you’ve come back, yet still, you’re gone.” All of the possible interpretations of Bowie’s original song are intact here.

K. I. A. is an artist and musician from Toronto. His given name is Kirby Ian Andersen, and he records with a rotating cast of guest musicians. His music combines electronic and acoustic elements. His art takes the form of paintings and sculpture, and explores technological and tribal themes.

Larissa Gomes is an actress. She has had small parts in film and television shows, but has yet to land a starring role. She is also a writer, with a screenplay currently circulating in Hollywood. And she is working on her first solo album.

Happy Rhodes: Ashes to Ashes


David Bowie returned to the story with Ashes to Ashes. Here, we find Major Tom “strung out on heaven’s high”. If the drug narrative is correct, he has hit bottom here. The wife is nowhere to be seen; Major Tom has lost everything. In the metaphysical interpretation, he can no longer function in the real world. And if he is simply a returning astronaut who had an odd experience while in space, Major Tom is now like a homeless veteran who no longer knows how to function in society.

Musically, Happy Rhodes completely reimagined Ashes to Ashes. Despite the dark subject matter, Rhodes created a musical setting of great beauty; thus adding a layer of irony to Bowie’s original.

David Bowie: Hallo Spaceboy


David Bowie’s recording of Ashes to Ashes was produced by Brian Eno. Hallo Spaceboy is a cowrite by the two. Major Tom is never mentioned by name, but this does seem to be him. He has been through some kind of rehab, and now he must build a new identity for himself from scratch. The prospect is both daunting and full of potential.

There have been other Major Tom songs, but these seemed to fit together well. Perhaps, ten years from now, I will be able to present the next five songs in the saga. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nichola Maria O’Donnell - Lady Moonlight


I first heard Nichola Maria O’Donnell dueting with a friend of mine on a song on his Myspace player. And what struck me was her voice. It is an amazing instrument, a torchy alto that can glide up to the higher notes without sounding strained. Wanting to hear more, I sought out O’Donnell, and requested her album. I was not disappointed.

Lady Moonlight is a collection of 11 O’Donnell originals. All but one feature O’Donnell’s voice and producer Damon John Wade’s acoustic guitar, with Wade also providing light touches of other instrumental colors well back in the mix. The title track, coming exactly in the middle of the album, is the exception, featuring O’Donnell’s vocals and the piano playing of Jeanene Hupy. The arrangements are spare, putting O’Donnell’s voice front and center.

This is a risky way to make an album. There is not much variation in the arrangements, so the listener can get bored if the singer doesn’t carry the day. O’Donnell’s lyrics are simple and direct, so her singing is even more exposed. But O’Donnell is more than up to the task. Her voice is beautiful, and she expresses the emotions of each song eloquently, with out ever oversinging. The sequencing of the album is also important, since the songs vary between ballads and midtempo numbers. O’Donnell and her producer have done a good job of keeping things interesting by varying the tempos.

There is no lyric sheet in the album package, but if there was, you wouldn’t read it for the poetry. O’Donnell is a fine songwriter, but her songs must be heard as songs to work. The language is direct, without much imagery or cleverly turned phrases. The words are here to express emotion simply and directly. The songs ache and yearn and express the wonderment of love; the words say it, and the singing makes the listener believe it.

A Million Pieces leads off the album, and shows us a woman who is being rebuffed by the man she wants to love. One of the midtempo numbers, the song has a feel musically that is at odds with the emotion of the words, O’Donnell’s vocals tie it all together. Gypsy Heart gives us a woman who is in love, but who treasures her freedom, and will soon move on. Believe Me presents a woman who feels doubts about her relationship that cause her to push her man away; she asks her man not believe those doubts. I have the sense that O’Donnell knows all of these women well, perhaps has been each of them at various times.

All of these songs are delivered in the first person. Only Daddy’s Gonna Buy Her the Moon is told about another woman. Here, O’Donnell gives us a character whose lover is away: she hopes and dreams of his return, and thinks of the promises he has made her. Even here, the song seems to me to be drawn from experience; the singer seems to have split herself into two people, so that the one can reassure the other.

It is possible that all of the characters in these songs are fictional creations. But the intimate production and O’Donnell’s performances make me believe that they are real. And that may be the highest compliment I can give a project like this. I sought this album because I heard a beautiful voice, and I wanted to hear more. I still do.

Nichola Maria O‘Donnell: A Million Pieces

Nichola Maria O‘Donnell: Daddy‘s Gonna Buy Her the Moon

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quotable Lyrics

A song can make a strong first impression in a number of ways. The most obvious is probably a strong hook; a phrase in the instrumental line grabs you before the song is even fully underway. Sometimes a distinct vocal sound will do, especially if you are hearing an artist for the first time; Bob Dylan is the classic example of this. But there are times when the thing that stays with me is a line of the lyrics; this often takes the form of “did s/he really just say that?” Let me give you some examples.

Rickie Lee Jones: Danny‘s All Star Joint


Danny’s All Star Joint was on Rickie Lee Jones’ debut album from 1979. At that time in my life, it sounded like a great place to hang out. I could see in my mind the pinball machines flashing. There would be a magazine rack with the latest comics, (there were no specialty comic book shops in those days). And there would have to be a lunch counter, hence the line, “Carte blanche sandwich, oh lettuce get thick!” If, in a moment of madness, I ever decide that I need to have another blog, I’m going to call it The Thickening Lettuce.

John Hiatt: Trudy and Dave


John Hiatt is one of the most quotable songwriters I know. This is the man who rhymed Queen of Sheba with amoeba in Thing Called Love. But here is my favorite line of his: “stole the money for the laundromat and drove away clean.”

Steely Dan: Everything You Did


The line here is, “turn up the eagles, the neighbors are listening”. I used to think that there were these two eagle statues in the room with volume knobs that emitted some sort of white noise. This didn’t make much sense, so I kept thinking about it. My next thought was that the song took place outside of Philadelphia, and the football game was on. This was better. But the most likely explanation was that a song by the Eagles was on the radio or the stereo. Ironically, the characters in this song don’t strike me as the type to listen to Steely Dan.

Lyle Lovett: Church


Lyle Lovett is not afraid to write a song about something bizarre, and here is my favorite example. A gospel number about hunger, the climax of the story is the sudden appearance of a dove in the church. Referring to the preacher, Lovett sings, “...the dove flew down beside him, and a fork appeared right in his hand...”, and the conclusion, “...everyone got really nervous.”

Talking Heads: Seen and Not Seen


David Byrne has never been afraid to be bizarre. Sometimes he carries this tendency too far, and it almost becomes self-parody. But, when he hits it right, as he does here, Byrne becomes an alien observer of human foibles, with much to teach us about ourselves. Seen and Not Seen is about our obsession with changing our appearance. The Line is, “some might have gotten half way there, and then changed their minds.”

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

For a Song: More Than Words

Extreme: More Than Words


Last week I promised a special edition of For a Song, and here it is. Now, some of you may be shaking your heads in bafflement. Here is a song that was a huge pop hit. Yeah, it’s an acoustic ballad, but it certainly isn’t folk. What’s going on here?

I present this song without apology. And here’s why. Today, my wife and I are celebrating out 18th wedding anniversary. And More Than Words was our first dance as husband and wife. In the full bloom of young love, this song called to us. It describes a love where words are unnecessary, where thoughts and hearts are joined. The idea that communication between two people could be so perfect was very appealing to us at that point.

18 years later, I find that there are times when words are needed. But there are still those magic moments when we look at each other, and we both giggle. At those times, we know that we are still able to have the same thought at the same time, without a word spoken. In those moments, to quote the song, we “already know”.

I dedicate this post to my wife of 18 years and counting, Janice, with love.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lori Lieberman - Gun Metal Sky


Quite some time ago, a young woman went to a concert by a young up-and-coming songwriter and singer named Don McLean. She was so moved that she went home and wrote a poem about it. In time, the poem fell into the right hands, and became a hit song, Killing Me Softly. The young woman was Lori Lieberman.

So Lieberman is not a new artist by any means. She started recording in the early seventies, and has been on two major labels in her career. But she never came anywhere near the success that her poem enjoyed. In fact, I must admit that I had to have pointed out to me who she was when I got the chance to get this album. I must also admit that Roberta Flack’s hit is far removed from anything I would post here. But, I gave Lieberman a chance, and I’m glad I did.

The songs are a mix of originals and covers. Killing Me Softly is here, and I would group it with the covers, since Lieberman did not write the music. But Lieberman claims the covers as her own, both with her voice, and with her imaginative arrangements. The sound is intense but delicate. The acoustic guitar or piano, or sometimes both, are featured. The strings, when used, feature the cello playing of Stefanie Fite, who also helps with many of the string arrangements. The rest of the strings are just two violins, which provide a gentle cushion of sound for the cello parts to rest on. It’s a very unusual way to use strings, and it really works here. Drums, bass, and the occasional flute, clarinet, or trumpet are mixed in the background, and used for color and accent. Lieberman’s singing ranges from almost a whisper to a conversational volume; she never finds the need to raise her voice. The overall sound is subtle and beautiful.

The lyrics are of a piece. These songs consider love from many different angles. The Opposite of Love is one of those songs where the singer claims to no longer care about an old lover, but why would she make that claim unless she wanted to convince herself? It’s been done many times before, but this feels a little different. I get the feeling this relationship ended quite some time ago, and the wound is no longer raw. But there is still the pull of the old feelings.

He Needs You is a brave song. It portrays a woman who has run away from an abuser, but can still remember why she fell in love with him, and is wrestling with the urge to go back. It is a rare songwriter who has the compassion to write about this at all, and the song is even more remarkable because Lieberman manages to avoid being judgmental at all. Having known someone who was in this position, I can tell you that I could not do as well.

Bus Stop is one of the covers, and it is the song you’re thinking of. The original has always struck me as a corny romantic teen sort of song. But Lieberman reinvents it here. Suddenly, the innocent romance and the blush of first love are real. Lieberman makes it clear that she can believe in this, and therefore, so does the listener. Lieberman follows this with an original, More Than This. Here she depicts a couple whose relationship is deeper than what outsiders can see. They are no longer blind to each other’s faults, but they are still together anyway, because their love is real. This makes a kind of answer to Bus Stop, so putting the two songs together is perfect.

So love both lost and found are on display here. There is even a song of a mother’s love for her daughter, and how hard it is to let go. And then the album closes with Takes Courage. Lieberman reminds us that to love is to dare. She has shown us that sometimes we may get hurt. But we must brave, and do it again. Because when you really find love, it’s worth it. And so is this album.

Lori Lieberman: The Opposite of Love

Lori Lieberman: Bus Stop

Friday, July 17, 2009

For a Song: Fire on the Bayou

The Neville Brothers: Fire on the Bayou


New Orleans is perhaps the most musically fertile city in the United States. This is the city that gave birth to Dixieland. There is a tradition of brass band music that is found nowhere else. Blues and jazz from here sounds different from anywhere else in the country. And New Orleans funk sounds- well, it sounds like the Neville Brothers. All of this music is informed by the sound of the Mardi Gras indians. The various “tribes” are social clubs that have been around for generations. Each has there own style of elaborate costume, worn only once a year for the Mardi Gras marching. They march to music whose defining characteristic is the “second line” beat. I can’t give you the technical explanation of what makes this rhythm unique; I only know that it sounds like New Orleans, no matter what musical style it turns up in.

The Neville brothers are Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril. All were active in music, in and out of New Orleans, from the 1950s onward. Most notably, Art became the frontman of the Meters. Take the unique rhythm of Professor Longhair’s Piano playing, and translate to a full band, and you have some idea of the Meters’ sound. Most of their songs were instrumentals, emphasizing the groove. But a notable exception was Fire on the Bayou. Oh, the groove is there alright, but there is also a joyous vocal.

In 1976, following the death of their mother, the four Neville boys worked on a project together for the first time. This was a collection of traditional Mardi Gras Indian songs where they backed some of the chiefs, including their uncle, George Landry aka Chief Joy. Members of the Meters were also part of this project. The resulting album, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, is a New Orleans classic. After this, The Neville Brothers stayed together as a group. Not long after, they recorded their version of Fire on the Bayou. It has become one of their signature tunes, for good reason.


Note to my regular readers: this week, we had to do some emergency maintenance on the computer. That is why there was no theme post this week. There will be an album review this weekend, followed by a special For a Song early next week. The theme post will appear late next week, and then normal posting will resume.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town


Jerry Lawson used to be the lead singer of the Persuasions. In a perfect world, I would not have to explain further. The Persuasions were an a cappella singing group, who astonished with their ability to sound like a full band when their only instrument was the human voice. With their roots in doo-wop, the Persuasions were together for 40 years, and the ventured into many different musical genres, but the only fitting description of the result was Persuasions music.

When the group finally called it quits, Jerry Lawson left the life of a musician behind, and decided to try leading a “normal” life. But the music called him back. Talk of the Town was an a cappella group who had been together for many years themselves, doing it purely for pleasure, with no recordings to their credit, and no thoughts of making any. One of Talk of the Town’s musical models was the Persuasions. By chance, Lawson heard them doing a live performance at a radio station one day, and went in and introduced himself. To make a long story short, the end result was this album.

The Persuasions’ sound had the bass line, the harmonies, and (usually) Jerry Lawson on lead vocals. The harmony singers would each have his own part, which could be picked out with careful listening. And the bass line was sung by a human voice, that sounded like it. Nevertheless, it often sounded like there were instruments in the mix, but there never were.

Talk of the Town was clearly influenced by this sound. But the harmony voices here blend more smoothly; it is far more difficult to pick out the individual parts. And the bass, Ray Ragler, really sounds more like a stand up bass than a human being; his sound is amazing. This is a group that can take songs from many genres, and make them their own. Lawson challenges himself, by learning jazz phrasing for Ray’s Rock House, and by dropping what he calls his “power voice” for some more subtle leads. The jazz influence is something that Talk of the Town brings into the mix; they sing their arrangement of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy without Lawson, in an arrangement that has long been in their repertoire.

Talk of the Town are adept at providing musical textures which perfectly fit the mood of the song. Lawson’s voice on top has a little grit to it, and the mix works beautifully. Talk of the Town can change the texture of a song while it is going on, to create shifts in mood. This technique is beautifully on display in Slow Hand. But most of these songs call for a consistent mood, and fewer textural shifts; Talk of the Town’s performance, and Lawson’s arrangements, deliver throughout.

There are some songs here with additional guest singers. This thickens the sound and creates additional depth and color. On God’s Gift to the World, these extra voices sing parts that form a gentle response to the other singers, and the remarkable effect is like a gentle tide of sound, ebbing and flowing. There also two notable guest lead vocals: Lawson’s daughter Yvette makes her recording debut on For the Love of You, and Lawson’s wife Julie duets with Jerry on the album’s closer, Side By Side. These are not simply vanity selections. The female Lawsons do not try to steal the show. Instead, each performs her song as a member of the group.

A full album of a cappella music can be hard to listen to all at once. The songs can all begin to sound the same, and the listener can get bored. So proper sequencing is essential. Lawson and company do a good job of mixing tempos and moods. And most of the song choices either make sense, or come as pleasant surprises when you hear the results. But no one will ever get me to like Islands in the Stream; this is probably the closest anyone will ever come.

I would have loved to hear what Lawson and Talk Of the Town would have come up with next; sadly, Ray Ragler, who Lawson calls, “the most talented bass man I’ve ever worked with”, passed on after the album was completed.

I don’t usually comment on this in my reviews, but I recommend buying this CD, rather than getting the tracks as downloads. That’s because the album comes with a 20 page booklet, filled with wonderful stories about how the album came to be. These stories are well worth the extra money you will pay for them. Having read how Lawson almost gave up a cappella music, and having heard the results of him changing his mind, I hope there is more a cappella music in Lawson’s future. And I hope he will let me know if there is.

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town: Ray‘s Rock House

Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town: Slow Hand

Friday, July 10, 2009

For a Song: Java Jive

The Manhattan Transfer: Java Jive


When I was in high school I finally found a musical outlet: singing. I had tried a number of musical instruments, but I didn’t stick with any of them. But I did enjoy singing Gilbert and Sullivan in the shower. In my sophomore year of high school, men’s chorus was a handy way to get out of homeroom. I was actually a pretty good singer, apparently. The leader of the men’s chorus also taught choir and Schola Cantorum, our high school’s elite chamber choir. This teacher practically begged me to join choir the following year. That went well enough that I reupped for my senior year.

I’ve mentioned that singing was originally a way to get out of homeroom, but in my senior year, something even more remarkable happened. Half way through the year, one of the basses in Schola Cantorum broke his leg skiing, and was going to be unable to perform for the rest of the year. So they needed a bass. Now, I hadn’t tried for Schola Cantorum that year for two reasons: one, I didn’t think I was good enough: and two, I had a required class scheduled for that period, and no place else to put it. So, I was very surprised when my choir teacher asked me to join at mid-year. When I explained my schedule conflict, he went behind the scenes and got me excused from my required class for the rest of the year. So, for the rest of the year, I got to sing with the best, and as a bonus, I got out of gym. I couldn’t have been happier.

The first song we worked on was Java Jive. As you can probably hear, this song is a lot of fun to sing. I wanted to track down a recording of it as soon as possible, and this one by the Manhattan Transfer, is the one I found. Later I learned that the original version was a hit for the Ink Spots. I can also recommend newer versions by Richard Thompson and the Puppini Sisters.

The funny thing for me about Java Jive is that I love the song, but I don’t like coffee.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Taking a Ride

This year, we decided to go somewhere we had never been for fireworks. We left plenty of time to get lost, and that’s what happened. When it looked like we might not find the fireworks in time, my wife and I consoled ourselves by remembering how much we used to enjoy getting in the car and just going for a ride. Rising gas prices have mostly kept us from doing this lately, so it was nice to get back to it, even if by accident. In the end, we did find the fireworks in time, but just riding was nice too. There was no time pressure, just the pleasure of doing something purely for the enjoyment of it. And it was a beautiful evening for it.

Joni Mitchell: Night Ride Home


For me, Joni Mitchell perfectly captures this feeling in Night Ride Home. There is no simpler or more powerful expression of love than the desire to share a beautiful night with someone.

Jerry Harrison: Rev It Up


Jerry Harrison expresses the excitement of this experience. Where Mitchell travels down gravel back roads, moving slowly, Harrison finds an open highway, and takes it at full speed. The windows are down, the music is cranked, and it is a joy to be alive.

Jackson Browne: The Naked Ride Home


Mitchell and Harrison take the notion of a ride literally. But a ride can also be a metaphor in a song. For Jackson Browne, the ride takes him to the end of a journey. He challenges his lady to a cruel dare, in a relationship that is almost over. She accepts, giving him one last thrill perhaps. But, by the time she gets home, she is his no longer. The song is written as a memory, as Browne’s protagonist realizes what he has lost.

Big Bill Broonzy: Ridin‘ on Down


There are no deep meanings in my last selection. Big Bill Broonzy used a ride on the back of a mule to string together a series of whimsical anecdotes. When you move this slowly down the road, who knows what strange things you might see that you would never have noticed at higher speeds.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Guy Davis - Sweetheart Like You


In the late 50s into the earlier 60s, there was a folk music revival in the United States. Part of this was a blues revival. Artists who had recorded in the 1930s, and then given up music and taken jobs that would pay the bills, were rediscovered, and did something they had never done before: they played for substantial white audiences. The music they played came from another world. In the thirties, Big Bill Broonzy, for one example, played acoustic guitar in a group that also included Memphis Slim on piano and Washboard Sam on washboard. Lightnin’ Hopkins played a brand of blues that could not be confined to twelve bars. Banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and even fife and drums were blues instruments in the period prior to World War II. But this music was tamed during the revival years. The music was made to conform to the stricter forms that had evolved after the war. Some of the more exotic instruments disappeared from blues. I do not say that this process was forced on the musicians; they had bills to pay, and they had always wanted to please their audiences.

What, you may ask, does any of this have to do with Guy Davis? Davis knows all of this history. His knowledge is an integral part of his sound. When Davis plays blues mandolin and banjo on Sweetheart Like You, he is aware of the historical precedents, and he embraces them. Davis presents versions of pre-war blues tunes by Lead Belly and Son House. And his album notes make it clear that Davis sees himself as part of the continuum of blues music from then until now. And he has every right to see himself that way, as this album proves.

But Davis’ music is not stuck in the past. From this pre-war blues era, Davis travels to post-war Chicago for a pair of tunes associated with Muddy Waters, and also the classic Baby Please Don’t Go. He makes a brief stop in 1981, to cover Bob Dylan for the title track, and his interpretation makes an eloquent case for the notion of Dylan as a blues artist. And Davis seals the deal with his original songs here. Slow Motion Daddy, Bring Back Storyville, and Going Back to Silver Spring all sound like they could be vintage tunes. But the other four originals bring us to the present. Words to My Mama’s Song, in particular, makes a most unexpected connection between blues and hip-hop.

Davis has a voice that usually sounds like gravel; that this is an artistic choice is clear, because he sings in a clear voice for The Angels Are Calling and Ain’t Goin’ Down, because that is what these songs need. But whichever voice he chooses, Davis never forgets to communicate the emotion of the song. You can hear the ache of a man who has fallen too deeply in love with another man’s wife in Sweet Hannah. The wistfulness of Steamboat Captain comes through loud and clear.

But, perhaps the crowning achievement of this album is to take to songs that have been done to death, and make them fresh. Baby Please Don’t Go is an opportunity for many a blues artist to deliver an overwrought vocal performance; Davis avoids this trap, and delivers a vocal with just the right amount of yearning. But the high point of the album, for me, is Hoochie Coochie Man; for his performance, Davis believes in all the different folk traditions that give the song’s protagonist magical powers over the opposite sex. Because Davis believes it, we do too.

Instrumentally, Davis and his cohorts are up to the task. The music is mostly acoustic. The electric guitar is used sparingly, and usually for countermelodies; They are no screaming guitar parts here. The rest of the instruments have the job of supporting Davis’ acoustic guitar, bottleneck guitar, or banjo parts. Davis adds color on some tunes with harmonica parts. Can’t Be Satisfied is arranged for just banjo, bass and voice, and it works beautifully.

So Davis considers the history of blues, and explores the possibilities this history presents. And the result is journey well worth taking at his side.

Guy Davis: Words to My Mama‘s Song

Guy Davis: Hoochie Coochie Man

Friday, July 3, 2009

For a Song: U S Blues

Grateful Dead: U S Blues


It’s my first July Fourth week on my own blog, and I can’t think of a more appropriate song to share for my weekly song feature. Here is the Grateful Dead’s celebration of our country, with all its warts.

The Grateful Dead cooked jazz, blues, bluegrass, country and folk into their musical stew. Their music, for me, was a starting point in exploring many of these musical forms. Those are all important elements of what I present here. But U S Blues is pure rock and roll.

Nowadays, it is tempting to think of the Grateful Dead as the inventors of jam band music. But their approach to live performance represented an expression of freedom that could be found in many bands from the sixties, including other members of the San Francisco scene, such as the Jefferson Airplane, but also including British bands such as Creem. What set the Grateful Dead apart was that they stayed with this approach long after their fellow jammers had gotten away from it. The freedom of a Grateful Dead performance included the freedom to fall flat on their faces, but also produced moments of transcendence. Not unlike the experiment that is America.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

I Am a Patriot

Woody Guthrie: This Land is Your Land


I am a patriot. If you’ve read my earliest posts here, you may be surprised to hear me say so. But it’s true. I was born in the United States and have lived here all my life, and I love my country. I have chosen a set of songs that I hope helps to show what I mean.

Capercaillie: Who Will Raise Their Voice?


I love the fact that I am free to express myself. In America, I can criticize my government and its policies, and be heard. This is how this country grows and changes. We discuss, and then we act. America is always a work in progress.

The written word does not have a tone of voice. So some readers might be tempted to think that this entire post is tongue-in-cheek. But I am completely serious. Patriotism is a word that has been coopted by people who can only see one way to love their country: their way. So this post is my attempt to reclaim the word patriotism for people who love this country in all different ways.

Some of my readers may not agree with the opinions I set forth here. There is a comment box, and you are free to say so. Your freedom of speech is every bit as important to me as mine. I would only ask that we have a discussion, and not a shouting match.

Peggy Seeger: I’m Gonna Be an Engineer


The United States is constantly working on granting equality to all of her people. Sometimes we as a nation slip backwards, and give back some of the important gains that we have made in this area. But the general direction is always towards more equality.

I live in a nation that was founded by slave holders, and I live in a time where we have our first black president. I am so proud of my countrymen for getting together last November and achieving this. I hope to soon see an America where gay people can openly serve in our military and legally marry.

Peggy Seeger wrote this song in the early 70s. I used to hear it on public radio whenever they mentioned feminism, (which was often in those days). Now the song sounds a bit dated. This represents progress.

Bruce Springstein and the Seeger Sessions Band: We Shall Overcome


I live in a country where the right to peaceably assemble and protest is enshrined in our Constitution. I have used this right to protest the Vietnam war, and hope to teach my children to exercise this right as well.

We Shall Overcome is a song that I first heard at those peace marches. Pete Seeger is the kind of patriot I admire, and he wrote it. Seeger has always sought to make this country a better place, by working to bring attention to injustice through his music. I have chosen Bruce Springstein’s version of the song, because admire how Springstein has carried on this work in the same way.

Billy Jonas: God is In


Likewise, our Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion. I was raised as an atheist Jew, and I knew that no law could require me to change my beliefs, or participate in official rituals that were contrary to my beliefs. No matter what spiritual paths my children may be drawn to in their futures, their rights to those paths will be protected.

Mick Moloney and Eugene O‘Donnell: The Irish Maid


I am proud to live in a country that has welcomed victims of famine and oppression in times of greatest need. To me, the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty are just as important as the Declaration of Independence. My grandfather came here fleeing the pogroms in eastern Europe. In his own small way, he contributed to this country.

Immigrants have vastly enriched our country. Mick Moloney and Eugene O’Donnell are fine examples. Both are Americans who have explored their Irish heritage, and shared it with any who cared to learn.

So, all of this is what I mean when I say that I am a patriot.