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Iron Womb

Last week I was putting together a set of songs for my show (Dog’s Dinner, Wed eves. 8:30-10, wmpg.org) on the subject of Mexicans, walls and so forth, for example this gem from Tom Russell:

Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?  

In the course of my researches I discovered that the U.S. Border Patrol has been quietly commissioning pop songs for Mexican radio on the subject of illegal immigration — specifically, how trying to slip across the border will be a horrible mistake and probably get you killed. Some of these numbers, like La Bestia Norte (aka Death Train) have gotten really popular on commercial radio:

La Bestia Norte

It’s so catchy the lyrics come as a surprise:

…The threatening snake appears/

Her scales made out of iron/

Her womb as well…

And we haven’t even boarded yet.

If this stuff is selling — and it is — and if we the people are producing it — and we are — where’s the money?

Where’s the Money?

 

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On Ignorance

Night before last I dreamt about the (noxious, worm-eaten) electoral college. Specifically I was protesting that Hillary Clinton, though prevailing in the popular vote, had lost the presidency because of this awful system, leaving us with — why even try to describe him? — on his way to the White House. Since ordinarily my dreams are of the Breugel/Bosch variety and moving at medium to high speed, I was surprised my subconscious was so completely on the news. But then maybe dreams are becoming the last place reality can huddle for warmth. Today I see that the Oxford English Dictionary (in an unacknowledged lift from Stephen Colbert) has named “post-truth” its International Word of the Year, referring of course to the great cresting waves of lies and nonsense sweeping us into the future. I thought of that wonderful Oscar Wilde line from The Importance of Being Earnest — “Ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone” — but only because that observation now is itself nonsense, or at least long out of date. Ignorance today — if we’re sticking with plant similes — is like a combination of kudzu and Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. According to BuzzFeed, during the last three months of our presidential campaign false headlines, hoaxes and hyper-partisan blogs garnered more than 8.7 million shares, reactions and comments, compared to the 7.4 million produced by the top 20 stories in the mainstream media. How tragic is that? On the other hand, if it turns out that news of Trump’s election is itself a hoax, maybe I’ll finally leave the house.

Excellent non-political dreaming:

Roy Orbison

Dion and the Belmonts

Max Raabe and der Palast Orchester

 

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Regarding the Worst Thing That’s Happened in This Country Since, Perhaps Including, the Civil War

The thing I’ll remember most about election night is that little bar graph the NYT had been running for weeks, the daily update on the candidates’ percentage chances of victory. That morning it had showed Clinton with an 85% chance, and so it appeared at the start of the evening. Somewhere around 9 o’clock that suddenly slipped and slithered downward to 59%,   and moments later another graph appeared, like an applause meter, with the needle bouncing over on the right announcing a certain win for Trump. The next morning I changed my homepage from the New York Times to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, canceled home delivery of the paper, and as of this writing have dropped away from the news altogether. I remember reading years ago that Thoreau did the same thing when he moved to his cabin. He said each daily newspaper was just a trivial variation on those preceding, that any from last year’s was interchangeable with today’s, and that their cumulative effect was just to foster a steady, low-grade agitation while leaving dust bunnies in the mind. So he was doing without current events, loved it and recommended it. I can’t really say that last Tuesday’s occurrence is interchangeable with any other, and I suppose I can’t live in my little cabin forever. At some point one must engage the enemy. But as long as Trump, like literature, is news that stays news, I will start my day by fortifying my spirit with a few of the 435,145 artworks to be found on the Met website, as for example today

 

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this

 

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and this

 

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Ars longa, Trump as brevis as possible

 

 

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Judy Judy

Among the great women folk singers of the early to mid Sixties, Joan and Judy (Baez and Collins) come quickly to mind, but not Judy and Judy, the other two. Judy Roderick and Judy Henske were stinging and original in ways that didn’t slot in commercially at the time. They didn’t sound like angels, and they messed around in some scary blues country, and they didn’t land on Hootenanny, or not for long.  Their opportunities were thus relatively small and their bodies of work slender; but (to sort of quote Spencer Tracy) what they produced was “cherce.”

Roderick came out of Colorado, played the major coffee houses, wowed the folk elite. (“Her phrasing, tone and above all her originality are unmatched,” said Dave Van Ronk.) She put out two albums, one for Columbia, one for Vanguard, before drifting to the margins. Her monument is the second, Woman Blue (1965), title cut here:

Woman Blue

JudyRoderickWomanBlu

Tracing back to Blind Lemon Jefferson, this song (aka “I Know You Rider”) was picked up by a number of 60s artists (Grateful Dead, Hot Tuna et al) but Roderick’s version was the starkest and most influential. Her take on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” comes straight from a cold street corner. And, unlike some of her peers, she knew how to work with a band:

Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Judy Henske was a more raucous performer than Roderick (“Take me down to the Tin Star/Lay my body on the bar”), but in a different mood the raw depth in her singing must have made the New Christy Minstrels scatter like pigeons.  “Till the Real Thing Comes Along” has been covered with elegant skill by any number of singers over the years (“I’d work for you, slave for you/I’d work my body to the grave for you….”). Henske’s version is the only one I’ve ever heard where you instantly believe those words:

Till the Real Thing Comes Along

That’s from her High Flying Bird album (1964), varied and unclassifiable, which was exactly the problem. Known as “Queen of the Beatniks,” she was reportedly the inspiration for Annie Hall — she and Woody Allen were a duo for a while — but who knows? It fits her profile:

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Thankfully, on the evidence of more recent work (Loose in the World, 2001), Henske went on to become a blowsy broad of the highest caliber.

For a choice slab of her early career, check out Rhino’s 2-CD retrospective, Big Judy.

 

 

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The Long Fingers of Claude Debussy

In the early 1960s an album called “The First Family” appeared, comedy bits making fun of the Kennedy White House. Vaughan Meader played JFK. It was the hottest record in the country for a while. (After Kennedy’s assassination, Lenny Bruce’s first words onstage were, “Vaughan Meader is screwed.”) Anyway, one cut from it satirizes the TV tour that Jackie Kennedy gave of art works in the White House. On the album she goes from painting to painting saying, “Well, there’s this one….and this one…..and this great big one here…..and this little teeny one down here….” I’m reminded of that as I sit here about to broach the subject of Debussy’s influence on Bix Beiderbecke. The young man from Davenport, Iowa is fiercely remembered as a great jazz cornetist of the 1920s, but less so for his amazing (and stranger) piano compositions which began with things like the whole-tone scale and got more complicated from there. Others have delved into the technical aspects of this influence. All I can do is point and say, “There’s the link! You can hear it!” But what a thing it is to hear:

Voiles by Debussy (from Preludes, 1910)

“Voiles” was inspired by the famous “scarf dances” of Loie Fuller….

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….though probably not one as fast as this:

Loie Fuller Dancing With Big Scarves, 1896

Actually Loie Fuller is sometimes erroneously credited with performances by Papinta, The Flame Dancer:

Scarf Dance Wrongly Attributed to Fuller

But that’s neither nor there. My point is, Compare “Voiles” with this:

In a Mist by Bix Beiderbecke (1927)

Not all of his contemporaries fell back in awe. In his memoirs clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow wrote: “Bix was already reaching out beyond the frontiers of jazz into some strange musical jungle where he hoped to find Christ-knows-what….Over and over he would play the peculiar ‘modern’ music that was like a signpost to him showing him where he thought he had to go. These musical tangents, leading to a dozen different detours, were all scrambled up with the jazz in Bix’s head, and that mess led him finally to compose “In a Mist.”

For the record, Bix left behind three other such messes, less famous, in the same vein. They too are wonderful:

Candlelights (1930)

Flashes (1931)

In the Dark (1931)

Unlike “In a Mist,” these recordings are not by Bix himself because he didn’t live long enough to make them.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins mentions the Debussy-Bix connection in his afterword to Dorothy Baker’s jazz novel from the 50s, Young Man With a Horn. Pick it up and blow out of Squaresville.

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Standing in the Shadows of Stax

Last week I came upon two major examples of The Song Behind the Song. Like so many things, they were complete news to me. They both involve R&B hits from Stax in the 60s: “Born Under a Bad Sign” and the totemic “Mustang Sally.” For decades I’d been going around believing that Albert King introduced the first (followed by the acid bath it got from Cream) and Wilson Pickett the second. I’ve been grateful to these people. I still am. But if we take these covers and lift the lid….

“Born Under a Bad Sign,” it turns out, was written by William Bell and Booker T. Jones and first recorded by Bell himself. As you may know, he was one of those almost-major figures on the Stax roster back then with a couple of important hits to his credit. This wasn’t one, in his own rendering:

Born Under a Bad Sign 1 

But Albert King made it famous. This is partly because King’s version is a lot better, as you can tell instantly from that four-note power climb at the start —

Born Under a Bad Sign 2

But it still wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t such a great song, one of those twists on the blues that seems like the blues at first but is really a fabulous thing of its own. William Bell has just released his first Stax album in 40 years, in which he revisits the song himself:

Born Under a Bad Sign 3

You can hear another 40 years of a man’s life in it for sure.

As for “Mustang Sally,” it took the death of Sir Mack Rice this week for me to learn (via a Times obit) that he had written and recorded it with modest success (#15 on the R&B charts in — what else — 1965) before Wilson Pickett lit up the sky the following year:

Mustang Sally 1

Mustang Sally 2

Again, two bars of Pickett’s cover and you know that musically you’re in the presence of greatness. But without Sir Rice (knighted by his producer) we wouldn’t be.

The Times obit also revealed that Aretha Franklin, his piano player on the demo, convinced him to change the title from “Mustang Mama.” And I thought she couldn’t get any cooler.

Truth to tell, when I want to listen to this song these days — and I can’t go too long without it — I find myself creeping back to Andrew Strong’s cover in The Commitments:   

Mustang Sally 3

Yeah, I know he’s white, but still.

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Too Hip for the Room

At the end of the last post I referred to Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, and once he’s onstage it’s hard to get him off. Here then a brief tribute to the man who invented the word “hipster” and played the piano like — well, as you see….

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Gibson was the craziest white boy working the clubs in Harlem back in the day. He was spotted there by Fats Waller, who hailed him as a kindred spirit, brought him down to Swing Street in midtown Manhattan and spent night after night stuffing his tip jar with five dollar bills. Harry blazed as bright as anybody for a while — a musical Eval Knievel, he knew no fear (part temperament, part drugs) — and wrote his own songs as well, the most famous among them  “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” It was a great recording but a bad career move. The song got him banned from the radio in the late 40s and, since history is written by the censors, he’s been reduced in jazz lore to a wisp of smoke.

To be fair, a man whose core repertoire included his revise of —

 

I Want To Go Back to My Little Grass Shack

 

— about smoking your house to get high, was never going to make the Hit Parade. But the way he played the piano, as a full-contact sport, puts him a decade ahead of Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. One of the world’s dumbest debates is over who invented rock n roll, so let’s just say Harry was in the mix as much as anybody. Cleveland, are you listening?

 

4-F Ferdinand (film) 

 

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Smokin’ Peggy Lee

Late in her life I saw Peggy Lee perform at a club in New York. She was chair-bound, but surrounded by 5 of the finest in jazz (drummer Grady Tate I remember was one), she radiated like the queen of the night on her throne. Somewhere during the set, for what must have been for her the crushingly umpteenth time, she sang “Why Don’t You Do Right,” the song that put her on the map in 1942 and which, next to “Fever,” became her signature song (if you can have two). She put it over like a pro, and I was glad I was there to hear it. I’ve always loved WDYDR, which is bluesy for real as opposed to “Fever,” a Little Willie John cover, with the hipster finger snaps.

Anyway, I didn’t know at the time just how knocked-out loaded WDYDR really is. Turns out it started life as a different song altogether, “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” recorded by the Harlem Hamfats in 1936. Even the drums are stoned:

Weed Smoker’s Dream

The Hamfats themselves had an interesting origin: they weren’t naturally occurring but deliberately assembled by a producer with a commercial eye, like Peter, Paul & Mary or the Monkees. They weren’t even from Harlem. Once they got together though they made some very real recordings as songs like “Root, Hog or Die,” and “Let’s Get Drunk and Truck” attest. “Weed Smoker’s Dream,” written by their guitarist, Kansas Joe McCoy, was another hit for them, conveying the sound advice that it’s hard to do well selling grass when you’re high on the stuff yourself. Unlike the Hamfats’ other material though this number broke out of its woozy netherworld because the tune was so damn good. In its original form (music and lyrics) the song appeared as soundtrack to an extremely far-out 1930s cartoon, a portion of which you can find here:

 

Skeleton Takes a Bath

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Then, retrofitted with new lyrics by McCoy himself, it floated into the white world via Peggy Lee. See and hear:

With Dave Barbour, circa 1950

Maybe it’s her delivery, but I wouldn’t call that sanitized.

Sometimes inspiration flows the other way. Harry “the Hipster” Gibson found “Who Put the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” insufficiently trippy and recast it as “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?”

Who Put the Benzedrine….?

But that’s another story.

 

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Try a Little Tenderness or I’ll Kill You

Toward the end of the show last night I went into a death spiral with Spotify and so didn’t get to play the tune I’d lined up for the outro, namely, Try a Little Tenderness. It was not the version by Otis Redding, who today owns it outright, but the one sung by Bing Crosby in 1933. I wasn’t aware until recently that there was such a thing. Once I was, I explored further and discovered songwriter Harry M. Woods. He’s one of those guys whose names have vanished while the songs live on — in his case, tunes like When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along (major hit for Jolson), What a Little Moonlight Can Do and Side by Side. In life Woods was known for a couple of other things too, like having no fingers on his left hand and being a mean drunk. The story goes that he had a guy down on the floor of a bar one night delivering pile-driver blows with his stump. When somebody said, “Who’s that maniac?” somebody else brightly replied, “He wrote Try a Little Tenderness.” What I still don’t know is how Otis and Isaac Hayes got onto it 30 years later and created their amazing inside-out cover. At first blush the song’s not any more promising as Otis material than Red, Red Robin or Side by Side — although imagining him singing either of those is strangely interesting. Come to think of it, it’s too bad he and Carla Thomas didn’t do Side by Side as the flip side of Tramp.

Bing Crosby — Try a Little Tenderness (1933)

 

 

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Nina Simone and the Inexplicable Grammy

On last night’s show I played the title cut from Nina Simone’s debut album, Little Girl Blue (1958). It’s a Rodgers and Hart song introduced in the 1935 Broadway show Jumbo in which, at the conclusion of each performance, Jimmy Durante lay on the stage and an elephant put its foot on his head. Shorn of Jumbo, the song has had a long, long life as a favorite of jazz greats, but Simone’s version is especially striking because it’s done as a quodlibet. This — as I learned two days ago — is an interweaving of melodies from different songs to create a new whole (a sophisticated mash-up, in other words). In her case, she combines Rodgers’ melody with that of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. It is a thing of strange and surpassing beauty:

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I realized then that I had another quodlibet in my stock of tunes which I’ve played from time to time, far different from Simone’s. It is in fact the cheesiest quodlibet ever conceived — by Bing Crosby’s musical director, Alan Copeland — and a Grammy winner in the category of Best Contemporary Performance by a Chorus in 1969:
You have to think the judges heard it once and then couldn’t get it out of their heads. Or maybe that’s just me.